Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

14 September, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Construction
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:47 PM

I’ve talked enough about business models for now, so let’s do a fun design challenge: games about construction.

Most geeky people remember having construction toys as a kid: Legos, erector sets (heh heh), and so on. More modern games have taken this, with the Pirates of the Spanish main constructible strategy game.

So, the challenge this week is to think of a video game with the theme of construction. This could be a single-player game, or a system in an online game.

My thoughts after the break.

There have been some online games taking advantage of this: there is an online version of the Pirates of the Spanish Main game by Sony. There’s also the Lego MMO from NetDevil being developed. One problem for these games is that there’s no way to get the tactile aspect of construction. I love Legos (particularly the Star Wars sets), ad the fun part is snapping the pieces together to form the final ship and understanding how it’s constructed. Seeing how the bits fit together, and knowing where the secret compartments are is pretty neat. I wonder if the MMO has any chance of capturing that feeling. The Star Wars Lego console games didn’t, but they were still fun; the lego aspect made things like vehicles falling apart more entertaining.

You also get some construction aspects in online games for things like housing. Ultima Online was known for the way you could customize your house, and how you could put together different items to create the appearance of another object: making a piano is probably one of the most well-known examples. But, decorating a house in general was a very constructive thing to do.

What are your thoughts? What kind of games can you do that focus on construction as a major element?

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  1. I don’t think you can ever really catch the ‘feeling’ of putting bricks together unless there’s some serious advance in tactile feedback peripherals. Then you may as well just use bricks anyway.

    To try and recapture the idea of construction I wondered if you can make your avatar in a game a fundamental part of the building process. So he/she actually needs to pick up the pieces and carry them round on their back or something. When you reach the location you want to place it maybe you could have a balance minigame or something where you need to align it, snap it and stop it from falling. (Possibly good for console’s e.g. sixaxis or wiimote).. Then there’s an obvious design choice to have: free build, or constrained build. Personally, I like the idea that you can build anything you want, but for those people who struggle to do 3d design there could be ‘virtual blueprints’ to collect where they help you build things step by step. (There’s a reason that most lego/meccano/k’nex packs come with blueprints).

    Just some initial brainstorming there, i’m sure it would need seriously ironing out.

    Comment by Jpoku — 15 September, 2007 @ 5:26 AM

  2. Weekend Design Challenge – Construction

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  4. How far can we push the “construction”? I ask because SL and ATiTD aren’t about construction per se, but like Multiverse and now Metaplace, construction is a huge part of what goes on in the games.

    There’s also lines of games based on “building” something, but those are more about stuff to solve a particular puzzle.

    Comment by Darniaq — 19 September, 2007 @ 4:34 PM

  5. Bah, slow again!

    Anyway, I think that we need to think about what “construction” means vis-a-vis “tinkering”. This may be a bit off-topic, but allow me to digress into a different gaming genre: giant robot simulators. I’m an aficionado of giant robot simulators, and it seems to me that they illustrate this continuum quite well.

    On the side of “tinkering” we have the Mechwarrior series. In Mechwarrior, you can basically build a mech from the ground up, but the cosmetic appearance stays the same. It’s functionally different, but not tangibly different; a Mad Cat which has been tweaked into a slow-moving artillery platform looks the same as a Mad Cat which has been rebuilt as a quick-moving hit-and-run machine. It moves differently, but in a very abstracted sort of way; it uses the same walk cycle, just sped up (IIRC).

    Next in the continuum we have the older Armored Core games. Building your robot in Armored Core involves choosing which parts to use for each “slot”, in a mix-and-match fashion (arms, legs, and so on). The main thing here is that apart from the most basic functional differences (speed, power, etc), the parts look cosmetically different.

    Next we have Armored Core 4. The major innovation in 4 is that the machine’s balance is dependent on the way you customize it; a top-heavy robot with big guns mounted on the backpack handles quite differently from a light robot with a single huge arm-mounted cannon, for instance. This is a step towards tangibility – to wit, the parts have some physical presence and alter the physical nature of the object, not just its functional nature.

