Monday, September 20, 2010

Forecasting Hurricanes (in Harvest Moon)

I'm a sucker for Harvest Moon games. I've played several in the series, most recently the Animal Parade version for the Wii. In brief you play a farmer, you grow crops, milk cows, and give gifts to everyone in town to make them like you - especially certain members of the opposite sex until you can marry one of them.

One of your tools is a TV with which you can check the weather for the next day - but only for one day in advance. The forecast is 100% accurate. The game's years consist of 4 months, each month being 30 days and one season. It rains in the spring, but in the summer there are also hurricanes. Here we get to today's topic. These hurricanes destroy crops, which is very bad. If you are lucky you might harvest right before a hurricane and not lose much when you replant right afterwards. If you check the weather each day you would know if the next day would be a hurricane, but since crops take 3-5 days to grow there wasn't much you could do.

In an earlier edition in the series (also with hurricanes) the weather was set one day ahead - because you could see the forecast by that time the next day's weather had to be locked in. However, that's as far as it went. My wife, a gaming perfectionist*, never let a hurricane hit her farm. The entire summer she would save at night, then advance to the next day and check the forecast for the day after. If a hurricane was predicted she would reset to the previous night and try again. Her crops were never devastated again.

The designers must have learned of such behavior (or perhaps knew all along). In the Wii game the weather for a season is entirely set on the first day of that season (perhaps for the whole year). You can no longer avoid the hurricanes. There is still advantage to be gained in knowing when they will come, and Lillian (my wife) now rapidly advanced through the entire summer, recording the days of the hurricane(s). She then returns to her saved game at the beginning of the season armed with the knowlege of when the hurricanes will strike.

In playing Harvest Moon: Animal Parade, I don't do any of that. I don't even check the next day's forecast. Am I riled when half my crops are destroyed? Yes, but because I know it cannot be avoided I'm content to weather the storms. In the older game, however, it was a different story. Because I knew the hurricane could be entirely avoided, I felt forced to take two steps forward and one step back each day, carefully checking the weather and only saving when it was safe. I almost hated myself for this behavior, and I certainly hated the game's creators for allowing such a system to exist. Why have hurricanes at all if it was so easy, and so tedious, to avoid them? Why waste all that programming and art effort that could have gone toward other features? In fairness to them, they may not have known, or may not have had the resources to solve the issue once they found out.

The point remains, however, that you have to be aware of what players can do to avoid entire parts of your design. They are sneaky, those players, and they'll find ways to avoid some of your best material if they believe it to be to their advantage to do so.

*Gaming Perfectionist - see a future blog entry for the full explanation. In short, someone who "gets everything right" when they play a video game.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, when it comes to the temptation to abuse one's mastery over time and space, there's definitely a calculation weighing convenience and reward. If it's too easy and too beneficial, I find I just can't help myself.

    It can be interesting to see how playing a console game on an emulator with a quick "save state" command can affect playing style in that way.

    I guess it can be good to do some tricks like generating the random numbers in advance to reduce the temptation to cheat, but I also think unavoidable random catastrophic events might turn most players off of a game, so its best to tread carefully with things like "hurricanes".

    On the other hand, you can go too far in the other direction: In the later versions of the Avernum CRPG the designer, realizing that players would simply restore to undo a character death, made it so that your party members could never really be killed in combat, only knocked out, and would then be revived automatically once you walked back to town. However, this approach felt so lame and "foam-padded" to me that I would have much rather been forced to restore. I think the distinction here is that you want to avoid catastrophic events, but not at the total expense of realism. You can remove hurricanes from a farming game without making it feel weaksauce, but removing death from a combat game? Probably not.