Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn is out!

Glancing at my “What I’m Looking Forward To” post from September, I realised that I clean forgot to mention one of the novels that I was keenly anticipating — Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

 

Well, the anticipation is almost over, for Cryoburn has been released. But the key word is almost; not only do I need to buy the book (I know what I’ll be doing at lunchtime tomorrow!), but I’m going to save it for the upcoming plane trip. Well, if I waited all these years for Miles Vorkosigan’s latest adventure, what are a few more days

Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?

 

Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.

 

There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.

 

Firstly, as mentioned in the Three Moves Ahead podcast: at the scale at which 4X games (and probably most other strategy games) take place, you never come face to face with your victims. Nowhere is the saying that “one death is a tragedy, but a million are a statistic” truer than in gaming. Any RPG worth its salt will drive home the consequences of your evil actions, whether they be acts of mass murder such as detonating a nuclear bomb or planting a biological weapon, or “merely” kidnapping a baby. But in Civilization, an atrocity really is just a statistic. In Civilization IV, there’s a civic (social system) named “Slavery” which allows you to speed up a city’s construction by sacrificing population. You can probably imagine what this means in human terms: overseers flogging slaves bloody, monuments rising in the background as exhausted and half-starved labourers breathe their last. In game terms? Your city’s population goes down by a few points. The same goes for wars of aggression and dispossession.

 

Conversely, the squad-level strategy games (X-Com) and tactical RPGs (Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy Tactics) do not have this problem, at least when it comes to your own soldiers. In these games, instead of a vast empire, you only control a few, very distinct characters at one time. As a result, you grow attached to your soldiers. You’ll move heaven and earth to rescue an injured member of your squad, sometimes even at the expense of your objectives (as memorably described here by Rob Zacny). If all else fails, there is always the “reload” button, and I assure you I’m not the only one who abuses that. Feeling bad for leading my soldiers to their deaths in TRPGs resembles agonising over moral choices in RPGs, but is far removed from gleeful conquest sprees in 4X games. And that is a direct consequence of the scale of each of these genres.

 

Secondly, strategy games (and 4X games) are usually zero-sum. The game runs for a finite time before coming to an end, and ultimately there can be only one winning player or team. If my rival in Civilization IV is close to winning the space race, and thus, the game, it is in my interest to unleash a barrage of nuclear missiles to slow down his/her progress. The folly of this approach in real life is obvious. But in Civilization, I don’t care how much suffering I cause so long as I meet my victory conditions, because then the game will be over. This also applies to domestic policy. Because strategy games, unlike real life, are not open-ended, the well-being of my citizens is irrelevant except insofar as I enjoy playing a benevolent ruler, or to the extent that it contributes to my win.

 

Thirdly, crime, in this context, does pay. The size of a national economy in real life is determined by factors including the amount of labour employed (how many people have jobs and how many hours are they working?), the amount of capital employed (what tools, plant and infrastructure are they using?), and, crucially, the productivity of each hour worked and of each dollar of capital (one person with modern machinery can probably do the work of 100 Bronze Age labourers; bridges to nowhere might cost a lot, but they don’t contribute much to productivity). Games, though, tend to make raw population the most important metric, and they tie the population an empire can support to how much territory it controls. This has many consequences for the way in which they model reality, some of which I’ll discuss in future posts. But for current purposes, the key implication is that if a larger nation is richer, more successful, and ultimately more likely to win the game, then I have an incentive to gobble up as many neighbours as I can in a quest for Lebensraum (subject to any checks and balances in the game, such as badboy/infamy in Europa Universalis or corruption/upkeep in Civilization).

 

In conclusion, several things explain why we so often resort to conquest, aggression, slavery, and tyranny in strategy (especially 4X) games. Saying “it’s just a game” is no answer, because it fails to explain why we play other genres that offer moral choice, such as RPGs, more humanely than we play strategy games. And just because these things happened in real life, and they are presented as options in the game, doesn’t itself explain why we then choose those options. But we can point to other factors that do answer that question: we choose them when our victims are depersonalised and reduced to numbers on a map screen; when the game has a definite end, so we don’t have to worry about ongoing or long-term consequences so long as we win; and when aggression does, in fact, make it easier to win because the game’s economic model places territory and population foremost in determining national power.

 

Do these factors set our behaviour in stone, then? Not necessarily. Each can be addressed by other genres, and even by merely changing the way we design grand strategy and 4X games. Depersonalisation is not an issue with squad-level strategy and tactical RPGs, and even when the game takes place at a scale where we never encounter individuals, developers can try to make us aware of the toll of our actions – that is my limited understanding of Introversion Software’s DEFCON. The players don’t care about anything except victory? I would think that ongoing games, such as MMOs, would require a more long-term attitude – and even though most games can’t be ongoing, why not set up a scoring system to give bonus points to happy, well-managed empires (Civilization actually does this), or to players who refrain from wars of aggression? Your economic model encourages territorial expansionism? Play up the role of technology, institutions, governance and human capital to reward players who invest in nation-building as opposed to nation-grabbing. For the player of a strategy game (particularly a 4X game), power often corrupts. But by understanding why, we can design games so as to reduce that temptation, provide players with more interesting choices – and encourage them to build empires that deserve to stand the test of time.

