Tag: game design

To conclude this week on wargames, I would like to unveil a project that has consumed my spare time for the past seven years. It does not involve mobile, but there are parallels both to the mobile app marketing side and it includes many of the same kind of design decisions that go into all kinds of different games regardless of platform. I have no financial stake in this project, it has been a “labor of love”.

The project makes use of Norm Koger’s “The Operational Art of War”, (TOAW) formerly produced by Talonsoft, now available through Matrix Games with continued development by Ralph Trickey. TOAW is a wargame platform driven in large part by end-user created content (scenarios). TOAW was released in 1998 and retains a core of dedicated users. It has received numerous improvements and continues to be developed. My project has not been published yet pending further adjustment so the TOAW platform. However, it is effectively complete.

Entitled “Into Darkness: Europe 1939-1945″ – it uses this map at a 15 kilometer per hex scale. There is more to the map, it’s been cropped to show the main operational areas. It was designed from scratch, one hex at a time. The red box highlights Sicily which is shown in greater detail on the right, below. Total operational area spans over 400 x 400 hexes – 160,000 hexes where “World in Flames” spans 300 x 300, or 90,000 hexes. Printed, the map would be over 12 square feet.

bigmap2 Sicily

The game includes approximately 3,000 Axis and nearly 5,000 Allied units from all of the countries that participated in World War II’s European Theater. Units are predominantly division level, but also includes corps level units of the Soviet Union, brigades, regiments, air groups, naval squadrons, merchant convoys, and the like. All units include a composite of their historical “tables of organization and equipment” (TO&E’s) down to the individual squad, vehicle and heavy weapon with historical production rates of each.

It is worth pointing out that ALL of this information was acquired through sources available on the Internet.

UnitDetailThis is of special interest in consideration that virtually all of the wargames up through the late 1990’s tended to represent units in a very abstract fashion. An infantry division might be represented as a simple “3-3″ applying to a movement, attack and defense strength of “3”. In those games, an infantry division was either at full strength or it was destroyed. In this game, the detail is greater by two orders of magnitude (literally) – as a unit will take casualties and receive replacements on a line item basis.

The last major component to designing this game or scenario, involved defining “events” – declarations of war, when countries surrender, exceptional weather conditions, effects of strategic warfare, etc. Originally, only 500 instructions could be defined. This was increased to 1,000 and now indications are that up to 10,000 instructions can be defined. About 3,500 lines have been used in this project. The instructions do not involve a programming language per se, but a detailed set of what equates to IF/THEN statements.

The Target Audience? This is the kind of game that only appeals to hardcore wargamers, some historians and academics. It plays out over 300 Turns — where each Turn is likely to average a full 90 minutes. The full game is expected to involve about 500 HOURS of play – likely over about 2 years for the average player through play by email.

This is not the largest wargame, but it should easily find its place in the Top 5 ever produced. Another team of developers is working on a project spanning the Eastern Front of World War II on a Regimental Scale.

The main factor though, is that I didn’t design this game with the intention of commercially distributing it, so much as I wanted to make the game “I always wanted to play” – and that other hardcore wargamers have expressed an interest in.

The Original Intention was to include the entirety of World War II, to include Burma, China and the Pacific Theaters. It became clear, however, that would involve an excessive investment of time and resources. As it stands, this project is the culmination of about 4,000 hours of research, development and testing. That can be pursued as an expansion at a later date.

Design Note: This is a consideration that many developers are likely to run into at some point. Your idea for a project may be overly ambitious – you might want to present everything all at once, but is that necessarily wise? What if, when some popular MMO’s came out they released everything at once? Well, in the case of World of Warcraft, as just one example, that would have precluded sales on several expansions — the original level cap was at 40, then went to 60, 70, 80, 85 and 90. I stopped tracking WOW after 90.

Similar considerations apply in all areas of app development, business development and even funding. Aim to do what you know you can achieve – and gradually build on it.

What makes it unique? Sheer size, detail, complexity coupled with ease of play, with a sandbox component allowing for about 40 historical variations.

