Friday, March 30, 2007


Sorry, I'm busy moving and starting a new job. Or, as the song says,

Just moved to my new house today!
Movin' was hard but I got squared away...
'Till I seen something that give me the creep!
Had ah-one big eye and ah-two big feet!

Well, except that I'm in the middle of moving (about to kill the computer, actually) and I haven't yet seen anything with ah-two big feet recently except Darius.

I imagine that I'll give you some more of my ultra-high-end theorizing this weekend. Wouldn't want to miss it! I'll even use words like "disinclined" and "quiescence", just to make it worth the wait.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Rogue Galaxy Review

I wrote an eleven page Rogue Galaxy review.

It had a lot of interesting play decisions. And I'm a big geek.

Two more RPG reviews still in the works: FFXII and Granado Espada.

Rogue Galaxy Review (PDF)

Monday, March 26, 2007


I've seen this idea half a dozen times over the past year or so. I just want to comment on it. I'd normally just comment on the post, but I don't have a WordPress account, so no dice.

The basic idea is that people with cluttered desks are more brilliant (or, at least, get more work done) than people with clear desks. Everyone who hears this thinks, "oh, because, uh, they don't care, or because geniuses are mad, or something."

The answer is much easier than that:

Brilliant people have more clutter to put on their desks.

Brilliant people tend to read fifty times more than the average person - books, papers, blog posts, etc. What then happens? Throw it out? Not if it has any conceivable use - you'll come back to it later. So it piles up. It piles up on the desk, on the floor (if possible), and definitely in the bookmarks section of FireFox.

It's not a natural tendency towards sloppiness. It's a natural tendency towards having too much goddamn stuff crossing our desks.


Their desks. I meant "their desks".


Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Secret of Character Design

I've got some game reviews (of RPGs) in the works, but I'd like to comment on character designs.

As you may or may not know, I do a lot of idle character designing. My face-to-face games of whatever kind typically have a lot of characters in them, and I generally draw all of them. This has been especially true lately, so I have gotten to thinking about it in more detail.

In my opinion, the secret of character design is simple: look at your design. Would people draw fan art of that character? If no, redesign or scrap. If yes, what parts of the design draw in the fan artist? Tweak them up a notch.

That's what I'm going to be doing from here on in.

Of course, there are other concerns. For example, both FFXII and Rogue Galaxy use a set of totally generic Japanese love interests - young, uncertain, eager, irritating as hell. Their dialog is limited to variants on "Help!" and "Golly!". If the writer is really feeling his oats, they write a few lines where she feels an emotion.

Presumably, this boring design is because that kind of girl is romantically acceptable to the largest chunk of their target audience.

I don't know about Japan, but are there any Westerners who played FFXII who didn't think the game would have been better if you just wrote out Vaan, Penelo, and Ashe? Is there anyone who wouldn't like a Balthier and Fran romance ten times better? Do people actually get turned off by characters with personality?

(Vaan and Penelo did serve an important role, as they were the children of the party - always excited and eager. In that respect, they were good. But... the main character? No. I wanted to pull a Palom and Porom.)

This problem isn't as pronounced in a face to face game. Personalities and appearances can be tweaked, even entire characters dropped in response to what the players think of them. You put in Ashe and they don't like her? Have her get her throne back and stop adventuring, or tweak her character so she has some spark. Or kill her. Whichever.

This is more difficult in a computer game. It's not impossible by any means - if you let the player choose his party, you can assume that he likes the characters in his party. This would let you tweak things however you preferred. But you'd have to write in hundreds of lines of extra dialog, maybe even a method of permuting characters on the fly. It's expensive.

My guess? That's why there are so many boring boring boring boring mind-numbingly boring characters in RPGs in general. The other option is that the designers are such bad writers they think their characters are interesting. That would be depressing...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Test Report: Myths and Legends

This essay will only interest people who want to know more about narrative-building games.