 

 

To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Another game joins the backlog: AI War

Since Arcen Games’ AI War, which I’ve previously mentioned, is currently 50% off at Steam and Impulse, I took the plunge and bought a copy. I’m still in the midst of the tutorial, but one look at the game’s very extensive wiki is enough to make me look forward to getting the chance to play.

 

I also really like the game’s conceit: you, the human playing against the computer, are in fact leading the remnants of humanity against a mighty empire of AIs. And while initially your rag-tag forces are simply too small for the AIs to notice, progressing through the game by seizing territory, destroying AI installations or building superweapons will make the AIs progressively more and more alarmed and hence, more and more lethal. Thus, the game becomes about trade-offs: conquer just enough territory to give yourself the resources you need to fight the AIs, but don’t run so wild that the AIs wake up and squash you like a pancake. This seems to me to be a pretty nifty way of fusing gameplay mechanics with the game’s subject matter, and I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

Storytelling in Games: “What’s it all about?” Or, the importance of gameplay mechanics

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

“What’s the story all about?”

 

At its heart, every story or creative work comes down to that deceptively simple question. Deceptively, because “what a story is about” encompasses many things:

 

  • It includes the capsule summary: “Star Wars is a space opera about a dreamy kid who turns out to be the saviour of the galaxy.” “Yes, Minister is about a British politician who’s constantly thwarted by his chief civil servant.”

 

  • It includes the general feel of the work: “Band of Brothers is about what it would be like to be a US paratrooper in World War 2.” “The Black Company is about what it would be like to be a foot soldier in a world dominated by immortal wizards.”

 

  • And it includes theme, the central ideas that underpin the story: “Fallout 3 is a game about sacrifice.” “Lord of the Rings is about the ability of power to corrupt; and the fading of beauty from the world; and that even after the defeat of evil, the world will never be the same again.” Or, to return to an earlier example, “Yes, Minister is about the grubby little compromises needed in order to stay in power; and what a weak thing human nature is.”

 

Ultimately, “what it’s about” is what the reader, viewer or player takes away from the experience once it’s all over. It is the sum of plot and characterisation and worldbuilding and prose, motifs and messages – and, relevantly, gameplay mechanics. And this is the big strength of games as a storytelling medium: it adds a new layer to the experience.

 

To be sure, gameplay can’t provide plot or dialogue. And it’s not a panacea: sometimes it works at cross-purposes to other aspects of the storytelling experience. In his twopart series, “Theme is Not Meaning”, Soren Johnson gives some examples: while Civilization is ostensibly a game about history, its mechanics are as far removed from history as you can get. Civilisations can instigate a neat revolution on command to shake up their social systems; while rise and fall are replaced by static borders that only change in response to external invasion. The net effect, to quote Soren: “… the games mechanics tell us less about world history than they do about what it would be like to be part of a league of ancient gods, who pit their subjects against each other for fun.

 

But consider what gameplay can do, when it does work together with the rest of the game’s narrative elements:

 

  • Gameplay can be used to flesh out characters: in Valkyria Chronicles, Marina the loner sniper will sometimes take a penalty if she’s too close to fellow squaddies, while ladies’ man Salinas can receive bonuses from being near female comrades. How well would I have remembered those two minor characters had their personality quirks not had in-game effects?

 

  • Gameplay excels at worldbuilding: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior showed us what a post-apocalyptic world would look like, but it’s even more effective to discover that world for ourselves by wandering around in Fallout 3, being poisoned by radiation with each gulp of water we drink; and reading the journal of a nurse dying from radiation sickness after the bombs fell, or the notes of a man who resorted to slave labour in his hunger to rebuild civilisation.

 

  • Gameplay is, I think, second to none at creating a “feel” or “mood”: we may read epic, high-magic fantasy novels, but to get the experience of being a warlord in one of their worlds, nothing beats playing Dominions 3. Star Control 2 (aka The Ur-Quan Masters) captures the experience of being an space captain, boldly going where no explorer has gone before, in a way that a book or a TV series or a movie can’t.

 

  • Gameplay can even bring across theme: UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense is a game about sacrifice and struggle in the face of an overwhelming foe.

 

In short, gameplay is one of the most powerful storytelling tools around. In response to the original question, “So, what’s the story all about?”, for any other medium, we would point to the experience created by words and images and sounds. When the mechanics of a game are at their best, we should point to the experience created by words and images and sounds… and to what we actually did.