There are numerous games which model World War II in Europe at larger scales — Corps or Army level and 25, 50 or 100 kilometers per hex. Many games tend to focus on one theater of operations – the Eastern Front, the Western Front, the Mediterranean. The level of complexity becomes far greater when “everything” is represented.

Making Complex Things Simple. This is the main task of a designer. Before the computer, players had rule sets and they had to calculate everything in the game according to those rules. That can take huge amounts of time. Figure an “encounter” in Diablo might take seconds to resolve – the same battle using pen and paper play could take hours.

Most players don’t want to spend time on tutorials or instructions. If you don’t believe, watch the Help Chat Channel on any MMO out there. But the same extends to other types of games. People want to pick up a game and intuitively understand what they need to do to play – learning details as they go.

Simplify, simplify and simplify some more. If you can keep the vast majority of the game play easy for the player, they won’t mind one or two components that are somewhat more complex. This is also important for playtesting. If you have lots of situations that require multivariate testing, your test time increases dramatically. Sticking to A or B, and sometimes C, is a lot easier to test.

End User Generated Content. I’ve noted on several occasions that there is a growing trend by game developers to want to actively tap into the unbound design potential of their end users — i.e. customers. I know of numerous people who design simply because they enjoy it, but there are limitations to that. Some excellent designers stopped designing because they were provided no incentive to do so.

If I had applied the 4,000 hours I’ve spent on this project on anything else, I could buy a house. I enjoy the game THAT MUCH. While that’s what I am willing to do “for free”, I can’t imagine committing another 2,000 hours expanding the project for a simple “fuzzy-feel-good feeling”.

If you go the route of accepting end-user content, provide some incentives. A little bit goes a long way.

There is more to design than just being able to monetize it. Getting published is an achievement unto itself. It is not always possible to monetize everything, but that does not preclude you from using it as a “foot in the door” for other projects; use it as the basis for networking; or as a “loss leader” for something similar that you do intend to market.

What I have to say about this project is that it has been hugely educational. It spawned lots of very interesting and bizarre questions.

  • Why was Baku the primary objective of the Axis in Case Blue? How much oil was there? Could Germany have made use of it if they got there? — What octane levels were used to fuel WWII vehicles? What was the drill depth for reaching oil? How difficult is it to refine Oil?
  • How many ships were sunk by u-boats? How much could one ship carry? How many ships were there? How long did it take them to transit from North America to Europe? What protection did they have? etc.
  • Russia move a lot of their factories from Western Russia to the Urals — so how many freight cars does it take to move a factory? How many cars did they have? If a factory was lost, what was the impact? How much did movement of a factory impact production?

That’s the short list — and I have to reiterate again that ALL of this information is available online. The amount of detail available for just about anything is enough to formulate the basis for “simple equations” that you can model fairly easily.

Perfectionism. A lot of projects are started but never get finished because of the tendency of some developers to be perfectionists. My game is not perfect, but it is finished. I would like for it to be perfect, but that would require a lifetime. The whole intention of making it was to be able to play it, in this lifetime. Be pragmatic.

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Picking up from Monday, the practical fact for game designers is that there is a vast history of ideas and designs to draw upon.  With Wargames, every era of warfare is amply covered and span easy to play games to games with over 600 pages of rules.  These are all ideas and components that you can use when creating your games.

Panzer_GeneralPanzer General, produced by SSI in 1994, can be regarded as one of, possible THE most successful computer wargame to date.  It went on to spawn Allied General, Fantasy General, Star General, Panzer General II, and more.  It was easy to play, intuitive, had a decent “computer opponent” – suited perfectly for the mass market.   Twenty years later, it still has a loyal fan base along with a number of Open Source projects of a similar nature.  Slitherine’s Panzer Corps has been touted as the spiritual successor of Panzer General, adding enhancements from later versions, better graphics, and has been made available for the iPad.

Dozens of other games deserve mention like Campaign Series with East Front, Decisive Battles, Gary Grigsby’s War in the East, etc.  There are the various Real Time Simulators such as Dune II, Command and Conquer, Age of Empires with Hearts of Iron 1-3 and Europa Universalis (among others) as hybrids of a sort.  Add to this the First Person Shooters like Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, Medal of Honor, World of Tanks, etc.  Add tactical operations games like X-Com, Jagged Alliance, the Tom Clancy series, and others.  There are games for every scale – from the individual soldier up to all of the units in an entire war.

