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This is the second set of designer's notes relating to Children of the Nile. Jeff Fiske describes some background about PC Strategy gaming in general before discussing CotN specifically. The background information is a summary of our approach to what makes PC strategy gaming such a compelling entertainment medium. He then touches on where these elements show up in CotN and how the game grows into a personal experience for each user.
From dry game dynamics to immersive worlds
Over this past weekend our nation observed the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. These events mark the passage of time and humble us by reminding us of the sacrifices of those who have gone before us. For me personally I had a particularly un-profound moment when it struck me that D-Day was the first historic event that began my interest in warfare and in war gaming! I first started playing Panzer Leader before I understood the context of the events it represented until two years later when I read "The Longest Day" by Cornelius Ryan. All of a sudden what was a more complex version of chess took on meaning and context I had not understood before.
How does this relate to gaming?
"The Longest Day" was simultaneously heart-wrenching and glorious. The board game version was neither. The game Panzer Leader was an intellectual exercise without soul or emotion, yet the experience of playing Panzer Leader was very much improved by having read books on the subject because somewhere in my brain I could add my own emotion and historic significance to the lifeless cardboard counters.
When the first computer games came out they had even less soul than the cardboard games, and the main benefit of playing PC games was not having to deal with Ziploc baggies anymore- they did not make a better play experience. But the potential was there. I remember seeing Doom being played multi-player for the first time and realizing that PC Gaming had arrived, and that it was only a matter of time before someone began creating more culturally relevant immersive experiences.
Good PC games take place in the player's mind. They create a place that to the individual playing it is personal and quite real - and is unique to the PC. The player comes away with some of the same emotions and pride of having achieved issues of real value. This is akin to training in flight simulators and learning to fly: your brain is being conditioned to deal with the experiences you are seeing as if they are real. These games permit our minds to play with fantastic and impossible situations that simply are impossible to experience otherwise, and to some degree they feel real or they leave an imprint that feels real. You can't get this from any other form of entertainment because the interactive nature is a pre-requisite that is absent in other media.
Great games go beyond closing your eyes at night and still seeing the screen or images. They go to the point where you are so immersed in what is going on in your game world that your subconscious winds up compiling information on the game and strategies when you sleep and even unfortunately while at work or talking with a loved one! Maybe ten PC games have delivered this experience for me, some of them with fantastic graphics such as Half-life, others with less such as Masters of Magic or games that swept me away with mediocre graphics and the old PC speaker like Alone in the Dark, or still others with just ANSCII characters, such as Zangband or ADOM. The point is the gameplay and the overall cohesion of an idea and its implementation is what is most important.
One would think that the 3D graphics revolution would have increased our immersion into our game worlds but the opposite is the case. Seeing realistic looking beings behaving unrealistically is like watching a bad movie; it is impossible to get beyond those glaring errors and to interpret what the designer, or director was going after. Playing X-com is far scarier with pixilated blobs than finely rendered creatures that look like every other creature on a 3d-card box, or some Alien/ Predator hybrid.
Children of the Nile
On December 3, 2001 (December 1st was a Saturday) I sat down with Chris and he tossed out a few ideas about what games we should consider doing. I was immediately enthusiastic about Egypt. I remembered really getting into the Egyptian theme while playing Pharaoh and almost feeling like there was a consistent setting but the engine just got in the way (can you say "walkers"?). Chris and I both got really excited because we were starting from scratch and could therefore design the game to avoid anything that interfered with the suspension of disbelief.
It was not long before the two of us were making broad statements about the game: "Let's do Egypt and do it right by putting a player in a 3d world and not let him go. Let the player explore every nook and cranny of the game model and give him a free camera to watch this all: create a game where the player feels like he can't find the boundary between him and the game. Let's figure out a way where he can shape a lasting Egyptian culture that is different based on his personality and play style."
Okay, it might not have been that dramatic but we both had a clear goal in mind for what the game would offer and its potential, so Egypt it was. In the spring of 2002 Chris wrote a single page that described the game and that page has remained essentially untouched since then. In the last design notes Chris also touched on how tricky it was to bring human behavior to life, with those goals in mind.
Children of the Nile is really the only appropriate title for this game. This is a game about you as a leader of people, not as an operator of a business. This is not "The Incredible Machine", where you are in complete control of a puzzle, it is more of a management sim where you still have a puzzle to do but the pieces morph and react as people do. The main difference in terms of city-building is you observe your people a lot more and look at spread sheets a lot less. This works because, unlike with most games, watching your people is meaningful. It also tends to be very fun to follow your residents around and try and provide the type of society you want to create for them. As a core gamer, your first instinct might be to go right for the rules, relationships and ratios and start looking for keys to maximize your success. I encourage you to perceive your citizens as real people, living by the Nile and you are there to impose upon them your rule- or you are there to guide them to glory for all of Egypt.
The solid foundation of established city-building dynamics still forms the core of what you do in the game. You can't feed people without food, you don't have room for every building where you want, the terrain does not always cooperate with you and the Nile can be fickle, etc. When the Nile fails it can cause major PR problems for a Pharaoh who claims to be a God-King. These are a few of the elements that combine in CotN to pull you beyond simple puzzle solving and spreadsheet management and move you to building a living breathing culture that is yours.
To date, everyone who has played the game has described it in terms that relate to it being mesmerizing. The game has a breathing feeling to it with the floods, the seasons, the day night cycles, Keith's excellent tunes, and a world filled with living beings that seem real enough for you to care about them.
The end result of the design, music and graphics all coming together is you can enter ancient Egypt as a leader of hunter-gatherers and you get to walk them through the steps of creating your own civilization. You witness and direct this process this block by block. You build and expand the culture of Egypt both in your city and in the world as you see fit.
Essentially: You build your Egypt. This culture will mean something to you personally, you felt it, you felt the burdens of leadership. Sounds like what a strategy PC game should be, but that's just my opinion.
-Jeff Fiske (6/15/2004)