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F.E.A.R. 2 SCARY GIRL’S BACK 22/1/09 10:34:17 am


God sims

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God sims

Playing

God

Absolute power corrupts, absolutely. That’s when the fun really starts. Richard Cobbett plays some god games

W

e humans are a pretty horrible species really, when you start thinking about it. It doesn’t seem to matter how much a game tells us that we’re meant to be bringing peace to a fragmented land or helping a small tribe of settlers achieve their destiny as masters of the universe, when it comes to god games, it’s all about the size and destructive power of the lightning bolts. No, that’s a little unfair. The fireballs are quite good fun to play with too. And then there are the volcanos, of course. Oh, and the odd flood, only we don’t forget to deal with the fish, like a certain deity we could name.

It doesn’t matter what the game is, and don’t pretend you’ve never done it. Everyone who’s played The Sims has, at one time or another, locked a whole family in a room with no toilet, or stolen the ladder from their swimming pool, or stripped someone naked at a dinner party just to watch the reaction. It’s human nature, not necessarily to be complete bastards, but to poke and prod at the rules of a universe for no greater purpose than to see what happens when we do. The bastard bit simply adds a bit of spice. Or a lot of spice, if the game you’re playing is doing its job properly. Playing god gives us all the power in the world, and done properly, the game it comes wrapped in is simply a nice bonus. The strange thing is that as much fun as the genre should be to play, only a handful have ever truly made it work…

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God sims BOOK OF GENESIS

As a genre, ‘god games’ (or ‘god sims’ if you prefer) is a tricky one. It’s more a statement of intent than an actual genre, with the games that qualify all typically offering a completely different spin on what it means to be a god. In some cases, most famously Bullfrog’s classic game Populous, it’s literal. You’re a god, with control over the land, your people, and their destiny. You perform miracles to help them rise to power, and crush the tribes who stand against you. In other games, such as The Sims, it’s a more general thing. You’re the puppetmaster of the simulation, typically with objectives that provide a framework, but the real entertainment coming from your own experimentation and the stories you create for yourself within the sim. Your people may have individual names, wants and faces or be summed up as something more general, like a planet with a population of 7,043,035 that exists only to be part of some later calculation. God games share much of their DNA with more traditional strategy games. Resource management comes into play for both building a civilisation and restricting the amount of zap-happy fun you can do, and, of course, the more basic problem that unlike God’s skillset, you don’t have omnipotence, omnicognisance, and all the other omnis- on your side. Instead, you’re powerful enough to play with the rules, but not necessarily high enough above them to flaunt them entirely. That’s hardly a surprise when the rules are laid down by the nature of the game you’re playing, and the fact that game AI still struggles with even basic emergence – the creation of complex results from simple interactions. It’s one thing to have an AI capable of finding food when hungry, it’s quite another to teach it to play a mean game of chess.

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“Lightning! Swamps! Plagues! Volcanoes! More Lightning!” Above Spot the player controlled Sim, win a prize…

Below In the beginning was the Game, and the Game was Populous

BOOK OF CHRONICLES

The earliest god sims kept things very simple. Arguably the first ever was the Game of Life’ in 1970, albeit as a mathematical curiosity rather than a game. The idea is simple – you get a grid of cells, on which you put a pattern. A black dot means life, a white one is empty. Run the program, and four simple rules determining underpopulation and overpopulation determine how the

pattern grows and mutates. There’s no chaotic element to it at all – put in the same pattern twice and you’ll get the same result – but the results can be surprisingly interesting. With the right patterns, you see a machine at work – such as gliders propelling themselves across the screen, or sequences dubbed ‘Methuselahs’ for how long they keep growing and mutating. It wasn’t until 1989 that two different games laid the tracks for the two basic types of god games on the market. These can be loosely summed up as construction vs destruction, but a better split is whether the action focuses on defeating an external force, or triumphing over the challenges of the simulation itself. Bullfrog brought us the first, courtesy of Populous’ warring gods. Maxis planted its flag firmly in the second camp with the original SimCity. Both were licenses to print money. Bullfrog’s take on the genre was easily the most exciting. You were your own god, and not the kind that answers prayers and makes guest appearances on pieces of toast. No, you were a wrathful god, with direct power, followers, and flashy powers – especially when Populous 2 came out, with its Greek theme, and phenomenal twenty-nine different spells at your disposal. Lightning! Swamps! Plagues! Volcanoes! More Lightning! Armageddon! New Game? Yes! The Populous games introduced – albeit didn’t outright invent - concepts like manna/mana as the energy that lets gods perform miracles, regenerated by

