From one game designer to another
Hi everyone. I have a big post today on Elemental, and I hope the developers will read it! To introduce myself: my name is Keith Burgun, and I'm the lead designer at Dinofarm Games. I recently wrote a book on game design (should be out in Sept), I write on the topic of game design for Gamasutra and a few other well-known sites. I also teach game design classes at a few nearby schools. That's not to say that I'm some authority on game design, but it is to say that I do take it very seriously, and so hopefully I can provide a little bit more insight than the average fan (maybe not, of course... we'll see).
So I've always been a huge 4X fan and Master of Magic is one of my favorite PC games of all time, so I really care deeply about FE reaching that level. Right now, it's definitely not at that level - yet - for a few reasons.
I want to quickly say that FE is closer to reaching that level than any other fantasy 4X game that has come since. It's leagues better than any HoMM, Age of Wonders or even that new fantasy 4X game that just came out on Steam (whose name is eluding me at the moment).
So, this post is mostly negative from here on in only because I want to help this project improve, not because I have a generally negative opinion on the game.
If you only read some parts of this, make sure to read Point One, and Point Four at the end.
Point one - Focus on the Core Gameplay Mechanism
I'm a bit concerned about the complexity level of Elemental. Obviously, it's not as though going over a certain "threshold" of complexity = bad game. You can have a game of any level of complexity, so long as every single element ties into the fundamental, core gameplay mechanism.
We have to ask the question, "what is the fundamental, core gameplay mechanism for Elemental?" Perhaps I'm wrong on this, but it seems to me that it is the tactical battles. That is where the majority of interesting decisions takes place, and you could say that everything in the game is all indirectly building up to those tactical battles. Exploring helps you find resources, which helps you build cities, which helps you build units or research spells, all of which are used in... tactical battles.
(Some of you may disagree that tactical battles are the core gameplay mechanism for the game. If so, I'd like to hear what you think the core gameplay mechanism is. For now though, I will continue on under the impression that it is indeed tactical battles at the heart of this game.)
I remember back in the late 90s, complaining about Master of Magic's really useless diplomacy system. "What the hell", I thought, "these screens are nearly pointless. No matter what it seems like I'm sucked into war." I used to think that that was a problem in that game.
It was only years later, when I learned about what a "core gameplay mechanism" was and how important staying tightly woven into that was, that I realized that this "crappy" diplomacy system was actually a really smart design move. Because in Master of Magic, the core gameplay mechanism is certainly the tactical battles, and so being able to permanently keep from fighting would be like keeping from jumping in Super Mario Brothers, or keeping from shooting in Doom.
How does this relate to Elemental? Well, generally the game seems to be pretty aware of its core gameplay concept, but there are some areas which make me not-so-sure. Like I said at the top of this section, I'm concerned about some specific areas of over-complexity, some of which undermine or are only tangentially related to the core gameplay mechanism.
Point Two - The Aforementioned Over-Complexity
There are simply too many "tiny" choices that players get to make in Elemental. Once a decision gets beyond a certain threshold of impact, a better game design would simply streamline (remove) it. Don't make me make 10,000 "tiny" decisions in a playthrough of Elemental. A design that makes me make 1000 more significant ones is better.
Some really clear examples of over-complexity that I would address:
1. Unit Design - Now, I know people are very attached to this idea of designing your own units in this game, and so while I might personally get rid of it, I think there is a compromise that can be made. Firstly, let me say why I would cut it out of the game.
If the game is indeed about tactical battles, then allowing players to design their own units only muddies up the battlefield. It means that things are not visually clear. "Okay," you might say, "that's a swordsman, so as long as I am this far away, I should be fine on this turn". Oops! That swordsman had throwing knives equipped and you got attacked this turn after all. Not to mention the fact that you have no idea how much those footsoldiers are going to do in damage to you. They might be awesome, or they might be complete crap. It's just a lot of noise.
My Proposed Compromise: But anyway, I know people are nutty for "customization", so whatever. At least, please cut out those "traits". That is an amazing example of giving people a tiny choice that isn't significant enough to be interesting. Do you want 0.01% more damage now, or 0.01% more money later? This should be a good illustration of the problem.
Another note on Unit Design: Piercing and Blunt weapons, really? Does this game really need that level of resolution?
2. City Building - I could probably boil down all of the cities in Elemental, and express all of them in 6-12 building types. How many buildings are there now - like, friggin 200 or something? It's ridiculous. In addition to the "tiny choice problem" I just explained, having too many buildings creates another problem. That problem being late game "annoying city management". All of you 4x players know exactly what I'm talking about. Going from city to city late game and basically just eventually filling out each city with all the buildings. It's tedious and it becomes a no-brainer. This is a problem common to almost all 4X games.
Instead of having like 3-5 buildings just for military units, do this: There are like two "tiers" of military units. You can always build the first tier, but to get the second tier, you need a barracks. A barracks takes like, half the game to create, though. Some of you might say "that's not enough resolution! There should be a more gradual evolution of units!" That's what the tech tree is for! It's OK if the tech tree is roughly as complex as it is now, because the tech tree is always interesting and is never tedious.