    The most “construction-y” giant robot game out there is probably Chromehounds. The big interest factor here is that every part of the robot (apart from the legs) is completely modular and you can assemble them in virtually any (physically-possible) configuration like a demented militaristic Tinkertoy. This, unfortunately, has proven difficult to balance in gameplay terms, with people designing such things as the “Totem Pole” (a stack of missile launchers on top of a dune-buggy chassis). It’s still fascinating, especially given that there are some very interesting ramifications. For instance, if you have a part jutting out from the machine’s body the wrong way, when you try to turn the torso (or turret) of the robot, it may bump into another part of the robot and prevent you from rotating the turret past a certain angle.

    The lessons we can draw from this study, I think, are that:

    - Construction, as opposed to tinkering, implies tactility and visual feedback. A kind of “thinginess”, if you will, rather than working with numbers or virtual parts which you never actually see.

    - Tactility, in the game/virtual environment sense, consists in how the object interacts with the world, how the different parts of the object interact with each other, and how the player interacts with the object.
    For instance, take Second Life. If all objects were “phantom” (no collision) and you couldn’t walk on them or bump into them, they would obviously be less tactile. This is where the player interacts with the object.
    Similarly, with the Chromehounds example, the fact that the moving parts of the robot can bump into each other lends them the feeling of tactility. That’s the parts of the object interacting with each other.
    Furthermore, consider a hypothetical game where you could build a Tinkertoy spaceship. Bigger spaceships are more powerful, but a smaller one can fly through narrow canyons on asteroids, that’s-no-moons, and other spaces where a bigger ship wouldn’t fit. Object interacting with world.

    In addition, I think that construction isn’t really construction if the actual selection of the component parts doesn’t involve any decisions. For instance, in Spanish Main, you can’t mix and match the sails from different ships. (Well, you can, but it’s against the rules). Essentially each ship is a single atomic entity; in game terms you can’t divide and recombine its constituent parts. For construction to be construction, a meaningful entity (constructed object) must be composed of a significant number of atoms which can be combined in different ways to create different meaningful entities.

    Example: In Lego Star Wars 2, you can build an AT-ST in the Mos Eisley stage (I believe it’s in the free demo) by finding the appropriate parts and putting them together in the right sequence. However, you can’t build anything different with those parts, and the AT-ST doesn’t do anything until all the parts are in place. Hence I don’t consider the building of the AT-ST to be “construction” in that sense; no meaningful decisions are involved in the actual construction process. The AT-ST is atomic. If you could combine the parts in a different way to get, say, a speeder bike, that would be a different matter. Even better if you could, for instance, bolt additional weapons onto any part (hey, it’s Lego!). Who wouldn’t want an AT-ST with lightsaber “claws” bolted onto its feet?

    Comment by n.n — 21 September, 2007 @ 1:25 AM

  6. Wow, I never thought I’d see anyone in the whole world asking this question, let alone a group of experienced devs. I am a design enthusiast (read: I do not have an industry job and can’t get one :) ) who has worked in construction as a carpenter and an electrician for the last five years. I just made foreman a month ago.

    I would say the fun and challenge of construction is essentially twofold: the pursuit of efficiency, and the solving of complex spatial puzzles. I think both concepts lend themselves very well to computer games.

    I am actually about 50% of the way through creating an online computer game about construction, which will be multiplayer competitive, but not an MMO. Players will compete to get high scores on identical levels, but won’t ever face each other directly. The concept breaks down like this: you are a construction manager, looking at two lists. One is jobs you’ve contracted, and the other is your employees. Your goal is to make money by completing jobs. A job consists of a list of descriptors, which in turn consist of a tool and a number (indicating how much work with tool X needs to be done on this job). Whenever an employee(s) with a tool(s) is assigned to a job, that job’s tool bucket(s) begin filling. When they’re all full, the job is complete and you get paid.

    Employees, on the other side, have tools and skill levels. They also have morale and personal preferences. Some employees want to be sent to certain jobs, and not others. Employee X may not like being on the same jobsite as Employee Y, but likes working with Employee Z (who may or may not return the sentiment!) Whenever an employee is in a situation he doesn’t like, his morale begins to drop (the reverse is also true). Morale in turn serves as a multiplier for the employee’s tool/skill output. Additionally, if an employee has a tool that isn’t needed at the job he’s assigned to, that output is simply lost.

