Sunday, May 24, 2009

Systems with limits

"Sim City's a bit too loosey-goosey for me"

I mentioned that in the last post I wrote, but I wanted to explore it a bit more, so I will.

See, when you build a system, you build it to do something. In a situation where you're building a giant war robot, it's pretty clear what it does: it kills other giant war robots. Most of the fundamentals of the system are usually precreated for you - your robot can walk around, target things, communicate, produce energy, and so on. Your part of the deal is to create a system on top of that for addressing the particulars of the challenge and how you want to approach it. Equip it with lasers or missiles, make it nimble and lightly armed or a heavy... whatever your approach calls for and your resources can manage.

The fun comes in taking your system and applying it to the challenge. Your skill at making a system combines with your skill at playing the game. If you imagine it topologically, it's like the game world is a bumpy surface, you're building another bumpy surface, and then trying to mesh them together.

Anyhow, my comments on Banjo & Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. It's the same idea, but more so. You're building the whole structure from the ground up. Where a mech game provides you with the basic giant robot frame, N&B asks you to build the basic frame as well, making the play focus more on basic movement than the weapons output.

To me, the fact that the system faces a challenge is an important part of the game, because it gives me a feedback loop. I build the system to accomplish a goal and, based on how well it works, I build the next system a bit different. That kind of iteration really sells me on the game.

Sim City doesn't really do that. It lets you build a system, but the primary challenge that system faces is to simply get bigger and more complex. Contrast that with Evil Genius or Dungeon Keeper, where the challenge is to resist enemy assault. Once you've done that, you start again on a new base.

So, in many ways, Dungeon Keeper is more like Nuts & Bolts than Sim City, because it involves creating iterative systems that face various challenges, while Sim City does not. To me, this makes them fundamentally different genres.

The other thing to keep in mind is that when the basic movement is not taken for granted, some of the gameplay may be more difficult to plan out to as advanced a level. It's far wider in scope, so the narrow missions and rewards you would normally hand out are easy to upset and do not cover the real scope of the game.

I wonder how best to deal with that?

Does it make sense? What are your impressions?


tensai said...

Really, I think this is a trope endemic to sandbox games in general, and to be honest, I'm not sure that it's a problem to be fixed.

I mean, sandbox games are self-actualizing by their very nature; the only goals that exist are the ones that you define.

And... yeah, there's still challenge there. If you want to build a ginormous dwarf statue that's hundreds of feet tall, you have to maintain the infrastructure to house and feed all the workers to build the darned thing.

(On a side note, is there a difference between goals and challenges?)

Craig Perko said...

Well, I actually think the big difference is a lack of iteration. There's a very big difference between building and maintaining an ever-growing system and building iterative systems that face consecutive challenges.

The "goals and challenges" talk is a long one... :P

golergka said...

I think that in every sandbox games, from GTAIV to WoW and SimCity, designer should create various goals and let the player choose between them. You have achievements in WoW and GTA that are awarded for different activities: you can learn to drive faster (level up in WoW), or you can explore the world, or whatever is that you like.
In fact, most of the players will switch from one activity to another. I didn't play the latest SimCity, but previous installments, from the original game to SimCity 4 lacked the "award" component. I think, the achievement system wich would award you for various things that you could do in these games (like "earn 1.000.000" or "become the crime capital of the country") could do the trick.

Craig Perko said...

Hmm, no, I don't really agree with that. First, it doesn't actually make the system iterative, which is the core of the problem for me.

Second, most of the time there is a core nugget of gameplay that the developers focused on, and the "alternative" goals are pretty much tacked on in desperation.

If a game has a core bit of gameplay that's what the game is about, it doesn't make much sense to shoot yourself in the foot by tacking on other kinds of gameplay in a desperate attempt to appeal to more people.

Whether a game is open world or not has little impact on this "systems with limits" essay, although it is a complicated topic in its own right... but you can have an open world game which DOES focus on your primary gameplay.