Monday, May 18, 2015

Mission-Based Iteration vs Survival-Mode

Construction games!

I love expanding the core concerns of construction games. It gives an extended, graceful complexity curve as the player becomes more skilled. I also enjoy allowing for breadth of complexities, so different players will discover very different approaches and create very different scenarios for themselves.

But, at the end of the day, that complexity is not why players care about the game. The reason players want to play is because there are things to do.

Even when those things are largely self-directed, they are anchored in a core pressure system, a basic reality of how things work.

AKA, the "survival mode".

Personally, I think that a construction game needs to have both a survival mode and a creative mode, but I think they should interact a lot more freely and fluidly than most games allow.

Creative mode, where a player is free to create anything of any size, is important for allowing players to express themselves. Survival mode is where they learn what actually works, refine their design sense and taste.

Obviously, they are free to create whatever silly, unusable crap they want in creative mode, but the survival mode pressures give them a strong sense of whether something is designed "well" or not. Still, the freedom to create anything in creative mode is important, as experiments and art pieces are perfectly acceptable.

I think these two modes are more deeply linked than even that implies.

Right now, I think the big problem with construction games is that their creative mode and their survival modes are too chunky, too binary, too separate. If you're in survival mode, you had better eat and mine and survive monster attacks. If you're in creative mode, you can build anything with no constraints or pressures, never die, etc. This kind of thinking, this binary divide, is oldschool. It inherits from the idea of a "map editor", and that's not a concept that exists in a construction game.

Instead, we need to think of creative mode as an extension of survival mode, or visa-versa. There's a sliding scale where you shake off some of the survival-mode limits but keep others in order to refine your approach. Similarly, you'll want to have a method of porting those refined creations down into the survival world. "Iterated construction" is my goal.

As an example, in Kerbal you can build any kind of rocket you want, launch it, and pilot it for hours... and then revert it all. This "test" allows you to refine your rocket design and mission plan without pressure. You can keep trying all you want, until it goes right. Moreover, the diversity of possible missions lets you try a lot of different designs with different parameters.

Kerbal's recent updates have been focused on making survival mode more rigid and pathed, involving research, budgets, part and mass limits, and lots of ground-side complexity. When you try to build a ship, the parts you haven't unlocked are hidden, and you can't even test-fly a rocket that is too expensive, heavy, tall, wide, or complex for your facilities.

I don't believe this is a good path, although it's obviously quite subjective. This by-the-nose guidance really feels awkward: "survival mode" in Kerbal was trying to survive the mission. It's about designing good rockets and learning orbital mechanics. And that was reflected in their core constructive play: people enjoyed building larger, more intricate rockets as their skills expanded.

Now the survival mode is about making profits, taking contracts, upgrading ground facilities. Those don't help guide you towards building better rockets! At best, they might help you build cheaper rockets, but that's kind of a boring core aesthetic, don't you think?

The old idea was that you would survive a mission to distance planets. You would land on weird moons, or on worlds with dense atmosphere and lots of gravity, or a world with no ground at all. Each of these mission profiles suggested themselves quite elegantly: they exist on the map, therefore they are a place worth going. Each had different tolerances and requirements, and therefore each one tested and refined your construction skills. You could build more complex missions off of these pieces - an orbital station around Juul, a colony on the Mun, a rover that works on Eve, etc.

Those missions still exist. You can get a contract to go to Eve, a contract to put a space station around Juul. But they are hidden and metered. The new survival mode does not support the creative mode. It does not guide you towards building more elegantly and awesomely.

The original problem was simply that building things in Kerbal is a bit of a difficulty wall. Hundreds of parts and no understanding of things like aircraft parts vs rocket parts vs science parts vs crew parts vs... well, it's a bit overwhelming. The idea with the original science mode was to have those parts unlock - you start with so few parts that you can't possibly be confused for long. It's a good idea, but we need to stop confusing "tutorial" with "survival mode". They are completely unrelated.

Tutorials teach you how to make the game work. Survival mode teaches you to make the game sing. A survival mode with an integrated tutorial is dangerous: you might end up with a survival mode that just teaches you how to keep playing the survival mode. As with Kerbal. Completely sidelines your core play!

But Kerbal did do something very right with their original sandbox mode: their survival mode has distinct challenges and difficulty settings that are fluidly integrated.

You can see this with a few construction games. For example, in a diving game you quickly learn that your oxygen runs out extremely quickly as you go down deeper, and that the pressure makes it more and more difficult to keep vehicles and bases intact. Unfortunately, most of these games are not constructed to make iterative missions to those areas possible.

Once you get the radiation suit in Subnautica, radiation stops existing. Once you get the rebreather, depth penalties stop existing. This levels the playing field, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. It means that instead of trying to iterate and create better bases, you just tick off the check boxes and keep following the game's script.

Compare that to sandbox Kerbal, where once you've gone to Duna... you want to go back to Duna with a better design. This is the heart of an iterative approach: the challenges in a given mission don't exist to be flattened away, they exist to exert continual pressure.

That way you can learn to build a better design.

Subnautica - and most games like it - attempt to exert survival mode pressure by filling these areas with more dangerous creatures. However, that doesn't really get along well with the construction parts of the game. There's not really any relationship between the monsters of the deep and how you build your base. There's no pressure to build your base differently in order to make it more effective in different environments. And, of course, there's never any pressure to build a better-designed second base in the same environment.

That's the heart of the problem.

We could also talk a bit about Space Engineers. In creative mode, all the ship systems work as they do in survival. None of them really matter much - you can't die, your guns fire even if there's no ammo - but you can immediately tell how well your ship is designed without even passing it back into survival mode.

To me, this is a sign that the barrier between survival and creative is not as distinct as we like to believe. Why not let me plan out anything I want, and tell me how well it would work? Why not let me enforce specific survival limitations in creative mode? Let's mix and match.

Hm. We need to stop thinking about "survival mode" vs "creative mode", and start thinking about iterative construction.

At least, that's my plan.

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