Pricing AI War and Tidalis: Chris Park of Arcen Games speaks

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the differing pricing strategies that Matrix Games, Shrapnel Games and Paradox Interactive use for their respective catalogues of niche strategy games. Matrix and Shrapnel keep prices high and discounts rare, while Paradox titles are discounted far more frequently and have a lower base price once they’ve been out for a while. But I was also curious about the pricing strategy followed by another company, Arcen Games. AI War, Arcen’s first title, is deep, intricate and indie, but it and its expansions also frequently sell at a discount, and AI War’s base price of US$20 is also much lower than the typical price for AAA retail releases. So I decided to ask Chris Park, the founder of Arcen, about how useful Arcen finds discounting. With his permission, his reply is quoted below:

 

“Hi Peter,

Good to hear from you. I think that a variety of models can work, as you yourself pointed out, but in the case of Arcen we’re pretty much dependent on the occasional discount sales in order to stay in business.  Not to put too fine a point on it. ;)

In an average month with no discounts, we tend to bring in anywhere from 33% to 90% of our operating costs, which at best means we’re still losing money.  In the months where we do a discount, we tend to bring in between 300% to 550% of our operating costs, which more than makes up for it.  We tend to do discounts every 2-3 months, as you may have noticed, which keeps us usually on a growth track and quite comfortable.  Last summer when we had some financial difficulties, it was partly because our summer discounts had fallen to about 200%, which was not what we needed.

In a broad sense, it’s definitely true that the discount sales help to keep ongoing visibility for our games, but I think that’s only possible when it’s also paired with the free-for-existing-customers updates.  That lets people feel like the game is something current that they are buying (which it is), rather than just a game from 2009 that we are wringing out the last drops of money from.  For us, this has meant that in terms of AI War revenue, our 2010 income was slightly more than 4x our 2009 AI War revenue.  So far, our 2011 revenue for AI War is already about 1.5x our 2009 numbers, so it’s growing even faster now.

A lot of that comes from our expansions, or our ongoing updates, or our ongoing periodic discounts that let us get floods of new players that are excited about the game.  For our company specifically, I don’t think this would work without all three of those factors, honestly.  That puts us… in a really unusual situation as a game developer, anyway.  Normally sales start way higher and then trend off after a month or two, but ours is backwards and spread out over two years so far.”

 

This made me wonder whether there was any difference between AI War and Arcen’s other title, the casual/puzzle game Tidalis, when it came to the effectiveness of discounting. Surely, going by the Matrix/Shrapnel logic, discounts would be more effective for the “mass market” title than for the deep strategy game? But the answer to my follow-up question came as a surprise:

 

“My pleasure, and I’m glad the info was useful. Bear in mind that not nearly every indie game developer is in this sort of situation.  We are one of but dozens of successful business models I’ve seen, and I can’t claim that one is really better than another.  Instead, I think it’s a matter of each indie finding what works for their specific titles and their development style.

And that can even vary by title, too.  Case in point: the effectiveness of discounts has indeed been quite lower with Tidalis compared to AI War.  Being casual-on-the-surface and having a price point of $9.99, which people already associate with being low, are I think the two key things that make that not work as well.

Or another way to look at it, I suppose, is that it’s simply not that big a hit with the “Steam crowd” or the other hardcore distribution sites.  So putting it on discount makes a lot less difference there since that audience that is so discount-reactive is less interested in the game to begin with.  The depth is there, but it’s masked by a surface that is off-putting to many hardcore gamers, we found.

I don’t mind if you quote the whole thing, that’s just fine — just bear in mind that I don’t speak for all indies, and a lot of them that I know use business models that are utterly at odds with mine.  Indies are a very non-homogeneous part of the industry in practically every way, heh!”

 

Now, as Chris points out, Arcen is just one data point, taking my total to four (including the original three of Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox). But it’s a fascinating data point, and I found it a real eye-opener as to the factors that can influence both the choice and the effectiveness of pricing strategies.

 

(Incidentally, I own both AI War+its expansions and Tidalis, some of which I bought at a discount and others of which I bought at nearly full price. I haven’t yet played AI War beyond its tutorials, but Tidalis has been love at first sight from what I’ve played so far, and I think it would be a shame for hardcore gamers to overlook it without even a glance. I hope to write more about Arcen’s titles as I play further.)

 

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New Sins of a Solar Empire expansion: Rebellion – I’m looking forward to the new victory conditions

Stardock has just announced Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, a standalone expansion (quasi-sequel?) to Ironclad’s 2008 space opera RTS. Here are some of the promised features:

 

“New Factions: Players decide whether to become Loyalists or Rebels, which unlocks a unique new tech tree granting them new technologies and ship variants.

 

New Titan-class ships:  Massive warships for each race that dwarf capital ships, these deadly new monsters are capable of wiping out entire enemy fleets single-handedly.

 

New Capital Ships:  A new capital ship class arrives, giving players new strategic options.

 

New Corvette-class ships:  Small, highly maneuverable light ships that are adept at a variety of tasks…. (Snip)

 

… New Victory Conditions to allow for more variety, differing strategies and shorter game sessions.”

 

Of all these, the one that really excites me is “new victory conditions”. New units are well and good, and I’m sure the Titans will be as cool as the developers intend, but a dearth of units was never one of my complaints. On the other hand, I do think Sins could do with more ways to win, and I can think of two possibilities that would be particularly suited to the game*:

 

1. Territorial victory a la Company of Heroes – hold X key points on the map long enough to win. Since the entire game design is built around territorial control (you derive your income from planets, which are discrete locations on the map connected by jump lanes, and hence choke points also become very important), territorial victory is the logical extension of this.

 

2. Wonder victory – build a megaproject, or megaprojects, and defend them while a countdown timer ticks down to victory. Such a pure “builder” victory condition would be consistent with Sins’ grand scope – and be a welcome import from the 4X genre into a game whose stated ambition is to be a “RT4X”.

 

The beauty of both these win conditions is that they add tension to the late game – can I break through player X’s defences and tear down his/her Wonder, or snatch enough victory points, before I lose? This tension (at least, in single-player) is something sorely lacking from the basic “kill ‘em all” victory condition once the player reaches the “tipping point” where victory is inevitable, but still requires long, hard fighting. Sins already took some steps down this path with the diplomatic victory introduced in the Diplomacy expansion, and it would be great to see this continued.