I ran a game this weekend called "Myths and Legends". It was half LARP and half card game, like all of these. The game was intended to reverse this game's test - seeing if a game could exist almost entirely on that "second tier" of immersion. The "subquest" level. I knew from experience that the gameplay in these games was minimal, so that didn't need adjusting. I simply got rid of the "overarching plot", so that there were only subquest-level hooks.

The result was pretty predictable. The game, intended to run in the background over a forty-eight hour stretch (gaming weekend) ran in about thirty. At that point, too many of the players were sleep-depped out of coherence, spelling the end of the game. As expected, honestly: there was what amounted to a tiny con running in the background the whole time.

The game progressed fairly well. It was built on the idea of constructing and completing sidequest-style events. I made the "terrain" complex by using multiple eras you could visit and using some gating methods to mix up which players could be in which events. I let them use their "powers" to resolve events with each other in various story-riffic ways, and the resolution of the events allowed them to make more cards - both powers and new sidequest hooks.

Even with that level of complexity, the game's mechanics were too shallow to really hold the player: only the sidequests really drove the game.

The interesting thing is that although the game was exceptionally good at starting sidequests and directing aimless players into sidequests of their choosing, at some point the players formed a third layer - an overarching plot. The game was actually a hindrance to completing overarching plots, which is probably the reason the game died a little early.

But... but... the players formed third layer plots!

That's really important. I've been whining for ages about how I can't get players to form long-term plots. Sure, one or two players out of ten will come up with some kind of long term goal... but about 90% of these players formed extensive, complex, and frankly clever, well-done, long-term plots.

These plots weren't really suitable to long-term play, unfortunately, because they were "this is how it will happen!" plots rather than a "this is what we want" plot which has some slack built in. I tried to introduce the latter kinds of plots, and it probably would have worked if I had introduced them earlier... but they would have been my plots, and I would never have seen the rather astonishing synthesis the players did.

Because the plots were of the "this is how it will happen!" variety, trying to get the player to "play through them" is basically just torture, and kills the game. So, I either need to have a method of allowing players to finalize the plot without playing, or I have to find a way to make them construct "this is what we want" plots.

If I go with the former, I'm going to have to use some kind of "rebirth" method. Once you've done a plot, you have to change your whole outlook. A new character, or the same character in a new stage of his life, or something. That way the game can be kept fresh. Keeping these fresh, unattached characters from being sucked into the whirlpool of a more advanced plot might be necessary... and any way I run it there will have to be some kind of carryover...

If I go with the latter method, I have to isolate more exactly what caused the players to generate plot in this game so much more frequently than in the earlier games I ran. Something about the terrain having more dimensions of complexity allowed the players to twist in fun ways until they bumped into something that clicked. I think I increased the cohesion of the chunks that the players could try to assemble...

Anyway, it's still an irritatingly-paced game, so I may have to change the pacing, which will throw all my data off.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Working with Games

Darren insists I have something to say about why I want to work with games.

The answer is: I don't! Want to work with games, that is. I have lots to say. But games? Not so much.

I just like dopamine.

Therefore, I have to build. I haven't really found any other way to get my dopamine fix. I have to build, and I have to build things that give me that "new" sparkle.

I love writing, drawing, games, and software tools. They seem to be the most efficient way to a dopamine fix. I actually don't prefer building one over another. But I seem to be best at (live) games.

And to maximize my rush, they have to be as fresh and interesting as possible. So I never stand still, and repeating myself is painfully boring.

That's why I do games.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Play Acting

Perhaps the biggest difference between computer games and real-world games is that in a computer game, the player doesn't usually feel compelled to play a certain role.

Thanks to a variety of issues - saves, no respect for NPCs, no ability to improvise or express yourself - computer game players don't really like to stick to their role. Real world games use competitive goals, time pressures, and social pressure to get people to stick to their roles, and even that is often fairly shaky. Some games use these methods (most notably competitive goals), but that frequently makes them unsuitable for the general public.


