Thursday, September 22, 2016

Building From the Inside

Base-building, on my mind again.

Recently, I was playing Fallout 4. One of the expansions gives you access to this massive underground space where you can build a vault using vault modules. There are a lot of weird limitations and missing pieces, but the idea is interesting enough: build a vault yourself!

This is something I am really interested in, since building a vault and building a space base are fundamentally similar. So I set about with gusto!

It's a shallow mechanic, since it's not the focus of the game. But sometimes you can learn the most from stuff that's just hacked together.

Most base building games are from bird's-eye view. You can cleanly and clearly build the base, manage the little ant people as they wander around, and so on. This gives you a lot of visibility, so you can expose the complexity of designing these systems. Which, in turn, means you can increase that complexity and create some serious depth.

Fallout 4 is kind of the opposite. Just like other first-person construction games (like Medieval/Space Engineers, Minecraft, etc), you can't see the whole base. Since you can't see well, the systems have to be simplified.

And so I dismissed the idea.

I was wrong. There is a lot of power in limiting the player.

Free to Fly
Not being able to see very far makes basic layout a huge issue. Verticality becomes a fun challenge and opportunity.

Normally, verticality is poison in a base-building game, almost impossible to track. Most people prefer to build out rather than up, simply because they can still see the whole base when they do. Building vertically obscures the lower floors, and dealing with that is a huge annoyance.

But now the base is already obscured. Being on another floor isn't any more or less obscured than being down a hall. Managed correctly, it's less obscured: rather than a maze of twisty passages, just go upstairs in the sunny atrium and walk ten feet. Suddenly, verticality is a powerful shortcut and grounding feature instead of a serious problem.

Basics Aren't
Infrastructure that was easy from above is very challenging when you can't see it. Radically dumbed-down infrastructure provides just as much grist as more complex infrastructure in a bird's-eye game.

I think this is a place where much better visibility wouldn't hurt. Rather than trying to hide the infrastructure outside of the visible space (exterior piping, buried power cords, etc), I would run it inside. Along the ceiling, the floor. This gives the player the ability to easily track it, makes it obvious how it's serviced, and also introduces some much-needed floor height alterations (IE, running floor piping underneath a raised area breaks up the flatness of the facility).

There's always an urge to introduce complexity, but with this kind of setup the opposite is better: simplicity is king. You don't need to worry about if you have enough air pressure in your vents or if the load on this particular electrical line is too high. Instead, just the fact that they've been piped in is enough.

This is because the players will want to push themselves to create more epic layouts. Bigger rooms, or lots of smaller rooms. How do you provide power, air, heat, water, whatever is needed in spaces too big or small to easily run cables through? Especially if outlets take up set space: can you make a tiny bathroom if you need air, water, and power outlets taking up their required chunks of space?

More complexity can be added by having specific systems require specific supplies. Data cables, pneumatic tubes, fiber optics, high-tension lines, whatever. Just make sure there's a reason to put these better systems in shared areas, so those new cables have to share the space.

You also need to think about how those cables can be interrupted. For example, how does a door work if you're running cables across the wall? Maybe you can move them to the ceiling, but only one type of cable per meter of hall? Rules like this are easy to understand, and the player can simply walk along a cable if they're not sure what's going on.

The key is to start simple and get steadily more dense, since the limits of the visible space are what you're highlighting. Sure, run cables along both walls... but don't expect to have any doors!

A lot of base-building games feature lifestyles. Like The Sims. These games use time compression to make it very expensive to do anything. Going to the bathroom takes hours. This isn't useful for a first-person base-building game, since A) you won't see it happen and B) the punishment for having to walk is having to walk.

This was a sticking point in my thoughts until I made myself a personal bedroom in Fallout 4 and tried to sleep in it.

I could clearly hear the slot machines from one level down.

Now to me, the player, that's pretty insignificant. There's no impact on my ability to choose "sleep" from the popup menu.

But for lifestyle... why not have that matter?

Rather than having the residents walk around and have that eat up their schedule, just look at where they live, where they work, and where they play. Calculate various good and bad factors based on either radius or simplified LOS. Congrats, they now live in a place and can wax poetic about it.

While things might statistically be good, bad, or ugly, I recommend having only a few things that are clearly good or bad. Make most of them just notable. This is because making notable things will give the base personality, while making them clearly good or bad will simply make the player optimize the same way as everyone else.

For example, you have an apartment above the main air filter. It goes "RRRRHMMRMRMRMMMMMMM" all night. You might want to lump this into a generic "noise is bad" set, but I think the people above it should grow to accept it. Like how people grow to be at peace with the sounds of traffic whooshing by, or hilariously loud rain on a tin roof. It's a marker of home, and if people feel at home in your base, you've built a home. That's pretty powerful.

