Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bad Game Design: Stacking Distractions

GDC week: I post my half-baked erratic thoughts.

I was playing a game called Startopia. It's on Gametap, so you really have no excuse to not try it. It's kinda fun, kinda like Kaloki crossed with Civilization.

But the game does something that's becoming quite common, something I consider very poor game design: it stacks distractions.

See, each level of the game introduces a new aspect to managing your space station. Introducing hospitals one level, criminals another, the biodeck in another, religion in another... and, of course, each level features all of the aspects introduced thus far.

Unfortunately, each aspect requires a level of focus. For example, in order to harvest plants, you need to right-click them. Each individual plant.

While this isn't a problem when that's all you're doing, it's not easy to go do that when you're planning an invasion, reworking your entrance ports so you don't have to personally scan everyone, trying to set up a pleasure deck, trading with whoever stops by, and desperately clicking "yes" on every cockamamie communication that comes in. Not to mention researching, producing goods with factories, checking for parasites, hunting for time bombs, hiring passerby, giving people raises, figuring out what kind of room everyone wants next, checking up on your med-bay to see whether your genius doctor has wandered off again...

And, of course, this all scales linearly with the size of your space station.

I'm now at what I presume is the final level. But my base has gotten so large that even if people would stop invading, I still wouldn't have time to maintain it!

This isn't really a complaint about Startopia. It's a complaint about that design practice in general.

Civilization also does this, except that it has two factors reducing the pain. First, it's not real time. Second, your older land and cities generally require very little attention from you. They stabilize pretty quickly.

Even then, however, Civilization is a very complicated game that you can lose track of very quickly. I can't go back to a game of civilization after having quit for a while: I have to start over, because I don't remember the details...

This is a related problem to the "active powers" problem. That problem goes like this: in many games, you get special powers that only activate when you press a button. This is not so bad for one or two powers, but more than that and the player spends a significant chunk of their time activating and monitoring power-ups rather than playing the game. This is especially irritating because 90% of the time, the powers are a dominant strategy. You wouldn't not activate them. So the only purpose of the required activation is to distract the player!

Any way you cut it, I think that a designer needs to carefully consider how distracting any given element of the game is. If you notice that there's a linear growth somewhere - something distracting gets more distracting as the game progresses - you might think about fixing it. Unless your whole point is that the game is a challenge of attention, like Starcraft. Then it's fine.

I won't play it, but it's fine.

Don't feel bad about "writing out" an aspect of gameplay for this level or character. I would be a much happier man if every level of Startopia featured maybe a half-dozen concerns. This level, hospitals are handled by an NPC. This level, there are no merchants. This level, the biodeck has been turned off again. These things are interesting, important play elements, but they don't have to be active and vying for my attention all the time.


Jason O said...

You did touch on something that would be a possible solution.

In Civilization, at least the first three versions that I actually played, your older cities really don't take much maintenance. Once you kind of get them adapted to their surroundings they can pretty much govern themselves.

In a game like Startopia it seems like once you get a certain part of your station working you would think that it could become self-maintaining. The right people, the right environment, whatever.

One problem I often have with strategy games, both turn-based or real-time, is micro-management. In the business world we're taught micro-management is bad. Completely hands off is bad as well, we need to be somewhere in the middle.

Yet in games we encourage players to adopt a play style that is counter-intuitive to real world management practices. In the real world, if you're running some complex organization, facility, etc. you find lower level managers or supervisors to handle the details and then they just report back to you.

This leads to a second problem though, in games where they offer something like this it is often poorly done. I don't expect the AI to manage a city as well as me, but they should at least make decisions that make sense. Things like don't encourage growth beyond what we have food to sustain.

No easy solution here, but it does seem like instead of just keeping the player running everything they should be moving on to the bigger picture and the game should be handling some of the smaller details.

Clicking on individual plants at that level of complexity is just ridiculous.

Craig Perko said...

I agree.

Instead of turning something over to the AI, though, it's fairly easy to design a game so that the actual game mechanics don't require increasing attention.