Friday, April 1, 2016

DOCPLAYS: An Exponential Problem and Right Click to Necromance


An Exponential Problem
Right Click to Necromance
Let's Play!

You can play An Exponential Problem at https://lastresortgames.itch.io/an-exponential-problem
You can get Right Click to Necromance at https://juicybeast.itch.io/right-click-to-necromance

Transcript:
Today I want to talk about two small games. They're both fundamentally about the exponential growth of infection, but they handle it differently with very different results, and I think those differences are worth discussing. They're quite short and both can be played for free, so if you want to take a couple of minutes to try them out first, the links are in the description.

Our first game is called "An Exponential Problem." Here you protect a virus during the initial stages of outbreak. The virus grows automatically, and you need to left-click to kill threats and right-click to spread to new targets. Here in the first level, where the virus is in a single host, the threats are white blood cells and the targets are red blood cells. It's an interesting idea, but the execution doesn't live up to the potential. The thing is, your growth is exponential, while the threats are linear - if you survive the first thirty seconds or so, your success is a foregone conclusion. The challenge decreases the longer you play, to the point where you can stop playing and still win. This is the opposite of how to keep someone engaged in a skill-based game. One way to mitigate this would be to take inspiration from Katamari Damacy, another game of inevitable exponential growth where the challenge comes from imposed constraints - how quickly can you reach a target size, or how big can you get in a certain amount of time. That approach requires continual attentive play and rewards skilled play with better outcomes.

The other major issue with An Exponential Problem is that there's no real risk/reward tradeoff to manage. The best strategy is to quickly infect targets and guard new infestations for a few seconds until they are self-sufficient, and then infect more. There are parallels here to real-time strategy games, where building multiple bases can dramatically increase your power - but in those games, doing that is a risky investment, since it means spending a lot of resources that could otherwise be used to fortify existing bases or advance up the tech tree. If your new base gets attacked before it's established, you could be out a substantial amount of resources while your main base is left unable to defend itself properly. But here in An Exponential Problem, new infections cost almost nothing. They just mean clicking over in a different area for a few seconds - they don't slow your growth or leave you vulnerable. It might have made the game more interesting if you had to, say, cut each existing infestation in half in order to create a new infection. Like with the real-time strategy games, it'd be a short-term cost with long-term upside, and it would at least be a decision the player has to make, as doing it too early or too often would be a losing strategy. Without such a cost, there aren't really any decisions to make in An Exponential Problem - it's always correct to infect new targets. The game has a simple strategy that's obviously dominant, presents no real challenge, and just involves rote actions.

So - An Exponential Problem. Neat idea, having you play as an unstoppable, infectious threat - but the threat's a little too unstoppable, with no persistent challenge or interesting decisions to engage the player. What would it look like if we found a game that fixed those problems?

Today's second game is called "Right Click to Necromance." In this one, you play as a necromancer who can raise fallen enemy soldiers to conscript them into your own army. The game is unfinished, but it's already a lot more fun than An Exponential Problem - let's talk about why.

First off, you're responsible for your own growth, since it only happens when you kill enemy soldiers. That means you're more engaged and making more choices, as you select your own targets. The choice isn't trivial, either - your own troops still take damage, and once they fall they're gone. You don't want to bite off more than you can chew, but more powerful soldiers make better additions to your own army. Also, you can't resurrect individual soldiers - only groups of them, and only once the entire group has been killed. That means that you can't just take on a huge force one by one, growing all the way - you can only take on groups that are weaker than your own, and ideally only one group at a time.

So, you watch the patterns of enemy movement, and select a group to attack. You're continually making decisions, setting goals and achieving victories. There is always a risk/reward tradeoff - smaller groups are safer bets and will be defeated more quickly, but won't improve your army that much. More powerful groups are juicier targets, but will do more damage to your own army along the way and take longer to defeat. Enemy groups move somewhat unpredictably, so the longer a battle takes the more likely it is that you'll inadvertently draw the attention of more than one group at a time. This means now your army is taking damage more quickly, but if you manage to defeat one of the groups you're fighting, you can immediately add it to your own forces for a quick turnaround and crush the next group. That means there's a flow of tension and relief, and of course it's more satisfying to come back from the brink of defeat than to just auto-win the way you do in An Exponential Problem.

This is also a source of increasing challenge as the game progresses, since the enemy groups become stronger over time and your own army becomes larger, making it that much easier for enemy groups to notice you and attack - often more than one at a time. It's still pretty hard to lose if you play conservatively, but now that's a choice that the player is making, over and over with different conditions as the game continues. Even if the victories aren't especially hard-fought, they're still due to the player's deliberate actions. There's a much greater sense of ownership of the player's success or failure.

So - Right Click to Necromance. Neat idea, having you play as an unstoppable, infectious threat. By making sure the threat isn't quite literally unstoppable, and leaving the spread of the infection up to the player's management of risk versus reward, the game creates a continually engaging experience that's a lot of fun, even in an unfinished state. It's not clear from the game's Itch page whether they intend to revisit it, but if they do, they've got a good foundation to build from.

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