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Comparative Ludology: A Case Study Using The Sims and Total War

by Taekwan Kim on 11/05/09 11:01:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In today’s post, I’d like to examine The Sims and the Total War series in order to see what can be used from one to improve the other.

(Unfortunately, I have yet to play Sims 3, so this analysis is based on the first two games of that series. Accordingly, some of the points I will make on how The Sims could improve from Total War may be obsolete.)

Gameplay Analysis

Anyone who has played the Total War series (and of course, really any turn based game for that matter) knows this feeling: just one more turn. Especially for the Total War series, however, this feeling stems from the anticipation of how far one can go with the money that comes in with the next turn. Actually, this is the same anticipation that one experiences when playing The Sims. Only the question there is, how far can one go with the next pay check? Underneath this essential similarity is the shared tension between mechanics of decay and mechanics of improvement.

Much of the gameplay in The Sims is about career climbing (one of the designers once referred to the original incarnation of the game as playing “hamsters with jobs”) and positioning oneself for optimal career performance. It deals with acquiring new game objects which allows a Sim to further his traits, which furthers one’s career, which makes acquiring more new game objects easier.

This is actually quite similar to the gameplay of Total War where the point is to purchase new buildings and obtain resources which make acquiring new territories, buildings, and resources that much easier (again, we have that theme of the object being both the source and the goal).

But in both cases, the end game can be quite boring as there are no real new game objects with real ludic improvements to acquire, and one has so many resources at that point anyway—not to mention the ease with which more money can be made—that doing so loses meaning.

To rephrase the above, the essential ludic challenge of both games is the fight against the various attributes which demand upkeep (personal needs, bills, friendship, etc.; or civil unrest, army upkeep, Senate/Pope and guild reputations or diplomatic relations, etc.) while attempting to make progress in terms of the various game goals despite these demands.

Once the tension between upkeep and attaining game goals is lost—that is, when the ludic progress of a player stops being actually needed and useful towards further progress and instead becomes merely “more” (or, in other words, when the game ceases to keep up its part of the "dialogue" and the player is unilaterally demonstrating his prowess)—the player quickly loses investment and the game becomes a simulation.

That said, what can we take from one game to add to the other in order to mitigate this eventual decline in multilateral progression and player investment?

How can The Sims improve Total War?

What The Sims does exceedingly well is providing short term and consummately tangible goals on a constant basis, with the effect of immediately engaging player investment. Especially in the case of aspirations or wishes, obtaining these goals has an instant ludic return. Sims 2, for instance, would grant a character a temporary reprieve from the demands of upkeep in a sort of hyperdrive mode which allowed the player to invest time more heavily in developing traits for career climbing.

Total War, then, could adapt this idea by supplying national goals with national identity rewards based on a national pride gauge. Something akin to aspirations was provided in the two games preceding Empire (guild/council/Senate missions, crusades), but was oddly mostly taken out for Empire. At any rate, these missions did not have a particularly direct or immediate impact on maintaining upkeep anyway.

So, for example, a nationalistic pride boost and build time decreasing drive (like “We Love the Ruler Day” in Civilization, except on a nationwide scale) which also temporarily decreases the cost of army upkeep and makes taking over new territories easier by decreasing the amount of unrest and resentment towards a new ruler, compared to identity crisis and malaise due to inability to progress as a nation (more civil unrest and lengthier build times).

Some of the goals, then, could be such game objectives like achieving a certain enlightenment technology, building a top tier building, or controlling a certain territory or a certain number of them. There could also be more lasting boosts (say, ten turns instead of three) for conquering a historical national enemy (Prussia and Austria, England and France, etc.) or controlling entire regions (like Iberia or France in pre-Empire games, or Western Europe, North America, or India in Empire).

Additionally, the idea in The Sims that the player can improve his skills directly by investing time into them was quite powerful at keeping up player investment. Medieval (the first one) had the interesting mechanic of the bestowment of titles, but the series has progressed to where now in Empire, trait building is mostly a boring experience due to it being even more out of the player’s control (compared to Rome and Medieval 2) or fleeting anyway, and subsequently less consequential (ministers quickly change or can be easily replaced in a monarchy, for example).

