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  • Just One More Turn: Game Development Tips From Sid Meier

    - Darenn Keller

  • Don't forget to design what happens in the head of the player.

    I think the best example we can find is with pixel art games. The idea of pixel art is to represent things (items, characters, animations) with the least amount possible of pixels.


    If you look closely, it does not really look like a coat, a helmet, or even legs. But players look at it from afar, and can easily imagine how it really looks "in their head".

    In your games, you don't have to justify everything. Why this pirate has a horrible scar on his face? The player will find himself, maybe it was during a battle, or during a fight with a shark.

    You don't have the budget for voices? Just write texts on the screen and let the player imagine the voice of the characters.

    When designing, be sure you have some places where you let the player imagine things.

    Make sure the player is the one having fun.

    While creating Sid Meier Railroad Tycoon, Sid added floods that sporadically destroy bridges. His colleague Bruce, found it very unfair. Sid insisted but realized it was something fun to create for him, not something fun to play for the player.


    In my opinion, it's a trap we can easily fall into. Stay in control and keep the ability to judge if it really has its place in your game or if it's just something you wanted to try.

    Always give the player a fighting chance.

    To continue about these floods in Railroad Tycoon, he agreed it was unjust. The player could not fight back, it felt like a betrayal and it's frustrating.

    To resolve the problem, he added two types of bridges :

    • A Wooden bridge, cheap, fast to build but with a high chance of getting flood.
    • A Stone bridge, expansive, long to build, but impervious to flood.

    This way the player has control over the risk and the flood actually became a source of genuine reward.

    Simple plus simple equals complex.

    Don't try to design a very complex system from the start. Design small and simple systems that will interact in a complex manner.
    For example, a lot of games use the rock-paper-scissors design. It keeps a certain balance while giving you choices.

    Avoid brilliant and effective AI.

    It's undeniable that when you're playing against AI, you need a fun one, not a clever one. And most of the time the player gets fun from actually being able to predict the AI behavior and beat it.

    But I can think of two examples where we should try to have brilliant AI.

    1. To scare the player - In Alien Isolation the player tries to survive and progress in the story while being tracked by an Alien. The "brilliant" AI serves the purpose of this horror game. A clever AI is scary because of this unpredictability that is usually not fun.
    2. To help the player - When you're teaming up with AI, in competitive games likes Overwatch or League Of Legends. It's nice to have a pretty good AI to play with. At least to compensate players leaving the game early for example.

    Games do not need to be realistic.

    Like many of his games later, Sid based Formula 1 on reality. Even in this kind of game, we don't need a real driver with a backstory.

    What games need is:

    A combination of emotional and psychological hooks that make you believe, however fleetingly, that you yourself are the driver.

    The most elementary, defining feature of gaming is its interactivity

    In a "Dinosaur RTS game" that he never released, he removed all the micromanagement actions. The idea was to let the AI do most of the "boring" stuff. The problem: the player did not have anything interesting to do anymore.

    Be sure to focus on what your player is doing in your game, but don't remove too much control from him.

    When should you use Real-time versus Turn-based?

    Let's summarize the characteristics of both designs :

    Game SpeedExcitementBrainIntensityPayoff on choice
    Real-Time Immediate Quick Thinking High, can be overflow or confused Small, instant, and ongoing
    Turn-Based Anticipatory Slow and Methodical Low, can be bored Big and personal choice into the outcome

    Now think about your game, and choose a design depending on the characteristics you want.

    Be gentle with the player ego.

    We have to offer a moral clarity to our players and eliminate the painful quandaries, because unlike other forms of storytelling, they are personally standing in for our main character.

    Their ego is on the line, and we have to be gentle with it.

    I'm reading that he thinks the player should feel like he is playing the good guy.

    A lot of games have shown us that it's not the case, players like to play the bad guys. On the other hand, you have to keep in mind that ego issue. It's probably not fun to play a character that's being ridiculed or that doesn't match your values.

    Be Reductive in a Balanced and Polite way.

    In Civilization, each civ has its own unique buildings, units, and perks. For example in Civ 6, Norway has bonuses for naval units, naval raids, and pillages.

    Imagine the number of unique perks needed to "truthfully" represent Norway. They chose the best ones for a satisfying game experience, based on historical facts.

    Moreover, you are not playing the Norway nation, but the leader Harald Hardrada of Norway. It's a subtle but important distinction to avoid some backlash -- "Are you saying that Norway people are savage pillagers?".

    It's delicate to craft art about historical events. The more famous your game is, the more important it is to manage that. At Ubisoft, we have entire teams working on this specific subject. And we still have problems like NPCs wearing the wrong type of shields for the time.

    Let's list a few rules to deal with historical figures and events in a historically accurate game :

    1. Always use historical facts, not prejudices -- Lot of pillages and raids were effectively done under Harald.
    2. Stay neutral -- Nothing tells you that Norway people are savages because of the raids.
    3. Avoid targeting a large group of people, be more specific -- The game talks about the potential "Norway of Harald", not actual Norway.


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