Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Hard Core Spore: The Tribal Phase

(You may want to start with part one of this article).

In contrast to many commentators, and my experience with the Creature phase – I didn’t find anything particularly broken with the Tribes phase – in fact, I enjoyed it. The tribal persuasion mini game works a lot better: it turns out playing a simple rhythm game is a lot more interesting while you’re simultaneously worrying about an imminent attack on your home village. The creature game mechanics tie in nicely: both on the surface, as well as implicitly. I never stopped enjoying watching my creatures stealth up before rushing into attack, and I imagine creatures with spit, strike and other creature mechanics are a lot more effective in tribes combat. The capture the village mechanic shapes the game nicely, and up until the mid game the experience works well. The only problem with the Tribes game is that it lacks scale: you only have to capture 5 villages in order to win.

Unfortunately, while the Cell phase is unique, and the Creature phase brings a number of interesting twists on the single player MMO genre, the Tribe phase makes the mistake of coming up against the juggernaut in the room: Starcraft. Pacman and Diablo, the inspiration for the first two parts of Spore are great, memorable games that influenced a generation of gamers. Starcraft is perhaps one of the greatest four or five games ever designed – including non-computer games such as Chess and Go. To compete, designing RTS-lite game play just doesn’t cut it.
The challenge then: design a game worthy of associating itself with the RTS genre using the existing Tribe phase assets. I’m not expecting Starcraft 1.5 – just something that has a passing resemblance to the mechanics that made that game great.

It’s always worthwhile listing the assets we have to play with:
• A home building which breeds units and gets bigger as the player advances through the game
• A fireplace and food store from which units can eat to recover
• Fruit and meat, two different sources of food which are collected in two different ways – from fruit trees and hunting animals respectively
• A number of different technology buildings which the player can use to equip their units with musical instruments, weapons and improved food gathering techniques
• The ability to befriend, fight or give things to other tribes
• The ability to heal by either being at home base, or equipping healing rods
• The ability to capture wild animals as pets (a mechanic I was not even aware of)
• A variety of different verbs (collect food, attack, play musical instruments, stand around and talk)
• The ability to design outfits and clothing
• A number of different special abilities inherited from earlier phases of the game

The early game in Starcraft is a unique balance of three different strategies: turtle (defend), rush (zerg) and tech. A turtling player will get an advantage against a rushing player, a rushing player will beat a teching player, and a tech should be able to win the game provided they survive the early game – implicitly getting a victory over a turtle player. The next strategic decision beyond building units and either attacking immediately (rushing) or defending (turtling) is when to expand to a second base / resource gathering point: do it too early and get caught doing it, and you’ll lose. Do it successfully and you’ll get a massive head start. The end game is built up on the balance of early successes and a steady attrition of units: with an escalating game of whomever is able to build the best counterstrategy to the opponent’s unit mix. At all points of play, having intelligence about what the enemy is doing is critical – in a single player game, this is less important and may not end up being a consideration.

The first mistake that the Tribes phase makes is to tie expansion with technology. Capturing a village not only gives you a long term strategic advantage of less competition: but you also capture the enemy’s technologies – in fact, this is the only way to tech up.

It is tempting to associate the Starcraft strategies with Spore tribe types: there are three – social (arising from herbivores), military (arising from carnivores) and industrious (from omnivores) which form a natural fit for the playing styles. Life for the military is nasty, brutal and short: rush tactics to the core. Social meanwhile are turtlers, and industrious are technology based. But at the same time, each Tribe type has different attack strategies: recruiting an enemy village for a social type requires a large number of relatively defenceless units including the village leader – whereas a military attack is less resource intense. There is actually a third ‘attack’ type: which I’ll associate with industrious tribes. It is possible to give gifts to villages to sway them your way. Industrious villages are omnivores so have more food sources, so more likely to be able to give these away – gifting is a natural fit, but not emphasised enough as an alternative in the existing Tribes game. It is this industrious gift game and the way technology is developed that I’ll use to work into a fuller Tribe game design.

It is important to note that you cannot recruit enemy villages: you can only attack them. Gift giving then can become a ‘diplomacy game’. As a rule change, any creature bearing gifts will not be attacked, regardless of village attitude to you: once you give a gift. A gift should be able to do one of two things, either make the village view you more positively, or to make the village view another species more negatively. To expand this, it should never be possible to completely ally a village through give giving: you should only be able to make them neutral at best. This allows the industrious player to tech up, while playing his enemies against each other.

So how to discover technology in the first place? There are two options: spying and research. Spying is the natural second half of the gift giving – once you have placated an enemy with a gift, you can get a number of research points towards a particular technology they have which you lack. This should simply be based on proximity to the enemy village. Once your spy stands there long enough: they get an ‘idea’ of what the enemy is doing. Returning to your village with the idea either grants you a piece of clothing, or a partial contribution to which ever current technology you are researching. The speech bubbles that two otherwise unoccupied villagers talk to each other with is used to represent this idea.

As for research: this is going to be key to balance the tech / turtle / rush mechanic. In the early game, a carnivore will be hunting animals, a herbivore gathering fruit and an omnivore doing both. Units will be sent out to spy and locate other villages. Having two guys standing around doing nothing but talking: the research mechanic for this game, needs to be sufficiently expensive foodwise so that the tech is disadvantaged against a rush that a turtle is not.

