Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Economy-Based Games and Phased Constructions

A while back I bought and played Anno 2070. It's a few years old, so my little mini-review prelude might not be anything new to people, but I have to describe the game in order to set up the design questions later on.

The reason I waited a few weeks before posting this is that Anno 2070 is an Ubisoft game, with the requisite almost supernatural amount of bullshit that causes.

Anyway, as you might be able to guess, that left me mad enough that I couldn't trust myself to talk about the actual game behind the multiple layers of total corporate bullshit. Now that a few weeks have passed and I'm just annoyed by them destroying their own product instead of actually angry at being forced to try to deal with it, let's talk about the game.

The game is one of those economic base construction games that can't decide whether it wants to be SimCity or Starcraft. The end result is a game that is as slow as SimCity, but requires you to build up a military. It has a pacing similar to Master of Orion, and is more similar to those kinds of 4x games than something like Starcraft, despite ostensibly being an RTS. Of course, instead of the complexity of the tech tree and unit customization in a 4x game, Anno 2070 focuses a lot more on the topological challenges of constructing a base.

The base building features a lot of balance sheet actions. That is, there's a lot of different kinds of resources and it's quite difficult to optimize. In a normal RTS the base construction is basically a matter of choosing how you want to balance economy with various military capabilities. Because that's the core, the base itself does not require very much internal balancing. However, in Anno 2070 virtually every building requires an assortment of resources, including a continuous drain on up to five different kinds of "food" for the residential buildings. This makes production and consumption a core part of Anno 2070's gameplay, and in some cases it can be quite complex to produce the variety of goods you need to support your economy.

This is made more complex by Anno 2070's zoning system. First, most of the non-residential buildings in the game have an area of influence. So whenever you put a building down, you are trying to figure out the optimal arrangement so that the good areas of influence overlap well and the bad areas of influence don't have too much of an effect. But even above that, each island is a completely distinct colony, like a new planet in a 4x game. Since each island has specific resources (including the ability to grow specific foodstuffs) trade between the islands is critical to keeping your complex economy running. I'm sure that this is a fun part of the high-level combat play - trying to cut supply lines - but I stopped playing before I reached anything like that level of play.

There's also underwater bases: Anno 2070 splits everything into above the sea and below with a camera motion that involves a fun splash and a visual spray like water on a camera. It's very charming, and to be honest I could fall in love with this game if it were more focused on that kind of experience.

To me, the problem with Anno 2070 is simply that the primary play of the game seems to be "how many pieces can you juggle at once?"

I don't really feel anything compelling about trying to juggle what are fundamentally twelve identical farming systems just because I need twelve slightly different arbitrary foodstuffs. It is very repetitive. Each tier I advance simply unlocks another tier of identical infrastructure requirements using somewhat different buildings. "Oh, but THESE farms require GLASS to build!" Psh, who cares. In fact, why should I have to build glass? It's perfectly affordable on the market, just let me buy it. In fact, just let me buy the wheat I need the glass for. That's what humans do: one colony, just for wheat. There's no reason I can't, except that you've artificially made it difficult to buy and sell things in order to make that yet another layer of more or less identical pieces to juggle.

In terms of a skill game, I'm sure Anno 2070 actually has a high skill level you can attain. The ability to quickly and accurately build and balance the many layers of production and consumption is something you'd definitely get better at over time, but I can't say it's something I'm very interested in actually doing.

Worse, the game has combat in it.


Why would you need combat in a game where the primary challenge is just getting your bases to function in the first place? That'd be like putting combat in Kerbal Space Program.

I guess I can see it as a requirement. RTS games - even these long-form RTS games - always feature combat. But it's boring, and it's a big drag on the economy.

Well, now that the review is out of the way, let's talk about the game I was kind of hoping it would evolve into, until it devolved into a long-form RTS.

When I learned that Anno 2070 treated individual islands and underwater plateaus as distinct colonies with their own distinct economies, I thought I was getting into an interesting "rise of civilization" game, where the challenge would be to try and get the various colonies optimized and specialized to the point where you could support the next level of civilization. Sort of like SimCity, except where you control all the cities at once. And I thought "Wow, this could be really interesting!"

You can try to play it that way, and to an extent it works out, but there's an overwhelming, looming issue: the goal of the game is to win, not to achieve. And that means that, in the end, it comes down to murdering people with a boring, expensive navy.

Now, when I jumped into Anno 2070, I'd just finished playing an obscene amount of Kerbal Space Program, so I probably came in with the wrong mindset. But my mindset, right or wrong, was "I want to build a society and watch it tick!" Just like how in Kerbal, you build a rocket and then fly it through space on whatever mission you've come up with today, I wanted to create a society to achieve whatever goal I came up with today.

But there were no goals to come up with. The goal was provided: win. If you were playing an early mission map, winning was often a delicious rush towards building a strong enough society to research or fix or produce or whatever. But if you're playing an open map or a later mission map, the objective is to just dominate the map. As if there could ever be a more boring goal.

So I was thinking: how could you build a game where it's an open-goal situation similar to Kerbal, but with the more complex build-to-build construction system of a SimCitylike?

A huge part of Kerbal's joy lies in the construction. You need to create a multi-phase solution which holds together during all phases AND transitions between phases safely. Of course, you also need to have the final phase accomplish whatever you were trying to accomplish. Fundamentally, this system is a front-loaded one, where you build everything ahead of time and then go into execution mode to see how it performs... except you also control it in execution mode. It's very addictive, and if any of the end goals in Kerbal were constructive, I'd still be playing it.

