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An Idea Comes to Life
Children of the Nile has occupied my thoughts almost exclusively for the past two and a half years. I conceived the game after nearly ten years of developing games professionally, and it represents the culmination of all that I've learned in that time. It all started late in 2001, when I first asked myself, "what exactly is this thing we call 'city-building', and what's the right way to do it?" The resulting design odyssey led me and eventually other designers down countless untrodden paths, some unproductive, some enlightening, many truly inspiring, and a vision for Children of the Nile quickly emerged. Our goals were ambitious, our designers top notch. But, like me, they too were often humbled by the design challenges posed by the vision for this game.
We chose ancient Egypt for the setting, because it occupies such a unique place in history, and it belongs to everyone. This was a real place, and yet, somehow it is also the stuff of make believe. This setting would allow us to push the boundaries of scale, and deliver a magical visual and audio presentation.
The touch points of our approach to the design were simple:
This, we knew, would deliver an unparalleled experience for the player. This would exploit the unique potential of PC game entertainment. This would be a game whose boundaries would not easily be seen when playing. This would be a game where you would not have to decipher some arbitrary rule set, or accept totally illogical behavior on the part of your people. After all, gaming is about escapism.
- The core of the game needs to be real people with real minds, who will go about their daily lives with or without you. Leading them is like being a real leader.
- The environment needs to be 3-dimensional, so your city feels like a real place, and you feel as if you are really there. The visual and audio presentation must be top-notch and tools must be given to the player to easily explore this environment up close and personal.
- The game model will not be based on arbitrary, unintuitive "rules", the deciphering of which can be more of a challenge than playing the game.
But the old adage, "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" has never been more true than on this project. It's paradoxical, to make something look easy you need to work darn hard. To deliver an experience where a very wide variety of factors are seamlessly integrated, the player's suspension of disbelief is never broken, his intelligence never insulted, well, this takes quite a lot of work.
By far our greatest design challenges have centered on the integration of a self-driven, semi-automatic lifelike "sim" with orderly and structured strategy gameplay. It's easy to make a game that runs by itself, and it's easy to make a game where the player needs to do everything himself, but to integrate the two is not so straightforward. Deviate too far to one side of the line, and the player becomes marginalized, his role relatively unimportant. Go the other way, and the illusion of "real people" begins to erode, and the experience of leading them is much less satisfying and profound as a result. Time and distance scales were also a big part of this challenge. How long does it take to walk from one side of the city to the other? A day? A year? How long does it take to build the great pyramid? Countless hours and innumerable white boards later, Children of the Nile finally started to blossom.
As the game came to life, of course our design challenges multiplied. Staying true to our original premise and the resulting touch points, everything that happened in the game needed to make sense, needed to be rooted in real human behavior, and needed to be tied into real factors going on in the city. If you see beggars on the streets, they're not just there for flavor, no, they're real people who have lost their livelihood, and have been forced into this way of life. Every figure you see in the city belongs to a family, and is always "alive."
In CotN the people are "real", that is, each has an individual AI, individual needs, and individual capabilities. As a result all the people in the city are connected to one another (like six degrees of separation). Together they form a society, and ultimately a nation. These are intangibles, but we managed to model them very elegantly, I feel. The inner workings of the game are extraordinarily complex, not based on arcane rules that you need to memorize because they really don't make sense. If you are an earthling, you should understand how this game operates solely based on your personal experiences, such as what do you do when you go hungry, lose a job, or achieve more in life. Why are you never satisfied and always want more?
If a link in a chain breaks somewhere, buildings en masse don't collapse or groups of people don't just pack up and leave. Instead, like real people, they struggle to resolve the break in the chain themselves. The fact that they have to change their lifestyle to correct the issue is what makes the system work.
It is difficult to convey what is special about this game by reduction to its constituent parts, because first and foremost Children of the Nile is one of those very rare games where a unique synergy of components produces an extraordinarily deep and meaningful experience on the part of the person playing it. At the risk of using old clichés, it is both evolutionary and revolutionary.
-Chris Beatrice (5/4/2004)