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.

Are gamers worse at driving than non-gamers?

Here’s an interesting study from Continental Tyres, which purports that gamers think they’re better drivers than non-gamers:

 

“The study of 2,000 motorists consisted of 1,000 gamers and non-gamers aged between 17 and 39 and quizzed them on their driving habits and attitudes.

 

It found while gamers think they are better behind the wheel, in reality they are far from it. They rated their driving skill at an average of six out of ten compared to non-gamers’ five.

 

And they also claimed to have quicker reaction times, better anticipation of events and greater understanding of the car’s dynamics – such as gear changes and cornering.

 

However, when quizzed further, they tend to speed more often, claim on their insurance more regularly and believe that any problem can be solved by resetting their game…”

 

But how does our actual skill compare to our boasts?

 

“… Gamers also appear worse parkers having crashed into more stationary objects and are twice as likely to scare others with their antics on the road.

 

It also emerged that the longer they spend on games each week , the worse they are behind the wheel.

 

Those who play for more than eight hours a week have been in three times as many accidents as someone who plays for less than one hour.”

 

If you’re interested, there’s a table at the bottom of the link showing the % responses to particular questions.

 

I can’t comment on the validity of the survey’s findings one way or another, and I can think of a couple of methodological question marks – for example, did the researchers adjust for age within that 17-39 bracket? Younger people would probably be more likely to be gamers, and also less likely to be safe drivers. Meanwhile, that “believe that any problem can be solved by resetting” part doesn’t ring true for me – it sounds like it was inserted in a burst of overenthusiasm by the author of the press release.

 

But for all that, I think the survey’s findings do apply in my case. Just ask anyone who’s watched me trying to drive in Brutal Legend…

 

(Link courtesy of IndustryGamers)

Book review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

UNDER HEAVEN

 

by Guy Gavriel Kay

 

“You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of these glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.”

 

Well, Shen Tai – hermit, son of a famous general, and the hero of Under Heaven, the novel by Guy Gavriel Kay set in a fictionalised version of Tang Dynasty China – has just been given two hundred and fifty.

 

I have mixed feelings about Under Heaven. This is a Kay novel, so at a “micro”, nuts-and-bolts level, the writing is very good. The characters are vividly drawn, from beggar to scheming minister to random foot soldier to Shen Tai himself. Even the least pleasant amongst them becomes sympathetic when we view the world through his or her eyes. The settings of the novel are distinct, from a haunted lake to the steppes to the splendours of the imperial capital. And Kay has a wonderful eye for the way the world works – the cruelty of random chance, the unfairness of history and folk memory, and on a happier note, the human capacity for kindness and loyalty and devotion.

 

My problem, rather, is with the big picture – the plot in which all those elements are wrapped. Under Heaven is not a George R R Martin or J R R Tolkien or Joe Abercrombie-style novel about Stuff Happening. It is not even a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, such as his earlier Tigana or The Lions of al-Rassan, about Stuff Happening. Rather, though Stuff Happens in the background*, Under Heaven’s plot structure is fundamentally not that of the conventional, three-act, build-to-a-climax-and-denouement novel. The story, for want of a better word, meanders through this beautifully described setting and past these beautiful people. For a lot of readers, this won’t be a problem. But it left me dissatisfied.

 

Was Under Heaven worth the money I paid, the time I sank in? Yes. I appreciated Kay’s sense for human nature and for life. I appreciated the worldbuilding, and a couple of the characters and scenes will stick in my mind. But it’s neither one of my favourite reads nor even my favourite Kay. All in all, worth a look – judging by the reception this book received, you may like it more than I – but I am glad that I waited for the paperback to take that look.

 

* If you know anything at all about Tang Dynasty history, you will be able to guess what that stuff concerns: I saw a major plot development almost right away, and all I know about the era is the name of one historical figure, his fate and that of a few of his contemporaries, and what its pottery looked like. The fact that this didn’t spoil Under Heaven for me, I think, reinforces my point about what the book isn’t about.

 

You can buy Under Heaven from Amazon here.

 

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

Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous

Black Lagoon is an anime series following the adventures of a crew of modern-day gangsters/guns for hire/pirates, and one very out-of-place Japanese salaryman, as they  battle mob bosses, mercenaries and maniacs. Meanwhile, God Hand is a PS2 brawler about a guy who protects the supernatural power of  the titular limb from hordes of mohawked punks, whip-wielding women, and demons who range from corpulent to alluring to plain monstrous. Other than violence, what on earth could these have in common?

