Captain Forever Wins IGF China
The first of many plaudits is draped on Captain Forever. All is right in the world.
We proselytize about this game often; a few words about its design.
In Captain Forever, the player constructs a ship. That ship is then tested against algorithmically generated ships that drift slowly through the game’s infinite playfield. Scavenging the parts of destroyed ships, your ship grows and evolves. There are ten levels of girder, thruster, and guns – on a scale from green to white. The game always sends some ships of a much higher level into the fray, providing that oh-crap-time-to-run kind of feeling. Green is prey, white is terror. As in Spore, skillful play enables you to later be that massive ship, fearlessly preying on smaller and weaker ships. The feeling of mastery over previously mighty enemies rarely so delightful.
As a soundbite, Captain Forever is what I wanted Spore to be. Not the intricate simulation, but what most excited me about Spore: meaningful construction. The placement of parts on your ship has a deep, satisfying impact on how effective that ship will be in the ecosystem of the game. It also has an immediate, visceral impact on the feel of control. A well-constructed ship both feels good to control and is effective in the game. It’s a perfect marriage of construction and utility, a perfect balance between skill and construction. There are so many strategies and so many ways to build an effective ship. Depending on your construction, you may adopt a new style of play. Or you may see a particular ship you want to attack, and quickly rebuild to a more optimized battle configuration. It’s so fluid; building happens in the middle of battle. The marriage of construction and play is seamless and simultaneous. The game’s ecosystem is perfect in conveying meaning to your construction.
The game is an epic moment generator. As you fly around, there is running internal monologue: can I defeat that ship? Will it be worth the damage I’ll sustain? How does that ship stack up against my current construction? Can I destroy that ship without damaging the parts I want? What will my ship be if I get those pieces? Sometimes an attack on a massive ship many levels higher than you will result in the destruction of most of your ship. But sometimes you’re able to worm your way into the innards of that ship, a parasite, and chip away at its core until it succumbs. A fight might take five minutes to complete. And then a mad scramble to rebuild before the next massive enemy frigate rolls through. First girders, then steering jets, then a gun of some kind. You must always be ready to zip away, and that means having a balanced controllable ship at all times.
It’s also possible to ‘kite’ two large ships together. Higher level ships ignore the puny unless provoked. Provoking two ships and running them into each other to wear them down a bit is obscenely satisfying. It’s just so good.
Nuts and Bolts
There are hundreds of small, brilliant decisions that make all this work. Many of them are tuning: Box2d is used masterfully here, and each level of girder, and gun, and thruster is immaculately tuned to its own level and to the other levels. A purple thruster on a ship made of orange pieces means crazy speed. Orange thrusters on a ship made of purple girders leaves your ship pathetic, unmaneuverable. Guns are relatively light, but they need girder space.
Construction is simple and intuitive. As you click and drag a piece around, it tries to orient to the nearest attachable surface. It does this just slowly enough to allow you to fiddle pieces to just the position you want. I still occasionally pull off a piece unintentionally, but I always feel as though it’s my fault; I was hurrying too much and slipped up. This is perhaps the most difficult interface problem in this design, and it’s been solved masterfully. You don’t think about it, you just put the pieces where you want them. No small design feat.
Another brilliant design cluster is in the notion of ship “hearts”, and the tree branch model of damage and destruction Farbs employs. To win another ship’s pieces, you must destroy its heart. But its heart is often its center, the main note to which all other pieces are attached. Ipso facto, it’s difficult to shoot, especially without destroying other parts. But the whole reason you attack a ship is to get its parts. This tension, between desire and danger, is exquisite. Likewise, when a piece is destroyed, all pieces attached to that piece are also destroyed. This forces even greater caution and though in one’s angle of approach on a potentially lucritive enemy target. You can’t try to blow off just a wing and then salvage the bits that break loose: you have to go whole hog, all or nothing. You have to destroy the ship to save the wing, with all its juicy gun and thruster goodness. This is just plain old fashioned awesome game design. Pure, elegant, excellent.
This game tickles my brain in all the right ways. It is, as so many other great games have been, a recombination of familiar elements. In the relationships between these elements, Farbs has found something new, beautiful, and elegant. A well deserved win for Farbs and his amazing game. Cheers.
Tags: Game Design
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