Thursday 10 March 2016

Game Design #66: Designing with "Focus" - Lessons from The Forest vs ARK

Steam abounds with "early access" (i.e. incomplete and buggy) survival games.  Most are never completed, and stand as a testament to the stupidity of consumers.

(/Rant - in the comments of one such game, unfinished for 2 years and still in "beta" I see: "I love this game, will you sell some dlc?"  What the f***! They haven't finished a game you already paid for and you want to give them more money?!  Truly, we deserve the world we live in.)

Anyway,  I admit to owning  two such "Early Access" games.  ARK: Survival Evolved - because, well, dinosaurs.  As blog regulars may have noticed, I'm in a "dinosaur" phase at the moment.  The other, The Forest, was because I read some interesting reviews about the cannibals AI - they are attracted to activity so if you build a advanced camp, you will have "visitors" - but they can be scared off, call for help, etc. I liked the idea of "live off the land, and never get noticed" vs "build a well-fortified camp, and fight off invaders every night." 

Anyway, what were the lessons?

Well, ARK was a better, deeper game.  (Both, in fact, are remarkably well-made and complete for EA titles) It has so much to do.  So much depth.  Tame dinosaurs, ride them, craft 101 items, a deep RPGish "levelling" system to unlock survival and crafting skills.  Join clans, and fight big multiplayer battles with dinos. Build awe-inspiring structures - and destroy those of others.  "Tech up" from primitive clubs to automatic weapons.

In contrast, The Forest is more limited.  Your crafting doesn't progress further than "sticks and stones" type tech.  Multiplayer is limited to co-op with a friend.  Most of the game is spent exploring and surviving - trying not to get spotted and swarmed by cannibals or the horrors that lurk in the caves under the island.  It may even be better not to "tech up" as buildings attract cannibals. 

 But I liked The Forest more. Wait? What?

Well, in ARK the survival aspects always seemed an inconvenience.  Chugging berries every 2 seconds in order not to die of hunger gets old really fast .  The "good bit" was riding and fighting dinosaurs.  The "survival" bit is more a frustrating and inconvenient time sink. I gave up without progressing far, as I was bored and impatient to do the interesting stuff. I'm not willing to spend a real life hour taming a turtle to ride (in the meantime, foraging 1000 berries for myself to avoid dying of hunger every 5 min) when a "cool" dino remains out of the reach of my gear and "level."  Not only do you need to run around scarfing berries every 2 seconds, but your weapons and tools "degrade" after only a few whacks.  The constant, ridiculous entrophy of yourself and your tools means for too much "chores" and not enough "fun."  Imagine you get a videogame called "X-Wing" - only to discover you must spend 200 hours maintaining the X Wing for every hour you fly, by mashing buttons in repetitious tasks.  

In contrast, in The Forest, survival IS the game.  Avoiding cannibals, creating traps for them, and balancing exploration against the wish to avoid a gory death - heck, you even have to scavenge for food and water less, and your axe never breaks.  In ARK, some dinos will want to eat you - but you can usually easily avoid them unless you blunder into them.  But it seems more like random chance - an unlucky and inconvenient death.  In The Forest, the cannibals will seek you out if you dare to light a fire to warm your freezing bones. It's personal. The creepy horror vibe makes surviving each day a victory, rather than another day closer to grinding a T-Rex.  Avoiding death is not a boring chore, but a gripping adventure. I've explored more of The Forest in an hour (and had more hair-raising escapades) than five hours of ARK.  Even building a house is more fun; (or rather, booby trapping it for any midnight "guests") - a frantic affair to finish it before the sun goes down.

Okay, okay - get to the point!

The Forest knows its niche and focusses on it.  It's about making day-to-day survival scary and gripping.   ARK is a far deeper game; an awesome mish-mash of ideas that somehow is (for me) less than the sum of its parts.  Day to day survival is a bit grindy and dull and forms a barrier/timesink to the riding and hunting dinos and fighting clans which sounds so awesome. 

How does this apply to wargames? 

