Okay, I spent most of the weekend playing Sacrifice. I used cheats to take the edge off. I really wanted to see if I could pinpoint where this game went wrong.
I’ve talked a bit about the design of the GUI and how it hampered Sacrifice (the fact that you are playing an RTS game with a third-person shooter interface). But I feel that there are a couple other aspects of Sacrifice that went at least partially wrong in the design of the game itself.
Sacrifice uses three major game design elements:
Rock, Paper, Scissors
Tug of War
The Rock, Paper, Scissors element comes into play early on, and deals with your unit types (of course). The three basic unit types in Sacrifice are the Flyer, the Fighter and the Archer.
Flyers fly and have short range missile attacks. They can attack land or air. They tend to be fast, but quite weak. Therefore, flyers are perfect to kill fighters, because fighters cannot hit them back.
Fighters are land-based attackers. They have no range and can only attack enemies on the ground next to them. They tend to be slow, strong and hit hard. They are perfect for killing archers, because archers cannot do enough damage to them to kill them before the fighters can engage them, and the archers tend to go down quickly to the heavy damage of fighters.
Archers are land-based attackers with very long range missile attacks. They can attack land or air. They tend to be moderately fast and strong. Thus, they are perfect for killing flyers, because the typically weak flyers die long before they can get into range to use their own missile attacks.
The Tug of War element is also introduced right away, and deals with the major resource of Sacrifice – souls. Every creature in your army must be summoned, and you must have at least one soul in order to summon a creature (larger, more powerful creatures require more souls). You start each mission with a handful of creatures and a small number of souls. The only way to get more is to kill enemy creatures – when a creature is killed, its soul is released and floats above the body. If the creature was yours or allied to you, the soul will be blue and you can just pick it up. But if the creature was an enemy, the soul will be red and must be converted first, requiring you to cast a spell on it that causes a special unit – the “sac-doctor” – to appear. The sac-doctor drags the soul back to your altar and sacrifices it. Then you get the soul. Needless to say, this process can take a while.
Thus, it’s easy to see that there are only a finite number of souls on the map – the ones in the creatures you start out with, the ones in the creatures you will fight (or are owned by the enemy wizard), and the ones in any neutral entities on the map. The real goal of playing a Sacrifice mission is to play tug of war with the enemy wizard, stealing his souls and converting them while making sure he does not do the same to yours. I think this mechanic is the cause of a lot of the frustration I had with Sacrifice. A single bad battle can erase a lot of hard work on your part and even make a mission impossible to complete.
The final element of Sacrifice’s design are the Control Points. These are mana founts, places where mana spouts out of the terrain. Your wizard needs mana to cast spells and his mana doesn’t simply regenerate – he must draw it from a mana fount. If a wizard stands near a mana fount his mana will regenerate slowly. You can make the mana regeneration more efficient by building a manalith on the mana fount. This also means that no other wizard can now recharge from that fount. The more manaliths you build, the faster your mana regenerates. Thus it’s vital that you first claim all the unclaimed mana founts and then destroy all the enemy’s manaliths, building your own in their place. This raises your mana regeneration rate and reduces his.
Manaliths are also vital because when you die, you must recharge your mana to come back to life. If all the mana founts in the level have enemy manaliths on them, you have no place to recharge except your altar itself which is very slow. And at this point your enemy is probably attacking your altar, meaning you’re probably about to lose the game.
The Tug of War element is the most controversial to me. Tug of War occurs when the resource on a map are indestructible and shared. My friend Dave Shramek has mentioned over and over that he hates base building and just wants an army to command. If I give the player such an army and he has trouble completing a mission with that army, what then? This mechanic does not allow the player to trade time for skill like “standard” RTS mechanics do.
But if the player constructs his own army from resources gathered, we’ve got the full RTS experience, which may not exactly be what I’m shooting for here. I suppose I could give the player a set number of “souls” at the beginning of the game that can be renewed but cannot be stolen…here, you have 25 souls and can summon these creatures. Accomplish this objective. If creatures die, their souls can be gathered and they can be resummoned; the souls cannot be lost. But if that’s the case, how do you lose the game?
More thought is required. To paraphrase Barbie, thinking is hard.
Well, a fixed army is all about problem solving. It’s like “You have 12 archers and 18 fighters and you have to capture the Parsley Sage’s Mountain Fortress. Go.” And that’s a puzzle to find a strategy that best completes the goal.
Base building is cool. I like that. But when you have to gather gold and wood or gas and ore or whatever and make units that serve those needs entirely, then you’re playing two games. On the one hand, you’re playing Sim Township or Medieval Village Tycoon and that is effecting your game of Warhammer you want to play.
I don’t have a problem with your army collecting resources and getting better as you adventure, though. That’s all well and good.
You can also automate resource gathering to an extent, or have your soldier units work dual purposes. Archers provide food for a marching army because they’re hunting.
You did play Myth, right?
See, the problem is, what if the player can’t seem to solve the given problem with the given resources? That’s the problem I ran into with Myth. It was so bad that Bungie actually introduced a “Really Easy” difficulty mode with the first patch.
Myth required you to sort out your units, give them orders quickly, use them all properly and respond to shifting battlefield conditions. Being an armchair general shouldn’t require you to be as skilled as a real general.
I haven’t played many of the newer RTS games out there, but I like the idea of any game playing with the player and not making the player play with the game. Instead of focusing on just one option or the other, how about allowing the player to play the way s/he wants? If I want to play the game from a more economic/management point of view than allow me to play it that way. If I am more concerned with combat, allow me to get an army up quickly and lay waste to my opponent. I suppose that both of these options would be easy to implement with an in game AI that could be set to focus on one or the other. If I wanted to focus on combat it could be set to take care of all the other menial tasks. Another way to handle this would be to have two different campaign modes, one based on combat and the other based on city management. I believe Stronghold had this option.