Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pacific RimCity

I saw Pacific Rim last night. I have complicated feelings on it.
(Short and skinny: That movie was aggressively dumb, but I really enjoyed it. It was terrible at women. I don't think they said anything related to science that was right. But that was the best goddamn robot-punches-monster movie I've ever seen.)
Increasingly, though, I'm loving this idea I had a few days ago, for a Pacific Rim game. Unsurprisingly, there's a game of it - I haven't played it and it doesn't sound interesting. It got bad reviews. I know not to trust the-game-of-the-movie. Whatever. Here's my idea:

Pacific RimCity:

Calamity! Your unnamed mid-sized city has been attacked by a kaiju! The nearby military base sent all their forces to try and slow it down, but they didn't manage to stop it until it had carved a swath of destruction from the docks through the industrial sector. Only one business tower was struck, but the casualties are too many to think about - but you're the mayor. You need to start readying your city for the next time this happens, because the reports of attacks on other cities every year prove: this is not going to stop. This is where the player takes control: It's your turn to build up your city, in some kind of cross between Agricola and SimCity, in preparation for the attack. How do you keep morale up? How do you build up your businesses enough that you can pay for the massive robot parts? How do you reconstruct the industrial sector so that you can assemble a Jaeger of your own? These are the challenges you must face over the next year or several!

Fast forward through several turns/years of the game. The player controls the city during this time, mostly on a large scale - they're responsible for some degree of rezoning and city planning, as well as the higher level tasks of allocating resources and defining what direction the city is taking. Now, a klaxon familiar from news reports sounds in your very office: A kaiju has been sighted. Yours is the only Jaeger in the area. It's up to your team of crack pilots!

With you in command, of course. At this point the game switches focus from city-building to real-time tactics, as you have to direct your Jaeger in the battle with the kaiju. The key that ties this into the rest of the game, though, is that you're doing this battle in the city you've just built. You must take care not to do too much damage to the city you're trying to protect. Maybe you've built a buffer of easily-evacuable warehouse districts by the water (it slowed down your manufacturing districts to be farther from the ocean and therefore supplies) and as long as you keep the kaiju distracted there, damage will be minimized. Maybe you put all your Jaeger research into building a machine that could easily control the kaiju on the battlefield - at the expense of armor hardpoints!

Your Jaeger, presumably, wins the day. Now, though, it's time for you to rebuild, refit, and reassure your populace that all is well and you'll be ready for the next attack... And that casualties will be lessened next time, in the face of ever-more-powerful attackers.

Read more for more specifics and gameplay ideas.

I'm thinking that this could even be a simple tabletop game. I've been reading up on some minimalist RPG systems, and the combat system that is King of Mortal Street Smashers seems like it could be a decent fit, at least for the conceptual tests of this system. As you devote resources to your Jaeger program, you intermittently receive points towards upgrading your movesets. The only distinction is that KoMSS seems to use a simple positioning model wherein all that matters is distance, and moving an enemy closer costs the same - or less! - than pushing an enemy farther away. I suppose the kaiju could be balanced to be better at close-range fighting, but, I'm not sure.

It might be easy to add in a "collateral damage" aspect to moves, which could also depend in some way on complexity. If you spend more points, you can decrease the collateral damage, but maybe that's somehow the default - complex moves are the special maneuvers that were carefully designed, and so maybe they're pre-planned to do less collateral damage. But at the same time, you've gotta allow for the dangerous rocket attacks that could hit far away! But. Anyway.

The other thing is a more robust combat inertia model. A lot of the point of this is the need to balance the fight with the kaiju against the need to keep the city safe, but that means that movement is a huge part of combat. In KoMSS, each turn (I think) begins and ends at rest - an individual attack will move you, but I don't think it'll generally keep you moving. I would want to change that, specifically so that the line of combat between you and the kaiju can be an important part of the battle - and shifting that line, especially. I should be able to spend points on my strike move to make it move the kaiju around, so that I can actually try to prevent it from hitting residential districts.

