Adaptation

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

This statement, famously uttered by our good friend Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder, of course) concisely frames the challenge faced by military strategists the world over. More practically for us as students of design, it also helps shed light on why some games are so much fun.

Without a doubt, there’s a unique form of glee one knows after crafting the perfect plan which also happens to work brilliantly. Humans are hard-wired to experience pleasure when gaining mastery of pretty much anything, and I don’t know anyone alive who doesn’t think winning is better than the alternative. However, if a player meets with success every time without facing a speed bump or two the game quickly becomes hollow and loses its charm.

For that reason it’s good to keep players on their toes, forever pondering what will happen next, crafting strategies to counter the threats lurking in the unknown. The need to adapt to changing circumstances is what helps separate a strategy game from a puzzle game. In a (good) strategy game, there should never be a perfect solution – just a broad spectrum of possibilities, some of which are better than others depending on the situation. If you can identify the ‘correct answer’ to a problem right from the very beginning then all the time and effort put in afterwards is completely pointless.

It’s clear that we need to shake players a little bit and make sure they’re never too comfortable. Let’s examine some ways this can be done, along with a couple examples of how pushing the player too hard or in the wrong way can hurt the gameplay experience.

 

How Can a Game Encourage Adaptation?

One of the most engaging and strategically interesting ways to prod players into shifting strategies is to have past decisions directly influence the current situation. Maybe the player chose to build a massive number of factories early on, and now their collective pollution output is becoming a major problem. The player is able to recognize that their current predicament is completely the result of earlier choices that they made. Perhaps next time they’ll instead invest resources elsewhere. Or maybe it was still worth it, in spite of the consequences.

Another example involves a diplomatic exchange where one player asks another for a favor. The one on the receiving end can either oblige or refuse to help. Saying no obviously risks angering the other party, and should a declaration of war follow the player is forced to adapt to a situation very much of their own creation. A good game should always require players to make trade-offs, and the result of the decisions made can help shape the situation they face in the future. With this type of adaptation players can always later remark, “man, if only I didn’t blahblahblah it all would have turned out differently…” When players are faced with new hurdles to jump over they can only point the finger at themselves, instead of blaming the game and the developers behind the scenes.

There are also many good ways to encourage adaptation when the player doesn’t have complete control. Map randomization is one of my favorite tools. While the layout of the world is obviously completely out of the player’s hands, a random map still provides what I like to call “soft encouragement” – offering benefits for taking up a new path that weren’t even previously on the radar. However, players still have the option to ignore the ‘offer’ and continue focusing on whatever they were doing before the discovery. Finding a gold deposit might strongly point to adopting a cash-centric strategy. Starting in a desert poses completely different challenges from finding yourself in a lush river valley – surrounded by potential enemies. Providing players unexpected opportunities is an excellent way to get them to reconsider their strategies.

Most soft encouragement is the result of exploration or discovery of some kind. It could be meeting an NPC that provides an interesting quest while playing an RPG, or maybe revealing new resources via research in a strategy game. One will have to seriously consider dropping their plan of pursuing a builder strategy if they suddenly discover the resource which unlocks the most powerful weapon in the game right on their doorstep. Players won’t always change directions when faced with this kind of situation, but they will often enough that it’s definitely worth the designer’s time to craft systems that can give rise to scenarios of this sort.

Gradual changes to the game’s ‘environment’ can also be an effective means of pushing players towards or away from certain paths. Maybe over the course of a long game the climate grows drier and it becomes harder and more expensive to produce food. Or perhaps the most powerful enemy in the game grows increasingly wary as you grow in strength and pick off his minions. If these sorts of things happened suddenly they would be jarring and seem unfair.