This is a quick fast forward of almost two decades of computer wargames leading us into the era of mobile wargames.  Not all of the PC-based wargames created are made to fit mobile.   Screen size is a major obstacle to overcome.  One day screen-size will be solved – and our definitions of Mobile vs. PC will change dramatically as a consequence.

AmericasArmyRealism is increasing – from near real-life graphics to modeling physics, better modeling of weapons, better handling of command and control, line of sight, supply and logistical components.   The difference between “war games” and “real war” is decreasing steadily in every regard except lethality.

The United States Army created its own game, America’s Army, as a recruiting and training tool.  From discussions I’ve had with others in both civilian and military education programs on LinkedIn, there is an interest for apps/games/utilities that can be useful for military training, instruction, decision-making tools, etc.  Military, military academies, potentially even paintball and laser tag parks represent another market beyond regular gamers.

Wargame Design Tips for Mobile:

  1. Computer Opponent – Call it the AI or an “programmed opponent”, a poor computer opponent is most often the #1 reason why people stop playing what is otherwise a great game.  “Empire of the Fading Suns” is one case in point, well ahead of its time in concept, complexity and sandbox-ness, this true futuristic, strategic space-land wargame had all of the design elements of the day to make it “totally awesome”.  The computer opponent was practically a pacifist and games would play out for potentially hundreds of turns making play by email impractical.  That’s by no means the only game with a bad AI, it just goes to show how perfect a game could be, but fail on this one thing… and be a total disappointment.  The more time you spend developing a solid AI, the more you and your players will be rewarded.
  2. Simplify the Interface.   Some wargames are notorious for having too many buttons to try to account for the whole “rule set”.  Simplify, simply and simplify some more.  The common denominator for almost all wargames involve movement and attacking – that’s likely to be the majority of the game play.  By keeping that very easy, you can introduce additional complexity in other portions of the game – where players can select their load out, production orders, upgrade paths, and other options.
  3. World_of_TanksBreak-up the Monotony.   Almost every wargame leads to a measure of monotony… move and attack, move and shoot some more.   Periodically, but with fair frequency, you want to let players make more important decisions – as noted above, with load outs, production orders, upgrades.  MMORPG’s and World of Tanks do a really good job of this.   It can apply to any game scale – FPS, Tactical, Operational or Strategic.  By breaking up monotony, you increase replay value.
  4. Lots of Equipment Upgrades.  Again, MMO’s have this down as an art and science – with upgrades coming from a variety of different sources — warbooty directly from the battlefield, crafting, special rewards from factions, items that can only be purchased, hybrid crafting from the likes of Star Wars the Old Republic, Diablo, Path of Exile, Torchlight, etc.   The idea is for there to always be something “better” – even if it situation specific.
  5. Economy.    Perhaps the hardest to implement and properly balance – there needs to be a limit, and a few special ways of being able to exceed the limit.  However you define it — by points, by number of units, by command ratings, or even by supply, players should never feel as if they have unlimited resources.   Emphasis is placed on the particular combination of resources, a matter of quality, quantity and specialized functions.  Keeping the feeling of “always wanting, but not necessarily really needing more”  alive in your game is critical to keeping it a challenge.

These are all relative to your game concept.  People stopped playing Space Invaders a few years ago because of the monotony.  Other games offered less monotony.

If you can achieve these five things, I’d really like to see it and I imagine many other players would, too.  This is not all specific to wargames, functionally the same extends equally to Monopoly or Mario Brothers, Angry Birds and many, many other games.   The aim is to look at what makes all of the games that we really like, “FUN”.

On Friday, I’ll present the mammoth World War II Project that I’ve been working on for the past seven years that is now in its final stages of playtesting.

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ArmyMenVictory in Europe Day just past by a few days ago.   I am also closing in on completing the 2nd phase of testing on a World War II project that has consumed over 4,000 hours of work since 2007.   This week, we’ll spend some time looking at how this segment of games has developed over the years, to what it is  today, and what might go into defining it for tomorrow?   A lot of what goes into wargames goes into a lot of other types of games, too – as we will see soon.

