Game Design for War Against Machines

The central theme to the Terminator franchise is Man vs the Machines. While I am very fond of Machines (and find the concept of their rebellion seriously flawed), I’ve always found this a very interesting premise. It is also one that is practically screaming to be utilised in computer games; as anyone who has played a co-operative computer game might have noticed, that is the exact conflict they are engaged in.

Yet its an opportunity that has been completely squandered. The last offering from the Terminator universe, as far as I’m aware, was just another setpiece shooter taking us through cardboard-cutout locales with pre-scripted missions and paths. Strip out the graphics, and it’s Medal of Honor. No Terminator game to date pits you, alongside an army of humans only, in a battle against an army of machines controlled by a central AI opponent ‘commander’ (in fact, I can think of only one game at all that does anything resembling this). And even if a Battlefield clone were to surface that did pretty much this, they probably wouldn’t do what I have in mind. That’s why I’m going to ask the industry to just shutup a sec. I’ve got an idea.

So. Let’s start with a simple first/third person shooter engine. That doesn’t matter, this design decision tends to be overrated; in this case we just want control over a human persona in a 3D world where we can aim and so on. We have a location on a randomly generated map (the beauty of post-apocalyptic wastelands is that random maps would be easy, but this feature is not essential), and we call this point the Hideout. This is the home, the weak spot of the human resistance (families, supplies and so on). Now, enter Skynet. The AI player has a randomly chosen location, elsewhere on the map, that I shall call the Relay. This is Skynet’s local hub for the area and source for producing units. Or in other words, these are the side’s local bases, for the area of the battle.

Now here’s where we can make it interesting. The Round starts. Each human in the game has only one life per round, so they need to try and make the most of it*. The Human Resistance objective is to find and destroy Skynet’s Relay, while protecting their Hideout. Skynet’s objective is the reverse: destroy the Hideout and protect the Relay. It’s worth stating again: the Human team is literally Humans only, and Machines are purely AI. Therefore Skynet is actually a single simulated intelligence within the game, which is able to take command of its units and deploy them like a Real Time Strategy AI would. It doesn’t know where the Resistance Hideout is, and must locate it by process of deduction based on the humans it encounters, via sightings from its units. This produces a wholly unique mechanic for players; who can mislead Skynet by making themselves seen appropriately.

However, the Resistance has its own challenges. Skynet’s forces are effectively infinite; being rebuilt or delivered at the Relay and only limited by a maximum number they can support at any given time. Therefore the humans must spread Skynet out thinly if they are to hit them decisively. Human advantages are mostly that a stalemate (neither ‘bases’ destroyed) counts as a victory for the continuing perseverance of the human race! So Resistance players can either focus on misleading Skynet until the time is up or on a more aggressive tactic of destroying the Relay. Another advantage to the human side is that Skynet’s unit cap is balanced to be worth slightly less than the finite human force of players. Rushing Skynet is certainly an option, but the Relay has to be located first. Careless advancement will make it easier for Skynet to concentrate its forces on you.

So evasion is key to human survival. As is teamwork. And for perhaps the first time in a multiplayer FPS, you have a good reason to locate enemies but not necessarily attack them. Skynet can utilise it’s “unit cap” in a flexible money-like way, changing which units it deploys based on if it knows where the Hideout is, how good these humans are against certain units (if its HK Aerials keep getting shot down, it could switch to making more T800s perhaps) and so on. Human players are fighting a war against AI in the most literal sense, which is just plain cool.

Some players get so good at games that they just don’t find computer players to be satisfying opponents. Certainly an enemy that is easily defeated is no fun, as Raph Koster points out in A Theory of Fun. But just because you’re fighting machines, isn’t to say your opponent will always be the same. If anything, our Skynet intelligence will make the enemies you fight change as soon as you get too good at taking them out; and if you’re just plain amazing you could have a handicap level that determines Skynet’s “unit cap”. Human opponents are not necessary to make a game fun; as often as they’re crafty, they can be exploitative, unfair or just plain boring. In any case, the Human Resistance’s key advantage is supposed to be craftyness! I think it’s only fair the game reflects that.

So another game design pipedream? Perhaps. But there’s nothing overly ambitious about this concept. I certainly know people that could make it happen, if Pacificor (or whoever owns the damn licence at this point) came to me tomorrow and gave me the budget to pay three or four decent wages. In fact if I wasn’t so hopelessly spread thin by a dozen projects I could likely do it myself. But it is far down the pecking order of projects and thus I am appealing to the great void of the web in the hope that someday it may at least change the way a designer thinks about a Terminator game.

I vote we call it War Against Machines, so when everyone is talking about playing WAM their parents think George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley are making a comeback.

* - As a sidenote, if a human survives a round, they could accrue "lives" to be used on rounds that they die, as a reward for staying alive. Subject to balance, this would be an interesting mechanic to try out.

2 thoughts on “Game Design for War Against Machines

  1. Sounds awesome – though it might only be able to appeal to a niche market of gamers who actually take time to understand these kinds of mechanics. It’s difficult with any open world multiplayer shooter to stop the player from going all-out Rambo because of a competitive aspect of what was intended to be a cooperative game. Not having any kind of scoreboard will put off a lot of gamers, but will make it a much better game.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s very rare that you see structured team work in any open-world shooters. I think I just have no faith left in online gamers =P

  2. This is very true; but I think the fault almost always rests with the design. Gamers are gung ho selfish because the game rewards them for being that way. There’s plenty of other ways.

    In this case, there could be no individual score. It may put off some. But I would say the majority would be interested in simply taking part and have a bit of a laugh. It shouldn’t matter too much if they don’t follow the compex rules to do really well. The better they do, the longer they’ll live and the more they’ll contribute to their team. So that alone should (hopefully) be incentive. Putting it into practice would certainly be an interesting experiment!

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