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…

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…

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.

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).

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.

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.

Congratulations to EasyGameStation and Carpe Fulgur on Recettear’s sales figures

Update, 3 January 2010: Recettear sells over 100,000 copies. My latest post here.

 

Carpe Fulgur, the company which localised EasyGameStation’s Recettear (see my two earlier posts), has announced Recettear has sold over 26,000 copies in the last month. I’d been wondering how well the game had sold after launch (before launch, I remember it was at #4 or #5 on Steam at one point), and I’m really glad to hear it remains successful.

In fact, Carpe Fulgur’s website says Recettear brought in enough money to allow “all of [Carpe Fulgur’s] members to make wages comparable to “proper” jobs in the industry for an entire year”. What does this mean in dollar terms? Out of interest, I crunched a few numbers:

I assume half (13,000) paid the pre-order price of $18, and half paid full price ($20). This produces revenue of (13,000*$18) + ($13,000*20) = $234,000 + $260,000 = $494,000.
I then assume that EasyGameStation and the distributors each take one-third, leaving Carpe Fulgur with gross profit of $494,000 * (1/3) = $164,667.

Now, I have no idea what kind of expenses (other than salaries) would have to be paid out of that revenue. However, I understand that the Carpe Fulgur team members have no office and worked from home, in which case expenses would probably be pretty minimal. Carpe Fulgur’s legal structure is an LLC, which — if I’ve understood the IRS website correctly — means it’s not a taxable entity, so taxes would be paid by the individual members.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there are no expenses beneath the gross profit line. And as our last assumption, let’s say that Carpe Fulgur splits its profits equally between its three members. That gives us a figure of $54,889 per member of Carpe Fulgur.

That is, in fact, a pretty neat sum (of which I’d say they deserve every penny). This has to bode well for our chances of seeing EasyGameStation’s next project, Territoire, in English!

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale — The Verdict

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the demo of a game named Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (please see the initial post for the game’s premise). I’ve now spent around ten hours with the demo + full game, and my verdict is, this was a great diversion, albeit with a finite shelf life.

Continue reading “Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale — The Verdict”

The other Paradox game I’m looking forward to: Crusader Kings 2

The other Paradox Interactive game I’m looking forward to (once it’s had a good dose of patches and maybe an expansion pack) is Crusader Kings 2.

Now, there’s precious little detail about this one; a quick search turned up nothing more than a few tidbits on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. But I’m looking forward to a continuation of the first Crusader Kings’ unique take on grand strategy: where most strategy games cast you as this kind of amorphous, immortal, omnipresent guiding force behind a company / country / faction, Crusader Kings cast you as a medieval European dynast. So you would follow the lives of your courtiers over time (see this review for an example); dole out offices at court to keep the barons happy; search for brides who would get you into the line of succession for choice territories (I seem to remember there was also an element of heredity in your heir’s stats, which prompted quips about Kwisatz Haderach breeding programs); etc. The expansion pack, which I never played, apparently went even further in facilitating awesome Cersei Lannister-like hijinks.

This is probably as close as we’ll get to a Westeros political simulator – yes, I am aware of the actual forthcoming Westeros adaptation (A Game of Thrones: Genesis), but judging from the press release on the official website, it sounds as though they’re aiming for something more like Total War. And for that reason, I look forward to seeing what Paradox will do for Crusader Kings 2.

Another game I’m looking forward to: Europa Universalis 3: Divine Wind

Yesterday, I forgot to mention another game I’m looking forward to: Divine Wind, the forthcoming expansion pack for Paradox Interactive’s historical grand-strategy game, Europa Universalis III.

The EU games model world history between, roughly, 1400 until 1800; the key word here is “model”. Other games place you in charge of an entire nation in a historical timeframe, such as the Total War and Civilization series, but they tend to use history as a veneer for conquer-the-world / build-a-utopia / etc fantasies. EU, in contrast, actually attempts to simulate  real life: the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation; the resistance of society to governments’ attempts to impose change from the top down (as described in this article by Rob Zacny at Gamasutra); the possibility for empires to overstretch themselves and fall apart, as happened to a monster Ming China in one of my games (at its peak, it spanned the world from Manchuria to Sumatra… then China proper fell into civil war between competing dynasties, and the subjugated nations broke free).

