Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Violence in Sci Fi Construction Games

There's a lot of cool games in the pipeline these days, and a lot of them are about building cool things in scifi settings. The problem is, they all then universally talk about blowing things up with the things you built.

That's really a bad call.

Combat is not compatible with the sort of internally-focused construction games these people are building. We've become so used to adding combat to everything that people have forgotten to think about whether combat is a good fit. I think the reason most designers seem to lose track of whether combat is a good fit is because they are used to customization rather than construction.

See, in most space combat games, you can customize your ship. Add in a better laser, change how much energy is going to your shields, restock on missiles, and stick in a better engine. Customization is fine for a combat game, because it's fundamentally the same as equipping a character. You are changing how your ship relates to the world around it: improved firepower, faster speed, more cargo, whatever.

But with a lot of these new games, you aren't simply customizing a ship. You're constructing it, brick by brick. For example, in Space Engineers, you build a ship out of Minecraft-style bricks.

These ships are built with combat in mind, because uh... because... ... well... uh... lasers are cool?

The problem is that this kind of construction is an internally-focused system. The end result of weapons, shields, engines, and other combat stats ends up feeling very forced, because the actual construction of the ship is about making a ship exist. This is not about making a ship relate to the outside world, it is about making the ship exist in its full complexity, with all the walkways and landing pads and sleek planes and whatever.

If you just care about how it relates to the outside world, you end up with a very ugly optimized ship. It feels wrong and stupid-looking. Even if you do that, the combat is never very interesting because it is too, well, too realistic. Things get damaged arbitrarily. Things resist arbitrarily. It's hard to tell how much damage you're doing. It's hard to tell how much damage you're actually taking. There's too much noise introduced by the extremely fine grain of detail that everything has.

You really need to consider whether your game is about customization or construction, because construction is not compatible with external challenges.

When you're building something where each piece relates to specific other pieces in direct ways, the challenges need to be about THAT. This trap moves a person towards that trap. This walkway connects that hall to this warp core. This wire hooks that light to this power source. That building creates a certain amount of cash but annoys all other buildings within 200m.

But there are base-building games that are externally-focused. For example, every RTS.

An externally-focused base-building game looks the same as an internally-focused game at first glance. They share a lot of similarities: putting things down in specific places, managing resources, and so on. However, an RTS base is not very internally complex. The buildings don't relate to each other very directly, but instead only indirectly through resource production and consumption. Where you choose to put them is more about the constraints of the map and your guess as to your enemy's tactics, rather than having to place them to directly relate to other buildings.

You could argue fine points. For example, you could argue that a combination of turrets and walls is sometimes used, and those do physically relate to each other. Similarly, you could argue that something like a goo field directly relates to other buildings. In the end, the line can be a bit vague, but I don't think anyone would argue that building long lines of walls is the core gameplay of Starcraft.

Putting aside the sometimes blurry edge cases, I would argue that internally-focused construction games are inherently a bad match for combat gameplay. Combat boils your avatar's performance down to some stats, while complex construction is focused on exactly the opposite.


Ezequiel Calderara said...

First thought, you should use disqus as a commenting system... the blogger one is nasty :P¨

I agree a lot with you. I'm playing Space Engineers, and i love to build ships that accomplish some functionalities. Like a cargo ship, a miner ship.
I even tried to create some big ship as a base of operations for mining and trading (the power of imagination!).
I put turrets on it, because as a trade ship it should be able to defend theirselves. They have inside turrets and outside too.

What i found most troubling about SE, is that its a build style like minecraft but it gives the feel that you are only building. If you want to command a ship, you can't. You don't have any clue about the status of your ship, about the "hull" integrity, about how are the trusters working.

I would love to see some kind of SE merged with the game you are doing.
I really like when in a game i have the control of the flow and how stuff should behavior, and to see which is the input and what's the output...
And i think that the "mechanics" that you created can be applied to a lot of games

So keep up the good work!

Craig Perko said...

This blog was created in the stone ages, so it's pretty creaky. I think most people actually comment on Twitter or G+, so I never really considered the comment system here.

I agree. I really like building ships in SE, but the payoff is always disappointingly flat.

In the long run, my game will feature starships and so on, but it'll never be quite as modular as something like SE.

Marcus Menghini said...

One of the things to keep in mind about Space Engineers is that it is being designed to emphasize a particular aspect of a much larger eventual space game. The crew that are making SE made Miner Wars. They have an overarching plan that isn't well known to others.
What little is known states that there are to be 4 games, 3 that focus on perfecting particular aspects of a space combat MMO-esque game, and then a fourth game that pulls all of what they have learned and utilized in the previous games into one epic mega space game. Miner Wars focused on this crazy method of using asteroids (infinitely variable shapes, mine-able, etc). SE is focused on a granular building system for whatever your needs might be. No word on what the third game is going to focus on.
While each game is intended to somewhat be a complete game unto itself, the primary reason for the first 3 existing is to be a source of funds to continue developing, while being tech demonstrations of the 3 core aspects of the final game.
Theoretically, imagine Eve Online, except that every ship/station/asteroid-base/etc was actually crafted from the ground up segment by segment. Not just 'built' via spending resources, and now imagine the terrible beauty of one corporation/clan/team flying into your space, blasting through the defenses and ripping massive holes into your corporation/clan/teams primary space station. Blasting off chunks of it in secondary explosions, hab modules falling off and colliding with other sections, debris spreading further and more chaotically as your defenses blast away, but slowly fall silent as the power cables and fusion reactors are severed and destroyed. Eventually, where once there was a wonderful cathedral of the stars, functional yet beautiful to its creators and visitors, now is only a floating field of debris with just enough structure to it to hint at a once held greatness, only now to be avoided as a navigational hazard and scavenged for parts.
While yes, the loss of such a work of effort would be greatly saddening and fill me with anger if it were my own, it would be an accepted part of the play. You walk in knowing that at any time your masterpiece can be torn asunder and ignored as scrap.
I have always had a personal fondness for the idea and view of once great wreckage. Unfortunately on Earth we don't often have this. Defeated fortresses fall into decay and become little more than mounds, sunken ships rust/rot away into nothingness, grand battle sites are cleaned up and cleared over for use with only a missed trinket here and there remaining. We really do not have anything that quite approximates the sci-fi idea of a space station kilometers wide that had been shredded by an enemy attack and left for a thousand years, pristine and exactly as it was seconds after its destruction. Such ruins can also have their stories to tell, even beyond what you could gather floating through a ruined habitat dome you could enter into a room and see how someone at some point after the areas destruction had set it up as a hide-out point, retrofitting some unknown shattered lab as a dock for their small ship on the idea that nobody would bother to look for them in these ruins. Maybe you come across a room where a player or NPC had barricaded themselves in, hoping for rescue after the hallway's air had been breached?
One of the great aspects of things like these forgotten fortresses, starships, and stations is in addition to the stories they can provide from an analysis of their remains, lies also the promise of resurrection. Maybe a massive battlecruiser had fought in the defense of that station, only to be cracked in half by the railguns of the attacking fleet. After the battle, someone came by and salvaged the weapons, reactors, and other valuable equipment, but the hull of the ship was left behind as not being worth the trouble to salvage brick by brick. Perhaps months or years later, some low level player comes flying through the system and decides to take the two halves and rebuild the once feared ship.

Craig Perko said...

Even if we presume they are capable of the kind of series you're talking about, I don't think the construction gameplay will ever recover from such a heavy focus on combat.