Thursday, November 21, 2013

Your Role As An Independent Agent In The Last Federation

What is The Last Federation?  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details, and the guide to aliens in the game.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.
The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  You play as the leader of a private mercenary fleet, and your self-appointed goal is solar unity via the creation of a peaceful federation of planets.

Your Role As An Independent Agent
The thing that is most unusual there is that, well, you aren't playing as one of the major factions in the game.  You interact with them, and you help to shape their destinies, but at the end of the day you are just one person in charge of a small scalpel-like mercenary fleet.

Hmm... analogies.  It's like the difference between the fellowship of the ring (the group within the novel, not the novel itself) and Rohan or Gondor or any of the other actual factions.  In other words, the members of the fellowship aren't out there single-handedly beating Sauron or whatever, but you see their influence and their importance everywhere throughout the tale of the war of the ring.  It's hard to find a truly significant event that they aren't involved in, and ultimately it is them (via Frodo) that win the war.

Actually, I had never thought of this before, but the fellowship actually has similar motivations to you in TLF: they see a problem that desperately needs solving, they realize that governments are fragmented and mistrustful and unlikely to band together, and they set out to solve the problem in an extra-governmental fashion with a small force.  Honestly the LOTR comparison had never occurred to me until about five minutes ago, but it's a surprisingly good one; prior to this I was having trouble thinking of any analogues at all.

This Is Strategy, Not An RPG
The above sounds like it could make for a great RPG game, though, right?  I mean, there have been other games that do things that you could kind of shoehorn into that description a bit, vaguely.  A lot of people ask us "Is it like Drox Operative?  Or how about Space Rangers?"  The answer is an emphatic no on both counts, although those are both great games that you should check out, too.

I should also preface the below by saying that I love RPG games and hope to make one someday.  But this is definitely not that day, and I think that it's best to be clear about what this game actually is! So here's a bit of a Q&A list of differences between our game and some of the RPG-style games we're getting a few comparisons to.

Difference 1: Contracts and Events vs Quests
We don't really have "quests" in the same sense that Drox does.  We do have tons of contracts, which in many ways are like quests, but most of them are always available (or contextually available for a very long time, anyway).  So if you don't decide to bomb some planet, or you do decide to gift them an outpost or smuggle stuff for them or whatever, you can do that more or less whenever.  There's not a timer ticking away on those contracts, but choosing one over another is where the strategy comes in.

There are other things that are more time-limited of course, and these we call Events.  They are often things that you may not care to do anything about at all.  Burlusts suffering from a disease?  You may be super happy about this!  It may be the answer to your prayers.  Or you might just be indifferent.  Or you might want to help them as quickly as you are able.  It depends on your future plans for dealing with them, and if you are trying to manipulate them into doing something specific that will be helped or hindered by the disease, etc.

Same sort of deal if the Andors are celebrating their Freedom Day holiday -- crime is going down on their planet, and you may be happy about this or you might intentionally be trying to push crime up for some reason with them (there are various reasons you might do that).  So the event does matter, but it again is not something you have to deal with right away.  Just because their holiday lasts for 10 months or so (not all that long in game-time, that's a bit over 3 minutes), that doesn't mean you actually have to deal with it in that timeframe.

In fact, quite often with something like that in particular, it's something you might want to hang back and see the results of, then later decide how to deal with the aftermath.  Maybe pushing them into a cesspit of crime isn't the way after all, or maybe you redouble your efforts, or whatever else.

Difference 2: Complexity, But Designed With A Global HUD In Mind
Beyond the above, the alien races themselves are taking actions, and may be initiating war, retraining soldiers into doctors to fight off a disease, researching technology, breeding like crazy, researching new ship technology, fighting an internal war, or doing whatever else.  These are things that happen in realtime, sure, and you can't deal with everything at once.  But you also don't really have to.  The key stats that matter for your actual victory condition don't go up or down without your direct actions.  (That said, if you do nothing or do the wrong thing, conditions can deteriorate to the point that you die or get in a bad way, even though your technical progress towards victory did not go backwards at all).

Overall there are three main groups of things to pay attention to: racial actions, locational events, and the status of specific planets.  It doesn't take long to digest this information, and each can be concisely displayed on its own screen to show you all the actions on one screen, all the events on another, and all the planetary statuses on another.  And I do also plan on working in as many overlays as possible to make the use of subscreens less of a requirement as well.

Of course if you WANT to delve into more details, we have those, too.  A lot of that UI design is still very much in progress, but the underlying gameplay is something we're specifically designing with the idea of having a comprehensible UI for it.  If the underlying game isn't compatible with a GUI that easily summarizes, then you just plain are going to have a complex UI, period.

Put another way, I think the comparison to Drox is apt in that there is more going on than you can deal with at any one time.  That's also true of SimCity, usually.  Honestly when I think of game comparisons, I like to think of this as being like playing a strategy game inside a SimCity that evolves and grows around you without you having access to the normal mayor controls.

Important Aside: Game Progression
The above sounds like it could get overwhelming pretty fast, right?  This is another thing that we've been paying really close attention to in this game.  We really want to have the players have an easier time getting into TLF than they do with our game AI War: Fleet Command, but at the same time we want to ultimately have the same sort of longevity and insane depth of AI War for players who are experienced.

With all that in mind, we are taking a lot of steps to make sure the game is always understandable to players, and that there isn't a sense of rush.

When you first start the game, there's only one planet/race doing anything at all.  A second planet becomes spacefaring pretty soon after.  On normal-or-lower difficulty level, there are no events at all right at first, but there then becomes one event at a time one two planets are online.  And then every 2 planets after that until you have 4 events max at one time in the late game.  Plus obviously 8 races each with two actions, rather than just a couple of races with two actions.

