So much of a strategy game, particularly a single player one comes down to little things like pacing. If things cost too much, it's too slow and boring. If things cost too little, then things move too fast and nothing has value.
That also holds true to the difficulty levels. How hard should it be? How aggressive should the computer players be? For me, what I've tried to do is make it so that I can beat the game at "Intelligent" (for the AI players) but just barely. At higher levels it becomes very difficult to win unless I have good starting conditions. Since I've been playing this game in one form or other for millions of years now then I hopefully represent a fairly expert player at the game.
At lower levels, the AI shouldn't be very challenging to experts but to new users present a challenge still.
In game design one of the goals is to provide X minutes of raw fun. Stuff that players find extremely fun. Many fun things may only last 2 seconds, others 2 minutes. There is some metric that says that a good game should provide X total minutes of fun. Designing ships we hope is one of those areas of fun in the game. I have to admit, I really enjoy designing ships, far more than I ever thought I would.
When I'm feeling funny I'll name the ship classes after my wife and kids. In a test game today, I played with my two sons Alex and Ryan (and in fact, my son Alex Wardell was the actual "leader" of my civilization). Being able to name everything in the game -- your civ, your leader your ship classes your individual ships your planets your starbases, etc. I think helps add a little extra fun. I know my kids kick a kick out of some alien saying "I don't think so, Alex Wardell! We're not afraid of you!".
So in this screenshot, these ships are named after my wife (Debbie) and two sons. The detail you can go into with your ship designs is one of those "fun" things we hope people really get a kick out of. The size of ship makes no difference.
There is no limit to the # of little jewelry pieces you can add. Obviously this would never work in an RTS since time matters. But in turn-based you have all the time in the world. Where it would work in RTS is the save function -- if you could do it off-line and bring in your units that would be pretty cool in RTS. You can save your designs here too and use them next game.
Another area that can be problematic is end-game build up. That is, where you've gotten to the end of the tech tree or at least pretty far and things no longer make any sense numerically.
This is something we've been spending a lot of time on this month. You don't want players to eventually have infinite money or infinite resources, it takes away the challenge.
In this screenshot, this is my main research planet. I have my spending 33/33/34 and as you can see I do 101 research per turn here. You can also see a bug (where we're missing a thumbnail for one of the improvements.).
At the same time, with my tax rate at 33%, I about break even. But my approval rating is 85%. The whole approval rate thing kind of bugs me because I feel like population and approval should do more. For example, I'd like to see that if my approval rating is >67% (for instance) that I get some sort of "bonus". I don't know what, maybe my influence on that planet is increased by 15% or something. Or if my population is greater than 10B that I start to get production bonuses. These things won't go into the final game, but it leaves us room to think about it for an update after release.
In this game I wiped out the AI pretty good but the difficulty was only at "Normal". The AI is so far behind that my fighter level ships completely outmatch their cruisers.
Their battleships are a different matter.
For me, one of the "fun" things is that I can pause the battle and rotate around. It's like doing the Matrix type thing when I spin the thing around to do the screenshot. It's totally cool freezing a ship at its moment of death.
Two ships named after my sons.
Another area of tweaking comes in the form of the ethical alignment and government. How much should Federation give you? What goodies should each ethical alignment give you?
In the current build, you get free maint on the initial colony for your top 5 worlds. But we've been wimping out the cost in recent builds because new users tend to run out of money. So we may have to bump up the power of this.
Another area of challenge has to do with the starbases, especially since we ended up letting their powers "stack". This opens the door to abuse but we wanted to let players go nuts with them if they can. I built up my influence abilities as far as I could and have influencer starbases that improve cultural influence by 322%.
My view is that if the AI lets you get away with it, then that's the AI's fault, not the player's.
But in many ways, nothing is taking up as much time as getting the diplomacy just right. When should the AI ask for tribute? When and how often should the AI give in to tribute to you? Moreover, we want different civilizations to have very different reactions and text.
They rejected my tribute demand and they are the Altarians and they don't like me because I was recently at war with them.
The Arceans like me and I am more powerful than they are and I've never asked for anything before.
Or how about making the distinction between weapon trades and non-weapons:
If you ask for tribute too often:
The number of different scenarios is pretty big. And you want to make sure it's realistic and reasonable. What would a decent player on-line do?
There's also sensitivity to what the player is doing. Should the AI react to when the player does an obvious build up? If so, at what difficulty levels? Right now, I have it so that only higher difficulty levels do detailed analysis of human strategies and react accordingly (it's fairly CPU intensive). But on the other hand, will we end up with some review in some magazine where the reviewer played it at easy level and walks over the AI and complains that the AI had bad strategy? This actually happened in a couple of reviews of The Political Machine. Some reviewers think that difficulty levels just mean how much free money we give to the AI. In GalCiv, the difficulty levels determine what algorithms get used.
A decent AI would recognize this for what it is and react.
At lower difficulty levels if the player is being really blatant the AI will say "We know what you're doing". But at higher levels, it will rarely provide clues or be vauge.
BTW, doesn't that invasion ship look cool?
So that's what this weekend was spent doing. Balancing balancing balancing. Next week we have to finish up the Dread Lords campaign...