Making a God Game

I read Eurogamer's article on the problems that Godus is having recently and it got me thinking. Firstly, how accurate is the Eurogamer verdict? In the interests of full disclosure, I have not played Godus at all - no early access or sneak peaks or anything. Everything I'm about to write is based purely on speculation and a small insight in to the way that Peter used to work. Take that as you wish - many might recommend a pinch of salt - but the point remains: If the items the Eurogamer article highlight are true, then it seems like the game is in trouble. Why?

Populous Reboot


Very much WIP
That's how Godus was sold to me and I'm very happy about it. Glenn and I used to talk about remaking Populous many times but we just never got around to it. As one of the original creators, Peter has every right to give it a go and even from a very early stage, the stuff I was hearing about it was very encouraging. To me, it sounded like he was going about it the right way.

To establish what I mean by that, we need to delve back in history. I was at school when Populous was released. I only had a lowly Spectrum, so the whole 16 bit thing was very new to me. My friend Scott had an Atari ST though and pretty soon we were bunking off school* and sneaking off to his to play Populous. I  loved it. It was unlike any game I'd played before.

Pretty soon, I was at Bullfrog and working on a sequel. For Populous 2 we didn't mess with the formula too much. It was still very much a Populous game. In fact, looking at what became of Populous: The Beginning, I'd say it was the last of them. It wasn't perfect by any means - too many effects could become a little overwhelming and a nightmare to balance. We innovated a little in Pop 2 but we didn't mess with the core principles. For me these are Landscape Modification and Indirect Control. P:TB had gone too far down the RTS route and recruiting wild men just wasn't as compelling as carving out the landscape.

Landscape Modification


Populous had it easy. It was made in a time before everything had to be realistic. Everything was an abstract representation. A single person sprite could be anything from a single dude to a whole army. Sweeping hills and valleys were constructed from low resolution building blocks. Godus certainly ticks the abstract box. Personally, I love the style, but it's missing one thing from the original: It was all digital - a house took up a square, a slope was always a particular angle**, a click was a click.

That last point I feel is something quite relevant. Each click would raise or lower the land by a prescribed amount. There was no ambiguity about it. It was a very simple system that could then be exploited. The most efficient method of rapidly raising a settle-able swathe of land from the sea was to employ the two-up/one-down approach. Each sequence like this would result in a much larger square of land than had you raised each point individually. Knowing where to perform these little combos was all part of the skill of the game (so you could get better at it) and was a very compelling thing to do (so you wanted to do it). As you can imagine, this is quite a potent mix in terms of gameplay.

I'm not sure smearing the land flat has quite the same appeal - certainly not on anything other than a touchscreen device - but this does bring us to a very valid point in the Eurogamer piece. Your entire aim is to flatten the world. Turn it all in to one sprawling metropolis. Whilst the same is true in the original, it occurs to me that there are two key differences, one of which was the raise / lower land interface. Then again, because of the compelling nature of said interface, we used to see an 'issue' where people couldn't walk past a screen showing hilly Populous landscape without stopping to flatten it all out. It was like digital bubble wrap.

None of this is to say that you can't do analogue landscape sculpting well. In fact, why not take a look at something like Glenn's Topia for a decent example*** or Eric Chahi's From Dust.  But if the aim remains the same (to flatten the land) and the only real tool at your disposal is a smearing, flattening one (as opposed to a combination of raise and lower), then you might end up with something quite dull at the end.

The second difference may seem a little odd: You only saw a bit of the land at any one time. It sat in the middle of a book, surrounded by icons and other interesting (though largely pointless) features. Of course, this was mainly down to the technical restrictions - there's only so many things a poor ST or Amiga can draw before it gives up the ghost - but it did mean that at any given time, there was still something interesting to look at even if the whole thing was flat. This was illustrated further when the PC version of Pop 2 developed a full screen mode. Sure, you could see much further and you actually gained a gameplay advantage but it did result in this issue of turning the entire world into a giant car park.

