May 2023: Lords of Infinity – A Post-Mortem

Spoilers for Lords of Infinity, obviously.

1. Introduction

With the first month’s sales figures now in, I’m happy to say that Lords of Infinity has had a pretty successful release, having sold more than eight thousand copies. That doesn’t make me rich (or even able to afford to move out of the old one-bedroom apartment I live in), but it does mean that it, along with a bump in sales for Sabres of Infinity and Guns of Infinity, has made me more money than any release I have ever had before – which is generally a thing to be proud of.

But I hardly intend to simply pat myself on the back and learn nothing. Lords of Infinity was received well on release. It’s sold all right, and it’s been reviewed quite well, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t creative decisions I’ve made which haven’t panned out, or that there haven’t been oversights in my creative process and game design philosophy which I need to review. Now that I have two months between release and now – and two months worth of feedback to draw on, I can take a look back at this gigantic project which has hitherto loomed too large in my vision to examine objectively. Now, I can take stock, and consider what I think I’ve done right, what I think I’ve done wrong, and how I plan on addressing the latter in projects yet to come.

2. Things I Did Right

2.1: Keeping Players Engaged

One of my biggest worries when writing Lords of Infinity was that the narrative wouldn’t keep the attention of most of the players. Sabres of Infinity and Guns of Infinity were relatively straightforward war stories. They had a lot of action, clear stakes, and the player went into them with relatively clear end-goals. Lords of Infinity had none of these things. It had to engage the players based on the inertia of the plot and the new mechanics of peacetime, which would be a major change.

While I have read some complaints saying that the narrative’s lost them, these have been few and far in between. It seems to me that for the vast majority of players, Lords of Infinity works, as a story and as a game. The new storylines and the continuations of old plot threads have been enough to keep players engaged through the transition from war to peacetime (and back to wartime again), which was the major challenge, one which I think I’ve succeeded in.

2.2: Creating a Morally Ambiguous Main Conflict

This was another worry through the whole writing process. Lords of Infinity ultimately revolves around a conflict between two factions, one which the player has effectively fought for through the previous parts of the series, and is predisposed to support – and one which isn’t. One of the big challenges I had was in “selling” the Duke of Wulfram and his faction as a credible opposition to the Royalists, despite the fact that the Wulframite inner circle is made up almost entirely of new characters. Through various methods – presenting Wulfram in the best light in his introduction, giving his supporters a lot of moments which reveal them to be rational and thoughtful individuals driven by loyalty or their own sense of ethics, showing that their radicalisation from loyal opposition to open rebellion was a gradual step-by-step process of decisions which “might have made sense at the time” – I intended to show that the Wulframites weren’t just a designated antagonist faction.

Likewise, I wanted to show the Royalists off in a way which made their cause well-reasoned and intelligent, but not perfect. Princess (and later Queen) Isobel was key to this. As a new character, I could build her character from scratch in a way which both made her cold intellect and pragmatism a contrast to Wulfram’s geniality and ironclad sense of noblesse oblige – and also showed a character whose flaws could lend some credence to the ultimate Wulframite claims that she was a tyrant in waiting.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve balanced the factions evenly. The fandom debates I’ve seen seem to skew heavily Royalist. But the fact that there are drawn out, vibrant, sometimes vicious debates where both sides bring in reasoned arguments they earnestly believe in the first place (which more than one person has likened to in-game Cortes sessions) means I’ve done a pretty good job.

2.3: Creating Multiple Optimal Outcomes

One of the major pitfalls with designing for any sort of choice-based game is that of the “optimal outcome”, an endstate which is better than the others by almost all subjective metrics. The reason this is a problem is because if your game rests on presenting the player with choices which they are supposed to find compelling and interesting, then an optimal outcome removes all depth from choice design. If there’s a “correct” outcome, then there’s also a sequence of “correct” choices to secure that outcome. Choices no longer become choices, merely questions on a test.

This has been a problem I’ve been grappling with for quite a while. With Lords of Infinity, I tried to create a branching narrative where there were multiple “optimal” outcomes, re-inserting the dimension of choice into the equation. Now, instead of simply following a guide, the player has to decide for themselves which outcome they consider subjectively the best, either to get themselves a mechanical advantage for the rest of the series, or to progress the narrative arc which they have imagined for their character. While there are obviously still outcomes which are more favourable than others, there is no longer a single golden path, where a game can be “solved” with a sequence of objectively correct options. I think that’s a major improvement, and one I intend to explore further.

2.4: Making Mechanics Serve Narrative

This one actually comes from a negative review – a complaint that the debt system was too punishing and seemed to force the player to make certain decisions and approach choices in a certain way just to keep their estate and their noble house above water. While this was framed as a negative (and indeed, the attached Steam review was a negative one), I’m marking it as a good thing because that’s precisely what the debt system was supposed to do.

