Dawn of War Dark Crusade: The promise and peril of pacing

The original Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War came out to rave reviews all the way back in 2004, but I didn’t play it until a few months ago, when I jumped into the Dark Crusade expansion. And I liked it! But it wasn’t perfect. In the process, Dark Crusade showed me how one element of gameplay should work… and how the very same element shouldn’t.

 

By way of background, most of the levels in the Dark Crusade campaign are just ordinary skirmish-style matches against one or more computer opponents. Here, the AI is more or less playing the same game as the human. A few, in contrast, are “stronghold” battles, which are more in line with traditional RTS campaign levels. The stronghold battles are hand-crafted affairs featuring special victory conditions, scripted events tied to particular locations, and more puzzle-like computer opponents.

 

Now, based solely on “ordinary skirmish” vs “hand-crafted affair”, you might think that the stronghold battles offer the superior gameplay experience and that the other campaign levels are just filler. But my experience was Dark Crusade was the complete opposite: I had the most fun with some of the skirmish-type battles, while the strongholds left me groaning. Why?

 

In a word, pacing. By “pacing”, I don’t just mean the game speed, although that is part of it. I mean the structure of a given match, how it unfolds, when it’s most exciting or challenging, and when it’s least.

 

Played on the right map, against multiple computer opponents, the pacing of the ordinary maps* in Dark Crusade was marvellous. If there were two computer players and only one of me, this forced me to quickly locate my foes, and then either successfully rush one, or keep them both bottled up while I out-teched them. If I took too long, either the superior enemy numbers would overwhelm me or else the second computer player would tech up and roll over me with top-tier units while I was still dealing with the first one. The actual speed of the game was also just right: fast enough to have a sense of urgency, fast enough for the match not to take too long, fast enough so that I could replay a stage if I lost. At the same time, it wasn’t so fast that I found it unmanageable, and in particular, it didn’t require me to split my attention amongst 20 different things (and thus it avoided the fate of Company of Heroes, from the same developer, which ended up as an exercise in frustration for me).

 

In contrast, I found that the strongholds fell flat for several reasons. The basic structure of the stronghold mission is that you have to fight off an onslaught in the first 30 seconds, when your forces are at their weakest… but after that the enemy attacks die down to a constant, annoying trickle. The computer players in stronghold missions didn’t build bases, they didn’t tech up, they didn’t come at me in increasing force. But (appropriately enough) they were very well-entrenched. And so, after I survived that initial rush, the strongholds degenerated into (1) maxing out my forces while fending off the continuing trickle, then (2) laboriously rolling over the excessively large maps. To put things another way, the challenge in the normal maps was high and stayed that way throughout the entire 30 minutes, or however long it took me to play; the challenge in the stronghold missions started high, plummeted after 30 seconds, and stayed boringly low for the rest of the loooong maps.

 

All in all, I really liked the Dark Crusade campaign and I walked away from the game thinking, “So that’s what all the fuss was about!” But that was no small thanks to the fact that the campaign has many more ordinary than stronghold missions. The former were tense, exciting, well-paced; the latter too long, too grindy, and an example of the complaints I often hear voiced about RTS campaigns. The combination of the two, I think, makes the Dark Crusade campaign a lesson in the importance of pacing to a strategy game.

 

 

* I only played one skirmish and one comp-stomp game of Dark Crusade, but from what I saw, they lived up to the high standard of the ordinary campaign maps.

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.

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”

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.

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.

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.

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).