No Diecast this week. Although if things go to plan, I’ll be on the Eh! Steve! podcast later this week. Chris and I have been trying to make this happen for over a month now, but scheduling conflicts have gotten in the way.
Anyway, here are some topics I was going to talk about on the show…
I’ve had a few run-ins with this genre over the years. The first was when I played the original Capitalism (1995) sometime in the late 90s. Then Capitalism II. Then some various $noun Tycoon games in the aughts and teens. I’m not sure where the genre borders are, and I don’t know where you draw the line between “Production Business” type games and “Transport and Logistics” type games. I’ve never gotten very far with any of them, but I keep trying anyway. These games are popular – Capitalism in particular has a reputation as a legendary title from the 90s – but they’ve never clicked for me.
On paper, it seems like this stuff should be right up my alley. I love base-building. I like games where you run a business. And if my Factorio problem is any indication, I have a weird obsession with logistics.
I think my problem with these games is that they too often feature complexity without the depth to back it up. I can’t remember which games I’ve played or how they all worked, but here is a rough approximation of my experience:
I’m about fifteen minutes into the tutorial, which has me creating a single product. I have to build a warehouse, then buy some raw materials, then hire a truck to bring the materials to the warehouse. Then I build a factory. Then I assign the factory a single blueprint.
Oops. Looking at my holdings now, I see I bought “Wood Planks” when the tutorial told me to buy “Treated Wood Panels”. So now my warehouse is full of wood I can’t use. I can’t see any way to sell or even throw away the Wood Planks, so I need to build another entire warehouse and do the whole supply chain again, but with the right part this time.
Okay, the factory is making furniture. Now the tutorial tells me to build a warehouse to hold the output. Thinking I’m being clever, I build the warehouse right next to the factory so I won’t need trucks to transport the furniture around.
Sometime later in the tutorial process, I realize that I don’t have any furniture available to sell. I check, and discover that putting the two buildings next door to each other doesn’t work. You have to use trucks. So I try to hire a truck to move the stuff next door, but the tutorial won’t let me create a route that short. So I need to tear down my warehouse and build it father away. Of course, in the REAL WORLD you can’t get your money back if you demolish an already-completed building, and this game is all about the REAL WORLD. (A “real world” where my factory workers can’t move furniture next door.) So I demolish the old building and discover I don’t have enough money to build a new one. The tutorial is broken and my game is soft-locked.
So then I use the keyboard shortcut designed to solve problems like this, which is Alt-F4.
Ugh. My gripe here isn’t that the game is too hard or that the tutorial is bad. Complicated games need to have complicated tutorials. My problem is that we have so many layers of complexity that exist for no reason. Why can’t I just click on the factory, choose a supplier, and have the raw materials deposited at my factory?
But Shamus! That’s not how things work in THE REAL WORLD! This game is trying to teach you about supply systems. Go play a dumbed-down mobile game if you want to play “baby’s first capitalism”.
My problem with the system is that none of these layers offer the player any real gameplay. There’s no decisions to make. No trade-off between low short-term gains and larger long-term payoffs. No way to optimize anything.
You could remove all of these intermediate layers without losing anything in terms of business decisions. It would be reasonable to assume that somewhere in my company is some middle-manager in charge of running warehouses and hiring trucks. But that guy has a boring job, which is why I’m paying him to do it rather than doing it myself. I’m supposedly the president, and I’m also the only real human being in the entire enterprise. So it would make sense to have me focus my creativity and natural curiosity on interesting decisions and leave the routine stuff to an AI.
Game designer: But Shamus! I don’t want to write an AI to run warehouses and hire truck drivers. That’s super-boring!
I know, right? So I’m wondering why did you put warehouses and trucks in the game, Sparky? If we’re both bored, then who is this for?
Other games skip over needless complexity by abstracting it away. You can’t simulate everything, so part of designing a game is deciding where to draw the line. I’m sure Cal Kestus needs to hydrate and relieve himself, bathe, brush his teeth, clean the mud out of the grooves in his lightsaber, sleep, launder his outfit, dry out his boots, and eat. But those things don’t add anything to the gameplay or the story, so they’re not depicted in the game. Likewise, I don’t need to personally hire individual trucks and explain to them how to move assets around my company. That stuff can happen off-screen and we can just have the goods show up at the buildings, which is where I can make interesting decisions about what to do with the stuff.
