Northgard and story mode

Christmas is a great celebration of family. For example, I visited my parents and after dinner, with my brother we went to his old room and played video games like we were kids. The game he showed me was Northard. It’s a not too popular single player RTS, but with lots of planning and very few fast clicking. However, I’d still love to be able to give out orders while the game is paused.

The map uses hexagonal grid, but the contours are twisted enough that it doesn’t look artificial. Here is one game map in the post-victory replay, I was the little green on the bottom:
north1

This is the standard game screen, after clicking “keep playing” after the victory (click):

But the specifics of the game are not the topic of the post today, but “story mode”. This is playing a series of handmade maps, connected by cinematics. I hate it. Why? Because it forces me to play one way. I’m locked to one clan (each can s different, go goats!) and one way of winning. The map is scripted and I must find the one way to win. It’s a fixed puzzle to solve. I quit on the 4th map and would have probably abandoned the game if my introduction to the game wasn’t my brother playing random map.

There are various ways to win (see tomorrow) and the map is machine generated. Sure, there are basic designs, like mountains creating protected backyards and the starting zone is relatively safe (you don’t get undead next door who kills you in the 5th minute). However every map is different and you must adapt. I like that much better.

This is one thing that always bothered me in MMOs, RTS-es, MOBA-s and FPS-es: fixed maps that you can learn. I hated to restart the story map after a defeat, just to win by knowing what will happen and preparing before I could know it in-game. I hate fixed build orders and lanes and everything. I want to adapt. I want to improvise.

It really feels like every decision in Northgard is a meaningful choice. I lose most games I start, because it’s hard. And it keeps it interesting. I have 38 hours already and I’m not going to stop.

I really think that games should use more randomized content. However I also think that the morons and slackers would hate if they couldn’t just watch a youtube video and repeat its steps to win.

Author: Gevlon

My blog: https://greedygoblinblog.wordpress.com/

19 thoughts on “Northgard and story mode”

  1. Random content is good in certain contexts. Most sports have fixed “gamespaces”. Soccer, basketball, American Football, even baseball are mostly the same from game to game. This is because the point of those games is to highlight certain skills and make execution of those skills determine the winner of the match.

    Certain games(I would argue most esports) would actually benefit from fixed gamespaces. It would be easier to alter them between seasons, but viewership requires a certain amount of similarity in order to make it easier to follow. Imagine trying to follow the sports listed previously with constant changes. Soccer on a hexagon with two goals? Baseball with three pitchers? Now imagine that changing every game!

    Games outside of esports are more likely to benefit from random generation, but it will still vary from game to game. Any game of strategy must approach this with caution, as the field can often determine the winner. Which leaves the winner determined by RNG, and no one seems to enjoy that.

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  2. @Noobtheimmortal: but sports and e-sports are PvP content, where the ever-changing human opponent provides the variety. In a PvE game, it creates a static gameplay.

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  3. @Gevlon Story mode of Northgard is elaborated turtorial, its meant to introduce players to different mechanics, clans and win-conditions, the reason you are railed into certain play pattern is excatly because of it. No wonder you disliked it as a game, because its not actual game, but rather lessons on game mechanics.

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  4. I had a similar experience with Nothgard. While the base mechanics felt great, the story mode just didn’t do them justice. Two of the best RTS-type games i have played recently – They Are Billions and Factorio – both feature procedurally generated maps. So there is a case to be made for the notion that proc-gen is the future of RTS.

    The thing that made both They Are Billions and Factorio work is that, way before any real story mode was even a part of the game, they already had a thriving early access community. This seems to be necessary for all games that rely on procedural generation. However, it is also “buying product before it is complete” in its purest form.

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  5. MtG: Arena. The game changes every few months with new card set. In between, it changes whenever you choose a different deck.

    Morons and slackers don’t like your type of games cause they are in the business of getting free wins. They don’t get any in real life, they use games to avoid feeling like a complete loser all the time. After all, if you grind enough in Eve and fly a carrier, you are confirmed 5% elite PvP! Totally not a loser, no sir! (then you just have to keep the carrier in a station to avoid losing it and getting your delusions shattered). Which explains grinding, P2W, avoidance of PvP, elitism and popularity of betas (after all, it’s much easier to not be a loser in a new game, before others get good).

