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The surprising lessons behind First Strike: Final Hour

June 30, 2017 | By Bryant Francis

Nuclear war, though not something one jokes about in geopolitics, is still a fascinating subject for game designers. From Missile Command to Fallout, the nuclear bomb has had a huge impact on game developers who grew up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Now, for those looking to simulate World War 3 one more time, First Strike: Final Hour has finally landed on Steam, 3 years after it launched on iOS and Android. 

To mark the game’s release (last covered by former Gamasutra editor Mike Rose in 2014), we invited developer Jeremy Spillmann onto the Gamasutra Twitch channel to talk about the complicated process of making a game where nation-states wage complicated nuclear war against each other. 

You can watch the full conversation above, but if you need some quick takeaways about making politically charged games, here’s what we learned from Spillmann today…

Americans are a little less excited about nuclear war than they once were

A lot of our conversation with Spillmann revolved around developing a game around such a charged real-world subject. And what we were surprised to learn is that 3 years after the game's initial launch, it’s the American players who seem less excited about playing this game than players from other regions. Spillmann admits he can’t be sure this is a consequence of changing political climates, but he did point out that when the game launched, it was American players who were least excited to live out the fantasy of launching a nuke sky-high. 

Chinese players built a niche community around the game, but had to make code-words for some of its gameplay to get past internet censors

One country that Spillmann was surprised to see receive the game so well was China, where players are still discussing the game rabidly and trying to figure out the best strategies after all these years. But on these forums, certain in-game technologies (based on real nuclear weapons) can’t be discussed by their real names due to Chinese limits on online speech. It’s an important lesson to game developers eyeing the ever-growing Chinese market when thinking about making even remotely political games. 

Real-world geography is hard for game balance

On the one hand, Spillmann said that relying on real-world geography to define the game's factions and regions helped him create specific factions and difficulty levels that mimic real-world possibilities. The United States is further from most other nuclear powers, so with a tech boost, it’s “easy mode.” North Korea is a small country surrounded by enemies, so it’s “impossible mode.” But elsewhere, game regions, distances, and size were all a unique challenge to fine-tune, since defining the size of a country like Israel could both anger certain players but leave him handicapped in creating a balanced game. 

In the end, players will be the ones who decide if First Strike is ultimately fair and fun, but it’s a good lesson on the small struggles of taking design inspiration from national borders. 

If this conversation was helpful for you, please consider following the Gamasutra Twitch channel for more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary. 

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