Unfortunately, there are also some oft-utilized methods for forcing adaptation which don’t work nearly as well as some of the above. Many games use random events to throw the game situation into chaos and force the player to pick up the pieces. While this works for some players, most will not get much fun out of random penalties. Players want to feel like they’re in control, and if they make the optimal decision in every situation nothing bad will happen. Maybe the player forgets to guard a flank, or takes a risk that doesn’t pay off – the outcome might be bad, but those results are due to choices the player made. True randomness eliminates that feeling of ownership. “There was nothing I could do, the game just decided to screw me.”

Even worse than random penalties or limitations are those arbitrarily imposed by the designer. Maybe it’s taking away a special ability in an action game or RPG, or locking away a specific unit type in an RTS scenario. This sort of tactic never has the intended effect. Everyone wants to feel like they’re overcoming difficult but fair challenges, and earn rewards for achieving success. When the developers just arbitrarily take something away the only thing running through the player’s mind is “why would they do that?” This is probably the best example of developers trying too hard to wedge adaptation into a game.

Player Perception is Paramount

This brings me to a key point: the main difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ adaptation is merely how the player perceives it. The designer always needs to keep in mind their players’ expectations, and help ensure the game is conveying the right message. If someone feels like a game is unfair… then it is. Period. Intentions matter for nothing – game design is no exception.

That’s not to say slapping any sort of penalty on players is a terrible thing. If a game makes it clear that a system works in a specific, unambiguous way then players will be willing to (and maybe even readily) accept a certain measure of ‘unfairness’. One of the best examples of this working in a fairly recent offering is the dynasty system in Crusader Kings 2. For those unfamiliar with the game, you play as a dynasty which controls a medieval European kingdom. Instead of taking the role of a specific king or queen, players ‘live’ through whoever the current ruling member of their dynasty happens to be. The game spans several hundred years, and as time progresses one’s family head will eventually die, either due to old age or some premature cause, and the crown will pass to the newly-deceased character’s heir. This has several consequences, most of which are bad: the realm is destabilized, other characters in the game might not like this new fellow as much as the previous ruler, his or her governorship stats might be awful, etc. If these sorts of penalties just popped up randomly players would be justifiably annoyed. But Crusader Kings is a game about ruling a dynasty and dealing with these sorts of problems. For that reason it works brilliantly and never once did I feel like the game was cheating me.

There’s a myriad of other gameplay mechanics based on reality that can force adaptation in interesting ways. There is one in particular that I personally love, and feel is woefully underutilized: climate and seasons. I’m a huge fan of systems with effects that cycle over time, but seasons in particular have always grabbed me. Summer is the growing season, great if your armies need a quick bite to eat. Good luck with that in winter though. While the frozen landscape might pose some new challenges, perhaps it also freezes all of the rivers, eliminating certain barriers. Seasonal change is something most of us are familiar with, so if a game decides to incorporate that natural phenomenon as a major gameplay system no one will complain about its inclusion being ‘arbitrary.’ If the mechanics are overly harsh they might not be happy, but the concept itself is sound.

Hell, it seems like pretty much every major fleet put together prior to 1850 was sunk by a so-called “once in a lifetime” storm. Well… that’s what I picked up from skimming the history books anyways… that may not actually have been how it went down. Just for the record, having half of your invasion force sunk by a typhoon is not the type of adaptation I suggest designers apply in their games!

Adaptation VS Variety

Speaking of suspect design choices… While I’ve talked a lot about how adaptation can improve a game, there are also some drawbacks to consider. The largest issue is the balance between offering strategic possibilities and the variety, replayability and structure provided by starting traits.

The dilemma of how to approach the design of faction differentiation in a strategy game showcases this challenge. As designers, we want the various playable characters or factions in our games to be unique and fun to try out. Players have come to expect that not every side will play exactly the same – and our job as developers is to deliver. The problem is that having asymmetric factions either elevates the importance of certain mechanics, or can even outright discourage their use. If you’re playing a race that is great at warfare, why even bother with the boring peacenik stuff? Sure, you’re still able to play peacefully, but why would you? The whole point of playing a race like that is to take advantage of their strengths and explore the game in a different manner than you would with all the other factions.

