Fixing the 4X end-game boringness by simulating legibility

4X games (e.g. Civilization, Master of Orion, for this discussion I’m also counting Paradox-style grand strategy like Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Stellaris) have a well-known problem where, once you get sufficiently far ahead, you’ve basically already won and the game stops being very interesting. There have been various attempts to fix this, but the problem remains. (Extra Credits had a good discussion of why this is difficult to design around.)

One idea for fixing it could be to change the victory conditions as the game moves on.

Consider that the Civilization series has traditionally been very focused on warfare and conquest, even though they have introduced a lot more peaceful content in the recent versions. But it still tends to be profitable to take over your neighbors if you can.

Now a game that’s very focused on conquest and warfare makes sense if it’s a game set in the period of say Ancient Rome, where “will a more powerful ruler conquer my empire” was a very real threat and something that a ruler in those times *would* realistically have been concerned about. And this remained true for a long time.

But the closer that we get to the modern day, the less true this becomes. Being taken over by an invading army simply isn’t something that the rulers of most countries would be concerned about, these days; the things that they do care about are entirely different. So for a nation-management game set in the modern day, unless it was also set in one of the few conflict-ridden areas that still exist today, warfare being a major focus simply wouldn’t make much sense. Things like economic competition and maintaining the quality of life for your citizens are much more important.

So you might be able to have a design that emulated this. In the early parts of the game, you would want to focus more on conquest and growing bigger to avoid being taken over by your neighbors, as in the current games. But as technology developed, conquest would slowly cease to be a viable path, as entirely new game mechanics took its place. This would gradually eliminate the advantages that you got from your early-game success, but it shouldn’t do it so fast as to make them meaningless. Rather it would give you a leg up as you raced to adapt to the changed conditions, and pivot your old advantages to match the changed conditions before they became just a burden. (In the end, if you didn’t play your cards right, your big huge country would definitely still be around, but losing in score to those pesky little Nordic-analogue countries with small homogeneous populations that kept topping all the quality of life scores.)

I recall seeing some board and card games that simulated something like this: early-game, early-history advantages which give you a leg up but don’t guarantee victory if you don’t keep up in the tech race and changing conditions. Innovation comes to mind as one.

One interesting way of doing this in a computer game might be to take a page from the book Seeing Like A State and its discussion of legibility. Early nations were not very legible to their rulers: the rulers might have only had a very poor idea of how many people lived in the nation, or how much food different farmers might have been capable of producing (and thus how much you could tax them). The book argues that much of history has been a constant drive by rulers to increase the legibility of their realms, by implementing things like a census, standardizing measures, forcing people to adopt family names, and so on.

This ties nicely to what Extra Credits considers the two main problems in making strategy games interesting in the long term: accumulating bonuses, and the constant reduction in uncertainty. In a game like Civilization, you start with a lot of uncertainty, as the whole map is unexplored and you don’t know anything about your local terrain or where your opponents are. As the game advances, there’s less and less that you don’t know and which you would have to address in your planning, and the game essentially becomes a puzzle where you can just figure out the best strategy and then execute it.

Now consider a game that implemented legibility as a game concept. What this might mean was that at first, the game would only model the things that you as a ruler roughly knew about. For example, you wouldn’t know the exact crop yields produced across your empire, so each city would produce the same amount, simulating the fact that you only basically know the nation-wide average and couldn’t do much to affect it.

When you developed technologies that increased the legibility of your empire, the game would randomly assign the different cities a number of variables (e.g. properties of local terrain) that collectively determined how much the different cities actually produced. This would then be revealed to you, letting you start managing them more closely, and thus making your realm more powerful. It would also force you to rethink possible existing plans for the locations of future cities, since the more detailed information about local terrain and its impact on crop yields would now become generally available. Thus what looked like an excellent city site might turn out to be a horrible one, and vice versa.

This would maintain a kind of strategic uncertainty throughout the game, as on each step that your realm got more legible, you would get a bunch of totally new information thrown at you that you had to adapt to and rework your plans around in order to stay competitive. And as there was more and more peaceful economic stuff that you as a ruler could start getting involved in, the military stuff would gradually start declining in relative importance.

Kalle Viiri mentioned the Colonization games as a nice slightly different approach to this: given that the goal is to be the first colony to become independent, being the biggest isn’t necessarily the thing that wins you the game. Rather, being big and powerful does benefit you in colony vs. colony wars, but a smaller colony is easier to defend when you declare independence and end up in a war against your home country. Similarly, the mechanics of how independence support works means that a big colony has a harder time getting to the point where you could actually declare independence. That’s another take on a similar idea: that growing larger and bigger gets you advantages in some areas, but that doesn’t win you the game by itself, and in some ways it’s even actively harmful to winning the game.

