Monday, December 12, 2016

[CivVI] Warmongering over the Ages

I've rather enjoyed Civilization VI for the most part. There's a few things here and there that are a little annoying, or just things I have to get used to, but overall I quite like a lot of the more streamlined and changed systems. Districts in particular is fun, because now I'm looking at the terrain and city placement a lot more thinking about the future. Cities become more about planning than they were previously, and even late game you're thinking about it more than just setting a queue of 30 buildings and leaving the city for the rest of the game.

However, there is something that is distinctly unfun. Specifically, Diplomacy and Warmongering.

Defensive Warmongering

In a recent game, America (AI)--my formally declared best friend--started a Surprise War on me in 3000 BC. By 2000 BC I had wiped America off the face of the planet because I mean, really, if I didn't they were just going to backstab me again and again. Now, I turned down them suing for peace because well, backstabbers, so I got a huge warmongering penalty because captured cities/capital. Meh.

Everybody denounced me (or course), and I checked my diplomacy values. I had netted -112 to my reputation due to Warmongering! For a war that America started and I finished. Now the thing to keep in mind is that's not a static value. Those numbers? They represent how far your relationship meter moves per turn. So I was getting +3 per turn because we had open borders, and -112 per turn due to Warmongering.

-74 basically outweighs everything else ever for the rest of time.

All right, everyone hates me, great. Even worse, though, is the fact that number basically compounds over time because it's a per turn value. And that negative tapers off really slowly, regardless of time scale. What this means is that 3500 years later, my civilization still had a -74 Warmongering penalty to all civs, meaning any attempts at diplomacy were useless for the rest of the game. I still got denounced like clockwork every time their previous denunciations expired.

Yeah, okay, wiping somebody else out? That deserves some serious shrift from the other civs. Absolutely. But 3500 years and that's only halfway decayed? I mean, you look at a modern day example, Germany and World War II. They've basically managed to remove a real-world "warmongering" penalty in 80 years--so in Civ terms, given the time period, 80 turns, which in ancient times is 1600 years equivalent, so it's not even "realistic", let alone fun.

The Solution

Basically, the issue at hand is the warmongering penalty needs to decay based on time passed, not turns passed. A war in 2000 BC should have nearly 0 effect on diplomacy in 1500 AD. The Civ team tried to mimic that by reducing warmongering penalties in early history, but that's insufficient in my opinion.

It's also extremely unfun to be attacked and punished for defending myself. Yes, I could've just defended my territory and left America alone, but the issue is that I know the AI is just going to break their promises (again) and declare a surprise war (again) later. If I didn't nip them in the bud, I'd be in for a very rough game. So basically, I'm being punished by the AI for playing their game.

If this is some sort of punishment to get around the fact that the AI is very bad at waging war, so therefore they can't put up a decent fight, so therefore limit the player in some other fashion, well, I dislike it greatly. If it's just a way to get AIs to treat war more seriously, I still think it's extremely lopsided in favour of just shutting down diplomacy in general. Not having diplomacy as an option for 3500 years of game time is, frankly, silly.

I think my proposed tweak would be sufficient to make warmongering something people will still have to weigh--even if they keep the penalties skyhigh, it would take centuries to rebuild them from rock bottom--but this would still allow early wars to be devastating and history-altering without the silliness that is effectively infinite memory.
#GameDesign, #CivVI

Friday, December 2, 2016

Innocence and Game Development

Last weekend I was up in Vancouver hanging with some of my friends and coworkers. Some of these friends I've known literally since high school, and some of us work tightly together to create a game that we're all very passionate about. It's really awesome that I get to hang out with these folks, and I love 'em all to bits. We got together one evening after I had finished (successfully) apartment hunting, and out came the Jackbox Party Pack 3, and specifically, a game called Fakin' It.

The premise of Fakin' It is quite interesting. The game will send questions to everyone's phones, and depending on the type of game, at the buzzer everyone puts up either a number of fingers, raises their hand (or not), or points to another player. For example, a question we got was "How many times did you shower in the past week?" When the buzzer rang, everyone threw up as many fingers as showers they had.

