The appeal of common sense: Intuitive gameplay

I’ve played video games for 21 years. Adventure, rhythm, role-playing, platformer, first-person shooter, and of course strategy – I’ve played virtually every genre, with the notable exception of sports games, at one time or another. But for all that, there is one slight problem.


I’m not actually that great at playing games.


Oh, for platformers and shooters and whatnot*, I have a ready-made excuse: I have poor reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But even when it comes to RPGs and strategy games, if I’m playing single-player, my skill level plateaus out at “pretty good”. I’m not terrible: I’ve won Civilization V on the second-highest difficulty, Immortal (which, according to the Steam achievements page, only 1% of players have done) and I’ve won on the third-highest difficulty, Emperor, with just one city. But you won’t see me recording speedruns, or going for the really extreme self-imposed challenges, such as beating games without using special abilities or researching better weapons. Why?


The surface explanation is very simple. As with anything else in life, learning how to play video games very well takes a lot of work — and for me, that defeats the whole point of playing games.  But that can’t be the whole story, because plenty of gamers do take the effort to reach that level of skill, whether it’s by practicing aiming and movement in a shooter or by poring over the equations that govern a strategy game.  So again, I have to ask, why?


The answer is that, even when it comes to strategy, I don’t treat games as systems to be mastered; I treat them as stories to be acted out through my decisions.  Instead of, say, examining the rules in minute detail, or whipping out a spreadsheet to optimise a character build, I will just opt for choices that seem both cool and intuitively reasonable. Anecdotally, I’m not alone in this, judging by the number of other people who also like to play as “builders” in the Civilization series (which, to my knowledge, has historically rewarded rushing on higher difficulty levels).  And once I realized this, several game design choices fell into place for me.


Consider the use of shooter mechanics in RPGs such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3. Which is more intuitive: using elaborate D&D rules, as in the case of Neverwinter Nights, or “hide behind cover, aim gun at target, fire gun”? Seen in this light, Bioware’s choice to make Mass Effect 2 (which I haven’t played but which I have read about) an action-RPG, streamlining away traditional RPG elements in the process,  makes sense as a way to take the game further down the “intuitive” path.


Meanwhile, in the strategy space, the Total War games are the poster child of intuitive game design. The visually splendid way they present combat, with lovingly detailed armies of 3D soldiers marching and swinging their swords, isn’t just a way to bamboozle players into not noticing bad AI – it allows us to play using common sense. When I can see a line of heavily armoured knights galloping toward a clump of men on foot with their backs turned, I don’t have to look up a rulebook to predict what’ll happen next. And I think that is a major part of the series’ appeal.


Intuitive gameplay is harder to deliver in some settings than in others. The classic example is science fiction: in Civilization, it’s not hard to guess what inventing the wheel, or the concept of chivalry, or gunpowder, will give me. In a science fiction game, on the other hand, how would I instinctively know what “moleculartronics” is good for? As a result, I think science fiction games can’t afford to leave details under the hood: one of my complaints with Sword of the Stars, the space opera 4X game from Kerberos,  was how uninformative the game was. Determining how exactly a cruiser equipped with “meson cannons” would fare against one with a “particle beam” was the exact opposite of my earlier example of the knights and infantry.


Does intuitive gameplay mean there’s no element of skill? Of course it doesn’t. Returning to Total War as an example, there’s still skill involved in planning a campaign, deploying and manoeuvring troops, timing a charge, and so on. But it does mean that, again, a player can generally rely on common sense and “generalist” skills, such as the ability to assess the situation on a map and then choose the appropriate terrain to make a stand, rather than on deeply game/ruleset-specific skills.


As a game design goal, then, “intuitive” gameplay is a worthy one. It makes learning curves less intimidating, and it helps gamers like me have fun: we can play to win at the same time that we create stories from our gameplay experiences. After all, “I swung my knights around and rolled up his line!”  is a much more exciting tale than, “I applied a +2 modifier to my knights, then multiplied it by 1.5x, at the same time he was suffering from a 15% penalty!” It’s not for everyone or for every genre, but it’s still something that belongs in a designer’s toolkit. And it helps explain the appeal of many games, such as Total War, that can’t just be explained away by “ooh, look at the pretty graphics”.