So what does an early game rush without weapons look like? To me, it feels a lot like stealing food. In fact, carnivores with their natural tendency to kill nearby animals are naturally going to reduce the number of wild animals stealing food from the player, omnivores and herbivores meanwhile need to be pressed enough gathering food and/or researching, that the cost of food being stolen by wild animals has to be high. In fact, I’d suggest that it should be impossible to prevent wild animals from stealing your food and that this mechanic should be a lot more frequent and pressing a problem in the early game: the only solution should be to predate nearby wild animal populations until they are reduced to zero. So the carnivore rush is actually a counter rush: at the initial stages of the game it is enough to have them deplete the wild life nearby to reduce the frequency of theft.

The start of the Tribes game therefore is one where you don’t interact with other tribes at all: the local challenges are getting enough food and keeping it, and building your first technology through research. There should be a variety of challenges at this stage: fighting wildlife or domesticating it, balancing research vs. food gathering, which do not to require any initial interaction with other tribes.

But it should be about now: having used up and exhausted local resources, that you start to naturally spread your area of occupation. This will happen for carnivores first: who consume a slower regenerating resource, then herbivores and finally omnivores. What will these first interactions look like?

At this stage, we’ll make the assumption that we still don’t have any technology, and see where that leads. Again, food theft points the way. If it is impossible to stop wild animals, it should be much harder to stop wily enemy tribesmen. The payoff for theft needs to be higher as well: I’d suggest a hierarchy of gifts > food theft > meat > fruit as a balance mechanic, given that the distances travelled for stealing food are much greater than harvesting local resources. Implicitly, we don’t have enemy tribes at this point – only strangers who are less or more willing to steal from us. We can use gifts to influence this decision, spying to try to get an edge in technology development, and food theft to get ahead in the food race.

Finally technology comes into play: the development of either the first weapons, musical instruments or food gathering tools. Those who have achieved the most in the technology race: presumably omnivores, will get there first. Weapons allow a declaration of war; allowing warring tribes to fight (regardless of which side has the weaponry) – musical instruments allow you to influence and ultimately recruit other tribes – fishing and food gathering to get more food and correspondingly get ahead in the technology race. The decision at this point becomes how to expand: take on another tribe through charming or killing them, or to use food gifts to play tribes off against each other while you go up the tech tree.

One further refinement of the Tribes phase: equipping weapons corresponds to unit types. Therefore the tribe designer should be able to design separate costumes for each tech type they research. I was surprised that this functionality wasn’t in the initial game – it makes sense to dress musicians differently to torch-bearers to spear throwers to diplomats (units carrying food gifts); and of course save the best and most elabourate custom for the tribal chief.

The end game for the revised Tribe design plays out not dissimilarly from the current game: but separating out the technology component from the village capture mechanic to force a trade off between each. There is, however, one important difference - the enemy AI. And this is where I fudge the above design. I stated that the Tribes phase redesign should be done with existing assets. This is the one exception. At the moment, the Tribes phase AI is horribly flawed: your opponents start with an early rush to build the tension, and then fail to replenish their resources – leaving undefended villages behind. They ignore villages you have allied with instead of raiding them, never expand beyond their starting technology and never conquer or enslave other tribes. The Tribe villages are as passive as the nests you find in the Creature phase, leading me to wonder if the Spore team know how to write an AI capable of handling a procedural world. I was left wondering this for the first few minutes of the Civilization phase, until I noticed the nearest civilisation to me conquer half the continent and then bear down on me bringing a barrage of bloody death.

Have I made any mistakes? Can you make a more interesting design? Use or abuse any of the assets I missed out?

I believe there will be a part 3 shortly.


Tim Bolin said...

i hate to say it, but i think youve missed both the point of spore, and its target audience. its pretty safe to say that youre not in the target audience, not by a long shot.

no one who has a complex understanding of proceedural content generation is in the target audience. no one who plays starcraft online multiplayer is in the target audience. no one who would consider applying the words "hard core" to even the smallest part of their gaming habits is in the target audience.

i mean, sure, maxis hopes these people will buy it, theyre not going to refuse your money. and they even hope youll like it, because its always nice when people like your work. but make no mistake: they dont really CARE if you DONT like it. because you (and i, and most people who would consider themselves "gamers") are NOT the target audience.

the millions of people who own a wii are in the target audience. the millions of people who keep putting nancy drew games on the top of the NPD charts are in the target audience. the millions of people who spend millions of dollars on popcap games are in the target audience. hell, my MOM is in the target audience.

THOSE people, they care about. THAT market, they want to please. because thats where all the money is at. dont misunderstand, im not faulting them for this at all... i just think its important to understand that, all things considered, spore wasnt designed with you in mind.

Andrew Doull said...

Ah... the 'not in the target market' argument.

I guess it was a good thing Maxis didn't bother promoting Spore in circles that 'hard core gamers' frequent.

My problem with Spore is not that they dumbed it down; but that they missed an incredible opportunity to make a game with deep as well as broad appeal. I mean - compared to most of the game, the Sims has more complex game play - but that is not my biggest problem. They've built a curate's egg - all appearance and no depth. And I don't believe adding depth would have been too hard a thing to do.

Have you tried any of the Spore prototypes? You'll see the thoughtfulness that has gone into some of the initial design. See any of that in the final product?

I'll talk about that more in the next article.