 

To quickly find this, or other posts in my Storytelling in Games series, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Calling all wannabe starship bridge officers! Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator

Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator is one of the more entertaining game ideas I’ve seen in some time. Six players get together around a LAN, with each player taking on a specific starship bridge officer role: Weapons, Communications, Science (sensors), Engineering, Helm or Captain. You can see gameplay videos here.

 

I also love the developer’s explanation as to why this game was designed for LAN, not internet, play:

 

I always wanted the players to be in one room together, just like a spaceship bridge. I want the captain to be able to push the helmsman aside and shout “Full power, DAMN you!!!”

 

Give it a look if you’re a space opera fan!

One sign that our geeky hobbies have gone mainstream

How do we know when a favourite, but hitherto niche, hobby has gone mainstream? I’m sure there are many indicators. The most obvious is, have its sales skyrocketed? There are others: has it featured on a talk show? Are our co-workers discussing it?

 

But lately, I’ve noticed one more: How widely is it being advertised? In particular, is it being advertised in public places?

 

Using this litmus test, gaming has definitely gone mainstream. In the last few months, I’ve seen the bearded special operator from Medal of Honor, the scowling cowboy of Red Dead Redemption, and “Super Mario 25th Anniversary – Part of the Family Since 1985” all staring down at me from the sides of buses. A couple of years ago, I remember seeing LittleBigPlanet posters at the train station, in which an adorable-looking Sackboy proclaimed, “On my planet, the stock market isn’t so scary.”  And I could be mistaken here – this was years and years ago – but I seem to recall seeing CivAnon brochures at university, in which case even turn-based strategy can be mainstream..

 

Speculative fiction movies and TV are also mainstream by this definition. Most recently, I’ve seen posters at the train station advertising vampire TV shows, but pretty much any speculative-fiction blockbuster would count.

 

On the other hand, speculative fiction NOVELS are most definitely not mainstream. Neither is anime (well, in Australia, at any rate). No real surprises in either case…

The State of the Matchsticks — October 2010

I’ve been blogging on Matchsticks for my Eyes for about a month and a half, during which time I’ve been updating pretty much daily, usually on games or books but sometimes on anime, movies or TV as well. What’s coming up next for this site?

 

About a week ago, I added indexes of my reviews and features (see the links at the top of this page) – I do plan to do some more posts in those two areas, and in particular, I’m working on my Storytelling in Games series. Hopefully I’ll be able to add at least one more Storytelling in Games entry over the next week or so. And while I will be away travelling for most of November (starting at the end of next week) and as such, won’t be updating daily during that time, I will do my best to post a longer review or feature each week while I’m away.

 

Thanks for your support, all! It’s been very encouraging to see my traffic crawling gradually upwards. :D

Fallout 3 finished – time to rummage around in the backlog once more!

After 80 hours, I finished Fallout 3 last night. While I can see why people were angry with the ending in its original state, those flaws didn’t detract from what I liked about it. I’ve put the postgame content added by the Broken Steel DLC to one side, though, as I’m all Fallenout for now. Over the next week or two, I plan to write up why I liked Fallout 3 so much as a storytelling experience; watch this space!

 

Now I’m wondering what to move onto next. I have a bunch of other RPGs in my backlog: I didn’t get very far into either Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs the Soulless Army (PS2) or Dragon Age (PS3). And I ran into analysis paralysis during chargen with the last non-Fallout Western RPGs I tried to play: Mass Effect (PC) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (PC). Then there are the non-RPGs (for instance, I still haven’t played the original Bioshock), novels, TV and movies, non-fiction… well, the beauty of a backlog is that it’s better to have too much choice rather than too little!

“The golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”: when do you have the most fun with a hobby?

There is a saying, attributed to one Peter Graham, that “the golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”.

 

Now, assuming “12” is a metaphor for “when you first discover it”, I can understand the argument. I discovered most of my favourite anime in the first couple of years after I came to the hobby: Cowboy Bebop, Crest of the Stars, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, etc. I suspect this is due to my relatively narrow tastes in anime – in other words, it didn’t take me long to come close to exhausting the pool of anime that are to my liking.

 

But it’s not true when it comes to the games I’ve played. Oh, I whiled away endless hours playing games when I was a kid. And I was willing to spend more hours on any one game than I am now: the two that first spring to mind are Civilization II, which I played and modded ad infinitum, and the original X-Com, which I never bothered to finish because I was having so much fun stomping around on Earth, but there are undoubtedly many, many others. From an “amount of free time” perspective, any time you don’t have to hold down a job will be your golden age.

 

Yet many of my favourite games, or the games I would consider ‘the greatest’ or in some way the best, or those that had the biggest impact on me, are ones that I only played in the last 3-4 years: Fallout 3, Star Control 2/The Ur-Quan Masters, Okami, etc. And I think coming to them with a grown-up’s eyes is a major reason why. For now I have had the benefit of years and years of reading books and playing games and absorbing stories. And now, I can better recognise originality. I can now dissect games well enough to see how they bring together individual building blocks, analyse them in terms of theme and character arc and worldbuilding. In other words, I can appreciate games on more layers than I could when I was younger.