But by then you are more in control of the situation, and you ought to have a federation progressing such that you really only have to pay close attention to the actions of the non-federation races.  Of course if you want to make things crazier earlier you can smuggle spacefaring tech to planets early (and this is a valid tactic for advanced play in particular), or you can use the Advanced Start to set up more complex starting scenarios in general if you're to that level of play.

With TLF more than any other game prior to it, one of the things we have been really paying attention to design-wise is not only how complex/fun the game is, but also how to gradually ease the player into that, and how to make it fun right from the start even when the complexity isn't huge yet.

Difference 3: Contract Rewards And Personal Progression
One key difference between an RPG and a strategy game is where your focus is.  In an RPG, you're trying to basically use quests and exploration and whatever other tools in order to beef up your character(s).  In a strategy game, there is certainly beefing of your overall forces and a sense of progression, but at the same time the focus is squarely on your manipulation of the overall situation.

For example, in Chess if you have an opportunity to freely take a bishop with your pawn, you would almost never just keep advancing your pawn to get a queen.  I mean, okay, there are exceptions to every generalized statement about a game like Chess.  But overall you are playing to gain an upper hand over the opponent through whatever the most effective means are; you're not in a race to try to get a bunch of queens.

Regarding The Last Federation, specifically:

In terms of rewards from the contracts, it's a variety of things.  The most direct and common things are Money, Bargaining Power (which you can later use for Political Deals), and Influence with a specific race (lost or gained -- and raising this is the main way you get races into the federation).  So sure, there are direct rewards.

But the important thing is that all the contracts change things.  If you destroy or damage a race's ship at a planet, that ship is then destroyed or damaged.  If you blow up the soletta array at a planet, that thing is just plain gone.  If you start bombing a planet, not only do they start hating you more, but their populace is partly killed in each bombing run, and infrastructure may be damaged.  And you never know how their enemies might react to that (exploiting the opportunity to take them over, for instance).  Etc.

So it's less about rewards per se, and more about how you can manipulate the situation to your benefit.  You can also steal technology and capture space outposts and so forth, and those do also work as direct benefits for you.  But mainly in terms of increasing your ability to either help or hinder races.

Important Aside: Quick Start Vs Advanced Start
One of the things that expert AI War players love the most is how insanely configurable the starting conditions for various galaxies are.  However, that makes the "start new campaign" screen utterly terrifying for a lot of new players.

For The Last Federation, the game is designed in such a way that it doesn't really require any starting configuration other than "what difficulty do you want?" and "what race's planet do you wish to crash-land onto?" to get you off and running.  This is all it presently asks you on the quick-start screen, and you could play dozens of different solar systems with incredible variety with just using the quick start.  In fact, there's not really any reason for you to ever use the advanced-start screen unless you want to.

That said, for some folks (myself included in that group), it can be super fun to really custom-tailor situations that are particularly strange, or difficult, or specialized in some other way.  This is where the "advanced start" screen comes in, and it actually lets you enable some new game options that add to the complexity if you are so inclined.

For instance, one that we have right now is making fleet repairs cost you money rather than letting those be free.  Through testing we discovered that having a cost to fleet repairs didn't really add anything except unneeded complexity -- or at least, that it added very little in a strategic sense compared to the complexity it added.

But!  Some folks love to have that sort of added complexity.  So we made an option for it in the advanced start screen, and people can play with it if that floats their boat.  This general design approach lets us have some niche features that are too complex for general play, without scarring new players!

Thanks for reading!


retnuH said...

As someone who wants to get into AI Wars, but is intimidated to start (even after playing the tutorials), the idea of a Quick Start selection sounds great. Any chance of retro-fitting one into AI Wars?

Christopher M. Park said...

It's certainly a possibility, yeah -- something we probably will explore during the work on the next AI War expansion (as a free addition to the base game, I mean).

Anonymous said...

Mr. Park,
Do you just make detailed AI's and then figure out how to make the player interact with them? Certainly AI War (well known for its AI), and Skyward Collapse (not so much the AI, but still 2 factions that you interact with indirectly) follow that pattern, but then also Bionic Dues (the roguelike catch is the AI quirks on each enemy), and to a lesser extent Shattered Haven follow this model.

regardless if this was intentional, it is a type of game i am continously facinated by.
-HIM HRE Gamer-man

Christopher M. Park said...

AI actually isn't the first thing that I consider, although I can see why it would come across that way. Typically I am going for some sort of feeling or abstract idea of an experience. "I want to feel like Ender Wiggin," in the case of AI War, for instance. Or "I want to feel like a black ops mercenary in a really large solar system" in the case of TLF.

I also have in mind general gameplay ideas for how to accomplish that, and that's where I start. From there it is a matter of thinking of "is it feasible to do reasonable AI in this scenario?" If the answer is no, then it's a matter of tweaking the game design until it is very suited for AI _and_ the original feel I wanted.

Then iterate, iterate, iterate. I suppose AI is at the core of the things that I want to create every time, though, because I like creating emergent worlds that are either single-player or co-op (aka not PVP). So to do that, considering what makes the world alive and your opponents seem real and interesting is certainly at the core of the early considerations.

So... I guess the answer is that it is complicated. But I don't actually have that innate an interest in AI, you might be surprised to know. I dislike bad AI, for sure, and I greatly enjoy good AI. But to me, making better AI isn't really an end in itself. I'm all about creating emergent worlds that can surprise me -- that's what I have an innate interest in. So AI and procedural generation techniques are at the core of that, to be sure.