April 18, 2004

President Forever

by peterb

As a followup to my preview of The Political Machine, I decided to try President Forever, which was suggested by one of my alert readers (who, I believe, is involved with the publisher?) There is a free demo available, and the full game can be purchased and downloaded for a mere $12. I paid more than that for lunch this week. (They also will sell you, as a bonus, their previous game President 2000 for just $2. I bought it, because I'm a sucker for a bargain, but I haven't tried that one yet.)

President Forever is a Windows-only game. (Question for game publishers out there: why aren't you developing all your games in SDL? Then you'd get great graphics and sound and everything could be trivially ported to Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and probably other platforms. This isn't a rhetorical question -- I really want to know.)

A word before we continue: I'm going to compare President Forever to The Political Machine a lot in this review. I think this is reasonable, since they both address the same topic. That being said, please remember that the version of The Political Machine I've played is just a beta, and for all I know they're going to completely change it before it's official release.

Let's start with the positives. I had fun playing both the demo and the full game (warning: the demo doesn't let you complete a full election, so if you're desperate to see George Bush lose to someone, be prepared for disappointment). The game takes a more strategic, higher-level view of the US Presidential Election than The Political Machine. Yes, there's the same aspect of "run your candidate around the country and make speeches and fundraise" that existed in TPM, but those are inadequate to win an election by themselves.

President Forever

President Forever

Roughly, there's "platform", which is the particular position your candidate takes on the issues; there's a raft of issues on which you can take a position which is liberal, center-left, centrist, center-right, and right. Which position you take gives you a bonus or penalty that isn't terribly well explained in-game. You can change your platform in the middle of the campaign, but you run the risk that the press will mock you for flip-flopping on an issue. There's "theme", which determines what your stump speeches and ads will be about (you can create ads on any issue, but obviously ads that are "in theme" tend to be more effective.) Your campaign can pick three issues from the myriad available to be part of your theme. You can change any or all of those issues in your theme at any time without any penalty, but since your candidate gains familiarity with issues over time, switching issues sacrifices some bonus.

Why would you ever change your theme? Well, issues wax and wane in importance over time. Stump speeches on military intervention are going to be more important in 2004 (for example), then will speeches on, say, affirmative action, because the issue is hotter.

There's also electoral strategy, which gives you a bird's-eye view of what states you are trying to win in order to put together 270 electoral votes. This sounds obvious, but isn't, and the implementation of strategy is fairly nice, because it lets you enact broad decisions like "run this ad in all of the states in which I'm marginal that are part of my strategy." Electoral strategy also influences where your crusaders go. More on crusaders below.

Whereas The Poltiical Machine makes candidate stamina the central currency, here the primary currency is "command points," a renewable (you get 6 each turn) non-bankable resource. There are also "political points," a nonrenewable resource (you get 10: when you use them all, they're gone) that can be used to help win endorsements. Your candidate does have a "fatigue" meter, and when it gets low he becomes less effective and is more likely to commit a gaffe. The only way to recover from fatigue is to rest. There is also, of course, cash.

You won't have enough command points to do everything you want to do, which is as it should be. There's a few things you can spend command points on that span multiple turns. For example, you can hire foot soldiers or crusaders. Recruiting a crusader takes 1 command point over 10 turns; once you start, you've lost that command point for good until the recruiting is done. Once a crusader is "hired" (as John Kerry, my first crusader was Theresa Heinz-Kerry -- jeez, can't I even get my wife to campaign for me easier than that?), they hit the campaign trail, barnstorming and making speeches on the themes you've chosen. They decide where to go based on what states are in your electoral strategy. This compares pretty favorably to the implementation of specialists in The Political Machine beta, where I found I was constantly shuffling them around from state to state trying to optimize the benefit I got from them. I like that crusaders in President Forever are basically autonomous -- you set the strategy, and they go try to implement it.

Public polling in President Forever is inaccurate. If you want to see accurate numbers, you need to commission a private poll, which costs cash. That's pretty cool. It's unclear to me what the effect of not having cash is; as John Kerry I ran out of money three days before the election, but apart from newspaper headlines saying "Kerry campaign is bankrupt!" there didn't seem to be any effect -- my megaexpensive advertising blitz, for example, seemed to continue as usual.

One other fascinating aspect is that at the beginning of each turn, you see the stories the newspapers are going to report. You then have a chance to spend CPs to "spin" the stories your way. I'm assured that the effect of spin is very important, but I couldn't quite see the connection in my game. I like the idea a lot, but the implementation needs work (for example, you spend your CPs but don't find out whether it "worked" until the next turn. That may be realistic, but it's confusing.)

My criticisms of the game are fairly minimal. First off, there's much less graphical flash than The Political Machine, but given the nature of the game, I didn't really mind that. The graphics were functional, if characterless, and got the point across. While I liked that the game runs in a window (dear game developers: please make it at least optional for all games to run in a window? Pretty please? It's not 1985 any more) it has a weird non-Windows feel to it -- there aren't any pulldown menus. So it feels like a bit of a hack job. This doesn't impact playability, it just goes to the fit and finish aspect of things.

I don't know whether to add bonus style points or deduct plagiarism points for the fact that one of their "menu selection" sound effects seems to have been lifted wholesale from X-Com: UFO Defense. Maybe it's a stock footage sound that they licensed. All I know is that it's probably a bad tactical move for any game to remind me that I could be playing X-Com instead.