Army Men – These guys simply never go away.  They didn’t do anything until they were placed under the command of the the imagination of 8-year old generals.   In my neighborhood, we would set them up mainly because they “looked cool” and then proceed to knock them down – by throwing things at them.  Dirt, rocks… furniture, while providing our own sound effects, “Boom– datta-datta-shew-bang…”  The rules were…  Well, I don’t remember any… 

Army Men live on in their own PC games now – with much improved special effects.

Greek SpearmenTable Top Miniatures – An important part in the evolution of wargaming, this is “Army Men with Rules!”   Whether medieval or fantasy, modern or futuristic, you will find the “Art of Table Top Wargaming” alive and well today – and with multiple spin-offs.   The original medieval rules for tabletop medieval wargaming led to the formation of the Chainmail rule set for fantasy wargaming leading further under Gary Gygax to the creation of Dungeons and Dragons.Space_Marine_Army

This can be a very expensive hobby as the figurines are usually made of metal and come unpainted.  When I talk about the Art of Table Top Wargaming – it is that, and more.   Tabletop Wargamers take great pride in the intricacy of their paint jobs whether they are painting Leopard III tanks, Greek Spearmen, Goliath Mechs or Skaven Plaguebringers.  All versions have their own rule sets and game play takes place with the use of a ruler – to determine movement, and dice – to decide combat.   While many scenarios are based upon historical battles, there is always the option to pit one “army build vs. another” using point buy systems.

WarhammerWarhammer on the fantasy side and Warhammer 40k on the futuristic-fantasy side are both table top games that have resulted in a string of PC games, and the late Warhammer Online MMORPG.  If not for the Warhammer Universe, we would not have had World of Warcraft – at least not as we know it.

Leastwise, most of what we know of wargaming today extends from Table Top wargaming — from unit attributes such as Attack and Defense Strengths, to unit upgrades, Heroes and personal attributes.   All of today’s computer and most mobile games take these into consideration.  Lately, some games are getting into the artwork side of it by letting players “dye” their own armor, in addition to having different sets of armor.   The art itself is awesome.   For many fantasy and medieval wargames , developers still have ample room to expand upon the customization of uniforms and flags.

100px-World_In_FlamesBoard Games - Back in the 1970’s, Avalon Hill was one of the big publishers of boxed set wargames including Squad Leader, Panzer Blitz, Tobruk, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, and countless others.  Their take on wargames simplified the set up of games so that you could play them on your kitchen table.  They included cardboard maps, dice and unit counters in place of miniatures — generally using NATO unit symbols to identify infantry, armor, cavalry and artillery units.    Axis and Allies is a very popular “beer and pretzels” type game emerging from this form.  Many of these games did make their way to a computerized version, albeit with varying degrees of success.

The PROBLEM with most of the above types of games was that — they did take up the kitchen table, or in the case of Australian Design Group’s “World in Flames” – the entire room.   Ideally, many of these games would be played by at least 2 and as many as 6 players.  Simply finding other players was not easy.  Plus, many of these games would involve weeks, months and in some cases, years to finish – as people could meet over the weekends or holidays.

The following video goes to show just how much space a game like this could take up.  For those still playing “old school” (as this fellow from Norway is doing), this video shows a solution to the “Earthquake of Doom”.

Meanwhile, and though it took 10 years to do, World in Flames has been made into a computer game itself, produced by MatrixGames.com.  Unfortunately, it does not have a “playable opponent” or “AI” – you can either play solo, hotseat, or play by email.

As I am about to wrap up this first segment (more on Wednesday), this all goes to point out to mobile app developers, particularly of strategy games that they have all kinds of examples, resources and themes to serve as creative inspiration.   I can’t say that I’ve played every game – not nearly, but I’ve played a lot of them and in just about every format.

Computer and mobile games solve a lot of the difficulties we had just a few decades ago.   Games take up a lot less space, they are faster to play, and it is easier to find opponents online.  There are still problems to solve, lots of creative depth yet to explore.   Wednesday or perhaps Friday, I will unveil a project that has consumed over 4,000 hours of development over the past 7 years.  We’ll see…

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