Empowering the growth of others: an underutilized desire for game design?

There’s a human desire which is very emotionally powerful, and which I’m a little surprised to realize that very few video games seem to have tapped into. (That I know of? Please let me know about any counter-examples!)

The desire is for a specific way of helping others and seeing the consequences of that help. It’s when you help someone acquire a new skill or ability, see them absorb that new skill so that it becomes a part of them, and then start using it to do things under their own power, no longer dependent on you.

It’s when you stop giving the proverbial man fishes and teach him to fish instead, and then you come back later to find out that he’s now the head of a local fishing guild that he founded, and is now using the fish that he catches every day to support his family and kids.

It’s when you suggest someone a hobby she might like, and she later lets you know that she gave it a try, loved it, and has now reached an advanced level in it and has contributed several things to the further development of the hobby.

It’s when you teach your kid to draw simple pictures when they are four, support them throughout as they grow older, and then watch them become a famous and accomplished artist whose understanding of art is way more sophisticated than anything you’d ever hope you could reach.

There are lots of games that involve helping others, or managing something; but usually their focus is on making your actions significant, rather than empowering others.

In a typical CRPG, you might rescue someone from kidnappers, kill a swarm of monsters that were terrorizing a village, or retrieve a lost artifact to a scholar who wants to study it. All of these do benefit someone else, but what you’ve essentially done is to temporarily lend your power to them. You haven’t shown them how to rescue others, teach the villagers to defend themselves so that they won’t need the services of wandering adventurers in the future, or taught the scholar your own skills in a way that lets them build on those skills in their work.

In a typical management simulation, the city (or whatever it is that you are managing) does grow more prosperous and people get to live good lives thanks to you, but it’s only because you are doing a good job at being God. None of the city’s inhabitants is going to learn from the way you planned the city and then surpass you in setting up a city of their own.

Though there are elements in both genres that get kind of close. When a CRPG’s ending includes a sequence telling you what happened to the characters and places you influenced afterwards, it’s tapping to this desire. (Probably not coincidentally, the original Fallouts doing this was one of the things that I always found the most memorable and awesome about them.) When a management sim lets you imagine that because you’ve eliminated traffic congestion, the inhabitants of the city get to live less stressful lives and set up better business of their own, it’s kind of tapping into this desire.

Still, these feel more like incidental elements in the genres than they are design goals. You are only told about your long-term impact on the different communities when they game is already over; and for the most part the management sim leaves it up to you to imagine how exactly your actions are influencing the lives of your people on a more personal level.

There have also been some isolated examples of individual games getting close. The Princess Maker series probably draws a lot of its appeal from this impulse: you get to raise a daughter, teach her different skills, and then at the end, see what her life turned out to be like. But again, it’s only at the very end that you get to see what your daughter did once you were no longer around: the whole game before that is controlling her whole schedule yourself, choosing all of your actions for her.

And I heard of some series of educational games where the gimmick is that by solving math challenges, you are actually teaching your pet to be better at math and get to see how it does by itself. But – I suspect, not having actually played the games – that this rather models the bad old idea of a highly teacher pouring down knowledge into the head of a lowly student whose job is just to receive it. Your pet isn’t incorporating your lessons to its own existing knowledge and use it to further its own values; it’s just succeeding at exactly the tasks you taught it to succeed at, and no more.

What could a game look like if it actually had as an explicit design goal to focus on the fulfillment of this desire?

In a CRPG, you could go around the world beating challenges and learning new skills and abilities as usual. But rather than just accumulating skills for yourself, a major part of the game might be to then teach those skills to NPCs, and coming back after some time to see that they’ve done awesome stuff with their new skills. (Maybe that man who needed to be taught to fish was an NPC somewhere, and after you taught him to fish you could come back later and see him having accomplished all the stuff I described earlier.) Maybe some of the skills that you could acquire would have little direct benefit to you personally, but confer powerful benefits to the NPCs you taught them to. Maybe you could even develop an entirely new skill – say, be the first one to discover the principles of magic – and then see the understanding of that spread around the world like a wildfire after you’d set it loose. Mage guilds would start popping out everywhere and give back to you, as the million people who were researching magic could make progress a lot faster than you could alone, and you’d then get access to powerful new abilities that they taught back to you.

Or you could make a management sim where you were running a family business. The success of your business would depend on the skills that your character had, but alone you could only learn a small portion of the available skills. Another part of the game would be getting married and having kids. At first, as in real life, the kids would be a huge sink of time and resources as you’d need to spend a lot of time looking after them, but as you taught them some of your own skills they would eventually learn to develop those skills on their own. You would control their actions less and less, and they would increasingly make their own decisions of what they wanted to do – decisions that were influenced by your earlier interaction with them.

