Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

12 September, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Disasters
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:28 PM

As another Hurricane pounds the Gulf coast in the United States and I check that my flight is still scheduled, disasters are on many people’s minds.

So, let’s think about disaster-themed games and events this weekend.

The first thing that came to my mind when thinking of this topic was the disasters in SimCity. For some people, they enjoyed seeing a disaster (such as a giant Japanese monster) come through and throw a wrench in things. I, on the other hand, really didn’t enjoy that aspect of the game. It’s interesting to consider how you can introduce the concept of a disaster without making a player feel like he or she lost a lot of investment into the game.

What are your thoughts? What examples of disasters are in games or are part of events in games? How could you introduce the concept in a meaningful way?


  1. Achievers hate having their stuff taken away. Having it taken away for reasons totally beyond their control is even worse. We hate it so much that we now have to sign legal disclaimers where we agree that it was never -really- our stuff to begin with. That’s how nutty we get.

    As long as you keep that in mind, I think the notion of a ‘disaster’ can be a great way of injecting randomness. What is a mob encounter but a tiny disaster that you’re more or less prepared to handle? I think that’s the crux of it: a disaster must -change- the player’s plans without -ruining- them.

    Comment by Bret — 12 September, 2008 @ 9:49 PM

  2. Maybe design the game to reward effort, distinct from rewarding the results of effort. Thus, if you wade into battle and do your damnedest, then win or lose you would be better compensated than someone that went AFK at the back of the group. Continue to reward earlier effort after the fact, rather than tying future success to accumulation of stuff.

    This way, when disaster strikes and takes away all your shiny toys you’d welcome it as just another opportunity to shine.

    Comment by Garumoo — 12 September, 2008 @ 10:36 PM

  3. I always thought it would be interesting to put sea level and climate change in a game. Consider what it would be like to have the sea level rise a few meters in Second Life. Actually I bet you could put realistically modeled extreme weather in a game world. The key is it can’t be random, or no more random than real weather. Same goes for seismically active areas. Again, earthquakes aren’t per se random.

    Also imagine selling in game insurance? Crafting to build stronger things that can survive a disaster? Seriously it would be an interesting micro/RMT payment channel.

    Comment by Tim — 12 September, 2008 @ 11:22 PM

  4. Tim, that’s a pretty great idea. I think it would be powerfully instructive to give a group of people access to an RMT game where making money is fairly easy. Then after a few weeks, break it to the group that everyone’s favorite way of making money is slowly destroying the entire system. Can the group band together to save the golden goose? Or will enough people try to individually profit that the system is ruined for everyone?

    Comment by Bret — 15 September, 2008 @ 9:08 PM

  5. You’ve described the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Or, “a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.”

    You can also think of it as the fact that one person sees the advantages of a resource personally, but the disadvantages are shared among a community. For example, the recent US government bailouts of its finance sector. The financial sectors see great profit in good times, and in bad times the losses are distributed among the taxpayers.

    This “Tragedy” comes up alot when you talk about natural resources. Sadly, a real consenus solution really hasn’t materialized yet. But then again, China has imposed rather stiff population controls, which can be seen as relevant to the “tragedy.”

    So maybe such an experiment in the context of a VW can shed some light on the issue, or at least be a good thesis paper for someone :D

    Comment by Black Molly — 16 September, 2008 @ 6:45 AM

  6. You ask for games with or about disasters, and no one mentions Dwarf Fortress? That connection was the first thing I thought to blog about when I got back from my evacuation.

    Comment by DGM — 18 September, 2008 @ 2:43 AM

  7. Riffing on that a bit, an idea I had once was to create a Martian colonization game where the players had the ability to terraform the world. The question is, can you actually create conflict where some players are against terraforming and others are for it? Basically the plot of the Red/Green/Blue Mars book series. Could it spontaneously arise out of a sandbox world like that?

    Comment by Tim — 18 September, 2008 @ 2:09 PM

  8. @Tim – As someone who hasn’t read the books, it seems to me like the important design questions are, 1) What would those opposed to terraforming do all day? 2) How do you ensure balance between competing factions? (after all, if you’re willing to use violence, and your target is local, it is a lot cheaper to destroy something than it is to guarantee its safety) and 3) How would you know when the game was over?

    I think if you set the rules right, it could arise.

    Comment by Bret — 19 September, 2008 @ 7:42 PM

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