This problem is most acute in games that offer more than one way to win. In a game like Starcraft there is only one way to win a single match, so having three extremely asymmetric races is less of a design challenge – ultimately they’re all trying to cross the same finish line, and everything can be balanced off of that. All three factions still have air units, they all still use Vespene Gas, and they’re all trying to destroy the enemy base while protecting their own. But what do you do in a game where you can win militarily or through peaceful means? Most players will ignore the features which either 1) don’t naturally interest them, or 2) aren’t an element of the optimal strategy. Either way, the player in charge of that warfare-inclined faction we were talking about earlier probably isn’t going to be spending much time constructing temples.

Everyone wants something different from the games they play. Game developers must decide between focusing on the extremes and running with it, or trying to offer a balance and provide something for everyone. The game I’m currently working on has several factions, and I’ve decided to go with the latter approach. Roughly half of the races are highly specialized, while the other half have much more flexibility in terms of what strategies are worth pursuing. This way, fans of any type can decide which approach best fits their taste.

Just as there are no perfect solutions in good strategy games, there are no perfect game designs. Even so, adaptation is a great tool for spicing up what could otherwise be a monotonous experience, while also ensuring one never really knows what’s going to happen next. However you do it, make sure your players always have an enemy out there that will at least rough up their plans – even if those plans do ultimately come out the other side alive.

- Jon

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9 Comments

  1. Map randomization is always good, and so are seasonal effects where appropriate. SMAC had a similar feature on a game-spanning scale with its mind worms. Perhaps an earth-based game could do something like a small ice age that occasionally freezes rivers?

    Regarding distinctive factions, I’m a big fan of RPG-style customization during a game such as the policy trees in Civ5. The civilizations start out with unique strengths and weaknesses but players can still customize their abilities to a large degree, in response to the situation they find themselves in.

    Reply
    • I definitely feel that the way the environment changed was one of SMAC’s best features, and even over a decade later you still haven’t really seen anything else like it. I can see why though. A major issue with most 4X games is the scale involved – if you’re covering all of human history (as in Civilization), there were absolutely some changes that took place over that time period, but nothing cyclical. Modeling environmental degradation and soil erosion would be the best option here, but it would be very challenging to make that as interesting as the systems in SMAC.

      Traits are a very tricky subject. It’s hard to come up with ones that are interesting but also don’t channel players down specific very paths. I really believe the problem stems from having multiple ways to win. You’ll still have a great deal of replayability if you have a large number of factions, or their traits are unique enough, but at the same time this increases the challenge of building in infinite (or nearly so) replayability simply through the game’s systems. As I talked about in the article, ultimately there’s really no right answer since everyone wants something different. Some people don’t even CARE if a game is INFINITELY replayable, since all they really want is a solid 10 or 20 hours of fun. All of those competing interests sure make game design hard though!

      - Jon

      Reply
      • Regarding the game taking things away arbitrarily, I have to cite Final Fantasy: Tactics. It came well-recommended but having to revamp everything to fit within the parameters of the particular scenario killed my interest almost immediately. Thank goodness for game rentals.

        Regarding enabling multiple ways to play, my pet project (superhero TBS) left me with movement-based characters with nothing much to do except *quickly* travel to where they could get killed. My solution: change from a straight last team standing victory condition to a points-based one. Players are directly awarded points for defeating units. At the same time, the unit drops a collectible that’s redeemable by anyone for more points. Gameplay is territorial and flexible (so far) between specialized and generalized play. Ultimately the game does have one victory condition: have the most points at game end. But players can choose to earn them through combat or CTF play, or even snarky ways like rushing the game to completion while they’re in the lead.

