Monday, January 25, 2016

Construction Genre

So, I just backed another "survival construction" game on Kickstarter. "Survive a crash landing on an alien planet and build-"

Beautiful game. BAD GENRE.

Since Minecraft came out, the "survival construction" genre has been booming. Unfortunately, it's a terrible genre, since it's at war with itself. Minecraft's success is not a sign that it is well-designed, it's just a sign that it had great timing and positioning.

Here's the heart of the problem: "survival" is a specific and shallow objective. Games which are about surviving require the game devs to constantly introduce new threats to you. Most games are about surviving, and the game devs spend a huge amount of effort on introducing those threats. That's the basic idea of "levels", after all.

Open-ended construction is fundamentally a player-driven kind of play. Trying to offer well-paced survival challenges to a player that is doing things at their own pace is very difficult, especially since so much of the player's resources will revolve around the specific things they've built and the specific way they've built them.

For example, in Minecraft, a player might build a wonderful base that is immune to creepers, but when you introduce those block-grabbing Endermen, it's a crapshoot. Some players, especially those that know what's coming, will have bases that don't get affected much at all. But other players, while their base is 100% proof against spiders and creepers, will collapse if even a few blocks are removed - torches go out, gaps for spiders and creepers are introduced...

This is nearly impossible to calibrate. Games where survival is key keep the calibration easy by not allowing the player to have different resources than the devs expect. You have access to X, Y, and Z guns. You have health, your speed is exactly this fast, you can see exactly this far. Because the devs know what you've got, they can present you with challenges. When the players build everything as they like, the devs have no idea what you've got!

Obviously, you can try to limit the player. But that's the opposite of what I would recommend. I like giving the player more freedom.

Letting the player construct whatever they want is really the heart of the construction genre. I don't mean constraint-free, I just mean letting the player create in the direction they want. Every player will approach the situation differently, and that's great.

But how do you create a compelling framework for this "construction" genre?

If you ask a normal dev, you'd hear two basic ideas. 1) Tiered resources: drive the player to find more useful resources in more dangerous places. 2) Phased challenges: introduce enemies, weather, and events on a schedule such that the player has to react to them.

These are good starts, but they're inherently "survivally". Let's look at a different way of thinking about it: optional constraints and challenges.

Kerbal is a good example of this. Putting aside the weird career mode they bunged in recently, there's no in-universe reason to go to any particular planet. But the fact that the planets exist is enough to make you want to go. Moreover, you can plan any kind of mission to the planet that you want, with any number of stages.

You don't simply decide to "go to Juul". You decide what kind of ship will go, manned or unmanned, what science stuff to include, whether it's a round trip or one way, what kind of landings you plan to try, whether to set up a permanent station in the area, whether to use a Kerbal-orbiting station to construct the ship and refuel before setting out, whether you want to take it slow or rush to Juul, whether you want to slingshot off the Mun or off of another planet on the way to Juul... and if you start including mods, the number of options goes up dramatically. How about an airship permanently stationed in Juul's atmosphere?

This freedom allows people to construct as they please. While it may not appeal to all players, I don't think the construction genre needs to appeal to everyone any more than the first person shooter genre does.

The way Kerbal is constructed is very clever, but there are a lot of things to learn from other games. For example, Space Engineers offers an options menu where every constraint is toggleable and tweakable. This includes things like inventory size, sure, but also things like whether there are days and how long they are. This complexity allows players to develop for radically different environments without actually having radically different environments in the game world. It also allows players to change those options during play, allowing them to develop in one set of constraints, then switch over to test or "play out" in another set of constraints, something made easier by blueprints which can be pasted into or built in other worlds.

This is a powerful concept: you can create a ship in "creative mode" with no enemies or materials requirements, then switch over to a hostile, limited world to test your ship. You can then copy it and go into a friend's server and paste it in and have a battle royale or a work together as a team...

This isn't a completed implementation. It's not very fluid, switching modes or transferring constructed content is a huge pain, and the multiplayer functionality is so bad it's actually hilarious. But it's easy to see the beginnings of a genre there.

And it's not a "survival construction" genre where you crash on a planet and have to build your own base to survive. That's just one vaguely-implemented scenario. The power of the game comes from the unfettered construction the player is allowed. Players will accept challenges and constraints just for the fun of it, and they'll come up with objectives and complex multi-phase missions that you never would have thought of and certainly couldn't organize.

So, that's my thought. If we're going to do construction games, we should have a flexible way to accept a variety of constraints and challenges, and allow players to pick and choose what they want to approach in what ways. A big part of this is making it easy to switch constraints and challenges midstream, since many players will want to build and test and iterate instead of just grinding it out in a survival challenge.

You don't need to make the game about survival. It will naturally become about survival if and when the players want it to. It might also be about building cathedrals, or putting together a fleet for a dozen players to work together.

There's also no limit to the kinds of challenges and constraints you can offer. It's popular to just use the basic construction ideas - some facility-wide resources, some physical constraints, some topological challenges, and realtime combat.

But you can define your game with a lot more creativity if you offer a wider range right up front.

For example, what about if you could "weather" your facilities for N years, turning them into ruins or seeing them adapted by NPCs? What if you have missions other than fighting, such as transport, medical, research - if you make them as complex to manage in real-time as combat is, you can have compelling noncombat challenges. How about simulating the people inside the facility?

Any one of these additional "modes" would make your game unique on the marketplace today, but in ten years, I expect they'll all be considered standards in the genre.

That's what I think, anyway.

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