 

No launch date announced yet that I can find, but I look forward to further details, particularly on the victory conditions. Here’s hoping Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion will live up to the promise of its predecessors.

Total War: Shogun 2 – Demo thoughts

The demo for Shogun 2: Total War Total War: Shogun 2 is out, and I’ve spent a little bit of time with it. What do I think? Well, I saw absolutely nothing that would change my expectations for the finished game. The demo consists of the campaign tutorial plus a single battle scenario, Sekigahara, which is really not enough to judge the actual quality of the game. So what are those expectations?

 

At the design level, I’m reasonably confident that the finished game will be great on paper. The demo reveals that a bunch of the improvements in Empire: Total War (maritime trade posts and the trade route system; the ability to automatically route reinforcements to an army instead of having to manually play deliveryman after every battle; the income-producing structures, such as rice paddies and ports, scattered across the map…) are still present, and that gives me hope for the game’s strategic layer. The series’ main design flaw is the typical strategy game problem of a drawn-out, grindy and ultimately boring late game, but I’ve lived with that before, and it wouldn’t prevent the early game from theoretically being a blast.

 

My skepticism, rather, concerns execution. The Total War series is infamous for inept AI — just ask anyone who’s seen AI armies happily milling around in front of the player’s archers — and bugs. The most splendid graphics, the finest tactical battle engine, the broadest variety of units are utterly useless if the computer opponent just does not understand how to play, or if the game crashes repeatedly. And this is the kind of problem that will not become apparent until after people have spent days or weeks with the full version of the game, not a highly restricted and scripted demo.

 

Will I get this game eventually? I’m sure I will — but I’ll give it a year or two to wait for patches, expansion packs or DLC, and mods. By then, I hope, the game will be close to the spectacle promised on paper.

Pricing Niche Strategy Games: Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox

For some time, I’ve kept my eye on a space-opera 4X game by the name of Distant Worlds, developed by Code Force and published by Matrix Games. This game (based on what I’ve read) could best be described as Master of Orion III done right. As is typical for the genre, Distant Worlds casts you as an aspiring galactic emperor, out to subjugate the galaxy through the efforts of your colonists, scientists, businesspeople, and when all else fails, your soldiers. Less typically, the game expects you to delegate much of your authority to a computer-controlled viceroy, which apparently allows it to aim for an especially epic scale. It apparently even does a good job with little touches such as minor species that can be swept up into the larger empires, and with establishing backstory through in-game events. But for all my interest, I’ve never bought Distant Worlds. Why? Because it usually goes for its full price of $40, on top of which there’s also a $20 expansion pack. And that money would buy me a whole lot of other games or books instead*.

 

Admittedly, Distant Worlds is a new game; it only came out in March 2010. What about older titles? Here, we can consider Dominions 3, developed by Illwinter and published by Shrapnel Games, which sells for $55 despite being released back in 2006. Now, I love Dominions 3. It’s one of my all-time favourites, and well worth the money I paid for it. But $55 is still a fair bit of money, comparable to the price of a brand-new AAA game.

 

Whenever I see this topic come up, the standard response is that the Matrices and Shrapnels of this world charge the prices they do because their customers are a small, but price-insensitive, niche. In other words, if I am so hardcore a strategy player that I’ll buy Dominions 3 in the first place, then I’m so hardcore that I’ll pay $55 for it; on the other hand, if I wouldn’t play that kind of game at all, then no discount would help. And this is a reasonable point. While, say, Recettear managed to sell over 100,000 copies with the aid of heavy discounting, (A) Recettear is far more mainstream than Dominions 3, and (B) many of those cut-price sales brought in very little money. (If you’re interested in the maths behind price, units sold and revenue, I have a brief writeup in an appendix at the bottom of this post.)

 

But a third company, Paradox Interactive, would seem to disprove the “our game will only appeal to a few people, so we need to charge a premium price” approach. Paradox’s games are also very deep, very dense, and very niche, yet Paradox takes a very different approach to pricing and discounting. Paradox’s latest title, Victoria 2 (2010), also currently has an official price of $40 – but one site offers it (in download form) at a temporarily discounted price of $20, and another offers it (as a boxed copy) for a regular price of A$19.50. And Victoria 2 is by no means unique. I regularly see Paradox-published games (both internally and externally developed) go on sale with hefty discounts, often but not always to coincide with the launch of a new game. Paradox’s older games also have much lower base prices (Europa Universalis III Complete goes for $20, though it’s missing the latest two expansion packs.) So the Paradox brass certainly seems to believe that it makes more money this way.

 

Why might Paradox’s approach be so different from that of Matrix and Shrapnel? I can think of several explanations.

 

  • One, as I understand it, both Matrix and Shrapnel are primarily wargame publishers, but from what I can tell, wargames are generally also pretty expensive. (I’m not a wargamer, but this is based on my looking at the prices of wargames and hearing periodic complaints on the subject.) Perhaps Matrix and Shrapnel are accustomed to pricing for that market, and just apply the same principles to other strategy games? Perhaps their usual audience is accustomed to paying higher prices even for non-wargames? Perhaps it’s both?

 

  • Two is the nature of Paradox’s product offering compared to the other two. Shrapnel doesn’t publish that many games in the Dominions series (in addition to 3 itself, there’s just Dominions 2, which seems to be no longer available), and Distant Worlds is its developer’s only game. In contrast, Paradox has plenty of games in its historical series, which complement rather than replace each other, and it constantly releases new titles and expansion packs. So by discounting, say, the Renaissance/Age of Discovery/Enlightenment game Europa Universalis III, Paradox is building brand awareness for its medieval game, its Roman game, its Victorian-era game and its World War 2 game. To some extent, this is supported by my observation that games that Paradox publishes, but doesn’t develop, don’t seem to go on sale as often as Paradox’s own titles. Given that, say, there are only two titles in the externally developed Mount & Blade series (plus a third one in the works) and the first game was made obsolete by the second, and that there’s only one Sword of the Stars game (plus an upcoming sequel), there’s less need to promote these by discounting. (That said, their base prices are also cheap – Sword of the Stars Complete goes for just $20.)