 

Perhaps, then, the golden age of science fiction, or gaming, or anime, or movies or TV or any hobby, is when you’re sufficiently well-versed to understand why you like it.

Fallout 3: So near and yet so…

I haven’t yet finished Fallout 3, but I love the game. It is one of my favourite games of all time, and so when I came home today, I was eager to proceed with the main story questline. The ending, I thought, looked tantalisingly close.

 

Imagine my reaction when the game repeatedly crashed to desktop after one story scene. I adjusted my graphics up, I adjusted my graphics down, I turned mods off, and I turned them on again. I reset my key bindings, verified the integrity of local files on Steam, waited in-game, cleared the cache. And each time, the game crashed. Perhaps making matters worse, the game was generally pretty solid for me until now.

 

Now, I was lucky enough to find, via the Google cache, a thread on a dead forum in which someone worked out how to use the console commands to bypass the problematic segments. But I think I understand exactly how Tom Chick felt in this review of Fallout: New Vegas.

How much would it cost to start a game development company?

I’ve previously guesstimated the amount of sales revenue Carpe Fulgur would have received from Recettear, and discussed the finances of Arcen Games, the developer of AI War. Today, I found a series of posts estimating how much it would cost to set up a game development company with a six-person team (everything from salaries to legal costs to rent), and how many units you would need to sell in order to break even. It’s an interesting read if you ever wondered how easy (or hard) it would be for an indy studio to keep its head above water.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn: awww!

Kirby’s Epic Yarn for Wii is one of the cutest, most adorable games I have seen in some time. You can check out gameplay footage here at Giantbomb. I particularly love how Kirby’s eyes seem to float as a result of inertia when he jumps or bobs up and down. Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet had better watch out, lest he lose his crown as cute platformer mascot…

What I’ve just read: Lustrum, by Robert Harris

Tonight, I finished Robert Harris’ Lustrum (released in the US as Conspirata), the second novel in his Cicero trilogy (the first was Imperium). It was an enjoyable, fast-paced read, although I doubt I’ll reread it any time soon. There were two particular things that I liked about the book.

 

One, Caesar is a villain for a change. And as a villain, he makes a fine nemesis for Cicero: menacing, mercilessly hungry for power, capable of bouncing back Hydra-like from every defeat. Making Caesar the villain, I think, also adds a note of dramatic irony to the novels: the reader is perfectly aware that it will be Caesar who has the last laugh by becoming history’s best-known Roman, and that Caesar will be the one who eventually pulls down the Republic.

 

And two, while I still do not know that much Roman history, I am finally reaching the point where I was able to get the most out of the book. You know how sometimes, when you’re a fan of a given work, you might watch an adaptation and be thrilled when you spot a shout-out to the original, or when you know what’ll happen next because you read the book? That was pretty much how I felt. So I was happy to see Lucullus, the successful general turned to decadence in his retirement, showing off his fish ponds. I rubbed my hands together when I read that the rites of the Good Goddess would take place at Caesar’s house, because I had a feeling about what was coming up. I muttered, “Uh oh,” to myself when Fulvia made a cameo. In other words, the book came along at the right time for me, after I had learned a bit about Rome.

 

All in all, the book was well worth the price I paid, and I look forward to the final novel in Harris’ Cicero trilogy.

One of those funny little coincidences…

I started getting into Napoleonic-era naval fiction (Hornblower, Aubrey & Maturin) earlier this year.In the last few weeks, looking at Sydney’s colonial-era buildings — such as Cadman’s Cottage; or Fort Denison, the round little construction jutting out from the midst of Sydney Harbour — made me think that it would be cool to see a Napoleonic story where the heroes visit Australia.

 

Cut to today, when upon finishing The Mauritius Command, the fourth Aubrey & Maturin novel, I looked at the blurb for Desolation Island, the next book in the series:

 

Jack and Stephen are dispatched to restore order after popular unrest unseats New South Wales governor William Bligh, the ill-fated captain of the mutinous Bounty.

 

Coooool. I look forward to reading — assuming the blurb does not lie — about Aubrey & Maturin down under!

Storytelling in Games: An Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

Ever since the first men and women huddled in fire-lit caves, telling – and enjoying – stories has been part of the human experience. And as we mastered technology, we unlocked new ways to tell stories: the written word, radio, film, television, and most recently, video games. Each medium brought its own techniques – prose, sound effects, camerawork, visual effects, CGI – while also building on the techniques introduced by previous media.

 

Games are no exception. Like movies, they are an audio-visual product, and as such they (typically) contain dialogue presented as text, voice-acted or both; graphics; and sound and music. But they add a new dimension: interactivity. Now, the actual gameplay mechanics become one more technique in the storyteller’s repertoire.

