Tag Archives: game design

Toward a Sustainable Resource Escalation Game

An emerging form of games, born out of Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, has occupied my thoughts lately. It doesn’t seem to have a name yet; it grew out of some Minecraft mods and had its seminal work in Factorio. It’s a cousin, or even sibling, to the idle/incremental game, but usually looks more like a management or survival sandbox game. You could call it a resource management and automation game, or a factory simulator, but I’ll use the term “resource escalation game,” because its primary features are:

  • resources to collect, usually from a world you must explore
  • crafting of resources into more complex or rich forms
  • structures for automation of the crafting, allowing you to take a higher-level conceptual view where you are concerned with the logistics of automation rather than foraging
  • and an escalation created by those resources, where your initial low-level needs become inconsequential and the pace of progression is governed primarily by what complexity of resources you have instead of a more abstract research system1

These games borrow gameplay loops from sandbox games like Terraria, where you collect resources that are rare or located in dangerous areas in order to craft equipment that lets you gain access to even more exotic resources. Resource escalation games also often include logistic challenges that bring to mind puzzle games like Infinifactory, although the goals are much less clearly-defined. They even evoke the space-claiming and hygge of farming or town-building games like Stardew Valley or Populus.

However, there’s a problem with the conventions of this new game form. It’s viciously exploitative of nature, celebrating some of the worst excesses of capitalism and colonialism. Let’s look at one of my most anticipated games at the moment, Satisfactory:

Look at the beautiful dance of conveyor belts; the delight of seeing your labor multiplied ten-, a hundred-fold; the creativity of making your own design for a factory, tweaking and optimizing it. And now look at a team of masked corporate employees clearcutting a conveniently-uninhabited valley, replacing greenery with smoke-belching smokestacks. Knowing the sense of humor of Coffee Stain, the developers, the player’s relationship to the in-game corporation is likely to be fraught. Still: this is a game about colonizing land and commodifying its resources.

The Problem

This sinister undercurrent is inherited from the budding game form’s roots. Joel Goodwin has a beautiful piece on his experience as an eventual Minecraft conservationist that also exposes the fundamentally amoral, individualistic bias at the core of a game that presents a fantasy about being the One Settler (or Few Chosen Settlers) in a world of bountiful harvests, conveniently uninhabited ruins, and residents that are either inarguably monstrous or placidly accommodating. Many of the criticisms of Stardew Valley can also be applied to these games, in that they celebrate the fantasy of the gentleman farmer without exposing the social context that surrounds agriculture and production in the real world. Finally, resource escalation games are usually violent, assuming that the player will develop weapons to fight back against an environment that is unavoidably hostile.

In short: resource escalation games see their worlds as threatening, their production as unencumbered by morals, and their characters as entitled to utilizing3 and consuming the resources they gather.

Is there a way to create a resource escalation game that is nonviolent, morally-driven, and ecologically sustainable?

The Cruces

First, let’s examine violence. I’ve written before about the potential of nonviolence in video games. We have too many games about fighting, and it’s unnecessary. While I enjoy many violent video games, I think of it as a crutch, an easy trope that plays into the worst ways our culture casts challenges as battles and treats violence as an acceptable, even inevitable, solution. This is the easiest of my criteria to satisfy.

Next: is it possible to avoid the moral quandaries that come with a lone explorer utilizing the resources of a hostile world? I believe so; these arise mainly from unexamined capitalist and colonial assumptions: for example, that it is better for a thing to be used than for it to exist for its own sake4; that the ability of an actor to do a thing inherently justifies that action; and that the appropriate way to thrive in an unfamiliar environment is to shape the environment to your existing way of life. While it’s a challenge to resist these assumptions (in part because they’re part of my real-world cultural hegemony), none of them seem essential to the appeal of resource escalation games.

Notably, industry and technology does not require capitalism. While their history is intertwined, there is no reason why manufacturing must be privately controlled, any more so than roads and other infrastructure. Likewise, much (perhaps most!) of our technological innovation occurs outside of a corporate context, and there is substantial evidence that common resources tend to lead toward triumph, not tragedy.

Finally: can we have a game which is about collecting and processing resources using built structures which is ecologically sustainable? I find this criterion the most challenging, in part because the vision given by the existing canon of these games is universally one of replacing the existing ecology with industrial sprawl. Factorio not only assumes you will be stripmining its worlds, but even models pollution — not as an encouragement toward responsibility but as an inevitable escalation of challenge, making the world increasingly adversarial as it responds to your activities. You can minimize this impact, but eventually you will come into conflict with the planet’s immune-system-like fauna5.

