Chris Park on Skyward Collapse: "My big fear with games is always that players will find an optimal unbeatable strategy."
Skyward Collapse by Arcen Games has an incredibly interesting concept for a god game -- there is no winning by spamming the most powerful thing to be the last man standing. Players are challenged to apply a subtle touch to ensure that two warring factions generate the most possible carnage without wiping each other out. It makes sense from a twisted and divine point of view. If gods thrive on worship, then surely more devout followers means more praise to feed on.
We wanted to find out more about the ideas that led to the game's development, and Skyward's lead programmer and designer (and Arcen Games founder) Chris Park was kind enough to supply us with his answers, and they are very engaging and insightful answers indeed.
Read on for more about Skyward Collapse!
This is a god-game that sounds legitimately god-like, but also unlike anything we've seen before. Do you have any specific inspirations that led you to this design?
Chris Park: I've always loved boardgames as well as computer games and video games, and in years past I really enjoyed the game Carcassonne. That in itself was an echo of a game I played much earlier in life, called Rivers Roads and Rails. Both of these games used a tile-placement mechanic that I found endlessly fun, however I always wished that I could see the people come to life and do things. I wished as a preschooler to see the trains running on the tracks and the cars driving. As a young adult I wished I could see the commerce in the cities and what was happening with the populace.
The idea for Skyward Collapse came out of these desires. Though I have played and immensely enjoyed several god-games in the past, I wasn't setting out to make one. I was thinking of a "tile-placement boardgame come to life" and the god-game aspects came forward when Josh Knapp -- my co-designer on this title -- and I were talking about potential themes for the game.
Why aren’t players able to choose a faction to control?
CP: Somewhat a bit inherent to me, at least, for the god-game genre is that your influence is indirect. You may be the god-figure, but your little minions or worshipers or whatever do not do what you want! This also again comes back to the idea of the boardgame-come-to-life idea. It wasn't that I wanted to drive the trains or direct the commerce or anything: it was that I wanted to see the "butterfly effect" of how my larger actions would change the lives of the little people living in the land I created for them.
But this game had to be about more than just that: I really wanted to make a heavier strategic element than any tile-placement game I'd ever seen, and more than most god-games as well. In order to do that, there typically has to be conflict at the core; so okay, now we have two factions who are at war, logically. Originally Josh and I were talking about the idea of having it be where you could directly control neither faction, but you were rooting for one to win. The problem is, that is a bit easy: since you can deprive one of resources and grant resources to the other, that is just super easy. So we had this idea that "your score is your opponent's score." Aka, you want to win, but you want to win by as small a margin as possible in order to really do well.
That was very interesting and exciting, but it was confusing to explain. "Okay, you have a score and your opponent has a score, but at the end your score is his score if you win." What!? It was overly complex. So the idea became that you don't care which faction wins, but your score is whichever is lower. There are other loss conditions instead: such as if genocide occurs; or failing to meet these "edicts" that have been set to you. The edicts idea came about from talking to players, and it's very clever; we hadn't thought of that on our own.
In the end, the reason players aren't able to control one specific faction is because that's what makes the game difficult and unique. There is no evil AI opposing you. There's just you, and the very difficult goals that have been set to you, and then all the AI of the little guys running around the board killing each other, engaging in trade and commerce, and so forth. Your job as the player is to bring a certain amount of balance to that scenario, while at the same time managing to achieve secondary goals. It's tricky, it's fun, and it's not like anything I've seen before. So when we had that concept, we ran with it.
Why did you choose to feature the Greeks and Norse?
CP: Finding an original scenario theme is very hard in the strategy genre. We wanted something that had not been completely over-trodden, and so were thinking of ideas as crazy as things like Dinosaurs or Western. But none of those felt right, they felt too cartoony. Something on the other end like the Napoleonic Wars or the Civil War was far too dry and serious, though. In the end it was Josh who said "What about the Norse? They have this crazy mythology that is deep and not really explored much in games." So I said sure, let's also do the Greeks or the Romans then -- I had five years of Latin, and knew a lot about that end. We went with Greeks over Romans because the Anglicized names of the gods would be more familiar to people (even though the mythologies are essentially the same from a broad sense).
Greeks and Norse have both been done in other games, please don't misunderstand me. I don't pretend to be blind to that! But what we've done is really gone in-depth with them in a way that I've not seen before. Josh has been incredible at historical research, and we've also made a few things up that seem fitting but are actually fabricated (this is a fantasy version of these civilizations, not a literally-historical version). The main example of where we had to fabricate was in the Norse siege units, because that's not something they really used. Beyond that, the mythologies are so huge and so deep that we were able to do a lot. We used a lot of mythological artifacts, unlike most games, which I think is one thing that really sets these apart. There are about 64 such artifacts (called god tokens or mythological tokens) in the game, along with 16 gods.
Asking the player to balance two factions almost sounds like a way of sharing with us the pain game developers have to go through. How are you balancing both sides to, well, make it a challenge for the player to balance them?
CP: It's pretty similar to what a developer has to go through, but I think that the best comparison is actually what a DM has to go through in a pen-and-paper RPG. In terms of our own jobs with balance on this game, well, it's unusual to say the least! With every game we've ever made, balance has always been very important. The challenge in the past has always been to make things as distinct as possible while also being asymmetrically balanced. That is pretty hard, because if things are the same in power it's hard to make them feel unique past a certain point. We're very good at that at this point, but this game actually has the opposite challenge, which is interesting.
For Skyward, our challenge is actually to intentionally unbalance the game in various ways, but to do so in a fun way. A great metaphor is the game of Jenga: when you are playing, you want to remove supports that don't cause the tower to fall down, but which make it much harder on your opponents their next turns. It actually has been a really fun but startling process: Josh and I are designing some particular god power, and we're like "whoa, that's totally OP!" And then, after a moment: "great!" It's funny, because having all of these powers that would traditionally be overpowered actually makes this game vastly harder. Since the players' role is reversed, so is the balance philosophy.
I do want to stress that you can play this at a low level without needing an advanced degree in mathematics or something. The game is very easy to pick up and just play with. But the depth is there in that there are so incredibly many moving parts, and so much asymmetry to everything that it's hard to find a "best path." My big fear with games is always that players will find an optimal unbeatable strategy, and so our chief goals with balance on this particular game are to both make sure that the balance is fun, and to make sure it's not something that players can find a single ultimate strategy in. The freedom this has given us as designers is actually pretty crazy, and we've been able to create a lot of powers and mechanics that simply wouldn't be possible in most strategy titles.
Is there an underlying message that you’re trying to communicate?
CP: Thematically, no. In the same sense that Chess isn't a message about the perils of war, or Sudoku isn't trying to encourage you to take more math classes or something. What all of these sorts of games have in common is that they are easy for a novice to pick up, but they also have very challenging depths for people who wish to "graduate" to them. My goal with this game (and in fact most of the games I work on) is to provide an experience that is both fun, but which also sharpens the minds of those who play it.
A great big thanks to Chris Park and Erik Johnson of Arcen Games for granting us this interview. Stay tuned for more on Skyward's release!
Check back tomorrow for our interview about Exodus of the Machine with lead programmer and designer Keith LaMothe, and more words from Chris about the team's past experiences, how they matter, and other genres they're looking at.