Monday, November 21, 2016

Directed Sandbox (Planet Coaster)

Let's talk about Planet Coaster's gameplay. Let's really, deeply examine it, and analyze its place within the overall genre of "games where you build stuff".

First things first: Frontier Developments is a company that has been pumping out literal theme park games for decades. Most of their dozens of games are about either zoos or roller coasters. Because of that, I'm going to assume they crafted Planet Coaster exactly as they wished: no accidental elements.

The core gameplay of Planet Coaster is quite straightforward. In the first phase, you build a park out of canned rides and shops. This involves laying things out, hiring and training people, balancing the budget. There is a fair amount to learn: it took me five hours before I realized you could train people.

This "early game" of Planet Coaster is a logistical challenge, but it's largely pass/fail. Once you understand enough of how the park works to get a reasonably good layout, balance of canned rides, and sufficient employees, you're done with the early game and move into the late game.

In the late game, the park runs itself. You have a steady stream of income and no distractions. This is typically the phase where you start to build coasters and track rides, although you might build one or two small ones earlier on. Since you have no particular constraints, you are free to slowly work out your coasters and express yourself.

Moreover, the progress you make on your coasters doesn't much change the dynamics of your park. You don't need to change the number of shops or the number of trash cans or any of that stuff. Minor tweaking, at most. There's no distractions such as fires breaking out or Godzilla attacking. You can do as you like.

I call this a "directed sandbox".

The directed sandbox lets you do as you like, but also comes with some useful time-based constraints. This means you're likely to build low-tech coasters first, then grow into more advanced coasters. I think this is a good progression. Even when I'm familiar with the range of options and how the high-performance coasters work, I still like "warming up" by pushing the constraints of the starter coasters and the initial layout constraints.

Planet Coaster has caught a little bit of flak because of its easy late game. This contrasts with classics like Sim City, where as the game progresses more concerns are introduced. Requirements such as police, pollution management, and outright disaster response are phased in to keep the challenge alive.

It is true, Planet Coaster does not do that. Fundamentally, the game is not about managing a park: it's about creating a park. Expressing yourself.

However, if you simply hand someone a toy like that, most people aren't going to be inspired. They'll feel lost, like what they're doing is pointless.

So Planet Coaster gives you some friction up front. Plan the park. Tend to the employees. Make the park feel like it exists, even though it's basically busywork. This will get you interested in the nature of your park, deciding on a theme, building a virtual experience you can feel in your bones.

Then, when the time comes to express yourself freely, you'll have a foundation to build on.

You won't be faced with a blank page. You already have a sketch.

Planet Coaster does have a pure sandbox mode. I don't really like it, the unstructured construction ends up with an untextured park whenever I try. Nothing wrong with that, but the directed sandbox is actually more freeing for me.

I think we can learn a lot from this. Games like Kerbal and Space Engineers are directed from the other side - they have goals you work towards instead of foundations you build on. I think both approaches are viable.

But I would like to talk about one of the big weaknesses in Planet Coaster - one shared by many base-building games. Decoration.

Decoration is a big part of making things feel lush and lived-in, but left on their own, players will focus on mechanical elements and leave decoration aside. Some games try to embed decoration into the mechanical elements to insure the end result is decorated. For example, in Evil Genius not only are the various rooms automatically decorated, but adding decorations creates a stat boost in a radius around them.

Planet Coaster does this by simply making everything have a decoration rating. The rides are the most obvious example, since they have a rating stapled on their summary, but under the surface the characters constantly think about it everywhere they go. Their thoughts reflect this if you click on them.

My issue with Planet Coaster is that this short-circuits. The now-famous "surround everything with flamethrowers" approach is the fastest and easiest way to make this max out, and so many players simply have a theme park that looks like hell, both literally and figuratively.

Clearly they made this choice on purpose. I'm sure they tested other methods. The fact that flamethrowers are cheaper than a ratty old cart shows they clearly wanted to make them dominant, for some reason. But let's talk about some other methods.

One of the things that goes into actual theme park engineering is theming. Much like a roller coaster, the experience of moving through a theme park involves a variety of experiences paced to pull you in. The actual beats are different, and it's not as linear, but it's a well-understood arc. They build casinos using the same methodology.

It would be possible to allow the player to construct a theme park experience in a more explicit manner, where the themes in each area and the experience of walking through it are combined into a final "feel". Rather than theming the whole park as "pirate", there's a lot of ways you can refine that. This area is about high-seas battles. This one's about shipwrecks. This one's about desert islands and searching for buried gold. This one's about the scurvy port town. This one's about being in a prison. This one's about pirate ghosts.

It would be relatively easy to spam through these as well. "Oh, I want to get the points for a pirate sub-theme, so I'll just stick ten thousand cannons here in a huge pile." This is why I might recommend that the experience unfold in much the same way as a roller coaster's arcs do. People are moving through the area. Things that are close have a greater weight, things that are far away matter based on their height and visibility. This can be simplified or made complex as you like, but the point is that the actual walking along a path has an emotional pattern to it.