    The game’s interface is two simple drag n’ drop lists, and ‘cycles’ productivity and morale changes about 1.5 seconds. So gameplay consists of dragging employees around in an attempt to finish jobs as quickly as possible, while keeping employees happy and productive. When time runs out, your cash on hand becomes your score. A ‘level’ would consist of a set of randomized employees and randomized jobs, saved and consistently presented to different players, who would compete for high scores.

    None of which, sadly, is an MMO. I actually do have the beginnings of a construction MMO concept, but I’ll have to post about that later.

    Comment by Bret — 21 September, 2007 @ 10:14 AM

  7. Ok, I’m back for a second helping. I think a construction MMO is a great idea. There is an earlier post that references a tactile experience as being vital to a game about construction, but I disagree. Yes, construction is very physical, but so is hand-to-hand combat, about which there are thousands of games. The key is abstracting the nature of combat into something a computer can understand, and a player can still be entertained by. So we get things like Damage Stats and Equip Reqs, and in more involved games, gestural controls that reference specific thrusts, parries, footwork, etc., which interact in a paper-rock-scissors sort of fashion. Much effort has been devoted to the creation and refinement of these abstractions, with great results. Part of this success is player-driven; many people are familiar with combat in some sense. They’ve seen it on TV, they think it would be fun (minus the dying) or heroic, etc. I nonetheless believe that if even a fraction of that effort were devoted to abstracting construction, a really great game could be made. Consider:

    A WoW-esque environment, except set in a major city. Instead of mobs, jobs would spawn (picture a yellow exclamation point over a suburban house), from a simple remodel (Deadmines) to an International Airport (Onyxia). As jobs got progressively more difficult, progressively larger and better coordinated teams would be needed (Guilds), consisting of well balanced classes (trades) with better and better equipment (tools).

    But exactly how to abstract away the nuts and bolts of the construction itself? I have a few thoughts. An SL-style WYSIWYG system for certain things (like plumbing a wall, or locating a light fixture), rapid-fire minigames (think perhaps WarioWare but with more math) for others (like squaring up a door). Team-oriented things might be mixed in. For example, one person of moderate strength can lift a panelized frame into place. But if it needs to be moved laterally, two or three people will need to “help”, which takes them away from what they were working on, but introduces opportunities for socializing. ‘Tools’ can make the processes easier. A Spirit Level can report the exact alignment of a wall, leaving less to chance. A high-level carpenter might simply have a “spell” for plumbing the wall (as this is a fairly low-level task that a mid-level character would be tired of performing).

    I could go on and on :) I think just about every aspect of game balance has a counterpart in a real-world construction concept. For example, how interesting would it be if the game ‘paid’ only the officers of a contracting firm (‘guild’) upon completion of a job? What if high-level jobs had to be ‘low-bid’, thus challenging the best guilds to squeeze the most possible out of their members for a shot at glory? You’d see the same wage-politics (who gets paid what, and why? Does so-and-so have a better offer from another company?) in-game as you do in-world, which would be thrilling for Bartle-Killers, and give Bartle-Socializers plenty to talk about. Of course, the game is an Achiever’s dream. Explorers might be satisfied by a system where rare materials for big jobs need to be fetched from afar.

    Okay, now I -am- going on and on. Ironically, I have to head into work now. I’m terribly curious to see where this thread goes.

    Comment by Bret — 21 September, 2007 @ 12:10 PM

  8. I *heart* LEGO. Like it better than most any video game I can think of.

    About the problem of capturing that tactile aspect – that is definitely one of the big problems, but I would guess that good sound effects and solid physics, as well as the interaction between them, could go a long way toward that end. I’m thinking of the Flash game Particles (Google it) right now – very simple, but those billiard ball sounds make a huge difference.

    And for construction games, well, what about games where you build contraptions, like Armadillo Run? I’ve linked to (click my name) a popular thread I’ve started to discuss a rather violent variation on that theme. Quite interesting.

    Comment by axcho — 24 September, 2007 @ 12:41 PM

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