EMPIRE post-mortem discussion

Discussion in 'EMPIRE (by Crazy Monkey Studios)' started by keithburgun, Oct 1, 2015.

  1. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    It's been probably a year since I heard anything from Crazy Monkey Studios, so I feel pretty comfortable saying that development on it is definitely over. I might write a larger article about this later but for now I just wanted to write a little mini forum post and get some thoughts on it.

    I consider Empire basically a failure. Not financially - I mean, it is that, too, but I don't really care about that as much. I mean that despite some innovative concepts, it's a really bad game design failure, and I think it'd be interesting to talk about that and why that is.

    Anyway, obviously there is a thing where the development of the game went pretty quick - from start to finish in less than 7 or 8 months IIRC. We did have some decently big patches afterwards, but I feel like it still needed another whole year at least to cook. Also they're in Belgium and I'm in the US and we had a very distant, low-contact development, etc etc. Lots of "game development stuff" that anyone could observe and talk about. Not interesting.

    What's interesting is the fundamentally bad calls I made for the game. Despite anything CMS did for or against the design-success of the game, I definitely take full responsibility for its failure. They were pretty hands-off for most of the development and there are only a couple of things I can remember where they pushed back on some stuff I wanted to do. In other words: it's mostly the game I designed, it's mostly what I wrote down in a Google doc.

    Big Fuckups

    The biggest fuckup is that there is no core mechanism. Despite what I said in my Practice talk "Managing" "Diminishing Resources" is not a core mechanism.

    All the remaining fuckups are really a result of this original fuckup. For instance, the game has two "gameplay screens" - the combat, and the overmap. This is a direct result of not having anything to build stuff around. Same deal with the quite stupid "asymmetric characters". What the hell is that? Well, I'll tell you what it is. A desperate attempt to use the very "sauces" I talked about in my Practice talk to obfuscate the fact that the game has no core.

    The game was never balanced, and I don't think it really ever could be balanced, because of the "Two Games In One" factor. You are always gonna have this problem where players can kinda just master one of the two games and have that override or at least massively step on the toes of the other.

    The good news is, from the failures of Empire, I was able to really learn about how important a core mechanism is, and it's really what fueled the writing of Clockwork Game Design. So ultimately, it's good.

    There are really only two things I actually like about Empire: the combat system is kind of cool, and the idea of draining the resources from the area is... well, I hesitate to say it's "cool". It seems to me more like just something of a requirement if you're gonna try to use that Civ style thing in an actual strategy game.

    Offtopic, but:
    CMS never used my music for the game, but I actually wrote like half a soundtrack for it. Here's one gameplay song - there's a bridge around 1:45. VERY sparse writing for me, reminds me of DooM's soundtrack a bit. Here's another, just a simple piano piece, which I like the first half of a lot. Anyway, these weren't finished, they decided to go with whoever wrote the music that's in Empire now, which made me sad. If you like them let me know and I'll upload more.

    Anyway, thanks for reading. What do you think?
    Nachtfischer and Waterd like this.
  2. Waterd

    Waterd Well-Known Member

    I agree that the two games in one is what killed empire for me.
    I really like the gameplay song, All I will say for now.
  3. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    I mean, I had quite a bit of fun with it. I think you could take the combat system, just make it a series of random battles (maybe with the card choices after each one), and this would be one of the better games in the App Store. I mean, it probably even is as it stands now. But the whole meta "overmap" gameplay just never felt right, even after the fundamental changes it went through. It was really messy, and felt more like you were looking for exploits rather than good strategies.
    keithburgun likes this.
  4. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    That's a great way to express what will always happen when you have two or more "cores".
  5. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    This isn't inevitable, even if it's hard to avoid. Empire, though, was not designed to keep gameplay in 'fair' mode most of the time, instead of 'exploit' mode or 'hopeless' mode.
  6. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    Here's a better take-away - when you have a subgame-supergame system, the subgame can unbalance the supergame but the supergame should have limits on how much it can unbalance the subgame.

    A battle where your invincible units march forward with no possibility of taking damage isn't interesting. A battle where your units march hopelessly to their deaths with no options to save them isn't interesting. Your design made both of these outcomes possible, based on how good the decision making was in the economic part. Or occasionally due to randomness, drawing the +stats cards during the approach and the action cards when it's to late to make decisions.


    For a design built around attrition, you did a remarkably sloppy job of making sure the attrition actually happened, taking several attempts before it was impossible to just play forever with no losses in battle, if you did ever solve that problem. And even when there were losses in battle, they were largely the result of bad luck, of not drawing the correct action card to save a specific unit that spawned in the wrong place. In short, the combat section was too shallow - either easy or impossible.
    vivafringe likes this.
  7. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    I've seen dual-systems work well - one example is the old PC MTG game where you wandered around an overmap. I also liked FTL a lot. And blah blah you are welcome to dispute those examples, but the point remains that those games were really compelling to me, while Empire was not. So I really don't think the dual-system was to blame (at least for me).

    I think the real culprit, for me, was the end condition. "Wait until you starve to death from resources" is actually the worst end condition I can imagine, and I actually said as much when I first heard about the game. It's really tricky to correctly balance, because a good player is going to get better and better at living longer and longer, dragging the game out into infinity. And the entire process a good player takes to live a really long time on limited resources tends to be repetitive and tedious. Like, have you played Don't Starve? UGHHHHHH.

    After a while you kind of band-aided this by having the *real* end condition be "you fight a huge, unfair mob of guys, get a bad draw, and lose so much of your army that you might as well just concede." And, as terrible as this was, it was better than your old one, lol. But it was still a lousy end condition, and the game would have been much better if it were designed from the ground up to have a better one.
    keithburgun likes this.
  8. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I agree that the end condition is also really bad. I don't remember if Empire being "high score based" was one of the few things CMS actually fought me on. Like, they liked the idea of a high score thing, and they thought it would be too much work to do what needs to be done (Auro style single player ELO).
  9. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I mean yeah this is kind of another way of phrasing what I said, though. In the situation you're describing, one of the two systems is clearly dominant. I don't think that's really even the case in Empire.

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