Sid Meier's Civilization

Civilization VI's first expansion, Rise and Fall just launched this past weekend. The expansion does make some welcome enhancements to alliances that makes peaceful relations with other civs much more appealing. However, these enhancements do not address two of my most fundamental complaints with Civilization's diplomacy system in general: that it does not allow for truly cooperative victories, and that it does not really provide the player with any way to influence an A.I. civ's behavior. I've already written about ideas for cooperative victories for both Beyond Earth and for the core Civilization games, so I won't go into that again here. Instead, today's blog will focus on the second of my major hang-ups with diplomacy: that you simply cannot provide A.I. civs with any indication of what you consider friendly or hostile behavior.

Diplomacy has always been one of the major stumbling blocks of the Civilization games. Each game has certain mechanics or features that are good ideas on paper, but none of the games have ever really had a diplomacy system that really seems to work the way that it is intended, and which provides consistent behavior from the A.I.s. A.I.s are often erratic in their behavior -- both between games, and within a single game.

Civilization VI - Cleopatra agenda
A single unit can be the difference between Cleopatra's abject disgust and her goo-goo-eyed adoration.

Civ VI introduces the agendas, which sound like a good idea on paper. It gives each leader an element of personality. They have things that they like, and things that they don't like. The problem is that these agendas lead to wild swings in an A.I.'s attitude, often based on rather trivial (and sometimes counter-intuitive) actions from the player. Often times the thresholds for activating these agendas are not entirely clear. Cleopatra tells me that my army is too weak and pathetic, and so she has a heavy negative modifier with me. Then I build a single Swordsman a couple turns later, and now suddenly my army is powerful enough to warrant her admiration, and she's looking me up and down with those goo goo eyes.

There's other legacy issues with diplomacy. The biggest one is the inability to ever warn another civ that their actions might lead to war. The denouncement mechanic of Civ V was a decent start, but since you could never provide a specific reason for your denouncements, they never seemed to have much weight in changing another civ's behavior. In a multiplayer game, you could always use the chat to inform other players' of your diplomatic desires, but there has never been any method for accomplishing this with A.I. civs in single-player.

Since the A.I. has no real clue why it is being denounced, there's no way for it to change its behavior. There's also no way for other A.I.s to understand if your denouncement or declaration of war is actually justified or not.

Civilization V - denouncement
You can denounce a civ, but the A.I. won't really have any clue why they're being denounced.

Civilization VI tried to rectify this with the Casus Belli system, but that system also stumbles...

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Demon's Souls - title

Rumors of a Demon's Souls remaster or remake have been floating around for a while now (as have rumors of a sequel). I have mixed feeling on the idea of a remake/remaster. On the one hand, Demon's Souls is one of my favorite games ever and may represent the peak of the series. Naturally, I want more people to play it and recognize its brilliance.

On the other hand, my fondness for the game means that I am hesitant to allow anyone to modify the game at all. After suffering through the abysmal Silent Hill HD Collection, I have strong reservations about any game remastering. Even the announced remake of Shadow of the Colossus has me on edge.

Matthewmatosis has posted an excellent retrospective look at how the subsequent
Souls games failed to live up to Demon's Souls' brilliance and originality.

Sadly, a remaster would probably mean that the servers for the original game would finally get shut down. But I guess having a replacement would be better than having no Demon's Souls at all...?

So with Dark Souls having come to its end with its Ringed City DLC, I've been thinking a lot lately about what I might want to see in any potential Demon's Souls remake or remaster -- if it were to happen.

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Cities: Skylines - game title

Some of the suggestions from my first wishlist have actually been implemented in Cities: Skylines. Naming roads, and adding directional traffic overlays were recently added in the Mass Transit expansion, and the previous Snowfall expansion incorporated some of my ideas for seasonal cycles (minus the part where the seasons actually cycle from one to another). There's still a lot of items from that wishlist that haven't been implemented. I also have come up with some new ideas for things I'd like to see in further expansions (or maybe a sequel?).

Taking the best ideas from its competitors

Even though Cities: Skylines is, by far, my favorite (and probably the objective best) city-building / city-simulation game of the past decade, there are still some features and ideas from the inferior games that I really like. In my first wishlist, I already talked about how much I liked the modular building mechanic of SimCity (2013).

I won't go into too much detail of why I liked that concept (even though the actual implementation was a little weak) because I invite you to read the original post. Suffice it to say, I liked the idea of certain pieces of city infrastructure (such as power plants, schools, universities, police stations, airports, government buildings, etc.) actually growing along with the city. Being able to upgrade an existing building to add additional functionality or capacity was (in my opinion) a much more interesting and engaging process than simply plopping another copy of the same building every so often, simply to meet increasing demand.

SimCity (2013) - modular building
I still think SimCity had the right idea with its modular buildings.

In that first wishlist, I also briefly mentioned the Cities XL series. There isn't much in XL (or XXL) that is done as well (or better) than what is offered in either SimCity (2013) or Cities: Skylines, but I did neglect one idea that I think was probably the most clever, interesting, and fun part of the XL series of games: the ability to "fill" an area with "decoration". Put simply, Cities XL allows the player to fill any unoccupied area of the map (that is at least partially enclosed by roads) with one of several different types of decorative landscaping.

Landscaping options include a grassy park area with trees, an open-air "flea market" with kiosks and street vendors, various plazas / courtyards, and even a makeshift construction site. These decorations aren't functionally different (the flea market doesn't produce any commerce or jobs, for example), but each decorative area applies a very small environmental beautification effect that increases happiness and land value for adjacent homes or businesses.

Decorative areas in Cities XL allows you to fill-in irregular shapes with city-beautification projects.

