The Year 1404 – Game and Reality

Back in 2009, I wrote a Developer Diary for ANNO 1404. Yes, I am carrying this Games – Reality theme around for some time now. To my knowledge, it never got a translation into English. Here is the original entry. And now, here is my personal translation:

They may be inconspicuous, but are still there: Similarities between brothers.
In the case of Simon and Sebastian Bombera, it is a common fascination with the past. The younger brother studies history, while the elder works on a videogame with historical setting. After Simon aced his state examination, they had some celebratory beers. And some time later, the discussion swerved towards the background of ANNO 1404.

Simon: So, why actually 1404? That may have been an exciting year, but I cannot think of any decisive event to remember it by… instead, for example, 1492 or 1798.

Sebastian: Well, it was not supposed to. For ANNO, we are always looking at a large timeframe instead of a single event. It is not about letting players discover America or survive the French Revolution, but to have them write their own history. ANNO is just the setting and the rules, but it is up to the players to choose their path – whether as a diplomat, guild master or master builder.
And by the way, the rough time frame gives us far more freedom when choosing which Goods, Buildings or Technologies become part of the game.

Simon: Yeah, looking at some artworks, you are really exploiting this freedom to its fullest. Just look at the architecture: I can see Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance… simply anything that seemed to fit somehow.

Sebastian: Well spotted. And you already called the reason for this mishmash: It fits.
There are a lot of buildings in this game. And they all have to follow some common rules.
Primarily, they need to be distinct and recognizable, even at a large distance.
When players are looking at their island from above and search for their Charburner’s Hut, it is easier to spot the house with the large charcoal stack instead of searching every cabin for the black guy.
Secondly, the buildings should fit their particular civilization level. These levels have to be visually distinct while looking more impressive with every step.

Occident Residences
Every civilization level got its own look

Simon: Alright… so that’s why your Aristocrats don’t live in castles, but in Biedermeier-era town halls and are busy all day lighting new candlesticks.

Sebastian: Wisecracker!

Simon: No, really. How the hell are you choosing these goods and production chains, anyway? I can believe that Peasants take their only nourishment from fish. But the very next level, the Citizens, demand for Spices, which seems a little out of place. Pepper, for example, was worth its weight in gold these times and was not available to the common folk.

Sebastian: To get all the wares for ANNO 1404, we started out with extensive research, and created several long lists afterwards. These contained everything from Abacus to Zwieback, complete with pictures and descriptions of their fabrication. Based on these lists, we did the actual design while considering the game mechanics: How complicated is a production chain? What buildings are needed, and what types of intermediate goods are produced?

Simon: What do you mean with „intermediate goods“?

Sebastian: That is what we call all goods that are processed further. For example: Hemp is intermediate goods, which is fabricated into linen cloth, ropes and candlewick. And if a production chain becomes very complex and needs many of these intermediate goods, it belongs into the late game. That way, new players will not become overwhelmed and the experienced ones get something to do later on. And now back to your Spices for Citizens… well, it is a simple chain. Not enough complexity for the more appropriate Aristocrats level. And by the way, it is a good reason to send players south, looking for the right growing area. So we can introduce the Orient at that stage.

Meeting of Cultures
“Learning from other cultures” is the main theme of ANNO 1404

Simon: Ah, the Orient. That was a good idea. Especially considering that there have been relations between Occident and Orient long before the year 1404. The Byzantine Empire had been already structurally weakened through its conquest by crusaders in 1204. Consequently, it could do nothing to slow the growth of the Ottoman Empire during the 14th century. The Byzantine Capitol, Constantinople was finally captured by the Turks in 1453.
So, your game plays during a historical phase in which the emerging fabric of European states had to stand up to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
Additionally, at around 1404, the Reconquista was still ongoing on the Iberian Peninsula. It would not end before 1492, with the surrender of the Moorish city of Granada.

Sebastian: That is quite a memory you got there! But this is also one of the main points, where ANNO 1404 differs from history. We do not present the Orient as an expansive opponent, but as a helpful ally. There have always been long stretches of time, in which all cultures and religions lived rather peaceful alongside each other and learned from neighbours. The Moors in the West and the Crusader Kingdoms in the East both arranged themselves with their surroundings and created their own mixed cultures. These times saw an immense exchange of goods and knowledge between cultures and shaped many areas of life to the present day: Medicine, Chemistry, Mathematics, eating habits… to name a few.
Regrettably, these peaceful periods get forgotten too often. Chances are, if you are talking about relations between Orient and Occident, the first word everyone recalls is “Crusade”. So, yes, that pop cultural memory is the reason why the campaign in ANNO 1404 deals with a crusade and its associated power games.

