Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Cargo Cult Game Design

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 29, 2014

cargocultplaneWhile they were really only identified after World War II, Pacific “Cargo Cults” emerged when primitive people encountered what seemed like miraculous wealth arriving from American and European countries, particularly during wartime. They saw the airfields and ports with constant traffic of supplies from… well, some version of heaven, they believed. In some cases, the native people identified the pale-skinned visitors as coming from the land of the dead, so obviously they were gifts from the afterlife. In some cases, they believed the Europeans must have stolen the gifts intended for them.

Anyway – the notable aspect of these cargo cults was that they built these elaborate sets out of local materials in order to summon the bounties from the gods, in imitation of the operations they’d witnessed. They built mock airfields, including fake parked aircraft out of branches and twigs, and expected this to summon more cargo planes full of wonders.

It would be easy to mock, if I didn’t see the same mentality in modern life. I started making this connection when I discovered the “original” soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith to the movie Legend, starring Tom Cruise. For the U.S. release, the studio decided to replace the Goldsmith soundtrack with one by Tangerine Dream. Why? Well, Tom Cruise had a very successful movie a couple of years earlier called Risky Business, and Tangerine Dream had provided the soundtrack for that movie, so maybe there was something magical in that combination?

Who knows? Maybe they were right. It wouldn’t be the first time I falsely dismissed something as being irrelevant. But to me, it seems like people throwing stuff together to ape the the cosmetics of success without really understanding what they were doing.

I see this all the time in game designs, particularly those that are clearly modeled after recent hits. Although maybe I’m giving them too much credit – there are some titles that are nothing more than cheap rip-offs intended to divert customers. But maybe the next stage up is what you could call “cargo cult designs” – games made that are clearly intended to appeal to fans of another title, with a collection of features that seem to be included for no other reason than that other games had them. And while these games may have some good ideas – and may even go on to become major AAA successes and thus become the next target of imitation – they don’t really seem to understand the heart of the game they are imitating. They just do a really good job of faking it.

I’d be lying if I said I’m completely immune to this myself. In some cases, it’s simply following in the footsteps of tradition. Maybe that’s a step up from cargo cults – which mimic the results without understanding the cause. In the case of tradition, it’s copying (if sometimes poorly) the causes without understanding why they have the results they do. But maybe I’m again being too charitable.

The truth is, there’s a lot to understand, and the more I learn, the more I discover I have yet to learn. But I guess I can make this one plea to indies – at least those true indies who are trying to make something original if “inspired by” another game. Don’t fall victim to “cargo cult” mentality where you just copy style or features because that’s what the other game did. Take the time to truly understand the core of your game, what makes it fun and awesome.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Mephane said,

    Interesting read. When I saw the article’s title, I immediately thought of the entire MOBA genre:

    One of the mechanics at the very heart of the genre – at least according to the cargo cult surrounding it – is “last-hitting”, i.e. the idea that only the unit that scores the killing blow on an enemy should receive gold and/or XP. (Implementations vary, XP sharing due to proximity has become a thing, but gold is still usually restricted to last-hitting).

    It originated on DOTA due to a limitation of the game engine, which could not share XP and loot between players, nor could it record kill contribution other than by looking at the final hit that killed a unit.

    What started as a solution to a technical limitation is now defended by many avid MOBA players as one of the central game mechanics that would define the genre.

    Interestingly enough, Blizzard themselves, those who made Warcraft 3, where DOTA and the genre itself spawned as a mod, are going to abolish last-hitting entirely in their own upcoming MOBA.

  • Anon said,

    Yes, very interesting read, haven’t heard the term before – and this is exactly why I visit this blog!

    As for the “last-hitting” mechanic, which is a staple in CRPGs, I always perceived it as totally “wrong” in party-based games!

    If my party wins a battle then *every* survivor should get XP (just for surviving/overcoming the enemy) but not (necessarily) evenly distributed.

    If I have a party member that attacks a foe and shares part of his/her demise (=reduction of HP/MP) then the member should get a share of the XP, too, maybe in accordance to his part of the battle.
    This can be done proportionally: The higher the HP/MP reduction, the higher the XP share.

    Of course playability should be taken into account and while loot could be shared that way, too, I’d rather recommend having a common party “account” so that the player can manage it more easily.

  • Maklak said,

    > This can be done proportionally: The higher the HP/MP reduction, the higher the XP share.
    This isn’t as simple as this. For example in a healer / tank / dps scenario, dps gets most of the good stuff.

  • Mephane said,

    “This isn’t as simple as this. For example in a healer / tank / dps scenario, dps gets most of the good stuff.”

    Yepp, this is why I always advocate a simple equal split of everything. It is effectively impossible to create an algorithm that distributes XP and loot fairly among all roles, and any implementation I have ever seen always had its blind spots of useful roles that are never rewarded, and specific actions that are rewarded the best – and then players gravitate to the latter.

    This is one of the reasons why in some MMOs everyone wants to go pure DPS, because it is often the thing that is rewarded the most. There have also been cases of healing rewarded the best, where people ended up sitting in places where they or a friend get damage from the environment (e.g. sitting inside a camp fire) and then spam heals for maximum rewards…

    Just give every party member who is within range of the fight an equal share, less headaches for the developer and players can just do whatever helps the party without ever worrying how much XP and loot they receive in the end.

    P.S.: This was one of the (many) ways Warhammer Online was completely messed up. The main reward for a castle siege was a bag of loot at the end, which was of a quality depending on your contribution…

    … in the fight against a single boss NPC, the keep lord.
    … regardless of anything else you do.
    … based purely on damage done and received (i.e. either tank all the damage or go pure dps if you want to get the golden bags)
    … little to no rewards for players that scout for enemy reinforcements, guard the entrance, revive a dead ally on the lower floor, or just were busy fighting a different enemy when the keep lord was attacked, losing valuable seconds of DPS required for contribution acknowledgement.

    (It was also one of the many “told you so” moments in that game – big problems that anyone could have foreseen during the beta, were voiced regularly by the players, but completely ignored by the devs.)

  • Robyrt said,

    Agreed – look at how many Assassin’s Creed mechanics are now in every open-world game, regardless of whether they actually belong there, or the vestigial tail of a morality system in many modern RPGs.

    The problem of dividing rewards in asymmetric games is definitely not solved. Destiny has gotten a lot of flak recently for distributing loot drops 100% randomly, which is “fair” only from a computer’s perspective. I actually felt guilty after receiving a legendary helmet from a multiplayer match where my incompetent defense caused our team to lose.

  • Xenovore said,

    Great article! One thing in particular that I often notice: Devs love to bolt on the Nifty Design of the Month and make it all jazzy, then leave the game’s core design weak and mediocre. I see it almost constantly with modern FPS games; they add all sorts of “neato” stuff, but the firearms completely suck. And in a shooter if your guns suck, then — no matter what other incredible features you’ve got — your game sucks.

    Regarding loot/XP rewards: I personally believe that the best way to determine experience should be action-based. Not based on damage done/taken, or simply being in a group, or amount gold, etc.

    I.e. a player receives XP based on how successful an action is, e.g. wielding a sword or casting a spell. He gets zero XP if he just stands there.

    Examples that do it right: Cyberpunk/Fuzion, MERP/Rolemaster, Ultima Online…