 

  • The other remaining alternative, of course, is that one business or another is mistaken: either Paradox is leaving money on the table with its lower-priced back catalogue and frequent, large discounts, or Matrix and Shrapnel are losing business with their high prices and infrequent, small discounts.

 

I have my own suspicions as to the answer: I’ve bought a bunch of cheap or heavily discounted titles from Paradox that I would not have bought for full price, so Paradox has forgone little or no revenue from me. In contrast, as mentioned above, Distant Worlds’ price tag is what has kept me from buying it. And my instinct tells me that pricing games in the belief they’ll only appeal to a tiny niche may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I’m just one customer; I’m biased (cheap games benefit me!); and most importantly, I don’t have any hard data (for the Matrix/Shrapnel/Paradox end of the gaming spectrum) to verify my guess. So at this stage, I think, the jury is still out.

 

If anyone reading this is from one of the abovenamed publishers, or has experience with pricing niche video games, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

* To be fair to Matrix, I just discovered that the game had gone on sale (down to $27) over Christmas 2010.

 

** If the data’s available, there are plenty more examples of niche games I’d like to hear about. How has, say, Arcen Games done with its frequent sales on AI War?

 

 

Appendix: Product pricing, sales revenue, and profit


How much should we charge to maximise profit? (This isn’t the same as maximising revenue, as we’ll see.)

 

At the revenue line, revenue = price * number of units sold. So I should be indifferent between selling 5 items for $20 each or 2 items for $50 each, a ratio of 2.5:1.

 

At the profit line, it becomes a little trickier because now I have to deduct the incremental cost of selling each additional unit***: Profit = (Price – Variable Cost) * number of units sold. If each item I sell costs me an incremental $10, now I have to sell 8 copies for $20 each (making a $10 profit on each) to make the same profit as I would from two $50 sales (which would give me a $40 profit on each, for $80 total), a far less favourable ratio of 4:1.

 

However, when it comes to games distributed in download form, I think it’s reasonable to assume that, other than the retailers’ (Steam, Impulse, etc) fee, there is a minimal cost to sell additional units. (And in any case, my understanding is the retailers’ fee is typically a variable amount – say, 40% of the item’s price – rather than a fixed sum.) So for present purposes, we can probably treat revenue maximisation as the sensible policy to pursue.

 

*** Strictly speaking, when I talk about “profit” in this section, I’m referring to “contribution margin” – that is, revenue minus variable cost.

 

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

Crusader Kings: Even medieval morality has its limits

The Middle Ages! An era when life was supposed to be “nasty, brutish, and short”. An era associated with war and famine and massacre. A era, supposedly, in which might made right. Not knowing much about medieval history, I can’t comment about whether it was, in fact, that bad in real life. But I can say that, at least in Crusader Kings, even such a hard-bitten period has its limits.

 

I briefly discussed Crusader Kings a while back – it’s a dynastic grand strategy game where players take the part of a noble family as it conquers territory, marries into titles, and deals with rebellious vassals (or relatives!) over the centuries. In my present game, I started as Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, tough-guy duke of Apulia in southern Italy. In less than 20 years, the de Hautevilles had made themselves the effective hegemons of Italy – they had conquered Sicily and Robert had crowned himself King, while northern Italy’s most powerful ruler, Matilda of Tuscany, had voluntarily sworn fealty to the de Hautevilles. When old age finally took Robert Guiscard to meet his maker, I wasn’t too fazed. His son Roger Borsa, the new King of Sicily, wasn’t the prodigy his old man was (much lower stats in game terms), but neither did he seem utterly hopeless—

 

Uh oh.

 

Roger had picked up a rival, none other than his wife, and her loyalty was at rock-bottom. I don’t have a huge amount of experience with the game, but I had read enough horror stories to know just how dangerous it was to have a vassal or a courtier who was a rival and whose loyalty was nil. As a self-respecting medieval monarch, there was one obvious course of action.

 

 

And would you believe it, the hit men bungled the job. They tried and failed not once, not twice, but three or four times, sinking the king’s name deeper and deeper into the mud each time. The king ended up excommunicated and loathed by his vassals. Yet the queen still lived.

 

At last, I hit upon the idea of packing her off to the provinces with a token fiefdom of her own. And it was there that the assassination attempts finally succeeded. The rebellious queen was dead. But what did King Roger’s vassals think of him now?

 

Uh-oh again. They were furious.

 

I went to check Roger’s profile to see why. And there I saw he had picked up this unsavoury trait…

 

“Kinslayer: The Character has been known to kill off relatives that were not in league with their ideals. This is an extremely negative trait, causing family members to avoid them like the Plague.”

 

And not just family members. At this rate, all of de Hauteville senior’s accomplishments would be undone in a few months by a tide of angry vassals. I reached for the button to abandon my game and reload, and with that the soap opera on the banks of the Mediterranean came to an end. But not before I had a good laugh at a game that had turned into a farce worthy of Blackadder.

Now that’s original: Gettysburg Armoured Warfare, a steampunk Civil War game

So just days after I complained about a glut of high fantasy and space opera games, and a corresponding lack of other settings such as steampunk, what should make its way through the blogosphere but this: Gettysburg Armoured Warfare.

 

The name pretty much says it all: this game, newly unveiled at the Paradox Convention 2011, is kind of like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South on steroids. Currently under development, it’s a free-to-play, steampunk American Civil War MMO RTS/shooter, where time travellers have armed the Confederates and the Union with tanks and airships. There’s a more in-depth preview here; this blog post at Malaysian Gamer allows you to see both preview videos on a single page; and Ep 101 of the Flash of Steel podcast discusses it at 29:40.

 

What do I think? Steampunk American Civil War has been done (e.g. Cherie Priest’s novel Dreadnought, which I have not read), but, as far as I know, it’s wholly new to gaming. And combined with time travel and the game’s fusion of genres, the premise is so original, so cool in a bonkers way, that I want to see how it turns out. Pity it’s an MMO, because I’m a primarily offline gamer…

 

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is due out later this year, in the northern summer.