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  6. You found out the gamers dilemma. You want to win, but not by luck, you want to win thanks to your decisions and skill. If you and your opponent dont know anything about the a new game you are playing, you are on equal ground – whoever understands game mechanics better and faster gets advantage over other. Both of you start on equal ground, winner get bragging rights. Now imagine you and your opponents play the exactly same game for 1000-th time. Same map, same units, same loot, same game mechanics. You will not play the same game as the first time. Now wins the side who can optimize their decisions and usage of skills. Because the whole setup is exactly the same, optimization process will be streamlined into big list of step-by-step actions, without any choices, same as above mentioned story mode. If both sides do no mistakes and have exactly the same skill, winner is decided by dice roll. It can be a random critical hit on final battle, random drop of item/powerup what gives the edge or even as small as initial spawning point what allows one side to have more resources then the other. If you do a PVP game with a competative ladder, you cant have ANY randomness. Everything must be predictable and must start from equal ground. That means maps are mirrored to give exact same benefits to every player. That means loot/items are static – there is limited amount of of different items and two same items with same name have exact same benefits, there cant be random item with random attribute points. Even critical hits are not random – LoL critical hits are predictable! PVP has no place for randomness.

    With no randomness, comes another problem – games are becoming boring. No fresh ideas, no new tactics, no new mechanics. Most PVP games use seasons to change the game. Every new season give something new or change some old rules a bit. LoL is good example, WoW(both of them) change after expansion/season , even MtG is using that too – with new cards. They still stay within the boundaries of nothing is random. Thanks to that, they are higly competive and more popular.

    Some ignore the randomness factor. In Eve, no 2 skilled characters are the same. In factorio and They are Billions, every map has unique starting point. Most of the RPG-s give chance to luck, because you dont compete anyone, you make things intresting with random encouters and loot drops. But soon as you try to make it a massively multiplayer, those random encouters and loots make some players soo powerful, that they can ruin everyone else game experience. If you give the way to ruin the game, sooner or later someone does it and make game unplayable.

    Now you have dilemma. Play the game what is intresting and unpredictable but has no way to have a meaningful win or competition, or play a game where you can compete with others and be victorious, but what is very predictable and unintuitive? What will you choose?

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  7. @Anon: you are right that you can’t have a meaningful win in a single random map. But you still can have a meaningful competition and ladder in such game over time. If you play 10 games against the same opponent and win 8 times, you are better in the skill of adapting.

    If the game session is short enough, you can even have a meaningful tournament, where the players do several games against their opponents.

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  8. I think you are confusing cause and effect here. What a good game needs is depth. There have to be enough meaningful choices in a session to make it interesting. Great games do that through great depth and complexity. Random maps are a slacker way. It’s a crutch, you use, when your game is not made well enough. Yeah walking with a crutch is better than without it when you have a broken leg, but your leg (core game mechanics) is still broken. Chess doesn’t have random maps, bridge doesn’t have an infinite amount of new cards issued every three months and Europa Universalis IV (best RTS ever made IMO) doesn’t have random maps. Concentrating on the last example, as it’s the most similar genre. There are hundreds of ‘clans’ to choose from. There are nigh infinite scenarios that can play out, infinite decisions you can make that have a meaningful impact on what happens next. That should be the future of strategy games. Sadly, I agree with you, that proc-gen maps will be.

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  9. @Anon and Gevlon
    You absolutely can have a meaningful win with a single random map. What you can’t have is a win that derives meaning from a narrative or competitive sources, but these are far from the only sources available. Speaking purely formally, based off already quite dated game design theory, these are just 2 of 8 sources of meaning in games ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MDA_framework ). Since then, the classification of possible meanings that games (and wins) can have has only deepened and got more nuanced.

    Randomness is not required to have a compelling game, either. So the “gamers dilemma” as presented by anon doesn’t really exist. What exists is a difference between the complexity of the design task and the ability of designers to handle said task. When the ability is not up to the task, random generation is a common crutch.

    If this seems like me saying MtG (and all card games everywhere) come with an inherent game design handicap, then yeah, that’s what i’m saying. Card games have the advantage of having been around much longer than computer games, so they have developed methods of compensating, but a handicap is still a handicap.

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  10. @Artham … Can you explain what you mean by depth. Complexity does not make game intresting alone. Speciel on single player games, unfolding a meaningful story makes games great. Chess and bridge are bit of lackluster on that part, but Europa Universalis has alot of them. But i dont think random maps are bad, example Civilization. Gameplay is different if you know the map is Earthlike or if you play random one. Playing agaist unknown parameters has its own good and bad bits, but i agree – random map as a only gameplay element is not very intresting concept.

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  11. @Gevlon: that depends on the game.
    If it takes a YT guide to finish the game then it’s a bad game. Players should not be punished for lack of precognition.

    A game should have enough information available that it is possible to play it well on the first try and not die to a sudden game event, just because you didn’t know there is a big enemy wave on turn 20 or a boss hits you with some surprising combo. Which may very well be used within the story building, by NPCs giving you warnings and hints.