I guess that's really all I have to say on the subject.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Three Layers of Immersion"

I recently talked here about swamping and all sorts of other geeky things. Basically, it leads to this post.

On these forums someone posted a theory about "three layers of immersion" or "story". Unfortunately, my search-fu is weak as hell. It's one of the major posters, but I can't remember which one. I think he even wrote a PDF about it, but I never got to read it, so I'm running on some mentions he made a few months ago.

( I bow to Eric Poulton's search fu. It was "Arkaeyn", in this thread. )

It got me curious, so I've done some running with it - to the extent of testing it and brutally adapting it to my own greedy purposes. So, remembering that someone else came up with it (or something like it) originally, here's the way it runs:

You can split the experience of a game into three tiers. The lowest tier would be immediate experience - shooting the Nazi, buying a potion, leaping a pit. The top tier would be the long-term arcs - avenging your father, saving the planet, getting the girl, whatever.

The middle experience would be short term arcs: "Defend this one city", "get through the alien maze", "get the sword of Good Thoughts".

Obviously, the lines can get very blurry: is a four-hour arc in a twenty-hour game a top or middle tier? So, the distinction I came up with is this:

Layer 1: Moment to moment direct play.

Layer 2: Situations that direct the player's overall progression through first-layer situations.

Layer 3: Situations that direct layer 2 situations.

"Wow, Craig's doing more worthless theorizing."

Well, any theory should be useful, so I poked around and discovered that, yes, this theory can be very useful, especially in how it relates to LARPs, open-ended one player games, and multiplayer games of all varieties.

Which part? The second layer, of course.

The second layer controls swamping.

See, if your second layer is too loose, your content begins to melt together. All content will be judged simply as to how effective it is in moment to moment play (layer 1). If it can't be judged that way, it isn't judged at all. The second layer's purpose is to assign a specific value to all the things that have minimal or counter-purposes play value. Examples of this might be whether to kill or save villagers, whether to march on Rome or France, etc. It is also there to limit - or at least heavily tint - which content is capable of being judged, either by restricting access or making something more or less efficient than simple gameplay indicates. (For example: enemies weak against lightning, or lots of railgun ammo.)

All games have this second tier, but the second tier is a very muddy system as it stands. I'm sure there's a better way to think about it, but as it stands, level design, drops, subquests, primary missions, and many other kinds of play are various kinds of second-tier elements.

"Loose" second tier elements are level design, enemy drops, and so forth. Things which assign local values but don't provide real revaluation or direction. "Tight" second tier elements would be things like quests.

MMORPGs show this. WoW, for example, thrives on quests. A lot of its success relates to the fact that players take many quests and submit to their directions. This actually isn't as tight-fisted as it sounds, because it's not really an infrastructure for second tier elements. Instead of the game forcing players into certain activities, it's a loose web that allows the players to catch themselves. And if you don't like that kind of thing, you won't much like WoW.

Normally, tabletop RPGs have excessively tight second-tier elements. The GM says, "The old guy says to kill the monster in the labyrinth!" and the players say, "well, okay, not like we had anything better to do..."

I'm running a Star-Warsish game right now where I essentially did away with second tier elements. It's not the only reason I'm running the game (or the only thing I'm testing), but it fit in well. I was betting that the players would invent a second tier fairly easily. I was wrong. They did, but it was not something that came naturally or without a bit of pushing. It was a very "swampy" game - none of the content could be rated because there was no innate reason any of it was more important than anything else.

This rambling little theory is getting too long by half, so I'll cut my meanderings short. Er. Shorter.

Basically, when you're designing a game, you need to think about the second tier. And, like most things I do, there are three pieces to consider:

1) Level, enemy, power, and item design. Any given part of the game should be relatively unique as to what it looks like and the tactical options it gives. Make certain powers more inherently useful in some places and less so in others.