However, as its name implies, the series is also rather Western-centric. This is where the Asian-centric Divine Wind comes in, with features (per the press release) including:

  • Play as one of four major daimyo’s in Japan vying for influence over the Emperor and control over the Shogunate
  • Enhanced diplomacy with more options for alliances and peace negotiations
  • Dozens of new culture-specific building types allowing greater control over the development of provinces
  • More realistic development of trade
  • Manage the internal factions within China to keep the Mandate of Heaven

The first two designer diaries don’t contain much information, but I am interested in hearing more about trade, in particular. While I know little about Asian history, what I have read indicates that you can’t do justice to European/Asian interaction in this period without an in-depth examination of trade. I look forward to hearing more about this expansion pack.

(By the way, if EU3 interests you and you’d like to learn more, there is a demo available for the previous expansion pack, and this Greg Costikyan piece offers a more detailed writeup of the game’s mechanics.)

What I’m looking forward to – September 2010 edition

With Civilization V newly released in the US and about to launch in Australia, this seems like an opportune time to ask: which games, books, etc am I looking forward to? There are a few entries on this list, and for each, I’ll note just long I plan to wait before actually plonking down my cash:

  • Civilization V: This one I’ll be holding off on. Part of it is the highway-robbery pricing: Americans pay US$50 on Steam, I pay US$80. And part of it is the fact that a number of reviewers have complained about the game’s AI (most visible in Tom Chick’s 1up review, but even the reviewers who liked the game all seem to have noted the AI flaws), which is as obviously vital to a satisfying single-player experience as it is often lacklustre. I love the Civilization games, I grew up playing them, but I can afford to wait for the AI to be fixed up.
  • Fallout: New Vegas: This might just be a Day 1 purchase, seeing as it’s not outrageously priced on Steam and it comes on the heels of Fallout 3, one of the most impressive games I’ve played. As we draw closer to New Vegas’ release date in October, I intend to finish playing Fallout 3, and then write a series of posts about why I love that game’s storytelling so much.
  • The Last Guardian: The sequel to the sublime Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and a reason why I went for a PS3 instead of an Xbox 360. Another possible Day 1 purchase for me.
  • Shogun: Total War 2: One of my “wait a year or two for the patches, mods, and expansion pack(s)” games. I have no faith in Creative Assembly’s  ability to deliver a bug-free game with a competent AI at launch, but I’m sure that when the game is patched up, I will love the experience of playing war-leader, and the spectacle of seeing vast armies clash.

Books

  • A Dance With Dragons, by George R R Martin: Okay, I’m not expecting this any time in the next twelve months, maybe even not the next 18 or 24 months. I wasn’t even the world’s biggest fan of A Feast for Crows, which had me mentally screaming, “Bridging book! Bridging book!” throughout. But as the next instalment in my favourite fantasy series of all time, Dance will most definitely see me at my local bookstore, forking out for a hardcover; even Martin’s bridging novels are better than 90% of the other fantasy fiction out there.

EDIT: I knew I’d forgotten something… Europa Universalis 3: Divine Wind and Crusader Kings 2, forthcoming game releases from Paradox. These two probably deserve a post of their own, so stay tuned for tomorrow’s update!

Strategy games that built to climactic endings

How does a strategy game provide a satisfying late-game experience?

This, I think, is a two-pronged problem. Part 1 is avoiding the things that actively drag on the endgame: micromanagement (see my previous post) and the snowball problem, when someone – usually the human player in a single-player game – runs away with the game early on, turning the endgame into a tedious exercise in mopping up. In this post, though, I’ll focus on Part 2, which is the reverse: designing the game so that it builds to a tense climax, much like the traditional three-act plot.

Here, I think the highly open-ended nature of Paradox games works against them. In contrast, I can think of at least three games that set the player a clear victory condition that could only be triggered during the endgame: the Civilization series, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and Rome: Total War (if you played a Roman faction):

Continue reading “Strategy games that built to climactic endings”

Strategy games and the grind of micromanagement

Grindy late-game micromanagement is an endemic issue with strategy games, especially 4X and TBS games. Normally, this is “simply” a matter of having to look after too many cities, provinces, and/or units. If I never have to spend another hour scripting dozens of mages in Dominions 3, it will be too soon.

