Friday, 12 September 2008

Hard Core Spore: Civilisation Phase

(You might want to read parts one and two before starting this).

Save file bitching aside, the Civilisation phase plays like a complete game, which is why people seem to have tolerated it more. This involves capturing spice rigs to generate cash, organising the 3 possible building types in your city to maximum income while managing happiness, and building and spamming up to 9 different types of unit (land, sea, air flavours of military, economic and religious units) to attack other cities and capture their rigs. Graphically it impresses, particularly when you qualify for air units where it reminds me a lot of the space battles in Babylon 5 - in fact the vehicle builds seem almost directly inspired by the Babylon 5 style Amiga generated ship graphics.

I did encounter what appeared to be actual bugs, however. It seemed relatively random whether or not I could replace turrets when I opened the City Planner - sometimes I could pick them up and dispose of them, other times I could not. And off-shore rigs appear to be completely impossible to destroy using military naval units. I left a small armada bombing a rig for approximately 20 minutes to no effect.

The Civilisation phase plays nothing like the Civilisation series, however - which is a good thing. I really enjoy the technology tree aspect of the Civilisation series, but find the turn based combat painful and unit micromanagement unnecessarily complicated. The combat in this Spore phase plays more like a 3d version of Defcon. Which is a crying shame, because Defcon is far easier to manage, and built by an independent gaming studio without the entire resources and best minds of Electronic Arts behind it.

Having played with the Spore prototypes and been criticised in the comments thread for not realising the game is designed to be simple enough for non-gamers to pick up, I think it is fair to say if that were truly the case, the Spore team should have spent a lot more time on the camera controls and unit selection in the game. Making a game 3d, as Soren Johnson pointed out with Civilisation IV, adds a huge amount of design overhead to the overall game. While he was probably referring to the art assets required, it is easy to forget how complex a good 3d camera design system is. And from the Creature phase onwards, the camera design in Spore is inferior to most 3d games.

This points to a real problem for anyone designing procedural content in 3 dimensions: you have to account for all the possible edge cases: such as moving through vegetation, standing on the edge of a cliff and trying to target things while you are on an uphill slope. This last case was the first time I had real camera problems in the Creature phase (as opposed to just losing my allies off-camera). I was trying to recruit creatures from a nest which stood on the edge of a slope: when I was on the slope, the camera could not show me the creatures, which meant I had no way of determining what action they were performing in order to reply.

The fact that the camera is free-roaming, and not, for example, locked to true north at the top of the screen is part of the problem. I don't believe this is necessary, but it may have been done to allow the player to work around some of the complexity problems caused by allowing units to appear in front and behind buildings. In which case, why does it appear to be impossible to pan rotate the view while you are in the City Planner. This makes it painful to try to decommission vehicle units, as this is the only screen you can do it on.

Note that this is compounded by the fact that it is not actually possible to lock the camera to free-roaming only. Instead you end up with a partially free roaming camera, which when you lose control such as while trying to recruit creatures or use a planner, ends up reorienting itself to spoil whatever position you last went to. The massive sweeping pans, which are intriguing in the Tribal phase, and initially impressive in the Civilisation phase, complicate the camera by causing massive latency when moving from one part of the map to another.

Selecting units, particular when units are seperated on the z-axis such as a mix of air and ground units, is also painful. An initial improvement would be to differentiate Ctrl clicking for individual units and Shift clicking for selecting a range of units. Ctrl key grouping is almost a convention in the RTS genre, and it would not hurt at all to support this, without complicating the user interface. But the real fix would be a top down view, allowing quick selection and dispatch of individual unit types.

These problems just don't occur in two dimensional games. And Spore type strategy games, such as Defcon and the Spore prototypes, can clearly be played as two-dimensional, as the z axis on the planet surface only serves as a height map. Of course, a 2 dimensional Spore would never have sold.

The Civilisation phase game play is fine. But that is not enough for a game with the unbridled ambition of Spore. And I think that is the real cause of the disappointment felt by gamers about this game. We don't just want the ability to cutomise our unit appearance - we want the ability to completely customise our units. Having three sliders: speed, health and power, just isn't enough - especially after the choices available in the Creature phase. I want to be able to customize the range, firepower and rate of fire of my weapons. I want to design stealth and detector units, troop and vehicle carriers, in short: I want to have the ability to recreate Starcraft in the Civilisation phase. And I don't believe it would have been that hard to do.