 

The answer is, they are both powered by the same core concept, what I call Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous: if you’re going to tell a story that is ludicrous, over-the-top or plain silly, not only must you be aware of that, you’d better make very sure that the audience knows you’re aware of that.

 

Note that the Rule of the Ridiculous is not the same as “so bad it’s good”, although it is related to that long and honourable dramatic tradition, hamming it up. “So bad it’s good” is unintentional on the creators’ part, whereas self-awareness is the whole point of the Rule of the Ridiculous. Meanwhile, hamming it up is what happens when the actors, not the writers/directors/creators, are the ones who embrace the ridiculousness.

 

How does the rule apply to Black Lagoon and God Hand? Both take genres that, by definition, stretch believability – action films for Black Lagoon; video games in general, beat ‘em ups more specifically for God Hand – and drag them through the realm of self-parody. Action movies presented us with zombie pirates, whip-wielding Nazi-fighting archaeologists, and martini-quaffing, laser-defying, hit men; games often rely on endowing us with similar Macho McToughguy powers. Black Lagoon’s characters are even more overpowered, but it doesn’t stop there. Its heroes yell, “We’re being chased by an unstoppable killer robot from the future!” and in one episode, go up against an army of supervillains toting not just pistols, not just rifles,  not just swords, but every way to die known to man: flamethrower, chainsaw, minigun, even a kukri-on-a-rope. God Hand, meanwhile, will never have you looking at fight scenes the same way again after the first time you kick a demon in the groin, knock him flat, stomp on his head, and then launch his buddies into the sky, accompanied by an in-game laugh track.

 

In contrast, I can think of a couple of franchises that would have been improved had they run with the Rule of the Ridiculous:

 

  • Exhibit #1 is Warhammer 40,000, where IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE, THERE IS ONLY WAR. And that war includes ten-foot tall superhuman space marines, barely-literate space orcs orks, space elves, space dark elves, 50-metre (150-foot) tall mecha piloted by machine-worshippers, demon-summoning cultists, rifts that can swallow up whole space fleets, and somehow managing to survive in all this, human grunts and tankmen led by sword-waving commissars.

 

  • Exhibit #2 is the Mobile Suit Gundam anime franchise, which – in the entries I’ve seen – tends to follow a formula. Whiny teenaged heroes miraculously stumble into command of superweapons! Teenaged heroes repeatedly fight off hordes of enemies! Teenaged heroes barely take a scratch even when fighting veteran soldiers!

 

Are these universes inherently more unbelievable than those of Black Lagoon or God Hand? No. The problem is, they’re presented in so po-faced a fashion that my mind balks at accepting them. And from there, it’s only a short step to dwelling on their flaws. But in God Hand, and in Black Lagoon once it warms up to the Rule, suspension of disbelief never has the chance to become an issue – I’m too busy laughing, exclaiming, “Holy–!” or otherwise being dragged along for the ride.

 

And that’s the beauty of the Rule of the Ridiculous. It takes unpromising or hackneyed raw material, and transforms it into sheer glee, almost like a Philosopher’s Stone for storytellers. It makes Black Lagoon and God Hand memorable rather than generic. It lets creators achieve the cult classic status associated with “so bad it’s good” while skipping the “bad” part. And it can be as simple as exaggerating genre conventions instead of simply playing them straight. Of course, all this is easier said than done. But when the rewards are so great, and the risks (remember, we start with uninspiring source material) so marginal, well, wouldn’t failure to embrace the ham just be a recipe for… ridicule?

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.

Another sign of gaming’s acceptability: Board Gaming with the FT

Several months ago, I talked about one indicator that games are becoming mainstream: seeing flagship franchises such as Mario, LittleBigPlanet, Medal of Honor, and Red Dead Redemption being advertised in train stations and on the sides of buses. (And since then, I’ve seen train station ads for LittleBigPlanet 2, though their slogan isn’t quite as memorable as the “On my planet, the stock market isn’t so scary” used to advertise the original game two years ago.)

 

This weekend, I saw another indicator, this time for board games. No less august a publication than the Financial Times ran an interview with Michael Lewis, of Liar’s Poker/The Blind Side/The Big Short fame. Were Tim Harford, the FT journalist and economics correspondent, and Lewis chatting over a good meal? (Lunch with the FT is an interview series published every weekend.) Were they chatting over the cricket? Nope, they were chatting over a game of Saint Petersburg.

