Methane

Since I linked to it the other day and since I am filling my wall with posts on it, I thought I’d draw more attention to Ian Bogost’s brilliant distillation of social games called Cow Clicker and his subsequent explanation of the inspiration for it on his blog.

In short: you click on a cow to get points. Why do you need points? Well… you can compare with your friends! And you can buy cutely named Mooney to get different cow types!

I was talking to my fiancee yesterday who is a huge user of all these social game doodads and she was distressed that her dog in Farmville had ran away because she wasn’t there to click on it or feed it or whatever you do in that game these days. Cow Clicker is very lax in that particular interpretation of the “Social” Dogma. If you don’t click your cow, nothing bad happens to you, which is one of the key psychological footholds of the genre. You don’t lose anything and you don’t let your friends down. It’s the sense of obligation, of slavery to these mindless activities that makes me find Facebook games so insidious, especially after having worked on one. Not only are your friends not human beings but resources, but conversely you are a cog in their machine. It’s surprising for me to say that Cow Clicker isn’t insidious enough. Maybe that is the point? Maybe because we expect it to be more insidious that just shows how miserable the state of affairs truly is?

Cow Clicker is more interesting satire than, say, Progress Quest simply because instead of making a statement that looks like the antecedent (as in the latter), it attempts to fully emulate its target and strip it down enough that its internals show but not so bare that it fails to emulate the same mechanics and dynamics.

Whatever this school of design is that eschews the fuck-the-users mentality, it needs a name and a little badge that I can put on my profile and level up.

Let the Sun Shine In

Power Planets is a great example of theme matching dynamics and a rare example of a Facebook game worth your time. You control a one-dimensional planet with limited resources and attempt to build up a civilization hopefully without fouling up the environment. You do this by unlocking tech in a nicely sized tech-tree and placing buildings and power plants in tactical locations.

The reason Power Planets works so well where loads of civ building games have failed is simply because it has a theme that is strong, but isn’t heavy-handed. You are free to muck up the world in the pursuit of luchre and the game makes little moral objection to the choice with the exception of animation of coughing and dying residents. It doesn’t lead you down a path of eco-righteousness – it lets you decide what that is through the mechanics.

For instance, I wanted to research to get Universities because they provide a lot of points per hour. But to do so, I needed a good chunk of money. So I built some fume-spewing Upgraded Factories powered by cheap, abundant and dirty as sin coal power. Completely within the so-called “Magic Circle”, I justified this – yeah, it is dirty and all, but it’s for the greater good. I need the Universities.

Renewable resources are hopelessly underpowered until you get the research to unlock more futuristic technologies. But the only way to unlock those technologies is to have a lot of money and the only way to have a lot of money is to essentially build a lot of polluting buildings. The parallel lessons to real situations, while neccessarily simplistic, are striking.

But the clever twist in Power Planets that makes it unlike every other building sim out there is that you hand off your planet to someone else every two days and receive a stranger’s. How many times in polluting will you look at your coal reserves, see 40 hours of coal remaining and know that it is someone else’s problem, plunging ahead not worrying about the future?

One building you can create is a Monument that houses your Facebook picture. Future caretakers of that world cannot remove or move the monument and it takes up a valuable space on the planet. Putting it on a useful resource or in a valuable power plant’s range is the ultimate in narcissism, but the game makes no value judgment on its own.

In a genre full of contrived mechanics (Why can I only click my cow every six hours? “Well, because we want you to come back” doesn’t fit any theme but manipulation), Power Planets strives as simple, fun and full of meaning.

Whoa Nelly

I’m not going to continue my posts about Airport Rush for the time being. I had a fantastic playtest session with some very talented designers at Eric Zimmerman‘s playtest group yesterday and I think I am going to make some major changes. While this is dangerous to do a month before I take the game to GenCon, I think it is absolutely necessary.

It highlights what I’ve known to be a problem with my process for some time now and that is the unfortunate necessity of having the same people playtest your games. Since you can’t take them out back and format their brains to see everything as a blank slate, they are forced to compare a new version with an old version. If the new version fixes problems with the old version, then the fixes must be good, right? Well, no, not exactly, because those fixes might make no sense to someone coming into the game raw.

There are problems in Airport Rush with the alignment of theme and mechanics. While I am no slave to theme – Why are there n identical San Juans in Puerto Rico? Why can only one type of good fit on a ship? Why in Ticket to Ride do you need special colors of track? What do the tickets represent? And so on – there is much to be said about congruency insofar as it helps people understand the rules and mechanics. If people are distracted by incongruent rules, then I should work to fix it. Some incongruencies will remain (to the chagrin of nitpicky designers), but I was looking for feedback, not orders.

It’s actually been a long time since I’ve received feedback that was in the form of: “Why did you do things this way?” “Because such and such.” “Oh, I see. I think that’s too slow. Wouldn’t such and other such be better?” It’s refreshing.

Notes

I’ll be typing up part three of my board games post sometime later this week when I have time. I had friends come up over the holiday and we went to Central Park, MoMa, the waffle truck, played DominionPuerto Rico and Le Havre,  played at Dave & Busters, went shopping for Chinese junk on Canal Street, saw Avenue Q, saw the 4th of July Fireworks on the Hudson, went to Liberty Island (I took a great photo of the Statue with my phone that I am using as my wallpaper now. I’ll upload it later) and had delicious food in a number of places. It was a busy weekend!

This short post is to tell you about a gem of a game I played through on Thursday. It is Telltale’s pilot of Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. If you like the Professor Layton games, then Puzzle Agent is familiar. It is a point-and-click adventure game sans inventory management, where the challenges come from brain teasers, logic puzzles and riddles that are interspersed with the story.

The pilot was great, but leaves on a bit of a To Be Continued note, so I’d be very sad if folks didn’t scoop it up in enough quantity to merit a whole season. I felt that the puzzles were more fair than in the latest Layton game (in that, some puzzles could be interpreted in multiple ways leading to incorrect correct answers). But the real draw here is the ridiculous writing and voice acting. I’ve found the voice acting in the Sam and Max games (of what I have played, at least) to be a bit monotonous. Plus there is a wonderful surprise that breaks the veil of puzzle and story that I will leave for you to discover.