Contemplating Simulations in Games


By Scott Lee
Aug. 17, 2019

Now that Kalling Kingdom is headed toward a full release, new ideas created from the experience of development are starting to bubble up. The main loop of the game consists primarily of building buildings, offering cash for people to move to the town, investing in or selling off the market, responding to events by making decisions, and occasionally tweaking city expense categories. Then, the player advances to the next turn and the process starts again.

During that time, typically what happens when the player clicks 'next turn' is a series of calculations. The market advances forward its sine wave curve, randomized in its step size, and to some degree some randomization in regard to its direction. It is possible for the market to stay positive based on a degree of chance, and this is weighted to a small degree overall in the long term against the market's chance of going negative. Businesses collect a set amount of cash based on some imaginary (but ultimately non-existent) commerce, and a tax rate advances a portion of that revenue into city cash holdings. These are a small number of examples of things that occur and in relation to the original scope of the game: there were some ideas that were cut out for this initial full launch.

For the first game I have designed, I am happy that the variety of things that are taking place exist. That being said, it falls short of an original goal from the standpoint of simulation. There is what I feel to be an interesting game loop but in terms of design it could certainly be reflected in a spreadsheet. To be fair, lots of game designs can be adequately expressed in spreadsheets, so that certainly does not mean it is bad or boring. But what would be far more difficult to express in a spreadsheet might be lots of artificial intelligence (AI) agents, roaming about a 2D grid, trading fictitious resources with one another and engaging in simulated trade and commerce.

Instead, there are simplified placeholders: the market is not actually the aggregate sum of all activity within a simulated economy. It is instead just a mathematical curve in which we imagine it represents something that might really be happening throughout the rest of the Kalling universe. The jobs that individual people take are ultimately just tied to specific numbers referring back to the category of business. It has some depth in the sense that the market curve, business type, and number of employees all combine to determine the income being generated... but is it a pure simulation? No, not really.


Why "Real" Simulation Matters


There are certainly a lot of illusions going on in Kalling Kingdom's design. To improve upon this, it is possible to begin taking what is ultimately a set of numbers and mathematical relationships and beginning to expand upon them as systems. It is possible to take each number representing a specific thing and begin adding new inputs, all of which have their own characteristics. Instead of a business being tied to a flat number with multipliers: there could begin to be an exchange of numbers between businesses that are beyond player control and run by some logic with a degree of agency. Building a meaningful economic simulation is probably not much different than creating a biological ecosystem simulation: the cycles of events ultimately need to be able to be self sustaining as agents interact with one another.

For the most part, the effort that would have had to go in to writing AI in this project went to instead having degrees of randomization, although with consistent directions, against the individual numbers tied to different bits of the simulation. But ultimately, I think that the current design mostly lacks emergence. There are not really meaningful ways for these systems to interact with one another beyond city growth, the result being that it strongly resembles a tycoon style game for any player putting in more than a few hours into the experience. By having a more meaningful simulation that provides simple, interesting rules and systems that can interact with each other in ways not constrained or contrived it means that the player can have a richer experience. When you simplify things with numbers that do not adequately respond to anything from player input, the player eventually notices.

While this is not always a negative and eventually you will reach an edge, so to speak, of the fictional universe being created, it makes a difference when these systems are expanded out such that the player can spend many hours without really noticing where that edge is. When The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was first being shown at E3, it was widely recognized and discussed that the Great Plateau area being shown in the playable demo was only a tiny fraction of the wider game. The developers remarked that you could pick any spot visible from the horizon and choose to travel there seamlessly. Of course, eventually players who spend enough time with the game will notice that Hyrule is cut off by sometime bizarre edges: massive cliff faces that cannot be traversed to any kind of a floor, a massive ocean that can does literally have an invisible wall, and other such game-y solutions.

The result of the player who is deeply engaged with the game when they find these edges is that they realize that there does exist a physical barrier to their exploration and one that reduces their engagement. These world edges are there because the developers very clearly put them there and, to some degree, they ran out of content. The world edges are not there because something about the game universe imposes these things on you through its fictional universe laws, the world edges exist because the developer had nothing else to provide. It feels incomplete in part because the real world we know is round (sorry, flat earthers) and seamless.

