I had a hankering for a management game the other day, so I hit the Steam tags list and what do you know: there is no such thing as the management genre any more. Evil Genius - you thought that was a management game, didn't you? Wrong - it's now a 'base builder simulator' with 'realtime pause'. Prison Architect? That's a 'sandbox' 'prison sim'.
Has the management game rebranded itself in the past decade? Certainly as a genre its hayday seemed to come in the late 90s, but like the adventure genre it's enjoying a contemporary comeback. Perhaps games like Tropico 5 (it's a 'dictator sim') are trying to distance themselves from the free-to-play model that rose from the ashes of the great management sim crash of the noughties?
Still craving that management vibe I picked up and played the whole way through Tropico 4 to find out. It really is a classic management game, and that crystalised a few thoughts for me.
The first is that Tropico, like the Theme Hospitals and Rollercoaster Tycoons of the 90s, has little endgame. In Tropico, the core game is the first half hour or so of any level. It's when you're struggling to make ends meet, having to find creative solutions. But then the economy starts ticking over, you go into profit, and beating the level becomes a matter of hitting fast forward and waiting until you have the cash to buy whatever it is you need to beat the mission.
To some degree this is to miss the point of a game like Tropico. Here I am, sitting back in front of a vast autonomous city that I have built from scratch, with the sun setting over the harbour - the point of my endeavours quite clear stands before me. I never have the conviction to build something impressive in Minecraft, but Tropico's mechanics give me just enough of a lead to forge ahead. It's like the world's best paint-by-numbers kit.
But I think this observation also clarifies how the genesis from management genre to free-to-play occurred. Eventually, most of these games boil down to waiting for a counter to tick up so you can buy whatever it is the game tells you to, and start all over again. Mechanically the key difference between those games and the free stuff that's all over the AppStores today could (very bluntly) be reduced to the presence or absence of a fast-forward button.
So what should we do? Well, I'm not suggesting the guys at Introversion should stop what they're doing and go back to the drawing boards. But I do think these observations suggest one or two ways that we could reclaim the management genre and make it new again.
Obscuring the Stats
If one of the key problems in traditional management sims is that they devolve too quickly into stat tracking, why not deliver those stats in different body-paint?
What if to assess a potential staff-member's skills and happiness you had to interview them and make up your own mind? What if instead of purchasing a training upgrade you had to learn the skill yourself and then teach it to your staff? What if the number of goods you've sold today isn't delivered through some menu, but comes in a written report produced by one of your staff, where accuracy is dependent on their experience and can be checked against your own counts?
By humanising the way that players interact with the core management systems we can add drama, and cut back on repetition. A real business that presses the fast-forward button and makes no changes ultimately goes out of business because it doesn't keep up with the times. By making the numbers fuzzier we could make human reaction an essential element of maintaining your profits.
Mixing Up the Endgame
Most management sims make some effort to throw spanners in the works. This only makes sense. If I can just tick over economically and nothing gets in the way of that then there really is no endgame. A lot of games (Tropico and SimCity included) go for natural disasters, but I think this is missing a trick.
What you need is something which radically upsets the dynamics of your society. Natural disasters are too one note - handling them is damage limitation. Fires and floods are bad, end of, and are solved with sufficient emergency services. What would be more interesting, and more of a challenge, would be a disease that wiped out half the male population, or a scandal that means half of all parents refuse to give their children a vital inoculation, or the invention of cat memes halving everyone's attention span. We need disasters that can - through clever on-the-fly solutions - be converted into strengths. We need to re-involve the player's high-level strategic brain, not just continue to exercise the low-level tactical one.
As I write this I realise there are certainly going to be examples of these ideas already out there. Indeed, Tropico 4 plays around with some of these ideas, if not quite making them radical enough to make a significant impact on the flow. Still, it seems to me worth saying. A game which stops throwing new challenges at the player is a game that stops doing what it says on the tin. And I'd like to see the resurgence of the management genre - whatever you want to call it these days - continue well into the future.