One of the themes I’ve wanted to explore with this series is how rational individuals making rational decisions can make decisions which seem to us irrational, or even counterintuitive. With Lords of Infinity in particular, I wanted to explore the mindset of the minor nobility who often proved the most intransigent and reactionary opposition to the idea that no human is inherently superior than any other – that all-important principle which most of us now see as an article of faith. In doing this, I attempted to recreate the conditions of that class, and show how their decisions were driven by a desire to maintain the political connections, social privilege, and local power needed to extract wealth – wealth they needed to secure those connections, privileges, and power in the first place. By putting the player in the position of a chronically indebted minor aristocrat, I’ve tried to demonstrate why such a mentality was sensible, or even rational to their real-life counterparts.

If the feedback (positive and negative) has been anything to go by, I think I’ve succeeded. It wasn’t implemented perfectly, of course (more on that later), but if I’ve been able to make most of my players understand and even even sympathise with the class interests of a group of people (in this case, feudal landlords) which have traditionally been the villains in our conception of modern history, then I’ve clearly done something right.

3. Things I Need to Work On

3.1: Skills and Skill Checks Were Often Unclear

One thing I’ve always tried to do since Sabres of Infinity is avoid simple skill checks, ones which only test one stat. I’ve found that if these checks are too obvious and too easy, then the player won’t bother engaging with the narrative. Instead, they’ll simply choose the option which obviously checks their highest stat, and keep going. This is why I generally try to keep stat checks “complex”, with multiple stat checks and other factors leading to multiple degrees of success or failure. This is also why I have a habit of putting the context behind each decision in the main text, so the player has to read that text to understand what option to choose going forward.

However, I’ve also noticed that while this is fundamentally a good system, a lot of the choices in Lords of Infinity weren’t clear, especially when it came to the extremely complex tests involving mass combat (which often had half a dozen derived stats being checked) or inter-character relationships (which are hidden). As a result, a lot of players had an imperfect idea of which stats each choice checked. While I believe imperfect player information is a very useful tool for getting the players in the same headspace as the player character, depriving the player of information to the point where they genuinely cannot make an informed decision, or feel that a result is entirely counter-intuitive is a definite design flaw.

3.2: Deferring Too Many consequences

Another thing which a lot of players complained about was the lack of feedback regarding decisions which they’ve made within the story, or Sabres of Infinity and Guns of Infinity. In particular, I’ve gotten a lot of criticism that there isn’t enough interaction with the characters which the player has previously romanced in Guns of Infinity. This is the most salient part of a larger problem: namely that Lords of Infinity sort of put a lot of plot threads on hold, in a way which often felt cheap or unfair to the player. Part of this has to do with the fact that Lords of Infinity is just a really big game with a lot of branches, which means that players might miss consequences which do appear on one branch don’t necessarily exist on others.

While Lords of Infinity is the middle installment of a five-part series, it also has to stand on its own right, and in hindsight, I can understand how frustrating it can be for decisions made with an expectation of a certain degree of consequences to essentially be left open with the promise of “wait X years for Wars of Infinity to come out, and you might get a resolution.”

3.3: Too Much Branching

Prioritising the presentation of interesting or consequential choices can bring its own disadvantages. Nowhere is this clearer than in the choice between staying on the Estate and going to the Capital. While the choice itself is an interesting one with major differing outcomes, and the differing degrees of information which an Estate player gets compared with what an Aetoria player gets is something which adds a lot to gameplay, it also means that choosing the Estate means locking the player out of Aetoria content altogether, and vice versa. As a result, a lot of players felt cheated that they couldn’t play a bigger part in maintaining their estate from the capital, or that they couldn’t travel to Aetoria for Cortes votes and the social season, then return to their estates (many nobles did something like this historically).

In hindsight, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to consolidate the first half of the story into one path, with alternating Estate and Capital chapters. Perhaps that would have allowed me to tell a richer, but more constrained story (like with Sabres of Infinity and Guns of Infinity), or perhaps the loss in player consequence and immersion wouldn’t have been worth it.

3.4: Gating Too Much Content Behind High Barriers

One of my favourite subplots in Lords of Infinity is the Hunting Party side activity. It involves hanging around with a bunch of likeable characters, serving as both a newcomer and a surrogate elder brother figure by virtue of being (by age and title) the most senior person present, and generally having a good look into how the Tierran country aristocracy amuse themselves, while providing a lot of moments of levity and good feelings in what is ultimately a pretty grim story.

According to Steam, 1.2% of players have the associated achievement for doing it.

