Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Almost Greatness

I've noticed a string of games recently that began with ambitious or innovative ideas and combined them with high production values. This seems like a fairly straightforward recipe for a great game, but each of these games has fallen victim to major design flaws that have kept it from achieving its potential. These "almost great" games are at once somewhat saddening, since they fail to live up to the gameplay they promised, and a little inspiring in that they show what kind of impact design decisions have (and thus how important designers are). None of them are "bad" games, but they began with ideas of such scope that you can't help feel that something important went wrong in order for them to end up as merely "good."

In particular, there are three games I want to consider here, for a brief time each (this doesn't constitute a full review of each by any means - I'm focusing on what's relevant to this conversation). They are, in chronological order: Supreme Commander, Assassin's Creed, and Spore.

Supreme Commander

First of all, that's a pretty dramatic title. You'd probably expect that a game with the title "Supreme Commander" is on a mission to be the ultimate game of its chosen genre (RTS), and you'd be right. Chris Taylor decried all RTS games that had been made before as "really being economy games," and planned to revolutionize the genre by changing the entire scale of RTS. Supreme Commander did this by literally increasing map size - the largest maps are 80x80 kilometers, a scale at which crossing the map can be, in itself, an accomplishment. This was combined with some really great high-level controls, such as the ferry system - you could tell a factory to produce 100 assault bots, and send them to a ferry point as they were produced, so that they could be picked up by a transport ship and moved to a deployment station, all automated once you'd set it up. It also had strategic zoom - a feature so compelling that after I'd experienced it I was shocked when I tried to go back and play other RTS games that didn't include it.

So far so good. What happens, however, when you actually sit down to play it? First, there's the technical problem: the game requires so much processor power that if you try to play on the largest maps, the game will lag to the point of never ending. As a result, almost all play took place on the smallest maps, which favored rushing strategies, and more or less defeated the purpose of having a huge scale of combat. This was a major problem, but since it was a technical problem it's not the one I'm interested in. I'm interested in what the gameplay looks like when the game is played the way it's "meant" to be played: on a largish map.

On a largish map, it's true that transporting your soldiers across the map is difficult, and this, at least at first, leads you to build forward bases and set up elaborate ferry systems to move your troops around the map. I say at first because it wasn't long before I realized that there was another solution: high-tech weapons with obscene range. Tech3 (and in the case of the UEF Tech4) artillery, along with "strategic missiles" are capable of hitting the enemy from the opposite end of the map even on a 40x40 kilometer map. If you're playing Cybrans, then you have another option - you can build Soul Rippers, which are flying fortresses of death and destruction that can cross the map easily and have enough health and firepower to take on the enemy army without any ground support at all. These are all very cool units, but they're also so convenient, compared to building and transporting a ground army, that they remove any incentive to play the game the way the makers originally intended.

That's not the largest problem, however. The largest problem is that despite the existence of resources on the map to be harvested, the most efficient way to build up an economy is to get to the third tech level and then build power plants and fabricators that can produce resources no matter where you build them. Combine this with the fact that there's no limit to the number of these structures you can build and you realize the kind of advantage gathered by a player who spends all of his time building up his economy. What's more, automated base defenses are so effective that a player can hold off an entire army of enemy troops without every building a single soldier of their own - in fact, when I play, I usually don't even build a land factory, since you can create engineers from an air factory. What do we have here? We have a game where economy is king, and all of that sophisticated transportation and territory-acquisition strategy falls by the wayside - all you need to do is turtle. Build base defenses, build up your economy, and then build a super advanced super weapon that makes you win.

The ultimate result of which is that Supreme Commander didn't revolutionize the RTS genre like it intended to. It didn't change the "economy game" paradigm - instead it is the single most economy-focused RTS game ever made. It seems that a couple of these points were noticed by the designers, given the changes they made in the expansion, Forged Alliance, but from my experience, they didn't go far enough in changing the fundamental elements that prevented the kind of strategic play they were looking to create.

Assassin's Creed

I notice that the section on Supreme Commander is very long. Due to time limitations and the desire not to repeat myself too many times, I'll try to be much more brief in my discussion of the next two games. Assassin's Creed is another game that was looking to revolutionize a genre, but this time, the genre in question wasn't RTS games, but stealth games.

Assassin's Creed makes use of something that was utterly absent from all stealth games before it: social stealth. That is, in a game like Thief or Metal Gear Solid, the way you sneak is by crouching in the shadows and waiting until you victim turns his back on you. In Assassin's Creed the way you sneak is by walking around in broad daylight - trying to look as much as possible like a normal citizen. It's fair to say that Altair is following the advice of Asimov in Foundation, "It pays to be obvious, especially when you have a reputation for being subtle." Assassin's Creed also allows you an unprecedented amount of physical freedom, allowing you to climb on just about anything and everything, leaping from rooftop to rooftop feeling like a badass.

This was all great, but in a demo of the game made some time before its release, the presenter said "In Assassin's Creed, you can't take seven hits to the head, or even one, and keep fighting." They were going to have a realistic fighting system, where one false move could mean death. Well, that didn't happen. In fact, the opposite happened - not only can you take seven hits to the head and continue fighting, but as you continue fighting, your health (or "synchronization") will gradually regenerate, meaning that you can continue fighting indefinitely, even if you are making mistakes and getting hit. I happen to know a couple of people who did exactly that: skip the stealth entirely and just kill every single guard in the entire city. Now, I'm usually one for not restricting players to a single style of play, but the game is supposed to revolve around stealth, and to be honest, the combat is both a little shallow and very easy. Once you get the hang of counters, you can take an army of literally any size and win without breaking a sweat.