It may not be possible for an indie game to feel entirely seamless and infinite insofar as the real world but there is something about the feelings of mystery created by earlier games that can make you feel that there are nearly endless mysteries to uncover in the alternate universes being presented. A documentary produced by Noclip did such an amazing job explaining this as a common phenomenon that has begun to dissipate with the introduction of the internet and the ease of information communication it provides. While at times within the retro era this meant rumors that were absurd and entirely untrue: there were times in which it inspired grander imagination and at least sometimes reflected real secrets.

The very first Legend of Zelda game for the NES, for example, had a number of secrets that were not broadcast to the player. To find them, you may have to bomb endlessly along walls until one of those spots revealed a cave, or burn every bush within the landscape until one of them reveals a stairway leading underground. At the very least, after reading this, you might consider avoiding looking up guides or reading articles that contain spoilery secret reveals in the games you're currently playing. Avoiding the "advantage" of technology might allow you to keep vibrance in your gameplay experience, and mystery alive.

Well designed rules of simulation can potentially provide these secret reveals and mysteries within player imagination through a pure emergence.


Example from Star Wars


Star Wars is certainly not inherently related to games, it is cinema, but it does have a fictional universe that has been expanded over time. For years, before Disney's purchase of the intellectual property from George Lucas and Lucasfilm, the Star Wars Expanded Universe provided a giant amount of additional content that surrounded stories presented throughout the original trilogy. The original trilogy spawned a lot of rules that were originally formed through a combination of what, to the screenwriters, were throwaway lines or disposable moments, or special effects work that was working with the tight technological constraints of the time. The result was a number of novels such as the famous Thrawn trilogy, and the Star Wars guides or technical manuals.

The technical manuals in particular are extremely important. As a kid, around the year 1998, I read these books with an intense fascination. In elementary school, Star Wars technical manuals were some of the texts that got me to love reading as a child. They contained sophisticated detail and background around the fictional technology of Star Wars, including how the inner mechanics of the X-Wing or T16 worked, why certain design decisions were made by fictional manufacturing companies within the Star Wars universe, or background stories as to how certain ships came to exist, or how they were financed in war efforts.

These technical manuals resembled in a number of ways many similar books that have been released over the years on the real stories or technologies present during the World War II era. They helped to provide a background explanation to the lore based on what was visible on screen. For someone like me, who liked to imagine new stories set in the Star Wars universe, it added so many points of reference for what decisions could make sense in Star Wars. It helped explain why the ships in the movies moved the way they they moved, movement that was largely consistent throughout the original trilogy.

Then, in 2001, The Phantom Menace released and changed everything. All the ship movements in that movie, the lightsaber fights, the creature behaviors... it was all wrong compared to everything that had been previously established in the original trilogy and its vast catalogue of textual lore released into bookstores. In a very real sense, it broke Star Wars for me (and a number of other Star Wars fans). As a much younger person, I was temporarily dazzled by the visual effects in the movie at the time, which were pretty cutting edge at the time of its release (podracing!) but the buzz quickly wore off with the realization that Star Wars would forever not be the same.

I propose here that with games, they follow a similar path. If you establish rules for a universe, even if that universe is pure fantasy, it is extremely important that that universe follow its own rules that were set previously. If it chooses to violate its own rules, it needs to at least adequately explain its own exceptions. Part of the engagement of the viewer, or the player in the case of games, comes from moving those rules to the back of the mind so that belief can be suspended and the escape to that fantasy world can happen at an emotional level.

This might even be at least part of the reason that fans of certain franchises become upset by certain design decisions that appear to violate previously established universal laws set forth in previous installments. Movie studios or games developers may try to defend their choices by claiming "fantasy!" but not before the emotional irritation of their fans materializes in the form of "you have broken your own rules, and rules that we adopted as our own." This is, of course, before you get to any other details: character development decisions that might make no sense, story points that have gaping plotholes, and so on - all of those kinds of things that can ruin an experience are important too. But underneath that, there continues to be this foundational factor of established rules.


In Conclusion?


Games tend to strongly benefit from well thought out simulations before player input ever has anything to say about what occurs in the simulation. The deeper the details of a fictional universe, the stronger a foundation is laid for telling stories, having adventures, or experimenting with the outcomes of that universe's systems. The fiction, and thereby the not-trueness, ultimately does not matter because the experience is able to provide meaning to the player in the form of new thought, exploring models, and fun.

My hope is that my future designs will be able to accomplish this to expand the meaningful space in which players can explore and experience.



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