Alas, the end goals in Kerbal are all pretty shallow. There's a massive rush of interest when you first get started. Land on the Mun, build a space station, send a probe to the outer planets, build a working spaceplane... lots of really interesting goals dictated by the existence of things in the universe. You want to land on the Mun because the Mun is there and you can land on it. But once you get to the Mun, you can't build on that much. There are few if any second-tier goals. In theory, refueling from a space station might be a good second-tier goal, but that's the only one I can think of and it's annoying.

You can't scan the moon, can't build a rocket factory on Mars, can't create a functional space station that performs science experiments in real time.

In other words, the initial construction-execution system is very nice, but what is missing from Kerbal is the "rise of civilization" base building. I can't build on my successes, nor can my successes provide me with much long-term benefit.

But that's one thing that Anno 2070 does quite well, compartmentalizing pieces of the economy and allowing you to construct a fairly complicated growing civilization piece by piece.

So I started thinking: what if you combined the two concepts?

You start off by creating a universe with stuff in it. Reaching the stuff is not terribly easy, and depending on which stuff you aim for with how much payload, can have very different kinds of requirements. You make the stuff seem interesting, and allow it to be seen and prodded by the player by using the normal exploration camera - but only reachable by game objects if they go through the difficult process of reaching it.

But unlike Kerbal, you also need to make it so that facilities can be built on or around this stuff. Facilities which can A) produce goods, B) participate in trade routes of some kind with nearby facilities, and C) be expanded by sending over more stuff from a construction facility (or home). Some facilities might just take pictures and radio them home. Others might mine the core of the planet with huge drills and ship out tons of ore. And others might just do research.

Ideally, each of the "stuffs" that you might want to reach should be unique in some way, so that the facilities will have different difficulties and purposes, and so that every "stuff" creates something unique that the overall interstuff economy could benefit from (more rocket parts, to be blunt).

Now let's get to concrete concepts.

I like the idea of multiple mediums, so the facilities have radically different performance characteristics and requirements. For example, undersea bases, orbital bases, surface bases without atmosphere, surface bases with atmosphere, floating bases (in atmosphere), and so on.

A variety of mediums makes it more interesting to set up a facility, with each kind of medium requiring not just different facility components, but also a different late stage system to deposit the facility. Moreover, each kind of medium is not universal - an undersea base on one planet will have a very different "sea" than an undersea base on another planet. Similarly, an orbital facility around Mercury is going to get very different solar panel performance than one orbiting Neptune. An atmosphere raining liquid methane is going to have verrrrry different requirements than a Utah desert.

This variety should keep things interesting as players move on to try a new goal and find that the requirements are very different.

As to the launching system, one of the annoying parts of Kerbal is that there are some secrets and best practices that make the launch a bit disappointing. Any launch can be converted into a mere fuel-weight optimization using lots of structural beams and fuel lines, since fuel lines allow you to pump fuel so as to empty out specific disposable fuselages first, while structural beams allow you to make any crazy-ass labyrinth of disposable fuselages structurally sound.

I think it might be best to carefully consider how you make your stages interesting. In Kerbal you learn a lot about different kinds of stages, and about mass, and about maneuvering in atmosphere, orbit, or deep orbital exchanges. But in the end, there is generally an extremely clear optimal rocket design, and you just stick the right weight rocket on your payload and out it goes. This is actually pretty realistic, but it's only interesting for a little while, and then you figure out the secrets and it becomes just a bit of a time waste as you build nearly identical rocket after rocket and have them follow nearly identical flight plans.

Ideally, for the purposes of gameplay, we'd want the stages to be unique enough that there are tradeoffs to be considered at every step.

A big part of this is allowing for launches from facilities other than your starting base. A rocket launching from a space station has very different requirements than one launching from the moon. Not only is the amount of lift required much smaller, but also the kind off arrangements you can use is limited when launching from space, because you can't afford to push the space station around or damage it. Similarly, not everything actually requires a classic rocket. If we could arrange for other kinds of transports to be viable - balloons, planes, railguns - we could radically expand the play space.

I think the core here is the transition between stages. In Kerbal, the stage transition is rocket-centric: you blow off some fuselages. That's fine for rockets, but as you might understand that's not ideal for our purposes. Not only do we need the separation events to be more complex, we also need the stages to be polymorphic in themselves. One of the craziest parts of Kerbal is that you just literally strap your finished product to the nose of the rocket. Obviously, that's crazy!

It's far better to create something like a container that opens up.

This leads to a lot of complexity, especially if you make mechanical operations robust and cheap, and allow for expansions by way of semipermanent docking, welding, and other kinds of fusing. Imagine launching a rocket, then dropping the rocket, then unfolding the "egg" payload into a magnetic solar sail...

As you get further from buffeting forces, your structures can be made more delicate. Tweaked appropriately, you could certainly end up with a mission that actually gets larger with each consecutive stage. Larger, but far less massive. You could even design a system where most of the stages were, in fact, functional facilities launching other functional facilities...

These are the tenets I think I would love to see in a game. It doesn't have to be based around space travel, though. You could create the same kinds of concepts in any kind of scenario, although sometimes it would feel a bit odd because the idea revolves around designing stages and then executing them.

Actually, given how much I liked the above/below sea part of Anno 2070, it might be fun to create such a game entirely about building underwater, island, and floating bases.

Those are my thoughts!


ARGH I forgot the multiplayer part.

Well, that'd be this long again, so let's leave it like that.

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