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Eight Things Not To Do Is Done

August 27th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Design

Soren Johnson has just wrapped up his two part post on mistakes people make in game design, specifically strategy game design. For the most part, I agree with with eight points but, being a contrary type, I have a few nitpicks here and there. Make sure you read both parts one and two before you proceed in this post.

In Number 3, his point about needless repetition, Johnson throws out a formula which he probably doesn’t expect people to take all that seriously.

Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played

The argument underlying this formula is clear; time spent away from interesting decisions is wasted time. So when you force the player to repeat actions that are either obvious or dull, you take the him/her away from the game part. But according to this formula, I think, the perfect game would have every segment of time filled with an interesting decision. This type of design would be exhausting and probably overwhelming. You can make a good case for games that delay gratification, like many of the early 4x games (Seven Cities of Gold or Imperialism, for example.) Part of the problem with this formula is where it is the connection to repetitive activity implies that an “interesting decision” is an “action”. However, to paraphrase Talleyrand’s saying regarding intervention, in many cases action and inaction amount to the same thing; the decision not to take an action is as significant as the decision on which action to take.

I can’t underestimate the importance of Johnson’s fourth point on “too much stuff”. I think that Beyond the Sword is a little guilty of this. Both of the new major mechanics (espionage and corporations) would have been stronger I think if there wasn’t an impulse to add a bunch of new units, buildings, blockades, a new space race, the Apostolic Palace and random events. Even the great range of scenarios is undermined by the inclusion of some real dogs, like the Defense and Afterworld scenarios. Both work as demos of the flexibility of the Civ 4 system, but aren’t very entertaining. I think Dominions 3 could be a lot smaller, too, but I’m fully aware of how heretical that statement is.

Fan content creators are, I think, very prone to fall into the “bigger is better” mindset. I’ve written before about how many users think in epic terms and can sometimes lose sight of how what they add can weaken the elegance of a game design. Even truly amazing accomplishments like the Fall From Heaven mod for Civilization IV would probably be better if the designers limited their focus.

In spite of this, I think he’s right on about the importance of opening up strategy games for modders and scenario creators. A lot of the time you’ll end up with scenarios that miss the point, like most of the theater level battles people have made for Operational Art of War. But, as much as I loved Rome: Total War I would have loved it more if battle and army creation was a lot easier than it proved to be.

The good news about this list is that it means that there’s a good chance Spore won’t turn into SimEarth, a game that was plagued with a lot of design issues that Johnson attacks in these posts.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Justin Fletcher

    “But according to this formula, I think, the perfect game would have every segment of time filled with an interesting decision. This type of design would be exhausting and probably overwhelming.”

    And, ironically, it would reduce the fun factor since part of the enjoyment of making interesting decisions is dealing with the consequences of those decisions. If you’re constantly having to make decisions, you don’t get any time to assess the outcome and adapt appropriately.

    But I think Soren was referring specifically to poor UIs (#2, btw), where you spend an inordinate amount of time playing the interface instead of the game. I read “interesting decision” as the opposite of “choosing to sell a single Hare Tail over and over and over,” in which case I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Cyrris

    I recall when I was first reading some previews on Beyond the Sword a few months ago, I saw one site mention that a potential con (next to their long list of pros) was that the expansion might deliver just too much stuff. Having never played an expansion pack which felt like it added too much before, I had a hard time believing that could possibly be a bad thing.

    After getting it though, I can see exactly why, and you (and Soren) are right. I actually have random events permanently turned off and I often implement civics to keep corporations away just because I don’t always like having to deal with them. I still don’t make much use of Espionage at all. Maybe that’ll change as I play the game more and have gotten used to all the other changes, but even has a veteran Civ player I found it all quite overwhelming.

    Fantastic of course, but overwhelming.

  • Troy

    Random events are one of my favorite parts of BtS. They have been very well implemented, even if many of them are variations on each other. The quest events, in particular, are great. In my current game I had two quest events pop-up in quick succession, requiring me to build stables (meaning I had to rush to Horseback Riding) and libraries. The library one promised a bigger reward if I had the Great Library, but I had no marble so I ended up getting beaten to that wonder with five turns to go.

  • Cyrris

    The way I have always liked to play Civ4 is a duel or tiny highlands map with 10-15 AI, all crammed in. Of course it’s probably not the way most people play it, but I liked it because it’s fast moving, there were no restrictions from water bodies, and culture became super important. It also made the game quite intense.

    So you can imagine how the changes in BtS sent that game type overboard… having no sea to keep others corporations away meant I was quickly going broke, and there was just so much happening that random event notifications (not just your own) would clog up the screen.

    Needless to say I try different map types now that BtS has better AI to deal with waging war across the seas.