But several games throw additional busywork at you. Pollution, in the earlier Civilization games, was a great example of this – populous, industrialised cities would emit pollution from time to time, which you then had to detail workers to clean up. As your cities grew richer and richer, and in turn, filthier and filthier, so did your workload multiply. I am not sorry to see the back of that mechanic – I much prefer Civilization IV’s “health” metric, which is simply a city malus that doesn’t need to be constantly babysat.

However, I think the prize for my least favourite exercise in micromanagement has to come from Paradox games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, etc). You see, when citizens are angry in these games, they form an armed rebellion that appears in one or more provinces. Individual uprisings usually aren’t dangerous, but they do require your time and attention to swat. But when you control dozens of unhappy provinces – say, because the Protestant Reformation is sweeping Europe, or you conquered a large empire – the game turns into a relentless exercise of whack-a-mole. Move the army to crush a rebellion in Kent! Move it back north to crush a rebellion in Edinburgh! Oh no, the people of Kent are rising up again! It’s enough to, in these games, make me play small countries and create puppet states rather than embarking on massive land grabs – the sheer hassle of constantly suppressing uprisings is just more trouble than it’s worth.

(Note: I’m in the midst of listening to this episode of strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead, on which Chris King, the lead designer of Paradox’s Victoria 2, is a guest. Hopefully they’ll bring up my issue of concern!)

EDIT: Well, I listened to the podcast, and Chris did talk about making rebellions rarer, but stronger and nastier when they do occur. That makes sense, and it calls to mind Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a “series of interesting decisions”: “how to deal with a once-in-several-decades civil war” being a much more interesting decision than “march them up to Edinburgh, march them down to Kent…”  The other idea I’ve seen, and I think it was on the Quarter to Three forums (link to the right), was to use economic/production maluses to represent lower-level unrest, similar to the Civ IV example I mentioned above.  I suspect it’s way too late to implement such a feature in the present generation of Paradox games — such as the upcoming EU3: Divine Wind — but it’s one I would like to see in future games. Maluses are less work than spawning enemies!

Art imitates life – how do your gaming habits mirror your real-world ones?

When we play games, we use the same brain that controls all our other behaviour. So it’s not really surprising that a bunch of my real-world quirks carry over to the way I play games. To name just two examples:

1.     I have a horrible sense of direction in real life, and as far back as the original Doom, I remember becoming hopelessly lost in a maze of crates. So while others gripe about mini-maps, objective arrows, etc “making games too easy”, I thank my lucky stars.

2.     I’m happier about hoarding items, whether they be dated computer peripherals or old reports, than I am about throwing them out again. Guess what my inventory in RPGs looks like?

How about you?

Civilization 5 doesn’t forget the little guys

Civilization V’s release is imminent, which means turn-based strategy gaming is probably headed for its biggest launch in years. Firaxis has just released the manual, if you’d like to study the rules for yourself. And early impressions are positive.

If you’re reading this, you probably know about the changes, such as the new combat/stacking system, the inclusion of city-states in addition to fully-fledged civilisations, the fact that each resource tile can now only support a limited number of units, the new use of gold to purchase  tilesone at a time, even the ability of ground troops to embark directly onto sea tiles (so you don’t need to build separate transport ships). The two that stand out most vividly for me are combat, which I think most people would agree with me is a big change… but also, oddly enough, also the city-states. I’ve always liked minor civilisations in games such as Galactic Civilizations II and Space Empires IV and I’m glad to see they’ll be in Civ 5, for several reasons.

First, they add to the possibilities in the diplomatic game. Reading the manual, it looks as though you’ll be encouraged to pull city-states into your sphere of influence or even fight wars to keep them out of the hands of rival Great Powers. If you don’t want to shed the blood of your own troops, you’ll  be able to transfer units directly to the city-states, which raises the possibility of using a city-state to fight a proxy war. Of course, I’m not sure how well competing for the affections of city-states would work against an AI — anything involving diplomacy would work much better with other human players — but it does throw up some interesting possibilities for multiplayer.

But they also add to the feel of the world, much like the cops in X-Com: Apocalypse or the nameless background bystanders in an RPG. There have always been smaller tribes, kingdoms, and nation-states nestled in between large empires; why should Civ be any exception?

A wretched hive of SCUMM and villainy

Remember the classic LucasArts SCUMM adventure games, such as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island and Manic Mansion? This entry in the Star Wars Uncut project (fifteen-second fan enactments of individual scenes from Star Wars) is an awesome homage.