The trick comes in that one player didn't get the question: the faker just got told to try to fit in. Then everyone votes and asks questions to try to figure out as a group which player is the faker. If the group guesses correctly, then the group gets points, otherwise if the faker escapes they get points.

Fun and Games Until Someone Loses...

It was all fun and games until suddenly the question, "Have you ever donated blood?" came up. Now, many of you are probably thinking, that's a pretty innocent question. Most people donate blood unless they can't for some reason. And there's the rub.

You see, in North America, gay/bisexual men cannot donate blood. Specifically, men who've had intercourse with another male in the past year--it used to be since 1977, but was recently relaxed. Also included on the list are intravenous drug use, being HIV positive, or if you've recently gotten a tattoo, for example.

So I'm expected to justify my lowered hand or be outed as the faker (I wasn't, for the record). I could've lied about it, but I'm a terrible liar. Now, for me, the justification was pretty easy: I've been out for nearly 15 years, and the group all knew I was gay. So having another opportunity to complain that my dirty, gay blood wasn't allowed to be donated wasn't that bad. But there was a moment when everyone was looking at me with suspicion because I was an odd person out, thinking, why is his hand down, he must be the faker because most people donate blood. The only people accused in that round were folks with their hands down.

Suddenly the video game variant of "Never have I ever" became very political, regardless of whether we wanted it to be or not. I doubt the developer who added the question to the pile thought about any of that. I mean, many tech companies have the blood bus roll up outside every once in a while and everyone goes down to donate as groups, gathering people up and giving you questioning looks when you say, "I can't." I've been in that precise situation before. But for many, donating blood is an innocent, unquestionably morally good task.

That innocence--likely borne of the privilege of not being in one of the banned groups--allowed the question to slip through the QA and turned our game just a little awkward.


For me, that question wasn't the end of the world. I had my discomfort. My friends got a little uncomfortable because I had to remind them that yes, gay and bisexual men cannot donate blood. We moved on and the rest of the game was a blast. But the incident--this story--was a good reminder to me that what some people perceive as innocent can sometimes be pernicious, and that even simple video games can be political without the game developers realizing it.

My friends will read this and probably be super apologetic--they'd be really upset that they may have hurt me in any way, because they're awesome, empathetic people. To them I'd say don't worry too much about it aside from just using the opportunity to reflect. This is a prime example of privilege making someone blind to another's experiences. Privilege isn't evil and it doesn't make you a bad person. It's just a lens from which we experience our world.

Heck, I make goofs about women from time to time because I'm not a woman and don't have the insight of living as a woman day to day. In a prior age, I think we'd categorize privilege as "innocence". Innocent of how the wider world works and ignorant of the painful experiences of others. The important part of recognizing it is expanding one's empathy to others' situations. Learn and move forward.

For the game developers, I know as a game dev myself I'd be horrified if my game hurt someone. I don't think anyone threw in the question to deliberately make anyone feel bad about themselves.

But when people try to tell me that video games are (or should be!) apolitical, my first reaction is to laugh at them. Even the most minor of decisions and scenarios have identity and circumstances tied to them. From deciding if your femme fatale should be wearing pumps or flats, to how beefy your male hero should be, to how rich is the neighbourhood your GTA character is running around in and the behaviours of various NPCs in said neighbourhood, to asking how often someone showers or donates blood; everything is a comment or consequence of the--sometimes very different--worlds we live in and the lenses in which we view those worlds.

Nobody really can be cognizant of every permutation of those worlds and lenses, and I'm not even necessarily saying don't put certain things in games. I'm just saying that every decision about content and mechanics has consequences and should be deliberate. But also, by incorporating more people from different viewpoints into our craft and becoming more aware ourselves, we can include those points of view into our games and make them more varied, strong, interesting, and empathetic. #GameDesign, #GameDev, #IndieDev