 

(Credit for the original link – Tom Chick at Quarter to Three)

The appeal of common sense: Intuitive gameplay

I’ve played video games for 21 years. Adventure, rhythm, role-playing, platformer, first-person shooter, and of course strategy – I’ve played virtually every genre, with the notable exception of sports games, at one time or another. But for all that, there is one slight problem.

 

I’m not actually that great at playing games.

 

Oh, for platformers and shooters and whatnot*, I have a ready-made excuse: I have poor reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But even when it comes to RPGs and strategy games, if I’m playing single-player, my skill level plateaus out at “pretty good”. I’m not terrible: I’ve won Civilization V on the second-highest difficulty, Immortal (which, according to the Steam achievements page, only 1% of players have done) and I’ve won on the third-highest difficulty, Emperor, with just one city. But you won’t see me recording speedruns, or going for the really extreme self-imposed challenges, such as beating games without using special abilities or researching better weapons. Why?

 

The surface explanation is very simple. As with anything else in life, learning how to play video games very well takes a lot of work — and for me, that defeats the whole point of playing games.  But that can’t be the whole story, because plenty of gamers do take the effort to reach that level of skill, whether it’s by practicing aiming and movement in a shooter or by poring over the equations that govern a strategy game.  So again, I have to ask, why?

 

The answer is that, even when it comes to strategy, I don’t treat games as systems to be mastered; I treat them as stories to be acted out through my decisions.  Instead of, say, examining the rules in minute detail, or whipping out a spreadsheet to optimise a character build, I will just opt for choices that seem both cool and intuitively reasonable. Anecdotally, I’m not alone in this, judging by the number of other people who also like to play as “builders” in the Civilization series (which, to my knowledge, has historically rewarded rushing on higher difficulty levels).  And once I realized this, several game design choices fell into place for me.

 

Consider the use of shooter mechanics in RPGs such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3. Which is more intuitive: using elaborate D&D rules, as in the case of Neverwinter Nights, or “hide behind cover, aim gun at target, fire gun”? Seen in this light, Bioware’s choice to make Mass Effect 2 (which I haven’t played but which I have read about) an action-RPG, streamlining away traditional RPG elements in the process,  makes sense as a way to take the game further down the “intuitive” path.

 

Meanwhile, in the strategy space, the Total War games are the poster child of intuitive game design. The visually splendid way they present combat, with lovingly detailed armies of 3D soldiers marching and swinging their swords, isn’t just a way to bamboozle players into not noticing bad AI – it allows us to play using common sense. When I can see a line of heavily armoured knights galloping toward a clump of men on foot with their backs turned, I don’t have to look up a rulebook to predict what’ll happen next. And I think that is a major part of the series’ appeal.

 

Intuitive gameplay is harder to deliver in some settings than in others. The classic example is science fiction: in Civilization, it’s not hard to guess what inventing the wheel, or the concept of chivalry, or gunpowder, will give me. In a science fiction game, on the other hand, how would I instinctively know what “moleculartronics” is good for? As a result, I think science fiction games can’t afford to leave details under the hood: one of my complaints with Sword of the Stars, the space opera 4X game from Kerberos,  was how uninformative the game was. Determining how exactly a cruiser equipped with “meson cannons” would fare against one with a “particle beam” was the exact opposite of my earlier example of the knights and infantry.

 

Does intuitive gameplay mean there’s no element of skill? Of course it doesn’t. Returning to Total War as an example, there’s still skill involved in planning a campaign, deploying and manoeuvring troops, timing a charge, and so on. But it does mean that, again, a player can generally rely on common sense and “generalist” skills, such as the ability to assess the situation on a map and then choose the appropriate terrain to make a stand, rather than on deeply game/ruleset-specific skills.

 

As a game design goal, then, “intuitive” gameplay is a worthy one. It makes learning curves less intimidating, and it helps gamers like me have fun: we can play to win at the same time that we create stories from our gameplay experiences. After all, “I swung my knights around and rolled up his line!”  is a much more exciting tale than, “I applied a +2 modifier to my knights, then multiplied it by 1.5x, at the same time he was suffering from a 15% penalty!” It’s not for everyone or for every genre, but it’s still something that belongs in a designer’s toolkit. And it helps explain the appeal of many games, such as Total War, that can’t just be explained away by “ooh, look at the pretty graphics”.

 

Returning to the original question of my skill: am I any better at intuitive games than I am at their fiddlier, crunchier brethren? Probably not, but at least I can pretend I am…

 

* These are the genres at the “Action” spectrum of the Escapist magazine’s genre wheel, which I discussed a while back.

I can see my base from here! Strategic zoom in RTSes

There have been many innovations in the RTS genre since it crawled out of the Garden of Herzog Zwei. But when I recently played a number of pre-2007 games, there was one innovation in particular that I sorely missed: the ability to zoom all the way out to see the entire map at a glance.

 

 

This is what Supreme Commander 2 (2010) looks like, fully zoomed out:

 

 

And this is what Sins of a Solar Empire (2008) looks like:

 

 

In both cases, I’ve zoomed out to see the whole play area. There is no minimap in either screenshot, because one isn’t needed: Sins doesn’t even have a minimap, while SupCom 2 allows players to call one up (see the top right-hand corner) but leaves it off by default. While fully zoomed out, I can easily give commands to buildings and even to groups of units (note that individual units are represented as radar blips in SupCom 2, and, even more abstractly, as horizontal bars in Sins).

 

 

Now, if we go back just a few years, things are very different. Take a look at Rise of Legends (2006):

 

 

Note the minimap in the lower-left hand corner. My field of vision, the white trapezium, only covers a tiny proportion of the play area. And remember, this is fully zoomed out! If I’m watching point A on the map and something happens at point B, I have to dart over to B using the minimap, click a bunch of units, and then find my way back to A again.

 

 

Being able to fully zoom out, as seen in Sins and SupCom 2, is clearly a boon. It makes a game easier, and quicker, to control; vital in a genre where, by definition, multiple things happen at once. Just as importantly, it helps the “feel”  of the game. When I can survey the whole battlefield or star system with just one flick of my scroll wheel, that contributes to the illusion that yes, I really am an interstellar warlord, not a mere glorified platoon commander.

