Ikariam revisited

Since posting about it previously, addiction has set in something rotten and every spare minute I could muster has been poured into my Ikariam Empire, which is now a commendable size, with two colonies and a growing alliance of friends and colleagues. But some glaring issues with the game’s design have also become apparent, beyond the fact it isn’t finished yet in itself. Here are some issues I’ve come across that would be worth considering for any web-based developers.

No Invite
I am shocked and appalled there is no “invite friends” button on the site. I have to tell my friends via email to try it out and to make sure they join the same server as me, whereas this would have been much better done with a single button and standard invitation email. This would also allow for friends who join using the invitation to have an island somewhere in the rough vicinity as your own on the same server, and not, as is the case now, spread across the map at several days’ distance from each other. When I create an alliance I want it to be with the people I know, preferably, but that is only useful if we’re all in the same sector. An invitation process could easily bring new players to the game and make sure they are clustered fairly close together, for added fun.

Warmongering
If you have the misfortune to be neighbours with an aggressor who is more powerful than you, the game is, for all intents and purposes, finished. There is no way for the victim to build defense or an army large enough to combat the invader if the latter keeps hammering you. The only option is to research to a certain level and build enough to be able to join an alliance and hope they can sort things out for you, but if you’re a real low level player, even this could be problematic or at least very time consuming.
They do limit the number of attacks a person can unleash on any single village by 6 per day, which is still a lot and leaves the victim with absolutely no recourse to defend or rebuild. A better tactic would have been to limit an attack to one per every few days, giving the victim time to slowly, very slowly, build towards a defense, in either building or joining an alliance, and will force the warmonger to attack other villages while he waits for another chance, thus angering more players, increasing the chances of a joint retaliation and so making the risk of warmongering commensurate with the possible rewards. Alternatively, set up a mercenaries system, where big Alliances can be paid, maybe deferred, to help out a small starter village by pummeling someone who deserves it.

Obtuse rules
Apart from the constant attacking, which is called “bashing”, there is another rule called “pushing” where lower level players may not send huge amounts of resources to higher players. This last one seems a little odd but I guess it came from friends artificially strengthening each other’s villages or aggressive players demanding obscene amounts of “tribute” under the threat of invasion.
Though the rules are basically sound, if they are so problematic, why allow the player to do these things in the first place? If you want the number of attacks on a village to be capped at 6 per 24 hour period, a bad decision as I explained above, why not stop the player from being able to do so by having a counter which limits the number of attacks in this way? Why wait for the aggrieved player to report the aggressor to the moderators first? If players are finding ways to exploit the system it means the system is broken, and punishing the players may, in the short term, appease the victims, it doesn’t help build a friendly community. Build these rules into the game design and don’t rely on forums and “verbal” agreements.

Resources
It is undeniable there is a balancing issue with players who start on an island with the marble resource having a distinct advantage in the early and mid games. As pretty much all important buildings require marble to upgrade you can witness a seller’s market in your trading post with certain cheeky players demanding a king’s ransom for a tiny amount of the material. Of course, if you’re lucky, as I was, your neighbours are decent traders, so I was never in such a position, but it does happen. What is the point of being a tiny, defenseless village with a lot of research because the crystal resource was only good for upgrading your academy? A better balancing of buildings and upgrades and the resources they need could prevent this.

Upgrading
A problem in the mid game, continuing on into the long game are not so much the number of resources you need for upgrades, which do become immense, but the time it takes. Part of this is the fun of the game, where you set your tasks and let the game play it out for a while, but later on certain timeframes run into the days, rather than hours. An option to take workers away from mining and research and pour them into construction to marginally speed up upgrading would have been very welcome and adds a new level of tactical depth.

Mechanics
Part of the fun of this game, so far, is finding out together how things work. I’ve had long email conversations and witnessed long threads of forums about the game where a lot of the information is shared. “Did you know that when…” or “Oh, you need a …” type conversations are common and this sense of exploration of the game’s rules is actually a lot of fun, especially in a friendly community.
However, it is also a sign that your documentation or help system isn’t working. I think I have finally gotten to grips with the building and upgrade structure, what I need and when, how to split my populous between mining and making money and how to keep the plebs happy (wine!), but as for military actions…I am in the dark. What makes a good defense force? What do I need for an all out attack? When am I spending too much money on overkill when just a few ships would suffice? What are the real effects of spending huge amounts of cash and resources into upgrading my units? These kinds of things are costly to explore in the game itself, as an attack can anger other players and, if you’re unprepared, could cause devastating revenge. Beyond this too, what happens exactly when I upgrade my town hall? What effect does corruption have on my colonies? Too many questions are left unanswered for the average player.
Trawling the game’s forums is a good source of information, but, with the massive signature picks and the many, many subsections it’s not fun. A decent wiki or on-line guide, explaining in minute detail the ins and outs of all aspects of the game is necessary. Instead we rely on fan-made wikis and information, rather than a fully integrated and in-depth manual that delves deeper than what is currently there.

Cash
So far the tactic to charge players real money for certain types of incentives seems, well, flawed. There is simply no compelling reason to pay money for a few of these temporary perks, certainly not later in the game when you have resources growing out of your backside. Maybe one off payments for an instant but limited boost to certain resources for the beleaguered attack victim, or certain units which are strong but expensive and can only be purchased through the premium system. There are many opportunities here, but a small percentage boost to resource mining for a few days…just doesn’t seem worth it. Also, with the game still very much in development, players might not want to spend money on it yet, as too many things can change, including these premium elements.

So in my inexperienced opinion developers of on-line games should be aware of the following rules:
1. Don’t punish players for exploiting loopholes in your design. Make the game play as it is intended to play and don’t rely on the honour system. If you want players to stick by certain rules make sure there are systems in place to prevent the players from doing these actions.
2. If you’re relying on word of mouth and, especially, if you have a community aspect to the game, allow “invite friends” options and provide for, in the case of Ikariam, the close proximity spawning of invited players.
3. If you are going to rely on added content to bring in revenue, make sure the added content is worthwhile, and that you don’t offer it before the game is at least basically complete.
4. RTFM, and make sure this is an M available. A detailed Wiki allows players to skim through the basics but also to delve deeper into specifics. Exploring game rules can be fun, but it shouldn’t have to be a crapshoot.

However addictive Ikariam is, it is not perfect and it certainly isn’t quite finished yet (it’s a good thing I haven’t forgotten all my German!). That said, I still highly recommend the game, but the developers need to rethink certain issues and design elements before it grows from “great” to “excellent”.

10 comments:

  1. I have been playing it for a couple of weeks (three cities). I hate fighting (in MUD games I play I only attack others as last resource, like when defending others, myself, or retaliating a previous attack to a member of the guild in which I am), and decided to play until I am attacked, at which point I will just delete my account. Fortunately, I haven't been attacked (although today I found the first spy in my city).

    My main complain is that I started in a island with sulphur as resource: 1) it is not useful for new players, in fact after two weeks and three cities I have yet to use sulphur at all; 2) I am forced to be a warrior, just because sulphur is only used during war; 3) it delays progress quite a lot.

    In this last point, someone else starting with marble as resource can advance fine, then expand to an island with crystal and finally to one with wine. On the contrary, someone starting with sulphur needs to expand to an island with marble, then to another with wine and finally to another with crystal. The main problem is that expanding the palace to get a fourth colony requires over 4000 pieces of crystal. That forces me to buy it at usually outrageous price.

    Finally, someone starting with sulphur will only survive due other player's charity. Many old players buy sulphur from new players, even when they ask for 40 pieces of gold, just to help them (confirmed by reading their forums). In fact, I am starting to buy sulphur from new players at 40 and sell it for 15 just to give them some money to start.