My Proposed Compromise: At the very least, give us the Civ IV "governor" thing, so that we can just have the AI make the required no-brainer decisions for us late-game.
Point Three - Too Much Junk
So, beyond the game being too complex (in terms of how many tiny little insignificant decisions you have to make), there's also just a bunch of noisy garbage that clogs up a player's game.
1. Items - I played one game that lasted maybe 4-5 hours long. In that game, my heroes eventually got like, 40-some items in their packs. Firstly, all kinds of stuff like "leather greaves" to food items to even useless items like "wolf skins".
How about we make items, in general, way rarer. Don't make me have to go dicking around in a single unit's (even if it's my Champion) inventory every 50 turns or so to have to "equip the +10 sword instead of the +9 sword". This is a no brainer decision and it has to be removed!
And there are completely useless items that I just have to take to town and sell? What the hell is that? What is this, Diablo?
Please do the following: Make items in general way more rare. Make it so that you can't find "leather greaves" and other normal items. Only magical items, and you'll only find between 1 and 5 of them in a single game. Make it special when I find an item, so that I'm EXCITED to go into the inventory screen, at least. Cut out useless items, and honestly cut out the whole system where I can
2. Spells - In that same game, I had something like 30 different spells that I could cast in a battle. Of course, I only used about 3 of them. Raise your hand if that's how it works for you, too - you use about 10% of the spells that you have. This is classic bad design!
Instead, it should be like the items. If you get ONE NEW SPELL, it should be like "oh man, awesome, I can't wait to use this new spell!" Instead I get like 3 or 4 spells at once from some new tech upgrade.
Further, many of the spells are redundant. Curse, and Mass Curse? Fire Bolt and Fire Ball and Fire Touch and Fire Wave? Again, this is not smart design.
Now, it'd be one thing, though, if in a single game you only got 2-5 spells, and maybe on this game, you only have access to Fire Ball and no Fire Bolt. But it seems like the spells you get are pretty much just a matter of teching to them.
Give me less spells, but make each spell have more identity. Also: beware a mana system + direct damage spells. I'm just going to cast direct damage spells and nothing else. I learned this the hard way designing the Wizard for 100 Rogues.
3. Monsters - I feel like there are like 5 or 6 different "popcorn" monsters: the super low level monsters that you're supposed to just 'harvest' more than fight early game. Why? Just make there be ONE KIND OF MONSTER PER FUNCTION. I would propose something like:
Bears = popcorn monsters, for you to harvest for XP and feel good about yourself over
Dire Bears= first monsters who can actually kill you with a nasty bite
Skeleton Bears = Monsters who threaten your civilization with evil bear powers
Dragon Bears = The ultimate monsters that have godlike stats and bear fire breath
Really, is there some reason why we need more than this? The interesting battles should be against the other AIs who, as you might recall, have uniquely designed units. So keep the monsters simple!
Point Four: Focus On Tactics!
Okay so so far this post has been "don't do this! remove this! no no no!" Here is where I suggest that you guys add some complexity that will be really meaningful and add to the interestingness of the game.
What if instead of all this "+0.01% damage" and "+0.01% fire resistance" type stat-stravaganza, the units had different tactical traits? I know, right now there is a tiny amount of this. Some units have more/less movement points, some have ranged attacks, some have spells, some have more/less HP.
But, what if there was more tactical stuff than that? Take a look at SSI's Fantasy General for example. In this game, there are many very interesting and rich wargame mechanisms. Here are some possible examples of TACTICAL additions I would like to see added in Elemental:
1. Zone of Control: In many tactical strategy games, units have something called "Zone of Control". How this works is, if an enemy unit walks to a tile that's adjacent to one of your units, he then has only 1 more movement point left. This means that he can't just "rush by" your front units, and you can set up screens.
2. Consider hexes?: I know this sounds zany, but... hexes are really much, much better for strategy games. There's plenty of writing on this subject, but in short, there is an equal amount of distance from the center of any tile to the center of any adjacent tile in hexes. This isn't the case for squares; moving diagonally actually gets you further than moving orthogonally.
3. Supporting fire: Maybe archers shoot enemies who attack melee units
4. More terrain stuff: High ground, cover, etc. There's just not a lot of this right now. Even Master of Magic has some random rocks and things scattered around.
5. Melee units both attack at the same time: If you and I both have melee units of equal strength, maybe I shouldn't get an advantage for attacking first. Maybe I have to get an advantage by using tactics, like archer supporting fire or terrain stuff or spells.
6. More "positional" spells: How about more spells that simply MOVE units around the battlefield? Like pushing them back, or creating barriers, or things like that. I'm telling you, direct damage spells are the least interesting thing ever, but if you give me them I'm going to use them because they're fucking effective.
Anyway, I think you guys are doing great work and I really hope someone at the team will see this post and take it to heart. Keep up the good work, Stardock!