2) Quests. Allow the players to take missions. I would suggest even giving them occasional choices to do random non-major-arc-related quests, such as bounty hunting or saving a useless village. Every quest should have a different feel than the previous one in terms of pacing and all the piece 1 elements listed above.

3) Barriers. As the players progress through the game, the gameplay needs to slowly change to keep things spicy. It shouldn't be so much that any character is ever rendered irritatingly underpowered! However, giving your players an airship, or letting them learn magic when they didn't have any before... it's a very powerful tool to change the way they look at the world. It also lets you do radically new and interesting versions of the two earlier pieces.

Did you get this far? Does your boss know you're wasting time on this blog? Leave a comment!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Music time! Dylan Hears a Who! and Tower 8.

Yeah, okay, nothing to do with games.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Luxury Notwithstanding...

There are a growing number of games (or, more accurately, game-like chatrooms and social networking sites) that are all about meeting people and flaunting what passes for your sense of fashion.

The one that's been getting the most attention recently is, obviously, Home on the Playstation III. But there are lots, literally dozens of them. All of them are passably similar: Home is simply more graphically advanced. An older one that still gets a lot of press is Second Life, although it... is a little different.

The vast majority of the chatrooms and social networking sites are bubbles. They can't keep their audiences, period. There are lots of theories, generally accompanied by handwaving about niches and saying, "if we only had more users, we could hit critical mass..." Hrm. Wrong. Let's talk about why they really fail.

I'm going to come at this as if entertainment and play all spring from the same basic system, so I'm going to refer to these pieces of software as if they were games. You can certainly argue that they're not supposed to be games. In which case, you've just explained right there why they always fail. So, as if they were games.

Playing a game can be thought of as exploring an evolving terrain. How well you can explore and interact with various parts of the terrain changes based on your capabilities. In most MMORPGs, you can actually go to any map you'd like, but you'll get your butt kicked if you're not the right level. Putting together and leveling a team is the fun part - advancing your ability to explore and shape the terrain, and in the process exploring the "terrain" of the level and equipment system.

Terrain doesn't always mean physical terrain, of course: in a MMORPG, you shape terrain by killing monsters and collecting loot. Solitaire has a terrain built out of cards, where you explore by stacking cards in specific ways. Changing and exploring the terrain of cards is, again, the focus point.

I could argue it for any game, but I'm going to presume it's fairly clear by now: games are about exploring and changing terrain.

Now, let's take a look at MySpace. Met with a polished but cluttered front page, I click "comedy". I'm faced with another cluttered page filled with links to what are presumably intended to be comedic pages. I'll click on Michael Gelbart. Voila, video, a couple of other links, and some extra information. I'll be nice and presume the video clip is not his best work.

The point is, I'm now exploring terrain. At whatever speed I please, in whatever way I please. And, if Gelbart pleases me, I can look for related links. Even better, I can always watch for more Gelbart in the future. The terrain evolves. I could send Gelbart fan mail, or post to his comments, or whatever else I wanted, and I might even get a response, a shoutout, a friend, or a linkback. Of course, his "MySpace level" is 23,214, whereas mine is zero, so it might be an iffy thing to try. Might want to level up some first by integrating into the terrain of the game.

It may sound like I'm stretching, but I'm not. Although the methods are different, being on MySpace has a lot of underlying similarities to killing trolls in WoW or driving cars over hookers in GTAIII. I doubt it was designed that way, but enough mutations and you'll end up with one that's viable...

Now, 95+% of the wannabee-MySpaces fall short. Their terrain isn't deep enough, or doesn't react enough, or isn't permanent enough, or some similar problem.

In SecondLife, the terrain is deep, but it's nonreactive. The vast majority of the socialization must be done live, which is too intensive and irritating for the bandwidth available (text and emotes). Sure, it has its place, but that place isn't in long-term viability. This is a problem a lot of 3D chat rooms have. I haven't done anything with Home on the PSIII, but I wouldn't be scared to bet fifty that they suffer from this problem, just from seeing their ads and previews.