 

As such, games offer two types of storytelling experiences. On the one hand, there is the traditional “I have a yarn, and let me tell it to you” experience seen in every medium. In games, this manifests itself in backstory, cut-scenes, narration and scripted sequences. Let’s call this Type I, scripted, storytelling. On the other, there is the game used as a toolbox or backdrop, which you can then use to enact your own tale. When you excitedly babble about your virtual adventures, when characters you care about and situations that leave you on the edge of your seat emerge on their own, that is a form of storytelling unique to games. Call it Type II, mechanics-driven, storytelling.

 

Now, some players prefer one form of storytelling to the other. But to me, they’re equally valid. While I think every game’s mechanics should at least complement the experience that the designers want the player to take away (type II or mechanics-driven storytelling), good writing (type I or scripted) can still be an invaluable part of that experience.. And for that reason, over time, I plan to write a feature series about games that told great stories, whether scripted, mechanics-driven or both. For well-done storytelling, and the worlds of wonder that it creates, are what separate the great games from the merely good, and greatness is something that always deserves to be discussed and feted.

 

To quickly find this, or other posts in my Storytelling in Games series, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Rise of Nations first impressions: A font of ideas for later games?

Today I picked up Robert Harris’ Lustrum, a novel told from the POV of Cicero’s secretary and sequel to Imperium; Rise of Nations, the 2003 RTS by Big Huge Games, and its expansion pack; and a non-fiction book (Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580) that looked cheap, was on a topic that sounded intriguing, and had some promising back-cover blurbs.

So far I’ve taken the plunge into Rise of Nations, and as I played very few RTS of that era (I burned out on the genre in the 90s, then came back to it more recently with games such as Sins of Solar Empire and Company of Heroes), it’s interesting to view it with fresh eyes. And along the way, I see ideas that could have been forebears to concepts that I’ve already seen in more modern games. For one, RoN’s economy might be peon-based, but it’s about as automated as can be while still being peon-based: resources are inexhaustible, idle peons will move to mines with free slots, etc. Could this have inspired the peon-less modern games such as Sins of a Solar Empire, where you gave planets build orders and they would auto-spawn construction ships accordingly? Then there are the little things such as auto-formations and auto-explore that I’ve grown used to in Sins; it’s a relief to have them in RoN as well. And last of all, there are the ground units that auto-morph into transport ships when ordered onto the water, a concept which came up again in Civilization V.

While it’s still early days, I look forward to playing more RoN – and to finally finishing Fallout 3, now that I’ve been tidying up side quests one after another.

Where are all the steampunk games?

Along with zombies, steampunk is probably the main wave sweeping through speculative fiction right now. Locus magazine (September ’10) and Tor.com (last year) have run steampunk months, and Tor.com is following up with a “steampunk fortnight”; more and more steampunk novels have hit the shelves in the last couple of years, such as Scott Westerfeld’s YA piece Leviathan (which has a new sequel, Behemoth), and even a steampunk/zombie hybrid (Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker); and I even saw a steampunk table set aside at Kinokuniya Books, although it wasn’t labelled as such.

What I wonder, then, is how long this will take to trickle into other media – particularly games. Not only is steampunk cool, but more importantly, it doesn’t have the “how do I make a workable game out of this?” practicality problems of, say, hard science fiction. Good luck trying to make a game about interstellar space opera without FTL – but airships and steam-powered gadgetry should work in any genre of game. Yet I can’t think of that many high-profile examples. Arcanum (2001 RPG set in an high fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution) was the obvious poster child for Western/PC steampunk titles. Representing Japan and JRPGs, I can point to Final Fantasy VI (1994). And for upcoming games, there’s Bioshock Infinite (FPS). But all in all, steampunk is a drop in the gaming ocean compared to, say, space marines or Tolkienesque fantasy. Where are all the other cool steampunk RPGs that could exist in some other dimension? Strategy, too, could do with more steampunk: offhand I can only think of the Jules Verne scenario for Fantastic Worlds (the Civilization II expansion pack) and the Vinci from Rise of Legends. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we look at other genres, where’s my Sid Meier’s Pirates!/Space Rangers 2 with airships?

Game devs, are you listening? There’s a very rich vein to be mined, and it’s filled with steam…

Cowboy Bebop: How to flesh out characters in a single sublime moment

Characterisation is vital to a good story. And storytellers can enlighten us about characters and their relationships over hundreds of pages, in elaborate flashbacks, in grand, dramatic revelations.

 

But sometimes, a single eloquent moment can tell us as much as all the above.

 

My case in point here is the third episode of Cowboy Bebop, “Honky Tonk Women”. When we first see our two heroes in this episode, the freebooting bounty hunters Spike and Jet, they’re making their way into an orbiting casino:

 

Jet: “They’ll kick us out if you win too much.”

Spike: “Thanks, Mom, but if you didn’t want me to win, you shouldn’t have brought me here.”

