SAME DISKS DIFFERENT GAMES
ORSON SCOTT CARD
Some people judge a simulation game by how closely it resembles doing the real thing. I think those people are crazy. That's because most simulations represent tasks that real people do—as their jobs. As work. The people who really do these jobs usually find them to be so wearying and difficult that they can't wait to get home and relax by playing a game on the computer.
Admittedly, some people are frustrated with their careers and have fantasies of doing something else for a living. Those people probably appreciate a chance to do every tedious detail of somebody else's job. I don't think flight simulators are particularly fun. To me they seem like astonishingly boring work. Obviously, some people really enjoy these simulations.
Most of us, however, buy games not to work, but to play. To me that means the game author's job is to analyze the real-world job, discover the parts that are fun, and then let the player do only those parts while the computer takes care of all the icky boring tasks.
If this were done well, almost any job could become a game. But it isn't usually done well. Many game writers seem to work overtime to ensure that their simulations make the player do all the boring jobs while the computer gets to do most of the cool stuff.
There was only one SimCity, a unique bright spot in the endless tedium of simulation games. Then I played Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon (Microprose).
After giving up on Design Your Own Train as a monster from Interface Hell, I had begun to despair of anyone's ever doing an adequate job of making a computer simulation of a model railroad.
Well, Railroad Tycoon is not a simulation of a model railroad. It's a simulation of entrepreneurial economics in the transportation business.
Of course, if they put "simulation of entrepreneurial economics" on the box, nobody would buy it. But if the interface is humane and the simulation lets you do the fun parts, almost anything can be fun.
Much of the freshness of the game comes from the fact that the landscape is never the same twice, both because the game is transformed by the player's choices and because every time you play, the landscapes are transformed so that towns that were big the last time you played are nothing much this time. The world is always new, and it's always different because you're playing.
But there's something else going on here, too. Human beings have a fundamental hunger to create things, to make things grow. I think that's much of the appeal of Risk and its best-ever computer offspring, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. These aren't war games. They're games about assembling empires.
That's what the great entrepreneurs do, too. John D. Rockefeller didn't conquer his competitors in order to beat them—he was perfectly happy to buy their companies and leave them in command. He wasn't trying to win, nor was he trying to get rich (he gave away large amounts of money long before he had that much of it). Instead, he was trying to create the perfect oil company, one that included everything from the wellhead to retail sales. Like Alexander the Great, he didn't want to destroy his rivals; he simply wanted to become so large that he could contain them all. That's the impulse behind Railroad Tycoon. Or is it?
Here is what's really glorious about this game. The game's authors don't make you play it just one way. What if you're one of those crazy people who actually want to do the day-to-day work of scheduling a railroad? I know they exist—they're the ones who build the huge model train layouts in their basements, put on engineer's caps, and stay there for hours just running the trains and making them keep to a schedule without colliding. You can change an option in Railroad Tycoon, and the computer stops scheduling your trains for you. Now you get to do it, and if you blow it, trains crash.
That's the key: If you want to do the scheduling, you can do that, and the game will be fun for you. But if, like me, you think of it as having to do the scheduling, you can skip that, and the game will be fun for you.
And that isn't the only way that game writers have opened up the game for us. We can keep business competition on a friendly basis or make it a cutthroat kill-or-be-killed affair. We can fuss with the details of a complex economy, worrying about which cargoes will be carried where, or we can keep it simple and spend our time trying to grow the railroad into new markets.
The same great displays, the same intuitive interface, the same fun animation routines—but you're playing at running a railroad while I'm playing at building a transportation network, and she's out to kill the competition, and that truly crazy person over there is playing at macroeconomics. Same box. Same disks.
I tell you, folks, this is a dangerously radical idea–letting the player decide what kind of game he wants to play. If other game writers start doing the same thing, the real world might grind to a halt as games become so much more fun than reality that nobody can stand to go to work anymore. I know what I'm talking about. It's already happened to me.