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Starting From Scratch: Haemimont Games' Tropico 5 postmortem

Starting From Scratch: Haemimont Games'  Tropico 5  postmortem
March 17, 2015 | By Boian Spasov

March 17, 2015 | By Boian Spasov
More: Console/PC, Programming, Art, Audio, Design, Production, Business/Marketing

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Boian Spasov is the lead designer of Tropico 5 at Haemimont Games. His colorful developer history includes the design of a Roman RTS city builder; a Caribbean dictator sim series; a medieval cooperative action-adventure and a Prohibition era tactical gangster game.

Tropico 5 is a city-builder/political simulation game in which the player assumes the role of the authoritarian leader of a small island country. We've already created two other Tropico titles, but this one was our most ambitious addition to the franchise, both in terms of budget and development time.

By the decree of the glorious leader of Tropico, El Presidente himself, this installment was supposed to be the perfect, flawless sequel, aimed to win us the hearts of both veteran players and newcomers to the series. Was it? No, of course not.

It turns out that ruling a totalitarian country and making a video-game sequel have at least one thing in common. You can never please everyone! You've been there - the feedback alternates from "everything is the same" to "why did you change all the stuff I liked," often about the same particular feature, and it is not easy to say on which side of this precarious balance you erred.

Before I delve into all the mistakes we made, let me brag a little about the things that surprised us pleasantly.

What went right:

1. Starting from Scratch

It is tempting and often reasonable to approach a sequel as a grand expansion pack, building upon your existing, working title. We've created other games, like Tropico 4, in just such a manner. For Tropico 5 we decide to take the harder route and start from scratch, both in terms of game code and game design.

To explain the reasoning behind our decision, let me first give you an example that demonstrates how the various mechanics in Tropico interact with one another. Please, read the next sentence very carefully, because it describes my single favorite bug in the Tropico series.

When your election opponent in Tropico 4 was married to his great-grandmother the game was freezing in an unresponsive state.

There was no gameplay problem with any other people on the island marrying their great-grandparents, only with your election opponent. Why was this happening?

There was a certain gameplay logic that tilted the election support of family members of your opponent and their own extended families so they are more likely to vote against you. This could cause an infinite loop when the family member in question was related to the candidate as a spouse and a parent/grandparent at the same time.

However, this was supposed to be an invalid situation; since the marriage logic explicitly forbade picking parents, grandparents and siblings as spouses (we are not making Game of Thrones, after all). Not great-grandparents, though - we assumed the generation gap with their grandchildren will be too big and at least one of the pair will be out of marriage age. It turns out that assumption was wrong. Cue the incest and rare impossible-to-reproduce game-freezes on election days!

My point is that the hundreds of different mechanics in Tropico, major and minor, tend to interact with one another in unpredictable and weird ways. By the time we were starting with Tropico 5 we were sitting on Tropico 3 (2009), its expansion Absolute Power (2010), Tropico 4 (2011), its own expansion Modern Times (2012) and several DLCs.

This was like a mountain of strata, spaghetti code and hundreds of features piled together over years and years of development and releases. A minor change in the transportation system could break a seemingly unrelated gameplay mechanic like education or construction. Some features, like our tourism system, were changed so many times over the years that we had to check through 3 different design documents and our bug database to find out how they actually work in practice.

This is why we decided to start from the top.

We approached Tropico 5 as a completely new game. All existing game code was thrown away and the programmers couldn't be happier! Every game feature was redesigned, which gave the design team an excellent opportunity to pass through all mechanics and streamline, deepen, experiment, reevaluate and redesign where needed. We optimized some of our core systems, like the individual citizen simulation and the resource transportation. We've made more sensible new designs, learning from our past mistakes. We replaced whole systems, like the trade mechanics, with more comprehensive ones and trimmed the fat in others, removing weird and heavy game logic that the player could never see. Our new features, like the research system, meshed up well with the core of our new game since we were able to change that core to accommodate them.

All in all, this made for a better product in the end, although starting from scratch also allowed us to mess up some things. I'll elaborate more on that in the "what went wrong" section.

2. Leveling up the Franchise

Tropico 5 is not just a sequel; it is the fourth sequel in the franchise, not counting expansion packs and DLCs. At this point in the life of a franchise, a handful of new buildings, mechanics and quality of life improvements are not enough to provoke the interest of the fans and attract new players. We needed something grander for the largest Tropico ever; we needed a way to bring the franchise to a new level.

We've discussed a lot of ideas, the most radical being changing the core premise and setting (remember how Tropico 2 used to be a pirate game?), but ultimately decided to stay true to the Caribbean dictator theme and to extend its scope as much as possible.

We added the concept of Eras in Tropico 5, starting the game in the Colonial Era where Tropico is a minor colony of a superpower, continuing through the World Wars, the Cold War and finally the Modern Times Era. The rules of the game and the challenges change in each Era, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically; new mechanics are introduced gradually as Tropico moves forward in time.

We went through many design cycles reworking and polishing our introductory Colonial Era. We had two primary design goals - to create the perfect first impression for the game and to use it as an extended tutorial for new players, gradually progressing from holding them by hand and placing simple tasks before them to allowing them to making their own decisions. We even found the perfect metaphor and reward for the end of this "tutorial era" and recognizing the players' achievement in mastering the basics of the game - the political independence of their country!

Later eras gradually phase-in more advanced mechanics and change the focus and difficulty of the game. During the World Wars the player deals with education, industry, politics and war. The Cold War focuses more on dealing with insurgencies, tourism and foreign diplomacy. Finally, you can build the ultimate utopia or dystopia in the Modern Times while the game throws everything it has against your regime.

We decided early in development to never forbid the players to construct older/obsolete buildings from earlier Eras. This was a direct result of a hard-earned lesson from a previous project. There is no reason to place arbitrary restrictions that would only annoy our players and we tried to avoid those in all aspects of the design.

In retrospect the Eras were the key new feature that helped us make the new game attractive, fresh, and not just a rehash of Tropico 4. We've added several other large new features such as research, dynasties, and citizen roles, but none of them had such singular impact on the scope of our game.


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