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Civilization Dev: "Water Finds a Crack"
"Players will optimize the fun out of a game."

I've been reading a lot lately on game development, effective mechanisms for encouraging players, and the common language of games as a medium, and this article from Soren Johnson, developer on Civilization III and lead developer on Civilization IV, is one I think speaks to a problem that often appears in SD: Players are doing X, even though Y would probably be more fun. It's an interesting problem and, as he writes, doesn't always have a trivial solution for encouraging the the behaviour the developer would prefer.


The following was published in the March 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine…

“This is what games are for. They teach us things so that we can minimize risk and know what choices to make. Phrased another way, the destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun. Those of us who want games to be fun are fighting a losing battle against the human brain because fun is a process and routine is its destination.”

– Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun

Many players cannot help approaching a game as an optimization puzzle. What gives the most reward for the least risk? What strategy provides the highest chance – or even a guaranteed chance – of success? Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.

Games, however, are so complex that it is difficult to anticipate exactly how players will optimize a game until after release, once thousands bang away at the game and share their ideas with each other online. Often, designers don’t even understand their own games until they finally see them in the wild.

A phrase we used on the Civilization development team to describe this phenomenon is that “water finds a crack” – meaning that any hole a player can possibly find in the game’s design will be inevitably abused over and over. The greatest danger is that once a player discovers such an exploit, she will never be able to play the game again without using it – the knowledge cannot be ignored or forgotten, even if the player wishes otherwise.

Civilization 3 provides a simple example with “lumberjacking” – the practice of farming forests for infinite production. Chopping down a forest gives 10 hammers to the nearest city. However, forests can also be replanted once the appropriate tech is discovered.

This set of rules encourages players to have a worker planting a forest and chopping it down on every tile within their empire in order to create an endless supply of hammers. However, the process itself is tedious and mind-numbing, killing the fun for players who wanted to play optimally.

Tank-Mages and Infinite City Sleaze

One of the dangers of players looking to optimize a game is that a single dominant strategy will emerge that drowns out all others. In the MMO world, the shorthand term for this predicament is the “tank-mage” – a reference to Ultima Online, in which certain hybrid class builds could both wear heavy armor and cast powerful damage spells.

Thus, the character served as both the damage absorber (the “tank”) and the damage dealer (the “mage”), displacing most other possible character builds. Almost every MMO has experienced some version of the tank-mage as players try to find the optimal build for all situations.

The Civ series has its own version of the tank-mage – the strategy of spamming settlers for “infinite city sleaze” (or ICS), a bane of the franchise from the beginning. The essential problem is that 50 size-2 cities are more powerful than 5 size-20 cities as a number of bonuses are given out on a per-city basis. For example, every city gets to work its home tile for free, which means that a size-2 city works 3 tiles with only 2 citizens (1.5 tiles per citizen) while a size-20 city works 21 tiles (only 1.05 tiles per citizen).

The problem is that while ICS makes beating the highest difficulty levels trivially easy, handling 100 cities is a management nightmare. Players who pursued this strategy – or even less extreme versions of it – were always aware that they were breaking the game but often simply couldn’t stop themselves.

Armed with knowledge from the earlier versions of the game, we were able to counter ICS ahead of time with Civ 4 by adding a per-city maintenance cost that scaled with the total number of cities. Thus, building too many cities too early crippled a player’s economy, killing ICS at long last.

The reason to kill tank-mages and ICS is that a single, dominant strategy actually takes away choice from a game because all other options are provably sub-optimal. The sweet spot for game design is when a specific decision is right in some circumstances but not in others, with a wide grey area between the two extremes. Games lose their dynamic quality once a strategy emerges that dominates under all conditions.

Undervaluing Time

When presenting players with a choice, games typically pairs a specific reward with a certain level of risk. When gamers discover that one play style offers a trickle of reward for little or no risk, they will inevitably gravitate towards that degenerate strategy.

In other words, players will trade time for safety, but they risk undervaluing their own time to the point that they are undermining their own enjoyment of the game. A classic example is the skill system from Morrowind, which rewards players for repeating any activity. Running into a wall for hours increases the Athletics skill while jumping over and over again increases the Acrobatics skill. Many players couldn’t stop themselves from spending hours doing mindless activities for these cheap rewards.

Another example of players undervaluing their own time comes from growth, production, and research overflow in the Civ series. Every turn, cities produce food, hammers, and beakers, filling up various boxes. Once these boxes are full, new citizens, buildings, units, and technologies are created.

For example, if a civilization produces 20 beakers per turn, and Writing costs 100 beakers, the technology will be discovered after 5 turns. However, if the same civilization produces 21 beakers per turn, the box for Writing will contain 105 beakers at the end of 5 turns. In that situation, after Writing is discovered, the extra 5 beakers are thrown away so that the box will be empty when the player starts researching Alphabet on the next turn. Players quickly realized that when they came close to finishing a tech, they could adjust their tax rate so that no beakers would be wasted (because those beakers are all potential gold at a different rate).