 

 

So it surprises me that this is such a recent development – it seems to have been pioneered, under the name “strategic zoom”, by the original Supreme Commander (2007). Like many innovations, it does seem obvious with hindsight. Perhaps the technology didn’t support it prior to then*? But the important thing is that it’s hard to go without it. I miss it in old games, such as Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends. And I’d miss it in new games that have a restrictive zoom (Starcraft 2, from what I’ve seen, fits this bill). In that regard, too, it’s like so many other successful innovations: couldn’t imagine it beforehand, can’t live without it afterwards.

 

 

*  Apparently the Supreme Commander engine “was built from day one with this technology in mind”, according to “Servo” from Gas Powered Games. And in this forum thread, Ryan McGechaen (aka “tribalbob”) from Relic, the developer of Company of Heroes, explains: “Supreme Commander’s high-altitude camera zoom works because as you zoom out; assets are replaced with lower res assets and then eventually become dots.  Unfortunately, the Essence engine does not support this LOD (Level of Detail) swapping; we can’t increase the zoom distance without increasing min spec requirements.

The Stompers of Comps #1: Sins of a Solar Empire 2v2 AAR, with Josh

I’m pleased to present this blog’s first cooperative after-action report (AAR)/Let’s Play (LP)! For today’s post, The Stompers of Comps #1, we played one of my preferred timekillers, a polished and, I’m glad to say, profitable space-opera RTS from a small developer that punched well above its weight.

 

The game: Sins of a Solar Empire, with the Diplomacy expansion.

 

The rules: Two human players versus two Hard AI players. Locked teams. Diplomatic victory DISABLED.

 

The teammate: Josh.

 

Continue reading “The Stompers of Comps #1: Sins of a Solar Empire 2v2 AAR, with Josh”

What I’ve been playing over the 2010 holidays; impressions of King Arthur & Far Cry 2

Over the last couple of weeks, while I’ve played a fair bit of Civilization V, on the whole I’ve taken the scattergun approach and spent a little bit of time on a lot of games instead of focusing on a couple of titles. Some of the games I played are old favourites: I returned to Fallout 3 in order to blast through the Broken Steel DLC before I wrote my feature on storytelling in Fallout 3; and I tried my hand at what seems to be the most popular challenge for Europa Universalis III veterans, rebuilding the Byzantine Empire. Some were titles that I hadn’t played before, but which I’ve owned for some time. And some were new games, largely purchased during Steam’s recent holiday sale. Here are my impressions on some of the games in the two latter categories:

 

  • King  Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame (new game): So far, I’m impressed by the production values of this game, its dark, brooding art and ethereal vocal music, and I love the premise that King Arthur and his knights live in a world filled with giants and faeries both “seelie” and “unseelie”, Christians pushing back against the old gods, and where half of England is covered by a mystic forest where time passes differently. However, I haven’t got the hang of the actual gameplay yet: more often than not, my battles seem to degenerate into confused brawls in the woods.

 

  • Bioshock and Mass Effect (backlogged games): Both these games intrigue me, and on paper, I should love both of them: one reputedly has fantastic writing and themes, the other is supposed to be a well-executed space opera pastiche. But neither has really grabbed me after the first hour or so, and again, the gameplay looks to be the culprit. Which takes me to…

 

  • Far Cry 2 (new game): This is the stand-out of the games I’ve dabbled in. When the game opened with a bumpy jeep ride through sub-Saharan Africa, with the driver telling stories about brush fires, bribing mercenaries at a checkpoint, and pointing out the last plane out of the country, I knew I was in for a distinctive, original setting. And when I lost my car in game, trudged along for a little while, realised why people find a car so essential to get around, and decided to raid a mercenary outpost just so I could loot a new one, I knew I was in for a distinctive play experience.

 

I still have many more titles I need to dig more deeply into (AI War, Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends, The Sims 3, Resonance of Fate, Dragon Age…) and something else may well capture my attention. But just based on what I’ve played so far, I suspect Far Cry 2 will end up booting Bioshock and maybe Mass Effect back down into my backlog. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I like Far Cry 2, given that I also enjoyed STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, another atmospheric open-world shooter. And as a result, I suspect those shooters I buy in the future will likely be in the same vein.

Puzzle or strategy? Byzantium in Europa Universalis III

Note: Europa Universalis IV is now out! You can find my EU4 coverage here.

 

This is part 1 of an irregular series on Europa Universalis III.

 

Part 1: The Byzantine Empire and puzzle-like gameplay.

Part 2: The Manchus, hordes, and the consequences of deficit spending.

 

One of the supposed sins of strategy game design is making a game, or a level, that feels like a puzzle. In this situation, players don’t win because they were creative, or because they were skilful and flexible planners; they won because they precisely followed the One Right Sequence Of Events. Now, while I intellectually knew what this meant, I didn’t quite grasp why it was a problem. Couldn’t you still have fun playing that one right way?

 

Then I tried my hand at playing the Byzantine Empire in Europa Universalis III (with the Heir to the Throne expansion). EU3 opens in 1399, and as the following screenshot illustrates, by this point the Byzantines are a pitiful shadow of the glory that was Rome:

 

 

In 1399, Byzantium (purple) is a two-province rump, comprising Constantinople and the southern tip of Greece. What was once its empire is now held by various one-province statelets such as Achaea and the Knights of Rhodes; the Venetians (teal)… and the Ottoman Empire (green). In real life, the Ottomans would finally destroy the Byzantines in a little over fifty years’ time. Could I do any better?

The answer, it turned out, was yes. This is my Byzantine empire about a century later, in the 1490s:

 

 

The one-province minors are gone, absorbed into the Byzantine fold. The Ottomans are no more. Venice has been reduced to a Byzantine vassal state. And the Byzantine writ now even extends to southern Italy. How did I, a player of mediocre skill, pull this off?

