Friday, September 09, 2016

Heartbeat Gameplay

So, Project Highrise came out. I can't get into it. Let's talk about it!

Back when I first heard of Project Highrise, I said SimTower's strength was its elevator simulation. I mentioned that most SimTower wannabees failed because they didn't have that. I hoped Project Highrise would have it. Spoilers: it does not.

When you're doing this kind of ultra-focused simulation game, it's absolutely critical to establish and maintain flow. The player has to want to go for just one more turn, just one more day. SimTower did this through the ebb and flow of people: the morning rush, the lunch rush, the evening rush, the quiet of the night...

Project Highrise has the same rushes, but they're not noticeable.

SimTower surfaced these elements because Sims line up and wait for the elevators. During each rush, you see your building chew on the flood going one way or the other.

In Project Highrise, elevators are magic doors, there's no lines or impatience. Instead, Project Highrise focuses on keeping systems balanced. Power cables, water pipes, oil meters, phone banks, storage depots, repair depots, copy centers, bottled water centers... keep the costs balanced with the payments of the clients.

Unfortunately, the spreadsheety game mechanics do not have any of the meaty feedback that angry sims lining up for elevators gave us. It's hard to maintain flow.

Spreadsheet game mechanics aren't inherently bad, or even inherently something that exists as its own thing. You can boil any game mechanics down to a spreadsheet: how well it is integrated into the gameplay determines whether we see it as a spreadsheet or just as gameplay.

The mechanic of using services to support a widening variety of clients is inherently disconnected from the gameplay of putting things in specific places on a map.

In order to create meaty gameplay out of those mechanics, you have to somehow palpably connect the clients to the services. Since this is a game about laying out a physical space, that means the connection would be best in physical space.

In Highrise they attempt to do that with wires and pipes, but this is a pretty tenuous connection and only applies to a few services. It could have been pumped up by having something like service radiuses, or perhaps having services connected to specific service elevators and only serving near those elevators.

But I would argue that's not a great use of the play. SimTower had a good use, that's why it's fondly remembered: there's a strong, natural connection between installing elevators, installing things people want to use, and people getting on elevators to reach those things. Adding visible queues and color-changing people makes it even more obvious. It's a very natural entanglement.

How many people want to enter/leave a region at what times will be determined by the things you place on that floor. You can use this to optimize your elevator service or, alternately, optimize the floors to lessen the peak load on the elevators. But that's just the beginning.

Some things like being in areas of high traffic, some in areas of low traffic, and the placement of elevators/clients determines how much traffic passes by. Some things might have secondary requirements or objectives which make them come on line at different times during your play, giving you the option of having a sub-par layout, spending cash on redoing those floors, or leaving huge, weird gaps in your building during the early game.

Optimize for weekends or weekdays, winter or summer. Add in alternate elevator tweaks that kick in on holidays. There's a lot of complexity waiting to be mined.

There are limits on how intricate this can get, because there's only one "juice pipe": the people waiting for the elevators.

SimTower chose to add flavors rather than new pipes, adding in express elevators and service elevators and so on, each with different parameters and serving different roles in your building ecology.

SimTower could add a lot of complex dependencies and services, but none of them would feel solid to the player because there's no strong feedback showing their state and relating to their physical space. They could have added another pipe - perhaps a statistical overlay of some kind - but then the two pipes would fight for player attention.

They decided a single pipe would be enough, and they were right: nobody has really replicated their success since.

In the end, I don't think Project Highrise is much like SimTower. It looks the same on the surface, but the underlying mechanics are completely different. To me, Project Highrise has a serious flow problem: the gameplay feels disconnected from the mechanics.

I know people are giving it sky-high reviews, so who knows if I'm right or wrong.

Well, we'll know in a month.


Those are my thoughts on SimTower and Project Highrise! What are yours?

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