Returning to the original question of my skill: am I any better at intuitive games than I am at their fiddlier, crunchier brethren? Probably not, but at least I can pretend I am…


* These are the genres at the “Action” spectrum of the Escapist magazine’s genre wheel, which I discussed a while back.

Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?


Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.


There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.


Firstly, as mentioned in the Three Moves Ahead podcast: at the scale at which 4X games (and probably most other strategy games) take place, you never come face to face with your victims. Nowhere is the saying that “one death is a tragedy, but a million are a statistic” truer than in gaming. Any RPG worth its salt will drive home the consequences of your evil actions, whether they be acts of mass murder such as detonating a nuclear bomb or planting a biological weapon, or “merely” kidnapping a baby. But in Civilization, an atrocity really is just a statistic. In Civilization IV, there’s a civic (social system) named “Slavery” which allows you to speed up a city’s construction by sacrificing population. You can probably imagine what this means in human terms: overseers flogging slaves bloody, monuments rising in the background as exhausted and half-starved labourers breathe their last. In game terms? Your city’s population goes down by a few points. The same goes for wars of aggression and dispossession.


Conversely, the squad-level strategy games (X-Com) and tactical RPGs (Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy Tactics) do not have this problem, at least when it comes to your own soldiers. In these games, instead of a vast empire, you only control a few, very distinct characters at one time. As a result, you grow attached to your soldiers. You’ll move heaven and earth to rescue an injured member of your squad, sometimes even at the expense of your objectives (as memorably described here by Rob Zacny). If all else fails, there is always the “reload” button, and I assure you I’m not the only one who abuses that. Feeling bad for leading my soldiers to their deaths in TRPGs resembles agonising over moral choices in RPGs, but is far removed from gleeful conquest sprees in 4X games. And that is a direct consequence of the scale of each of these genres.


Secondly, strategy games (and 4X games) are usually zero-sum. The game runs for a finite time before coming to an end, and ultimately there can be only one winning player or team. If my rival in Civilization IV is close to winning the space race, and thus, the game, it is in my interest to unleash a barrage of nuclear missiles to slow down his/her progress. The folly of this approach in real life is obvious. But in Civilization, I don’t care how much suffering I cause so long as I meet my victory conditions, because then the game will be over. This also applies to domestic policy. Because strategy games, unlike real life, are not open-ended, the well-being of my citizens is irrelevant except insofar as I enjoy playing a benevolent ruler, or to the extent that it contributes to my win.


Thirdly, crime, in this context, does pay. The size of a national economy in real life is determined by factors including the amount of labour employed (how many people have jobs and how many hours are they working?), the amount of capital employed (what tools, plant and infrastructure are they using?), and, crucially, the productivity of each hour worked and of each dollar of capital (one person with modern machinery can probably do the work of 100 Bronze Age labourers; bridges to nowhere might cost a lot, but they don’t contribute much to productivity). Games, though, tend to make raw population the most important metric, and they tie the population an empire can support to how much territory it controls. This has many consequences for the way in which they model reality, some of which I’ll discuss in future posts. But for current purposes, the key implication is that if a larger nation is richer, more successful, and ultimately more likely to win the game, then I have an incentive to gobble up as many neighbours as I can in a quest for Lebensraum (subject to any checks and balances in the game, such as badboy/infamy in Europa Universalis or corruption/upkeep in Civilization).


In conclusion, several things explain why we so often resort to conquest, aggression, slavery, and tyranny in strategy (especially 4X) games. Saying “it’s just a game” is no answer, because it fails to explain why we play other genres that offer moral choice, such as RPGs, more humanely than we play strategy games. And just because these things happened in real life, and they are presented as options in the game, doesn’t itself explain why we then choose those options. But we can point to other factors that do answer that question: we choose them when our victims are depersonalised and reduced to numbers on a map screen; when the game has a definite end, so we don’t have to worry about ongoing or long-term consequences so long as we win; and when aggression does, in fact, make it easier to win because the game’s economic model places territory and population foremost in determining national power.


