Monday, February 23, 2015

Basebuilding With People

So, I played a LOT of RimWorld recently. I think it's a great game, but let's talk about some of the places it could have gone. Some of the tantalizing bits it showed hints of, but never went into.

One of the things I really liked doing in RimWorld was disaster recovery. Like most basebuilding games, the challenges RimWorld introduces are usually "nasty things trying to kill you". This is a really boring kind of challenge because it's very binary: you tend to either win handily or get annihilated, neither of which is very fun.

But RimWorld has a few situations that are a bit unusual. If you're attacked by people, they often survive your gunfire and go into shock. You can then haul them back to your base as prisoners.

The prisoner system in RimWorld is really primitive. There's no work system or deprogramming or any of that. You can do some nasty things - sell them as slaves, harvest their organs - but it's very basic and flat.

The thing I liked doing is repairing them.

Most of the time, they would be pretty screwed up by the firefight. I enjoyed making cybernetic limbs for them, patching them up, and letting them go. There's no bonus for doing this. Your faction score doesn't increase. Even the individual prisoners don't like you any extra for it, so it doesn't help you convert. But it's relatively engaging.

Then I discovered a mod that brings a whole starship crashing down on your head. You tend to pick up half a dozen survivors, all of whom are really ripped up by the crash. Suddenly there's a very specific drive to your opening game: you want to patch up the survivors. And this drive doesn't really stop, because once you've given them peg legs you realize you can give them cybernetic legs, then bionic legs, and so on.

This is all possible because of the ridiculous Dwarf-Fortresslike body simulation. It's quite easy to empathize with someone who has suffered, and seek to ease that suffering through the medical mechanisms of the game.

Even the basic challenge of the ship crashing down around you is fundamentally interesting, because it's something you weather, not something you defeat. If you lose people or resources or whole buildings, you can be assured that you can come out of the other side anyway. It's not like the disaster will hunt you down until you defeat it, unlike goons with guns. For a basebuilding game, this kind of challenge feels fundamentally better: there's no terminal state, so you can see how your base performs and then fix it up.

However, this runs into the weakness of the basebuilding genre: faceless NPCs.

See, all the NPCs in this game have a variety of traits and stats, just like in most modern basebuilding games. There's a complex simulation of their physical state, and a marginal simulation of their mental state. They often have a marginally unique sprite due to combinations of body and hair sprites/colors. But once you hit about six people, you can't remember most of them any more. You can only actively remember a few of these NPCs, even though you can remember dozens of real people with ease. Why?

Because people aren't defined by a list of stats. They are defined in contrast to other people, including you. This forms a social terrain.

Look, it's easy to remember when an NPC is missing limbs, because their physical body is defined in contrast to the physical world. You can see them move slower (or not move). You can see them work slower, more clumsily.

An NPC's "social body" needs to be defined in contrast to the social world. And there isn't one.

Basebuilding games use a massive amount of time compression to keep you focused on building and managing your base, and this makes it very difficult to get a feel for any kind of social situation. The only way an NPC has time to show social inclinations is if you remove them from the brutal pressure to manage their day as efficiently as possible.

You can see this in Dwarf Fortress. There is a basic social structure: children, nobles, enforcers, and so on all feel like they belong to a social structure of some kind. However, this is accomplished by removing them from base management. In order to give them time to be socially distinct, you remove them from the time-compressed burden.

Well, why not drop the time compression?

Time compression is inherited from RTS games, but there's no need to keep these RTS mechanics. Let's get rid of the guys with guns and let's get rid of the time compression.

Instead, we can just use time chunking. When you decide to start the day shift, time moves forward rapidly until the end of the day shift. You have a basically unlimited amount of time in the morning and evening to plan out your base, schedule your people... and more importantly, watch them interact with each other and you.

There would need to be some kind of thing to do during the slow periods, but that's the point: we can start to really rev up our people skills.

We can structure your base personnel in a much more explicit social world. A branching tree of social leadership. A mental simulation as complex as our physical simulation. Tweaking people's mental state in the same way you'd tweak their physical equipment or cyberwear.

This is only possible if we remove the time compression. After all, socializing is what you do when you're not under crushing pressure.

Well, you can socialize while working, or at least have a presence in a social society while working. But only if you're not under time compression. Time compression means you still don't have enough time to express yourself, and even if you did, the player would not be paying attention. They're too busy planning out some other part of the base.


Those are my thoughts. I have a lot of prototypes in mind, but I'm so busy.

Playing RimWorld.

No comments: