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Maybe this freight train has gotten out of control. The other day my wife (great lawyer, not so great gamer) asked me "what the heck is a 'unit'?" Honestly I had a hard time explaining to her why we use that term the way we do, never mind "scenario", "campaign", "resource management", "first person" - ugh! The secret language and gameplay customs that have evolved over the last decade and a half have become quite a comfort to designers and players alike, easing the job of the former, and allowing the latter to interact with "new" games as if they were old friends.
Having been as guilty as anyone else of utilizing and relying on many "traditional" gameplay mechanisms in prior games, I have to confess it took me and the design team quite some time to arrive at most of the "non-traditional" (some might say upside down) systems in CotN. I for one grew a lot on this project. Perhaps not surprisingly, the final solutions meshed so neatly with the "people-centric" nature of CotN that in the end they seemed quite obvious, and we maintain that once players accept that basic premise, CotN will behave as predictably as the savvy gamer requires, and as naturally as any "normal" person would expect. Here are a few humble examples of strategy game staples we've chosen to recast:
Religion and the gods
Keep the gods happy or suffer their wrath. Enlist immortals to fight on your side and to improve your capabilities.
I don't know what it is about "historical" strategy games, but even in the most realistic, historically-authentic games, for some reason the gods always come to life one way or another. Whether destroying buildings, tossing mortal fighters in the air, or blessing crops, there they are. I admit, I for one have had lots of fun making players appease the gods or risk punishment. But enough is enough. I mean, I love fantasy as much as the next guy, but if pushed I would have to confess that I don't really believe Mercury ever destroyed any warehouses in ancient Rome. I wouldn't really expect to see the mighty Zeus traipsing down main street in ancient Greece. So, here it is, you heard it here first: there are no gods in CotN.
Of course, if we've done things right, the game operates organically, like the real world… and therefore you may not believe that there are no gods, just as maybe the ancient Egyptians wouldn't. Maybe you "Want to Believe." Maybe you'll be convinced that the poor flood two years running was the result of your failure to dedicate enough temples to Osiris. That's ok. It's not what you believe that matters, after all. What you'll find to be much more important, crucial in fact, is how your peoples' faith in you and in your ability to maintain order and balance in the universe is negatively affected by such catastrophes, and what you do to mitigate this. It's bad enough that your people are starving as the result of the failed crop, so they rush to the temple to make offerings to Osiris… uh… what!?!? You didn't build any temples to Osiris!?!?! What kind of a leader are you, no wonder the flood failed two years in a row!! Keep this up and we'll toss your butt out.
No gods. No appeasement. No wrath-suffering.
Collecting more taxes gives you more money, but makes people more unhappy.
I don't want to name names… but while Jeff Fiske and I were demoing CotN, a certain onlooker, attempting to clarify or enhance what we were discussing chimed in knowingly, "and you can set the tax rate." Wrong. CotN uses a simple feudal model (really a manorial system… but that's a different matter). You grant estates to nobles, who grow crops. Half of the crops they grow are yours, as tax. If nobles have more stuff to spend their "money" on (because you've provided a great city for them), they grow more, and therefore you get more. But nobles try to avoid paying, so you need to employ scribes to monitor their fields.
No tax rate. No unhappiness from high taxes. No money.
Do good things for your people and you'll make them happy, then they'll do good things for you.
Ok, I don't mean to sound cynical, but who on this earth is or has ever been "happy" with his or her government, let alone enough so to regularly give something back? This was a big one for me to swallow, turning the traditional system around into one that is basically negative. You don't manipulate your people by tossing them some ale, or raising salaries. No, you serve them by doing your best to make sure they can get what they need, or what they want. This game is about them after all. So the ideal is not "100% happiness" it's "no dissatisfaction." And you don't get any big reward for "no dissatisfaction"… although that depends on your point of view. You don't get overthrown, for example.
This system is so fundamental to the game, and it was hard won. We knew, for example, that obviously the player needed to have an incentive to build a great city for his people, to provide them with great things, etc., but what was his reward for this? When it finally hit me, there is no reward, there's just punishment if he doesn't do this, I was concerned that the overall experience would be negative for the player. I convinced myself otherwise. This may seem like a subtle issue of semantics, but in reality this is one very crucial building block in transforming the "units" of other strategy games and the "walkers" of other city building games into the Children of the Nile.
No positive reinforcement. No sacrifice / reward exchange. No happiness.
Save up your resources so you can build more structures and produce more "units."
Ok, I don't want to scare anyone, but a whole lot of buildings in CotN are "free" - even the important ones! You can just place as many of them as you want… at no cost to you. And the future occupants will build these homes themselves - you don't need to employ or pay builders. And the people - farmers, jewelers, perfumers, nobles, cosmeticians, furniture makers, potters, mat makers, weavers, entertainers, servants - heck, you don't have to "produce" them, you don't have to pay them a dime to join your team, and you don't have to pay anything to support them subsequently! Free, free, free, it's all free!!!!! So what's the catch? There's gotta be a catch…
The main one is, if you lure these content local villagers to become part of urban Egyptian society, when there aren't yet enough customers for their jewelry shops, or enough estates to organize their farms… well, you'll find your streets clogged with beggars and criminals! You'll have valuable farmers wasting their time as useless shopkeepers… you'll never get more nobles to come live in the crappy city, and you may even lose some of those you already have… then the city's estates can't support all its farms, so you lose more farmers… then you can't pay your government workers… oy ,so much for the "freebie."
No resource costs for privately-owned buildings. No builders to construct private homes. No cost to acquire or support private citizens.
Now our challenge as game developers is to describe these and the countless other "non-traditional" systems that together form the CotN experience in a manner that is straightforward, simple and fun for players, in the game tutorials and help. Or maybe we don't need to explain so much after all, if we can just convince veteran gamers to forget everything they know…
-Chris Beatrice (8/10/2004)