 

Of course, trouble eventually starts. And when Jet sees that Spike is in the midst of the ensuing brawl, he lets out the groan of a frustrated parent: “Oh, Spiiike…”, followed soon enough by, “I told you not to win too much!”

 

And from those few lines, we can deduce so much about the characters and their relationship. We can infer Spike is hot-tempered, prone to getting the two of them into trouble. We can infer Jet is the responsible one. And, best of all, we can infer that the two of them know each other well enough for Jet to automatically assume that the trouble was Spike’s fault for not listening to his advice. It’s these touches that make Bebop, all these years later, still the best anime I’ve ever seen.

The Dance with Dragons draws closer

The latest news on A Dance with Dragons is that GRRM has five part-chapters left to write, and that his publisher “[hopes] to have a finished manuscript by Christmas.”

My head knows I shouldn’t get too hopeful. After all, we’ve been here before: GRRM went on a roll in the middle of ’09, and A Feast for Crows came out back in ’05. My heart, now, that’s a different thing. My heart remembers the thrill of buying AFFC for myself, that I bought it on a Tuesday, that it was on my way down to class. My heart is what draws me to click on every ASOIAF-related thread in the hopes that it’ll contain an announcement that ADWD is finished. My heart is what makes me hope that this time, with 8+ POVs already done and good progress made on a particularly sticky plot element (the “Meereenese Knot”), it’ll be for real.

(In other words, this post could have been subtitled, “What it means to be a fan…”)

Rereading books and re-watching movies

I’ve previously mused about the extent to which game-playing habits reflect real-world habits. That said, there must also be plenty of cases where the two don’t match. Take, for example, rereading books vs replaying games. As I noted yesterday, I don’t replay games; however, I read the same old books and watch the same old movies and anime over, and over, and over again (as anyone who lives with me could attest…).

 

Not only that, but I never re-read (or re-watch) cover-to-cover after my first time. In the case of a book, I either just pick it up and start a re-read session at a random page, or else I just beeline for my favourite chapter. In the case of a movie or anime, I go straight for my favourite part. In either case, I skip any scene that I found excessively gory, depressing, or boring the first time around. You could say I’m like the two webcomic characters who described their favourite way of re-watching Episode I: “Pod race, saber fight, pod race, saber fight – our faith in George Lucas is almost restored!”

 

How about you?

What proportion of people actually replay games?

About a year ago, Stardock disclosed that only 23% of people who bought Demigod – a game designed primarily for multiplayer! – even attempted to play online. (The link goes to Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s write-up, because the original link to the Stardock document is dead.)

 

Now, multiplayer is a huge selling point for games and a huge rallying point for hardcore players of individual titles.  But if that 23% is at all representative of gamers in general, it makes me wonder how many other bullet-points go ignored by the vast majority of players.

 

Take replayability in the case of “single-play”/”narrative”/”campaign”-type games (which includes everything from Fallout 3 to Monkey Island – I exclude “scenario”-type titles such as Civilization or chess in which you play many discrete ‘games’). There are people out there who play the same RPG for hundreds and hundreds of hours, trying out different origin stories (Dragon Age), different branches to the storyline, good/evil solutions to quests, postgame or New Game + content, etc. What I would like to know is, out of those players who have already finished the game, what proportion do the replayers represent? Is it closer to 23% or 77%? I’d love to see some hard data on this topic.

 

And, for the record, I neither replay games nor (with a few limited exceptions) bother sticking around for endgame content. Once I’m done with my first playthrough, I’m done, and it’s time to bid farewell to the world and characters and move onto the next game.

Stargate SG-1: The mysterious vanishing Jaffa helmets

In the Stargate movie, and in the early seasons of Stargate SG-1, the bad guys are resplendent in animal-head helmets: Horus guards (from the movie) wore falcon-headed helmets, Apophis and his serpent guards from SG-1 make their first appearance in sinister snake helmets, and when SG-1 meets Heru-ur, their first new System Lord other than Apophis, his goons are wearing the falcon helmets again. However, after the first couple of seasons, the helmets disappear. Why?

Out of universe, I have a pretty simple explanation. As the later seasons introduce more and more Goa’uld System Lords, it would just not have been practical (or affordable?) to design and build unique helmets for each System Lord’s Jaffa. Thus, the vanishing helmets reflect real-world constraints.

However, I think I like my in-universe explanation better. Remember the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke rips off a stormtrooper helmet and exclaims, “I can’t see a thing in this helmet!”? Well, maybe the Goa’uld decided that SG-1 could regularly defeat whole armies of Jaffa because the Jaffa couldn’t see what they were aiming at. Of course, the Jaffa’s accuracy doesn’t seem to improve even after they start running around bare-headed, but perhaps the Goa’uld thought it was worth keeping up the experiment…

When losing in games is NOT fun

One of these days, I will write about losing in games and how to make it fun. But for now, I will just say, I know when it isn’t fun: when the player feels cheated out of victory. This is probably a major part of why I cannot compensate for bad AI in games simply by dialling up the difficulty level to give the computer bigger and bigger bonuses. It also explains why the outcome of my latest game of Sins of a Solar Empire aroused such fury in me.

