This post is part of the August Round Table.
I’ve learned many things from playing games in my life, especially from tabletop role-playing games, but this isn’t a story about what I learned from playing a game, but what I learned by not playing a game – and the game in question is the strategic fanboy’s grail, Civilisation.
I’ve never actually played a game by Sid
Meier, alas, but I played and enjoyed a game that was apparently a
mechanic-for-mechanic rip of one of his (
Matt, who I lived with for several years (and who blogs now at Curiouser and Curiouser), was an avid player of strategy games, and Civilisation in particular. I forget which iteration (perhaps Matt will enlighten me in the comments!) What I remember about this experience, other than the myriad hours it kept Matt occupied, was the wall chart displaying the technology tree for the game that was tacked up on the wall of our lounge.
How can I put this politely… the chart annoyed
me. It annoyed me, because it encoded a master narrative of history in game
mechanical form, and thus represented a game in which you could recapitulate
European history, and perhaps vary it slightly, but what you couldn’t do was
anything outside that master narrative. For instance, you could not
realistically have a nuclear powered polytheistic nation, or at least, you
could not do so and remain competitive within the game space.
The technology tree encoded a materialist master narrative. At the time, this didn’t bother me from the perspective of the ideology (although it rankles a little now) but rather from the sense of constraint this seemed to put into the game. What interests me about this kind of nation-building game are the unusual situations I might create within them – and what particularly engages me is creating wild, bizarre situations that excite my imagination. The Civ technology tree didn’t allow for this, it wasn’t that kind of mechanic nor that kind of game, and as such it annoyed me. (It may also have annoyed me, given that I was young and arrogant, that I didn’t think of it first).
It was some time before I learned the lesson from this, however. Many years later, I was thinking about what my perfect strategy game would be, and realising that what it would entail would be a focus on strategy and not logistics or tactics: the kind of game whereby understanding the personality of the General leading the opposing force was more important than knowing which unit to build, the kind of game in which the considerations discussed by Sun Tzu for diplomacy and spies would be more relevant than the “tank rush” blitzkrieg tactic. This lead to my concept design for Art of War.
I never made this game, and probably never will, because working on it made one thing abundantly clear to me: the kind of strategy games I really want to play – those that utilise strategic thinking but not tactical and logistical thinking, and those that allow me to be creative in the kind of world I build – are precisely the kind of games that would do poorly in the current marketplace. Why? Because I, as a game designer, do not represent the market as a whole. Strategic skills are highly developed in perhaps just 10% of the population. Logistical or tactical skills are highly developed in around three quarters of the population.
I’m not saying Art of War wouldn’t have been a great game – for people similar in temperament to me, it might well have been. But I was shooting for a tiny fragment of the gaming audience, and as a professional game designer that is simply bad practice. Homebrew projects exist to meet these kind of needs, but my clients employ me to help them make money by making a game that many people want to play. Those games are not often the kind of games I would prefer to make myself. I have to compromise my needs in order to meet the needs of the audience, because they are vastly more important than me to the success of this kind of endeavour.
(Fortunately, I hope to have found a
compromise in the domain of the computer role-playing game, where I may have an
opportunity to make a game that I myself could thoroughly enjoy that will also
meet the play needs of a wide enough audience for the title to be profitable. I
hope to be able to say more about this soon.)
Not playing Civ taught me some important lessons about the audience for games. Yes, I may want to screw around with history and make bizarre alternate timelines but most players want to be authentic to their perception of history, not to their boundless imaginations, at least in the context of nation-building games. I may feel constrained by a tech tree which encodes certain preconceptions about history, but most players of Civ find in the technology tree a vibrant advancement mechanic that they enjoy exploring and min-maxing to their benefit.
Not playing Civ taught me that I am not the audience for games, even though I have spent my life playing them. And that, I suppose, helped push me into further exploring just who the audience for games really were…
The opening cartoon (click on it to get a big version) is shamelessly ripped from Luis Escobar's blog.