Game Influence (1/6): Ikariam

This is part of a series of blog posts on the design process of my web game:

Ikariam city view{.alignnone .size-full .wp-image-682 width=”450” height=”279”}

Ikariam is a persistent browser-based game. In a game world shared with thousands of other players, you found and improve cities that grow over weeks and months. Nearly everything takes time to happen: you start construction of a building and it may finish in 40 minutes, you recruit 20 swordsmen and they arrive at five-minute intervals, or you make a trade with another player and the resources arrive in a few hours (depending on how far away that player is). It’s a very slow-paced game, you can enjoyably and play fairly competitively with a few minutes in the morning and evening.

I’ve played a few dozen games in this medium and genre (more on that distinction in a minute), and Ikariam is the best of them. It’s beautifully polished for new players: sharp, consistent graphics, an instructive tutorial in early play to get you started, clear help files, and overall high production values.

It’s also very smart about multiplayer. While building your cities is fun, the multiplayer interaction is the strength of these games. You compete for resources, offer trades, make friends, forge alliances, and fight battles. These things could all happen in a single-player game, but interacting with real people is what enlivens these games. You can see that power in the success of World of Warcraft and Facebook.

Different views of Ikariam{.alignnone .size-full .wp-image-826 width=”530” height=”230”}

Actions cost resources, and there are five in Ikariam: wood (most common resource, for buildings and units), marble (for advanced buildings), wine (for population growth), crystal (for research in the technology tree), and sulfur (for military units). Ikariam has some clever design elements to induce player interactions. It starts with islands that group up to 16 cities.

Each island produces wood in a sawmill and any city can donate towards upgrading it. It doesn’t matter who donates, every upgrade means every city can produce more wood. This uses the free rider problem as a game mechanic: there’s a natural tension between wanting your neighbors to pay and not wanting to aggravate them by under-contributing.

In addition to wood, each island produces one of the four other goods. Because your city needs all four to thrive, you’ll have to barter, trade, beg, extort, or raid them from other players. Eventually you can found cities on other islands and transfer your own resources around, but that’s not always adequate to meet the demands of your growth.

They’re simple mechanics that are powerful in practice. They give players natural excuses to start talking to each other, form opinions of each other, helping or hurting each other. In short: to play.

Most of these games get this wrong, players are self-sufficient or can only interact in destructive competition (eg. military attack). I’ve said “these games” a few times, let me define that a little better. The medium is a persistent browser-based game: the defining attributes are online browser play, hundreds to millions of players, and long-term play. The genre is... well, it doesn’t really have a name. It’s about building an empire, probably crushing other players, moving around resources and military units. I personally call them farming games, but that’s the subject of a later rant.

I think part of the appeal of these games is that people don’t tend to have a lot of productive, creative hobbies anymore. It’s unusual to build a ship in a bottle, knit a sweater, or refinish a table. Building a city, an alliance, an empire, is sort of a virtual exercise of this same muscle. I really enjoy these games and have been half-planning to write one for years.

But as I look at how the genre is has been mapped out I see a narrow playerbase and shallow gameplay. I started seriously thinking about building a game when I realized that I can have the medium I really like without the genre that I am increasingly disenchanted with. My next post about game influences is about WeeWar, a game that does just that.