Monday, 8 September 2008

Hard Core Spore: The Tide Pool & Creature Phases

It appears to be fashionable to bash Spore's difficulty and complexity as of late. Will Wright has defended the difficulty curve, while various commentators have called out the cell, or tide pool phase, as the most immediately enjoyable, while criticising other phases as perhaps too simple: particularly the Tribal phase.

You can expect no less from me than bandwagon jumping and general game-design grumpiness. I tried to hold off buying Spore on account of the initial reviews and general drift of dissatisfaction: I knew I'd end up writing something along the lines of what you see below - with little to no chance of any suggestions ever being adopted. I'm going to defend my position as taking advice from the best: I started playing Spore on hard, and have no intention of dropping the difficulty level. That choice is the best argument I have against Will Wright's difficulty defense - hard should be hard, exposing the sharp edges of the game design and allow me to impale myself on them.

And I incredibly enjoyed the Cell phase as a result.

On hard, your rapidly evolving critter is battered and blown about by creatures of a scale and difficulty well above what you have earned. The scale mechanic works brilliantly: especially when emphasised by the floating plant masses in the tide pool which you feed from as a herbivore. One minute they are too big too bite into, forcing you to nibble the frond ends while avoiding fellow browsers: the next, you grow to a size when you can swallow the entire plant whole. The Cell phase forced me to think and feed like a herbivore, run instead of fight, retreat instead of threaten.

That is the Cell phase is not without some design problems.

It is too easy to call for a mate and use the temporary invulnerability given due to the mating dance to avoid attack. This works well because you do not have to get in contact with your mate: moving in proximity for a few seconds – even half a screen away – initiates the dance. The sensitivity of this should be increased on the hard difficulty: so that you have to effectively ‘dock’ with your mate to initiate mating. For less mobile mates you should have to instead protect your mate from attack until you drift together.

There is also no directional bias that I could see: you can effectively swim in any direction without advantage or disadvantage. On hard, this usually isn’t a problem – certainly my experience was you spend a large proportion of time simply avoiding attack. The solution: make eyes useful. At the moment these don’t seem to contribute much. A simple edge of screen green glow for food – sensitivity dependent on the number of eyes you have – would contribute a directional imperative. I suspect you could extend this to the faster currents you occasionally find as well – indicated by a soft blow glow. The tactic would be to search for faster currents and use these to sweep an area quickly for food.

But the cell phase (or tide pool, as Spore seems to prefer calling it) is a charming game that doesn’t outlive its welcome. My experience of the Creature game on the other hand, was less impressive.

Much initial criticism seems to be around the friendship game that is the herbivores primary DNA acquisition mechanism. This involves the player locating other herbivore nests, and recruiting them using a simple mini-game, where the two species interact using Singing, Dancing, Charming and Posing. Both species need to have one of these recruitment mechanisms in common in order to interact effectively. Higher levels of a particular skill allow you to effectively ‘win’ the game quickly – until you encounter an equally skilled opponent. The mini game involves some pattern matching: you have to meet in the middle of a bar graph, where more skilled practitioners fill their side of the bar more, at the expense of slowing the amount you fill on the bar – and you are most effective when you match whichever technique your opponent uses, and time the process so that you start your turn filling when their bar reaches the peak, and before it reverses and quickly empties.

There are a number of problems with the mini game: rhythm games typically do poorly on the PC, but better on the console, there is a lack of feedback at which point the opponent’s bar has reached its peak, and the Hard difficulty seems to make it harder to fill the bars – making exact timing more important and possible to fail the game completely on the first round of play.

It also appears impossible to ‘lose’ the game – in the sense that you are free to repeat the recruitment with only a slight loss of face instead of the species you are attempting to persuade, instead becoming your enemy. I would rather a more sophisticated mini game mechanic: maybe a match 3 type game (more appropriate for a PC), which penalizes you more heavily for a loss on higher difficulty levels, but making the game slightly harder to lose. Higher levels of a recruitment skill are too useful – lower levels not useful enough – and there are distinct advantages to being a generalist as opposed to a specialist.

But the problems with the recruitment mini-game are outweighed by the lack of time pressure on a herbivore to interact with these allies in the first place. A herbivore should have a feeling of constantly being hunted – conveyed brilliantly in the cell game, but lost in much of the creature phase.

The migration portion of the Creature game works well for this: there is a constant feeling of being under threat, sneaking around enemy nests, and staying on the run, leaving your less quick or stealthy allies behind to be rend limb from limb while you escape. (It is such a shame that combat works as badly as it does: poor camera control makes distance almost impossible to judge in the midst of melee, and frequently loses your allies behind you).

