Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Just one pesky stat

The trouble with designing games like mine, is you often find that the game ends up focusing on just one stat. This is a problem, in my view, because it makes the game a bit too single-minded, and decisions a little too easy, or frustrating.  let me explain what i mean…

In a game like Prison Architect, theoretically it’s a very interesting and fun balancing act. You need to balance your budget the ratio of staff to prisoners, the happiness of the prisoners, the safety level of the prison, the  cleanliness, the number of prisoners you can feed that day, etc etc. It is a great game with a lot of appeal, and theoretically you are spinning all of those plates at once, trading X against Y and Y against Z. This is what makes for exciting, fun and unpredictable gameplay.

prison

HOWEVER. Like all games of this sort, including my own such as Democracy and Kudos, and no doubt Democracy 3 and Redshirt, they often (at least during development and beta) bump into a problem where for long periods, gameplay becomes all about just one pesky stat. In Democracy 3 it is often GDP or the deficit. In Redshirt, it is often happiness. In Prison Architect, for me at least it is always budget.

This is a problem that it’s worth keeping an eye on. Some games deliberately ‘cheat’ it. If your budget has been a ‘limiting factor’ for X turns, why not alleviate it a bit with a grant from the government? If happiness is ‘stuck’, then why not have the player invited to a happiness-inducing random event? The very interesting question is…. Is that good game design?

Personally, I think it is, at least in a single player game (obviously). In the real world, we can become ‘stuck’ and frustrated with one part of our lives, one single problem, but when we are game designers with total control of the universe there is no rule saying we must make the player suffer in this way. racing games often cheat with ‘catch-up’ physics. Is it ok for simulation and single-player strategy games to do so too? I would say yes, but I’m interested to know what people think. When you are stuck with 4,000 fuel and 9,000 munitions and zero manpower in Company Of heroes 2, and this is your tenth go at that mission, would you be offended if the manpower stat artificially sped up a bit?


16 thoughts on Just one pesky stat

  1. Wouldn’t ‘good’ design have some sort of reward (..for everything else going smoothly) or ‘trade’ mechanic to alleviate a constant bottleneck, rather than just ‘randomly’ (even if not so much) increasing the lowest ‘stat’?

    Just.. something that the player has some agency over without knowing that they can ignore it because the game will just fix it for them when they do.

    1. As I can’t edit and just thought of more.. it also largely depends on the sort of game you’re making, I would imagine?

      If it is meant to be a ‘sim’, you don’t really want random (or semi-random triggered) events just ‘fixing’ things – budgets and debt are clearly difficult things for real governments to get right, so you aren’t being very ‘true’ to such things if you let players bypass the hard bits.

      If it is meant to be a game that everyone wins, like most single-player story-based games around, then yes – you want the little ‘cheats’ or whatever in there.. but it just depends on whether you think your players want the challenge of dealing with issues or just want to win.

      If, in an rts, it is possible to (without grossly poor play) have a complete dearth of one resource preventing you from doing anything for large periods of time, that is simply atrocious design.

  2. But don’t you find this is often a problem in a lot of RTS design? except the really good ones.
    I agree that this should never happen, because a perfectly balanced simulation should prevent it ever being a factor, but the reality of complex sim design means you are likely going to be bouncing from one restriction to the next. A lot of games suffer from a ‘I never have enough X’ syndrome for the first 2 hours, followed by ‘I have too much X and not enough Y’ syndrome for the next two.

    Stopping this happening for everyone’s play style is really hard.

    1. It is, but probably by design – resource management is the primary constraint of the ‘macro’ game, and probably necessary if only to give the players a way to cripple the other players via supply chain harassment. While my favourite RTS ever (World in Conflict) succeeds without such things, it has other restrictions in place instead.

      A lot of games DO suffer from different resources being bottlenecks at different times.. but that is not /necessarily/ a bad thing? Even playing civilization or similar, different resources are more or less important in different eras, and you can feel fairly crippled in some way without them… but there are ways to work around that.

      In Civ, you simply play defensively for an era or focus on pushing to the next resourceless unit or similar. Most RTS are on too small a scale (at least, economically) for there to be a way to ‘play around’ resource deficiency. I suppose the Anno series would be improved by ways to mitigate bottlenecks, but given that the entire game is based around supply chain management, it stands to reason that it simply needs increased early game resource costs for late game buildings to keep the entirety of your infrastructure relevant throughout the game.

      In Democracy, I imagine you can ‘work around’ GDP or whatever by simply.. courting the ‘factions’ who want increased funding to every damn thing.. or you can raise taxes and cut spending. I have to think that the ‘bottleneck’ should be (or is) different based on how you are playing – in votes or happiness or GDP or whatever. The bottlenecks will come at different times in different ways.. but are they avoidable? I doubt it.

      The only way to avoid bottlenecks, it seems to me, is to completely remove any kind of resource, or at least any meaningful resource restriction. If you want any kind of resource to be meaningful, it doesn’t seem reasonable to have the game just push the player past any hurdles they encounter based on their playstyle, at least as long as there are ways around them.

      You may not be able to stop a funding bottleneck for a player who only wants to raise spending in every possible way, but at the end of the day, the game is probably intended as enough of a ‘sim’ that it should not be reasonably possible for the player to simply raise funding in every way – compromise is key, and as long as the player has the tools to make the choices, the game is fine.

  3. I haven’t played Democracy 3 (but, you know, I’d love to test…).

    In Democracy 2, GDP is definitely a dominating factor. If you have a lot of money coming in, you can spend it on education, business grants etc and these bring in even more, until you can buy every policy and every citizen is happy.

