Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Are Management Sims a '90s Thing?

I had a hankering for a management game the other day, so I hit the Steam tags list and what do you know: there is no such thing as the management genre any more. Evil Genius - you thought that was a management game, didn't you? Wrong - it's now a 'base builder simulator' with 'realtime pause'. Prison Architect? That's a 'sandbox' 'prison sim'.

Has the management game rebranded itself in the past decade? Certainly as a genre its hayday seemed to come in the late 90s, but like the adventure genre it's enjoying a contemporary comeback. Perhaps games like Tropico 5 (it's a 'dictator sim') are trying to distance themselves from the free-to-play model that rose from the ashes of the great  management sim crash of the noughties?

Still craving that management vibe I picked up and played the whole way through Tropico 4 to find out. It really is a classic management game, and that crystalised a few thoughts for me.

The first is that Tropico, like the Theme Hospitals and Rollercoaster Tycoons of the 90s, has little endgame. In Tropico, the core game is the first half hour or so of any level. It's when you're struggling to make ends meet, having to find creative solutions. But then the economy starts ticking over, you go into profit, and beating the level becomes a matter of hitting fast forward and waiting until you have the cash to buy whatever it is you need to beat the mission.

To some degree this is to miss the point of a game like Tropico. Here I am, sitting back in front of a vast autonomous city that I have built from scratch, with the sun setting over the harbour - the point of my endeavours quite clear stands before me. I never have the conviction to build something impressive in Minecraft, but Tropico's mechanics give me just enough of a lead to forge ahead. It's like the world's best paint-by-numbers kit.

But I think this observation also clarifies how the genesis from management genre to free-to-play occurred. Eventually, most of these games boil down to waiting for a counter to tick up so you can buy whatever it is the game tells you to, and start all over again. Mechanically the key difference between those games and the free stuff that's all over the AppStores today could (very bluntly) be reduced to the presence or absence of a fast-forward button.

So what should we do? Well, I'm not suggesting the guys at Introversion should stop what they're doing and go back to the drawing boards. But I do think these observations suggest one or two ways that we could reclaim the management genre and make it new again.

Obscuring the Stats
If one of the key problems in traditional management sims is that they devolve too quickly into stat tracking, why not deliver those stats in different body-paint?

What if to assess a potential staff-member's skills and happiness you had to interview them and make up your own mind? What if instead of purchasing a training upgrade you had to learn the skill yourself and then teach it to your staff? What if the number of goods you've sold today isn't delivered through some menu, but comes in a written report produced by one of your staff, where accuracy is dependent on their experience and can be checked against your own counts?

By humanising the way that players interact with the core management systems we can add drama, and cut back on repetition. A real business that presses the fast-forward button and makes no changes ultimately goes out of business because it doesn't keep up with the times. By making the numbers fuzzier we could make human reaction an essential element of maintaining your profits.

Mixing Up the Endgame
Most management sims make some effort to throw spanners in the works. This only makes sense. If I can just tick over economically and nothing gets in the way of that then there really is no endgame. A lot of games (Tropico and SimCity included) go for natural disasters, but I think this is missing a trick.

What you need is something which radically upsets the dynamics of your society. Natural disasters are too one note - handling them is damage limitation. Fires and floods are bad, end of, and are solved with sufficient emergency services. What would be more interesting, and more of a challenge, would be a disease that wiped out half the male population, or a scandal that means half of all parents refuse to give their children a vital inoculation, or the invention of cat memes halving everyone's attention span. We need disasters that can - through clever on-the-fly solutions - be converted into strengths. We need to re-involve the player's high-level strategic brain, not just continue to exercise the low-level tactical one.

As I write this I realise there are certainly going to be examples of these ideas already out there. Indeed, Tropico 4 plays around with some of these ideas, if not quite making them radical enough to make a significant impact on the flow. Still, it seems to me worth saying. A game which stops throwing new challenges at the player is a game that stops doing what it says on the tin. And I'd like to see the resurgence of the management genre - whatever you want to call it these days - continue well into the future.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Tom Jubert Blog Bi-Annual Update Extravaganza...

...or 'What I have been doing instead of writing this blog for the last couple of months'.

So the main pull on my time has been the two new narrative design projects I took on towards the end of last year. Both are now nearing completion (there's a first draft script, at any rate, and alpha builds are on the way) and should be officially announced in time for E3 in June.

nDreams VR Adventure
The first project is with UK firm nDreams. Their recent resume includes a lot of Playstation Home dancing avatar stuff which probably isn't going to blow anyone's narrative socks off, but their extended background covers ARGs, as well as a large portion of Eidos' back catalogue in the form of ex-Creative Director and nDreams studio founder Patrick O'Luanaigh. The project we're working on is a first-person virtual reality adventure, and it's the studio's first foray into what I guess I'd call traditional games development. It's by far the most commercial project I've worked on since, I don't know, something that didn't get published, probably, but that's something I've found time to enjoy. As with most of my games, I don't know if this one will get ripped to shreds or not, but for once it won't be because it's too pretentious, or too cold and academic. In this one I get to show off some dialogue skill, develop a more traditional, emotional, present tense narrative, and that's a surprisingly rare challenge that I rather relish. I also feel more like a real writer when I'm not just copy and pasting other people's philosophical ideas - and I promise you there's no room for treatises in this one.

Croteam's First-Person Puzzler
The second project is Croteam's new first-person puzzler, on which I'm leading narrative development in partnership with another indie writer, whose previous work I think everyone's going to be excited about. If you're into philosophy and video games, I have got for you the partnership of the century. In terms of what we're actually doing, we've both developed the overarching world design and (minimal) plotting, and then split characters between us. I lucked out and landed the interactive script. A word count scares me, but I expect I've turned out around half a novel's worth of dialog trees over recent months. It is without a shadow of a doubt by far the most complex interactive dialogue work I've done, and I can't think of anything quite like it in another mainstream game. I am excited to see what people make of it. Mass Effect this ain't.

I think since we informally announced the project some weeks ago there's been a bit of misinformation floating about as a result of some of the things I said, so just to clear up:
  • It's a first person puzzler
  • Visually this is recognizably a Croteam game
  • There is no shooting
  • This is not a comedy game, but you can bet I snuck a few dry jokes in there
  • If you enjoyed The Swapper I think you'll enjoy this
  • If you enjoyed Serious Sam I hope you'll enjoy this
  • I have rarely worked with a team as keen to help as Croteam
So that's that. More details as they emerge.

Any Other Business
In other news I completed my Philosophy MA at King's College, netted a Merit overall and a 70 in my dissertation, which I'm happy with, but which does mean I'm around 4% less intelligent than I was 10 years ago.

I've had some press coverage as well, so I may as well do a quick roundup of that:

And that's about it for now. I've got a number of discussions ongoing for new projects when these ones finish up over the next month or so, but as ever I'm keen to discuss anything cool. For what I think is cool, see the rest of this blog.

Hopefully next month I can follow all this up with some real details.

Questions, interview requests, offers etc - comments or email are waiting for your words.

Thanks for sticking with me despite the dearth of new content recently!