Thursday, March 20, 2014

Putting Feel In Construction Games

The last few posts I wrote were about feel - about making games that integrate a particular feeling into their gameplay. For example, my Astrophobia prototype felt a whole lot like being trapped in space. And, in the past, I've created tabletop RPGs to give players a particular feel, such as a particular relationship to The Force, or the feel of being trapped on an alien world. I don't mean "gamefeel", I mean an emotional response, a tone, a nuanced mood.

But the problem is, I only want to make open-ended construction games.

This is because I feel that no modern construction games have yet been made. That is, our computing power and connectivity give us some amazing potential that we just haven't seen yet. Even games where the players share content with each other are very, very primitive compared to what it should be like. Construction games are at the phase where shooters were in 1992. The power of computers was just becoming strong enough to allow for a whole new kind of game: the first person shooter. It's the same now for construction games.

The problem is that I really can't formulate a decent construction game that has a good feel.

Oh, I can make decent construction game prototypes, but they all end up feeling pretty bland and tasteless. This is a very common problem. For example, Windforge just came out recently. It's a very advanced Terraria-like with a lot of depth. Unfortunately, even though the setting is very stylish, the actual game feels quite bland. Very minor annoyances that would be learning opportunities in another game are quitting opportunities in Windforge because I don't feel anything in particular to draw me back to it.

Its main competitor is definitely Starbound, another very advanced Terraria-like. Putting aside that Starbound is older and somewhat more mature, Starbound also has an interesting sense of style. While it is still very bland, it injects feel into its game by including really unusual monsters, special dungeons, and populated villages. Starbound has a much stronger feel to it than Windforge, and I think Windforge has an uphill battle against its most direct competitor.

The awful part about this pair of games is that the feel in Starbound is a cheat, and the feel in Windforge is legit.

What I mean is that Starbound's feel is entirely in the non-constructive part of the game. It's in the enemies, the computer-generated places, and the things you steal. When you build something in Starbound, it doesn't really feel very unique. The way the pieces relate to each other is very, very standard, aside from some simplistic wiring mechanics and a skyhook system, both of which are very late-game.

On the other hand, in Windforge you actually build very stylish, unique things using a combination of unique constraints and unique items. Moreover, the actual relationships things can have are a lot more interesting, such as an effect which steadily turns an entire island into dirt via a contagion mechanic. This is the sort of thing that should feel really interesting... but I don't feel it. I mean, I think it's interesting mechanically, but I don't get any feeling of wonder or amazement looking at the ship I built.

I can't blame Windforge for this. Open-ended construction games with a strong feel are very, very rare. If you start to look at games like The Sims, Minecraft, and Kerbal you quickly see that their feel doesn't come from the open-ended construction part, but mostly from the constraints and challenges that interfere with the open-ended part.

For example, the "feel" in Minecraft is a weird fright-night feel supported entirely by the enemies you encounter. The feel of Minecraft itself is "sssssssBOOM" and glowing eyes in the dark. The amazing castles and cities and machines that players build don't "feel like Minecraft": they mostly feel like the thing the player wanted them to feel like. Open-ended construction means you bring the feel with you when you decide what to build.

Closed-construction games have an easier time of it. For example, Dungeon Keeper has a reasonably strong feel, because the player is almost never allowed to bring their own mood into the mix. The player builds their base to resist the onslaught, within the constraints of cash and allowed population and so on. The feel of the game is embedded within the challenges and the constraints. Once you relax those challenges and constraints to let the player build whatever they want, the player brings their preferences and feelings in, and the game's feel weakens to nothing.

The reason Terrarialikes are actually more popular and common than Minecraftlikes is because Terrarialikes are fundamentally very combat-centric and are focused on crafting instead of construction. Many of the "Minecraftlikes" that have surfaced play down the freeform construction in favor of combat as well. Combat and progression can have a feel, and crafting feeds directly into combat. So if you want to be distinct from your competitors, you spruce up combat and progression. And downplay construction.

Well! Is there any way to, you know, not do that?

I don't think combat has much role in the next wave of construction games. How can I make a game that feels good?

One option is to use other kinds of challenges. This was what I tried in my most recent base construction prototype: the challenge was to maintain the bases you created, and that really feeds into the topological constraints as well as the actual devices you place. Unfortunately, I couldn't link the feel of the base and the feel of the maintenance. There might be a way, but I haven't found it yet.

