For those of you as interested in the process of game development as you are the end result, post mortems have probably become required reading. A fascinating way for developers to share their thoughts on projects they've spent years on, a forum for sharing game design dos and donts, and very often a well deserved opportunity for a designer to refute or accept criticism, most post mortems are equal parts back slapping, and self mutilation. So, when I noticed over at "The New Voodoo Extreme", which has been officially IGN'd, a link to a Galactic Civilizations postmortem over at Gamespy, I dug right in.I'll say this: Brad Wardell, founder of Stardock and designer for Galactic Civ, is bluntly honest about his own mistakes, but spot on in many of his best design decisions. There are a few in particular that caught my eye. Read on...
Wardell says in the post mortem:
The reason we [made humans the only playable race] was that we believed that the key to our success was having long-term replayability. While on the surface, letting players play as 16 different races might seem to increase replayability, let's be real -- most games that let you play as a bunch of different races really mean that you play as one generic race with some different variables, some flavor text and some different sprites.
An incredibly gutsy decision, and though I think there are some games where the difference between races is considerable enough to prove an exception, the vast majority do exactly what Wardell describes. Even the recent Rise of Nations, which I've been slathering over for a few weeks now, falls into this trap. The difference between, say, the Bantu and the Aztecs is a matter of resource bonuses and a unique unit or two, and is more a strategic decision than one of replayability. The gamble for Stardock, I think, pays off.
On the topic of gambles,
As much as we love to play multiplayer, we believed that the number of people who want to play a turn-based strategy game multiplayer is very small relative to the amount of pain and suffering having to support multiplayer in our game design. I can say for a fact that when you make your game multiplayer, you have to compromise your game design. You also become a lot less flexible to being able to add new features since latency, cheese, cheating and bandwidth become overriding concerns. We didn't want to spend a third of our post-release budget fixing some cheese tactic or cheat that only 1% of the players will ever run into.
I can honestly say two things. I think games like Civilization 1/2/3, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion 2, and other such turn-based classics are well deserved of their accolades. I can also say I've no desire to play these games over multiplayer. I'm sure there are people out there with the patience and endurance to play one of these games out, but I'd argue, like Mr. Wardell that the percentage is relatively small. Instead of futzing around in multiplayer limbo for six months of development, Stardock made the risky but worthy decision to polish the game, have it ready for play out of the box, and support the community. Again, kudos to Stardock for having the guts to make the right decision.
One last point. It's all well and good for Brad Wardell to give himself and his team "mad props" for their hard work, but it's irrelevant if they don't recognize their own shortcomings. A lot of post mortems I've read are mildly self-depricating at most when it comes to examining their own failures, and some even pawn off the blame to someone else with statements like 'we should have aligned with a publisher that wouldn't crush our wonderful ideas'. So when I read this I was pretty impressed.
The whole team and beta testers all argued that we really should have a tech tree built in, but I vetoed it. And it was a bad decision in hindsight. Regardless of whether it's realistic, the fact is that people want a built-in tech tree. It's like having some arrogant designer saying that you shouldn't get to save your game in a role-playing game because it's unrealistic. I should have been flogged.
You know, that kind of honesty and self-examination just impresses me. I know a game stands on its own, and it shouldn't matter what kind of person is working behind the scenes, but when I pick up a strong title that takes risks and find out later that the guy who put it all together isn't half-bad himself, then I just feel that much better about where I put my money. A title released in the face of Master of Orion 3, and a stronger title at that, Galactic Civilization has had to carve out a niche through word of mouth.
Well consider this my official contribution to that word of mouth. Galactic Civilization is the game everyone who was disappointed by MOO3 should be playing.