If you liked it, you can see the main Han Solo Adventures project here, and the Star Wars Uncut project here.

Valkyria Chronicles and unintended consequences

Famitsu magazine has confirmed we’ll see a Valkyria Chronicles 3, apparently for the PSP. On the one hand, I’m glad: the world can always use more TRPGs, and I love the hands-on unit control that is the selling point of the VC series. Running a soldier out of harm’s way or lining up a shot with the joystick adds so much to the experience, compared to the “click on square to move, click on rifle, click on target” of other games in the genre.

But on the other hand, I do wonder if they’ll address two of the glaring gameplay issues with the original game. (Note: I have not played VC2 beyond the demo, so I only have word of mouth to rely on with regard to that game, and I can’t testify as to whether these issues have already been fixed.) First are the balance issues, :an overpowered class, scouts, and such as overpowered unit buffs. Second, and linked to the first, is the game’s scoring system, which is dominated by the speed taken to finish a level. The combined effect of the two is that, while the first game gave us so many tactical tools to play with – five classes, two tanks that could be customised, support weapons ranging from flamethrowers to rifle-grenades – it rewarded a madcap dash by your scouts for the other side’s flag.

Now, this was not a game-breaker for me. I really enjoyed VC nonetheless; I could regularly post decent (if unspectacular) scores by playing a methodical, combined-arms game; and I treated the speed-driven scoring system as a fun way to challenge myself when I replayed levels in skirmish mode. But a flaw is a flaw, and anecdotally there were people who were bothered far more than I.

However, the interesting thing is the development team’s rationale for focusing on speed. You can see it on page 3 of this Gamasutra interview. My interpretation is, the developers wanted you to take a ruthless, damn-the-casualties approach to promptly achieving your objectives. This is a good, or at least an interesting, idea on paper. In practice, it falls flat for the reasons discussed above.

But there’s one more design feature which obviates the need to even be ruthless in the first place. Similarly to Final Fantasy Tactics, VC gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic for a fallen party member before he or she is killed off for good. Story characters escape even more lightly – they’re simply immune to perma-death. There are exceptions – if an enemy soldier reaches your fallen squaddie first, that will also lead to perma-death*. But by and large, this is no X-Com, a game where horrific casualty rates were the price that had to be paid for defending Earth against a technologically superior, vastly powerful foe. And while I certainly appreciate the fact that VC is a pretty forgiving game, it does undermine what appears to have been a goal of the designers.

* Which gives me the rather chilling mental image of enemy soldiers finishing off wounded PCs with a bullet to the head…

RPG humour, part II: I’m taking my toys and…

If you know the phenomenon of characters in RPGs taking all their gear with them when they leave the party, you’ll get the joke in this issue of the webcomic Stolen Pixels.

Just what runs through the mind of random-encounter enemies in RPGs?

This webcomic strip is specifically about Fallout 3, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s ever dealt with trash random encounters in an RPG.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale

Have you played RPGs? Then you know how it feels to be gouged when you come into town to buy potions or stimpaks or shotgun shells. You know how it feels when you can barely scrape by selling hard-won rats’ tails, wolves’ pelts and +2 Vendors’ Trash. And most of all, you know that, “But I’m on a quest to save the world!” cuts no ice at the local item shop.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale puts the shoe on the other foot. As town shopkeeper Recette, you buy low, sell high in an effort to meet loan repayments (game over if you can’t pay on schedule!), and in a second, action-RPG mode, hire heroes to go dungeon-crawling in search of rare merchandise. You can only take a certain number of actions per day, and the challenge seems to be how to manage your finite time to  amass the most money before the next loan instalment comes due. I’ve played the demo and found it charming enough to pre-order the full version (which you can do through Steam, Gamersgate or Impulse), notwithstanding I lasted about twenty seconds in the dungeon mode.

Check out the demo, and have fun!

Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected

I went into Empire: Total War (“Empire”) with very low expectations. I had read the horror stories about bugs and horrendous AI, heard the jokes about “Empire: Total Crap”. My interest in the game’s concept made me throw it in at a hefty discount when I bought my new PC, but even as I sat down to install it, I wondered why I had been so quixotic.

 

I was very pleasantly surprised.

Continue reading “Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected”