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 Subterfuge : Designing a strategy game that takes a week to play
Subterfuge: Designing a strategy game that takes a week to play Exclusive
January 16, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

January 16, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
More: Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Design, Exclusive

Last month Flower Garden creator Noel Llopis and World of Goo co-creator Ron Carmel announced they were working together to develop a new mobile title, a game of diplomacy and strategy that plays out in real time -- and at very low speed.

It's called Subterfuge (@SubterfugeGame), and the creators are designing it so that every game takes roughly seven to 10 days to play. Carmel and Llopis cite Jay Kyburz's fiendishly clever browser game Neptune's Pride as an inspiration while developing the game, though both are quick to point out that Subterfuge is a significantly different beast designed to take advantage of the strengths of the mobile platform to integrate itself more gently into the ebb and flow of a player's daily life.

We reached out to Carmel and Llopis via email to learn more about what it's like to develop a pick-up-and-play multiplayer mobile RTS where every order takes hours to play out.

What will a typical game Subterfuge look like, design-wise?

Ron Carmel: At the mechanical level Subterfuge is played like a world domination game. You send your forces around in submarines between outposts -- you can send forces to one of your own outposts to reinforce it, or to another player's outpost to try to take it over.

Subs are slow, though, and reaching even the nearest outpost can take over 12 hours. This opens up a lot of space for players to talk to each other, make plans, exchange information, scheme, form and break alliances, that sort of thing.

Issuing orders refers to launching subs, mostly, though there are several other things players can accomplish by communicating with each other. You're welcome to try to order other players around, for example, but we've found that this usually doesn't end well for the player barking the orders.

How will you manage the time investment deficit between players who play, say, a few minutes here and there over the course of a week vs. those who sink an hour or more in every day?

RC: In terms of overcoming the advantage of spending more time in-game, there's more to talk about than would comfortably fit here, but there are a couple of things that i can touch on:

One thing we do is eliminate the need for the player to do any outcome prediction in their head, or keep track of stats that will help them make more informed choices. We assume that anyone with a bit of OCD and free time can devise an optimal solution to relatively simple problems, so the game does all the low-level analysis and prediction for the player. That frees them up to engage in more interesting in-game pursuits, like diplomacy and higher-level strategy.

Automation is another way in which we close the time investment gap -- allowing players to easily issue complex orders ahead of time ensures that they never have to check in at a particular time. This is especially important when that particular time happens to be in the middle of the night.

What do you hope to accomplish with a game like Subterfuge?

RC: Well, there’s quite a bit. Political games have a bunch of very difficult design problems inherent in their nature -- the same things that make them intense and interesting are also the things that make them infuriating and unappealing.

King-making is one issue; that social engineering tends to completely overrides tactics and strategy is another. Yet another example are quality-of-life issues, like [players] gaining an edge simply by investing huge amounts of time in the game.

So in a way, we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too. We want to keep the intensity and depth, but temper it and control it so that it’s a game that we can play for a few minutes here and there over the course of a week or two and feel engaged, without being obsessed.

Noel Llopis: I want to add two points to Ron's answer about people spending a lot of time in the game having an advantage. Because we're on mobile devices, the game can alert you when there's something relevant happening. So you can relax and not check it compulsively every five minutes.

We have a term for anything that requires a response from a player in less than 8-10 hours: That's a "twitch" action (yes, twitch is anything under eight hours in this game). Those are things we're trying to avoid as much as possible because we know people have jobs or, you know, go to sleep.

So we want the game to be about making the best of what you have, coming up with good strategies, and communicating with other players, not about spending lots of time doing busy work or checking in constantly.

What inspired you to make a mobile game that requires this level of long-term time investment?

The biggest inspiration for Subterfuge is an amazing game called Neptune’s Pride, which was developed by Jay Kyburz. We were both blown away by the depth and intensity that emerged from what is a relatively simple concept: slowing down an RTS to a glacial pace. It was like an epiphany to discover how negotiation is where the depth of the game comes from, rather than the game mechanics themselves.