It sounds nitty-gritty and annoyingly obsessive-compulsive, but that's what designing a real theme park is like. Yes, they agonize over whether to use gray brick cladding or red brick cladding. They agonize over whether to use real-world branding for their food services, or just put up a sign saying "grog". This is what it's about.

There are a lot of different things you can do with this, things that are every bit as deep as a roller coaster. For example, you can use a monorail to move people from one area to another, but you can also use the monorail to reset their expectations and rest them up, so they're ready to tackle the new area. Correspondingly, you can put the energetic and terrifying rides beneath the monorail, in the area the monorail skips. Excited teens will ignore the monorail and move into the high-energy area, while tired families will hop on the monorail and get rested up.

Anyway, Planet Coaster's pretty good if you understand that it's a directed sandbox and not a game with a beginning, middle, and end.

What do you think about their approach?

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Soft Sci Fi is Hard

This is about Mass Effect.

There's a lot of ways to portray science fiction. In most people's minds, you can split it into two categories - "hard" sci fi and "soft" sci fi. And they theoretically judge this based on whether the science in the fiction is sciencey enough.

In practice, the situation is not about how sciencey the science is, but about how much it overshadows the people.

"Hard" sci fi is usually about lives buried beneath machinery. The technology is typically shown to be big and clunky - obvious mechanical arms, giant ventilation systems, big explosions, death any time a machine hiccups. It's easy to be "sciencey" when the machines are so clunky, because you can dedicate so much of your story to them.

On the other hand, "soft" sci fi is usually about lives lifted up by machinery. The technology is typically almost invisible, appearing or disappearing at need. The stories that get told tend to be about how people live when they are allowed to be who they are.

Neither of these approaches is inherently more or less valid, more or less sciencey. And there are a lot of other variations that can be analyzed in this way, like the ever-more-popular military sci fi. It's not particularly realistic, but it does talk about people living lives buried beneath machinery.

Because of this, rather than "hard" and "soft", I might prefer "heavy" and "light".

Clearly, oldschool Star Trek is king of "light" sci fi. You need healing? Here's a smartphone and an injector the size of your thumb, all better. Need to go from A to B? Here's a patch of floor to send you wherever. Need an epic space battle? Turns out your house is armed with lasers and shakes delightfully when struck. While there are massive pieces of science, their impact on daily life is either invisible or entirely supportive: the cool space station lets people do super-cool science, but is otherwise basically an office building.

Mass Effect is a prince of "light" sci fi.

Well, no surprise. Mass Effect was an attempt to modernize 60s pulp, and it largely succeeded. Computers literally appear and disappear out of thin air. Space stations and ships all have artificial gravity and huge windows. Healing is even faster and easier than in Star Trek, and guns fire magic bullets.

The clean curves and crisp edges of the designs highlight this. While there is a lot of detailing, there's no clutter. This is true of interiors, exteriors, clothes, armor, even guns.

The stories are about people living lives enabled by technology. Sure, there are still desperate people, dangers and evils. The technology is used to highlight and isolate those stories so they can be told crisply and cleanly, unburdened by the expectations of the real world or the forced clutter of heavy science fiction.

Those things can be introduced. Whenever it'd be useful. But we can use the freedom of soft science fiction to tell the stories exactly as we want to.

Moreover, this affects the ambiance of the civilizations we find. Things like armor or even jackets are likely to be rare, and we're likely to meet a lot of people delving into their own interests instead of being desperate to make enough money to survive. There are still likely to be poor and desperate people, but those elements tend to be downplayed. In ME, even the destitute colonists are portrayed as hopefuls building a new life.

People usually live a rather minimalist lifestyle in soft sci fi. They don't need clutter, not unless the story demands it. They don't need pockets, not unless the story demands it. They don't need medical conditions, not unless the story demands it.

Whichever angle the devs choose, it's supported by the soft technologies. If we need the colonists to be worried about the power supply, here's a box they are fussing with, and here's the side quest where you help them in some arbitrary way. If there's monsters attacking, here's as many or as few automated defenses as the story needs. If someone is corrupt, here's a technology that highlights and enables that. If someone's sick, here's an arbitrarily convoluted technology for treating them.

And... this is something authors simply don't understand.

They inherit a great story, and they want to tell more stories in that universe. They want to punch it up a notch, even. So they take the supporting elements that people will remember, and they make them permanent. They begin to clutter up the stories even when they aren't needed. The whole series trends towards "harder" sci fi, more and more clutter, and the genre changes.

I call this "calcification". Turning "soft" sci fi into "hard" sci fi - or light into heavy, if you prefer.

This happens all the time. It happened in Star Trek, which gradually became military sci fi. Hell, it even happened with Batman and Superman.

It's happening right now with Mass Effect.

I think this is why science fiction IPs tend to become grimmer and grittier. Not because everyone thinks grimmer and grittier sells better, but because if you let your stories build up clutter, you have to start telling stories about people being crushed by that clutter.

Don't fall for it. You can keep your stories uncluttered. You can even tell grim and gritty stories.

Keeping soft sci fi light and flexible is difficult, but it's key. When your science fiction can't touch its own toes any more, you've calcified and need to limber up again.