From a more aesthetic standpoint, Cities XL's decorative areas allow the player to make very efficient use of space, to fill any empty dead space, and to create your own custom parks and plazas that conform to whatever shapes the outlining roads happen to be. Want a park in the middle of a large roundabout? Want a plaza space at the point of a 45-degree (or narrower) intersection? XL allows you to do such things without having to go into an asset-editor to make a customer ploppable.

Despite having muuuuuch better tools for creating curved and angled roads, Skylines doesn't really have any equivalent to these decorative features from XL that allow us to fill-in gaps left by our pretty, rounded or angled roads...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

In my last post, I ranted a little bit about some of the major frustrations that I have with the way that Civilization games have historically dealt with difficulty levels. In summary, I identified three problems that I feel make it less enjoyable to play the game on higher difficulties, even if the lower difficulties still feel too easy. The three problems are:

In this post, I'd like to provide some more constructive criticism by discussing some of the thoughts and ideas that I've had for possibly resolving these three problems. These ideas include providing a wider range of options for customizing the difficulty level and game experience to suit the individual player's tastes and style, and to provide a wider (and more open-ended) set of game-long challenges.

Alternative solutions to game difficulty

So what could the developers do about these problems?

Well, the problem of game pacing could possibly be solved by inverting the handicap such that instead of speeding up the A.I.s' progress through the game, the player is slowed down. This could be accomplished by slowing down the human player's tech and civic progress, and by negatively handicapping some of the human player's yields. This would allow the A.I.s to progress at a more historically-appropriate rate, and overall game length would remain similar across all difficulties.

Civilization VI - Ship Building to Cartography
Padding out sparse areas of the tech and civics trees could mitigate the ability to beeline to later eras.

Rapid era progression could also be somewhat mitigated by padding out the tech and civics trees a little bit more. Beelining to the Renaissance via the "Cartography" technology is common for civs like England and Norway. There's a few ways to limit this. One simple way would be to simply make "Cartography" require either "Education" or "Military Tactics". Another way would be to have a technology between "Ship Building" and "Cartography" -- such as an "Optics" technology that unlocks an upgrade to the Scout, or a "Lateen Sail" technology that unlocks a medieval naval unit like the Cog, Hulk, Junk, or Galleass (or move the Caravel up to "Lateen Sails" but don't give it ocean-crossing abilities until "Cartography").

Customization, options, and difficulty settings

As for resolving the other issues presented by high difficulty levels, my preference would be for the developers to add more customization and tuning options for players so that we can tailor the gameplay experience and challenges more to our liking.

Civilization VI - advanced settings
Civ VI has limited customization options.

Having independent sliders or settings for things like Player Handicaps, A.I. Handicaps, AI Temperament, Barbarian Spawn Rate, Barbarian Aggressiveness, Barbarian Tech Level, City State Aggressiveness, and so on would all go a long way towards allowing the player to customize the game's challenge according to their own strengths and weaknesses. Handicap settings for players and A.I. can even be further divided into different sub-categories along the lines of: Tech Handicap, Culture Handicap, Production Handicap, Gold Handicap, Growth Handicap, Happiness / Amenity Handicap, etc.. So if you find that you are consistently out-teching your A.I. opponents, but you feel you have parity with the A.I. in other areas of the game, then you could specifically buff the A.I.'s tech handicap, weaken yours, or both.

This would certainly make some of the game's code more complicated, but I don't think that it would be prohibitively difficult. The difficulty settings already make adjustments to these very same parameters, and I believe the game's own .ini files allow modders to customize many (if not all) of these attributes. I don't see any reason why such settings can't just be in the game's settings menu, and the difficulty settings (deity, emperor, king, settler, etc.) could just use some pre-configured arrangements of those values.

Other genres use similar paradigms for their difficulty settings. Sports games are a prime example...

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Soulsborne series

On the Branch Gaming

In my recent time playing Dark Souls for On the Branch Gaming, we discussed several ideas for ways that the game could have been improved. I'm not sure if From Soft will be making any more Dark Souls or Bloodborne games (at least not anytime soon), but if they do, here's a list of some things that I'd like to see them improve. At the very least, we can consider this to be a retrospective, "How could they have done it better?" brainstorm, and any other developers who want to try their hand at a Souls-Borne-style game could maybe try these alternative designs out for their games.

This isn't a wishlist of changes that I'd like to see in specific games. I've already done those for each of the Souls games:

Some of these posts (and the ideas presented in them) haven't aged very well, but I do stand by most of the suggestions offered in the above posts. At the very least, they offer perspective on how my own perceptions of the games have evolved over time.

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More informative UI

The UI is something that could definitely use some work. Each game in the series made minor tweaks to the UI - sometimes improving the overall experience, other times seeming to regress to a clunkier interface. But there are some things that probably should have been present, if not in Demon's Souls, then at least by Dark Souls or Dark Souls II. Some of these things seem so obvious that it boggles my brain that nobody at FROMSoft thought of them. Or maybe they were always items near the bottom of the priority list, that the team simply ran out of time to ever implement.

Collection log

Something that persitently bothered me across all the Souls-Borne games was the intrusive item-pickup notification. That giant, black box sitting almost dead in the center of the screen, partially blocking your view of your character and his or her immediate surroundings, did not need to be there. If you pick up an item in the heat of battle, then having to press X to dismiss it could be just enough of a distraction to get you killed.

Dark Souls - item pick-up
While playing Dark Souls with On the Branch Gaming,
I was reminded how distracting the item-pickup notifications are.

Instead of this big notification box, I propose an alternative: put a smaller notification in the corner of the screen somewhere that vanished after a few seconds. Since we don't want to miss knowing what we just picked up, the game should also include an item-collection log in the menu. Heck, it wouldn't even need to be a separate screen, it could just be a sorting option in the existing menu: sort by recently-acquired...

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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