In the Rollercoaster Tycoon series, you don’t need to pay an engineer to design a coaster, hire another engineer to audit the design, haggle with the city for zoning permits, pay for an environmental impact study, hire a construction company, expand your liability insurance to cover the new coaster, commission the coaster and hire a transport company to ship it all the way across the continent to your park, have the concrete base poured months ahead of time so it has time to cure, and then cordon off sections of the park in stages so you can assemble the whole thing without endangering people. We can assume those things are happening in the background, but there’s no reason to simulate it because it doesn’t add anything to the game. It would boil down to the player going through the same two dozen pointless dialog boxes every time they wanted to make a new attraction. That’s not gameplay, that’s busywork.
Because of this, I’ve never spent more than an hour-ish with any of these games. They sound so fun on the surface, but I’m never able to find the fun once I’m in the game.
This time I decided I was really going to give it a go. I was going to get through the tutorial and spend a few hours with Voxel Tycoon to see if it clicked. Maybe these games just have a high initial barrier to get over and then it gets really good?
Verdict: Eh. Not so much.
I really do love the art style. This low-poly flat-shaded look is groovy. But the gameplay was exactly what I expected.
What ruined the game for me:
At one point I was making a smelter to make iron bars. I was shoved into an awkward corner without a lot of room to build more stuff. Thinking I was being clever, I funneled the iron bars into a warehouseNot actually a warehouse. It’s a “freight station”. How does a “freight station” differ from a “warehouse”? I have no idea. I’m sure it has something to do with THE REAL WORLD. I was already using for coal. Then later I got a notification that a bunch of my trucks had stopped making money.
One thing I should note is that you need to buy your own vehicles and then you need to assign them routes. You need to micro-manage the little bastards to tell them where to pick up items and where to drop them off. Curiously, you can’t tell them what items to pick up or drop off. I assumed the trucks would work it out on their own based on context. But no.
So the truck I was using to deliver coal swung by the usual station, and randomly decided to grab these iron bars instead of coal. Then it drove the iron bars to the power plant and sat there for the rest of the month, trapped, because the power plant didn’t need iron bars.I had the truck set to wait until it was empty. You can fix this by NOT doing that, but then trucks will sometimes waste an entire cross-county run delivering one lump of coal. It’s nonsense either way, so you’re just choosing what the fail state looks like. Worse, it blocked the street so now there were a dozen or so trucks trapped behind it, unable to route around or deliver their goods. As salt in the wound, this created a cashflow problem for me.Also, cleaning unwanted items out of a truck is really annoying. There’s no button for “dump this crap, I need you to deliver other stuff.”
Now, you can argue that the game is in Early Access and there are bound to be some hiccups. And that’s fine. If this is just a bug, then no big deal. But this perfectly matches the experiences I’ve had with the genre in the past, where you’re forced to micromanage an obtuse and overcomplicated system. You’re forced to manage all this low-level stuff manually, but you’re not given enough tools to do the job properly.
You can’t create a world where a lone driver clogs city traffic for a month because he just picks up items at random from his assigned warehouse, and then turn around and tell me all of this micro-management is being done in the name of “realism”. IN THE REAL WORLD, that truck got moved, one way or another, out of the way of city traffic. If I want to be a smartass, I can start asking why he didn’t die of thirst while sitting in front of the power plant for weeks on end. If you’re not going to stop simulating things because they’re boring and trivial, then when DO you stop?
For the record, Voxel Tycoon is doing well. As of now, the consensus on Steam is “Very Positive”. Fans of the genre seem to like it. So all of this negativity shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of the game as much as a commentary on the genre as a whole.
For me, it’s not fun and I don’t get it. But if you dig this genre, then maybe it’s worth a look. Like I said, the art is great.
Oh no. The ominous Windows Update Icon has appeared in my system tray again. Months ago I announced I was going to turn off Windows Update, and then I discovered that this was complicated, risky, or reliant on third-party software. So I switched to the lazy / poor man’s solution: indefinite postponement. When the icon pops up, I just hit the “suspend updates for 7 days” button as many times as it will allow. This usually gives me a couple of months of peace.