Resolving this issue will require a more fundamental re-examination of how we think of resources in these games. The prominent resources in play tend to be material and difficult to replace: wood, minerals, fossil fuels, and so on. The rules are designed so that sources can be expended, encouraging wider exploration. Sometimes resources can be farmed, but this often takes the form of replacing native forest with “efficient” orchards. As the resource escalation proceeds, play requires less player attention and effort for the same low-level tasks, but often resources are consumed at a rate that scales with the complexity of the player’s focus.

It may be that the very concept of resource escalation is inherently anti-environmentalist. The joy we take in playing these games may stem directly from our elimination of the wild and the interconnected and in our distillation and concentration of the natural into the “useful” or “productive.” I hope not. In the spirit of that hope, let’s look at some potential angles from which we can pursue sustainable versions of this game form.

The Promise

I would love to provide a completed formula for the sort of game I want to see, but I don’t have one. This style of game hasn’t even quite solidified into what it wants to be, and I am presenting some tricky problems. Instead, here’s some brainstorming. Below are seeds for ways to resolve the problems above, and I’d love to hear more suggestions for resolutions in the comments.

Eliminating violence

  • The resolution to a violent threat could be placating or creating understanding with the threat instead of battling it.
  • Survival games already present tension and danger in the form of starvation, exposure to the elements, and hazardous environments. These can provide the same thrill as violent threats with strategies that involve crafting and mastery of the space.
  • We may not need danger at all. It serves a game design purpose of limiting the pace of exploration and lending weight to decisions, but we may be able to do that by making use of things like character speed or player time investment instead.

Finding value beyond productivity

  • Instead of treating the environment simply as a source of harvestable resources, we could attach a value to in situ resources. Look at how The Sims attaches value to the environment of a room, and consider how that could apply to tradeoffs between consuming a resource and benefiting from it remaining untouched.
  • We could move away from interchangeable or fungible resources. Similar to how players of games like Diablo soon ignore items of common rarity in favor of ones with random benefits, we can attach value to diversity or uniqueness over quantity.
  • Perhaps resources in the fiction of the world are not consumed, but provide benefits when discovered or understood. See resources in Civilization and other 4X games, where their presence is useful but they are not always spent like currency.
  • Assign value to aesthetic expression. Perhaps the player’s labor does not derive its value from harvesting resources, but from curating them or using them in a creative way.

Eliminating colonial entitlement

  • Justify the player’s activities by making them a request of local stakeholders, or an active reclamation of a space previously spoiled, or make the resources sapient and explore the complexities of acquiring their consent.
  • Alternately, set the game in an active society, with the player character(s) either part of that society or coming from an underclass, where their actions are not performed with unilateral authority.
  • Contrast the player’s actions against a colonizing or exploitative force, where the player is defending against incursion instead of acting as a settler. This would require thought to avoid an implication of paternalistic oppression, where the player is “protecting” a weaker and subordinate group.
  • Incorporate peers for the player, requiring compromise and communal use of resources. These can be abstract rather than detailed AI agents.

Rejecting erasure of the existing space

  • Instead of transforming local resources into more easily-digestible forms, try transforming the player character(s) to more easily exist in this new environment.
  • Explore roles like “host,” “caregiver,” or “custodian” rather than “settler” or “entrepreneur;” make the player responsible for maintaining a space or providing joy to its inhabitants rather than transforming it.
  • Make the “structures” involved in automation less intrusive. Think treehouses rather than buildings with concrete foundations.

Exploring sustainability

  • Place a greater mechanical focus on maintaining resource health; for example, instead of penalizing overharvesting by slowing production until the player finds or creates a replacement source, consider prohibiting overharvesting altogether and requiring sustainability to be a proactive practice.
  • In many resource escalation games, renewable non-biomass energy is presented as a high-tech luxury, painting bio and fossil fuels as unavoidable for development. Disrupt this by using low-tech renewable sources like waterwheels and windmills, but don’t ignore the environmental impact of activities like damming water sources.
  • Explore environmentalist approaches to resource use, such as sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, and recycling. Keep in mind the way in which these can become moral luxuries for the privileged when the poor may not be able to afford sustainable sources.
  • Instead of resource escalation allowing for consumption of resources at a higher rate, try focusing on more efficient use of existing resource supplies. At the very least, allow for the prevention of waste due to obsolete equipment, spoilage, or lack of energy storage.
  • Maybe even reject any appearance of zero-sum simulation by making the resources less concrete. Have the player collect information, or inspiration, or something mystical that avoids the problem of environmental exploration entirely. See how Cultist Simulator makes heavy use of lore, relationships, and moods as resources as opposed to physical objects and assets.