Simon: That is historically quite incorrect. The seventh and last crusade is already 130 years in the past in 1404.

Sebastian: Yes, but it feels right for the game. We rate fun over realism. And ANNO 1404 does not claim to keep to the books. We are playing in an idealized, pop-cultured version of history. With terms and pictures that everyone thinks of when they hear “Middle Ages”. We are walking the line between the derogatory damnation of that epoch as “Dark” and its kitsch romanticisation as “ye good olde tymes”.
And we present a lot of things that are historically accurate and distinguish ANNO 1404 from its predecessors: Cogs instead of Galleons, Knight’s Castles instead of Pleasure Palaces, or Corsairs instead of Pirates. History is present in all areas of the game: The medieval estates of the realm, beggars, princesses and tournaments, outlaws, torturers and plague carts, monasteries, irrigation systems and caravans…

Simon: …alright, alright, I see you put a lot of thought into the game’s setting, regardless of all inconsistencies. Now, please, let me irrigate my dry throat and intermediately produce two new glasses of beer.

Ecobalance exploit in ANNO 2070

More than meets the eye

Vote for progress!

There is a huge exploit in ANNO 2070. And it is one of the more realistic elements of the game.

This exploit allows players to utilize standard game mechanics to completely shut down an opponent in multiplayer matches. And it works like this: Choose to start with the Tycoon faction. Start scouting for Eco faction players immediately after the session begins. Other players are not very hard to spot, since the islands with the important starting resources are usually located in the middle of the map. After you have found a thriving Eco settlement, plant your own warehouse on another beach of that island. If you want to be extra mean, put one or two depots near it to secure the area should your warehouse be destroyed. Now build some cheap buildings with large Ecobalance cost – namely Excavators and Coal Power Plants.

See where this is going? Yes, you take a hit in early production for spending building materials on your opponent’s island. And against another Tycoon player, you just slowed your economic growth for nothing. But Ecos are far more sensitive about the Ecobalance of their island. And with just a few buildings, you crippled the productivity of their farms and made their inhabitants too unhappy to pay any taxes. And there is nearly nothing they can do against this, apart from openly attacking your warehouse or trying to migrate to another island, where the grass is still green.

Stop complaining, it could be worse!

I shall kill you... with buildings!

Somewhere in the bugtracking tool

This issue popped up not long after the game’s multiplayer mode became functional. But what to do about it? The problem is created by the shared attribute, but the shared attribute is the core of the feature, and the feature is at the core of the new setting. So nothing we could chalk up as design flaw and remove it quietly.

Actually, that feature had already been dialled back from being global to just affecting one island. Just imagine playing the Eco faction and having to deal with a steadily decreasing ecobalance because a Tycoon player is settling anywhere on the map.  No fun at all. And very, very hard to explain. It is one thing to construct a building and get an immediate feedback via numbers and changes in the island’s appearance. But another to build up peacefully and suddenly get a starving and rioting population, because you failed to constantly monitor one little abstract number somewhere on the screen. Which you do not care for anyway, because you have no idea how it is calculated or what it does exactly.

Just… don’t play with other people?

...or Europe, America, Africa, Australia. Not Antarctica. Yet.

Somewhere in China

Anyway, the issue still exists when players share an island. We decided against either gutting the core mechanic by creating separate ecobalance values for players, or constructing contrived crutch-features and workarounds through quests or items. We want to solve the issue, and solve it right. So, yes, there will be updates to the game down the road that addresses this exploit.

But in the meantime, your best solution to avoid it when playing ANNO 2070 multiplayer is to form a social contract. Talk to each other, agree on house rules and shame anyone that uses cheese tactics. Chances are, you will be more successful than the UN in Copenhagen, Cancûn or Durban. I had hoped to get some results from these conferences that could be transferred into our game world. In a simplified form, of course, but the analogy would have been nice. At the moment, we will have to come up with something of our own. But on the bright side, it is probably implemented before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.