The answer is, by following the One Right Way To Play Byzantium (per EU3’s official forum). As the game begins, the Ottoman Empire might be much larger than the Byzantine, but it has a distraction on its eastern border: the fearsome Tamerlane (whose Timurids are dark red in the first screenshot). This gives Byzantium a couple of years’ grace to build up its forces, possibly mop up some of the one-province statelets, and then hit the Ottomans during that narrow window of opportunity. Everything hinges on the success of that first Ottoman war, which in turn depends on two conditions:

  1. Has the Ottoman army been withdrawn from Europe to fight the Timurids, in which case Byzantium will face minimal opposition on land?
  2. Is the Byzantine navy strong enough to prevent the Ottomans from re-crossing into Europe?

The outcome of the war then becomes binary. If the answer to both questions is YES, then the Byzantines can reclaim the western half of their empire at a stroke. Otherwise, the Ottomans will wipe Byzantium from the face of the earth. And there is no margin for error.

Oh, there is a little leeway as to the details: as the link to the forum thread shows, the Byzantine player does have the choice as to whether to mop up a few of the little principalities and maybe the Venetians, before going after the Ottomans. And to pay for all the troops and ships it’ll need, Byzantium can either run a mildly inflationary monetary policy, or go for fully-fledged Mugabenomics*.

But strategy games, by definition, are about making tough choices, and there’s no choice as to that do-or-die Ottoman war. If the Byzantines miss their opportunity, then the Ottomans will raise a new army in Europe (or bring their troops back across from Asia) and declare war first – as I found out the hard way.  And if the Byzantines don’t have a bigger army in Europe and enough ships to bottle up the Ottoman fleet, they’ll be in for a very short game. If the Byzantines win, on the other hand, the rest of the game is downhill: they can use the manpower and revenue base of Europe to reconquer the eastern part of the empire, and keep snowballing from there.

Oh, I had a lot of fun rebuilding the Byzantine Empire, and it might be interesting to see just how far I can push my success – should I revive Justinian’s dream of a reunited Roman empire? But before I arrived at that fun, I had to reload at least four or five times to perfect my technique. And I think that, in a nutshell, explains why puzzles and strategy don’t mix.

 

 

* Given that the game takes place in the days before paper fiat money, I assume the option to “mint” money, at the cost of inflation, represents debasing the currency by using less and less precious metal in coins. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!

 

Update: for an interesting discussion of strategy games and puzzle-like gameplay in general, I refer you to these posts by Troy Goodfellow.

2010 is so 1991: thoughts on Civilization V

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve played Civilization V for 32 hours, according to Steam, and I’ve won my first King (hard)-level game. And with that, I think I’m ready to formulate my opinion: I like Civ V, but I don’t love it.

I would be the first to admit that I have not seen everything Civ V has to offer. I’ve only played as a bare handful of civilisations. I haven’t even touched the highest difficulty levels.  I haven’t had a proper dust-up with modern-day units yet. I have yet to achieve a cultural or space race victory. And I haven’t played the conqueror – my one domination victory, in my first practice game, came about as a result of the AI attacking a city-state in my sphere of influence (described here). But I have seen enough to evaluate how well the game caters to my preferred playstyle, as a peaceful builder who guides small, compact empires to prosperity. And from that perspective, Civilization V (2010) reminds me a bit of an updated version of the very first Civilization (1991).

Don’t take this too literally. There are many ways in which Civ V resembles IV more so than I: the effort put into discouraging players from over-expansion (via maintenance in IV, via happiness in V); the presence of culture, and national borders; different civilisations having different special abilities; levelling up military units, etc.  And there are features unique to V, such as the nifty city-states; and the use of Social Policies that are locked in at purchase, versus civics/forms of government that can be changed at any time.

But in several ways, Civ V feels like a throwback to I. One obvious similarity is the absence of a “religion” mechanic from both games: instead, it’s abstracted out to temples/cathedrals in I, and temples and Social Policies in V. Another is the diplomacy system. Civ IV gave me an easy-to-see list of all the other players in the game, together with what they thought of me and why: perhaps “-2: our close borders spark tension”, but on the other hand, “+3: our trade relations have been fair and forthright”. In Civ V? Even after the patch, I only see a bare handful of modifiers, with no numbers that would allow me to quantify their effect. And there are far fewer levers I can pull to influence my fellow leaders. “‘Til death do us part” declarations of friendship and denunciations are no substitute for the tapestry of relationships (trade, open borders, religion, common enemies, vassalisation at gunpoint, outright bribery…) in Civ IV. No, diplomacy is one aspect of Civ V that’s ripe for an expansion pack.

The other is the “one unit per hex” rule, and this I actually like. “Peter,” I can hear you point out, “‘one unit per hex’ is new to Civ V! What are you talking about?” Well, yes, it is – as a formal limit. But in practical terms, the effect is to abolish the stack of doom – and the stack of doom itself never existed in the early Civ games. Remember what happened in Civs I and II, if you stacked more than one unit in a tile (other than a city or a fortress) and they were attacked? If one defender died, they all died. So at most, you might stack artillery with something that could defend it. But that was it. You would not march around with invincible stacks of doom. So in this regard, Civ V is actually returning to the roots of the series. And it’s a welcome change: combined with the general overhaul of combat mechanics,  it allows tactics to move beyond “grab a bunch of troops and fling them at the enemy.”

Then there are other things. Cash – or, rather, gold – is king in Civ V. I can use it in diplomacy. I can use it to bribe city-states. And in particular, I can use it to rush-buy buildings and military units from day one. This is another welcome throwback to Civ I. In contrast, Civ IV only let you use gold to hurry production in the late game, and then only if you used a certain civic. The net effect was to marginalise the importance of gold in Civ IV  – sure, you didn’t want to be broke, but it was more of a “negative” constraint than a “positive” tool. Now, in Civ V, I constantly have hard choices about what to do with my gold stash. Do I use it to buy this building over here, which will allow me to speed up research/production/expansion? Or do I use it for my foreign policy, which could bring in food and culture from allied city-states? This is an interesting decision, the crux of a good strategy game. It’s another blast from the past that I’m happy to see.