The Hope

This discussion explores the things that I would like to see in this emerging game form. I like many of the existing resource escalation games, but I want to see their successors build on their best aspects while also improving on their shortcomings.

If you’re a developer like me, let’s all work to create games that reflect our values while still providing the experiences we seek. And if you’re a player of resource escalation games, especially those in early access or ongoing development, consider compassionately advocating for these moral priorities when you give feedback on the games you love.

  1. Factorio gates a lot of things behind research, but research is driven by manufactured resources, not the more typical research-over-time approach seen in strategy games.
  2. Note some issues with how RimWorld handles identity and the dev’s not-great response.
  3. I specifically use “utilize” to mean “make useful,” in the sense that these games take resources that exist in one interconnected system and reduce their value to their usefulness for the player’s purposes.
  4. Which is not to say that there is inherent value in “authenticity” or an ideal state of nature. Some purposes are absolutely good justifications to utilize resources, but not because unused resources are valueless.
  5. On the default difficulty. You can turn off automatic escalation, but the game is designed with the assumption that it is active.

Strange Symmetra: Accretive Design in Overwatch

Symmetra_Overwatch_001Symmetra is the most strangely-designed character in Blizzard’s Overwatch. In a game where most heroes’ roles can be summed up in a few words (“fast flanker,” “mobile area-denial tank,” “AOE healer,” “slowing defender”) and their story concepts naturally arise from their roles (“time-traveling jet pilot,” “leaping electric gorilla,” “portable DJ,” “cute ice Satan”1), Symmetra makes little sense.

She builds many tiny sentries, gives minor shields to allies, builds teleporters, and can attack with either a short-range cumulative auto-aim beam or a slow-moving death orb. This is explained by her being a combination architect and sci-fi construction worker, shaping solid forms out of light. She is the only character with “photonic” technology, and it is not explained how being able to project physical holograms also lets you bend space and time to craft a teleportation portal.

I have no special insight into the Overwatch design process, but I can speculate with some confidence about how it proceeded. Symmetra (and indeed all the heroes) were not designed from the ground up. They were assembled using an accretive process, where abilities were assembled piecemeal and then unified with a story-based concept.
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  1. I find Mei infuriating to play against.

Overcomplexity in Nom Nom Galaxy

Heart from the tutorial to Nom Nom GalaxyPixelJunk‘s Nom Nom Galaxy is a hard game. It’s a well-crafted resource-gathering and automation game in the vein of Terraria or Minecraft, but with a focus on factory production and automation. It’s hard because it’s far too complicated.

One of the classic problems of game design is the dominant strategy. A dominant strategy occurs when one way to play the game is so much better that it becomes the only option a player should pursue. The simple solution to a dominant strategy is to add a complicating factor that acts as a tradeoff, weakening the strategy and leading to interesting player decisions.

Nom Nom Galaxy, however, goes through this cycle a few too many times. Dominant strategies are complicated by challenges that can be overcome with strategies that are further complicated by new challenges. The end result is a frantic, frustrating time that keeps me from experiencing the joy of mastery.
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Helping RPGs Play Themselves

Rosette LogoA big secret of tabletop RPG design is that roleplaying games play themselves. Get the right group of people together and they’ll have fun telling a good story, regardless of which edition of which game they’re playing. The hard parts of RPGs are things the designer can’t control: social dynamics.

What good are rules at all, then? Rules serve two purposes: to enable and constrain the play. The rules of an RPG serve to make the creative process easier by enabling story, and they constrain the scope of the story to keep the group within a manageable narrative space.

In my role as lead designer on Future Proof Games‘s upcoming tabletop RPG Rosette1, I’ve made tons of decisions regarding how the rules work. By the request of one of my patrons, I’ll go over that process from a high level.

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  1. Formerly LORE.