On the other hand, most "social networking" sites go another direction, where the terrain is so sparse that it's simply not interesting to explore. "It's supposed to be functional!" Functional is something users want to come back to, not forget.

So what's the secret?

Terrain that is interesting enough to make exploring it entertaining. Terrain that reacts, but at the player's preferred speed. Terrain which varies as to how responsive it is. And complex rules linking it all together. (In most cases, the complex rules are people's personalities.)

A system of personal webpages enhanced with friends lists, content stacks (blogs, vids, pics), and forums is basically ideal for this. Going 3D requires... some interesting changes. Changes I haven't seen happen, yet.

I'm sure you can be successful without this, but it will be because you have other terrain which does get explored in this way. For example, SecondLife's social scene is tenuous, but it has a fairly complex economy, crafting system, and real terrain that interacts in ways like I explained above. Their "social"ness is painfully bad chatroom standard, but they have other terrain to explore.


Now I'm probably going to be on the top twenty for Michael Gelbart searches. That's Google terrain, there. Not quite as juicy, but the same basic idea.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Swamping, Pacing and Immersion

I've talked about swamping before, and recently. But it keeps rearing its ugly head.

Why is content swamping such a huge issue in computer games and not in tabletop RPGs? The answer is both simple and irritatingly complex. It's a matter of pacing firstly and immersion secondly.

In a tabletop game, you're immersed tightly into the people and plot you're currently stuck in (or what perversion of it you're planning). Even if you want to, you can't really talk to random people on the street (even though they are theoretically more realistic than townfolk in a computer RPG). You can't really go hunting wolves for four hours, or push on to the next town to try to get a slightly better sword.

This is because the other players and GM will punch you in the head repeatedly if you bore them. While you're doing something interesting to you, they're stewing in irritation.

Sure, it depends on the group. Some groups are all about just punching holes in random encounters until two in the morning, and others are happy to settle down and raise sheep. But, by and large, a group isn't so united. And no matter how united, they'll get bored if the game is too centered on one player.

This has led to a specific style for tabletop RPGs: a minimalist style. While some GMs do use significant amounts of flavor, most don't bother, and even the flavorers tend to be rather spotty on the subject. The reason is because many players get bored while the GM is prattling on about "streets teeming with unwashed hordes". The GM is also subject to the "get punched in the head" rule. (Obviously, some GMs use quite a lot of flavor - and they generally struggle to find a group of players who uniformly like to listen to it.)

On the other hand, computer games are the inverse. A computer doesn't really punish a player for doing whatever they want, and as computer games have evolved, flavor has become more and more important, to the point where in some games (such as Oblivion) each NPC (even brigands whose only purpose is to kill you) bear lovingly crafted pseudo-unique faces and lines of dialog with each other.

In one-player games, exploring the world is often the primary interest of the player. For example, all I really want to do in FFXII is hunt marks. I'm not really interested in the plot at all. This is fairly common, as GTAIII and similarly "open" games attest.

This is why swamping is a huge issue in computer games and not in tabletop games. From a Jedi game I'm running, I can safely say that swamping can be forced to be an issue in a tabletop - Ha! - so what's the difference? What's the solution, and how did I make a swampy tabletop?

It's involves immersion... and it's another essay.

What are your theories?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


User interfaces. Very important. That's really all I want to say. But that's kind of short, so I'll keep talking.

There's more to user interfaces than where you put your toolbar options or whether your ads are on the right. Everything has a user interface, even tabletop games and movie theaters. And they all have the same basic tradeoffs to decide on.

1. Ease of use. The clearer and easier a user interface is to use, the less mistakes users will make and the easier it will be for beginners.

2. Agility of use. The faster and more complexly a user interface allows you to control a situation, the better advanced users will like it and the more skill you can allow to be involved. Interestingly, "faster" and "more complex" are deeply related, sort of like MC2 equalling E. But that's a topic for another day.

