It Was Twenty Years Ago Today
The core gameplay involved strategy and resource management as the player tried to complete a castle on schedule. More workers made the work go faster – provided you got the mix of skills right – but guards were also needed in case of an attack by unfriendly locals.
All well and good. But what made this game special in my eyes was the way it integrated interactive stories. Every so often a screen would pop up showing an adviser or other character asking the player to make a decision. Vikings are attacking elsewhere in the kingdom! Do you: (a) ignore them (they raid and loot, and your revenue goes down); (b) send troops (leaving less to guard your castle); or (c) buy them off with Danegeld (expensive, and may lead to other Vikings showing up later to demand money).
Mechanically, it was a piece of cake. In terms of design, a storyline was no less taxing than a conversation tree in a Monkey Island style adventure game or a short section from a numbered-paragraph gamebook. But I always felt that the little stories added a lot to the game, and I’ve often wondered why no one else has used this cheap and effective technique. RTS games continued to emphasize building and resource management, but their storylines became more linear as their cutscenes and other narrative elements became more expensive to create. I imagine the prevailing thinking was that it would be wasteful to create narrative animations or video clips that the player might not see because of a decision made earlier in the game.
Visually, there’s no question that subsequent generations of RTS games were – and still are – far ahead of Castles. The stories, while more linear, are richer as well. But something about this humble little mechanic still charms me. It’s interactive storytelling, albeit on a modest scale, and even that small amount of interactivity added something to the game that was out of proportion to its cost. To me, it was a good mechanic that disappeared not because a better mechanic came along, but because no one figured out how to make it work with cutting edge visuals.
Now don’t get me wrong; I love good-looking games. But when the choice arises to create better gameplay or better visuals, is gameplay underserved? Visuals have that instant impact – great screen shots, jaw-dropping trailers – that serves a marketing function as well as making the game better. Gameplay is harder to see without actually playing the game, which no one will do unless they have been inspired to buy it – probably by jaw-dropping visuals. Word of mouth happens, to be sure, but it takes time, and in today’s release-driven market two or three other games with jaw-dropping visuals have started to hog the limelight by the time the word of mouth on your game has had a chance to build.
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this train of thought. Not into an anti-art, anti-marketing, design purist rant, because I know that making a great game without marketing it is like smiling in the dark: very nice for you, but who else cares? I know that all the elements of a game – design, art, audio, engineering – have to work together in order to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I know that in order to achieve that, compromises have to be made in all areas. I guess I’m wondering whether anyone from a discipline other than design or writing has any similar regrets.