HotM:Why Is Pre-Chapter-Two So Different?

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This is a great question, and it's something that some people seem to intuitively understand, while others have a lot of questions. Hopefully it's mainly out of curiosity rather than confusion, but I'm happy to lay out the reasoning.

Why Start So RPG-like?

For example, in SimCity, you just start as the mayor. There's not any scenes of you becoming the mayor, or driving to work, or whatever.

Looking Back At The 2023 Build

The problem with the SimCity comparison and the whole mayor thing, also came up in test versions in early 2023. I just started you in the city with robots.

The questions included, but were not limited to:

  • "Where did we get all these robots?"
  • "Where did I come from?"
  • "Who are all these factions?"
  • "What am I supposed to do?"
  • "What do you mean, anything I want? I don't know what I want."

On the other hand, in somewhat comparable games:

  • With SimCity, the fact that somebody is the mayor is a given. So you are that person. Okay, problem solved.
  • With Civ or other games where there's a political or military leader, again, someone is always in that role. That's you? Check.
  • With this game, you have no inherent objective, and you're an AI who just woke up and gets to do... whatever you feel like.

You're not the mayor, you're not fighting a war, you're not trying to kill all humans. So... what the heck.

This was very confusing, and felt very artificial to everyone who played it.

Orienting The Player

The player needs some sort of orientation for what the world of this character is like, and how they fit into it. They also need to see this character grow from a stray robot into something that has more power. Otherwise, the premise here just falls apart. Not theoretically -- the builds a year ago just did not work for people.

So this does mean you get eased into things, in a way that other strategy games or citybuilders don't have to do. This is specifically because this is an inhuman character, and they don't fit in any human role, and they don't have any human motivation, or any inherent motivation at all.

Skyrim is sort of a good example, in another genre, if you ignore the latter parts of the game. You wake up in a cart. You're going to be killed. Then dragon happens, and you don't die. Now you just randomly wander and see what you find. Eventually, some quest strikes your eye.

This is that kind of opening.

Backstory Through Gameplay

In general, I could give you some pages to read about what this city is like, and what your options are, and you could choose from a menu what sounds most interesting. Or I could double that up with the tutorial, make you feel small and weak, and then stronger and more powerful, and let you feel your place in the city, and your emotions about specific other factions.

So then when chapter two rolls around and is like "where you wanna go, boss?" you're excited, and more than ready for it, not overwhelmed.

Preventing Overwhelm When Presenting Options

On a related subject to the above, but a bit adjacent: I have to make sure that players are actually comfortable making choices by the time they reach chapter two. This is part of why chapter one is the length it is.

The AI War Version Of The Problem

AI War 1 and 2 had a problem where players would get through the tutorials, and then the first few planets, where objectives were clear. But then once the middle game opened up, and their only goal was "get stronger and defeat the overlord, but be careful not to aggro it too much," many people found this overwhelming and would stop.

With most strategy games, there is a strong punitive relationship to any choices you make. And you're on the clock.

Shifting That Mindset

This game has to go out of its way to make sure the player feels, deep in their bones, that they are allowed to explore, and that they should relish any freedom given to them. This is part of why the first chapter is as long as it is. (The other part is that it's touring you through all the main mechanics you will need).

It was a really complex nest of design challenges, including the tendencies of a lot of players to isolate from other factions when not given any reason to engage. "Just let me hide in the corner and built a robot army and then cover the map, talking to no one, please."

The long prologue and chapter one are meant for breaking down that way of thinking, and to create a sense that interactions with other people and factions is an exciting source of opportunities.

Genre Mix

With the game being three distinct genres blended in equal parts into each other, I can't take the normal citybuilder or strategy game intro approach. However, the approach I have taken is exactly the way that a lot of RPGs open, though, for pretty much exactly the same reasons.

THAT said, the intro is a lot longer than most RPGs! Again this comes back to genre mix.

The prologue and chapter one have to establish the world, an entire new mix of gameplay, your character, and a bunch of other stuff.

I think that the Factorio tutorial is similar -- or your first planet in Dyson Sphere Program (isn't this just factorio on one planet? Oh wait...) There's a lot of other parallels I can think of, and even games like Anno 1800 have a similar length of intro, since they have so many mechanics, despite them being clearly in one single genre.


Basically, this solves several problems at once:

  • Establishes character and setting.
    • Particularly key given you are not a human or invisible sky-god. Who you are and what your limitations and capabilitis are has to be established.
  • Gives you a chance to figure out what sort of motivations you want to give your character in chapter two, since they have no inherent motivation until you do.
    • This would be almost impossible if you were coming into the city knowing nothing about it.
  • Gets you comfortable with exploring and making mistakes, versus being overly-avoidant of potentially-dangerous scenarios.
  • Introduces all of the major game mechanics so that on any chapter two path you choose, you can just play and not have to have as many tutorials about new stuff.

Contextual Tutorials

There's a school of thought that says that tutorials should just be something that pop up contextually as you play. And for certain things in chapter two, that is how it will work. This is something that I have leaned into heavily in past games, most notably The Last Federation, but also AI War 2 to an extent.

My observation of past players and their struggles is that this style of tutorialization is good for some things, but not good for other things. Heart of the Machine has a lot of very heavy lifting to do to get players into the mindset of the world and its mechanics, and so using a more RPG-like approach, over a fairly long period of time, made the most sense.