3. Use of resources. The more resources your interface uses, the less resources will be available for other things. This is perhaps the most important, mostly because nobody thinks of it. Everything has limited resources, and I don't mean RAM. I mean players only have so many fingers, so much screen space, etc. Customizing your interface to perfectly suit your system is basically optimizing your resources.

For some examples of this: most computer games use a mouse and/or keyboard input. But that's not the end of the UI. It's the beginning.

A mouse has a high-fidelity response. It's naturally an extremely agile input, although it is generally considered to only have two buttons and a scroller, which is a critical limitation.

Some games use a mouse as a straight pipe. For example, a first person shooter, where the mouse controls the view. This maps to the mouse's capabilities extremely well: two axes of high fidelity. Of course, there aren't enough buttons, so FPS games also map key controls - lower fidelity but more speed and resources.

Other games like, say, a MMORPG, mostly use the mouse as a selector tool. They abstract away the interface, using the screen as an intermediary. Basically, they create a "custom keyboard" using the mouse and screen. Unfortunately, you only have one finger (two, if you count the right click) and can't really move very fast. So, in order to create a highly suitable UI, they've sacrificed speed, fidelity, and resources. Of course, their UI are perfectly suited for the game, which makes those limited resources stretch a long, long way.

Amusingly, tabletop RPGs have made the same choice. But unlike a MMORPG, they have no intermediary. They don't limit themselves to a screen or a mouse. They fill up a sheet of paper - or, if they run out, many sheets of paper - with the relevant details, and all those details can be accessed pretty quickly because of the virtually unlimited amount of visual space and the speed of paper-swapping.

Still, every GM is horrified by the amount of "paper-shuffling" that players - especially newbies - do. "What's your attack value?" "ummmm..." "Come on... it's right next to the freaking weapon you're using!" "Oh, um, the rifle?" "YES!"

This is because although showing everything is very agile, it is overwhelming and therefore the exact opposite of easy. Careful layout can minimize this problem, but most character sheets (and rulebooks) are built by experienced players for experienced players. Ease of use is less important to them than agility. Of course, when they run into a new game system with radically different rules, they revert... "ummmmm... so how many cards do I draw?" "It's right next to your edge style!"

The wiimote has enough potential to be worth it's own essay, but for now I'll simply limit myself to "It's not a fucking gimmick."

Anyhow, think about your user interfaces - tabletops, games you've programmed, hell, even LARPs. What tradeoffs did you make? How did it synergize with your system?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Opportunity and Challenge

A few posts ago, I mumbled about opportunity and challenge. Momberger called me out. He basically said, "Hey, you never defined opportunity, and the dictionary definition basically says you're not very bright."

Ha! Shows what you know! I never listen to the dictionary!

In fact, I have been glossing over what the hell I've been talking about for about two years. I mentioned that opportunity and challenge are, in my mind, often the same thing. I kind of glossed over it, but now I'll hit it in a bit more depth.

In a game, a player faces numerous challenges and/or opportunities. "Choppertunities", I called them, a word I hope never to write again. The way that their mating works is that in order for an opportunity to be involving, it needs to be paired with challenge. There needs to be a challenge to overcome in order to use it, and it needs to give a reward (typically a decrease in larger-scope challenge) to make it an opportunity rather than simply a challenge.

Examples of this are, of course, completely and utterly ubiquitous. You kill a bad guy. Each bad guy is an opportunity and a challenge: it is an opportunity to lower the threat against you, an opportunity to break through to new terrain, and/or an opportunity to get an XP or equipment reward. It is a challenge in that it takes some level of time and skill to overcome the enemy.

Every game you buy equipment is a choppertunity. (Shit, I said it again.) The equipment costs a certain amount - the challenge - and provides a significant combat boost - the opportunity. Every boss battle is harder - more challenge - but extra rewards in terms of upgrades and plot advancement are given - more opportunity.

There's a cat sleeping in the corner - opportunity - but the katamari needs to be larger than the cat - challenge. The challenge often creates a chain of opportunities and challenges - there's a string of erasers you can roll up to gain size, if you have the skill.

