Defining Ara: Part II
We left off last week with Part I – just figuring out what genre-space Ara fit into. So now let’s get a bit more down-and-dirty with some specifics. Not all the specifics mind you, but some. I keep getting fussed at about spoilers and to not say the things.
Scale and Scope
So, as mentioned previously, Ara is big. Hands down the biggest game many here have worked on. This is both a breath of fresh air and something that poses a unique set of issues to solve.
One thing we wanted to do early on was do a better job at modelling the modern world. Many games in the genre focus on a specific time frame and many choose an earlier position in history to set their game, say such as ancient Rome or pre-Industrial Revolution. So, there’s a lot of area here already tread, and in many cases, done exceedingly well. Far future and the what-ifs of interstellar space have also been done and done well. But…what about our modern time? Where’s the love there?
We set out to try and model some of the challenging situations that occur in our day to day lives. Diplomatic alliances spanning twenty-plus countries. World Wars that are truly worldly. Global economics where one point of failure can cause a chain reaction crash.
And not all bad things like that. Opportunities to also befriend other nations in cooperative manners, knowing that there’s no way they’ll be a competitor in the end, so it’s a safe maneuver. When you’ve only got 8 players in the game, everyone is a potential threat. But what about 15? 20? More? (I’m being yelled at again to stop talking again.)
The map itself is also monstrous in scale. If we’re going to hold all those <<insert secret number>> players into one space, there’s a certain size the map needs to be in order to accommodate them. This increased size also allows for more interesting and varied geological formations and variations. Continents can look and play truly differently from one another, exploration has purpose beyond just more space. It’s different space.
We’ll do more on the map and biomes later. There will be pictures. Lots of pretty pictures.
Space is the Constraint
So, while the map is absolutely ginormous, it’s not unlimited. With the increase in space, we also had the opportunity to increase the max player count afforded for each map. This not only allows for more varied opportunities in the kinds of relationships you can have with the other players in a given game (more on that below), it also introduces a new form of restraint to push against – space.
Expansion is fairly easy early on in a given game, but by the time you’re put a few tech eras behind you, you’ll find that you’re probably starting to struggle to find some elbow room around you. Specific resources might be scarce for you, but plentiful just on the other side of that border. Perhaps you’ve unlocked a cool new building you want to plop down, but don’t have an open space for it anymore. Or you’ve found that you’ve unfortunately become land-locked and in dire need of a sea access point. What to do?
Take a look at any actual map from the past couple hundred years, and you’ll find that people tend to spread out and take up space until they hit the border of other people doing the same thing. The world is not peppered with swathes of unowned territories and empty wilderness, and Ara is no different. You’ll need to figure out your space constraints as part of your nation’s continued growth, whether it be through friendly diplomatic dealings with your neighbors, recombining your regions into more productive units (more on that in a few weeks), or with less friendly dealings involving pointy sticks.
Tackling Optimal Strategy
Another big area the team wanted to focus on was what to do with the giant elephant in the strategy room – our friend and nemesis optimal strategy.
- Playing strategy games to figure out how they work is fun.
- Deep diving into systems and assembling a plan for how to use them to your best advantage is fun.
- Crushing your enemies beneath your superior wit and intellect is fun.
- Doing the same damn string of actions every game you play once you figured out ‘the right and only strategy to win’ is not fun.
Take as a singular example of this phenomenon, our old friend the Technology Tree. Lots of games have them. (Never mind many of them aren’t trees, but really inverted pyramids, but whatever). The issue with something like a preset static tree with preset costs, is that you’ve created a solvable system. There will be a shortest path, an optimal path, through that thing to a given point, whether that’s to a specific tech or to the end. And there are algorithms to employ thanks to Operations Research to do it easy peasy…kinda takes the magic out of deciding what to research next if you know at the back of your mind that taking Metallurgy over Archery will cost you 5 turns worth or research production and possibly cost you that much needed time 300 turns down the road. (As we all know, these kinds of games are exercises in exponential growth – one tiny misstep early equates to huge losses later).
So that’s no fun. And it isn’t the only example of this issue that plagues many strategy games today. So what to do?
While pure randomness is hateful and stupid and the work of madness, there is something to be said for more controlled systems that shake things up from time to time, messing up the solved equation so that something that worked in your last game won’t play out in this one.
Because in the end, replayability is key. Who wants to play the same map every time? Who wants to make the same decisions every time? Make the same choices? Use the same Units? Build the same buildings? Not me, and I’m guessing not you. Boring.
Competition vs Cooperation
Along with this more robust player count, the team really wanted to take advantage of the ability to play with other nations who were not in direct competition for the top spots on the Prestige leaderboard. When you have a map of only eight players, everyone is a potential source of competition, someone to keep an eye on. But when there is…significantly more… not everyone is going to be a contender. Not everyone is going to be worth your time. And that’s not only ok, that’s a good thing.
We made the decision to not pre-assign nations any kind of role in the game, via something like a major or minor player. Rather, every nation in the game, based on their own unique starting situations and decisions, has a chance to rise to the top and be a winner, or sink to the bottom and just scrape by to survive. A whole host of them will happily exist is the middle of the pack. However, even nations at the bottom still have all their economic, militaristic, and diplomatic options available to them to employ, which means that they can be safe cooperative partners with you.
Scared of getting picked on by a larger target? Grab a few like-sized friends to form an Alliance and buddy up. Really want to upgrade your stuff but don’t have a robust production engine to make certain kinds of luxury goods? That guy over there has them in abundance, and is likely thrilled to trade or sell them to you.
At its very earliest conception, Ara was not intended to be a wargame, with military being the only focus or the sole way to win. In fact, knocking every other nation down militaristically is highly unlikely on the larger maps due to the scale. We want players to be able to embrace playing the game as they want to play, and that means if you want to just be happy-go-lucky friends with everyone and still play competitively, you can do that. Want to comp-stop the AI? Go for it. Just build a nation as a creative and alt-history endeavor and to hell with winning in the end? We’d love to see the pictures of what you make.
History is Personal
Which leads into one of the final design tenants of Ara: history should be personal. It should be inclusive. You as the player should be able to say, “I see me. I see where I came from.” And then, “I can choose where I’m going to.”
The scientific and humanitarian accomplishments through time are easy to celebrate. Same with cultural masterpieces from across the globe. However, there’s no way to avoid the blatant fact that across human history there have been countless atrocities committed in the name of progress, in the name of tribalism, religion, economics, trade, and more. Ignoring the effect this has had on a given people we don’t feel is appropriate, but neither is glorifying in it or celebrating it.
In the aim to be truthful, representative, and inclusive, there’s a fine line to walk between the acknowledgement and treading into acceptance. Take as an example, unprovoked warfare. Just deciding that you know what, I want what my neighbor has and I’m just going to go kill to get it. Is it morally acceptable? Certainly not. But should it be excluded from the game, both in terms of a nod to historical significance as well as player agency? Should there be limitations to its use? What kinds of rewards should it give, if any at all, to avoid incentivizing certain behaviors? How is it visualized? How is it messaged?
We’ve tried to be as thoughtful, delicate, and graceful as possible with many of these more contentious historical topics, however, I’m sure we didn’t always get it right, despite best intentions. Let us know how we did. We’re happy to start that dialogue, and hope you’ll join in.
— Michelle Menard Design Director – Oxide Games
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