Indirect Control


The second core pillar in a God Game's design is that of Indirect Control.

I feel this is crucial. A God Game is quite a voyeuristic experience. The instant you start ordering individual units around, you're a general in an RTS. Populous was about coaxing the population. Guiding it. Steering it. Never telling it outright. This created a level of indirection, certainly, but one that could be exploited by a skilful player.

If you're going to give orders, give them to the whole population, not individuals. A god doesn't concern himself with the life of an individual.

The closest the game came to giving the player direct control over individuals was the Papal Magnet - a device that could be used to attract every (keyword - "every") walker on your side to a single point on the map. This could be used to micro manage and get people to migrate to new areas of the map or invade the enemy's territory, but there was a skill to it and it was a very broad brush stroke. Also, time spent doing this meant that your population wasn't growing as fast as it could be as they would be ignoring settle-able land in favour of marching towards their fate.

From what I've heard about the "leashing" thing, I'm a bit concerned that this is a step too far towards RTS.

Living With Bumps


Why does everything need to be flat? Isn't that just a legacy hangover from the original, born out of the block-based technicalities and a decent abstraction for what constitutes 'buildable' land?

I would suggest that the landscape actually offers plenty of opportunity. Instead of 'flat' being the only resource, there are plenty of other things to be found in the landscape. Actually, use of the word "resource" might hang a few people up. By that I'm not just talking about veins of Tiberium or Vespene gas pockets - places where specific buildings can be built - although that would certainly open up some interesting strategy, especially if the person responsible for placing those resources was you with a godly power.

Instead, I'm talking about the landscape topography itself. I think the 22 Cans guys are already thinking about things like altitude affecting the buildings, but that just means that you might have plateaus instead. Still a "step up" from completely flat, but there's more that can be done.

What about delta altitude? That is to say certain buildings that require the landscape around them to have a difference between the highest point and the lowest. Say, for example, mines or quarries that can only be built into the side of hills or cliffs. If there were more in-game resources (okay, I'm back to the ones you expect now) that were produced by different buildings instead of just mana, a player would have to have areas devoted to each. Kinda Sim City-esque although instead of discrete zoning you'd employ landscape sculpting. Big flat bits would provide food and allow for population growth. Hilly bits would provide resources and allow for population strength or even technology. This sort of thing could be used to gate other advances or resources or even the rate at which the player acquires powers.

The nice thing about this is that it plays in to the stepped nature of the landscape. The delta value can be expressed in terms of digital levels rather than something more fuzzy and analogue.

Then, even simpler than that, you've got things like trees. Throwing down forests will brighten up the landscape - even the flat bits. These could be used for all sorts - slowing movement, defence, resources, kindling for fire-based effects...

And now I'm getting carried away.

Potential


When I look at something like Godus, I see it as a toolbox. A designer's plaything. There's a landscape and an AI system for the population. With these basics, you could make anything from a simple RTS (Total War) to an arcade shooter (Cannon Fodder) to, well, a god game.

A Knight. Quite a late addition to the game.
I hear people complaining that the game isn't fun and to them I say "so what?". It's not ready. I guess this is a problem when you open yourself up to things like Early Access. The people you're opening it up to (the general public) are not game developers. They're consumers. They expect a finished product regardless of whatever disclaimers you make them sign ahead of time.

Every game I ever worked with Peter on wasn't fun. At least, it wasn't fun until quite late in development. Then there'd be a two week period of insanity, during which the game would suddenly leap forward in playability. It happened every time and I see no reason to expect anything else this time out.

Joe consumer wants a shelving unit. Only he's gone to Ikea and come home with some boxes of raw materials.

And he can't find that allen key in the box.


* Don't do it kids - it's not cool. Well, okay, it's cool but not particularly helpful in the long term.
** Born out of a rendering restriction.
*** In fact, why not take a look at just about anything Glenn has ever written. Chances are it's got a sculpted heightfield in it.

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