As you can see, the type of challenges are generally pretty similar in any given mode of play. In Katamari Damacy, all the challenges relate to picking things up as efficiently as possible. In an FPS, there are challenges and opportunities interwoven in terms of enemies and capacity to deal out damage. In an RPG, plot, combat, and resources play an intricate little dance that is, fundamentally, very similar to an FPS. Or a platformer, or a sports game, or even a live sport.

Granting new opportunities like this means granting new challenges in equal measure. A gravity gun allows you to hurl random debris around the level, but you'll have to be in a place where they are available, notice, grab, and aim them before it's any good - let alone the added complexity of maneuvering, timing, and so forth.

Double jumping gives you access to all those places you couldn't get before, but those places contain new challenges you'll need to defeat before you can get the new rewards (opportunities). Just the fact that there will be new rewards is an opportunity in and of itself...

It's fundamentally just a system of opportunities and challenges so tightly interwoven that they are nearly indistinguishable from each other. In some games, they are literally indistinguishable, such as in a shmup, where you try to get your little ship into the part of the screen not filled with enemy bullets. It's the challenge and the opportunity, all in one. In my mind, these are the ultimate forms of play... when they are so tightly linked you cannot really separate them.

Opportunities without challenges - and challenges without opportunities - occasionally have their uses. But their uses are so far removed from the normal play of the game that they should be considered entirely separate. Their uses are more to tell a story or to tweak pacing than to actually make the game fun, so they are a wholly different brand of beast.

At least, that's what's in my head. Let me know what you think.

Stable of Heroes

One game idea almost everyone gets is to make a game about managing a stable of characters. Instead of actually doing whatever they would normally do, you abstract it and make the game about managing a group of them. Common examples are stables of sports players, fantasy heroes, or professionals.

There are some advantages to this approach - low content, easy abstraction, etc. But there are fundamental problems. Deep problems.

The first and most obvious is one of play complexity. Most games have a play complexity arising from actually doing the things these people do: running around performing in a complex environment. Abstracting that out leaves you with a serious lack of complexity - both in play and potential plot.

You hire people, you equip them, you send them out, they report back. It has no teeth. In order to give it any kind of interest, you'd need to have every mission have a huge, huge, huge, huge, HUGE variety of finicky detailed results, so that it matters whether you equip someone with a spear or a sword, or whether you tell them to be aggressive or friendly.

Then you would have to communicate these details to the players. Bleah!

There are a few solutions, but it's pretty damn rare for anyone to even notice there are problems in the first place.

One potential solution is that characters only tell you the finicky details they notice, so who you send actually determines which finicky details you'll get reports on. That's interesting, but it's still a very slow-paced game and there's a lot of algorithms to get to work.

Another potential solution is to add in a minigame for the missions. They're hunting dragons or playing basketball and you're playing, say, minesweeper. Depending on who you send armed with what, your minigame has slightly different statistics. Field dimensions, mine count, error tolerance, number of times allowed to check whether a tile is a bomb or not, etc.

A third solution might be to let the player make all the "top-level" choices on a mission. He can't control them in combat, but he can choose whether they enter combat or try to talk their way out of things. This has a few flaws, the worst of which is that it actually doesn't add much complexity unless you basically turn it into a minigame.

Anyhow, any way you run it, in order for there to be any emotional investment, the characters the player has in his stable have to have some kind of personality. This could be handled as a highly complex multi-axis algorithm that takes ten years to program, but a better solution might be to have, say, a dozen different personalities and a dozen different speech patterns, match them up at random, and add friendships, enemies, phobias, and preferences basically at random. Out of the garbage the players can synthesize a personality - it happens all the time in games with generative content.

Well... it might be a fun game, for all that. Once the faults are addressed. Hurm. Still some faults, but if we add the complexity back in, we might have something acceptably interesting...

What do you think?