Sunday 25 June 2017

Domina and Needless Busywork: What is a game's core focus?

A dozen battles into the awesomely violent pixel gladiator game Domina, I received a humourous message to the effect my avatar (the lanista) had died of thirst, thus ending the game.

My response: "Wtf?!"

The aim of the game is to run your own ludus, to become the best ludus in the land and have champion gladiators. In short: the core gasmelay is to a manage gladiators. Giving your lanista a drink is something one would assume would be abstracted; given you can't walk around with her or anything and she's just an icon on the screen.  Keeping track of finances and, say, overall food supplies for your ludus makes sense; micromanaging every glass of water does not. 

Before you race to comment: I later found that water was a resource to be managed (it linked to gladiator training)...   ...but the point was stuck in my head...

While googling my water dilemma, I then noticed the biggest gripe from players is how the research skill "Mind Control" - which allows you to directly steer a gladiator - make the game too easy to win.  Again, by allowing you to control a gladiator, the game is stepping outside its core gameplay - managing a ludus. It's be like if a football management game allowed you to control a single player allowing you to wtfbbqpwn Real Madrid with Luton Town's reserve striker who works at Woolworths.

These musing have applications for game design:
What is the focus of the game? What can be abstracted? What can be micromanaged and what should NOT be micromanaged?  

A lot of games fall into the trap; the general can control each individual sniper or aim each cannon.  A tank commander should be able to designate individual targets; but should a division commander be able to do the same?

 Domina is hilarious pixel violence as you control your own ludus (gladiator school). I found myself shouting "tis but a flesh wound!" as a pixellated trident-and-net dude hopped around clutching an amputated leg...

Why people are failing to make the next Mordheim
I've often discussed how the skirmish campaign genre lacks a torchbearer since Mordheim/Necromunda.  Funnily enough, there are many skirmish games with much better tactics and mechanics already.  I actually think the real reason most have failed as the core of these games IS a ridiculously deep and complex campaign system.   Most games since then have focussed on improving gameplay while tacking on a "simple" and "elegant" campaign/advancement systems.  But I think they've missed the point.  Mordheim was pretty basic (and imbalanced at times) in terms of gameplay, but the nostalgia lingers.  Why? Tellingly, the most successful imitator (Frostgrave) has rather meh, bland gameplay but has a deep magic system and plenty of meat on its campaign mechanics.  Along with an appeal to nostalgia (a searching a ruined city for artifacts...) I think Frostgrave has successfully indentified what makes a skirmish campaign successful - the campaign/advancement/skills/base building part.   I always liked LOTR:SBG, and it's Battle Companies campaign system elegant and simple...   ..and you'd think I'd love it...  ...but it's too simple; as it does not hold the depth of play of its GW predecessors. 

Busywork - aka meaningless grind or activity
Besides the focus of the game, Domina reminded me of "busywork" - contrived or added work/grind in a game for the sake of it.  A good example is found in open world survival games - ARK - an awesome (but terribly optimized game) where you can build bases, ride dinosaurs, and fight other people while riding said dinos.  A key "feature" is how you need to constantly eat or die; you need to scarf down berries every 5 minutes, or your HP steadily and quickly drains until you die.  It's busywork.  Grind for the sake of grind.  It doesn't even make it feel realistic. It's LESS realistic. A few hours without a meal shouldn't kill you. There can be a penalty - reduce stamina, or XP gain, or -1 to all stats or something...   but you shouldn't be constantly hunting berries. That's not realistic survival - it's busywork. 

Does a game track something that can be abstracted or ignored? Are there dice rolls or extra actions that are "tacked on" to a game?  Has each element of the game been looked at; and asked the question "Does this add enough to the game to be worth the extra time/complexity/recording?"

I fail to see much difference between Diablo and clicker games... What is a clicker game?

Perhaps a little off topic (although this is mostly a rambling train-of-consciousness post anyways). Talking about core game design and what the main point of your game; I've always wondered:

What is the point of ARPGs? (PC games like Diablo)
Talking about core gameplay - what is the point of top-down Diablo-ish games (ARPGs?) I call them dungeon cleaners.  It's just cleaning dungeons of coin and skeletons by clicking on them. My level 20 broom cleans your level 15 poop off the walls.  Unless there is dodge/roll mechanics, or specific aim (like Alien Swarm)they're a bit too akin to those clicker games which reward you for how fast you can click.  I try to like them (because I know folk who do) but... ..what is the ultimate point?  What is the core gameplay?  Levelling your character? Because you can level characters in other, more fun game styles that involve more depth and skill than clicking on stuff...


  1. I enjoyed the hell out of Diablo 2, and more recently, Grim Dawn.

    I also enjoy Viscera Cleanup Detail.

    I used to think they were two separate things, but, you know... Well, at least one's got a lot more player skill and detail involved in the cleaning. (hint: it's this one: )

  2. Normal PvE in Diablo 2 was merely a matter of perseverance: put in time and you'll get levels. Hardcore mode added risk, though, and PvP was a different beast entirely.

    And I'm glad someone brought up Viscera Cleanup Detail. Now I don't have to.

  3. Google brought me here on a search for Mordheim/Necromunda campaign ideas - Your insight on the core of the experience was like a thunder bolt out of the blue! It was the campaign system and not the game play that was the real core, the meaty context of your gang, your guys, your campaign.

    Another insight perhaps...does my nostalgic mind wander back to mordhiem because it has a logical gameplay climax (one gang becomes unbeatable and the players call it quits) but no inbuilt story or ''campaign'' ending to wrap it up. You never rule the city/ defeat the shadow lord/ unlock the riddle of the warpstone/ etc, etc.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts, you've stirred mine.

    1. I think a lot of people try to "fix" the gameplay (there are many better skirmish games, gameplay-wise) while forgetting WHY we played it - for the meaty campaign.

      I think the "quit the campaign one someone gets an unbeatable gang" is an issue, but that can actually be addressed somewhat; by having a planned length of the campaign in mind and balancing around it; also by not excessively punishing the losers so they fall behind.

      I think having a logical endpoint for a campaign might be a good thing and allow you to plan progression so no gangs get out of control.

      I've got some thoughts on it here:

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