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Making Tough Choices

April 15th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · WW2

I started playing Making History: The Calm and the Storm yesterday, and I’ll hold off on too detailed commentary until the review is done and published. These comments are based on a few starts and one extended play. But the game makes me appreciate the tough calls that grand strategy game developers have to make in game design.

Making History is billed as a World War II game, but if you play from the 1936 start date, nothing resembling World War II arises. I like to push systems early, so, playing as America in one game, I conquered Mexico. No one seemed to mind. Except for China, which allied with the Mexicans and proceeded to invade the Philippines. Which, naturally, provoked Venezuela and Brazil to jump in on my side. Things got more ridiculous from thereon out.

Compare this to Paradox’s Hearts of Iron games, which push a confrontation between Germany and the world through events, disputed territory and ideological restrictions. In the second HoI game, democracies can’t declare war unless certain conditions are met. If you start from the earliest campaign date, you might not get “the” World War II, but you will get a recognizable global conflict.

In this, of course, Hearts of Iron is closer to what it claims to be- a World War II game. Knowing that a confrontation between Germany and the Soviet Union is almost inevitable, players of either nation must make calculations based on the likelihood of war. Do the Soviets take advantage of the Molotov-Ribbentrop detente, or do they reject it in favor of a 1940 first strike on the Reich? So far, it looks like anything can happen in Making History, meaning that the player has a better chance to avoid this fight.

So when do you, as a designer, privilege freedom of movement over familiarity of history? Civilization makes no pretensions to historicity – fake worlds, ahistoric placements, road maps to success. Europa Universalis III has the real world map and rough measures of technological know-how, but everything else – even the Protestant Reformation – is randomly generated. Rome: Total War is similar in how it gives you a European sandbox and lets you go at it.

But the narrower the focus of your game, the greater the expectation is that it will play out more or less historically. If you start a game in 1770 and end it in 1820, gamers rightfully think that France should be a major player and that American independence should be an issue. The proximate causes of National Revolutions had been sown, so you as a designer can’t ignore them.

Likewise, any game that starts in the mid-1930s begins with Germany and Japan already planning wars of conquest. The ideological struggles between Fascism, Socialism and Liberal Democracy are being bloodied in the Spanish Civil War. Most people play World War II games to play World War II.

But they also like freedom. A game which always makes the Allied powers wait until September 1939 to declare war prevents the fun “historical” tests of the possibilities. Britain jumps to Czechoslovakia’s defence. Italy stays out of the war. What most gamers want, I think, is a plausible alternative to World War II – not a free-for-all.

Similarly, in the epic forum complaints about Europa Universalis III, no one seems to mind if Portugal and Spain don’t colonize all the “right” places, but they should colonize somewhere in the New World. In any case, the Teutonic Order shouldn’t run the West Indies. This is 15th century stuff, so a game that starts in 1453 shouldn’t be completely unimaginable in 1540. The fundamental randomness of EU3 strikes some as a violation of the Paradox Philosophy (completely ignoring the true triumph of Crusader Kings, which succeeded by distracting you from the wacky history through soap opera.)

In short, if you give people a realistic setting they expect at least a facsimile of realism. People make a subconscious connection between what they already know and what they expect to happen. The essence of good historical game design is recognizing how much your audience will let you get away with, and they may not always be consistent. I would argue that expectations of verisimilitude are much higher now than they were in the Golden Age of Strategy Game Design (Seven Cities of Gold, Civilization, Medieval Lords, etc.) powered by the hell-born fuel of internet rage.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on Making History as I try to see if I can actually make it.


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