But in the end, the magic of “just one more turn” is losing its hold on me, and my backlog beckons ever more invitingly. Perhaps it’s Civilization V’s fault. Perhaps it’s my fault: am I growing jaded to the series? For all the things that V did right – production values, city-states, gold, one-unit-per-hex combat, naval warfare – I still miss IV’s diplomacy and religion. At the end of the day, I get the impression that Civ V represents an experimental “bridge” beyond IV, and that it’ll take a future Civ VI to build on the concepts and changes introduced by V. I’m sure I’ll keep playing V over the coming days and weeks and months, and that any expansion packs will rekindle my interest in the game. Civ V gave me my fair share of “that’s cool” moments, and I do feel that I got my money’s worth from it. But for now, I think I can pronounce it good rather than great.

And on that note, I’d like to thank you all, the readers of Matchsticks for my Eyes, for your support! I hope you all enjoy a Merry Christmas, a fantastic holiday and a Happy New Year.

Designing victory conditions: lessons from Company of Heroes, Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy

I’ve talked about how a strategy game should ideally build to a dramatic climax, a point also made by the most recent episode of Flash of Steel. I gave several examples: Civilization, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and (going by what I’d read) Rome: Total War. The first two are turn-based strategy games, and the third uses its turn-based strategic layer to determine if you’ve won the game.

But lately, it struck me that three of the real-time strategy games I played this year, Sins of a Solar Empire with the Diplomacy expansion, Company of Heroes, and Rise of Nations, are also great examples. Other than being in the same genre, these games seemingly have little in common. But each provided a victory condition that tried to keep the late-game competitive and tense, while mitigating the usual cause of bad endgames. And each was a richer game because of it.

Start with the common problem with strategy endgames. If the only way to win is to wipe out everyone not on your team, what happens when one player pulls ahead just far enough to make the game a foregone conclusion, but not far enough to end it with a single shattering blow? The answer is, the late game turns into a long, slogging mop-up campaign, drawn out and all too often, deadly dull. All too often, this is exacerbated by micromanagement, the other bane of strategy endgames. True, you don’t always have to literally annihilate your foes to the last man. Sometimes, as in as Sins of a Solar Empire, computer opponents will capitulate when they’re almost dead. Or you may be able to win by conquering most of the world (e.g. the domination victory in Civilization IV). But getting to that “almost” can still be all too grindy.

Yet the RTS genre has already overcome these problems. My favourite example is Company of Heroes, Relic’s WW2 RTS. CoH matches default to “Victory Point Control” mode, where both sides start with a certain score (which you can select at the start of the match – higher starting scores equal longer games). And there will be an odd number of key objectives called victory points scattered around the map.  When one side has secured the majority of the VPs on the map – and because of the odd number, this will always be the case once all the VPs have been claimed – then the other side’s score will go down. Whoever’s score hits zero first is the loser.

Now, CoH’s system might not be new (objective locations have been a feature of board games and wargames for a very, very long time), but it works on so many levels. It’s thematically consistent: CoH is a game about playing WW2 commander, and the VP system forces players to get out and tussle over the key locations of the battlefield – presumably, just as real military officers would. It’s consistent with the rest of the game design, controlling key points on the map in order to win the game is the logical extension of controlling key points to get more bullets, manpower and fuel. And it automatically rules out the possibility of a grind, a slog, or a stalemate: whoever has fewer VPs, and therefore is haemorrhaging score, will lose the game unless he or she does something, fast! The Germans are dug in with machine guns and artillery near the VP? Your vanishing score says, “Tough.” It’s a nice, simple, elegant way of deciding the match, and it imposes urgency and excitement upon the late game. It’s a feature I love, and a feature I wish more games would emulate.

Other games in the genre provide “builder” victory conditions that allow players to win by diverting enough resources into their civilian economies. For example, while I haven’t played as much as I’d like of Rise of Nations, the historically-themed RTS from Big Huge Games, I have observed its Wonder victory condition. (RoN, in turn, took this concept from the Age of Empires series.) Building Wonders of the World, from the Terracotta Army to Versailles and the Space Program, is a vast undertaking. They take a lot of time, they take a lot of money, and they require you to divert your workforce from other ends. But building a Wonder then gives you, in addition to various other bonuses, Wonder points – and amassing a sufficient lead in Wonder points will trigger a countdown to victory. If the other players haven’t eroded that lead by the end of the countdown, either by tearing down your Wonders or by building Wonders of their own, then you win.

Not quite the same, but along similar lines, is Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy (the last expansion to Ironclad Games’ space opera RTS), which awards a diplomatic victory to the first player to rack up a certain number of “diplomacy points”. To accumulate diplomacy points, you have to boost relations with the other players in the game, by (A) fulfilling their missions and (B) building and deploying envoy ships to their territory. Either way, you must juggle your normal priorities with the demands of diplomacy. Do I divert my fleet to hare off on a mission? Do I use my precious resources to build envoy ships instead of frigates and cruisers and if so, how many? And do I use those resources to research bonuses for my envoy ships, instead of better weapons? (Admittedly, this has its own issues: as I discovered here, high-level computer players get such massive bonuses that turning on the diplomatic victory under those conditions can be a recipe for frustration.)

Now, out of these victory conditions, my favourite is Company of Heroes’ simple territorial control model. But the “builder” victory conditions in Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy also have their merits: they allow for different playstyles, and they force players to make hard choices about when, and whether, to pursue those forms of victory. And ultimately, the victory conditions give two key advantages to each of these three titles. They avoid drawn-out “kill ‘em all” games, and they provide tension in the form of a race: a race to capture and hold the map’s VPs, a race to build and defend enough wonders, a race to complete enough missions and send out enough envoy ships. They are lessons relevant throughout the strategy game genre.

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

Distant lands, national interests, and cold steel: impressions of Civ V’s city-states

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve now won two practice games of Civilization V, and while it’s still early days for me, so far the new city-states system (which I blogged about back before the game came out) has already given me some “wow, this is cool” moments. And in the process, the game gave me some food for thought, especially in light of the news stories of 2010.

My first game was a simple two-player affair, myself as the Siamese against AI-controlled Askia, the ruler of Songhai. We started on the same continent, and the mountain range dividing our two holdings was impassable except in two locations. I quickly secured one and packed it with soldiers. The other was held by a city-state, whose loyalty I bought with showers of gold. And while I was at it, I paid off every other city-state in the game. One fine day, Askia thought it would be a good idea to attack my strategically situated ally, and to cap things off, went on to goad me: “I just declared war on your little friend – what are you going to do about it?”

