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Toppling The Grindstone

I beat Battletech's campaign last bizarro weekend.  How suitable that it ends as it begins.  A clever bit of exposition intended to allow the players to roleplay their mercenary company as good or self-interested as they wish.  "When we are gone, stories are what remains."  So ended the campaign.  So ended the story.
So ended any meaningful change in the game.  As much as I appreciate that the game turns into an open-ended Battletech mercenary simulator, as opposed to ending abruptly, it's a somewhat pointless endeavor.  The 'mechs and mechwarriors come and go, your credit balance goes up and down, but nothing really changes, everything stays the same.  As with all persistent world games, you accumulate in an uncaring virtual universe.  I was landed in the inevitable monotony once again.

For those of you new to the blog: I've been trying to solve this problem.

Last week's time in Battletech was mostly because I was stumped, repelled by the would-be game developer's equivalent of writer's block.  My solution to defeat the purposeless virtual world was to try to create a narrative engine, a bit like Sleep Is Death but without the second player.

Then I read a compelling article that pointed out that the computerized medium is at a considerable disadvantage when trying to get at the "narritivism" aspect, as framed in GNS theory.  Progress in my own project being incredibly slow-going, I agreed.  However, that meant my narrative engine idea was completely wrong, so it was time to return to the drawing board and figure out what wasn't wrong.
The trouble is that focusing on the aspects of GNS Theory that computers do well (gamism and simulationism) is also kind of boring for me because it's a much more beaten path.  There's no shortage of games like that on the computer already, why not go play one of those?  When I decided to abandon my narrative engine, I was admitting defeat, prepared to embrace the tried, true, and overused.

But I'm tired of abandoning projects.  As much as I wanted to be the more exciting innovator, at the end of the day I'm just basement dweller trying to escape falling off the edge of the runaway wealth inequality of the 21st century, and I am getting old faster than I anticipated.  I'd like to have something playable and iterable that isn't ripping off someone else.

In the years I have been dabbling with the craft of indie game development, I've learned that everyone is generally terrible at making computer games, myself included, because computer games are at loggerheads with the limitations of the human condition.

Humankind is the most intelligent of beasts, and as such we're the most readily able to rely on ideas as systems in which to live our lives.  Reading that sentence, you might immediately be thinking of the ideas of society, for good or for ill, or perhaps (as an adherent of mindfulness) the delusions that lead to mental illness.  However, each and every game is also ideas that make up a system in order to create an entertaining activity.  That we can create games for entertainment purposes is just the kind of creatures we are.
However, if that's true, then to be an outstandingly good game developer is to be good at reinventing a good set of rules to life itself.  A quantum physicist may have to speculate on what building blocks of the universe exist beyond the finest microscope, but they don't have to try to invent a set of rules that would make for a better, more entertaining universe than our own.  Little wonder, then, that we're still blown away by the likes of chess: making good games is hard.  So the human condition becomes a bit of a stumbling block in game design because we're limited to our own little moral perspective in life and trying to conceive of something greater.

Yet, I'm going two steps further than that:
  1. The computerized medium requires a concrete set of rules or these overgrown calculators won't know what to do.  In virtually every program of use, we basically have to bridge the gap between to analog and digital with some rules that these colossal digital idiots called computers can run without throwing errors.
  2. The problem on the table I wish to solve is a very analog one indeed.  I'm pointing at a relatively new medium in games, basically a simulation of a persistent space that leads to emergence, such as Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress, and I'm saying, "It doesn't matter enough in the long run."  I want to get rid of that inevitable monotony I encounter in the end.  So I'm looking at taking the cutting edge and sharpening it past a mono-molecular level.
There is surely more than one way to accomplish this (elusive as it may seem).  The narrative-focused engine idea might have worked if I didn't mind going uphill the whole way.

Here's the theory I'll experiment with this week: all I have to do to make a persistent space matter more in the long run is allow the actions of its inhabitants to introduce significant change.  The more significant the change to the virtual world, the greater sense of meaning.  The trouble is nailing what "significant change" means in terms of what's actually being added to the design.
Surely we have a number of examples of persistent spaces that already allow the players to change something, but it's not enough for me.  So what's missing?  Off the top of my head, here's some examples of the limitations of existing mediums:
  • Theme park MMORPGs (e.g. World of Warcraft) - The world either does not change with the players' actions, or changes in very modular ways, as the theme park's integrity must be maintained in order to continue to entertain players.
  • Non-Theme Park, Usually Open-PVP, MMORPGs (e.g. Wurm Online, EVE Online) - While you can indeed dominate other players, there's no real point to it, since you really make no meaningful changes to the game.  Land may change hands and different things might get built on it, but it's still the same old sandbox, the same old narrow set of possibilities, same old everything.
  • Pure Sandboxes (e.g. Minecraft, Planet Coaster) - They initially create the impression of go-anywhere, do anything sort of games, but ultimately they carry no real purpose to doing so.  There's generally no inhabitants that care, nor a good set of rules to create any wider ramifications than building just 'cause you can build, no morality, and again just the same old game.  As the genre implies, you play with what is in the sandbox until you bore of it, it turns out that the entertainment source is more about the sandbox and tools/toys in it than the environment or the things you make.
  • Life Simulation or Social Simulation games (e.g. The Sims, Animal Crossing) - While these games have gone farther than most to create greater ramifications, they end up playing out as inadvertently linear experiences.  Instead of introducing lasting change within the microcosms presented by the game, you instead simply check off a number of goals you can accomplish, such as paying off your mortgage, collecting certain furniture, or marrying your favorite Sim.  As such, there is a sorely finite scope of the game, and you're very much stuck with the same game at the end that you had in the beginning.
  • 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) games (e.g. Civilization, Stellaris) - They do not have true persistence, in that you are expected to beat their scenarios and start over, perhaps on a higher difficulty this time.  As such, any changes you introduce to the game only last until the game is restarted.  Though they are fantastic state engines with things like tech trees and culture perks, these mechanics are always finite, eventually reaching a fully exploited state, and so become a static, unchanging thing; a lot of life leaves these games when you reach the end of the tech tree.
Since I am running just a one man show here, I'm keeping things relatively simple: my game's main interaction mechanic is a roguelike, a turn-based role-playing game that has been traditionally wrought by soloists like myself to get a persistent state, mutable world for decades.
So, within the confines of this roguelike heart, where should I inject "significant change" that the previous games did not?  Good question.  Since I've got this far, I'm sure I can come up with some answers.  However, each one of them is but a hypothesis, and we're still very early into the experiment...


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