September 11th, 2008


[spore] Fundamental design flaws

I wonder if I should start a Spore filter as it's all I seem to care to write about this week. However, I know much of that is due to the OMG SHINY GAME factor and will probably die down when Rock Band 2 comes out on Sunday, at which point all you'll hear about is how awesome it is to play Cool For Cats, Pump It Up and Psycho Killer (and you can see which side of the genre spectrum I'm leaning towards here.)

But last night I discovered why part of Spore is as aggravating as it is. The problem comes in the Space stage, where you start getting attacked almost as soon as you start branching out and exploring. If it's not random attacks by pirates on your spice mines (think barbarians or partisan fighters in Civilization) then it's one of your rival empires who've decided to go to war with you because they don't like the color of your ship or something. Or they keep demanding you pay amounts of tribute that you just don't have.

I may have mentioned in an earlier whine report that it felt like every five minutes my stuff was getting attacked, and always when I'd just cleaned up from the last one and set out to do something useful and fun, like terraform planets or simply go exploring, pirates attack again, or the warring empires get pissed off, or there's an eco-disaster on one of my planets and I have 3 minutes to go over and kill off infected critters before they spread the disease to everybody. It's even more fun when the eco-disaster pops up when you're in the middle of defending your best spice production system from stupid jerks.

Well, as it turns out, the interruptions pretty much do happen every five minutes. There's been some reverse-engineering of some of the game content and as it turns out, a lot of the gameplay parameters are actually stored in a text file (and then packaged into a proprietary game package file format with other techical parameters). And lo and behold, here are the lines that reveal some interesting points:
property universeSimulatorPirateRaidFrequency 0x031e7620 float 600
property universeSimulatorPirateRaidAllyFrequency 0x039620a6 float 600
property universeSimulatorPirateRaidPlunderFrequency 0x0397a072 float 600

property universeSimulatorWarAttackFrequency 0x031e94b8 float 300
property universeSimulatorHappinessDisasterFrequency 0x04f3b63f float 300
property universeSimulatorBiosphereCollapseFrequency 0x044881a3 float 300
The float values at the end of each line are seconds. So judging from how the game's behaved, I've determined that this obstensibly means that every 10 minutes, there's a chance that pirates will attack you. And every five minutes, there's a chance that an enemy will attack, or an eco-disaster will happen, or there's a "happiness disaster" which probably involves one of your cities revolting, though I've never had that happen yet.

Now the kicker is that this isn't a disaster selection table, either. The game doesn't go "ok, 5 minutes are up, let's see if something bad happens -- okay, something will, now let's see if it'll be an attack or an eco-disaster." No. Each of these disasters is on its own timer. So five minutes after you've defended your planet from Yet Another Attack From The Boojum Empire, the game goes "Let's see if we'll have Yet Another Attack..." Meanwhile, on another timer altogether, the game eventually goes "Ding! Time to see if we'll throw in an eco-disaster to shake things up."

This goes a long way towards explaining why the difficulty curve in Spore is so goddamned uneven. The cell stage is easy, the creature stage is a little difficult until you get the game mechanics down, the tribal and civilization stages are really easy due to their simplicity, and then you get to the space stage and YOU ARE DOOMED, DOOMED, DOOMED. This here, folks, is one hell of a design flaw. There's a chance it can be patched, or you can alter the values yourself if you've got the right tools, honestly, but it'd be nicer to wait for a patch.

I'm assuming there will be a patch, too. Will Wright said that one of his eventual goals with Spore was to make RTS and Civ-style games that even a casual Sims player could understand and enjoy. That's kind of why the tribal and civ stages of the game are so simplistic, apparently. So I can't wait to hear what these casual Sims players think about the constant Space attacks, and expect the reaction to prompt some kind of alteration to the gameplay parameters here.