Well, it's about focussing on the strengths of your game and designing to them.  Do you want an awesome campaign-based skirmish game, a new Mordheim-beater?  Well, make the campaign system good.  The gameplay itself can be quite simple.  Frostgrave did this well - I wasn't a fan of the mechanics of the game itself, but the campaign was interesting (albeit unbalanced and in need of playtesting).  It focussed on its strengths, with a interesting spell and equipment list.   In contrast, there was a Mordheim-esque spin-off of LOTR called Battle Companies.  Why didn't it take off? (Well, besides GW quickly burying it because it only required $20 of minis to play).  The campaign system was TOO simple. It didn't have enough 'meat' on it.  A campaign game with only a half-dozen upgrade options isn't really a 'proper' campaign game.

2HW does this well. They focus on the solo-play/reaction aspect of their games. People overlook the general shoddiness of the rules design and layout for the ability to have semi-automated opponents.

Warmachine unabashedly cultivates a CCG vibe with its combo-chaining gameplay. There isn't many wide sweeping flanking maneuvers - it's more about who hits who first or can get off their combo at the right time.  It's not everyone's cup of tea, but its rules are tight, and each faction has combos that are so OP and unbalanced the game is actually... ...balanced.  You may not like the style, but it has a consistent focus.

Battlestations! is a relatively obscure WW2 fleet scale game, which ruthlessly adheres to its focus as a "fleet" game.  In contrast, when the age of sail fleet game Fighting Sail attempts to adapt it's rules to 1v1 duels and it just feels awkward. 

It's popular to bash 40K, but in the past it has clearly drifted away from its original "heroic skirmish" of 2-3 heroes, 2-3 squads and a vehicle or so to become massive encounters with 100s of minis and dozens of vehicles (Apocalypse) - a scale that merits a completely new rule mechanic (Epic, anyone?).

Infinity's charm was its reaction system and nail-biting decisions, and a lethality that meant even the lowliest grunt could gun down a power-armour hero if well-positioned; it was all about game play decisions trumping list building and min-maxing.   However I feel it's lost it's way - with over 150 special rules (often very complex, with rules explanations taking an entire page) the game is drifting into Warmachine territory in that "he who remembers the most special rules, wins."  And that's fine for Warmachine, because that's it's focus.  But I feel it's diluting the original Infinity experience - there's still a great game in there, but I'm increasingly unenthusiastic about playing with each rules expansion.

To recap: sometimes you need to focus on one thing and do it well.  Work out what the most important thing about your game and emphasize it.   There's a reason there's very few good "universal" rule sets - in trying to do too many things, you can fall into the ARK trap, and add in stuff which dilutes gameplay appeal.   Sometimes stripped back game with a narrower focus, like The Forest, is actually more fun to play.  I'd think this advice goes double for small, indie rules designers, with limited playtesting and designing time.  What are you trying to do with your game?
What is the 'main thing' you want to emphasize? 
If someone talked about your game, what would you expect them to praise?  "It has great x"


  1. Yeah, rules expansions van really kill games. But at the same time companies seem to need them to sell new miniatures.

    1. While the article wasn't really about rules expansions per se (more about how you need to focus on a particular aspect of gameplay and excel at it), I certainly agree with your sentiment.

      I've heard that some game devs are told to "split up" their rules so the company has a "supplement" to release later.

  2. Warhammer does small-scale skirmishes with a few squads, characters, and a vehicle or two as well as it ever did, and possibly much better now. If you're going below 500pts I'd recommend rolling on the vehicle damage chart for all wounds, but otherwise you're good to go. Likewise I wouldn't bother going above 2000pts, although you can if you want to, and that's nowhere near Apocalypse-style levels.

    1. I often see you pop up to defend 40K (sometimes even when I wasn't having a go at it)

      I feel 40K falls between streamlined for platoon, and it's original Space Marine/2nd ed skirmish scale, and as a result does neither well.

      As you obviously feel strongly about it, would you consider doing a post explaining how 40K 7th ed (and by extension, 6th as they seem pretty similar)compares to early editions, and how it has returned 40K to the forefront of game design?

      It would make an interesting article and I'd be happy to link through to it.

    2. "Warhammer does small-scale skirmishes with a few squads, characters, and a vehicle or two as well as it ever did, and possibly much better now."

      For example this would be an interesting argument, and could have a whole section on it.

    3. On an off-topic note, got any systems you could recommend for that feel outside Ivan's Clash on the Fringe or Fast and Dirty?

    4. What, the 2-3 squads + one or two heroes, a vehicle or two? sort of the old "Space Marine" scale? (also, early Warmachine scale).