Ultimately, the reason for this is simple: the Hunting Party was gated behind requirements which were never explained, and which few players ever met. The same goes for other side activities, and the major projects, all of which proved to be out of reach for all but a small minority of players. The resource requirements or the opportunity cost was simply too high for the player, so they never had a chance to access that content unless they were really lucky, took a huge risk (which other mechanics already disincentivise) or had played really well up until that point, which is a shame, because a lot of that content is (in my opinion, at least) really good.

3.5: Not Contextualising Debt Enough

This is more of a problem with the series as a whole as opposed to just with Lords of Infinity. While it was always planned for the debt to be a major part of gameplay once the player character inherited his title, there was no real indication of how big a factor it would be until the very end of Guns of Infinity. That meant that while the player received some subtle hints that they would need to raise money during their time at war, they never received any real indication as to how big the debt would be, or how much of a factor paying off its interest would be in Lords of Infinity.

Likewise, I think a lot of players believed that their financial situation had less breathing room than it actually did, because they either weren’t aware, or felt uneasy about taking on more debt to improve their estate. Even though there are systems in place to mitigate or avoid the increase in interest rates from “regular” bank loans, this was something that was still not signposted or encouraged enough for a lot of players to see it as a viable – or even preferable option.

3.6: Not Balancing Major Characters Between Factions.

As I’ve mentioned before, players seem to be heavily skewed in favour of the Royalist faction, something which has to do with an oversight I made relatively early in the series. Namely, I introduced a whole bunch of likeable (or at least personable) characters, and made them all predisposed to side with the Royalists once the war was over. The end result was that most of the characters the players considered friends went to one side, while the other could only offer a mostly new cast of characters.

This wasn’t intentional. If anything I wanted new players to be encouraged to lean Wulframite. Unfortunately, I’d written myself into a corner, and I had the choice of either going with it, or derailing a whole bunch of characters for the sake of faction balance. Ultimately, I opted for the former.

4. Things to Do Better Next Time

4.1: Better Signposting

This one has been a perpetual challenge, and one which is really only becoming more difficult over time. As the subsequent games in the series become more mechanically complex, the choices within them test more variables, and have more factors contributing to their various outcomes. That means I need to give players increasing amounts of information so they can make informed choices. During the writing process of Lords of Infinity, I actually worried a bit that I was being too on the nose with my signposting, that players might feel like their intelligence was being insulted by how often I was hinting as to the consequences of individual choices.

In hindsight, I was having the opposite problem, something which was obscured by the fact that a lot of my playtesters were superfans who possessed far more knowledge of under-the-hood mechanics than your average player would. While I think I have a general idea of how to deliver this information to players, in future, I’ll have to lean harder into doing so, even if that means the risk of telling players things they might already know.

4.2: Deliver More Consequences Sooner.

One thing I need to keep in mind is that consequences for decisions – especially major decisions – ought to be delivered in the same installment as they’re made. That doesn’t mean the story thread has to be concluded entirely, but it does mean that the player should feel a major degree of payoff by the time the epilogue comes around.

The way I’m planning on branching Wars of Infinity will make this a lot easier. That’s going to be a good thing because I won’t just be delivering consequences for choices made in Wars of Infinity itself, but playing “catch-up” for ones made in Lords of Infinity, and even a few in Sabres of Infinity and Guns of Infinity as well.

4.3: Make Branches Easier to Access

This one is another quality-of-life issue, just like with signposting. While I do want optional, missable, and “secret” content to reward multiple playthroughs and risk taking, I need to be more clear that this content exists (beyond presenting an achievement that hints as to its existence), and make it clearer to players that the opportunity cost of seeking out that content will be worth it in the end. Providing useful rewards is part of that, but as those rewards come only in the end to players who play the content to a successful outcome, I also have to ensure that more players are able to access that content as well. That means making its on-ramps more visible (hiding the side-activities behind generic-sound “look for trouble” options was a mistake), and making it clearer that they lead to stuff the players want to experience, while also ensuring that the players don’t have to jump through a gigantic array of hoops just to get their time and effort’s worth.

5. Conclusion

Lords of Infinity took more than four years to outline, write, and finish. It is, by far, the biggest project I have ever completed. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot over that process, not just about writing, but also about game design and narrative branching. I’ve certainly come a long way since I first started Sabres of Infinity. One day, when the whole series is finished, I think I might go back and “remaster” the entire thing, fixing plot holes, re-linking interrupted story threads, updating the scripting and the stats system, and in general making everything more consistent and more player-friendly.

In the more immediate sense however, I’ve got a lot of lessons to take forward to my next project (which won’t be Wars of Infinity, sorry to say), and I hope that next step will offer me just as many lessons learned going forward.

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