A similar dynamic exists with food and hammers for city growth and production. Thus, the game’s rules encourage players to visit every city every turn to rearrange their citizens to ensure no food or hammers will be lost. This micro-management is actually a somewhat interesting sub-game, but clearly not how the designers want the players to be spending their time as it completely bogs down the game. (We solved this in Civ 4 by simply applying the overflow food/hammers/beakers to the next citizen/unit/building/technology.)

Players who adopt this strategy often refer to the game as being heavy on “micro-management” because they can no longer resist playing the game without squeezing every last drop out of their cities. The problem is even worse in multi-player as gamers who don’t micro-manage their cities will always fall behind in the race for more growth and production.

The designers don’t want people to play this way; nonetheless, the rules inadvertently encourage it. Again, designers often don’t understand their own games as well as the players do. The problem with a gamer undervaluing his own time is that, while the easy rewards may feel good at first, eventually the amount of time required will slowly seep away the fun per minute, until the game begins to feel like a grind.

Good Exploits?

However, designers can go too far by trying to remove all exploits from a game. Often, the right choice depends upon the game’s context. Does the exploit drown out all other play styles, or is it a fun, alternative way to play? Does the degenerate strategy create an endless grind, or is it a quick shortcut for players who need a little help?

The famous, endless free lives trick from Super Mario Bros. – in which the player bounced a turtle shell repeatedly against a block staircase for long strings of 1UP’s – was actually not a bug but a feature the team included on purpose. In exchange for mastering a small dexterity challenge, players can quickly mine all the free lives they need to progress in the game. Discovering and abusing a hole in a game’s design can be a fun experience – giving the player a unique sense of mastery – as long as the exploit doesn’t ruin the game for the player (or the player’s opponents).

If possible, designers should provide the ability to turn an exploit on or off, giving the players control over their worst instincts. For example, most games with save/load functionality can be abused by players to improve their odds; an RPG in which smashing a box produces random loot can be reloaded as many times as necessary until the best possible weapon or armor appears.

With Civ 3, we introduced a feature that preserved the game’s random seed in the save game file, guaranteeing that individual combats would play out the same way regardless of how many times the player reloaded the game. No longer were players tempted to reload every bad combat result, which could slow the game to a crawl.

However, the community response was not what we anticipated. Although some players appreciated that they were no longer tempted to reload combats, many others were frustrated that one of their old tricks disappeared. Indeed, some angry fans actually felt that the game was cheating on them by always reproducing the same combat result!

We solved this problem by turning this feature into an option on game start. Players who want the chance to reload a particularly unlucky roll can use the old exploit, but the game, by default, discourages this work-intensive strategy. Ultimately, the designer can’t go wrong putting the player in control of his or her own experience.

This was actually a really interesting read and had me reflecting on my own behaviours in game. I have definitely had phases where I have been tempted to run crates just because it is easy and relatively risk free chyen despite the fact is is undoubtedly a long and boring grind. It's also an optimal chyen maker compared to say, hitting my weekly limit by selling goods to gangs because those goods cost me money which then comes effectively comes out of my earnings cap.
There was a similar article I read some time ago about Ultima Online, which I've been trying fruitlessly to find again because it had a lot of relevance to SD, which talked about how player fun could come as a result of mechanisms neither the players nor the developers understood.

From memory: In the case of UO the somewhat uniquely dynamic social environment was largely seen from the player end as being the result of free-form permissive gameplay and setting, and from the developer end as from their flexible and dynamic systems and game-design.

In actuality however it was in large part due to the more or less accidental capture of multiple rarely overlapping demographics in a single system -- something that didn't become evident until multiplayer games that appealed more directly to those individual demographics appeared to siphon them off and that unique environment was lost.

Even knowing that something is fun can make it difficult to determine why it's fun, or what changes to the system can increase or decrease that effect. It's certainly an interesting problem relevant to just about any game where the interactions are pretty complex.

This is the article about Ultima:
That's a great video!

That's why we have a weekly earnings cap, lol. If we didn't there'd be max UE people in Xo900 armor sitting at SHI for 16 hours a day just to maximize a little profit, guaranteed.

I forget where I heard this, but there's a game design philosophy to make optimal strategies the most fun options, for this very reason.

If players are doing smart thing X instead of fun thing Y, either make X more exciting, or make Y a smarter thing to do.

One of the interesting things from that article is this: "Again, designers often don’t understand their own games as well as the players do."

I very much agree with this and think that it is one of the core strengths of Sindome. Johnny doesn't play the game, he gets his enjoyment out of making it. I very much enjoy the game and even though I don't play much these days, I've played it so very much that I know it quite well and can look at a feature from a player perspective. I think this allows Johnny and I to have an interesting balance.