      The Tomorrow's War system works better at this scale (3-4 fire teams, command, 1-2 vehicles) than the platoon+ many seem to use it for.

      Covert Ops from Osprey is basically 40K Kill Team meets TFL card activation(or rather, Muskets & Tomahawks activation) which would work for near future/hard sci fi (I can do a review sometime if you wish)

    5. Yes, sorry. The "Heroic Skirmish". And if you could do a review of Covert Ops, I'd greatly appreciate it.

    6. I'll get around to it this week. Though it is pretty much EXACTLY as described - 40K "Kill team" with usual 40K d6 mechanics, with units activating on cards like TFL/Tomahawk/Savage Worlds, and Kill Team style stealth missions. At the $15 price, it's fair though its far from original.

  3. Its a pretty simple relationship. Different game = different focus = different mechanisms. My 10 man skirmish game is very different from a Divisional level game. In the former I am a squad leader, in the latter I have to think like a General. If it doesn't do that it isn't a good game.

  4. Here's an article on some of the differences between 40k 7th and 5th:

    1. Oh, I'm aware of the changes to 6th Ed. I'd just be interested in how this radically re-images and improves 40K.

      (a) has it returned it to the 2nd or earlier days of heroic skirmish? i.e.
      "Warhammer does small-scale skirmishes with a few squads, characters, and a vehicle or two as well as it ever did, and possibly much better now."

      (b) has it become relevant again, how 6th ed has added new depth

      (c) how does it compare to more "modern" rules at that scale

  5. I think the new HG Blitz! rules from DP9 have fallen into this trap; focusing on reimplementing or completely changing things that probably didn't need done away with so much as tweaked or ''fixed'' while still chasing [x] factor instead of finalizing.

    I eventually figured out how to play, or at least manage to use, most of the Locked & Loaded/Field Manual rules yet every time I try to get into the ''new - improved - streamlined'' HG rules I have to stop because they're so unintuitive (to me anyways).

    Considering how the Pod has had two years of open Beta testing, on top of about the same spent in closed testing, there is also a bit too much left undone or changed in intent too many times.

    The ''this is the best thing evah!'' fanbois crowd certainly haven't helped the situation any either, as rubber-stamping has clearly not been in the company's interest given how many small yet absurdly simple typos and inconsistencies remain in the PDF.

    1. Agreed. I was unimpressed with the new HG:B.

      The two good things will be
      (a) everything in one book
      (b) much needed simplification/diversity in construction rules

      Those are major improvements, but DID NOT need a full overhaul of the core rules to do so.

      A lot of effort seems to have gone into replacing multiplication with addition, though I've yet to find someone who cannot do a 3x or 4x table. Generally, a lot of change for its own sake.

      They could have easily altered (a) and (b) without changing the core rules at all, and spent the rest of the time proofing/checking so they don't end up with 101 errata/FAQ or "fixing" the rules over 3 books....

      In addition, back when I last looked at the rules, it seemed intent on streamlining it for the 40K crowd, rather than retaining the interesting depth and "grittiness" which (for me anyway) was it's main draw.

      The old HG rules balanced RPG and skirmish for "heroic skirmish" but I feel it's now aimed at becoming a bland platoon+ game - to sell more models on the tabletop. (At least on the beta rules I read)

  6. A pretty fair summation. Almost every miniature released for the past two years and a bit have been large one-off ''rule of cool'' and/or narrow role types. The company also seems dead set on converting more of the model line into plastic given that their KS was ''successful'', but I don't consider the sculpts they used to be all that good really.

    The old HGB! standard was based around ~1,000 TV, ~3 combat groups, and somewhat less than a dozen to perhaps not quite twenty models or bases using a far too complex system for force construction.

    The new standard seems to be ~two combat groups, combining a primary and support ''UA'' but of roughly the same number of models. In same ways it's worse, given how many actions are mandatory to a combat group when combined with the very high $$$ prices for larger miniature or most any vehicle.

    Compared to L&L and the Field Guides force construction is simpler (yet still confusing and at times contrary), but not in comparison to an awful lot of other games.

    I hadn't considered that the direction the Pod dev chose to take the rules after co-opting a fan idea was intended to draw 40K players, but it does make a lot of sense. Doing so while keeping so much legacy though in an apparent attempt to not drive away the current player-base, not sure how well that will pan out in the long term.