I'm writing some thoughts, some ideas, I'd like you to consider. While it's written in an authoritative voice, please take this as simply my opinion -- like having a discussion over some drinks. Some theory crafting between mates, if you will.
Testing Oneself. One of the most important factors to giving a player a visceral sense of progress is the feedback loop created when they test themselves.
- In Need For Speed, player can test their upgraded cars by smashing the accelerator, or taking a tight turn. The tweaks they've done to their cars shine.
- In Mass Effect, when players pulled the trigger on their new SMGs, and see how much better it cut through enemies.
- In the Fable series, players would test out a new spell that sends bandits flying, or use the new power attack they learned to break through the enemy's defenses.
You can see where I'm going, this is the feedback loop, where you go and test your progress. Hold on to that while we take a look at another key gaming experience...
The try-fail cycle. This is as old as video games, and is a big part of what makes them unique. A try-fail cycle is any task you attempt, fail / don't succeed to your satisfaction, try to improve your approach and attempt again. These are the lifeblood of many games, and they come in several sizes sizes:
- Tiny (Measured in seconds): Things like attempting Mario's jump, or changing the angle of your birdtoss in Angry Birds. Generally not suitable for turn-based gameplay.
- Small (Measured in minutes / a few hours): In stealth games where you try different paths through the rooms, picking new weapons and strategies to take down a dragon in Skyrim.
- Large (Measured in many hours / days): In games like GalCiv, where you try a new tech path when restarting a game, testing a chess opening, or testing the reliability of a new build for League of Legends/DOTA2.
- Huge (Measured in weeks+): And finally, things that can take weeks, like refining a build order in StarCraft 2, or a team strategy in CounterStrike.
Tiny and Small cycles:
- Can be understood the easiest. They can be experienced with the least time (and sometimes brain power) investment. As old games proved, however, these are not shallow -- Castlevania and most old school Nintendo games prove that.
- Give the most immediate feedback. Seems self-explanatory, but this is key.
As a result of these two key features, they can ground a player in the experience. When a player tries something, then tries again, and sees their improvement toward a goal, they have a sense of direction. And these small feedback loops keep saying "See, you know what you're doing, now try this" or "that didn't work, go a different route". The player spends less time lost.
As a result, these feedback loops are the most accessible to a casual audience. They can also sustain a hardcore audience while they wait for feedback from the longer term cycles -- or be a hardcore experience entirely by themselves.
Larger feedback cycles:
- Can keep players invested for longer
- Can give a game an amazing sense of depth
- Require players to invest exponentially more time and effort before they see the results of their effort.
What this means for GalCiv 2.
I quite enjoy many parts of GC2, so cheers! But, for the sake of GC3, lets talk some less-than-engaging experiences.
In this last game I quivered with fear, as all these alien races ranked above me on the galactic charts. Then the most powerful declared war on me, I built some warships, and destroyed him. The sense of threat, of desperation and wonder, was lost. Also lost, was the fear that I had no idea what to do against a prepared alien race, a fear that frustrated me and keeps GalCiv 2 with fewer played hours, and keeps me from recommending it to more friends.
See, before I could test my skill, experience the power I'd earned from my research, or learned anything of how combat is performed, I played 6 hours. In my mind, my whole plan for my empire was a tower built on sand: my foggy assumptions of what was good. I could have screwed up 4 hours back, left some weakness or not known about some critical thing, and all this invested time was a wasted. This fear soured my experience, because I felt helpless to gain the knowledge I sought in any way except sinking more time, and cringing when it all came crashing down.
Afterward, after I completely thrashed them, my experience felt hollow, free of challenge or threat. I didn't create a clever solution to a problem, there never was one! And all that research I did to get my weapons, well, it felt rewarding to blast them the first few times. Yet I never had a sense of growth. My only frame of reference was destroying them.
And with the sense of threat gone, the sense of reward from blasting them them dried up.
I could not test myself, and the feedback loop didn't close for 6 hours. And so, the magic is gone. (I have played around 25 hours of GalCiv II, so you all know. Roughly 70 games of StarCraft 2, or 4.5 play-throughs of a Halo campaign. Obviously I've spent some time with the game. I've had similarly poisonous experiences each time.)
"But wait!" you say. "Turn up the difficulty".
I don't want to, because I don't want to play anymore. The reason is simple:
Either I spend 4 hours waiting for it to fall apart, or I look up a strategy guide and copy someone else. And if I spend that 4 hours, it's 8 hour before I see how those adjustments play out... anxious hours (if I'm engaged) or bored hours (if I'm not).
I crave iteration, hammering out the strategy, and the 4 hours buffer is sand in the gears.
I'm not the only player, so take my view with a grain of salt. But do consider this:
Summary - While 4X games have historically suffered from using very few Tiny and Small try-fail cycles, it doesn't have to be that way. Integrating Small try-fail cycles can open this kind of game up to a larger audience, keep the average audience playing longer, enhance a player's sense of progress and success.
More people playing the labor of love you've made. Sounds pretty great, eh? Again, the long-term try-fail cycles don't need to be removed, just add small ones. Adding small cycles gives the players more than sitting anxiously as they wait to see how their decisions pan out.
Before I leave, let me provide an example to get those creative preponderances a-stirring. Barbarians in Civ 5 provide players a way to start testing themselves shortly after the start. They give feedback loops on handling melee and ranged combat, on handling multiple units and multiple enemies. And they give a sense of progress as your military technology grows. This is especially true when you have them set to appear frequently (the Raging Barbarians setting).
But barbarians are only a half solution, and only address combat. I say, find ways to create more of these feedback loops, to find ways players can try and fail in as many of the elements of game play. Watching your damage numbers grow on your battle ships is nice, but watching a mighty enemy fall under your barrage after several sieges is compelling.
*Tips glass at you and then takes a frothy swig.*