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:

Follow matchstickeyes on Twitter

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)

Mass Effect: Thoughts on the Paragon/Renegade system

Right now, I’m about halfway through the original Mass Effect, an RPG whose morality system was one of its signature innovations. Traditionally, RPGs have a good/evil scale; your decisions push you up or down that scale; and those decisions, all too often, take the nature of “save puppy / ignore puppy / kill puppy and wave its corpse in its owner’s face” (the last option becoming known as “chaotic stupid”/ “stupid evil”). Mass Effect tried to move past this by giving you the choice as to whether to be a conventional, violence-as-a-last-resort, squeaky-clean hero (Paragon), or a ruthless antihero (Renegade). And furthermore, it put Paragon and Renegade points on two separate axes – they can only go up, never go down – which, in theory, allows you to react in different ways to different situations. So, for example, I could pile up Paragon points by using non-lethal means to overpower a swarm of mind-controlled enemies, then earn some Renegade points by summarily executing a prisoner. Unfortunately, the implementation isn’t quite perfect.

 

First, being a Renegade still sometimes involves (verbally) kicking puppies. Sometimes, the distinction between being Paragon and Renegade conversation choices breaks down along one of two axes:

 

  • Are you polite and understanding, or are you an abrasive jerk?

 

  • Are you open-minded towards aliens (whom, by and large, the game depicts as Folks Just Like Us) or do you hate anyone who’s not a human being?

 

Most “reasonable” people, in-universe, would take the Paragon route under those circumstances.  And this weakens the concept that “Renegade” simply means you’re willing to take nasty decisions for the greater good.

 

Second, it still punishes players who don’t want to respond in the same way every time. The bigger a Paragon or Renegade you are, the more points you can invest in your Charm and Intimidate skills (respectively). These skills are what actually matters for game purposes: to get the optimum outcome from various conversations and quests, you’ll typically need sufficient Charm or sufficient Intimidate. The problem is that, as a result, you have an incentive to exclusively focus on one or the other: there are no prizes for having a little bit in each. So while I’ve pumped my Charm skill almost to the max, I have just a handful of points in Intimidate, and from a powergaming perspective, it would have better if I’d ignored Intimidate entirely. I want to play the game as a hero to most and a merciless menacing brute to those who deserve it, but having to split points between Charm and Intimidate discourages me from doing so.

 

Now, neither issue is a gamebreaker. There are plenty of Renegade options that are pragmatic or blunt rather than outright nasty; plenty of Renegade and Paragon points to go around (apparently, you can get to 75% in each on a first playthrough); and I could still be both Charming and Intimidating (to a certain extent, determined by just how many P/R points I had) if I were willing to sacrifice combat effectiveness by pouring my precious skill points into those two areas instead. But they’re still flies in an innovative ointment.

 

How could Bioware have implemented the system differently? Making politeness and xenophobia separate from Paragon/Renegade would have been the easy way to resolve my first complaint. The second complaint is a little thornier: Bioware could have used a single Speech skill a la Fallout; or made Charm and Intimidate complements instead of substitutes (i.e. I can charm person A but I have to intimidate person B).  As it turned out, Bioware did neither for Mass Effect 2 – based on what I’ve read, ME2 does away with Charm/Intimidate entirely and instead simply uses your Paragon/Renegade level, modified by a “Negotiation” bonus.

 

Now, I’m having enough fun with Mass Effect, and I’ve heard enough good things about the sequel, that I’ll probably pick up ME2 once a PC version with the DLC quests becomes available for a cheap price. But I am curious as to how well ME2 addresses my issues. Any impressions, folks?

Magicka demo impressions: sadly, it’s the little things that count

Update: Following a patch, Magicka now allows you to save and quit at checkpoints (previously, quitting in mid-level would lose your progress). I now own the full game.

 

After hearing about Magicka, a newly-released game, on the Quarter to Three forums, I was intrigued. After reading this writeup of the game, courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun, I had to try its demo. After actually playing the demo… well, I’m glad I tried before I reached for my wallet.

 

The gameplay itself is, no pun intended, a blast. Think of it as a Lina Inverse simulator: the game is about fighting off hordes of goblins, trolls, and other nasties by tapping out different magic elements on your keyboard/gamepad to produce different spells. So tapping earth will fling rocks at your foes. Tapping earth and fire will lob a fireball. Lightning and fire together will jump from foe to foe and set them alight. Cold and arcane will produce a beam that freezes enemies in their tracks. Water will make enemies (or yourself!) more vulnerable to subsequent lightning magic… The devastation you can unleash is enormous, and the gameplay, as you mash the spellcasting buttons, is suitably frantic.

 

No, the problem is the technical package in which the gameplay is wrapped. You can’t just save anywhere you please. At least during the demo, the game isn’t as generous as I’d like with checkpoints, so I can clear out a room, die on the next room, and have to play the first room all over again. But that pales in comparison next to the fact that you can’t save midway through a level, exit, and resume where you left off. And we are not talking about five-minute levels here –30-40 minute sessions weren’t enough for me to finish the first level. You can remap the keyboard and gamepad controls, and return the keyboard to its default – but I haven’t yet seen any ability to return the gamepad to its default. And multiplayer, a major selling point of the game, reportedly doesn’t work.