Have a read of the Designing a Magic System series of articles I've been writing. You should start to get a feel for what I'm talking about: in the next few parts of the series I'll be going into more detail about how to build ability systems. Imagine this translated into the Civilisation phase, with different building types needed to build new units and acquire new technologies. This would not be the meh feeling that you get when you currently play through the game: this would raise the hair on the back of your neck as you unlock the possibilities. Starcraft already has an elemental system as I define it: small, medium and large vehicles take differing levels of damage from explosion and concussive attacks. Imagine starting the game with only spice harvester units, then building different turret types, then finally different small, then medium, then large vehicles as you spread out across your planet while you encounter and have to counter different units built by other players and downloaded from the Sporepedia.

Imagine building your own huge machines, the mechanical equivalent of Epics to rain death down on your opponents. Have tens or hundreds of your individual creatures swarming the enemy with small arms designed and built by yourself. That is another of the real crimes of the Civilisation phase: taking your creatures out of the game and replacing them only with vehicles, a crime to be rehabilitated by playing lots of Darwinia.

But if the Civilisation phase is the real Starcraft - just misnamed - then what should the Tribal phase haven been? I'm going to suggest the Sims. Your tribesmen have individual names, a village that they can build and decorate, other tribes that they can go out to encounter. Replace tribes with the social cliques of the Sims, and the ability to evolve the social structures - an aspect missing from the game as Stephen Totilo has pointed out and an intriguing game concept results - Sims: The Aliens - if you will.

And rumour has it, that Will Wright might be able to organise some sort of cross-licensing deal between the two.

1 comment:

James said...

It seemed relatively random whether or not I could replace turrets when I opened the City Planner - sometimes I could pick them up and dispose of them, other times I could not.

All of the times I noticed this, they appeared to be pointing down as far as they could go. I think there might be some sort of glitch where if they're up against their virtual traverse stop, they don't select properly. It's also not clear why they would be pointing down like that; perhaps the "lead the target" part of the targeting ends up jamming them against the stops when a unit falls after being shot down?

Incidentally, the main reason sea units are weak against air units seems to be the slow speed of their projectile combined with an insufficient target lead. I'm not sure how much this was deliberate design intent.

In which case, why does it appear to be impossible to pan rotate the view while you are in the City Planner. This makes it painful to try to decommission vehicle units, as this is the only screen you can do it on.

The City Planner view is best thought of in polar coordinates, with the origin at the city center. You can rotate the camera around the origin in azimuth or elevation by dragging with the right mouse button, and zoom in and out. (I'm not actually sure whether the zoom is set up to match a zoom lens or a camera moving in and out, which are slightly different technically but give similar effects.) This makes a certain sort of design sense, as the screen logically focused on a single city is also literally focused on it. Operationally, I find that adjusting the elevation seems to be a bit flaky, but it is manageable.

I decommission units from the main screen icons on the right side; if you have a unit selected, you can click the little red X in the upper-right of the unit's icon box to decommission it. This wasn't covered in the tutorial or immediately obvious, but works pretty well once you know it. Most of my first game I thought there wasn't a way to decommission units, which is a problem if you have too much of your limited force count tied up in now-useless ground units once you have conquered your starting continent. I consider this a flaw in the tutorial / documentation rather than the interface itself.

Selecting units, particular when units are separated on the z-axis such as a mix of air and ground units, is also painful.

I agree that this could be handled better, but I have found acceptable options. If I'm trying to select everything, moving the camera up to near-vertical and drawing a large box seems to work reasonably well. If I'm trying to select most of a set, selecting all of them and then control-unselecting units from the right side icons is usually workable. If I'm trying to select only ground or only air units, moving the camera down nearer ground level, and drawing an appropriate horizontal rectangular box can select either the near-ground or high-altitude units; I think of it as drawing a perspective square around the units if I was in a more vertical view.

In practice, I mostly select from the right side icons, since they have the status indicators. For example, once you've bought out a city with an economic civ, you'll have a variety of vehicles suddenly idle as the trade route cancels that you want to redirect to the next city. They can be all over the map physically, but by control-clicking the icons which aren't shown as in progress to an explicit destination or actively trading already, they can easily be sent to the next city no matter where they happen to be. The main exception is when I've just bought a new set of vehicles, in which case the camera is already near the city I'm buying them from, and it's faster to just draw a box.