Another option is to use static content that has a strong feel, such as Kerbal's gaping astronauts. I might try this, if I can find a good combination of feel and mechanics.

Another option is to embed progression into the construction so deeply that it becomes a major factor. Unfortunately, this only provides feel by taking the game out of the open-ended construction mode and into the closed construction mode.

I'm not sure if it's possible to make "how the constructed things function" have a good feel in an open-ended game, because the player brings in their own ideas as to what functional thing they want to build. The player chooses to build an ancient castle with a dungeon, even though neither castles nor dungeons exist in the eye of the game. There is value in allowing the player to extend or subvert function, sure, but I'd argue that's less feel and more gameplay. IE, outlandish redstone circuits are interesting, but do they add 'feel' or just complexity?

Well, either way, if we can't make "how constructed things function" convey feel, we have two other options:

We can experiment with making the construction itself somehow have a strong feel. I think the only games that have really done this are LEGO games, but it might be more broadly possible. This involves making the construction itself into gameplay. For example, forcing the player to physically construct things using a crane, or using inflating components that the player has to inflate however much they want, or by keeping track of whether the already-constructed parts can function while you add in new parts. Minecraft does this to some extent, because the constraint of only being able to drop or mine blocks within 5m of the camera gives a potent (if unnameable) feel.

Or we can experiment with having the execution of function have a strong feel. For example, if everything glows with magic circles when it functions, you'll end up with a particular feel. My problem with this approach is that it will probably damage a player's attempt to create something with the feel of their choice. Creating a pleasant house for your family can give a very good feel if you manage it, but if everything sparkles and acts strangely, it may feel quite odd.

On the other hand, once you are used to the uniqueness of the game, it may be that you can construct a feel while largely dismissing the uniqueness. This is how people can build things in Minecraft, after all: the square bricks are awkward and weird, but once you get used to it you can dismiss that awkwardness and see the feel that was intended by the player that constructed the place you're seeing.

On the other other hand, that may mean that the unique execution might not matter at all and therefore you can't rely on it for feel.

It's a tough call, requiring a lot of thought experiments and some prototypes.

The worst part is, there's a whole second factor I haven't discussed: extensibility.

I mentioned redstone circuits: the machinery of Minecraft is very limited. However, that ends up meaning that Minecraft has a very deep and advanced machine-centric 'endgame'. That is, it's a lot of fun to create machinery with the limitations imposed on you, and you quickly learn to be impressed by the machinery other people build, as well as their craftsmanship in concealing it well.

Similarly, Kerbal has a docking system that opens up a vast set of options for advanced play, and you quickly learn to have a lot of fun docking and undocking things for a variety of advanced reasons. You learn to respect people who do it very cleverly, such as a redockable mun rover.

Can I honestly claim this doesn't have anything to do with 'feel'? The high-end content almost certainly does have a lot to do with the feel of the game, even if the player initially only sees it second-hand. This is especially true in the next wave of construction games, where shared content will be much more common and newbies will likely encounter advanced content fairly quickly.

There is something to say for actually embedding complexity into construction itself, such that a player can essentially script or extend the functionality of something they built. This allows them far more self-expression. However, I think if you want to do this you have to do it very deeply, and make it available to midgame players rather than only endgame players.

For example, I think Starbound's biggest weakness is that the wiring mechanic is not very useful. It could be made useful if there were a much more powerful set of interactive objects it could control, such as robots, elevators, atmosphere pumps, docking bays, satellites, whatever else I can think of. If this was a more central part of the game after the tutorial section, Starbound would have a much more interesting feel.

Of course, Starbound's fundamental framework doesn't support that very well. The weight of the game is on exploration and combat, so making more advanced bases wouldn't be terribly attractive to most players. Perhaps that sort of thing would be more interesting to Windforge - for example, the ability to shift armor plates or maneuvering turbines using mechanical arms, or mechanical legs which can grip the surface... or an enemy ship.

But no matter how interesting that kind of content is, you still need to have a unified feel. You can't just rely on the feel that produces: it has to produce a feel that synergizes with the feel that the rest of the game produces.

Whew. Lots to think about.

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