1066 – Game Design FAIL

1066

The Norman invasion of England. It seems like the perfect topic to approach with gaming. It’s history, it’s dramatic, and best of all it’s about battles.

The game was developed by Preloaded and published by Channel 4, to go along with the drama series of the same title.

I’m a huge fan of Channel 4’s adventures in gaming, so when I heard about this one I was intrigued – Channel 4’s previous content in the gaming dep’t has been great. This game looks and sounds great, and it’s an ambitious project (one word: multiplayer!).

I was looking forward to wreaking havoc on the English in the first level . . . Then I got confused by the game space and stymied by strategic dead-ends.

1066 looks beautiful, but as a gameplay experience it doesn’t quite make it, mainly due to poor game design.

Adventures in Game Space

1066 tries to do something interesting: present a three-dimensional battle in two simultaneous views. The main game area is a silhouetted side-on view of the battlefield, with a schematic map view of the battlefield below it. You control the strategy on the schematic map, while the action happens upstairs in the silhouettes.

1066 battle

This is innovative, but confusing at first – it took me a while to work out how the silhouettes related to the strategy map. When a unit is moving or fighting, the upper view zooms in on it, while the unit’s counter flashes yellow in the strategy view. This is a very subtle effect, though, and it took me a few battles to notice it.

In 1066 The silhouettes provide the game visuals, but the gameplay actually happens in the map view. The overall impression is a strategy game in uneasy cohabitation with a flash animation in the attic. Dispensing with the silhouette view entirely, and actually animating the counters on the schematic, might have been clearer.

Way back in ’92, Dune II (and its sucessor, the original Warcraft) proved that 2D, top-down real-time strategy worked as a game genre. It’s a proven template, whose dynamics could have been adapted and tweaked to better reflect the historical realities of field warfare in the 11th century.

Dominant Strategy

The individual unit battles are resolved through a timing-based minigame. You have to hit the correct arrow key at the right time to get a combat bonus. But there’s no penalty for hitting incorrect keys – so the dominant strategy is to frantically mash every arrow key as fast as possible, which guarantees a maximum bonus every time. Unfortunately, the existence of a dominant strategy eliminates the need for skill, so melee combat feels rather flat.

On the strategic level, precise maneuvering isn’t possible, because the game space isn’t very high-resolution. This leaves the player with few interesting decisions to make. It is possible to outflank the enemy, but only just. In itself, this wouldn’t be a problem, if the actual combat mechanic was fun and interesting. But since there’s a dominant strategy on a tactial level, there’s really not much to do throughout the battle but run your counters into base contact with the enemy, mash the arrow keys, and wait for the computer to resolve the attack.

Bottom line: the player’s sense of control is eroded.

On the Plus Side

The graphic and audio design is great. Aesthetically, this game is tops – as you’d expect from the pros at Preloaded. The blood splashing on the screen during melees is a really nice touch.

All in All

Alice Taylor and Matt Locke have been doing great things in public service gaming.  Their decision to make a big push into games in 2007 has been paying off with high-quality titles like Bow Street Runner. The suite of games they published for Routes, their DNA season – Breeder, Sneeze, DNA Heroes and Ginger Dawn – were fun, snappy, and aesthetically slick. They are blazing new ground, and doing it well.

Preloaded has some great sucesses on their hands, too – Launchball, for instance, was a totally fun puzzle game that managed to teach scientific method along the way. I loved it.

With a few more iterations of playtesting, 1066 could have joined its siblings in the Pantheon of Awesomeness.

What happened? Chalk it up to a learning experience . . .

5 thoughts on “1066 – Game Design FAIL

  1. Phil and I had a good old natter about this in email yesterday and he thought it would be good if I added my tuppence so here goes.

    I didn’t actually have a problem with the pacing of the game (as an RPG fan I like a measured approach to combat) but I thought there was too much of a discrepancy between the lack of urgency in the game as a whole and the tight time constraints of the minigames that governed actions. Perhaps the notion was to simulate the natural pattern of war – long periods of inactivity/boredom followed by brief interludes of terror and panic.

    I agree that the controls were counterintuitive at times but the main issue I had with the game was the lack of an in-game tutorial. As someone who is fairly game literate I VERY rarely read game manuals. I’ve got used to console offerings leading me by the hand on the first level or two (very well in the case of some games and not so well with others). I also expect to receive unobtrusive in-game direction as and when I find new skills or have to perform new tasks. If I have to sit down and go through the equivalent of an online instruction manual then I want it to be over in a couple of screens, max. Certainly with a browser based experience that is designed to be consumed episodically and (for me anyway) is maybe played in half hour chunks grabbed during lunch hours, looking at the 10 orange blobs that represent the progress through the help guide is a little demoralising. Who knows, there may well be in game tuts’ later on but I didn’t get far enough through as I spent all my time learning how to play rather than playing.

    However, I agree with Phil that the game looks beautiful and has some really nice touches. C4’s work in this area is to be applauded. 1066 is a fabulous idea with some flaws in its execution. The problem is that it’s simply not good enough to deliver substandard products in the game based learning space. Anything that doesn’t absolutely blow people away simply adds to the argument that games shouldn’t be used in education. It’s a bit of a bugger really as there’s no real room for experimentation. Experimentation by its nature has to include failure and that’s not something we can afford to do.

    On a positive note to end, Flash once again shows how well it lends itself to the minigame format. Minigames are a good way of releasing a bunch of different content that can tie together into one offering, keeping the overall experience as fresh and engaging as possible. Apparently the Nintendo DS’s browser (opera variant) doesn’t run Flash which is a shame as it’s the perfect platform for half hour blasts on minigames – see GTA Chinatown Wars or the multiplayer minigames in the recent DS Mario offerings. This again comes back to the issue of clear and concise direction though. As the technology games are made with and delivered through becomes more and more capable game designers need to ensure that gamers are directed in correspondingly sophisticated ways.

    Cheers,

    Brendan

  2. For me, the lack of tutorial isn’t so much of a problem if the game is self-explanatory. Launchball did this really well. You learn how to play simply by playing. I’d say that at an extreme view, the need for a tutorial is evidence that the UX design isn’t sufficiently clear. The perfect example of this is something like the iPhone, which is so simple that any manual seems superfluous.

    I must disagree on the ‘no room for failure’ point, though. It’s true, games in factual and education settings are a new thing. Their value still needs to be argued for and promoted (part of the reason I run this blog). But I don’t think that the existence of a single non-awesome game undermines the whole idea of using games in a factual/educational context. There’s a tremendous amount of good work being produced by Channel 4, Persuasive Games, and BBC Childrens’, among others. It all proves that games can inform and educate as well as entertain.

  3. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday.
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