    To finish: the game would be much better if they asked you whether you want to be a warrior, a researcher, a builder or something else.

    Good game, but I wonder how many just quit when they find themselves exploiting a resource they won't get to use until they go to war.

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  2. Hi JC, nice to see that you've become really addicted to the game as well, since that is exactly what has happened to me eversince I clicked on the link in your original post.

    Since then, I have established 2 new colonies and my Citizens are reproducing like rabbits (thanks to some Cities that constantly supply me with that "reproduction" resource).

    Just one thing I wanted to add, crystal becomes important again later on as you'll be needing a lot of it when you've built a workshop and you start "upgrading" your troops. I don't need to tell you how important wine is. And sulphur, depends on your inclination, can become your most valuable resource.

    I do agree with the rest of your review, particularly, the fact that, out of the 5 friends that I invited and who, since then, have also become addicted to this game, only one is less than a day away from my Cities.

    I do enjoy having to "search" for answers to a lot of my questions about the game, however, as I feel it makes the whole game more complicated and difficult. Whether the answers are reliable or not... well, I guess I'll just have to try them out to see. Good Luck in Iota!

    Jason

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  3. Have a look at Travian, it is a little bit further in the development cycle that this, and seems to be a lot better balanced.

    http://www.travian.com

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  4. I've been playing for around a week, currently with the capital in a marble town and another colony in a wine town. I've grown equally as addicted to this thing, (I think I checked up on my account for a second half way through reading your post...), and I agree with the issues you've stated, though I don't find them too much of a nuisance.

    What I find funny is that I have absolutely zero military units to speak of, and although being attacked by a number of people over the days, I've never felt the need to secure a defense. I also find gold almost completely useless at my stage. I have tones of it, and nothing to spend it on. The two resources I don't have are equally scarce in the islands surrounding me.

    Despite the games flaws, this is the most time I’ve spent on a game in many months, and seeing as it’s free that some pretty good value. In fact, I may even struggle to pull myself away come the release of GTA IV, and I can’t think of another game where that might have been the case.

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  5. Hah, that sounds pretty cool and looks just like a browser game I used to play, Travian.

    My biggest problem with Travian was not just that new players could easily be bullied (I never was, but friends I talked into joining were) but also that there was a big End Goal that various alliances were working towards, and early on it was advantageous to extend new players a helping hand, offer protection, invite them into your alliance, but I joined close to the end when new players were almost totally ignored in favor of rushing to that goal.

    I'm sure I'll make an account regardless, but is there any kind of "win" condition?

    Also, thanks for your nice words in my blog :P

    ReplyDelete
  6. オティンティンで顔をビンタしまくったら大喜びしてたよ。。
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    ReplyDelete
  7. LOL, I was just reading the whole thing and nodding trough it.

    I was born on an Island with Sulphur. Sulphur, of all things!

    I mean, that thing is totally useless unless you want to make an army, and gee, I don't really want to make an army.

    Right now I have 3 colonies and the capital, so I can gather every kind of resource but, gee, it took me a while.

    It's rather fun, and I rather like to play it in a few minutes span between things.

    And, yes, they NEED to do something about those days longs times for upgrades... like use more men of your town to fasten it, or something.

    I'm on Beta at Ikariam.com, and you? xD

    ReplyDelete
  8. Nice review there mate ;), Meanwhile if anybody is seriously into this game (which involves high alliance coordination to success and thus in need of a Mapping Tool - for charting alliance member, here it goes.........
    Hi stangers of ikariam world,
    All this while, i had been wanting a tool to map all my alliance members all over ikariam world. After relentlessly scouring the net, i found none. Thus, i had developed ikariam mapping tool using excel & it should be good for alliance management. Come visit me sometimes at oracle4ikariam.blogspot.com. u are most welcomed there !
    tag: map, mapping tool, ikariam map

    ReplyDelete
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