Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Decay as Mechanic

As I've been playing a lot of Fallout 4, it's reminded me of the same thing it always reminds me of: keeping a vault running for 250 years is an interesting challenge!

Every few months I revisit the concept of a base-building game about that kind of thing. How about designing a castle, then aging it 500 years and seeing how it fares, maybe fill it with monsters at let you storm your own old castle? How about a starship that spends generations between the stars? Or, when a new Fallout game comes out, how about a radiation shelter?

I keep pecking at this idea, but I've never come up with anything compelling. So let's talk about it.

The basic idea is to change the fitness test from "surviving assaults" to "surviving time".

Most base building games challenge you to build a base strong enough to survive the various attackers that will show up. As your base grows, your attackers grow. Even games that are notoriously open, such as Space Engineers, still base nearly all of their fitness tests on combat survivability.

I like the idea of replacing that, if only because it's so overused. I like the idea of replacing it with the weight of time. Whether it's a castle crumbling, a starship breaking down, or a vault collapsing, I like the idea. It's also a very powerful idea because the base never stops being viable for other fitness tests. There's no reason you can't model 1000 years of a castle falling into ruin and being overrun by monsters and cults... then just present that as a level for any given player to challenge with their RPG party.

It has a lot of potential, but making it work out is challenging. I've never managed to get it to be fun. Why?

Because things breaking and running out is basically a spreadsheet.

I've made it a decent statistical balancing act, sure. I've made prototypes where you equip starships for decade-long journeys, and you can easily make the statistics of it compelling. These two options cost a different amount, take up different amounts of space, and wear out at different speeds. Spend the space and cost to bring more repair components, or spend that on a better, longer-lasting module?

Unfortunately, I hate spreadsheet games. I couldn't ever get it to feel like I was properly building a base. It always felt like I was just slotting in modules on a checklist.

I think this is because the weight of time - the wear and tear, the breakdowns - didn't have any connection to the physical layout of the base. It doesn't matter where in the base you put the reactor: it has X chance of breaking down after Y years, and that has a flat result on the base's power supply.

You might try to make the layout matter by, say, introducing wiring and pipes. Having to maintain or replace them matters, right?

Not really, because there's no change, no adaptation. Just a small service fee. Instead, let's consider a different method: degradation rather than collapse.

The reactor doesn't just break. It gets unreliable, and the longer the wire between the reactor and the powered object, the more that object suffers for it. Similarly, the more power the object requires, the more the faulty power matters. A flickering light bulb doesn't matter much, but a server room that continually reboots is a huge problem. Moreover, the reactor can't be repaired to perfect: each repair restores maybe 90% of the lost reliability, but that becomes the new max cap.

The wiring is the same. You can repair or replace each stretch of wire, but it never recovers to full.

Degrading performance is already a pretty good technique, because as long as things are connected in real space, it makes that real space matter. However, there is a way to make this matter even more: allowing the dwellers to make changes. The server room is connected to the reactor, but as the reactor and the wires both degrade, the power supply becomes unreliable and the server room performance drops dramatically.

So the inhabitants run a new, heavy-duty cable through the halls. Not in the cable tunnels you originally ran, those have been degraded: through the habitable area. Similarly, installing a battery bank near the server room will allow that to absorb the unreliability of the power - but the battery bank will be installed in the common space, not into a slot in the wall. By increasing the clutter and squeezing the connections of the structure, you can slowly increase pressure on the base's fundamental design.

Of course, there's more than just how well the various base modules behave: there's also how well the structure behaves. Over time, the earth shifts, walls crack open, ceilings give out. As with the modules, these things shouldn't instantly take a structural element from "fine" to "closed": the wall cracks open bit by bit, dirt and rocks clog the hall slowly more and more. The structure becomes steadily less passable, deals steadily more damage to the things (cables, modules, etc) in the room.

A really clear way to do this is with castles and dungeons, which have a very strong physical feel. A castle's weight feels real, and when some of the walls and floors start to give out, it feels totally legit. Something like a starship or a vault doesn't have the same sense of weight, because the upper floors don't really feel like they press hard on the lower floors.

Still, all of that is not the only kind of thing I want to put into this kind of game.

See, there's another element. A huge, overlooked element. The human element.

A big part of the passage of time is seeing how the context changes. A castle is abandoned by the nobility. A bandit queen moves in, but her great grandson is driven out by a dragon in pursuit of their saved-up wealth... each of these phases involves reinterpreting the various rooms in new ways, ways that steadily change over the course of their reign.

In a vault or a generation ship, there won't be that kind of switchover, so the single reign has to be dense and interesting. Humans change over time, so it makes sense that we should focus on the humans that live in the space you've designed.

While the day-to-day personalities and events might be fun, our real focus is on the slow evolution of the human elements over time. What elements do we introduce? Well, things like children being educated and growing up, culture shifting to have different kinds of relationships, and so on are all kinda interesting. But... that has nothing to do with your base.

In order for your base to influence these things, we need to have each physical area affect the slow evolution of culture. More specifically, each area should embody the slow evolution of a specific element of culture. If you have a classroom, you will see how education is going, and you can see by its decorations and equipment the kind and quality of the education you're delivering.

A very simple rule can make this dense and interesting: the cultural elements spread along the hallways of the structure. Certain rooms develop specific kinds of culture. To prevent those kinds of evolutions, put rooms with opposing cultures nearby, and they'll be in a stalemate. To encourage it, put several of those kinds of rooms near each other so that the culture grows and stabilizes.

This method allows large facilities to grow subcultures by using security gates or just plain range to buffer them. As security doors break down, the areas will begin to mix and clash, and the people inside will mix and clash. As hallways degrade and become steadily less passable, the cultures on each side will grow further apart as they mix less and less.


Well, those are some of my thoughts on using the pressure of time and decay in a base-building game. What do you think?


Kevin M. said...

sounds fun

Craig Perko said...

Well, that's a good sign.

Random_Phobosis said...

I think it would be a cool idea for a semi-cooperative boardgame. Everybody constructs shared castle, then each turn a player selects a society to inhabit the castle next (and each society exists only for one turn, turning to legacy modifiers after that). Everyone has to keep the castle from collapsing, but each society scores differently and tries to make modifications that wouldn't allow opponents to score.

Craig Perko said...

That's a pretty interesting idea. You'd have to keep things pretty simple in order to manage it on a board game, but it's got potential.