Get a Cat, or, Why More Content Won’t Save Your Gamefeatured

[Note: I was creative director and lead writer on Sunless Sea, but I’ve left Failbetter and I can’t speak to my old muckers’ future plans.]

C.M. comments, on a post where I said ‘content spreads thin‘:

“On content quantity: it depends on the game design, I think. The reason Sunless Sea still needs more content is because it speaks to the main design problem. Most of the content seems to be backloaded instead of frontloaded. The game desperately needs varying storylines at the beginning of the game because the most punishing thing about death is repeating the same early stories every time. All you need is 5 to 7 near-London islands that each choose from one of 3 early-game stories, and interact with London, and the game’s chief design problem is solved.”

I think this is worth a post rather than just a comment reply, cos ‘it just needs more content’ is a common reaction from players, and I want to talk about why on the writer-designer side of the fence this can be a mistake. And, for novice writer-designers (man, I’ve been there), quite a dangerous mistake.

I once worked with a guy who told me a parable about a Buddhist master who went to a monastery overrun by mice. The master (the guy said) refused to let the monks put down traps, and instead watched the comings and goings of the mice, and found the hole in the wall where they came in. He instructed the monks to put down food just outside the hole, pointed out that the mice didn’t come into the monastery any more, and went on his way, presumably beaming smugly with the sun shining on his saintly shaven head.

Then presumably in the following weeks the monks found that the mice

(a) multiplied enormously
(b) kept coming back
(c) ate all the food the monks put down, and when that ran out, came back into the monastery
(d) meanwhile swarmed all over the monastery walls and found loads of new entrances and got into the grain stores and oh my god can you believe that guy, I don’t think he was even really a monk, I bet he was like a mouse spirit or something
(e) shit, now we have rats, too

I want to be careful about this analogy, because players aren’t mice. The point of monasteries is monks, and the point of games is players. But what the monks, of course, should have done, was: try to fix the problem by changing their design, not adding more resources. To put it another way, they should have got a fucking cat.

Back to Sunless Sea.

“On content quantity: it depends on the game design, I think. The reason Sunless Sea still needs more content is because it speaks to the main design problem. Most of the content seems to be backloaded instead of frontloaded. The game desperately needs varying storylines at the beginning of the game because the most punishing thing about death is repeating the same early stories every time. All you need is 5 to 7 near-London islands that each choose from one of 3 early-game stories, and interact with London, and the game’s chief design problem is solved.”

(C.M., I’m not beating up on you – I understand why it would look like that, and, this is a much more polite way of saying it than I’ve seen in three dozen forum posts).

Well, first, it’s not (IN MY OPINION) Sunless Sea’s chief design problem. That problem is that I vacillated between roguelike and CRPG design. If you’re interested in seeing me flagellate myself about this, it’s in the post-mortem here. 

And, second, if it were actually all we needed, we’d have done it. 🙂 Here’s why it’s not what we needed.

The content in Sunless Sea is heavily frontloaded. The farther you get from London, the sparser the content becomes. Partly that’s intentional. Partly it’s because that’s the order I mostly wrote it in (and, later, commissioned other people to write it in) – I got more hurried as we approached deadlines, and I generally went back to earlier ports to add more content.

But it doesn’t seem like it’s frontloaded, because although there are ten officers and a bunch of quests on the left side of the map, you see them over and over again. Content spreads thin.

So couldn’t we add more branching content? And you’d see different things each time? Well, there is some of that – the Father’s Bones story, for instance – and it does help. But it addresses the symptom, not the underlying problem. It doesn’t have a multiplying effect on quality of player experience – not even a 3x effect, and certainly not a 3x(5-7) times effect. No-one but a robot plays through the game lawn-mowing all the options with perfect equanimity. If the choice between the options is completely arbitrary, it’s not a very interesting choice; and players often get annoyed because they’re locked out of content until the next playthrough. If the choice is not arbitrary but depends on personality preferences or other story elements, they’ll often choose the same one on repeated playthroughs; if there’s an optimal choice, they’ll often go back to that.

But if you’re playing a roguelike or an ARPG, what about going back and playing with different builds? Absolutely. But now we’re well out of content or even narrative design, and firmly in system design. I’ve played the first level of Spelunky or Crypt of the Necrodancer I don’t know how many hundred times. They both of them have less story content in the whole game than you’ll find in one island in Sunless Sea. But Derek Yu and Ryan Clark are better game designers than me, and those games win on their mechanics.

tl;dr: If we had added more content to Sunless Sea, it wouldn’t have fixed the design problems; we’d just have someone saying, right now ‘you need to have six, not three, variant stories on each of those five-seven islands’.

Am I really saying that adding more content to Sunless Sea or Stellaris would not improve them? God, no! If you like it, you’ll want more of it (and you should totally buy Zubmariner when it comes out, and I’m not in the loop on current production but you might also find, shhh no one but us here right? that it addresses some of the design issues).

My gut feel is that Stellaris is not yet past the point of diminishing returns on adding content. (I think – just from published dev diary stuff, no inside commentary here – the Paradox guys are also very well aware that there are design changes they could make that would make more of the existing content, and they’re on that.) My gut feel is also that Sunless Sea is past the point of diminishing returns in adding content to the vanilla game. We could have kept adding content for another year, and never launched. Here’s the thing.

The right option for the monks in my original analogy was to get a cat, because cats work pretty well, are cheap, and don’t require specialised handling. It may seem like it would be a better option for them to get a lion, because lions are awesome, but lions are expensive and eat people as well as mice.

In other words, design problems are always about what’s possible as well as what’s best. This isn’t some sort of whining, bean-counting, creativity-killing quibble, it’s the difference between life and death for any studio. So this is the part of the post that’s directed at people who want to make a game, or are making a game for the first time, and it may save your life, seriously. Run the numbers. Don’t trust instinct. Estimate. Run the numbers.

‘5-7 islands with three stories each’ – it sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? But let’s say each of those extra stories is about an island’s worth of content. I was writing SS content pretty fast by the end, so call it 2.5 days each, so that’s 2.5 x 2 x 6 = 30, or a month and a half’s work. Except that’s if I worked interrupted, which never happened, because the studio needs running and my kid gets sick and I need to work on the combat redesign and yadda yadda, so more like two months, except it also needs testing and debugging and reworking after feedback, which is hard to estimate but easily that’s 2.5 months now.

(There are also subtle but serious effects when you’re adding more content to an area. I’ve described it elsewhere as being like a snowball: you can’t just keep rolling it bigger indefinitely before things start falling off. It may seem weird that there are so many things going on in one area; there are more likely to be continuity issues; it’s harder to come up with ideas that feel distinct and interesting; and so on.)

Could we have eaten another 2.5 months? Maybe. It’d have been a pretty serious risk. I mean, for the size the studio had grown to, that would have been, like, 70K GBP, and we didn’t know then whether Sunless Sea would be a success or not, and if it hadn’t that 70K GBP would have been essential for keeping the lights on a little longer. But remember, this wouldn’t have actually fixed our problem, it would have just helped a bit more with some of the symptoms.

If you’re an indie full of vim and enthusiasm, it’s very tempting to think ‘I’ll write more, and that will fix it’. Sometimes it’s true. It’s true if you actually haven’t written enough. But if you’re a writer, you’re probably going to write more than you need. Your first instinct will always be to fix problems by writing more content. Don’t feed the mice. Don’t buy a lion. Find the right cat.

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