Sunday, September 24, 2006

Nuclear War

Usually, when I think of an old movie or video game that I really loved back in the day, I give it another go and find that the appeal just isn't there anymore. Sometimes I wonder "what the hell was I thinking!". Most, though, I can acknowledge as good for their age but antiquated now.

Nuclear War, however, is one of those rare few that hasn't lost any of its shine...and that's pretty impressive considering it's a DOS game. It's even more impressive because it's a more complex game that Pac-Man or Frogger (I think that makes its staying power more remarkable, not less). You can download the original DOS version for free here:

Anyway, it makes me wonder: What makes a game withstand time and innovations this way?

I've decided to attempt applying Nuclear War's basic formula to a new design and expanding from there, so I've already broken down the game into its core elements. Perhaps looking at these will help with the question above. In no particular order:

  • 4 oppenents per game; 5 cities per isle-nation; turn-based
  • semi-random initial city populations
  • goal: annihilate all opponents
  • 10 opponents; 5 personality types (propogandist, stockpiler, deceiver, madman, and...umm...something else) which affect the opponent's reception of player actions, as well as determining his/her playstyle
  • possible actions: build, propoganda, prepare weapon, fire weapon, prepare defenses
  • 6 city sizes, 4 weapon sizes; propoganda can match half the maximum weapon efficiency
  • diplomacy icons with 5 degrees (hate, dislike, neutral, like, love); diplomacy web (allies may like your enemies)
  • backfires (propoganda backfire, missile duds, wasted missile/propoganda on empty cities)
  • random phenomena (stampede, earthquake, alien city abduction, alien or stork population bonus)
  • taunts
  • humor (including satire of historical leaders)
  • sometimes, nobody wins

So, again, is there any formula or general principles that explain why this DOS game is still fun 17 years (!) after its release? Or do games with such long lifespans just get it right each in their own unique way?


  1. Just found your blog via your comments on Koster's website. Was reading through your back posts, and you have some really intriguing points in there. What kind of game design are you interested in?

  2. Thanks. I enjoy all sorts of games, and will hopefully be able to do a bit of each at some point. My main interest is probably RPGs, because that genre allows me to combine more elements and draw on more knowledge (history, literature, sciences, philosophy, etc).

    While in school, I've just focused on general philosophies, mostly. But if I can figure out the XNA developer program, maybe I'll be able to get a simple game out the door in the next year.

  3. I find RPGs to be the most interesting genre for game design as well, for the same reason. They have so much potential for education and immersion while being just as entertaining as other genres.

    If you do start developing something with the XNA kit you should post your progress on the blog. I'm adding you to my regular list and I'd be interested to see what you come up with.

    But given your interest in RPGs, have you considered using something more user-friendly? RPG Maker XP, TES toolset, or the Aurora NWN engine would all work pretty well for getting your hands dirty if you don't have a lot of programming skill(unless you're trying to do something totally new).

  4. I'll check out the RPG Maker program. I've dabbled with the NWN toolset before, but that mainly allows story creation...I'm still bound to the D&D ruleset and NWN mechanics; the same with TES.

    The storytelling power in a game is greatly shaped by the game's mechanics. I'm sure I'd be able to do much more with those toolsets if I had more programming and modeling knowledge...if I was able to alter the tools and models provided. Maybe tonight I'll post my thoughts on visual storytelling, as an example.

    Right now, though, the design concepts that interest me most are transforming the Nuclear War framework into something new, and combining fantasy and sports for a fast-paced and infinitely replayable game (think Bloodbowl, but heavier on fantasy, with much more variation, and with RPG-style character customizations).

    Replayability is huge with me. I don't buy games anymore unless I think they'll last me more than a month.

  5. When you say "Nuclear War framework", what exactly do you mean? Are you talking about a post-apocalyptic setting like Fallout, or a game that would tackle the intricacies of modern global nuclear war?

    The Bloodbowl-esque concept is interesting. And I know what you mean about replayability. It was terrible disappointing to shell out $50 for Fable last year, beat it in 10-12 hours, and then never touch it again.

  6. Yeah, I'm actually a little worried about Gears of War. It looks like an awesome game, but I read the other day that the single-player campaign is only 10-12 hours long.

    By the Nuclear War "framework", I meant everything BUT the setting. ;) I want to consider the mechanics as a foundation, apply it to a new setting and see where that leads me. I don't mean the same gameplay with a new face (i don't want to clone anyone's game). I mean twisting the old gameplay and embellishing it into something that really feels new.

    With the fantasy-sports game, likewise, I want to abstract the sport much more from reality, to the extent that it doesn't immediately recall any real-world sport. I'm trying to find what's good and what's bad about real sports, take them out of real-world contraints, and shape it from there.

    I thought about citing the Quiditch game in the Harry Potter series, but my own tastes are for something more violent. =)


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