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God sims

the prayers of your followers. The more followers you accumulate, the more impressive your power becomes. Another standard god game trope is that you’re not an active participant in the action, but a manipulator, viewing it from afar. Instead of specifically building houses, as in a strategy game like Age of Empires or even The Settlers, you simply flatten the land for them to do it themselves. Most god games are based on this kind of system; individually simple rules that combine to create a believable simulation. That’s the key word. It doesn’t have to be realistic, just as long as the results are predictable and satisfying. This is where SimCity scored, even without the divine powers. You played a mayor, not a god, with a budget to work to, and no real goal but to build the best city. You got complete control over the most important structures, such as power plants and stadiums and police stations, but you could put all of them down and still end up with a crappy, run down city. People would only move in, and districts only improve, if the conditions were right. Luxury housing right next to a smoke-belching coal plant? Not going to happen. A raging fire because you didn’t have the support services in place to handle an earthquake? Your own fault… or more likely, the result of not having the money to do everything.

BOOK OF JOB

SimCity and The Sims are easily Maxis’ biggest games, but far from the most ambitious simulators. You don’t get much bigger than SimEarth (1990), which spanned 10 billion years and challenged you to create sentient life. On the other end of the scale entirely came SimAnt (1991), which zoomed in all the way to a single ant colony, with resources ranging from pheromone trails to food regurgitation. Others included SimLife, SimFarm, SimIsle and – bizarrely – SimTower, based on a simulation elevator management tool.

Above SimLife was an education in why the world works as it does, but that didn’t make it any more fun

Below Great, Gaia’s complaining about pollution again. Anyone got Captain Planet’s number?

None of the Sim games had the same hook as SimCity. It’s not hard to see why. We know – roughly – how a city is meant to work and what we’d do If We Were In Charge. Even entomologists don’t have the same burning desire to beat ants at their own game, and running a whole planet? Where the hell do you begin? There’s no perfect scale for a god sim, but neither end of the curve works very well. The bigger the sims get, and the further from common-sense/wish fulfilment thinking, the less they connect on that all important personal level. At the other end of things, the more specific the simulation, the more the player has to feel in control and the more they resent seemingly artificial barriers. Creating lifeforms proved a particularly painful cul-de-sac for the genre, whether it was the all-out ecosystem exploration of SimLife, the action-focused Gene Wars (where the idea never got much further than the plot), or even last year’s Spore, we’re not even close to doing it properly. City builder games have increasingly suffered from the same problem – particularly when the camera zooms in on individual people responding to your strategy. As satisfying as it is to build a pretty, fully functional little town, it’s hard not to get cross when the lazy bastards would rather starve to death than walk two streets to get to the food shop. This particularly plagued Impressions’ otherwise excellent Caesar/Pharaoh games, with their reliance on grid layouts and very artificial requirements for getting people to set up expensive homes. You could build a town that looked Roman, but that didn’t necessarily mean you were creating a Roman town. It’s telling that the same problem hasn’t particularly struck the Civilization games, all even more abstracted from reality, while the original, ultra-simple SimCity still tends to be more popular than its more advanced sequels. Building a city is fun. Worrying about its sewage system, not so much.

