Due Diligence: Managing the Unmanageable

Due Diligence: Managing the Unmanageable

Leigh Harrison ties the knot.

I’m in the latter stages of planning my two wedding ceremonies. Actually, the first one has already happened for you, as you read this. But not for me. Like a star that died millions of years ago, the light from which has only just reached your awestruck peepers, I’m always way ahead of you. That’s the power of the written word. And time.

Right now time is not on my side, so below you’ll find a series of short think pieces on how various management sims are nothing like planning weddings. My reasons for this indolent format are twofold. First and foremost, I’ve been very busy, and have had to write every word of this on the toilet—unlike most months when only about 20 to 60 percent comes from the bathroom (#cymbalcrash). Secondly, over the last six months my columns have become increasingly avant-garde, morphing from mere cultural criticism into intricate tapestries of swirling, interconnected ideas, visual motifs, and theoretical leapfrogging. One day, I’ll release annotated versions of my more heady works, so readers can fully appreciate the often hidden genius at play. Until then, here’s something lazy that you’ll instantly and unambiguously understand. Enjoy.

Itty Bitty City

Bit City is not a proper management sim. In this regard, it has a lot in common with planning weddings. It isn’t, however, anything like planning weddings. Which raises the question: what is Bit City?

For one, it’s a hip, screen printed poster child for mobile games circa 2017. Dressed up as Sim City 2000—though in an uncomfortable Ed Gein kind of way—its faux aesthetic reverence nonetheless fails to hide its singular goal of making cash money. For two, and more specifically, it’s a clicker that looks like a city building sim. You tap your phone’s screen a bunch and a city happens.

Every level begins with a deserted road network running through a patchwork of gridded grassland. Clicking a block allows you to assign it for residential, commercial, or service uses; though each city demands all three equally at all times, so there’s no strategy to zoning beyond sharing out land between the three types. Once blocks have been assigned a use it’s time to build! There’s a big button labelled “build”, and if you tap it a bar starts filling up over one of the zoned blocks. Once it’s full, you get a building. Wooh! Tap it again and the same thing happens in a different block.

Buildings in your city earn you currency every second, and the more you hit “build” the higher their arbitrary videogame level, and thus the more currency they generate. That’s pretty much it. Later levels allow you to poke the build button more often, add in bigger blocks, and let you fill your city with cars, planes, and eventually boats to tap for more cash. There are also passive boosts you can invest cash in as well, further increasing your per-second income. And of course there are many opportunities to drop real money into the mix, in the shape of income buffs, special buildings, and lump sum currency purchases. It’s a clicker. It’s like every other clicker ever made, except it looks a lot like Sim City 2000.

Planning weddings necessitates a degree of, well, planning. There is no planning involved in Bit City, despite Mike Fahey of Kotaku using 1,257 words to convince me otherwise. You tap stuff, and if you tap stuff for long enough you eventually max out all the upgrades in a given level. You could play it for just nanosecond a day and, regardless of your choices, still finish the game before the sun engulfs the Earth in five billion years. Mike’s right in saying there are ways to progress more quickly, but I view this more as an admission that the game’s not fun and should be rushed through, not that there are hidden strategies that need sharing. The only true barrier to success in Bit City is to not even play it to begin with—beyond that, all roads lead to Rome.

Planning weddings is not like this. You cannot bash your head against any aspect of it and expect to succeed. Ordered the wrong combination of table linens? Tough luck, everyone will laugh at you and your photos will be dreadful. Too many vegans invited for the available food options? Should have thought about that before you spent years investing in friendships. Left purchasing local beer, PA equipment, a decent bow tie, and organic cider to the last minute? You (I) better hope they’re available at short notice, or an annulment might be the only wedding gift you’re getting.