The Evil of Farm Story 2

IMG_0948There is evil in this world. Some is systemic, titanic, nigh-insurmountable. And some is petty, banal, all the more troubling for its triviality. Farm Story 2 is the lesser evil. It’s the whispering, cloying, harrying serpent at the heel of gamers.

Farm Story 2 is evil in a way that inspires not rebellion, but pity.

This is a well-crafted game. There are barely any bugs and the art is attractive if generic. The bug-eyed chickens are charming, and it has a scamp of a kid who is adorable until the third or fourth time they implore you to install another of Storm8’s insipid games. I don’t have a quarrel with any of the (mercifully uncredited) people who worked on the game. My issue is with the environment who produced such a work. Let’s explore the darkness at its depths.

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Orcs Must Die: Blocking Strategies

This post was requested by a patron. To support writing like this and request your own post, sign up on my Patreon page.

I have a confession: I’m a turtler. And Orcs Must Die 2 doesn’t want me to be.

The game I think of when I read “tower defense” is “Desktop Tower Defense.” It’s my mental archetype of that form, which arose from mods for Starcraft and Warcraft III: a game about preventing waves of invading enemies, or “creeps,” from reaching the exit of a map using stationary towers that attack when the creeps come into range; these towers are built with a budget you earn by killing creeps.

The strategy for “Desktop TD” is primarily about crafting a path for the creeps, one which is circuitous as possible. The towers in “Desktop TD” are solid, so they block creeps, making your towers also serve as your maze. Mastering “Desktop TD,” therefore, requires you to craft a perfect maze, a gleaming labyrinth made from the cheapest towers with just enough addition of special tower types and more powerful, upgraded towers.

Some tower defense games, like “Desktop TD’s” contemporary “Flash Elements TD” have a simpler approach where the creep paths are static and unobstructable. Towers can only be placed in the spaces around the path. I find this approach less interesting, as it allows for less creativity and diversity of play. The most a player can do to affect the process of the creeps, beyond killing them, is by slowing them, often with a tower themed around ice or viscous fluid. Orcs Must Die and the other games I’ll discuss here owe more to the “Desktop TD” style.

The Orcs Must Die series by Robot Entertainment belongs to a subfamily of tower defense games, probably birthed by Sanctum. These tower defense hybrids add a mobile player character with weapons that can supplement the stationary towers. In the case of the Orcs series, the player character is a martial wizard defending a fantasy world against hordes of orcs and other creatures. But unlike Sanctum, its differences go beyond just letting you help your towers with their work.

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Ludus Novus 024: Decision Point

This podcast is supported in part by my Patreon. You can help support it by pledging a monthly donation.

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss the decisions we make as game designers and developers and how we are responsible for every aspect of the games we make. I touch on polishing, social justice, and emergent aspects of games.
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The First Cabinet in Gone Home: A Close Reading

This blog is supported in part by my Patreon. You can help support content like this by pledging a monthly donation.

Gone Home is an amazing work. Yes, it’s a bit sappy and its ending is a bit pleasant and optimistic, but screw that. “Sentimentality, empathy, and being too soft should not be seen as weaknesses.” Gone Home is sweet, although certainly not sickeningly so; it is the sweet of a “sour” candy where the sour sanding soon fades away.

I’m writing about a single cabinet in the game. This one: 2015-03-08_00001

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The Obsolescence of Lives

I twitted that “restarting a long multi-screen level on death” and “limited lives” are examples of retro mechanics that should stay dead. I thought that I would expand a bit on what I meant.

In part, this is a corollary to my past writings on challenge and punishment. In my definition, challenge is when a task is difficult to accomplish because it requires a high amount of skill, ability, or experience. Punishment is when failing a task imposes a burden on the player, usually in the form of lost time.
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One Measure of Bit.Trip Runner

The other night, I picked up Gaijin Games’s Bit.Trip Runner for WiiWare. This game is the best example of pure, brilliant game design that I’ve seen in a good while. This is the game designer as teacher and leader; it’s what Anna Anthropy calls design as sadism:

As a designer and as a domme, I want the person who submits to me to suffer and to struggle but ultimately to endure: I challenge her while simultaneously guiding her through that challenge. The rules of the game and the level design carry that idea.

Runner does this through the gradual layering of new game elements, high challenge with low punishment, and optional bonus goals. Most of all, though, it guides through repetition. This is a game about rhythm, after all. For my favorite example of this, let’s look at a single measure of rhythm from the game, no longer than 2 seconds, that appears everywhere.
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