Energy as a failure of mechanics as metaphor

In Civilization 5 it is called Gold.  In Endless Legend it called Dust.  And in Beyond Earth it is called Energy.  The role is similar across all three games and it is reasonable to think of it as a simple palette swap but Beyond Earth makes some missteps that Civilization 5 avoided.

The mechanical role of Energy

While Production is gathered and used locally in one city Energy is empire wide.  It can be gathered in one city and spent in another.  It can be stored, allowing rush purchasing a unit or building as soon as a technology completes.  To compensate for its transferability and storablity it often converts to production at a less than 1-to-1 rate.

But if there is nothing Energy can do that Production can’t then energy becomes little more than a worse version of Production.  Energy can be used to expand boarders but until water cities came along natural culture growth was sufficient almost all of the time.  In Civilization 5 Gold could be used to upgrade units (for example, upgrading a composite bowman into a crossbowman) which was critical for executing timing attacks.  In Beyond Earth units upgrade automatically for free when a new Affinity level is reached.  City State influence could be purchased with Gold but Stations in Beyond Earth are a much simpler design that doesn’t have a need for Energy.  The last thing that was unique to Gold in Civilization 5 was Research Agreements, but those have also been removed in Beyond Earth.

 The metaphorical role of Energy

I’ve been reading about the economics of energy generation and distribution and it is fascinating.  I started with the SimCity (2000) mindset, where power is just a matter of plopping down a power plant and stringing a few transmission lines.  If you need more power, just plop down a second power plant.  But this model glosses over all kinds of issues that make power generation a thorny and interesting problem.

Power fades over distance so it needs to be generated close to population centers.  Power generated in the middle of a city is more valuable than power generated in the middle of nowhere.

Power generated and power consumed need to be the same but both are constantly changing.  Power consumption generally goes up in the evenings when people get home but down at night when they are asleep.  It also can follow seasonal or geographical trends, going up in the Summer and Winter when people use lots of air conditioning or heating.  Power generators have to match this moving target and to do so they use a combination power plants and energy storage.

Base load verse peaker power plants

Not all power plants are created equal, even if they generate the same quantity of power.  Some plants take a long time to start up or shut down but they tend to provide the cheapest power.  These plants are called base load plants and are generally used to meet the minimum chunk of power that is expected to be used that day or week.  Other plants, called peaker plants, don’t run all the time and are brought online when power consumption goes up.  Peaker plants don’t need to be as cheap as base load plants but they do need to be able to start up quickly.

If power generation ever exceeds power consumption the surplus will need to be stored.  If power generation falls short it is possible to draw on previous storage rather than bringing another peaker plant online.  But this can only smooth out brief shortfalls.  If storage runs out then brownouts will happen.  While we’re use to seeing cheap and plentifully batteries in all our electronics, batteries (known as chemical storage) are extremely expensive at the industrial scale.  I found it humorous and ingenious that one of the most cost effective ways to store energy is pumping water up a hill.  As long as you have a river and a hill you can store a huge amount of energy by pumping it up the hill when you have a power surplus and letting it fall down to power a turbine (like a how a hydro-electric power plant works) when you need to tap the power.

What does this have to do with Beyond Earth?

Energy in Beyond Earth is what I call a failure of mechanics as metaphor.  Energy’s core mechanical properties of transferability and storability are directly opposite of two core constraints that energy generation faces in reality.  The structure of mechanics can imply meaning.  Mechanics can teach us about the world, the perspective of its inhabitants and allow players to empathize with them.  It is a form of communication that is unique to games.  Dark Souls and Papers Please use this to amazing effect.  Energy in Beyond Earth is a missed opportunity.

When I went to Firaxicon I got a chance to speak with Will Miller, one of the two co-lead designers of Beyond Earth.  One of the things we talked about was the role of Energy in Beyond Earth.  He said he didn’t want to do “credits” because it had been done a million times before and cited “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi as inspiration.  Ultimately they weren’t trying to fundamentally redesign the role of Gold in a Civilization-style game.  They just wanted to change the name to something that fit better.  For all the missed opportunities of energy it fits much better than Gold and is certainly more unique than Credits.  It wasn’t a bad solution to the problem they were trying to solve.

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