Big Universes and Tiny Games

When it coms to computer game design, small is beautiful. Big is bad.

I’ve mentioned my recent foray into casual game addiction before. Today, I’m going to talk about it again, with regards to a specific game: Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. “Small is beautiful” is particularly true when it comes to user interface mechanics, where small things make huge differences. Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who just bought a $30,000 car, and the one thing he couldn’t stop talking about was how the automatic windows would allow him to close a window with a single button press, as well as open it. I don’t think he’s being trite, either. Little interface changes can make a huge difference to our experience of a product.

You might ask, by the way, how I can claim “Small is beautiful” when lately this has turned into the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion weblog. You might argue that the Elder Scrolls games are huge, unbounded, complex games. I disagree. The game world may be huge, but the game proper is not. The game mechanics in Morrowind and Oblivion are trivial. You can move, hit, cast spells, jump, and use items. That’s it.

Weird Worlds is a sequel to an earlier game, Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. The “casual game” moniker firts well. It is a joy to pick up – the typical game lasts no more than 10 minutes at most – and interestingly it’s targeted right at the geek market. You have to be a space nerd to like Strange Adventures. It fits into what I would call the strategic space opera genre. Others refer to them as “3X” or 4X games – “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate.”

The path down to Weird Worlds takes a slightly different path than that for tactical, ship-based games. It originates, as those games to, with Br¯derbund’s Galactic Empires, but the form of the game we find today probably owes the most to the 1983 SSG game Reach For The Stars. SSG, who would later go on to create the Warlords series of games, created something compelling yet still a bit clumsy. Reach For The Stars was cranky, and difficult, and felt like it was meant to be played on a hex board.

Many, many games have followed on in this tradition. Most of them are terrible, boring slagfests which consist of the player clicking the “End turn” button 3600 times until his head explodes from boredom. A few are worthy of special mention. The apotheosis of the genre, the game which gets everything right, is Spaceward Ho!. The most important design decision to be made in most games is that of abstraction. Abstract away too many decisions, and you end up with something where the player is a mere spectator, such as Dungeon Siege. Don’t abstract away enough and you end up with something obtruse, unplayable, and unfun, such as Master of Orion III. Spaceward Ho! is a conquer-the-universe game abstracted to a nearly perfect level: the player is constantly required to make important decisions, but never has to actually micromanage.

The first Master of Orion game succeeds so fabulously because it is, essentially, Spaceward Ho! with better graphics and sound bolted on. Sure, sure, there’s a tactical combat screen, but who are you kidding: you know before every combat exactly who is going to win. Either you have more ships and better guns, or you don’t. Subsequent games in the MOO series added on more and more game mechanics, which is why each successive game is less and less fun.

Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is Master of Orion writ small. There are only 10 or so stars, not 100. You don’t research technologies, you trade for them. Combat involves two to maybe six ships, not thousands. And there is a hard time limit on the game: it’s difficult to stretch a single game out longer than about 10 minutes. And, like Nethack, every game is different.

In other words, the game is absolute genius. It is pure, concentrated fun.

I’ve been meaning to review Weird Worlds for a while, and now that the Macintosh version has come out, I have a convenient excuse. And I have good news: they didn’t make the game too big.

What Digital Eel seems to have done is to go even further into what I call the “Nethack approach.” While keeping the size of each game the same, they have increased the number of possible ways that each game can develop. With a few exceptions, the items and enemies in each game are different, as are their reactions to you. So, like its predecessor, every game is different. Every game is unique.

I dare you to download the demo for Weird Worlds and stop after just one game. It can’t be done.

Visually the game is prettier than its predecessor. This is not always a good thing. In particular, I could do without the constant zooming and unzooming of the main map. It also feels like a number of the UI elements (checkboxes, buttons, etc) were made smaller in this release, and I find myself missing the target more frequently. The soundtrack is appropriately atmospheric. The sound effects are of a crisp, early-80s vintage, and wouldn’t be out of place in a game of Defender or Tempest.

Weird Worlds is available for both Windows and Mac OS X. It retails for a paltry $24.95 and probably offers as many hours of gameplay as Oblivion. Put that in your Xbox 360 and smoke it.