The manual is pretty sparse, and the in-game help doesn't exist. My first time starting up the game I sat for a good two minutes staring at a bunch of hand-rolled buttons with gnostic words on them like "FS" and said to myself "Well, what the heck do I do now?" There's a ton of room for improvement in this area; a tutorial mode would work wonders. Even as an experienced player of a given game, I still rely on popup tooltips and in-game help to remind me of mechanics and strategy. There's no excuse for any game more sophisticated than, say, a driving game to not provide that sort of help. (Well, OK, frankly "The game only costs $12" is actually a pretty good excuse, in that kielbasa-sandwich-at-Chiodo's sort of way.)

The game models the candidates' debates but in such a cursory and forgetful way that it might as well not. You have to spend CP to prepare for debates, and the newspapers report whether you won or lost, but there is no actual debate drama or detail beyond "So and so won." That's a real missed opportunity.

The actual election-night coverage is utterly and didactically anti-climactic. Wait until the appointed time for the state's returns, hear who won. Yawn. Didn't any of these people play President Elect? What about precincts reporting in little by little? What about states that appear to be leaning one way suddenly becoming too close to call, or flipping the other? These things happen in real life and that's why watching election night coverage in real life is compelling. Election games should be at least as compelling as TV.

On the whole, I think this game is great value for money -- I bought it -- and the core gameplay is fun and compelling. To hotpot software, publishers of President Forever: more and better in-game documentation, please, and work a little more on the presentation issues. You've obviously done a lot of hard work to create a gem of a political election game here. It doesn't make any sense to hand a gem to the customer in a ratty paper bag.

Additional Resources

Please feel free to contact me with any corrections or further information (or pointers to more election games!).

Posted by peterb at April 18, 2004 09:13 PM | Bookmark This

As a hobbyist game developer, I can sadly report that in my experience, SDL isn't in the same league as DirectX. If you use OpenGL you have arguably comparable 3D capabilities but support for networking, input, sound etc is inferior. And despite being primarily a 2D API, it still doesn't have proper accelerated graphics capabilities, instead relying on functionality equivalent to DirectDraw in DirectX 5. Development on SDL proceeds at a glacial rate and the eagerly-awaited SDL 2 iteration has been patiently-awaited for over 2 years now.

Of course, SDL is a wrapper rather than a platform, so it is always destined to be (at least) one step behind DirectX on Windows, which doesn't help matters.

Posted by Ben Sizer at April 18, 2004 09:54 PM

Why don't game developers SDL? I can't speak for all of them, but from what I've seen so far, there seem to be three overriding themes:

#1 - Legal departments have problems with OpenSource licenses. Sure, the official explanation is "Who do we sue if it contains IP that doesn't belong there", but that applies to commercial stuff too - most EULAs just deny responsibility. Then again, I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV.

(Sidenote - ActiveState is making a lot of money out of repackaging OpenSource stuff (Perl, Python) and adding support and a liablility waiver on top of that - there's a business opportunity, if anybody wants to go for it.)

#2 Hey - we're the industry that invented "Not Invented Here". There's plenty of guys out there who would refuse to touch any code that hasn't been written by the game team itself.

#3 Cross platform is expensive. SDL will not take care of all the issues in development. But even worse, development is only part of the cost. You need to do compatibility testing for the other platforms, write installers, manuals, etc.

#1 & #2 can be fixed quite easily, but #3 is a problem.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at April 18, 2004 10:03 PM

Interesting. Thanks, guys!

Groby's second point is something that I think is really tragic (not with respect specifically to SDL -- it's clear that there are real reasons why one might not use that.)

I was friends with a developer at a huge software house working on a real time strategy game...ok, it was Activision, and the game was Dark Reign. And he described to me the game, and that he was working on the AI. And I said "Wow, that's great that it's an RTS, because presumably you can basically use the same harness as all the other 3,000 RTS games and just slap on new art and stuff and rework the AI, right?"

It was then that he explained to me that no one in the game industry ever reuses any code, ever. No matter how good the code from the previous project is, the very first thing the 23 year old hotshot you hire to work on the next project does is say "this code sucks. I'm going to rewrite the [render engine / parser / scripting language] from scratch. Then it will be better!"

That was the day I decided I was happier playing games than developing them (for money, anyway). Now I develop distributed filesystems. We reuse code.(*)

Maybe I exaggerate.

But not much.

(*) please don't ask me about the one specific place where we're egregiously not reusing code.

Posted by peterb at April 18, 2004 10:55 PM

Oh come on now. What's the one place where you're not reusing code? :)

Anyways - the industry is not quite as bad. I did see reuse happen, once or twice :)

Kidding aside, our current game builds completely on the foundation laid by the previous one. Doesn't mean we're not ripping out large parts, and replace others. We also do use internal libs for common things. So you might say we're slowly getting into a sane place. (It happens at other companies, too. The rising costs force people to reuse)

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at April 19, 2004 01:18 AM

From what I hear (ie. not first hand experience, admittedly) much game industry code is too bad to re-use anyway. It ends up barely hanging together by the time of the game's release, and the first thing you want to do on a new project is fix all the hacks. Since most of this stuff is presumably warped beyond the point where simple refactoring will suffice, you throw it out and start over. But sadly there's never enough time to fix as much as you want and the cycle begins anew...

Posted by Ben Sizer at April 20, 2004 09:47 AM

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