The Rise and Fall of a Game, Pt. 1

August 3rd, 2011

Swordfall has now been out for about two months, and it’s been something of a hard lesson on what not to do in this market. For reasons that seem obvious in retrospect, the game has been a pretty complete flop. While Swordfall has a small core of enthusiastic fans, it hasn’t come even close to Alexander: DoE’s performance. The possibility of this outcome was at one point inconceivable to my limited imagination. Swordfall was after all essentially the same game, but with lots more stuff. Lots and lots of maps, provinces, factions and units. Proper strategic AI, battlefield generals, province-specific recruitment, and all sorts of other fun. How could it not be better when it was so much bigger?

So why did it end up being less popular? I suspect a significant part of the reason is simply lack of novelty. I’m sure there were a fair number of people who had already played ADoE and weren’t impressed by what appeared to be more of the same. But it seems equally clear that the bulk of the issue lies with the structure and complexity brought about by all those new features.

Problem 1: Too Many Options

Swordfall has seven campaign maps to choose from, and on average each map has about seven playable factions. So a fair number of options, but small potatoes compared to a Civilization game. This all made sense to me, as I figured I was making something about halfway between Risk and Civ/Total War. Naturally enough, I’m something of a devotee of both of those grand series. Sure, I love my epic, open-ended strategy games and RPGs. There’s nothing quite like opening up a brand new simulation of a world and tinkering with it to your heart’s content. So this is where I was coming from. But of course, to anyone used to the linear, goal-oriented experience of your standard flash game, this is all very confusing. Where does the game start, exactly? Am I supposed to finish the top map first? Do I ‘finish’ the game by going through all the maps? Surely I don’t have to play with all those factions too?

Now, I’ve probably played Rome: Total War about as much as all other games combined, and yet I’ve never actually finished a single campaign. The same is also true of my experience with the Civilization series. Although I do think I once, entirely by accident, won some kind of point victory, back when Civ 3 was still the hot new thing. At which point I must have said something like this: “WTF, the game made me stop playing! That’s so stupid. I’m sure as hell not having that condition on next time.” So I think you can guess how much value I put on finishing strategy game campaigns, and why more goal-oriented players might have caught me by surprise.

Problem 2: No Permanent Progress

Really just a subset of the same sandbox-vs-linearity issue, and equally alien to the standard flash paradigm. In a match-based, sandboxy game like Swordfall you might play an hour or two before finishing a campaign. And afterwards you have nothing to show for your efforts. No new levels, loot or unlocked uber units anywhere to be seen. Perhaps not a problem for civ-junkies, but they’re all likely too busy playing Civ 5 to bother with flash games.

Problem 3: Too Serious, Too Historical

Not too much of a change from ADoE here, except in that I just had to pick medieval Europe as my setting, easily the most overused, cliched and grim of all possible eras. All the text descriptions and graphics took this torch and ran with it to an awfully serious, bloody, grim, somewhat plodding place. Now, I’m fairly convinced that most flash gamers are either bored kids or bored office workers, and a large helping of medieval military history is not likely to make their days go by any faster. So yes, there is that. Again, seems fairly obvious in retrospect. Lesson learned: add wizards. And maybe birds. If all else fails, go for zombies and vampires.

Problem 4: Information Overload

To be sure, Swordfall dumps a lot of things in the player’s lap from the get-go. The big campaign tosses nine different AI factions your way, all listed in a map key with details on income and victory points. The map itself has 67 provinces, each with name, income, food resources, and details on the occupying army. There are generals to recruit with two dozen possible abilities, regular military units, province-specific mercenaries, a substantial tech tree, and battles involving rock-paper-scissors mechanics coupled with general ability management. Yes, there is a tutorial with some text in a box explaining how all this works, but even so it does seem like a bit much, doesn’t it? More linear gameplay might help here once again, with its ability to introduce features gradually and all that jazz.

I’ll try and follow up soon with some of the key take-aways from all this, and what I’m planning to go onto next. But right now I do believe it’s about shut-eye time. 5:40  does seem like a mighty good time to head for bed, doesn’t it?

– Peace and good tidings

Posted in Current Games | Comments Off on The Rise and Fall of a Game, Pt. 1


Comments are closed.