MORALITY BYTES Good or evil? It’s a choice that most gods have to make sooner or later. The Black and White games are the only major sims based on this specific idea, with most simply sitting back while you use and abuse your powers at will. The penalty for burning down half your SimCity is ending up with half a city to call your own; the wages of that particular sin nothing more or less than the enjoyment of watching it burn. As far as the game’s concerned, a brutal, warlike civilisation is no different to a peaceful, loving one – although some of the opposing tribes you encounter may think differently, especially after your fifth shocking betrayal. Morality systems in general suffer from the fact that they’re rule based, and thus subject to the designers’ politics. Human sacrifice in Black and White is considered ‘a bad thing’ for instance, even if you have a really, really good reason for it. Conversely, vegetarianism is deemed ‘pure’ in Fable 2, despite the fact that meat is lovely and only soulless people like tofu. Sticking on the side of good has its own problems though. Being passive doesn’t make for an exciting game, and sooner or later you’re going to hit resource problems, other tribes with less enlightened viewpoints, or something else that you have to intervene with. Victory here usually comes from cultural improvements, like impressing an enemy into joining you, or spreading your local religion… albeit not always in the friendliest way. Spore stands out here, with the military conquest path being unequivocally bad, but not vastly different from blitzing a rival civilisation with a fleet of warships armed with green religion lasers instead of red plasma guns.

Is feeding a civilian to your pet monster evil? What if the guy is dying anyway?

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BOOK OF NUMBERS

BOOK OF REVELATION

While Maxis dominated all of creation, Bullfrog went to war. All but a couple of its games led on naturally from the ideas first introduced by Populous – a character meddling from afar in the affairs of a world you couldn’t wait to screw around with. It wasn’t always the case, of course. Syndicate, for instance, had you as a sinister corporate type, guiding assassins round futuristic cities from the safety of a blimp. Magic Carpet and the underwhelming Populous: The Beginning had the character as a presence on the map, whose ability to summon volcanoes and harness the elements didn’t mean his enemies couldn’t hit him in the face. Unlike the Maxis games, Bullfrog’s titles were clearly games rather than software toys or creation kits. They had levels, plots, and in most cases, difficulty curves. It didn’t matter. The fun came from playing with them rather than

SILICON LIVES Tricky as creating worlds is, it’s the inhabitants that make or break the god game experience. Most developers keep them suitably abstracted, adding them as a visual way of keeping track of all the numbers sloshing around in the background. The wandering plebians in Caesar III would hint that you had a problem with employment. The Gaia window in SimEarth would feature the planet herself (complete with goggle eyes and expressions) berate you for poor performance. Sometimes though, the artificial life becomes the star of the whole game. The most ambitious of these 110

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Above Not all god games have deity vs deity combat, but it’s a good way to serve up a worthy opponent

completing them, not least because that’s how they’d been designed in the first place – technology tests twisting into full games (isometric landscapes for Populous, gouraud shaded landscapes for Magic Carpet) , with things like Magic Carpet’s summonable castles stemming as much from someone saying “Hey, we can make castles with this...” as a fantastic idea for a new game mechanic. The result was that Bullfrog’s games rarely had the staying power of the more sober Sim titles, but that was actually okay. They usually burned out fast, but not without grabbing you by the throat with the sheer wish-fulfilment of the basic idea. Be the Dungeon Keeper, not the hero! Create your own Theme Park! Fly a Magic Carpet! Uninstall Gene Wars and play something easier, like Syndicate: American Revolt! Or Russian Roulette with a Gatling gun! Yes! Still bitter! Sorry!

games were the Creatures series, which charged you to look after and train a group of adorable furry little creatures called Norns. Each Norn had its own simulated genetic structure, controlling everything from physical appearance to lifespan, with scripted objects and items to experiment with scattered all round their preset, extremely pretty world. Training them was much like guiding a child or a pet, complete with positive and negative feedback for actions, and the ability to teach simple actions. Needless to say, nobody ever abused this for personal amusement…unless you count the ‘Norn torturer’ movement devoted to creating alcoholic, perpetually terrified, suicidal Norns. How very cheery.