Do these factors set our behaviour in stone, then? Not necessarily. Each can be addressed by other genres, and even by merely changing the way we design grand strategy and 4X games. Depersonalisation is not an issue with squad-level strategy and tactical RPGs, and even when the game takes place at a scale where we never encounter individuals, developers can try to make us aware of the toll of our actions – that is my limited understanding of Introversion Software’s DEFCON. The players don’t care about anything except victory? I would think that ongoing games, such as MMOs, would require a more long-term attitude – and even though most games can’t be ongoing, why not set up a scoring system to give bonus points to happy, well-managed empires (Civilization actually does this), or to players who refrain from wars of aggression? Your economic model encourages territorial expansionism? Play up the role of technology, institutions, governance and human capital to reward players who invest in nation-building as opposed to nation-grabbing. For the player of a strategy game (particularly a 4X game), power often corrupts. But by understanding why, we can design games so as to reduce that temptation, provide players with more interesting choices – and encourage them to build empires that deserve to stand the test of time.



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Strategy games that built to climactic endings

How does a strategy game provide a satisfying late-game experience?

This, I think, is a two-pronged problem. Part 1 is avoiding the things that actively drag on the endgame: micromanagement (see my previous post) and the snowball problem, when someone – usually the human player in a single-player game – runs away with the game early on, turning the endgame into a tedious exercise in mopping up. In this post, though, I’ll focus on Part 2, which is the reverse: designing the game so that it builds to a tense climax, much like the traditional three-act plot.

Here, I think the highly open-ended nature of Paradox games works against them. In contrast, I can think of at least three games that set the player a clear victory condition that could only be triggered during the endgame: the Civilization series, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and Rome: Total War (if you played a Roman faction):

Continue reading “Strategy games that built to climactic endings”

Strategy games and the grind of micromanagement

Grindy late-game micromanagement is an endemic issue with strategy games, especially 4X and TBS games. Normally, this is “simply” a matter of having to look after too many cities, provinces, and/or units. If I never have to spend another hour scripting dozens of mages in Dominions 3, it will be too soon.

But several games throw additional busywork at you. Pollution, in the earlier Civilization games, was a great example of this – populous, industrialised cities would emit pollution from time to time, which you then had to detail workers to clean up. As your cities grew richer and richer, and in turn, filthier and filthier, so did your workload multiply. I am not sorry to see the back of that mechanic – I much prefer Civilization IV’s “health” metric, which is simply a city malus that doesn’t need to be constantly babysat.

However, I think the prize for my least favourite exercise in micromanagement has to come from Paradox games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, etc). You see, when citizens are angry in these games, they form an armed rebellion that appears in one or more provinces. Individual uprisings usually aren’t dangerous, but they do require your time and attention to swat. But when you control dozens of unhappy provinces – say, because the Protestant Reformation is sweeping Europe, or you conquered a large empire – the game turns into a relentless exercise of whack-a-mole. Move the army to crush a rebellion in Kent! Move it back north to crush a rebellion in Edinburgh! Oh no, the people of Kent are rising up again! It’s enough to, in these games, make me play small countries and create puppet states rather than embarking on massive land grabs – the sheer hassle of constantly suppressing uprisings is just more trouble than it’s worth.

(Note: I’m in the midst of listening to this episode of strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead, on which Chris King, the lead designer of Paradox’s Victoria 2, is a guest. Hopefully they’ll bring up my issue of concern!)

EDIT: Well, I listened to the podcast, and Chris did talk about making rebellions rarer, but stronger and nastier when they do occur. That makes sense, and it calls to mind Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a “series of interesting decisions”: “how to deal with a once-in-several-decades civil war” being a much more interesting decision than “march them up to Edinburgh, march them down to Kent…”  The other idea I’ve seen, and I think it was on the Quarter to Three forums (link to the right), was to use economic/production maluses to represent lower-level unrest, similar to the Civ IV example I mentioned above.  I suspect it’s way too late to implement such a feature in the present generation of Paradox games — such as the upcoming EU3: Divine Wind — but it’s one I would like to see in future games. Maluses are less work than spawning enemies!