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Application Overload

August 31st, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Design, Me

Another tech entry, but there is a connection to game design so bear with me.

A couple of months ago I succumbed to Facebook pressure. Some old friends from college were using it to stay connected and they wanted me to be part of the fun. I signed on, and before I knew it I had over a hundred friends from various stages of my life. Colleagues, classmates, former students, people I hadn’t thought about in years. It’s a great tool to reconnect with.

Then came the applications.

“So-and-so wants to turn you into a zombie. Add the zombie application.”
“So-and-so wants to send you a drink. Add the drink application.”
“So-and-so wants to share his book collection with you. Add the book collection application.”

Facebook pages are slowly becoming cluttered with naughty gifts somebody got, movie review compatibility tests and all kinds of other stuff that doesn’t really help me feel like I know these people better. I like the collection applications, I guess, but I’m the type of guy who walks into an acquaintance’s apartment and checks out the CD rack or bookshelf within minutes of arriving.

Applications are being created and added that, in many ways, distract from the elegance of the Facebook design. It has a clean look with small print updates that keep you apprised of who is doing what, what connections are being made and when someone’s birthday is coming up.

Of course, there’s no requirement to add all these apps. But when a friend uses one of them to try to make a connection with you, it’s almost rude to not see what they are doing.

The game design analogy is obvious. What is your game about, and what do you include to make that game accessible and interesting. In a comment earlier this week, a reader argued that the obvious importance of the African slave trade means that it has to be represented in Empire: Total War. And to some extent he’s right.

But there are other obviously important 18th century things. The Enlightenment. Serfdom. Yankee Doodle.

Every feature or historical inclusion should be in line with the game design goals. As I wrote in my reply to the above comment, the Total War games are not economic games. The importance of guilds and production cycles in the Middle Ages is nowhere to be found in Medieval 2. Rome didn’t worry itself with grain imports from Egypt or the growth of latifundia. The Triangle trade could certainly be abstracted, I suppose, and probably should (though I would advocate against white-washing the horrors of it.) But the moment it becomes something you need to manage is the moment you risk pushing a system that is already adding naval warfare and countryside buildings too far.

As much as we history nerds would like to believe otherwise, history can be a poor guide for design. You have to decide what your game is trying to capture and focus on that. The Total War games have been successes because Creative Assembly has rightly judged what their games are about – pseudo-realistic battles that determine how a strategic conquest will turn out. You’re the general-king, not the quartermaster. The moment Michael Akinde decided that he didn’t need tactical battles to meet his design goals for Imperium – in spite of all the work he had done on the battle engine – was the moment I knew I had to stick around.

The application overload is probably why I haven’t reinstalled Victoria in a very long time. The Paradox grand strategy game tried to capture everything from nationalist uprisings to migration waves to railroad construction to import/export tariffs to the Scramble for Africa, and in such detail that every patch and update meant that I had to learn things all over again. The other games in that family, as complex as they are, had greater focus. Hearts of Iron is about World War II and there is nothing that takes you out of that. Crusader Kings is about dynasty management with the occasional crusade. Europa Universalis, the most Victoria-like in its breadth, abstracts economics and military management to let you focus on the exploration and alternate histories.

Even an elaborate game like Dominions 3 doesn’t go to the point of forgetting what the game is about. It is a fantasy wargame, so there’s no real economic subgame beyond maximizing tax returns. All research is geared towards the war effort; there are guns but no butter. This design decision immediately frees the player from handling the sort of things that a pretender god shouldn’t be concerned about anyway. (The version designed by a game forum would have variable tolerances for other pretender faiths, loyalty checks from mercenary units, the ability to sell magic rocks on the stock exchange and probably a story involving a quest to find your lost sister.)


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    Exactamundo. Design creep is an evil thing, although there will always be members of the gaming community that don’t understand the true elegance of game design is knowing what should be a primary goal, and what can be folded into secondary elements or left out all together. To them everything and the kitchen sink = end all, be all design.

    In a way it’s like writing. You can take a 2,000 word short story and blow it out to 200,000 words if you want, but that doesn’t make it better. But does it make it more comprehensible, or the opposite?

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    Well, in my defense, my point wasn’t that the game ought to have slavery implemented, but that it was a bit dishonest to say the slave trade had no military or economic importance. If they don’t want to include it, no skin off my nose; but to say it has no bearing on the variables the game models seemed a bit of a cop out.

    Rereading the PR statement, they don’t explicitly say that, so maybe I was reading too much into the tone of the quote.

  • Alan

    Also, quit sending me Facebook fortune/zombie/likeness/hockey/ninja/aquarium application sign-ups!

  • jonathanstrange

    Which among us, after playing a great game, hasn’t said “You know what would be cool? If they added…”

    I wouldn’t be the first to want to control a galactic empire, adjust tax rates, queue production items, command a spacefleet in battle, pilot a starfighter, board an enemy vessel, fight alien troopers in a narrow hallway as we attempt to seize control of the bridge – all in the same game.