 

I had set up a 1v1 game against a Cruel AI — the second-hardest difficulty level, which gives the AI plenty of bonuses. I had finally destroyed the bulk of the AI fleet by luring it close to a mighty starbase… then triggering the self-destruct. Now the initiative was mine. My fleets drove back the AI. My coffers were filling. My research led me towards the Novalith Cannon, a superweapon that could level the computer’s worlds from across the map. After two-and-a-half hours and numerous setbacks, I knew I had finally turned the corner.
Then out of the blue, a message popped up that the AI had won a diplomatic victory (based on reaching a certain threshold of “diplomacy points”, which are awarded based on a player’s relations with the other players in the game).

 

A diplomatic victory? In a 1v1 game where we’d been doing our best to slaughter each other the whole time???


I reloaded. Looked more carefully at the relationship screen. I saw the AI was, indeed, getting diplomacy points from positive relationships. How on earth was the AI getting that from me, though? I hovered the cursor over my portrait.

 

“AI Relationship Bonus: +10”.

 

In other words, the massive AI Relationship Bonus (presumably due to the high difficulty level) meant I’d have to race the clock to beat the AI before it racked up enough diplomacy points to win.

 

On any objective reading, the fault was mine for not turning off diplomatic victories (because I thought they’d be redundant in a 1vs1 game) and for not realising the significance of the AI Relationship Bonus. Yet I still felt enraged and robbed of victory. And my experience, I think, underscores what Sid Meier and Soren Johnson have said about human players tending to feel cheated when a game or a die roll goes against them (see this write-up of Sid Meier’s GDC 2010 address, and Soren Johnson on randomness and cheating AIs).

Hurrah for a Porco Rosso sequel

I was recently quite thrilled when I stumbled across the news, apparently dating from August, that Hayao Miyazaki is working on a sequel to Porco Rosso. The sequel is entitled Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie and is apparently set during the Spanish Civil War.

 

Now, I am not a big Miyazaki fan, although Princess Mononoke made a huge impression on me when I watched it. However, I liked the original Porco Rosso, partly for its pulpy dieselpunk setting and partly because of the cheerful absurdity of a talking pig flying a plane. So I will definitely look into the sequel. But I do wonder how it will address the ending of the original…

New icon!

Now that I have a WordPress blog of my own, it was about time that I came up with a unique icon to fit the “matchsticks for my eyes” theme. So I have retired the Miles Vorkosigan gravatar and with assistance from Matchstick Mum and Matchstick Dad, I present the image now visible on the top right-hand corner of this page. :D

Authors’ advances: science fiction & fantasy vs literary fiction

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “Authors Feel Pinch In Age of E-Books”. Now, I have seen other bloggers rip the original article full of holes, but for me, the premise of the original article wasn’t really the issue. What did make me sit up was the fact that, according to the WSJ article:

Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, a small independent publisher, now plans to publish the [literary fiction] book, offering Ms. Kaschock an advance of about $3,500..

…established publishers typically paid [US$50,000 to US$100,000 advances] in the past for debut literary fiction…

Now, my frame of reference is the science fiction/fantasy genre, for which Tobias Buckell conducted a survey several years ago. Buckell found that the median advance for first-time authors was $5,000. Yep, one-tenth, or one-twentieth, of the literary fiction advances mentioned above.

Assuming the WSJ piece is correct and literary fiction does, indeed, typically pay advances of US$50K-US$100K , this is an interesting fact. It makes me wonder why the discrepancy is so great: is literary fiction truly that lucrative to publish compared to speculative fiction? And it makes me wonder about the relative pay scales of other genres of writing.

Update: Tobias Buckell points out in the comments section:

… most agents/editors I know are laughing at that ‘lit fic usually gets paid XXX’ assertion. They’re cherry picking and mis remembering. Like everything else, lit fic has a range, from no-pay academic journal publishers, $1000 paying college presses, to authors who get paid big money.

Based on this, then, the $50K – $100K cited in the article does look to be inflated. Thanks, Tobias!

