Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gardening Game Design, Planning Stages and Replay Value

In my ongoing series of posts about Game Design informed by Gardening, or general Garden Simulation, I have yet to touch on the subject of Pest Management.  This is due in part to my own feet-dragging approach to dealing with garden pests in my own garden.  Still, as I prepare to break down and buy an insecticidal spray, I reflect on some of the things that have been working so far, and how they might play into a Gardening game.

The first, and most compelling method of pest management comes in the planning stages of gardening.  The idea is to grow plants that will attract beneficial insects, which will do the work for you.  I've leaned on this approach pretty heavily, however, this came about by happenstance, not by careful planning.  Now I obsess about my next garden and how I'm going to plan it better.   What's nice about Vegetable gardening is that the plants are all annuals, which will die off after a season, creating an opportunity to start over again.  This can be a good thing .

This is very similar to how I've approached Sim City 4.  I've made maybe eight different cities in that game.  The first was a disaster, and I just ran and hid from the havoc I had unleashed.  The second city went much better, but still, I learned some things which I was eager to apply on my next city.  By the third city, I hit a plateau, and, try as I might, I couldn't really improve on my model.  That didn't stop me from trying a few more times, though.  There's something captivating about those beginning stages, designing a layout to avoid typical pitfalls.

I have a similar experience when I play Settler's of Catan. I find that during the early stages of play, I feel compelled to start the game over again - to place my tokens differently, because I know what I did wrong.  I wonder if this might be a palpable experience of the oft-talked-about Learning Curve.

Learning can be fun!  I said it.  But seriously, maybe that's what's going on here.  Thinking about Knytt and Starseed Pilgrim, those games had the most delightful learning curves.  Starseed is highly cryptic; really all it tells the player about their goal amounts to a hill of beans.  Yet, through repeated play, I was able to figure out goals, and increase my skills many fold.  This growth in my play experience drove me to begin again time after time, until I hit a plateau and dropped the game.  Up to that point, Starseed Pilgrim was a very potent gaming experience.

Knytt lays out very basic goals and controls.  Then reward the player with an unfolding world of many environments.  The learning curve here is to learn what the purpose of the game really is (hint: to enjoy yourself!)  My compulsion to restart Knytt was based on finding out where I could explore that I didn't before.  This curve was considerably shorter than Starseed Pilgrim, but still delightful and also free of charge.

Here's a random list of games with Learning Curves I have particularly enjoyed:

Starseed Pilgrim (PC)
Settler's of Catan (Board Game)
Blokus (Board Game)
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series (Playstation)
Wave Race (N64)
Goldeneye 007 (N64)
Final Fantasy XI (PC)

Okay, those are a few to get the ball rolling.  It occurs to me that there are a variety of different Learning Curves of different character.  And it is possible to reach the end of a learning curve - the final plateau, so to speak, but how often do we actually get there?  There are people who can do things in Street Fighter games that I have never had a hope or a prayer of ever doing.  But it seems to me these games boil down to reflexes, rote memorization and practice, practice, practice.

Then on the other hand, there are games that start easy and stay easy, and just amount to a slog from point A to point Z.  I felt God of War was kind of like that - good thing the visuals were so great.  I've been complaining that games were too easy since the snes days, and it's usually these games that are very easy with one or two tough spots.

What are some of the best Learning Curves you have encountered?

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