    There are 2 reasons this happens, and I’m curious about whether they’re still present in Democracy 3.

    #1 (the small reason) is that there are many options which are guaranteed to return more than you spent on them. Better schools, a better health service etc. This doesn’t happen in real life! Labour pumped more money into public services throughout their last term, and it did increase their effectiveness, but not by much. The Coalition is now cutting everywhere they can, and it’s definitely cost jobs and morale, but it hasn’t hurt services substantially… yet.

    The problem is that you’re making a game. If people click the “make schools better” button, they expect it to work.

    That brings me on to reason #2 (the big reason). In real life, you can’t just click “make schools better.” Instead, you need to decide what the problem is at the moment, and consider the best way to spend that money. Do you want to reduce class sizes, or add more teaching assistants? Bring curriculums “back to basics” so that everyone studies the core subjects… or make vocational courses more widespread?

    Once you’ve made those choices, you need to sell your ideas to the public, fend off criticisms from the opposition, win over your party MPS – and *then* start to implement your ideas.

    Any game containing all of those ideas would be unwieldly. But just a couple of them might be enough to stop the idea – true throughout Democracy 2 – that the only way to change the effectiveness of a service is putting more money in.

    To answer the original question, I’d hate just to receive an artificial boost to GDP, but I like the idea of introducing suitable random events. Maybe this is the point where MPs speak up about legalising more drugs for the taxes. Perhaps if things get really bad, a drug cartel starts offering “support” in exchange for a cut in SOCA’s budget. If the issue is unemployment, a major corporation could offer to base more jobs in the UK if you’ll just tweak those environmental regulations. Don’t let the player get out of jail with a little squirming!

    Another feature I’d love to see is potted “obituaries” or editorials when the player finally leaves office. In these cases, the penalty for taking the easy way out would be a reference to rumours of corruption throughout the politician’s time in power. Everyone cares about their legacy.

  4. You make a fair point about the linearity of the effect with regards to GDP on those policies. I had considered implementing what amounted to a flattened bell curve for the multiplier on costs and incomes with policies, but it would have to be configurable per-policy and I think that might lead to over-complication. So effectively you would be getting less bang for your buck with higher marginal tax rates than in the middle (for example).
    To some extent this can be done with existing policies anyway. The linear cost and income can be offset by a non-linear effect. So for example the income from a tax might scale in a linear way but it will get disproportionately more unpopular at the higher end.

  5. It’s an interesting question, and I think it comes down to three related questions in the end:

    1) How soon should the player see the result of an action? For example, a complex political simulation that modelled real life perfectly would result in the player almost never having any idea what impact any of his/her changes made unless they were completely ridiculous ones (raise income tax to 100% – popularity becomes zero). One of the most frustrating things a player can experiene is having no idea what they should do or why it matters. On the other hand, giving too immediate and obvious feedback results in overly simple connections between things and the player can very easily figure out how to cheat the system (or just gets bored).

    2) At what point does a struggle to gain a resource become a grind (a predictable method that simply takes a long time, thus artificially extending play time) or frustrating (so hard that the player just gives up and either starts over or plays something else)?

    3) How strongly should the system intervene? Random events add a fun element but aren’t a solution to resource problems. “Tuned” random events can resolve the problem as long as they aren’t triggered too easily, but as Alex said they should make the player sacrifice something else rather than being a freebie. The other option is to say “too bad, you failed, that’s life”. That is also a completely valid option, but if it happens too often then the player will just go and play something more fun.

    Alas, I don’t have constructive answers to these questions, but they are certainly ones for the notebook.

  6. Hey here’s an idea. What if Democracy were multiplayer. Like you could have different countries.

  7. I like the idea of random events when the situation warrants the simulation to intervene if the player is struggling or progressing too easily. I know that you can adjust the difficulty, but these extra events would increase scenario longevity as well as affecting gameplay.

    During my time playing Democracy 2, I often found that if you increased GDP sufficiently and fixed a country’s problems, you could just keep ending the turn and finishing the term in office with very little further input. Random events would stop this lack of intervention.

  8. Of course, there were random events in Democracy 2 as well. I think the issue there was that they weren’t persistent – you answered them once and they were done.

    In the real world, ‘events’ can persist long after the initial decision is taken. We’ve seen that recently in the UK with Labour – first it turned out that some of their biggest supporters had tried to fix a party election, but then that turned into reforming their relationship with the unions, and now the topic’s moving on to party funding and reform of the House of Lords.

  9. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to do that – from a design point of view, I kind of want people to be able to see the full game and not become frustrated. From a player point of view, I’m not usually looking for an exact simulation of real life (I can get that easily enough already!) – instead I’m looking for the game to keep moving.

    A possibly poor analogy is that of being stuck in traffic – I’d far take a potentially longer route just to feel like I’m making progress rather than being stalled.

  10. I love how they have solved this issue in “City in Motion 2”.

    When you run out of money you can always get a loan so you only have get a positive cash flow.

    And so to get a positive cash flow you cut expenses and you run deep into debt

    I think it is a realistic take

  11. As you say good game design involves managing a set of conflicting resources and if one resource gets too dominant it takes away much of the fun. But the solution to “I have too much X and not enough Y” isn’t a gift of Y, but a trading opertunity from X to Y.

    In your Company of Heros 2 example offer the player the option to trade in some of their fuel or amunition.

    In Democracy 3, if the deficit is a dominating factor, don’t just give the player some money, but offer him to accept a loan from the IMF, which solves his immediate issue but limits his options in other respects.

    This changes the game back to being a balancing act.

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