Games with no limits. (computer games) (column)
by Orson Scott Card
The original SimCity graphics were just fine - I never thought they needed enhancement. So why has Maxis come out with these cityscape disks for SimCity? Because after you've spent enough time in it, any computer world is going to seem small. When the new disks arrived, I hadn't played SimCity in months. In game after game, I had reached the edges of the gamescape; I had filled the available space. Except for occasional tinkering, my work - and therefore my play - was done.
It was a bit disappointing to learn that the new cityscapes made no difference at all in gameplay. Seeing Ancient Asia made me want to play a game that would simulate ancient Asian community formation. The new disks brought only visual change.
Yet it was amazing how they freshened this beloved old game. At any point in the game, you can switch from one graphics set to another. You can start building a medieval city, then switch it to an ancient Asian one - or a moon colony. In Future Europe, the rail transit system becomes a monorail; in the Future USA cityscape, it's an elegant-looking tube.
The idea of refreshing an old game by changing the gamescape is not a new one. Flight simulators have been doing it for years; once you've mastered the flying, you have to have somewhere to go. Not long ago, the makers of Populous also introduced new landscapes that were every bit as creative and clear and fun to play on as the new SimCity graphics. You can get new golf courses for Mean 18, and no doubt other game companies have breathed new life into old games by updating the gamescapes.
With flight simulators and golf games, the new landscape means a new game. It isn't just a visual difference - there are new challenges.
With SimCity and Populous, the new gamescapes make no difference in gameplay - but that's mostly because in both of these games, the player already but that's mostly because in both of these games, the player already has enormous power to create (or uncreate) the terrain.
The boundary that really frustrates me is still unchanged: the edge of the map. When you come to the end of the allowable landscape, you can go on farther.
Of course there must be some boundary; neither computer memory nor the gamewrights' time is infinite. Golf games have a natural boundary; you expect no more than 18 holes per course. With SimCity and Populous, however, the boundary is more arbitrary. In the real world, the landscape goes on and on, but in the game a simplified map of the entire world has to fit inside an information window on a very small screen.
I can't help but wish for more, though. Why couldn't the SimCity information windows scroll over a virtually infinite landscape, created on the fly as the city grows? The game could ask you during setup how many megs of hard disk space you're willing to give to the game and let that determine the boundary.
If we game players wanted to have an experience controlled by somebody else, we could rent a videotape. Gamewrights should try to empower us as players, not limit us unnecessarily. Someone at every game design company should have a fulltime job of saying, "Why aren't we letting the player decide that?"
Then we wouldn't have useless, annoying and unnecessary limits. Railroad Tycoon, for instance, is a game that does most things brilliantly, such as the way the geography of North America and Europe is transformed with each new game. Yet the game has frustrating boundaries, too.
The ceiling on the number of stations and trains is a constant and unrealistic annoyance, but the fact that it's set at 32 suggests that they're using a four-byte register for some program manipulations - a reasonable breakpoint in programming. You can work around it somewhat when you take over other railroads and let them handle expansion into some areas.
Another limitation feels like pure meanness on the part of the gamewright, though again, I'm sure someone had a good reason for it. In Railroad Tycoon, you're automatically forced to retire from the game after a hundred years - even when your corporation is doing well (or at least as well as can be expected when you can't run more than 32 trains at a time).
Why should the gamewright decide that a game must end after 100 game years? Why can't players choose to go on for another 100 years - or 1000, if we feel like it? The retirement age is simply a device for giving you a final score. So why not have the player be forced to retire every 50 years, save that score on the vanity board, but then let the player be the new president of the same company? That way the vanity board will mean something - and the player can keep developing the same railroad.
When they let such unnecessary limitations creep into a game, gamewrights reveal that they don't yet understand their own art. They've chosen to work with the most liberating of media - and yet they snatch back with their left hand the freedom they offered us with their right.
Remember, gamewrights, the power and beauty of the art of gamemaking is that you and the player collaborate to create the final story. Every freedom that you can give to the player is an artistic victory. And every needless boundary in your game should feel to you like failure.