This idea - that I should shift the kaiju's momentum rather than simply pushing it where I want it - is central to how I want combat to feel. The kaiju should feel larger and more powerful. Whenever you defeat one, it should involve sacrifices. If it doesn't, then what's the point of the game? Also on this note, kaiju should have some kind of sense of different sides - they're more vulnerable at their front (and can be slowed from there) but their arms and teeth are there. If you get in front (or even on the side) of a kaiju, you can shift its momentum, but from the back it won't work so well unless you're very strong or it's a smallish kaiju.

Okay, so that's a lot of combat thoughts. What about the city building?

I was originally thinking it should be similar to SimCity, but that might not be so hot. I want the player to have some kind of input on city planning, because a central ideas of this game is that you build the arena you fight in - and try to not break it. I think that some degree of zoning control is important, but the player shouldn't get bogged down in it. SimCity proves that zoning can be a difficult task in and of itself.

The other way to think of this game is: You're not the mayor, you're Marshall Stacker Pentacost, the person running the Jaeger program. All your goal is, is to allocate resources for research and construction. I think the biggest game to look to for inspiration here is actually Agricola. Why? Because Agricola gets timing right. You never feel like you have enough time in the season to harvest.
The player should never feel like they have enough time between attacks to rebuild and re-ready themselves.
You do, however, have enough time to harvest stuff to make an adequate harvest and stay alive for the next season.
Surviving kaiju attacks should be possible because this game isn't supposed to be "you lose".
Harvests come faster every year.
Kaiju attacks come faster every year.
There are more types of crops and livestock available as time goes on.
Presumably you get better tech as the years pass.
The later seasons have fewer turns available to take advantage of better resources.
As attacks get more frequent and public morale wavers, the Jaeger program becomes worse equipped.

So, what're the specific responsibilities of the management segments?
  • Manage Jaeger research, and build more Jaegers/repair damaged ones.
  • Train pilots to better fly them and to become more drift compatible.
  • Prevent public morale from dipping too low and starting to cut into your supplies and funding.
  • Rebuild the city to better prep for attacks and to provide supplies.
  • Manage the industry to provide parts for Jaeger construction.
I think those are sort of the fundamental responsibilities. My Agricola/evil DM hat says that you should have to sacrifice at least one of them in order to do well across the board - but screw that. You should have to sacrifice all of them if you want to max out any one of them, and that should not be an even remotely viable option. Playing an all-cattle Agricola farm is a terrible idea and does not work. You should be able to survive by devoting all your resources/time to building a fast, powerful Jaeger with a city built as a battlefield... But you shouldn't be able to win that way. It shouldn't be a satisfying victory.

Okay, and furthermore, can this be multiplayer? I've been kind of conceiving of this as being run by a DM, but that only makes sense for the kaiju fights. I'm not sure how to manage those without a DM, but I do like the idea of having a bunch of distinct cities with similar (but downplayed) indirect competition mechanics like Agricola - we're all using the same global supplies of metal and uranium and other fuels. It's a thing to think about. Plus, if you get strong enough in the late game, you can send a Jaeger to defend another city... and if you fail, there's a massive morale penalty! That's it! Cities are interlinked positively by morale and negatively by supplies. That also brings another avenue for thinking about morale systems.

(I'm imagining morale effects combat strength of your pilots [drifting is emotional!] as well as output of your industry.) When I say positive linking versus negative linking, all I mean is that if the morale in Los Angeles goes up, then the morale in Hong Kong also goes up. If the supplies in Los Angeles go up, the supplies in Hong Kong go down.

Okay, last thoughts, because I really need to get dressed, eat something, and go to work: 

The kaiju attack frequency from the movie also provides for a great built-in difficulty curve. When it starts out, you have to learn fast, and it's only difficult because you don't have gameplay inertia yet - you don't have Jaegers built, you don't have built-up supplies, etc.. As it proceeds, the kaiju attacks very slowly ramp up, so there's a comparatively long period when you're able to just get used to how gameplay is balanced and such. Then, towards the endgame, the game gets harder as you have to face more and more kaiju with increasingly depleted resources. 

(And of course, that's gotten me thinking about how you can reverse that difficulty curve - how do you make a game where the gameplay is very consistent and samey early, and more adaptation-based later? A game where you start out well-supplied and with infrastructure, and it slowly gets stripped away as you have to fight with smaller and weaker forces? It could be a good profile for a game to try out. okaygOTTARUN)

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