There is an Android game called Hoplite by Magma Fortress that has grabbed my attention lately. It has plenty going for it, in that it’s a quick-play mobile game with a solid turn-based strategy design. It’s a bit like a board game, feels like chess at times, and has some great progression.
But aside from giving this game generic praise, I want to discuss something Hoplite leverages that should not be dismissed. Predictability. The AI doesn’t move at random, instead it’s very specific and deliberate. Every move is based on how to best position themselves to make your life harder. Melee monsters go for the kill. Ranged monsters try to line up while staying out of reach. Alone, no single monster is much of a challenge; It’s when they combine to limit your options that the game gets you sweating. One monster throwing bombs is hardly a threat, until there’s an archer covering your escape route.
My point is this. You don’t have to be unpredictable and random to add challenge. Challenge comes from complexity and limiting viable options. It allows for strategy to be the emergent element, instead of a scripted one, which is where it belongs. Sure it might mean that puzzles have solutions, and some players will reach the echelon where the challenge becomes trivial. That’s okay! People want to be rewarded for completing tasks. From there, you can always consider adding another layer of complexity. The fact that Donkey Kong and Pac Man could be ‘solved’ back in the day didn’t limit their appeal, it created cult followings of people yearning to see a kill screen. It’s not a bad thing.
(Courtesy of Paul Dean/Bill Carlton)
P.S. I love that in his latest update blog he explains the design choices he made and why. It’s a very lucid approach to game balancing, and I honestly believe all the changes he made in this recent update were for the better. I also appreciate that he was forced to abandon some gameplay elements that seemed unified in concept (everything using energy), that didn’t play well in practice. It makes for a more interesting game. I enjoy that the only penalty for throwing a spear is that you have to go pick it up again. Very well done.
I’ve coined a term, and I’m not sure if others have used it, but the concept is pretty well known. I’m going to call it “Alpha poisoning”. It’s when you try an early release of a game before features and polish and repairs are made, and despite understanding that it’s an unfinished product, taints your perspective and enthusiasm for the final release.
I recently told my Terraria-loving friend about a similar game called King Arthur’s Gold (by the makers of Soldat, a 2D shooter that I loved). It’s on Steam now, and I recommend it. In fact, I recommended it to my friend, and his reply was that he had played the Alpha, and was disappointed. We didn’t bore into the details much, but I did explain that the version of the game I played was very fluid and polished, and he owes it to himself to try the finished game before galvanizing his opinion.
This almost happened to me with TUG. I resonate very closely with their philosophy and design approach, but when I tried the Alpha I realized just how far they still have to go. Now, understanding that, I’m not going to write off the title. Instead, I will try it periodically to check in on progress, and I will support their public release with renewed enthusiasm. But I’m learning that sometimes, despite my interest in game design and philosophy, I can’t watch how the sausage is made.
I will be joining EverQuest Next Landmark as an Alpha player. It looks like their Alpha will be much more polished (more of a PR drum than a testing phase), but I will still guard myself against having my expectations set too high. Going through the Alpha/Beta phase with Minecraft was amazing. It was glitchy and tough sometimes, maps crash, memory dumps, broken critical features, but it also felt amazingly organic, watching this world get more complex every update.
I’ll even say it. Some of the bugs and glitches have a little gold-glinted nostalgia to them these days. Minecraft is almost too polished. Okay, not really. But still, the journey of watching a sandbox game grow up was really something. I don’t mind doing that again.
Update: I should clarify that Alpha Poisoning shouldn’t be considered an appropriate or acceptable reaction, rather the opposite. We become betrayed by our indiscriminate human brain’s association and learning patterns. I think it’s directly comparable to accidentally eating under-cooked meat, and then avoiding all meat because of it. It’s an old defense mechanism that betrays our true interests, but keeps us from getting sick.
Bringing this blog back to life again here, thank you for glossing over the hiatus. I just had my first son, and life with baby is, well, life with baby. Anyways, here’s a quick thought to get the ball rolling again.
There’s a classic DOS game from 1989 called Street Rod. I enjoyed this game, even if the racing part was really crummy. And not just because it was old - keep in mind this game was 2 years after Rad Racer for NES, and that game was an amazing racer. But the racing isn’t what made the game good. It was that you had a garage and a budget, and you had to soup up your car to race.
But there’s one feature about this game I want to mention. In your garage, when you wanted to swap out parts of your car, you had to do a little bit of pseudo-mechanic work to do it. If you wanted to upgrade or replace your transmission, you had to unfasten the bolts that held it to the chassis, lift it out, and set the new one and bolt it in. If you wanted to change the tires, you had to lift the car on the jack. Compare this to the most current chop-shop gaming in Grand Theft Auto V, where all you do is select it on a menu and it magically appears on your cars.
Now, I’m not saying Street Rod got right what GTA V got wrong. But I’m saying that when games add a tiny bit of immersion to them, your brain fills in more of the narrative. What feels like navigating menus in GTA V, felt like working in a garage in Street Rod. And there’s a world of difference between those two things.
I really do enjoy GTA V, and it’s got some simulation in places where other games don’t even try. But every once and awhile you find a feature in a classic game that’s fallen by the wayside, not because it was bad or superfluous, but just because nobody since has thought to add it.
When you make your game, consider those little bits of immersive flare, and where even the slightest deviation from the standard tricks of video game abstraction could win you a young and impressionable fan for life.
"You dropped your transmission, you clutz!"
Man. How do you forget stuff like that.
I am going to try my best to be a calm hindu cow over this whole EverQuest Next thing. There are players who wanted it to be EverQuest 1 revisited, and there are players who want it to be something totally new. According to the press releases, it’s going to be something totally new, so the EQ1 holdovers are dealing with the stages of grief. I have to just let them go through this phase without confrontation, and just look forward to the game I’m expecting without baiting or responding to emotionally charged trollish comments, no matter how eloquent.
Some people are just sad that this game won’t be what they wanted. Some are saying that the new game is doomed to fail, that you can’t make an MMO without the tank-healer-DPS trinity, that ‘voxel generation’ is just an in-vogue gamer buzzword that doesn’t add to gameplay, and that there’s no way the AI they are promising will live up to its required capacity to make the game feel alive.
To that, there are only two outcomes. The haters are right, and the game is doomed to fail, or the haters are wrong and the game will live up to the expectations. In neither of these outcomes to the developers cut bait and say “the detractors are right, we’d better scrap the project and rebuild EverQuest 1”. That is not an option on the table.
So you can be a hater and be smug about hoping something novel in the world of WoW-clones crashes and burns, or you can be prepared to be wrong and live a bitter life while others explore new online virtual world possibilities. Those are your choices, I hope you’re comfortable with them.
Or y’know, do the converse of that and either take off and don’t come back, or hop on the bandwagon and enjoy our voxel-generated destructible cake with us. I can’t promise it’s not a lie, but it’s an entertaining lie, and in the end, isn’t that the real truth?
The answer is, stop being a hater, hater. Sorry you didn’t get the cake you ordered.