We really wanted to develop our own take on that concept, so we first approached Jay to make sure he wouldn’t feel like we were stepping on his toes by exploring a similar design space, and then we went exploring.

How are you funding development? Have you given any thought to how you'd like to sell a game like this?

RC: We haven't finalized a business model yet. The two models we're thinking about at the moment are the "board game model" and the League of Legends model, and they're not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The board game model means one player buys the game and all their friends can play with them for free. The game would cost about the same as a board game, so it won't be a 99-cent type of thing.

Our main concerns about the board game model is that (a) the price would be a barrier to entry, even though niche audiences aren't as price-sensitive as the average player, and (b) we will have ongoing server costs hosting this game, so it would be nice to have a revenue stream that to some degree scales with the number of active players.

The League of Legends model involves selling specialists -- a type of unit we have in the game -- as IAP, either individually or in packs. League sells you champions, we could sell specialists.

It would be tricky to implement something like this though, primarily because you have to completely eliminate any advantage a player might get by spending money. Spending money should result in a player being able to play differently, rather than playing better -- otherwise the game becomes pay-to-win, and that's not fun for anyone. There are a bunch of other things you need to avoid with a free-to-play game so that it's not evil, and we have very high standards of what constitutes Not Evil.

In terms of how we fund development, it's out of our savings. We're both very fortunate to be in a position to self-fund our games.

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TC Weidner
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good luck to them, it seems like quite the challenge for them. I would be too scared to attempt such a thing, Keeping players engaged in a game over such a time frame, with so much down time etc would be like herding cats IMHO. As soon as someones starts seeing they are losing, they perhaps lose interest, stop playing, etc etc. Hard to keep the amount of interest and time invested etc on an even keel I would think, but hopefully I am wrong and this works out. It would be nice to know such a type pf game can survive and thrive in the ADD society of ours.

Michael Joseph
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I haven't played Neptune's Pride but it sounds very much like the twenty+ year old game VGA Planets 3.0 in that the fog of war is very thick. Too many strategy games that model states of total war give the players too much information about their opponents too early and too easily.

VGAP3 allows up to 11 players and has no formal alliances. Any trade agreements or alliances are all part of the meta game. Everything can be traded - cash, colonists, ships, minerals, even worlds. There is nothing stopping one side from reneging on their part of a trade deal. That is just part of the game. Player treaties or trades also throw a huge monkey wrench in the notion of "standard builds" that you see in games like Starcraft. There's nothing standard about the start of any VGAP3 game.

Another unique (or seldom used) mechanic VGAP3 uses is fuel-use and supply modeling which means players can't just send a massive invasion fleet with no regard to supply lines. If they don't bring enough fuel with them or can't find enough fuel along the way (one of the uses of scouts), their fleet can find themselves stranded in deep space and suddenly vulnerable to takeover by pirates or other enemies. And for opponents, watching a massive invasion fleet coming and looking at the composition and mass, you can try and make predictions whether the fleet can make it directly to your homeworld or whether part of their invasion plan is to planet hop your colony worlds gathering the fuel and supplies they'll need to advance along the way. And the existence of all these possible scenarios forces players to carefully (agonize) decide where to deploy any defensive minefields or fleets.

VGA Planets games tend to last weeks and months and yes there is a very big problem with losing players dropping out. The best devised solution seems to be for some site hosts to employ a player reputation system that demote players who rage quit and don't finish games and reward players who are good sports and play to the bitter end.

The game is very unforgiving of mistakes but when you do win, it's extremely rewarding because so much of what results in a victory involves outwitting opponents particularly through the deployment and maneuvering of forces. Building up an economy is important but having the strongest economy by itself will not win the game for you.

VGAP3 feels like a "serious" game like chess and I think they are amongst the most rewarding games to play. They're not for everyone. Players are expected to step up, invest time, and learn to master the game. VGAP3 is not nearly as complex as something like but like most serious games, you have to be good in all aspects of the game to win. Contrast to many non serious games where being above average in a single skill is all you really need to win.

Steven Christian
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Sounds a bit like the boardgame 'Diplomacy'.