If you had done things well and developed a positive relationship with them, they could eventually join you in running your business and make it develop into entirely new directions with the broader skillset you now had available. Or, if you’d forced them help you when they were younger, they might just grow to resent you and your whole business and run away as soon as they got the chance. Giving the player the option to short-sightedly get some early additional help instead of taking a kinder and wiser route seems like it would also make it feel more rewarding when the player did make the sacrifice of taking the longer route, and then saw it eventually pay off.

Chapman, Kegan & sosiaalinen ja moraalinen kehitys

Luin vihdoin David Chapmanin tiivistelmän psykologi Robert Keganin sosiaalisen ja moraalisen kehityksen mallista, ja totesin että tämähän on yllättävän kiinnostava kuvaus monista nykypäivän yhteiskunnallisista dynamiikoista. (Ainakin mikäli pitää paikkansa.)

Mallin mukaan ihmisten moraalinen kehitys etenee viiden askeleen läpi. Askeleet 1-2 ovat relevantteja lähinnä vain lapsille, ja valtaosa ihmisistä saavuttaa tason 3 joskus murrosiän aikana.

Kehitystasolla 2 moraali on luonteeltaan itsekästä. Pohjimmiltaan vain omilla tarpeilla on väliä, ja ihmissuhteet ovat kaupankäyntiä jotka ovat “reiluja” jos kumpikin saa niistä yhtä paljon hyötyä.

Kehitystasolla 3 siirrytään hyvin itsekkäästä ajattelutapasta hyvin huomioonottavaan. Moraali on luonteeltaan tunnepohjaista. Oikeita toimintatapoja ovat ne, jotka eivät satuta kenenkään tunteita: moraalisen toiminnan tavoite on ylläpitää yhteisön harmoniaa. Toimiminen tavalla joka satuttaisi toisen tunteita on väärin. Ihmissuhteen ei enää tarvitse antaa molemmille yhtä paljoa hyötyä ollakseen reilu, koska tällä kehitystasolla ymmärretään, etteivät kaikkien tarpeet ole samoja.

Tämän kehitystason ongelma on, ettei se pysty ratkomaan vastuusuhteista syntyviä konflikteja. Jos kaksi ihmistä vaatii minulta vastakkaisia asioita, ja kumpikin satuttaa mielensä jos en anna heille mitä he haluavat, ei kehitystaso 3 osaa antaa tilanteeseen tyydyttävää vastausta. En pysty toimimaan aidosti itsenäisesti, vaan olen pohjimmiltani muiden tarpeiden armoilla.

Kehitystasolle 4 siirtyessä otetaan huomioon yhteiskunnallisista ja sosiaalisista rakenteista syntyvät vastuusuhteet ja muodolliset asemat. Jos olen luvannut seurustelukumppanilleni että lähdemme lomalle kahdestaan, ja äitini pahoittaa mielensä siitä ettei pääse mukaan, olisi kehitystason 3 ratkaisu välttää konfliktia ja päästää hänet mukaan. Kumppaniltani olisi itsekästä protestoida ja olla ottamatta äitini tunteita huomioon. Kehitystason 4 näkökulmasta tämä taas on väärä vastaus, koska suhteeni kumppaniini asettaa omat tarpeensa ja vaatimuksensa, ja *tässä* tilanteessa vastuuni suhteellemme saa isomman painon kuin vastuuni vanhemmilleni.

Kehitystaso 4 pyrkii ottamaan huomioon koko yhteiskunnan tarpeet ja rakentamaan monimutkaisen järjestelmän ihmisten välisiä rooleja ja niistä johdettuja vastuusuhteita. Oikeudenmukaisuuden kriteeri ei ole enää se, että kaikkien tunteet otetaan huomioon ja kaikille pyritään tuottamaan hyvää mieltä, vaan se että yksilöitä kohdellaan samanarvoisesti. Modernit yhteiskuntien periaatteet kuten tasaveroisuus lain edessä ovat kehitystason 4 periaatteita.

Tämänlaiset periaatteet ovat luonteeltaan abstrakteja ja vaativat älyllistä pohtimista. Siksi kehitystaso 4 vaatii rakenteekseen jonkinlaisen ideologisen järjestelmän, jonka valossa eri tilanteita pyritään tutkimaan ja jonka logiikasta johdetaan vastaukset joilla ratkoa eri konfliktitilanteet.