This doesn’t make much sense, however, in that the technologies and buildings immediately represent a mechanic for providing a direct kind of control. For instance, a country with Classical Economics and a Global Trading Company or several should naturally produce ministers with higher ranks for treasury traits; Machined Rifling and a few Army Staff Colleges should create generals who start off with more stars and ministers with better army traits; and Abolition of Slavery and Presidential Palaces should result in better head and justice ministers (not to mention monarchs and presidents), etc.; with returns increasing depending on the tech/building tier and the number of such buildings a player has built.

How can Total War improve The Sims?

Something that Total War does do well however, especially in Empire, is keeping the challenge fairly constant for a longer portion of the game. This is mostly due to the fact that, no matter how many territories a player gains, he still needs to keep up a decent garrison for civil unrest purposes in each new territory, so the level of upkeep increases proportionally. Moreover, the challenges a player faces in terms of rivals builds over time as they also obtain better tech, larger armies and more territories.

Finally, at least in Empire, the more territories a player takes, the more it increases hostility in other nations due to territorial expansion, producing an expanding threat which places progressive pressure on the player’s need to maintain a growing standing army. This can translate in The Sims to the demands of daily personal needs increasing in proportion to the number of careers a player has climbed.

Essentially in The Sims, once a player has reached the top of a single career, climbing the other careers becomes a trivial task as the player by that point has already obtained all the top tier furniture. So while the player still needs to gain skills, the tension of upkeep is pretty much gone, with the result being that gaining skills and promotions just becomes a matter of time.

So then, this situation could be improved by introducing a little bit more abstraction concerning furniture and daily needs (after all, it is a game and not really a simulation): with each career conquered, the efficacy of top tier furniture decreases once a character enters another new career, which requires the player to increase their efficacy by purchasing expansions/improvements/add-ons or whatever you would like to call them. These don’t even have to be real objects, simply purchasable game items like Plasma TV Improvement Kit Tier 1 or some such.

Admittedly, however, part of the enjoyment in The Sims is the obtainment of realistic top tier goods, so such an abstraction may have the adverse effect of inadvertently decreasing player satisfaction (though with more investment in the game's development, this could be addressed by introducing greater numbers of unique furniture).

Lastly, the concept of ancillaries in Total War directly improving a character’s traits is quite powerful, as is the game mechanic in Empire that the longer a country maintains trade relations with another country, the more revenue is generated by that relationship (this bonus can be quite substantial if a player maintains relationships for the 50+ years, for instance). This could easily be implemented in The Sims through the use of friends.

At least in the first two games, friends in The Sims are essentially just a quota which needs to be filled for career progress (this, of course, is disregarding their use in keeping up the social bar). So then, for example, being friends with the mayor could help boost one’s charisma skills and help land Politics ladder promotions (this could actually be implemented for all the skill bars in relation to different careers).

Such a game mechanic would also have the benefit of actually providing incentives for making multiple characters with top level careers. Moreover, it’s already an abstraction that a character needs a specific number of completely career unrelated friends to obtain a promotion anyway, so the further step might be taken that having more friends has a direct improvement on a character’s paycheck (maybe the character is able to find more clients in the Law ladder, or sell more products in the Business ladder, through networking), with friendships that have been maintained longer and friendships with friends in higher places (in their career ladder) providing greater bonuses. To counter the growing size of paychecks, however, would be a modest increase in the cost of bills in direct relation to the furniture "expansions" described above.


In this post I tried to bring together some of the analysis from my previous two posts to applicable use. I have attempted to demonstrate with a case study that, if games really are the products of the collective set of archetypes, then all we have to do is identify the shared experiential components to understand and improve the underlying common game mechanics between games from entirely different genres and contexts (just as we ignore the cultural or religious origins of symbolic narratives in order to infer the underlying archetypes).

Abstractly, both of these series of games deal with breaking the progress of decay through conflictive repetition (i.e. the archetype producing the Phoenix or Jrmungandr), so the analysis applied here should be equally relevant to other games of this experiential form (for instance, Diablo 2).

It was also an endeavor to illustrate how conceptualizing the difference between dialogue and demonstration/multilateralism and unilateralism/game and simulation can help in the effort to expand and enhance player investment to the benefit to both game longevity and the overall interactive experience.

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