For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a new column for GameSetWatch, and it went up today on Gamasutra. It will probably be appearing on GameSetWatch in the next few days. My goal is to examine how social and political issues are translated into videogame elements, and to identify the assumptions that underpin a developer’s approach to those issues.
With this first piece, I stayed on terrain I know pretty well: Europa Universalis III. It’s such a rich game that I could have focused on any number of elements, but what I really found fascinating was how it represents sociopolitical change. Here is a game that starts in the twilight of the Middle Ages and concludes on the edge of industrialization, and the player has to guide his country through all the upheavals that occurred within that historical span. How does it describe that process, and the role of government within it? That was the question I attempted to answer, and you can let me know how well I did with it.
One thing I fervently wished as I formatted the post is that EU3 screenshots did not all look so hellishly boring. While I find its aesthetics wonderful, it takes about the least interesting pictures possible: “Look at this exciting popup! Craaaazy!” The irony, of course, is that people who ignore EU3 because it looks boring are missing one of the most exciting games in strategy.
EU3 aficionados might notice that the story I tell in this column is a bit condensed. I had to cut out some of the context and some of specific events that contributed to the wave of misfortune that befell me. Early drafts read too much like, well, a blog entry. The important part was to illustrate the effects of the game’s mechanics, not give Gama/GSW a detailed after-action report.
I must also admit that my story shows EU3′s mechanics at their best. Readers and TMA listeners might recall that when we did a show on Heir to the Throne, both Tom and Troy had misgivings about how well the stability mechanic worked over the long haul. I argued that the mechanics worked fine. Having played much, much more of the game, I can see now that my fellow panelists were correct. In the end, a decent EU3 player will break the game wide open.
A full campaign in EU3 covers 421 years, but the mechanics really only work for about half that. Once the player has had some time to start working his will on the gameworld and provide the kind of strategic continuity that his state’s historical counterpart never possessed, the mechanics start to break down. They cannot overcome the money and power the player will eventually possess. The challenges stay the same, but the player’s capacity to meet them only increases.
Truthfully, I think the problem would be solved if Paradox changed the stability mechanic. Rather than having it act like a series of steps, it should be more like a steady slope. If the player wants to keep increasing stability past the level equilibrium point, he should be forced to keep putting forth effort to do so. At the highest levels of stability, the marginal cost should be dissuasive. As things stand now, once the player gets his society to the highest stability level, it stays there until something bad happens.
Anyway, during those turbulent decades that follow the beginning of a new campaign, those mechanics work well, and make some trenchant observations about just how national mismanagement can happen even under responsible rulers. EU3 does a wonderful job of puncturing the judgments of the armchair emperor. Here’s how it pulls it off.