    There also need to be multiple ways to do the same thing with similar efficiency. If a tower defence has one unit great against Zombies and one unit great against Beasts, then I have to build them both in the right order. If it has 2 units that do very similar overall damage but are only slightly better against Zombies or Beasts, I have the choice of skipping Zombie tower and making that wave harder, but gaining an advantage somewhere else. The choice is less meaningful but it increases as the game progresses and each smaller decision creates accumulating consequences over time.

    It also has to have a hard limit on things you can do in a single game. If I can build 10 of each towers and see what they all do in one game, there is little reason to play another map. If I can only build 1 top tier tower then each game played I wish I could have tried the other one – and then have to play another one to try it out. (which is why I think “after victory” game modes are severely damaging for replayability – without the pressure of playing for the win you can just try out any wacky playstyle in a vacuum and then have nothing to explore in next game).

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  12. (after all, it’s much easier to not be a loser in a new game, before others get good).

    it isn’t. anyone playing somewhat seriously for the past two to three decades will dissect a game just fine within the first few days. gameplay emphasis will be known just from some trailers and some dev-pr talk. from that you already know what is more important. not that this kind of effort is needed, games are piss and studios take piss on skill. that’s why specializations like for example dedicated healing isn’t really there these days. everyone get free iframes and their class can do anything like any other class without much difference.

    last somewhat enjoyable single player pve experience was kingdom deliverance. I really liked it! to be that dumb idiot from the get go. but again playing these kind of games for way too long … one just knows the RPG cheese and does just fine and powers through, where M&S are clueless and fail hard.

    If it takes a YT guide to finish the game then it’s a bad game. Players should not be punished for lack of precognition.

    well this is somewhat gamedesign heritage. older games tell you nothing. playing them without any external reference will automatically start a player towards the theroycrafting part of a game. I don’t think that devs intended this … hence more info in-game these days … but this is somewhat still a thing.

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  13. @Stawek

    “Players should not be punished for lack of precognition.”

    They most certainly can, and should. If a player has played a certain genre of game for several years and iterations, they most definitely should know what is to be expected of them in the short term or during initial play. However, players should not be punished for, or with the unveiling of new features/game modes that ask the player to do something different that the previous iterations of game have not asked them to do. It’s on the developer at that point to either provide a tutorial or storytelling mode to help bring a player up to speed on new game mechanics and dynamics. Or even a basic tutorial for those new to the game/genre.

    I’ve laughed my ass off recently watching some younger “twitch” gamers while they were having a play through of Portal 2, and they would rage quit because they just couldn’t simply figure out the puzzles where the Portal/Aperture Gun usage was concerned. All of them thought they could play the game without even trying to use the basic tutorial the game provides. The same thing happened with the Dragon Souls line of games due to their difficulty. Yet gamers who considered themselves “hardcore” still whined like school room sissies when they couldn’t even get past the most basic of boss fights. It’s funny that a game that is now on it’s 3rd iteration, and was chided by many bloggers and gamers as being too difficult, is still a successful and viable IP.

    Precognition tells me that if I chop a tree down, and it falls on an enemy, it should crush it and kill it. But why should a gamer get upset if that doesn’t occur? Especially if a Developer forgets to program in the physics for that to happen? My point is – you can’t have precognition without a certain level of entitlement or preconceived notions/expectations providing the foundation for “what should happen”.

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  14. If you can learn the map, the thing to do is explicitly tell the new player about the map. Reveal all the terrain, etc etc. Then, balance the map around the fact the player isn’t going to see any surprises.

    If surprises are necessary, then randomization is necessary. Isn’t the whole inspiration for roguelike elements to create a game that can’t be dominated by memorization?

    If the story has surprises, we have a simple fork, both tines of which are bad.

    1. The player won’t see the surprise more than once, so it surprising every time. This means the ‘surprise’ isn’t dangerous. Like, ‘surprise’ they have one more zergling than expected. Sure you can try for an illusion of danger without real danger, but many players will see through it.

    2. The surprise is dangerous and likely to cause the player to fail. This means they will repeat a bunch of non-surprising gameplay, and then the ‘surprise’ won’t be surprising at least half the time they see it.

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  15. @Anon its kind of hard to explain. I think the best I can do is what media ethics board said about pornography: “we will know it, when we see it”.

    @Gevlon: please watch a Three Mountain achivement video for EU IV and compleate said achivement. Thats the thing about games that have depth, even though its a game of compleate (almost) information, like chess, its not enough to just watch a video. Actually another simmilarity to chess here would be, that watching a video of a match by Kasparov and playing against even a poor AI, while reapeating Kasparov’s moves, would mean sure defeat.

    Random generated maps just add a bit of… well randomness. They do not create content by thenselves. If a game has little or no content, random maps will not help. If a game has a lot of content, random maps are not needed.

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