|Posted by Chris Crooks on August 19, 2014 at 7:00 PM|
The basic concept of a survival game is obviously to survive. If it is of sufficient (appropriate) difficulty, the mere ability to get a bit further, last a bit longer is proof positive that you have improved at the game. However, for it to remain a “survival” game the feeling that death is just around the corner has to remain throughout, no matter how powerful you get. You should rarely feel removed from danger, and treasure the breaths that you get.
On the other end of the spectrum is essentially the empire-building game - your goal is generally total domination, and you have the spare resources to get there. Of course, you can lose your whole empire through mismanagement, but you yourself as the player are not connected to the danger in any way - it is purely abstract management. Your generalissimo’s turn to turn survival is assured - some orderly probably brings their meals into the command center, so you can focus on management of the economy, war, etc.
Since these two genres represent two extremes: poverty of resources vs management of excess resources, it is a fair question to ask how one can go about blending the two. After all, the excitement of turn-to-turn survival is removed if, for example, a relatively stable and permanent food source is found or created. If such excitement is a driving force in the game, boredom and stagnation must soon ensue, unless a significant revision of gameplay occurs at the moment of transition. Then, ideally, one attempts to smooth the transition to so fine a point that it becomes seamless, and the player will control the transition with their own skill and strategy.
Before I delve into the technicalities of such a fusion, I think it could stand a bit of examination from a narrative standpoint. While the genre blend may be a bit awkward in some ways, narratively it fits perfectly with a rags-to-riches story. Furthermore, it contains within it the necessary widening of narrative scope and character power and influence to re-engage the player with not a material (in terms of the game) reward, but a reward of expanded possibilities, and yes, even a sense of security that they have earned by mastering basic gameplay mechanics to the extent that survival becomes more of a difficult math problem than an uncertainty.
Storywise, the player will come out of their semi-enslaved status from the first part of the game with a new sense of their ability to create change in their environment, and a feeling that they have been rewarded with access to an expanded world. Now that you are no longer under the thumb of a corrupt census-taker, the political, military, and intrigue aspects of the game open up to you and exciting new possibilities occur.
Furthermore, it is a delicious idea that a game continually challenge the player by opening up a whole new realm of subtle management and goals right as they believe they’ve mastered the game they’ve seen up to that point. You certainly don’t want to blindside the player utterly with unknown concepts, but some element of surprise is also nice from a narrative point of view. If they didn’t realize they could influence the political and military situation before, and suddenly find themselves managing a struggle between local tribes simply because their taskmaster is gone, you can imagine the extremely organic pleasure such an experience would bring to the player.
Some of the transition from survive to thrive can be eased by repurposing existing mechanics that the player is already comfortable and familiar with. For example, once the player has freed themselves from the control of the census-taker, they generally will find themselves either as a semi-voluntary supplier of goods to the Republic, or as a supplier of goods to one of the local tribes. No one is going to turn you in for not meeting your quotas.
In the old days, of course, failing to meet your wheat quota meant game over. It may therefore seem counterintuitive to abandon such a premise partway through the game, seeing as how it fuels so much of the difficulty, etc. It almost makes everything after breaking free like a bonus mode, which in some ways it is, looked at from what traditionally makes rounds “bonus.” In my mind, frenzied acquisition of points with little or no risk to the player is how I define it.
On the other hand, considering what should be the high difficulty of this achievement, I think some relief from the grinding wheat mechanic is a pretty fitting reward. It is also important to making the transition to the “thrive” part of the game, which as I said has much more similarity to empire-building games than survival games.
But taken at a wider perspective, although the significance of the wheat quota to the physical lives of the players themselves may have been more or less removed, in fact the overall significance of said quota has gone from merely assuring the survival of a ragtag group of escaped slaves to actually supporting the political and military efforts of a warring faction. While your personal fates may not hang in the balance immediately, the fate of empires does.
The “voluntary quotas” you supply at this point in the game are used as part of a calculation to determine the relative military strength and political influence of the local tribes and Romans. Because it involves more combat, risk, and facing the greatest military the ancient world ever knew, siding with the tribes is a de facto hard mode. For those who have a better sense of which way the wind is blowing, Rome is generous to its friends and when Caesar rolls through Upper Gaul you know it won’t be his mighty legions you’ll have to face.
It may take several years for the results of the player’s supply efforts to manifest in the local power balance. If the player performs poorly, it is not just their fate but the fate of the region that is decided. My favored interpretation is that they player has proven themselves so good at meeting quotas that they are offered the opportunity to voluntarily achieve them in order to achieve wider, more epic goals.
One of the greatest new strategic options are given to the player now that they are not necessarily chained to supplying their faction in order to ensure success, at least in the short term. There may be occasions where the player wishes to make the strategic decision to forego meeting the quota in order to focus on achieving some specific military or political objective, like removing a bandit blockade from a friendly town or sabotaging the efforts of other factions. The player is allowed to make these long-term calculations now, having proven to the game (me?) they can keep up with brutal demands if necessary.
In the early game, you cannot decide to forego the bribe or quota in order to speed some other plan along - you may want a host of crafted items this year, or really get that Quarry underway, but you won’t get to enjoy the fruits of that labor if the triarii haul you off next March.
I guess one question that can be pulled from all this is: is the subsequent substitution of the player’s objective of survival with the objective of the survival of their goals a natural one, or horribly forced?
As always, Dungeon Crawl can be looked to for a helpful answer. After all, your objective during most of your initial hours of gameplay in such a brutal dungeon crawler will be merely to not die, maybe get down one level further, and just maybe get to see a fancy new enemy before it kills you in the newest, most horrible way yet.
Because of its exceptional difficulty and randomness, Dungeon Crawl can easily be described as partly a survival game, not least because starvation is a constant factor. For a while, you are just learning, and dying, and learning, and dying. And dying.
At a certain point though, you become familiar enough with the mechanics, pitfalls, and denizens that under conventional circumstances you can generally survive. It is at that point, and only that point, that there is any feasibility of actually obtaining the Orb of Zot and winning the game. The chances are remote, but they seemed utterly nonexistent before.
Dungeon Crawl does show that there is an inherent tiered structure in games of a sufficient difficulty. Early, just learning the ins and outs of the game constitutes an accomplishment. Only when survival becomes commonplace does the larger goal come to focus. We are attempting to accomplish something similar, although more artificial.
After all, in Dungeon Crawl death is always possible, no matter how powerful you think you are and how many bases you have covered. It never stops being a survival game because of its extreme difficulty, so it only partially serves as a model because we are attempting to redefine difficulty in FreeHolder mid-game from keeping your players alive in the short-term to doing something remarkable in the long-term. I’m hoping that the narrative flow of this progression will make up for some of the hitches in trying to figure out how to connect two genres at the midpoint.
The obviously common link between the two genres, and one that makes it mechanically flow together pretty easily is resource management. You simply go from managing a paucity of simple resources to cartloads of sundry high-level goods. Thankfully, this transition is built right into the fundamental mechanics of FreeHolder. The transition is also reinforced significantly by the leveling system.
At the start of the game, your characters are fairly ineffective, but as they level and acquire more equipment, their effectiveness increases exponentially. Where before it took the unceasing labor of your entire group to make ends meet, as your characters specialize and level you can assign more and more spare tasks to other, long-term goals like building projects, goods crafting and processing, and building reputation in the various townships and cities scattered across the frontier.
It’s all terribly exciting to watch this game come more and into existence as billions of 1s and 0s are tacked onto it from some four or five levels of code above. Making games is crazy.