Saturday, February 14, 2009

Something is Rotten in the State of Malaganga

Democracy 2 seems like a game I would love. You're the leader of a nation's governing party and you need to adjust policy to improve your nation and maintain leadership. It's pure political simulation, replete with deliciously complicated graphs and charts. That's right, the simulation's detail includes the effects of legalizing prostitution on your nation's GDP. It's interaction directly with a ruleset and that tickles me in all kinds of places.

It would be very easy to put Democracy 2 forward for those claiming games only offer shallow entertainment. Not only is the use of politics directly educational, there's also a ton of potential for tangential learning about various leaders, policies and more. It most certainly teaches the systems literacy Tom Armitage and others have talked about.

I'm going to get a little critical, but it's only because I think this game is generally fantastic and absolutely love what it's trying to do. I think Democracy 2 was made by a single guy and that's ridiculously goddamn awesome. I have nothing but respect, and intend for these comments only to be helpful.

Democracy 2's great strength is also its great weakness- it is a tremendously complicated game. Let's take a look at one of the more common screens in the game. When making changes to funding various policies and programs, you see a screen that graphs the effects changes to its funding will have. This is the screen for changing the nation's state-funded housing policy. By removing all funding from this policy, we see these effects:

Maximizing funding to this program produces this:

Amongst the effects, homelessness has been decreased significantly, equality has increased significantly, poor has gone up and poverty has gone down. The feedback from this screen is quite confusing, even having played the demo entirely three times.

Going back out a screen, here's the impact graph for state housing (I don't know why the background disappeared, but it actually helps make things simpler):

Here we can see that there are actually three different types of things that can be affected: voter groups (socialist, capitalist and poor), national statistics (equality, poverty and poor earnings) and situations (homelessness). As far as the simulation is concerned, they're all quite different, but the policy change graph treats them as the same, and worse, intermingles them. "Poor" and "Poverty" are different things, but looking at the policy change graph, there's no way to know this.

Additionally, which direction you want the positive/negative bar to go depends on what type of thing is being affected. You generally want to minimize loss of voter support and keep those bars as green as possible, but you actually want situation bars to be large and red (I think this is ubiquitous, but I'm not positive) as you're decreasing the situation. So a larger red bar for homelessness means less people are homeless, not homelessness becoming more of a problem. Again, it's quite difficult to infer this just from looking at the policy adjustment interface.

The fact the game is complicated isn't a problem necessarily; for what it's trying to accomplish, it has to be complicated. The problem is the game has almost no meaningful tutorial at all. Its "How To" section is a dozen or so blocks of text, about one per type of interface screen. Having never played the game, most of this text was meaningless or confusing. It's cliche, but "show, don't tell" really is an important maxim.

Now, I don't have any problem trying different things and figuring out what works. The difficulty is the feedback is usually quite delayed and often subtle. Realistically, changes to policy don't have their full impact immediately. But that means it's difficult to know what impact, if any, your changes have made. This makes initially learning the game's systems and interaction harder than it needs to be.

I feel Democracy 2 could be a much more accessible game if it came with a proper tutorial. It could feature a microcosm of the game, with only a few policies, situations and voter groups. The effect of policy decisions would be enhanced to give more feedback faster. This could even be presented cleverly into the game's fiction by saying you're the leader of a minority party in government with limited influence, or perhaps a cabinet minister with specific duties.

Democracy 2 is a very strong game, but its potential audience is limited by the game's complexity. I'm not sure how many folks there are like me who are willing to soldier on until things start to make sense, but it can't be that many. If you're even mildly interested, I suggest giving it a try (or three), because Democracy 2 really is fantastic. I just wish it was a little easier to love from the start.



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