Arcen Games: a sobering reminder of the expenses involved in indie game development

Last week I wrote about Recettear’s sales figures, which, on my assumptions, would have pulled in revenue of ~US$500,000. However, expenses would be pure guesswork. Today’s post serves as a sober counterpoint. According to this PC Gamer article, “AI War and the Hidden Cost of Indie Games”, Arcen Games, developer of RTS AI War and puzzler Tidalis, is having difficulty bringing in enough to pay the bills. Here are some highlights, extracted from Chris Park of Arcen’s email to PC Gamer:

 

2010-thru-April

Total income for Arcen during this period was $101,401.38

Total expense for Arcen during this period was $91,314.76, including paying staff and myself, acquiring new licenses and technologies (Unity 3D, and some sound software, etc), legal fees for contract negotiation, payroll taxes, health insurance, site hosting, all that stuff…

  • May $19,085.06 income, $12,684.28 expense
  • June $17,233.70 income, $26,434.89 expense (a fair chunk of this was taxes)
  • July $6,956.48 income, $18,243.52 expense
  • August $13,847.02 income, $18,682.68 expense
  • September $13,395.42 income, (not full data yet, but expenses looks to be about the same but a little lower than August)

 

Note the apparent rebound in August is not, in fact, like-for-like: Arcen’s second game, Tidalis, launched in that time, while sales for its first, AI War, softened in July.

 

However, there is one question lingering in my mind. From the sound of the article, Arcen’s labour costs are highly variable: it pays the staff in royalties rather than wages. So what are the other costs? Arcen mentions a few:

 

  • Taxes;
  • Licence fees (“Unity 3D, and sound software”);
  • Health insurance;
  • Site hosting;
  • Legal costs involved in striking publisher deals;
  • MacOS machines for development;

 

I wonder how much these various costs ran to, and what the implications for other indie game developers are. (As a localiser rather than a developer, my first impression is that Carpe Fulgur must have a lower cost base than Arcen, but I could well be wrong.)

 

In any case, I am downloading the demos for AI War and Tidalis as I write this. Check out the demos if they sound interesting to you!

Sea power in strategy games: How to ensure it’s not an oxymoron

By now I must have played the Civilization games for sixteen or seventeen years, but never did I see an armada to match that in my latest game, over the weekend. Multiple stacks, each consisting of several to half-a-dozen modern warships, destroyers and battleships and carriers, lay massed off my shores. It was a splendid sight.

There was one slight problem: It wasn’t my fleet.

And I felt rather like the German major from the Longest Day, who, upon seeing the Allied fleet poised to invade Normandy, howls to a disbelieving superior that there must be “five thousand ships out there!

But the really odd thing isn’t just that fleets that large are a rare sight in Civilization. It’s that fleets that large are so often a moot point in Civilization, where on the map types I play (balanced, continents, Terra), control of the seas is often just not that important. This made me think: How does a strategy game designer ensure that sea power is worthwhile, that it isn’t an oxymoron? And what factors influence this?

Geography is the first and most obvious. If I’m fighting someone on the same continent in Civilization IV, investing in an amphibious landing force, and warships to protect it, has little point when I can just drive my tanks straight across the border. You can contrast, say, Europa Universalis, where the European powers have to invest in navies to protect their overseas colonies from one another.

But there is a second factor: how well does the game represent the importance of sea lanes to trade and communication? My example here is Empire: Total War, which modelled this in two ways. Much of your income comes from trade, and firstly, this often travels along defined sea routes. Put a ship astride your enemy’s route, and you can seriously harm his/her war chest. And second, certain spots on the map allow you to park lucrative “trade ships”. Again, hunt down your rivals’ trade ships (or just interdict their routes), and you will hit them where it hurts.

The third factor I can think of is the ability of navies to project power inland. This is best seen in any game where warships can bombard distant targets: plenty of RTSses, but Total Annihilation is the one that sticks in my mind; Advance Wars; even Civilization V (going by descriptions I’ve heard). When you can flatten wide swathes of territory from the sea, navies become important.

These are factors I’d like to see more strategy games play up. Warships are inherently cool, hence all the documentaries about aircraft carriers. Particularly for a historical or quasi-historical game, they add a lot to the flavour of the period. And they give players one more choice to juggle: do I invest in ships now at the expense of an army and infrastructure? It behoves designers to ensure that choice is an interesting one.

Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart

Crest of the Stars and its sequels (Banner of the Stars I – III) are some of my favourite anime of all time. Based on a series of novels (Seikai no Monshou and Seikai no Senki, by Hiroyuki Morioka), they succeed on so many levels. They tell a tale of conflict within the heart, against a backdrop that combines an epic clash of empires with an imaginative exploration of what humanity’s descendants may look like.

Continue reading “Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart”

New trailer for the forthcoming PSP Tactics Ogre

There is now a trailer available for the forthcoming PSP remake of Tactics Ogre. Apparently, it’s a translation of a trailer that was showed at TGS. The actual in-game dialogue in the trailer is still in Japanese, so no glimpses, as of yet, of how dialogue will be localised. However, it looks like the PSP remake has done an FFT and renamed the characters; the surnames in particular sound now more Central or Eastern European (Denim Powell -> Denam Pavel, Kachua Powell -> Catiua Pavel).

I’m looking forward to this game when it eventually comes out in the West; Tactics Ogre has a sainted reputation in the TRPG genre and I liked what I’ve played of it, despite its brutal character permadeath. Hopefully the re-release won’t disappoint.