        Reply
  2. In the realm of player perception and random events, it’s worth noting that players rarely get frustrated about positive events, even if they’re not in a position to take optimal advantage of the event. From a mechanical perspective a positive event can have roughly (or even exactly) the same net effect as a negative event (e.g. a fortuitous rain that gives all non-river cities a bonus food can be nearly identical in net effect to a flood that removes a food from all river cities (depending on ratio of river cities, balance of base production levels, etc.)), but the player tends to view it differently. Too many positive events can still make a game feel arbitrary, but an unexpected bonus can drive adaption in a way that’s fun where an unexpected penalty would be frustrating.

    Reply
    • That’s a great point Chris.

      Nearly every opportunity that a game can provide has some element of randomness or lack of player control. Map randomization is just that – random. The fact that it provides a huge number of possibilities with a POSITIVE outcome is what makes it work. If the map were instead ONLY penalties (oh, you stepped on THAT tile? Sorry, that unit’s toast!) it wouldn’t work nearly as well, though you can sprinkle in this sort of thing as long as it’s rare.

      I do believe there’s an important distinction to make between random events that just give the player something and those which give the player something to DO. A random die roll that ‘rewards’ you with a pile of gold isn’t nearly as strategically interesting as a surprise opportunity to spend your time or resources to accomplish something which THEN gives you some treasure. The end goal as a designer is providing players with a variety of situations where trade-offs are necessary. There’s nothing wrong with getting there with the help of a little bit of random magic!

      - Jon

      Reply
  3. Brian Rold

     /  May 27, 2012

    I have to disagree with your comment on Starcraft and the three asymmetrical races. One of the most vocal complaints for the sequel is how very asymmetric the game is over its predecessor. The original was deceptively more evenly flowing between early, mid, and late game through similar unit type roles. Starcraft 2 meanwhile generally boils down to race T gets early to mid game, race Z gets mid to late game and race P turtles until lategame. Dominance is determined primarily by capitalizing on your set window of opportunity and your opponent denying it.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with asymmetrical styled play but Starcraft 2 has shown to effectively pull it off you must have more than three unique factions to avoid repetition.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the insight Brian. That’s very interesting – I certainly make no claim to being a Starcraft expert, from the perspective of player OR designer!

      I think your comments actually help reinforce my feeling that asymmetric factions are diametrically opposed to the goal of creating a game that remains strategically interesting after infinite playthroughs. I should probably sit down with David Sirlin and see what his thoughts on this topic are, as I know he’s a HUGE proponent of both asymmetry and replayability, and would never sacrifice the long-term viability of one of his games in exchange for having asymmetry. There’s a good chance he’s figured out something that I haven’t!

      The point you make about Starcraft 1 also indicates that there are ways to make factions FEEL unique without dramatically altering game balance. For example, the fact that each faction collects resources in its own special way helps reinforce the idea that they ARE fundamentally different, even if the end result is more or less the same.

      I find this topic really fascinating, and may dig into it some more in the future. There definitely seems to be a lot of meat on the bone here.

      - Jon

      Reply
  4. I’m a fan of hidden information. Not hidden game mechanics, but actual game information. This goes back to the idea of fog-of-war and line-of-sight, but it also has its roots in board games where the next card/tile is the big unknown you’re trying to plan around. And of course, in competitive play, there’s always the unknown element of trying to guess what your opponent is up to (i.e. lookahead/yomi).

    I’ve been tinkering with Frozen Synapse lately, which follows on the classic we-go model of plan and execute. We-go play in general matches this description almost perfectly, with careful assembled plans that can quickly turn into massacres depending on which side of the attack-defend-maneuver triangle you pick.

    Note however that I’m not talking about arbitrarily random events, just some uncertainty about the details.

    On the broader topic of adaptation, one of my favorite game mechanics was the changing role of fungus in Alpha Centauri; in the early game fungus is terrible and dangerous, but in the lategame it can be tremendously beneficial

    Reply
  5. Cris

     /  June 10, 2012

    Hello Jon, sorry for my bad english, (im italian but i speak also french) i think that civilization is a very good strategy game. Please, write other post :-)

    Reply

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