My first concern on this front is the blurring of what a gameplay element is versus an interface element. I’ve spent some time contemplating how to distinguish them, perhaps the following is sufficient;
“A gameplay element can affect the tactical decision making process of an idealized player, an interface element cannot.”
To clarify what I mean by an idealized player, I mean a player that is not constrained by their skill, time availability, or patience. I think this particular distinction is important because no human is an idealized player, so while, for example, attack-move does improve a player’s chances of success, it is still an interface element. If one was unconstrained by time and patience they could achieve the same effects as attack-move mode by issuing more basic orders manually. The point there is that interface elements can still make the game easier for human players.
But there’s a problem. What about having access to the planetary summary on a given planet? Now, all the information provided by the planetary summary is available to the idealized player without access to a scout, so at first, according to my earlier definition, this looks like an interface element. However, the idealized player might be fighting against a human. So perhaps more accurately, access to the planetary summary is a gameplay element because the idealized player might actively try to destroy the human scout to prevent the human from having access to that data. In this way, full access to the planetary summary has affected the idealized player’s decision making process, so it can be considered to be a gameplay element.
This extends further, what about attack-move from the point of view of the idealized player fighting the human? The fact that the human can issue that order might affect the idealized player’s actions, even though attack-move isn’t used by the idealized player. In truth, nothing would fall under the definition of interface element using my original definition, so I’m going to update it for the purposes of actually being able to continue with my line of thought;
“A gameplay element can directly
affect the tactical decision making process of an idealized player, an interface element cannot.”
I’ll consider the changes in the idealized player’s decision making process caused by the non-idealized player’s use of interface elements as indirect effects on the decision making process. This was I can still consider attack-move mode and the planetary summary to be interface elements. What I consider to be interface elements will still affect the flow of the game - I don’t think there’s any escaping that.
So, It follows from this that interface elements are necessarily built on top of gameplay elements. For example, would one say that issuing a unit with a move order is an interface element or a gameplay element? The method of actually issuing the order is the interface element, but the fact that it is possible to issue a move order is a gameplay element. This can be seen in that even an idealized player would play differently if it weren’t possible to issue move orders, so the decision making process is directly affected. So if the fact that it’s possible to issue move orders is a gameplay element, why don’t I consider the fact that it’s possible to issue attack-move orders to be a gameplay element? Because the existence of attack-move is irrelevant to the idealized player - their patience is infinite and they’re unconstrained by time so they can achieve the same results by issuing move and attack orders.
To summarize here, we have the possibility of attacking and moving as gameplay elements, and the methods of actually effecting these actions, or combinations of them, as interface elements.
Since humans are in fact not idealized players, interface elements can and will affect the difficulty of the game. So, what sort of interface elements should be provided? If the provided interface elements are too basic, the player will be forced to perform mindless repetitive tasks. Too many sophisticated elements, and potential enjoyment of the game that could be derived from difficulty and development of player skills could be lost. Almost without exception, I think AI War strikes this balance brilliantly. Chris’ earlier post in this thread makes a strong case for why reactor management and scouting aren’t handled automatically, which I agree with.
Having established that interface elements can make the game easier, despite them being irrelevant to idealized players, it could make sense to charge the player resources for the privilege of having access to them. I think the way to proceed with this question is to start by looking at it from a thematic view point.
The answer to the above depends on the creator’s design philosophy. Is the interface we use to interact with the game actually external to the simulation, or is even the interface itself part of the simulation? Put another way, is the interface we use to command ships in AI War actually a simulated interface that the human commander we’re supposed to be is using?
Supposing we consider the game to be simulating the interface that an actual commander would be using, then it does make sense the in-game resources could be used to upgrade it. In contrast, if the interface is external to the simulation, then it’s clearly absurd, at least from a thematic standpoint, to charge in-game resources for access to certain features of it.
If we take the view that the interface is external to the simulation, then all possible inconveniences, such as difficulty issuing specific orders or displaying summaries of information that we already have access to in other, albeit less convenient, forms, are the result of imperfections in the interface and should be rectified by the developer. Arguably true in some people’s eyes, but that’s only true if the interface is supposed to transcend the game. I think a more appropriate way of looking at things is to consider the interface of the game to be displaying only the information that the supposed human commander would have access to if they were actually coordinating the simulated battle. In this way, everything that might have been considered an ‘imperfection of the interface’ in the previous case is really just an aspect of the game. I wholly ascribe to this view.
An example of the above is again not having access to the full planetary summary without the presence of a scout. Some might say that it’s an imperfection because they have access to that information by simply looking at the ships on the planet, so it’s pointless to just not provide the information all the time regardless of whether a scout is available. Alternatively, we might assume that the actual human commander is having to base his decision on only having access to the visual data with no way of processing it into a planetary summary, and so this limitation is an intentional challenge.
Does this mean we should never be requesting interface upgrades? No, because even if they’re really aspects of the game, we don’t have to like and agree all those aspects, and so improving them can improve the overall gameplay experience. In the same way that updated gameplay mechanics can eliminate tedious aspects of play, so can interface updates.
In my mind, control nodes are in a real gray area. Control nodes are effectively ignored by the AI - they aren’t there to affect the choices the AI will make. However, control nodes are also units, which represent physical structures in the simulated environment. This is admittedly semantics, but it leads me to describe control nodes as ‘phantom units’, which is really an oxymoron.
The new control node present in the prerelease is an interesting specimen. It’s a constructible unit that affects a fairly important game mechanic, and yet the unit is not intended to interact with the other units in the game in any manner whatsoever
Still, if control nodes were an asset to be defended which the AI would actively seek to destroy in order to hamper the player’s operations, they would make sense, I would see them as supplementary AIs to assist in my operations. As it stands, they are like a physical manifestation of a settings menu. I have to admit that this issue has no objective basis, but the above thinking is the main reason that I’ve been opposed to them.
The only objective measure of ‘correctness’ I can then see is consistency. Okay, done ranting, I’ll continue with my thoughts on what I mean by consistency later.