Sooner or later, I’ll bet Windows will put its foot down and make me do it. I’m not sure what I’ll do when the time comes.
But I wonder what’s in the update? Let’s have a look!
- Dark Mode. Really Microsoft? “Dark mode”? That’s your big headline feature? And hang on, my taskbar and Start Menu are already dark grey. What else is there to darken? Are you trying to offer me a feature I already have?
- The ability to pin websites to the taskbar. Oh hell no. The last thing I want is for my operating system to “help” me with my workflow. I know how to use bookmarks, thanks. Taskbar real estate is precious enough as it is. (Also, I’ll bet you this is linked to Microsoft Edge, and I’m NEVER using Microsoft Edge. Yes, I hear it’s good. But Microsoft abandoned Internet Explorer when they got bored with it in the aughts, and that caused headaches and nightmares for web developers for years. I remember cursing them in the early days of this site when I couldn’t get things to look consistent across the browsers, and IE was always the maverick. Microsoft doesn’t deserve a second chance and there’s no reason to give them one. There are plenty of web browsers out there these days. I’d like one from a company that DIDN’T create massive ongoing security problems and force a generation of web developers to route around their non-compliant browser with ugly hacks.)
- Alt-Tab through web pages! Okay, this would never impact me because I won’t use Edge, but this sounds like the most nightmare anti-feature ever. When I’m alt-tabbing between programming, testing in Unity, and image editing, the last thing I need is for the process list to be cluttered up with the dozen or so Stack Overflow windows I have open. Yuck.
But wait! There’s more! I have two updates waiting now. Let’s see what the other one is.
- Require Windows Hello sign-in for Microsoft accounts. The word “require” is always terrifying. This “feature” allows you (or forces you?) to log into the machine using your face. I guess some people leave an always-on webcam on their computer? I am not one of those people. One of the great sins of modern-day Microsoft is that they can’t tell the difference between securing your machine against the internet and securing it from your housemates. I understand that some people need both, but for me it’s really important that my family can access my machine whenever they need to. I have control over my half of the family income, and I want my wife to be able to transfer funds to keep a check from bouncing. And I don’t want her to have to wake me up to do it. Or maybe someone wants to use the printer, which for some reason will only talk to my machine over the network. Or maybe my wife needs to reset a password on one of the dozens of family accounts linked to my email.The point is, I don’t want the idiots in Redmond dictating security policies to me. This machine needs to be open to anyone in the house without a password or access to my face, and if this update “fixes” this arrangement then I’ll lose hours of productivity trying to undo the mess.
- Have magnifier text read aloud. Yay usability. I’m sure lots of folks will benefit from this. But do we really need to have a SYSTEM-WIDE MODIFICATION TO THE OPERATING SYSTEM for this? Does this really need to be part of one of these scary updates that steals your computer for the better part of an hour? I mean, I have this same question for most of the items on this list, but this one especially.
- Make text cursor easier to read. You can add little colored gizmos to the cursor to make it easier for grammy to find it on the 4K monitor we inexplicably bought her. Again, that’s nice. But is this feature so important that we need to push out an update to all users everywhere? Couldn’t this update stand on its own? Or be packaged with something people need?
That’s it. Those three features are evidently the core of this update that Microsoft is pushing. The first is a feature I dread, and the other two are small situational usability tools that don’t apply to me.
Please tell me that we’re making progress with getting games to run on Linux. I’d love to enjoy my hobby without this ball of stress and misery every three months.
 Not actually a warehouse. It’s a “freight station”. How does a “freight station” differ from a “warehouse”? I have no idea. I’m sure it has something to do with THE REAL WORLD.
 I had the truck set to wait until it was empty. You can fix this by NOT doing that, but then trucks will sometimes waste an entire cross-county run delivering one lump of coal. It’s nonsense either way, so you’re just choosing what the fail state looks like.
 Also, cleaning unwanted items out of a truck is really annoying. There’s no button for “dump this crap, I need you to deliver other stuff.”
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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