Heroes and Villains Design Notes

Airships: Conquer the Skies
13 Jul 2023, 10 a.m.

With Heroes & Villains releasing in one week, here's a post about some of the design decisions I made.

Last year, I taught a class at the Zurich University of the Arts about using game mechanics to tell stories. It was a very small class, and so we spent our time sitting together, playing games, and discussing them. We played Crusader Kings 3, Rimworld, I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind, and more. I'm not sure if we figured out what was intended to be the core theme of the class, but we did learn a bunch of things about characters in games and procedural narratives.

Conveniently, I then immediately got to apply these things to the design of the Heroes & Villains expansion.

One of the surprising strengths of I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, a game about surviving your teenage years on an alien planet, is that its characters are handcrafted rather than procedurally generated. It's a game that's meant to be played through repeatedly as you figure out how to achieve your goals, and so you meet the same people again and again. My assumption would have been that you get bored of the characters, but in fact your emotional connection to them deepens with repeated playthroughs.

In comparison, Rimworld has a pretty sophisticated system for generating characters with all kinds of different traits - but because these traits get jumbled up each time you play, repeated playthroughs actually alienate me from the game characters. As I see more and more recombinations - and as people keep on dying from random rabid squirrel attacks - I stop seeing them as people and just see them as collections of traits that are more or less useful.

So for Heroes & Villains, I intentionally chose to go with handcrafted characters - quite a lot of them, more than sixty, but you'll still see them again and again. So that when you see a familiar face pop up, you'll go "oh, it's that guy!"

The second decision I made was to express stories through mechanics as much as possible. Both characters' stories and diplomatic incidents focus on mechanics and tradeoffs rather than having large amounts of flavour text.

This is a response to another game we looked at, Crusader Kings 3, which has elaborately written events with text that I read maybe once, if at all. It's just too much text, and the text is so specific and detailed that reading it actually breaks my suspension of disbelief. Oh, your dog gets lost the same way as the dogs of ten previous rulers?

They're doing their best, pumping the game full of hundreds and thousands of events - but it's a losing battle. To make people notice that there's new events in an update, you need to have a significant proportion of new ones, and so each time you have to add even more for it to be noticeable. I'm one dev. I can't possibly write hundreds of events.

Instead, I concentrated on creating interesting decisions and very little text. Heroes have different stats - Loyalty, Pride, Fear, Rage, Sanity, Stress - depending on what kind of person they are, and your game actions affect those stats. So you have Commander Bertelli, whose pride can overtake his experience and turn him into a jerk, or the Aukhan Band of Brothers, whose oath of brotherhood weakens as your empire enters modernity, or Captain Bui, who is consumed with desire for revenge on one specific empire.

The expansion also adds diplomatic incidents, which are events that happen between two empires. They're prisoner's dilemma type decisions, so you have to take into account the situation both empires are in, and their personality, be they human or AI. Perhaps you can afford to antagonise the other empire. Maybe you desperately want to reduce their reputation. Maybe they have grievances towards you, and this is your chance to get rid of them and avert war.

All together, I made those design decisions to provide interesting gameplay experiences and choices, rather than things you numbly click through. You'll be able to see them in one week, when the expansion comes out!