Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Joy of Stasis

Our project continues to be tremendously busy (positively so, but still, great labours), but I did want to put down some thoughts about Dawn of Discovery. I continue to find the game tremendous satisfying and I want to parse out more of why I feel that way. I think I've got it identified and in a word, it's stasis. Dawn of Discovery is about bringing systems that, left untended, will trend toward chaos back into balance. Obviously a great many sim games, from SimCity onward follow this model. But Dawn of Discovery in particular has made this readily apparent.

Dawn of Discovery structurally is familiar to anyone who's played a game of this ilk. You have a home island, money and a population. That population pays taxes (income) and has certain needs that must be fulfilled. You construct buildings to fulfill those needs (sometimes indirectly, like need a field for to grow hemp and a separate structure to weave it into clothes) and to gather resources for building more structures. Once you have a happy and large enough population, you unlock a new tier of buildings/needs/resources and continue. Obviously there's a lot of nuance here, but at a high level, that's the basic progression.

The interesting dynamic in DoD is to grow, you have to put your economic system out of order. Buildings cost money to maintain and growing you city means more overhead, both in terms of your population's needs and simply the amount of money required to keep them. Your singular most valuable resource is (effectively) a balanced budget and you have to nudge it back toward the black once it's too much toward the red. As soon as your economy is humming nicely, you'll expand further, again putting your system out of balance and it will need to be corrected again.

The satisfaction really comes from keeping the machine running smoothely. Building some more lumberjacks here, adding another mine there, building a few more houses for tax revenue- it's all about making small changes, seeing their effect and further tweaking accordingly. It's a big balance sheet and it produces a kind of satisfaction rarely found in other games.

Games focusing on 1st/3rd person avatar control isolate your input to a very small aspect of the world. But at the same time, almost always, that avatar has a total monopoly on agency in the world. If you don't act, nothing changes. The world is in stasis until you do something. No matter how suspensesful or dramatic the game wants to make a situation seem, until you touch the mouse/controller, nothing will change.

In contrast, Dawn of Discovery continues marching along with or without you. Your job is just to keep things pointed in the right direction. It creates a feeling that you're really very much in control of things, in that you genuinely must act to shape the outcome of the world. The world doesn't wait patiently for you to come to it. Its gears will keep turning with or without you, which means you must act to make a difference. I'd love for that feeling of consequence and importance to be manifest in more avatar-based games, but it's obviously a bit complex to incorporate. But that's not an excuse not to try. Even the harsh progression of time in the first Fallout added great weight and consequence to your actions. It just really sucked to end up on the wrong side of consequence.

Like many economic simulation games, Dawn of Discovery augments that core satisfaction of keeping things balanced by ensuring there are lots of levers to tweak and no optimal decisions to be made. To raise capital, it's at the player's discretion to grow cash crops and sell them or advance quickly to attract more citizens who'll pay higher taxes. Having the ability to make meaningful decisions that directly and obviously impact the state of the world is exactly what I want, at least from this kind of game. Add a fantastic olde timey setting and I'm sold, hook, line and sinker.

Games are interesting because they are made of systems. Simulations like Dawn of Discovery create a truly potent feeling of agency and consequence in the player by allowing them to be an agent within those systems, rather than transcendental being that the game's systems simply exist in service of. That feeling is a profound one, and impossible to reproduce in nearly all other media. It's a tremendous asset for a designer to have at his disposal and one we ought to utilize any chance we can get.



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