Planning weddings is hard. Bit City is not fun. They in no way elicit the same emotional response from me. In no way. In no—

Underpayed/Overworked Staff Simulator

Everything about Game Dev Story is amazing. The way the mobile port effortlessly eschews the aspect ratio and functionality of a smartphone screen (come on: look at the clumsiness present in that screenshot). Its clueless, satire-free depiction of industrial exploitation, as you work staff to the point of breakdown and then fire them. The way it lets you call a videogame series “Dick Surfer in the Bone Dome” without judgement or reprisal.

But its true achievement is in laying bare the cynicism of the videogame business—to the point where it should maybe be called Game Publishing Story instead. The big crux of the game is making software that sells. Every time you assign your team to a new project you’re able to choose a few genre tropes to combine, each with a public approval rating. These shift over time, and essentially decide the shape of your title for you. “Romantic + Western + Interactive Novel” mightn’t be your first choice, but if your audience is clamoring for it you’ll make it. And they’ll love it. Strike it lucky enough and you can even define subsequent projects and “sequels”, which duly adds even further to a title’s approval rating.

Humorously, the actual quality of a game’s “graphics”, “sound”, etc. stats plays less into its eventual income than whether the public thinks they want to play it. So while Game Dev Story doesn’t seem to recognize it’s advocating for poor working conditions, it is at least skewering the greedy and risk-averse nature of big videogame business; an industry satisfied with making absolute trash as long as it thinks the people demand it.

In this way, however, it proves itself to be nothing like planning weddings. Weddings are about the two people getting married, not the many, many guests you invite and expect to bring along an envelope of dollar bills. My bunting is going to be yellow and white. I’m personally choosing all the beer, ensuring it is both to my own taste and no stronger than a Bud Light—though it’s all going to be proper English ale. My wife-to-be has hand-selected the food because she would eat it all. I’ll be playing an hour of punk, garage rock, and post-hardcore, in full knowledge that almost nobody will like it. It’s our wedding, not yours.

Game Dev Story is not like planning weddings. It channels a toothless videogame industry—press included—that only exists because it panders to people who should actually be getting told what to do. Weddings are about forcing people to enjoy the things you like—if only for a day.  

I Like Trains

I love the tube map. The way it effortlessly conveys complex information; its striking, measured artistry; the prismatic beauty of its dancing, divergent lines. I have a copy of Harry Beck’s original 1933 design hanging in my spare bedroom, to both ram home my admiration for it and force guests, through subliminal dream signals, to share in my adoration.   

Mini Metro is a game that understands the aesthetic power of the tube map. In it, you’re tasked with connecting an ever-growing collection of stations with a finite network of train lines. Passengers and stations take various shapes, and you must create a system that ferries each type of passenger to their corresponding station (square to square, circle to circle, etc.). Trains hold limited passengers, who always take the most direct route to their journey’s terminus station, and so the ongoing challenge is to create routes that are direct, short, and offer multiple interchange opportunities. Efficiency is paramount.

Maintaining this is impossible in the long-term, though, as the city you’re managing expands indefinitely, with new stations appearing every 30 seconds or so. Resources, conversely, are scarce, and even with ample foresight and frugality, there are never enough tunnels, lines, or train carriages to go around. As your network grows ever larger, stations begin to overcrowd, as once slight lines distend to cover more and more ground. Eventually one of these stations will reach capacity, and your entire network will shut down. But, at least the inexorable urban sprawl that led to its downfall was painted in such starkly beautiful brushstrokes.

To play Mini Metro is to accept that failure is a constant, inevitable specter; one waiting to rear its ghostly head at an unknown and unavoidable time. Progress progresses, and things fall apart. This is not like planning weddings. I repeat: this is not like planning weddings. Weddings are perfect moments of crystalline happiness suspended in time. Failure is not only improbable, it is impossible. To consider failure in the same breath as a wedding is to fundamentally misunderstand the concept and ethos of a wedding. Weddings are sacrosanct, they are immovable, they are purity of heart—distilled. My weddings will not be failures. My weddings will run smoothly. My weddings will be as close to perfect as is humanly possible.

