If you haven’t played Mobius, and plan to, stop reading and go play it, since I’m about to spoil the whole thing for you.
The official theme this month was Failure. Usually, failure means you lose the game. Mobius is born out of the first idea I had regarding failure – a game where failure made you more powerful. Every time a character dies, the game counts up how many monsters you’ve killed and credits those to the person who “died”. He becomes more powerful, but is penalized with having fewer HP, making him more likely to die in the future. If the difference in experience gets too great, a death can actually result in real, true failure, coupled with Game Over.
That is pretty much the entire game.
For a variety of reasons, I don’t think it worked. And I could go into each one in detail, but to be honest, there’s one which is big, and important, and vastly overshadows the others.
Real-time strategy games are intrinsically not very much fun.
They suck. They are boring. They are awful, awful games. I am prepared to defend this statement, but let me explain what I mean first.
There are genres of game which are intrinsically fun.
First-person shooters: you get to blow shit up. That’s fun. You can run through an FPS in God Mode and still enjoy yourself, because, hey, kaboom! Kablammo! Look at all the shit I’m blowing up! Look at all the zombies/nazis/robots/robot-nazi-zombies I’m killing! This is so much fun.
Sidescrollers: The good ones are simply a joy to control. Look at Abe’s Oddysee for the best example I know of, but a far more well-known example is Super Mario World. Super Mario World is fun, even when you’ve played it before. And that’s not due to the inventive level design, or the “plot”, or the challenge – even after someone’s beaten it half a dozen times, they’ll go back and try it again. It’s simply enjoyable to play.
Anything involving leveling: We like leveling! People like to see a number that represents how awesome they are, and they like to see that number get larger. So you can have fun with RPGs even after you’ve beaten them once (plus it’s like re-reading a good book), and you can enjoy Civilization 4 many many times, partially because your empire is getting huge and you’re awesome. It’s fun. You’ve done it before, but let’s do it again, let’s become big and strong for the
third seventeenth one hundred and fortieth time.
There’s one other aspect that can rescue an otherwise doomed game: Intelligent challenge. If fighting against your opponent is nontrivial, if it’s not obvious what the right choice is in every case, then you can get a great game out of it. See: Civ4. See: Starcraft multiplayer.
And that’s the crux. Starcraft multiplayer is a really good game. Starcraft singleplayer plot is really good. But nobody finds Starcraft singleplayer fun to replay.
Why? Well, it’s simple. There are no interesting choices.
A good game is a series of interesting choices, and once you know how an RTS works, the choices aren’t interesting anymore. You know the build order. You know the right units. And, let’s face it, even if you don’t know the build order or the right units, singleplayer RTSes can almost always be beaten with a few very basic steps:
* Defend your base.
* Build your economy.
* Create an army.
* Destroy the enemy.
That’s it. That’s the strategy. Now you can beat almost every singleplayer RTS ever made.
Now, you can draw this out quite a bit. Good singleplayer RTSes tweak the game subtly, many many times, so you never quite understand how it works. They disguise it as “unlocking new buildings and abilities” – in every level, you get More Stuff, changing the game balance and the optimal unit loadout slightly, and you only get the best stuff in the last level. Ever wondered why RTSes delay so much? Ever wondered why first-person shooters seem content to give you all their weapons about halfway through, or two thirds of the way through? It’s because the RTS game has nothing more to offer you once it’s shown you everything.
Because the game, itself, is fundamentally boring.
There are many ways I could criticize Mobius. It got less actual development time than any other game I’ve made so far, and the only reason it doesn’t look far worse than Too Many Guns is because I’ve gotten a lot better at making games. The writing suffered, the art suffered, it could have used more variety, it could have used more testing and more balancing.
But the single most damning criticism is a very simple one.
Mobius is, unintentionally, a puzzle game, masquerading as an RTS . . . and once you solve the puzzle, you’re left with a very simple RTS.
Single-player RTSes do not have interesting choices. Mobius does not have interesting choices.
And, thus, Mobius is not a good game.