I declared war, of course. There was no way I could let an ally in such a vital location be conquered. And in a touch that impressed me, all my other city-state allies followed me to war in a “coalition of the willing”.

In the second game I won, the city-states initially didn’t play so dramatic a role. For most of the game, my city-state allies kept me well supplied with food and culture: crucial to my nation’s prosperity, yes, but individually not life-and-death stuff. But then the modern day rolled around, and along with it the need for oil and aluminium. Oil in case I needed to build up a war machine; aluminium not just for my military, but also so I could build hydro plants and spaceship factories. I had neither in my territory. But luckily, two of my city-state allies did. And so concerned was I to protect my supply that I placed defensive forces in their territories and invested in a modern, oceangoing navy that could, if needed, sail to their aid. Nobody attacked them in this game, but I know what I would have done if war broke out.

And therein lies the beauty of the city-states concept. With one simple, abstract game mechanic, Firaxis has captured a little bit of the feel of great-power diplomacy and geopolitics. Civilization V made me build and deploy expeditionary forces not for simple territorial aggrandisement – as I would have in the previous games – but so I could protect my national interests overseas. And it made me willing to treat any attack on flyspeck countries halfway around the world as an act of war directed against myself. It’s one thing to intellectually consider why real-life world leaders make the decisions they do; it’s another to understand at a gut level. And for a few hours this month, Civilization V put me into their shoes.

The joy of playing with other people in Worms Reloaded

While I have been in no great hurry to play single-player Worms Reloaded, the recently-released (August) entry in Team 17’s long-running series,  multiplayer is a different story. Anyone living with me should be able to tell when I’m playing multiplayer Worms, simply by listening to how much delighted laughter rings out from the room. Of course, any game is better in multiplayer (for example, adding other humans turns diplomacy into a key element of the gameplay experience – and Worms is no exception), but there are a couple of factors in particular which stand out for Worms.

 

First is the slapstick tone of the action in a multiplayer game, as  each player’s worms open up on their foes with bazookas, grenades, and more exotic weapons such as Holy Hand Grenades and flying explosive sheep. Half the fun is when worms blow themselves up with explosive weapons, or conversely pull off utterly implausible shots across the length of the map. Here I think the turn-based nature of the game helps, because it builds up tension – oh no, what could that guy be up to on his turn? He’s lining up a shot… Can he hit? Will he hit? Will he hii— The length of each turn is just right (a minute, give or take). The bloodless but grotesquely exaggerated, Looney Tunes-esque violence is just right: explosive-but-inaccurate weapons have far more potential for comic misuse than precise ones. The colour palette is vivid and cheery (see this screenshot on Giant Bomb). But the humour is conditioned on knowing that there is an actual human being behind every one of those moves. Against the computer player, the tension might still be there, but the game now becomes a straightforward man-against-machine test of skill. Bad AI is when a computer-controlled worm blows itself up; laughter is when another human player’s worm blows itself up.

 

Second is the way in which multiplayer Worms Reloaded allows players to showcase their imaginations. Players can customise the worms on their team in a variety of ways: names, hats, tombstones, voices. So in a multiplayer match, one of my little pleasures is seeing the theme that everyone has come up with. My worms are named Julius, Brutus, Scipio, and SPQR; wear Hollywood Roman helmets; and proclaim things such as, “Am I not merciful?” (when they miss a shot), “I would rather be first in a village than second in the empire!”, and, when I dawdle too long in taking my turn, “You procrastinate like the Senate!” I’ve seen teams of worms modelled on robots, varieties of cheese, even German generals, with voices to match. And I am eager to see what players could do with some of the other Worms voice sets, such as the cod-Shakespearian (“A donkey, a donkey, my kingdom for a donkey!”).

 

Now, neither factor is unique to Worms. There are other over-the-top, goofy games out there – that said, while I am sure ones oriented towards multiplayer exist, offhand I can’t think of any. And there are other games that allow players to show off their creativity – I’m thinking of the ability to share families and lots in The Sims 3, plus character customisation in MMOGs.  But combining those two features into something approximating the simple joy of childhood play, plus good nuts-and-bolts gameplay (beyond the scope of this article, but check out the reviews for more details), worked very well for Team 17.

 

Hmm, maybe I should set aside some time this weekend for some multiplayer Worms…

Victoria 2: Now THAT’s detail

Victoria 2, Paradox’s historical simulation of the nineteenth-century world, is a game to which I have to take off my hat. Now, I have not played the full game — just the first game in the series and the demo of Vicky 2. I didn’t even have that much fun with the demo! But even from the demo, its ambition and detail were amazing to behold. The game models pension costs, migration driven by employment opportunities, the whole spectrum of political and religious beliefs across an entire nation, the gradual process by which government can subsidise, educate, and nurture a workforce. Raising an army is not done overnight, but requires that you spend months or years encouraging your young men to join the army through better military funding. Most strikingly, this is a game which actually tracks the flow of money through the world economy, starting from the moment gold is dug out of the ground and proceeding via the profits earned by the mine-owners and the wages paid to the miners.

Does this actually make for a good game? I don’t know, and neither do the critics. But it was enough to sorely tempt me when I saw the game being offered for 30% off at Impulse.

Storytelling in Dominions 3 – now up at Flash of Steel!

My Storytelling in Dominions 3 post, part of my Storytelling in Games feature series, is now up at Flash of Steel! Check out my guest post to see how Dominions 3, from Illwinter and Shrapnel Games, illustrates the techniques a strategy game can use to tell an effective story and bring across the feel of an epic, high-magic fantasy novel, all without dialogue or cut-scenes.

 

Meanwhile, if you came here via Flash of Steel: welcome, and I hope you liked my guest post! You can navigate this site in chronological order, but if you’d like to see what I have to say on a specific topic, you can click the relevant category on the right-hand side of the page. You can also click the “reviews” and “features” tabs at the top of this page to see. I plan to keep writing “Storytelling in Games” features over time, so check back at this blog from time to time, or subscribe to email updates at the right-hand side of this page.

 

Whichever category you’re in, I hope you have fun!

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.

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…

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).

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.

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.)

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!

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?

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”