My weddings will not be failures.

It Came With My PC

The only thing I remember about Populous: The Beginning is that you keep starting from the beginning every half an hour. Each new level, you’re forced to begin a settlement from scratch, building the same little houses and the same little barracks over, and over, and over again. Thinking back, it’s a trait that was present in lots of ‘90s PC strategy/management games, and is probably the reason I never much liked them.

Games these days, with their smooth, cumulative progression curves, and their power fantasies, and their easy modes, they’re a lot more like planning weddings. One giant, uninterrupted journey from beginning to end. If I’ve not mentioned it yet, I’m planning two weddings, and unlike Populous: The Beginning’s settlements, everything’s very much connected. My two weddings are five weeks apart, yet exist symbiotically—for I will be present at both.

My shoes, for instance, pose an issue. I bought a pair of brogue boots, handmade in England from the finest, hardest leather ever ripped from the carcass of an animal. They need breaking in, but the process will introduce creases and might even dull their radiant sheen. What if it rains at my first wedding? I’ve treated the leather, but would it be enough to prevent soaking, discoloration, and, oh say it ain’t so, leather expansion? Small scuffs are inevitable, but what if someone stands on them on public transport, messing them right up? What then? Would they even be suitable for my second wedding? Would I be shunned by my wife, guests, and the God I’m not even getting married in the eyes of?      

Now, extrapolate all the problems a simple pair of shoes might pose into literally every other aspect of my two weddings. Do you now appreciate how Populous: The Beginning is nothing like planning weddings? Do you? Well, do you?! You do? Good.

It’s An Institute You Can’t Disparage

Management sims are, in my estimation, nothing like planning weddings. They’re not really like anything they depict. Planning weddings—planning anything—is hard because of the infinite variables involved in the task. Management sims are videogames, and by virtue of their own technical limitations, they cannot possibly be infinite. They can pretend to be, à la No Man’s Sky, but that game’s huge scale simply worked to highlight its relative paucity of mechanical variety. An infinite universe wherein you can perform a dozen discrete tasks is not the same thing as an infinite universe harboring endless interactions.

And this is why management sims have to be so specific in their scope if they are to succeed. Mini Metro is not a game about running a train network, but an abstraction of it. It is, really, a collection of resource movement puzzles in the vein of SpaceChem or Cosmic Express. The ferrying of little shapes across great distances with limited infrastructure is its only challenge, not the real world intricacies of running a real world railway network. And that’s a good thing. Because real world railway networks are, just like planning weddings, fraught with so many niggly little logistical problems that were it a more robust simulation, Mini Metro would be atrocious.

The same goes for any game, though. You ever play America’s Army, the free shooter/propaganda hybrid with the mandatory four hour tutorial, one shot kills, and gameplay that was 95% laying prone hiding? How about all those inexplicably popular survival games, where simply refilling hunger and thirst meters is meant to constitute engaging interaction? Or Dragon Age: Inquisition, whose campaign is so infested with micromanagement drudgery you may as well be playing as a small town assistant bank manager, for all the actual derring-do you get up to?

If you haven’t, don’t bother. Go plan weddings, instead. They don’t even have to be your own, but you’ll definitely get something out of the experience. Games, in my opinion, succeed mechanically when they take familiar actions and transpose them into the ordered, discernible—the frankly manageable—realm of the digital world. In distilling the infinite into the quantifiable, games give us the opportunity to wholly take control of our environment, if only for a moment. Call it power fantasy. Call it escapism. Call it hiding. Call it whatever you want. I’d be extremely critical of the simplistic conclusion I’ve just drawn, if I were you. But I’m not. I’m me, and I’m planning two weddings right now, so that’s your lot.

Leigh Harrison lives in London, and works in communications for a medical charity. He likes canals and rivers a great deal, and spends a lot of his time walking. He occasionally says things about videogames on the Internet, and other things on The Twitter.