Tämän kehitystason ongelma on, että vaikka ideologiat myyvät itseään paketteina joista löytyy ratkaisut kaikkeen, ei mikään ideologia todellisuudessa pysty toteuttamaan lupaustaan. Tyytymättömyys yhteen ideologiaan voi johtaa tarpeeseen etsiä uutta ja parempaa, sellaista joka perustuisi joihinkin ultimaattisiin periaatteisiin joista oikeat ratkaisut voitaisiin johtaa. Mutta koska kaikki periaatteet ovat pohjimmiltaan mielivaltaisia, ei tämä tuota tyydyttävää tulosta. Kehitystasolla 4 ihminen pyrkii aina ajattelemaan asioita *jonkin* ideologian sisäisen logiikan kautta, ja etsii siten sellaista ideologiaa joka olisi se ainoa oikea.

Kehitystasolla 5 ihminen siirtyy näkemään ideologiat ja järjestelmät työkaluina, joista mikään ei ole absoluuttisesti oikea mutta joista jokainen voi tarjota hyödyllisiä näkemyksiä eri tilanteisiin. Kyky omaksua joustavasti erilaisten ideologioiden sisäinen logiikka ja liikkua niiden välillä avaa mahdollisuudet käydä rakentavaa dialogia niiden välillä.

Chapman kommentoi mielenkiintoisesti, että postmodernismin vaikutus yhteiskuntaan on vaikeuttaa ihmisten siirtymistä tasolta 3 tasolle 4, mutta toisaalta helpottaa ihmisten siirtymistä tasolta 4 tasolle 5. Postmodernismin olennainen kritiikki on, ettei ole mitään yhtä objektiivisesti oikeaa ajattelutapaa. Tämä on oikea reaktio ja oikea viesti jota tarjota ihmisille jotka ovat kehitystasolla 4 ja juuttuneet pitämään omaa ideologiaansa ainoana oikeana. Mutta se on haitallinen viesti antaa kehitystason 3 ihmisille, jotka tarvitsisivat *jonkun* ideologian antamaan rakennetta sosiaalisille vuorovaikutuksilleen ja tarjoamaan sosiaalisten konfliktien ratkaisemiseen jonkin muun kriteerin kuin sen, että kenenkään tunteita ei tulisi satuttaa. Chapman kokee, että postmodernismin alkuperäiset kehittäjät olivat saavuttaneet tason 4 ja kehittäessään ajatuksiaan etenivät tasolle 5; mutta kun ajatukset tulkitaan kehitystason 3 valossa niin ne ymmärretään väärin.

Core Transformation

So I went to my head to ask myself: what is the one thing that I’ve been trying to get from all of my romantic relationships? What is the common theme that unites all of my fantasies? What is the thing that I desperately find myself craving for even now? That one “if only I could have that, then everything would be fine” thing?

Initial associations: Trust. Safety. Someone who wouldn’t abandon you.

That last one seemed to strike a chord. Let’s go with that one.

Someone who wouldn’t abandon you. Safety from abandonment. Is there something deeper?

Mental image: lying in each other’s arms, looking at each other in the eyes. A sense of knowing the other, being known.

Complete openness and vulnerability. Having no secrets, revealing everything about yourself to the other. Being completely accepted.

Not just one way. Complete mutual acceptance. Seeing the other exactly as they are, feeling only love and compassion. Seeing them as perfect, just as they are. And being judged perfect in return.

I stop here for a long time, enjoying.

Is there a yet deeper thing here? Is there something that I’m hoping that the mutual, complete acceptance will give me?

I ask my mind to assume that I have this beautiful fantasy, and to show me what’s the next thing, what’s the next craving it’s hoping this fantasy will fulfill?

Peace. Restfulness.

Just being completely at peace.

From here, it doesn’t look like I can go any deeper. It’s a Core State.

So I do mental tricks intended to reinforce this sense of peace, make it more lasting. I ask the part of me that wants it, the part that now has it, for its age. Newborn, it says. I ask if it wants to grow up, if it wants to live my entire life up to this point. It does, and I let it grow up. I ask it to fill my body. I imagine what it would have been if my grandparents would have had this sense of peace, if they would have transmitted it to my parents, if they would have transmitted it to me, surrounded me in this sense of peace since birth.

I let my mind rest in the peacefulness.

There’s something more, I notice. I want to take this feeling of peace, use it to build a relationship with someone. There’s something besides just the peacefulness that I’m craving, that I feel I could get from a relationship. A separate desire.

This one comes easily. It’s a desire to build a common future together with someone. To actively work together in putting it together, build something that is unique to us. Taking things that are just about us, weaving them into a beautiful tapestry. Have children, perhaps.

Is there something deeper to this desire? Almost certainly.

But I don’t go there, not at this stage. For now I’m happy to just rest in the peacefulness, rest in the mental image of building a common future with someone.