But once you have migrated, there is this indeterminable period during which you are free to wander the landscape, under minimal threat unless you stupidly stray too close to a carnivore nest, and at little sense of competition or nature red in tooth and maw. There is no pressure to survive: the food timer that pressures a carnivore into seeking out other nests and hunting, requires only you occasionally side trek to a nearby marked fruit grove and snack on some apples. The occasional Epic keeps you on your toes, but not frequently enough.

I would like to see much more pressure on herbivores than currently in the creature phase, and competition, not just cooperation between herbivores, would be a good place to start. Unfortunately, the only mechanics I can see, start to introduce RTS elements into the Creature phase. My suggestion follows:

At the moment, your nest starts surrounded by a number of fruit groves. These should become a resource for herbivores to control and contest. As you feed on a fruit grove, near your nest, you should ‘capture’ the grove, marking it green and start to encourage your nest mates to travel between the nest and the grove to feed. This increases the total number of creatures of your species, which starts to collect DNA points. Other herbivores do likewise: if two sets of herbivores browse at the same grove it becomes contested, and marked with a red.

Contested groves are resolved in a number of ways: competing herbivores fight each other at contested groves – the winner captures the grove. Equally, you can recruit the contesting herbivore, which recaptures the grove for you. Or you can go straight to the herbivores nest, and attempt to charm them there – capturing all their groves in addition to allying them. The number of contested groves determines the level of ill-will between the two species: dropping by one rank for each contested grove, until war breaks out and the herbivore starts attacking your species on sight. Competitive herbivores should be able to recruitment your groves back off you, either at the grove or through having a delegation travel to your nest – should you neglect your recruitment attributes.

Carnivores, meanwhile, don't seem to interact much outside their nest. Instead, they should prey on herbivores at nearby groves. When a carnivore has killed enough herbivores, they will discover the herbivore nest, and start attacking it. It should be possible for you to train carnivores, that is have them spot and follow you, allowing you to lead them to attack other carnivore or competing herbivore nests.

Note that these mechanics only have to kick in on the hard difficulty, if required, and deliberately provide mechanics to minimise the amount of nest-defending you have to do – allowing you to still explore the environment as you currently do. Detecting and killing or training nearby carnivore nests becomes important, for which there is little incentive currently, and there is competitive pressure between nearby herbivores for resources that you need to exploit. Ultimately the way to defeat herbivores is the same as present. And migration provides a handy reset mechanic, allowing you to start out in another area, should you end up in a position surrounded by enemies.

How is your experience of the game so far? Do you agree or disagree with what I've seen? Have I missed anything? Comments welcome.

(It turns out I got annoyed with the Tribes phase as well, in part two of this article).


VRBones said...

For a challenge that eerily reminded me of roguelikes, try starting a carnivore cell on hard mode and complete the pond without dying. Finally did it after 73 tries.

At first I was really let down by the naffness of the creature, tribal and civ modes and had me pining for the pond again. Space mode is a whole other beast though. If your computer can handle it, it's got enough depth on its own to pick the game back up off the canvas. Reminded me a lot of Space Rangers II.

I'd agree that herbivores in creature mode are a little bland. I like the idea of contested zones, but would possibly implement it as a resource gathering game. This would play like contesting stations in reailroad tycoon. Once it is contested, each side has 2 minutes to gather as much food from that zone. The one that gathers the most takes over the zone, effectively starving out the opposition. You could gather more by flooding it with gatherers, by posting sentries, or by becoming allies and mutually sharing the resource. Every lost resource for another species reduces their relationship with you, but also makes them weaker in numbers. This should self/balance a little as it would be easy for the player to get at least one area by flooding it with people, whereas defending more than 2 contested areas at once would be almost impossible.

I agree that the thing that's missing in the creature game is the 'tension'. There is no feeling of being bullied, or any reason to start thinking that maybe war would be a better option. In space mode there definitely is that tension where the land grab leads to more interesting ethical decisisons.
Even though the fight or flight

Cody said...

The entire game seems to have strayed from the original elements displayed in the 'demonstration' given to several review teams and in organized expos as viewable on You-Tube; what I mean by this is that it seems that in the last couple of months of development they removed many concepts that had already been implemented (including but not limited to 'procedural action learning', a system involving having to guard your nest from egg-hunting carnivores, and the procedural mating/egg-raising system that caused the player to have to guard the eggs while they developed in order to be able to evolve his creature). Is there a particular reason for this? Approaching a broader audience last minute? Hmm, just speculating, and you seem like intelligent people who could mull questions over with some modicum of forethought.

Andrew Doull said...

Cody: I agree that Spore has the feel of material being cut to meet a final deadline.

Do you have a reference for the procedural action learning you're talking about?