 

Of course, one swallow does not a summer make. I understand that Tim Harford is a board gamer*, which is probably why he embarked on this project in the first place, but I don’t see journalists all around the world rushing to their nearest board game shops in order to obtain props for their next interviews. But the FT’s willingness to run with this*,  and Lewis’ willingness to be interviewed over a board game, seem to be encouraging signs of gaming (at least, in non-electronic form) being “socially acceptable”. Who knows? Maybe in ten or twenty years’ time, we’ll see “RTS with the FT”.

 

* He mentions this in an article he previously wrote about Spiel, the German board game convention held at Essen.

 

** Not for the first time. The FT ran a “Monopoly with the FT” story in December ’10, where the interviewees were a pair of property developers.

All roads lead to where you want: I want an open-world Roman game

Odds are you’ve heard of the Grand Theft Auto series (modern-day, urban crime action-adventures), even if you’re not a gamer. It was Grand Theft Auto III (2001) that propelled open-world games to prominence in the industry, but open-world games have been around for a long time – and while I am not very interested in GTA’s setting, luckily for me, it’s just the tip of the open-world iceberg. There are open-world first person shooters, such as Far Cry 2, set in an African civil war; and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, set in a near-future “Zone” around Chernobyl populated by mutants, monsters and mercenaries. There are open-world RPGs, such as fantasy epics Daggerfall through to Oblivion; and the post-apocalyptic Fallout series. There’s an open-world medieval combat simulator, the Mount and Blade series. There is even the open-world, multi-genre, minigame-filled extravaganza Space Rangers 2, where you variously fly a spaceship around the galaxy, command ground forces in an RTS, and get out of jail by playing text adventures.

 

But there is one potentially awesome setting that has been overlooked: Ancient Rome. Specifically, the city of Rome, during the fall of the Republic.

 

Now, Rome has a lot of things going for it. From a marketability perspective, we’ve all heard of it. We may no longer learn Latin in school, but we have seen the HBO TV series, watched Gladiator, played Rome: Total War. From a gameplay perspective, Rome was big! In its heyday, it was the most populous city in the world, and it offers a corresponding amount of variety for players.

 

Imagine a game that began with choosing a background a la Dragon Age. Perhaps you’re an equestrian youngster from the provinces? A dissolute patrician? Or the scion of an august senatorial clan? Then, choose your skills, choose your friends, and build a career as a hoodlum, orator and lawyer, aspiring politician, or merchant*, with distinct minigames and social circles: perhaps a text-based adventure for a lawsuit or a Senate debate, a trading sim for a mercantile transaction, a brawler for the street combat. These categories wouldn’t even be mutually exclusive! This was a city where politicians hired street gangs to beat up their rivals – and died at the hands of their rivals’ gangs.

 

Or if you wanted a more actiony game, what about the Hollywood, sword-and-sandals version of Rome? Consider Centurion: Defender of Rome (as described here by Troy Goodfellow), which, 20 years ago, let you race chariots, fight as a gladiator, and command the flagship at sea, in between more conventional land battles (preceding Rome: Total War). How cool would that be with modern-day technology, and the ability to explore Rome in between bouts?

 

Rome is only the start as far as historical settings are concerned. I know almost nothing about, say, early 1700s London, but from what little I know, it would work well: dystopic squalor amongst commoners and in Newgate Prison for a “street”-level game, tension between Whigs and Tories in the corridors of power for a more political game, the shenanigans of the South Sea Company for a game about the budding world of modern finance. Or – to name another setting I don’t know much about, but which sounds very cool – what of a game in 1500s or 1600s Asia, a world that increasingly encountered European freebooters, merchants and companies hungry for porcelain and spices?

 

Human history, in all its richness, is often tapped by strategy games and wargames. But to the best of my knowledge, there are rather fewer open-world games that take advantage of its possibilities. This is a pity. I hope I’ve shown the potential in a Roman game, or an early-modern British game, or an Age of Discovery Asian game – and if Rockstar can branch out to the Wild West with Red Dead Redemption, who’s to say that one day, we might not get free rein of the city on the Tiber?

 

* I haven’t played this series, Taikou Risshiden, but, in that it’s about playing one of a number of professions such as swordsmith, merchant and warrior, it sounds a lot like a Sengoku Japanese version of what I have in mind.

Matchsticks Can Be Represented By 140 Characters

I’ve had a Twitter account for some time now, but I’ve only recently added a Twitter widget to the right-hand sidebar, so this is as good a time as any to highlight its existence. In addition to the usual “wrote about X topic” tweets, you’ll also find quick thoughts on what I’m currently playing or reading. Check it out! Or, alternately:

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