It's much easier to show in first person than third person, because you'll experience all the things they experience. If you go there, you'll hear the RRRRRHMRMRHRRMRMMMMM. And they'll talk about it amongst themselves, so you hear about it as well as hearing it directly.

A huge problem with building in first person is when you run up against things you can't see. For example, you can't extend that hallway because there's a rock pillar in the way, or because you have a perpendicular hallway blocking it, or whatever.

In Fallout 4, the standard is: you have to rip away the wall to build out, so you'll be able to see whatever is that way. I don't think that's good enough: there's no reason not to show a faint hologram of the rest of the base. That would allow you to build out without manually ripping things up and then putting them back down.

The hologram could even be limited to showing only in a patch near your head as you approach a wall in build mode. It wouldn't be distracting at other times.

Keeping the base in mind when building is a big deal, especially since the default method (a map) is 2D and suffers hugely from the verticality you're putting in.

Expensive People
One big issue is that people are expensive.

In bird's-eye games, your residents are pretty small. Whether 2D or 3D, they are too tiny to need much detail. But in first person, your residents can fill the screen, and they have to feel like they have personalities.

This means that you will need a pretty robust, high-quality character system that makes your residents feel very distinct and personable. This is a price we're just going to have to accept: for a base to feel lived-in, it needs to be lived in.

The upside of that is simple: you can make your base feel real and lived-in. This is something that's very hard for other games to do.

This became very clear when playing Fallout 4. In comparison to games like Space Engineers or Minecraft, the vault felt inhabited because people were wandering around doing things. Sure, the stuff they were doing didn't make a lot of sense, but it was lively.

Games like Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld feature lively characters, but because they're indistinct and small, it takes a lot of effort to feel that they are alive and personable.

While this is a cost we are forced to eat, the payoff is arguably the best reason to make this kind of game in the first place!

Other Thoughts
There are a lot of things that matter a lot more in first-person games. Decorations. Lighting. Cleanliness. Clothes.

Variation is critical, but don't limit it to the obvious things like lights and wall coverings and chairs. The shape of the interior is also critical, and you want to have that vary as well, so the player wants to strive to build more interesting, complex rooms and layouts.

For example, having large, open rooms is fun, but if the floor is flat, it'll feel really awkward. You can provide tools to break the space up: stairs intended to be placed near the center of such rooms, raised flooring, large decorations like trees or verandas. Also, walls don't have to be completely solid. Not just windows vs doors, but also open-plan halfwalls, supports, etc.

These are enough to give the player the chance to make something interesting, but it may also be worthwhile to incentivize it. Raised floors give social bonuses to those on top, and you can run cables underneath them. Columns can have cables run inside them. Open-plan halfwalls are a free standing table to hang out at.

Simply making the NPCs hang out in ways that highlight the player's constructive choices seems like it'd be incredibly powerful feedback. Even if there's no statistical benefit to a raised floor, if the NPCs gather to watch someone standing on top of it, it automatically becomes a stage.

Sim Savings
Another big advantage of this kind of base is that we don't have to simulate anything in real time. Because the player isn't watching the whole base, you can just stuff residents in wherever the player goes. There will always be NPCs hanging out or working or sleeping or whatever. This is a great way to A) save on expensive simulations and B) make the base feel densely populated even if there's only a few NPCs.

We can use these sim shortcuts to allow for other kinds of gameplay. Since we're not actually monitoring where people are at all times, we can simply track where they tend to be. In doing this, we can easily determine who they're likely to have relationships with. We can throw together convincing relationship growth by making up a situation that happened offscreen at a specific place and having both sides reference it. "Oh, we met at the pool!"

This can even be turned into sidequests or governing missions.

These people hang out in the atrium after work, when they're exhausted. But these people don't have those jobs and come to the atrium to play. So now you, the governor, must determine the rules: is the atrium intended as a party ground, or a quiet park?

... anyway, those are some thoughts I have on first person base building games. What do you think?


Drew Hickcox said...

I wonder how much you could automate the use of random objects as chairs and tables. When I think of a vault I imagine that every light, table, and chair in the whole damn place would be one of two different models, for the sake of bureaucratic efficiency. In a scenario where generations are passing in an enclosed space full of repeated objects, how would people express themselves in their space--especially if future generations are larger than the ons originally planned for?

I would imagine people would economize their space by using containers as chairs, sleep on cushions taken off of a cou I know I for one will sit on just about any surface that will hold my weight. ch that did not survive the years, eat on half-walls like previously mentioned, etc. I'm not sure how to program that, but I like the idea of NPCs fulfilling their storage, resting, and utility needs within a limited space by taking advantage of unusual capabilities of objects.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, I like the idea of the NPCs being responsible for customizing the furniture some.