Sunday, 3 July 2011

Adeptus Titanicus: Design Objectives

I'll work up the specs later; this is just about what I want to do with this game.

Part of designing a game, particularly a derivative game, basically the equivalent of a sequel, is to figure out what the previous game did right, what it did wrong, and only then steaming ahead with the wonderful idea you have in your bright little mind. In the previous Adeptus Titanicus article I mentioned what I thought that previous designs had done wrong, and probably not enough of what they did right.

The original Adeptus Titanicus game, for example, was a hodge-podge of dead-end procedures. By that I mean they generally involved things like "Roll a dice, on 3+ something happens, otherwise nothing happens." However, it involved models with modular parts, for customization, and reduced paper-work by tracking shields using the base of the model. It also included terrain, taking the notion of the game involving a board and terrain as well as players, models, and dice. Conversely, again, it didn't expand well, and emphasized the representational over the strategic and puzzle-aspects of gaming.

Wait, what do I mean here? Consider table-top wargames to have three aspects:

1. Representational. While abstract, these games are supposed to be about something. Players will be dissatisfied if abstractions are arbitrary and call them "unrealistic", much like how players used to complain about how weapons like frag-grenades in Warhammer 40,000 3rd edition were abstracted to a bonus in assault rather than functioning like shooting weapons: neither mechanism was realistic in any fashion, but some people complained that the abstraction representing grenades was unrealistic because they felt that grenades were the sort of thing that should be shooting weapons rather than an assault bonus. Of course, "shooting weapons" here refers to the set of rules called "shooting weapons" in Warhammer 40,000, and so on.

What this means is that what a game is supposed to be about should map onto the rules in a consistent and logical way, because the players will read it the opposite way, that the rules map onto the game subject in a consistent and logically way, to whit an aesthetically pleasing way.

2. Strategic. The strategic aspect of a game is, essentially, the aspect of games treated by mathematical game theory. The strategic aspect of game involves the mechanisms by which players interact to agree on a particular result in the game. In the Hawk-Dove game, for example, players agree to play the paired strategies hawk-dove, dove-hawk, hawk-hawk, and dove-dove. This is, essentially, the competitive part of the game, where players strive to outplay one another.

3. Problem-solving. The problem-solving aspect of a game is often its most important, but least discussed. Basically the problem-solving aspect of a game is the amount of work and intellectual engagement required for players to not only solve the strategic puzzles presented by the game, but also to actuate the game mechanics. This is especially relevant in table-top wargaming where the players are the computers that move the game from one state to the next, using a set of instructions (aka rules).

Frequently when one reads amateur, or even 'professional', game designs it is clear that there is a relationship between a designer's attempts to implement 'realism' and the needless complexity of the rules they've produced. Indeed, some morons aver that realism requires complexity, presumably because the real, as represented to them through science, seems complicated. But in science there is a value in parsimony and elegance, in user-friendliness, that is not often understood by laymen ill-equipped to understand that complexity is artifactual. Likewise in game design, all else being equal, elegantly squaring representation with strategically interesting problems is better than doing otherwise.

There's an astonishingly stupid book about useability out there called Don't Make Me Think where the author argues that people are idiots and get easily frustrated by complex web-page design. While this is true, what he manages to ignore, fetishizing empirical studies of web design without regard to all possible web design or indeed cognitive science, is that people are fine with thinking. Indeed, people love to think, it's what we do all damned day, even when zoning out in front of television (a device so convenient it thinks for you!). The problem is that the author construes thinking as the difficult and painful sort that happens when a neural structure must change and adapt rather than pleasantly optimizing.

So yes, people confronted by inelegant web design will satisfice rather than maximize their web-page experience when they are not incentivized to maximize! In other words, you not only need to make commercial web design as conventional as possible to take advantage of 'lazy clickers', those people who want to get their product and get out, you need to make commercial web design engaging and rewarding of interaction.

This matters in games because the game is the goal. Games like Poker and other forms of gambling can be unengaging games because they have a goal beyond themselves, one that turns a collection of rules and strategies into something engaging. Tabletop wargames need to be engaging both as social lubricants for nerds, and as arenas of competition for armed-chair generals, and especially engaging for people trying the game for the first time, who are playing the game for itself.

Settlers of Catan is a good example of an engaging game thanks to the trading phase. Bohnanza is another, almost a distillation of Settlers of Catan, by encapsulating the game of bargaining within a framework to make that bargaining meaningful and engaging (i.e. a set of values determined by the cards and their scarcity, a demand, a supply, and a zero-sum endpoint). Apples to Apples likewise provides an elegant solution to engagement by making the number of cards played discontinuous with the number of players and making the semantics inter-subjective. The inter-subjectivity part is especially elegant because it sweeps the table of any objective scoring criteria, and the inevitable friction that will occur when that criteria is mis-applied.

These are mostly board-games, or even just card-games. What do they have to do with Adeptus Titanicus? Well, to an important degree, they illustrate concepts that I want to involve in the design of this game. I could have started by talking about turn sequences or movement values, or even the number of shields a Titan should have, but that would have been building a house on sand. These three aspects need to be held in tension with one another if the game is to be successful. Adeptus Titanicus II, for example, failed on all three accounts, being a collection of rules ported from other games and joined together with no real regard to what was supposed to make a game of Titanic combat worth playing.

So what does make a game of Titanic combat worth playing? Well, what appeals to me about the combats described in Titan and Titanicus is the emphasis put on the crew, the importance of information, and the environment. Titanic combat needs to be more interesting than just rolling a bunch of dice in the right order.

As I see it, players should face the following problems

1. Location management
2. Position management
3. Resource management

#1 means that picking the configuration of the board should be as important to players as picking the Titan or Titans that they wish to use for play.

#2 means that Titan interactions should be relational: whether one piece can address another piece should depend upon the states of both pieces, as well as that of the board.

#3 means more than just husbanding the collections of resources that make up Titans, but also giving players strong reasons to husband them. For example, rather than giving projectile weapons a limited amount of ammunition, there should be some cost to using them or risk of jamming or something. They should also be expendable on more things that other Titans: cover and crew and whatnot should also be considered resources.

Right, there it is. So far so good...

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