At night, the writers start asking one another about what we saw that day and what impressed us. It's early enough in the evening that we're still focused on the Paradox event that we've spent the day covering, and we're still sober enough to articulate our thoughts. We check to make sure nobody from Paradox is within earshot, then start passing judgment about which games we liked, and which we didn't.
It occurs to me that my choices have almost nothing to do with what I have seen. Instead, my views are overwhelmingly shaped by the conversations I had with developers. I am starting to bet the jockey rather than the horse.
The Paradox Convention is fertile ground for such wishful thinking, because strategy developers and players always think they understand one another. They speak the same language and rely on the same points of reference. Each side can come away from a chat thinking that they're about to have a perfect marriage of game and player. You think you've learned a lot about the game, and they think they know how you'll react to it. But really, all you've learned is each other's hopes.
Hope is easy to trust when a design is still closer to concept than execution. Listening to Chris King talk about Crusader Kings II, I could hear echoes of conversations I had with my friends in the school cafeteria: “Wouldn't it be cool if they made a game where ...?” King bubbled with enthusiasm for some of the things that are in this game. There are plots and conspiracies at court, some of which might be aimed at the king, some of which might be aimed at unseating a favored courtier. Unhappy family members will start to share their resentments and form treasonous power blocs. Some will just want more responsibility and recognition, while others will be avaricious monsters who require a more drastic remedy. I start having visions of a videogame version The Lion in Winter, and I'm ready to pre-order before our session ends. But what have I actually seen? A few info panels, some tooltips, and the map. I know little about this game beyond the intentions of the people making it, and yet that's enough to leave me feeling positive.
It's always a surprise when all that common ground doesn't yield a game you can agree on. I spent an hour this morning chatting to a couple developers over breakfast, and we bonded over strategy game quirks that we can't stand. I was excited to see what they were working on, since we seemed to be on the same page. Then I sat down, they started their presentation, and I felt almost betrayed. How could my brand-new friends have thought an interface like that was remotely acceptable? Why was there so much needless detail? What had we just been talking about for the last hour?
Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, I can be talked out of my misgivings. AGEOD developer Philippe Thibaut does this as I begin sharing my concerns about what I see from his upcoming Pride of Nations. AGEOD games seem to be getting bigger every time I turn around, and Pride of Nations is barely recognizable as a descendant of Birth of America. It has AGEOD's signature operational wargame design joined with a massive grand-strategy game. Rise of Prussia covered a single 7-year war between a couple European kingdoms, and it was almost too big for its own good. Pride of Nations makes that look like a tutorial mission.
But when I raise these issues with Thibaut, he nods understandingly and then starts explaining how he's trying to ensure there are plenty of small scenarios for people who don't want to play through 70 years of history across thousands of turns. He starts explaining his own doubts about this direction, why fans lobbied so hard for this game to be the way it is, and how he's trying to balance their ambitious wishes against the need to create a manageable game. I sit there nodding and at some point I decide that this is a guy who gets it. He's ahead of the problems.
The guys demoing Naval War: Arctic Circle hit all the right notes, too. Their lead designer is finally embarking on his dream project after years of making business software: a modern, accessible Harpoon. They make the right references to Red Storm Rising, and start explaining how the modern Atlantic navies differ from one another, and how they might be in twenty years. They want a detailed wargame, but not a sim like Harpoon, which practically required a navy commission to play. However, a glance at their early, stand-in interface reveals that “accessibility” is a relative term. Modern naval warfare involves a lot of different, highly advanced weapons and sensor systems, and coordinating their interaction across hundreds of miles of ocean still seems daunting.
But they have a difficult task: It's the complexity of these systems that makes them so much fun to play with, yet that complexity is also what drives people away. It's the problem of this genre in a nutshell, and I don't know how they can find the right balance. Yet over the course of a conversation I start to think they can. They're bright guys, they know their material, and they love a lot of the same things I do. What could possibly go wrong?