The odd thing is that beyond the companies mentioned, few have made much of a mark on the god game genre. It’s not always down to the games themselves either. Interplay’s Sacrifice is a great example of this, with its action strategy mix and some terrific characterisation from the bickering gods your character spent the game sucking up to. Mucky Foot’s Startopia, a comedy space station building game, created by several ex-Bullfroggers, had a cult following, but died on the shelves. Even Lucasarts couldn’t crack the genre when it launched Afterlife in 1996 – a SimCity knockoff that put you in charge of heaven and hell, with the seven deadly sins/heavenly virtues taking over from residential and commercial zoning. It was a micro-management nightmare, albeit with a fun sense of humour. Two problems in particular presented roadblocks. The first was that creating a god game with the kind of flexibility and satisfaction required to stand up against the classics (both as games in their own right, and as experiences gamers remembered through rosetinted monitors) was no short order, especially in the days of small teams and much more limited technology. The second was finding a theme capable of getting the old magic flowing... something offering both a great basic idea, and the scope to build a satisfying game around. To see the scale of the challenge, you need look no further than The Sims and Civilization. Even now, with The Sims selling more copies of its most half-arsed expansions than most games can even dream of, note how few competitors it has. There’s Singles,

Remember, a Norn is for life, not just for Christmas. Unless you only play the game over Christmas

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God sims

GODLY EDITING It’s the player-built content in Little Big Planet that’s the talking point

“There just aren’t that many god games out, and precious few devs” which is a cut down version that adds nudity and virtual bonking, and Singles 2, which is basically the same thing with the chance for a threesome… and that’s about it. As for Civilization, we’ve seen several spin-offs, but the apple never fell too far from the tree. Call to Power, Alpha Centauri, Colonization and the later sequels often came from different developers and dev teams, but still form its basic extended family. To get the same kind of scope, you’ve got to head into space, with intergalactic scale action in games such as, Galactic Civilizations 2, or of course, Spore.

BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS

There are advantages to this. The lack of a modern successor to games like Populous and Syndicate helps keep our memories of them intact. After all, when was the last time you heard someone refer to a shooter as having Wolfenstein 3D-like gameplay? However, a scan through the big releases since the early 1990s tells its own story. There just aren’t that many god games out, and precious few developers have ever been in much of a position to crack the whip. The genre as a whole largely shifted to more focused games, from The Settlers

Above The Civ games managed to take the whole sweep of history and make it instantly accessible

Below Afterlife: Heaven and hell meets SimCity – and it was murder

switching to a straight Age of Empires template instead of its original village building roots, to Peter Molyneux’s interest in world simulation moving from Black and White to the light-RPG charms of Fable and its critically acclaimed Xbox 360 only sequel. This doesn’t mean that we’ll never see any others, simply that they’re a tough sell at the moment, no matter how good your pedigree. Designing on-the-fly isn’t the kind of thing most publishers want to hear their superstar teams doing in the era of multimillion dollar budgets, especially when smaller games like Viva Piñata can borrow much of what made the original games work in a more controlled, easier to package form. The appeal of playing god may never get old, but in another few years, it’ll still be Populous, SimCity and The Sims we’ll be thinking of. ¤

No matter how powerful a game tells you that you are, you’re going to be limited to the rules and tools you have at your disposal. At least, if you just play it normally. Custom content looks to be the next big growth area for games, whether via complicated tools like the GECK editor for Fallout 3, (see InDepth, page 102) or built-in goodies, like the level editor for Little Big Planet on PlayStation 3. The net provides an easy way to both share creations, and learn the art of putting your own stamp on things. Dedicated editing tools are nothing new to games, but it’s only in recent years that technology has been good enough to really let people cut loose within the games themselves. Anyone can create a cool custom character in Saints Row 2. Not many of us can do the same thing in Maya. Garry’s Mod for Half-Life 2 uses the power of its physics engine to let you create almost anything, from a rocket powered bath-tub to a full Rube Goldberg machine. Spore’s character editor, while initially seeming designed only to create blobby monsters on two legs, quickly takes on a whole new level of unbridled awesomeness when you see the weird and wonderful creatures players have managed to squeeze out of its preset components and incredibly basic painting options. In short, simple tools don’t necessarily mean simple results and harnessing the power of the community itself is a great way of building on a game. Right now, even so-called easy editing tools like the Neverwinter Nights kit still require plenty of hard graft to master, but if making a city could be as easy as playing SimCity, anyone would be able to strut their stuff. Creating whole new worlds as easily as blowing them up. With that kind of power, who needs lightning bolts? March 2009

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Playing God  

We humans are a pretty horrible species really, when you start thinking about it. It doesn’t seem to matter how much a game tells us that we...

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