TGDRT #57: Stepping Back, Goals & Pacing

TGDRT

Episode #57 is live!

Jon and Dirk discuss general design topics relating to their recent work, including playtesting, extending the development of projects, providing players with goals, instilling a game with good pacing and ensuring there are always interesting strategic options to choose from.

Dirk and I decided tweak our ‘update’ episodes a bit and focus more on topics, rather than details. This is the first show in that format, and I really like the results. Our two main discussion points were pacing and strategic variance.

Pacing is interesting because it’s even less defined than most game design. Training a Unit requiring 10 turns VS 5 turns is more about ‘feel’ than it is ‘correctness’. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your mechanics even match up with the vision inside your head.

Strategic variance is a bit easier – having it is good, not having it is bad! The challenge here is finding a happy medium.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of having only one good choice – meaning there’s really no choice at all. But players become overwhelmed when you load them up with too many choices, resulting in them becoming equally meaningless. What you want is a handful of digestible, always-viable options. Which is, of course, easier said than done!

This is particularly tough for designers crafting the opening of complex procedural games (like AtG or Civ), as the core experience  is based on a tapestry of overlapping systems, and meddling too directly can ruin what made it fun in the first place!

This is why I’m convinced that there’s no substitute for playtesting, iteration and spending the time to do it right. There’s no secret game design formula that always works. The only recipe you can rely on is experience coupled with trial and error.

- Jon

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11 Comments

  1. Just listened to the first part where you talk about giving the player goals in At the Gates. My understanding was that you start in a quickly exhausted area and must move to avoid starvation. Later on you might find a sustainable position but others have become more powerful, too, so now you have to keep developing just to avoid getting crushed. Is that correct or were you trying for something less adversarial?

    Reply
    • Good question. You are correct, but my aim is to also offer a variety of internal goals to strive for. AtG will be a militaristic 4X, but it’s still a 4X – which means interesting economic and political aspects need also be present.

      The challenge is finding a way to provide the sense of freedom without making that freedom feel aimless. A structured experience where there’s always a handful of interesting strategic options is vastly preferable to a COMPLETE sandbox (for most players, anyways). Fewer forces pushing on you means fewer interesting choices to make.

      You do have to find a nicer place to live pretty early in the game, but I want there to be some important decisions to make along the way. It’s not very interesting if you build a Scout, explore until you find the closest patch of green grass and move to it ASAP in every game. Maybe instead [X] means building a second Settlement early is a good idea. Or you train a Surveyor right on turn 1 because of [Y]. It’s the reason why “procedural” is good while “random” is bad.

      So I’d say we’ve made improvements, but there’s still work to do. There was NOTHING pushing on players before, and now there are a couple things, but they tend to push you in the same direction. My goal now is to expand the strategic palette.

      - Jon

      Reply
      • Thanks for the explanation. Providing different compelling strategic options to a band of starving barbarians sounds like an interesting challenge, to say the least. :)

        In Civ your starting position is normally rich and secure enough that you can mostly do whatever you want, at least to begin with. In AtG you would have to ensure that some viable options are always close enough to the starting location that survival is possible, but not so close or so many that you could simply stay put or do the same thing every time.

        Hmm… how about preplaced neutral settlements, much like Civ5 city states, that might be located near resources and react in different ways to your approaching band? Possibly that’s already in the game, I don’t quite remember.

        Reply
        • Being a designer is often like being a player – having more limits in place sometimes makes the job easier! I have a few ideas that I’m playing around with now that seem promising.

          One big one that I’m pretty excited about and surprised other 4X games haven’t tried before is revealing more of the map around each player’s starting location. After all, it’s kind of hard to make ‘strategic’ decisions If you can only see 5 tiles around you!

          From there the diversity of the map naturally helps shape the first few turns of the game. There are already neutral communities, resources, goodies, hostile camps, etc. nearby, but I’m looking to expand on this even further.

          - Jon

  2. Finished listening to the entire episode! :) One more comment on making new cities consume exponentially more food in AtG. I’m afraid I have to fall in with the average Civ philistine here who doesn’t much like such blatantly unrealistic game mechanics, especially when they are used to enforce historically realistic outcomes. Couldn’t you instead create some centrifugal force in barbarian nations that increases with the number of cities? Perhaps outlying cities have a chance of breaking away and become neutral, refusing to move along with you; or unit effectiveness is lowered across the board, or they block diplomatic treaties, or they refuse to deliver local resources… all the kinds of feudal confusion that actually kept the invaders from permanently forming powerful empires.

    Reply
    • For what it’s worth, I agree – which is why I’ve avoided taking exponential growth curves for most of my career. But this is also a problem game designers have been trying to tackle for at least 20 years, and I’d say the results are “mixed at best.”

      Ultimately it’s a question of cost. All you’re really trying to do is eliminate an exploit that would be abused by a tiny number of expert players. To what extent are you willing to change your core vision to that end?

      A complex new feature designed to limit growth in indirect ways is inevitably going to affect other systems, require additional playtesting and balancing, significant AI coding, etc. Is that really preferable to making a single number grow exponentially rather than linearly? It depends on the designer and the game, but the answer is usually “no”.

      Game development is a zero sum effort, and what you spend time on is by far the most important factor in success or failure. Sometimes that means using a hammer when a screwdriver would have been the ‘proper’ tool for the job!

      - Jon

      Reply
  3. PS: Great episode as always, yours is my favorite games podcast by far. Nothing like having working game designers on the show in each episode!

    Reply
  4. Perhaps having random natural disasters like flood or drought or locusts could add variety and be a useful tool to motivate players to move on from what used to be territory that was good enough.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the suggestion Jim. That is indeed the basic direction I’m looking to steer the game. Interesting, strategic choices are only possible when you have information to base those choices on, and if your situation is a complete blank slate you have nothing to work with.

      It’s important that these forces are ‘procedural’ rather than ‘random’ though. If something appears randomly from the sky that hurts the player it almost never makes a game better. Random bad things happening to someone else or random good things happening to you are better, but there better ways to improve strategy. Procedural elements are those which can’t be predicted but are well-integrated into the rest of the game. A hurricane could be considered random, but a particularly harsh winter would be procedural.

      To this end, I’m looking to add more procedural elements to the game – I’ll probably be talking more about that in the next AtG update!

      - Jon

      Reply
  5. Perhaps smoother integration into the world where every year, the weather varies so that you can get anything from a bumper crop, which would increase growth to a crop failure where if the player does not move then they will lose significant population to starvation. By making this a smoother gradient of weather dependent crop yields it becomes an integral part of the game world. Also makes the stay or migrate decision much more of a judgement call. Perhaps periodic reports during the year on how the crops and food animals are doing would add depth.

    Reply

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