Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Base Building

Muh brain's on fire! Time to talk about base building.

There is a very underappreciated set of games I like to call the base-building games. These are things like Sim City, Dwarf Fortress, Evil Genius, and the Sims. That last one isn't underappreciated, I know.

These are games where the main point is to build a functioning base of some kind.

They are often lumped together with RTS games and tower-defense games, but both of those are about managing attacks and defenses instead of building a base. They are distinct from the sorts of games I'm talking about, where the whole point is to build a functioning base, not to build functioning defenses or armies (which might be incidentally possible, but aren't the point).

Base building games fall on a spectrum. To the left we have the construction games, which focus more on deep dynamics that allow you to focus on construction for a long, long time. SimCity is the ur-example. There is nothing besides base construction in SimCity: the most non-base-construction thing in the game is setting your budget, which consists of about five variables.

To the right we have base management games, which have shallower dynamics and instead rely on micromanagement to take up the slack. The thing about these is that the micromanagement has almost nothing to do with the base construction. The Sims is the best example on this end. While there is base building (you make a house), the game is actually about painstakingly clicking your little inhabitants through every moment of their day.

Somewhat to the right on this scale is Evil Genius, which features a fairly complex base dynamic but heavily focuses on defending against agents and micromanaging your assets abroad. The trap construction... I don't know whether to consider that base building or not.

Somewhat to the left on this scale is Dwarf Fortress, which has very, VERY good base construction dynamics. But the player spends much of his time designating trees to be chopped down, ores to be mined, shoes to be built... despite the fact that you could rely wholly on base building to result in an interesting game, there is an aspect of micro-management.

All of these micro-managing aspects in all of the games listed have very little to do with the actual construction of your base. Building shoes and cutting trees doesn't matter how your base is laid out. Assigning fifty troops to the Bahamas doesn't change base on base layout. Getting your sims through their morning ablution doesn't care about your base layout.

There is some interaction, sure. If your house is palatial in the sims, it will take your sims an extra thirty minutes to get from the bathroom to the bedroom (because it takes them freaking five minutes to go one tile). Your layout in Evil Genius matters because many of your enemies will try to come in through the front door, but many more will magically pop up in the middle of your base and defending the front door is only slightly variable based on your layout. Etc, etc.

These days, most games tend to be more and more micromanagy. The days when a complex base WAS the game seem to be over in favor of splitting into Tower Defense and Base Micromanagement genres.

However, I think this is not irreversible. Base construction is a deep kind of play, and there's no reason not to use it. The key problem is that most people who make base construction games tend to make boring ones. As an example: there are fully half a dozen space station/space base construction games from the last decade, and the better ones are the earlier ones. As time has progressed, they have gotten shallower and shallower, more and more boring. The designers have forgotten how to make base construction interesting because they've been dazzled by RTS and base micromanagement games.

That would be fine if that was the sort of game they were building, but you can't just take those games and say, "now let's get rid of this irritating micromanagement/base defense part". That irritating part is the main gameplay!

So let's talk briefly about the kind of gameplay that usually makes for good base construction games.

First and foremost, base construction games take place in space. Most base construction games (such as SimCity) take place in two dimensions. A few take place in three dimensions. This dimensionality is the core from which all complexity grows.

Tower defense games know this, and are an excellent example. With a tower defense game, your enemies will follow paths in space, and you set up your turrets in optimal spaces to fire on them. This spatial interaction is the core of base construction, distilled to purity. But instead of interacting with incoming enemies, base construction interacts with base construction.

Where you put thing A and road B matters, because they exist in space and exert a certain influence.

Oversimplifying this to a radius effect is problematic: you either end up with tower defense or Simcity Societies. Instead, you want to quantify vectors and paths for the effects. In most base construction games, the primary path is the road. All your resources and people have to travel along the road (or the hall or whatever), so you build your base to (A) have short roads and (B) have its road needs distributed such that the roads aren't overwhelmed.

(You don't have to use only roads, by the way, but that's the most common setup.)

The other aspect to most base building games is an element of infrastructure. In SimCity this is extremely apparent: you have to hook up wires and run plumbing in addition to the roads. These conduits are distinct from roads because there is no real concern about how much is traveling through them or the range the resources travel. You can put your power station on a far hill and run ten miles of wire, you'll get power just the same as if you had your station next door.

The key to infrastructure complexity isn't in shortening them or balancing their loads, it's in establishing them at all. Can you cross one kind of infrastructure over another? What situations happen when they break down at a random point? That sort of thing.

This is distinct from the "virtual infrastructure" many RTS games use, where you just need to generate enough resource and it is magically allocated to wherever it is needed.

Infrastructure and paths are both core elements of play, and it varies as to what kind of thing falls into which category.

But that's not the limit. There are a few other things that affect play.

One is scaling. As your base grows, you usually run into scaling issues. Sometimes these issues are simply that you have stuff in nonoptimal places, paths that can't handle the strain. Other times whole new elements start coming to the fore, such as pollution in SimCity and nobles in Dwarf Fortress. This scaling is often the primary cause of concern for experts, who carefully build their bases to scale easily right from the first module.

Another is deformations. While a base can be very complex using only self-reference, it is located in space and space has other things in it. It is common to have various resources or hazards scattered around, or even just presence or lack of ground. These will force the base into specific kinds of shapes, and can shake up an expert's carefully-planned optimal layout.

The last I can think of is progress. By introducing new components or having goals with in-world results, things can become available/change state during play. This changes how a base grows and interacts, and adds further late-game complexity.

There is also the aspect of time compression that these games frequently add. If there are individuals in the game, managing their schedules is going to be critical and it's going to take them an hour to go fifty feet. However, this is certainly not a core base construction play dynamic. It's a micromanagement dynamic that's simply become super-common.

Anyway, I think that's enough chattering. I just thought I should write about it because I've built some base-building toys recently, and learned this crap the hard way.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, i wholeheartedly agree