The problems didn't quite end there, however. The missions were all a little too repetitive, and several of the important features didn't seem quite believable enough (really, I only ever hide in rooftop gardens - why don't guards ever think to look in them?). What's more, playing the game "properly," that is by using social stealth left and right, is just too hard, slow, and inconvenient for the player, compared to hacking-and-slashing. Altogether, the result is that Assassin's Creed was pretty fun, and featured some awesome climbing, but failed to revolutionize the stealth genre.


Our most recent example is the highly-anticipated Spore. By highly anticipated I mean that when a demo video was released a couple years ago showing the kind of gameplay Spore would have, people thought this had the potential to be the most groundbreaking game of the decade. The scope was unprecedented: you begin as a single-celled organism, become a sea animal, move onto land, develop sentience, create a civilization, and eventually become a space faring race wandering the galaxy. It was going to be the ultimate sandbox, for once you’d mastered the creation tools every step of the way, you would have access to all of them during the space stage, and could create any kind of world you wanted.

The ambitions of Spore are highly praise-worthy. Unfortunately, once again, the game, though fun, fails to deliver what it intended. There are two fundamental problems with Spore. The first is that the game can’t decide if it’s supposed to be a sandbox or a goal-oriented game. If it’s a sandbox game, then there shouldn’t be any restrictions as you progress (such as the inability to edit your creature after the creature stage), and there shouldn’t be any gameplay features that force you to spend your time doing a particular thing (you get hungry in the creature stage, and so can’t ever stop hunting, or you get constantly attacked and have to spend your time defending yourself). In a sandbox game, challenges like combat should be challenges that the player can attempt when they want to and ignore when they want to. If, however, the game is really goal-oriented, then the decisions you make and the things you achieve should be more significant – as it turns out, whether I have on pair of wings or eight pairs has no gameplay effect, that I can easily make a creature that effectively dabbles in everything instead of having to choose, and no matter how many body parts I gather, as soon as I’ve acquired enough DNA to progress to the tribal stage, then I effectively lose my progress, because beginning a new “stage” is more like starting to play an entirely different game than it is like continuing the same game.

Interestingly, the second fundamental problem is a problem whether the game is sandbox or goal-oriented: the game stages are too disconnected. Not only is the gameplay different, but your choices and achievements don’t have much impact. I can gather every body part in the cell stage and hunt and kill every species I run across, or I can just gather the food that happens to be floating around, and either way, as soon as I get to the creature stage my body parts are all obsolete, and I’m starting a different kind of game. Similarly, if the game is a sandbox, you should feel free to go between the various modes, and play as a creature for a bit, and then switch to a space-faring race, and then switch to a single-celled organism. Currently, not only are you stuck with the creature you have when you progress past the creature stage, but you have a preset amount of time playing in each stage. That is, in theory you can play the creature stage indefinitely, but you aren’t accomplishing anything (since what you do has no effect on future stages), there are no more large rewards left to work for, and the game at that stage becomes much more challenging, eventually becoming too hard to be much fun for someone looking for a sandbox experience. Based on the greater design concepts, the lower-level design requires that the developers decide how long the player will spend in each stage, and inevitably you can’t pick lengths that will satisfy everyone (or even fully satisfy one person, since they’ll likely want to spend more time in the stages they like and less in the stages they don’t).

The gameplay changes present a problem of their own, however. One issue is that when you effectively are incorporating multiple game genres into one game, each genre’s gameplay is going to feel a bit shallow. What’s worse is that the player feels like the time they spend mastering each gameplay style is a waste, because they don't apply the skills they learned in future stages. The only exception to this rule is in the creation tools - as you master one tool, you feel more confident approaching the next creation tool. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there seems to be a general consensus that the creation tools are the most fun part of the game.


There is a trend running through these games. They begin with innovative concepts, but it seems that the rest of the design process revolves around mitigating the effect of these ideas, and trying to make the game more like other games of the genre, likely in the name of accessibility. RTS gamers are used to economy-based strategy, so Supreme Commander's revolutionary beginnings tend in that direction until it ceases to be revolutionary; players of 3D action games are used to HP and being able to hack away at guards, and Assassin's Creed heads in that direction until the creative stealth elements become optional; players like being given some kind of direction, and so Spore gradually moved away from being a sandbox game until it became a pseudo-goal-oriented game.

It seems to me that the same piece of advice can be applied to all of these games (and many others that I don't have time to discuss here): if you have a great idea, run with it. The remainder of the design process should be spent trying to figure out how to support and emphasize the good idea, rather than how to restrict it or make it seem less original. It's not like Supreme Commander gets to be very approachable and intuitive as a result of being so economy-driven; the learning curve is still very steep. Similarly, players of Spore don't get a deep, goal-oriented experience; it feels a little wonky, instead. If you have a really innovative concept that leads to new kinds of play, players will appreciate it, even if it takes them a little longer to get the hang of it - you want them to be willing to put in that time to get a truly original and compelling experience, rather than taunting them with the potential of a new experience, only to drop them in a game that feel suspiciously like many games they've already played.

-Silent Ellipsis

P.S. Wow, this whole post ended up being a bit more epic than expected.

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