 

I understand the developer and publisher are aware of the complaints. A patch has already been released, and more are on the way. That said, I was not encouraged to read, on the Steam forum:

 

“A save option can’t be added without some serious investement in coding time.

we’d much rather spend that time on fixes, more polish and other requested features.”

 

I hope Magicka’s developer will quickly tidy up its infuriating problems, because I want to fully enjoy its potential. ‘Til then, I’m saving my $10.

Let me play a cyborg! The prevalence of high fantasy & classic space opera in games

Elf, dwarf, dragon, tavern.

 

Space pirate, FTL jump, space cruiser, space junk.

 

I’ve just summed up the settings of 50% of the science fiction and fantasy novels in existence. And I’ve also summed up the settings of 90% of Western* science fiction and fantasy video games.

 

These numbers are fictitious, of course, but I choose them to illustrate a point. High fantasy and space opera** are probably what most people associate with fantasy and science fiction, respectively, but they are a long way from comprising the entirety of the broader genres. On the other hand, they dominate gaming both old and new: to name just a few examples, consider Heroes of Might and Magic; Warcraft and its spinoffs; Master of Orion; Star Control 2 (as I discussed here); and Mass Effect, which I have running in the background as I write. These traditional settings can be done very well – Star Control is among my favourite games – but it should still be asked: why are they so prevalent?

 

In the case of fantasy, I suspect this is because the influence of D&D still runs strong, particularly in the RPG genre. And in any case, the situation is getting better; game developers are increasingly looking to the “modern” crop of epic fantasy authors for inspiration. At the AAA end of the spectrum, Dragon Age is pretty obviously influenced by George R R Martin; at the indie end, not only is Dominions 3 based off real-world mythologies (as I described here), but there’s even a minor spell inspired by the T’lan Imass from Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  In another ten years, we might well see games inspired by Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, or Patrick Rothfuss.

 

Science fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t have that excuse. Sure, there’s probably a good reason why we don’t see hard science fiction games, but that still leaves a huge gulf. Where is the post-apocalyptic (other than Fallout and its predecessor, Wasteland), the near-future Mundane SF, the cyberpunk, the post-cyberpunk? Even when it comes to space opera, we mostly see the “classic” variety featuring a dozen alien species, but humans who are exactly the same as they are now, just with FTL drives. Where are the transhuman space opera games, with societies characterised by mass use of biotech (e.g. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cetagandans; and the Abh from Crest of the Stars), AI, and/or cybernetics?

 

As a result, there’s a lot of untapped potential. Imagine a Ghost in the Shell knockoff where, like a 2050s version of 2K’s upcoming remake XCOM, you had to solve cybernetic/AI-related crimes around the country, gathering evidence of a master scheme along the way. Or a Europa Universalis-style strategy game where you had to manage political cohesion across an interplanetary, or even interstellar, nation, in the face of social change driven by biotech/AIs/the Singularity. Or, as I mooted a few months ago, a steampunk version of Space Rangers 2 in which you could fly an airship around the world, fighting pirates, embarking on quests, and playing mini-games. Originality wouldn’t even be the commercial kiss of death, if Dragon Age (over in the fantasy realm) is any indication.

 

Again, game developers, I throw down the gauntlet. You’ve let me play Aragorn and The Lady, Johnny Rico and Han Solo and Mon Mothma. Now let me play Motoko Kusanagi and Miles Vorkosigan and Prince Alek of Hapsburg. You’ve already created so many worlds of wonder for me; surely you can show me a few more varieties?

 

* Japanese games might have their own clichés, but they’re not the same as those favoured by Western developers.

 

** For the purposes of gaming, I’m lumping together military science fiction and space opera.

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.

Tactics Ogre – European release only a month away

To my pleasant surprise, Square Enix has announced that Tactics Ogre for PSP will come out in Europe on 25 February, a little over a month away and only ten days after its US release. (press release courtesy of Gamershell). As an added bonus, it’ll come in a “premium edition” with an artbook and a mini-soundtrack CD. As I plan to import the game from a UK retailer (assuming, of course, favourable reviews and/or word of mouth), it’s encouraging to hear I won’t have to wait too long.

Mass Effect: That guy looks familiar…

I’ve played a little bit more Mass Effect, enough to start growing fond of some of the game’s characters, dialogue and alien species but nowhere near enough to give a definitive verdict on the game. But one thing has already jumped out at me.

 

This is a volus, the game’s obligatory space merchant species:

 

And this is a toy depicting Dogbert from the Dilbert comic strip:

 

 

The resemblance is striking. Who’d have thought that megalomanical Terran cartoon dogs had managed to propagate across the galaxy?

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.

Game of Thrones – news round-up

The last few days have seen quite a few Game of Thrones-related news items. A recap below:

  1. A Game of Thrones will premiere in the US on 17 April.
  2. HBO has released new publicity photos, visible here.  I particularly like the bottom-most picture, which is of Catelyn; it makes her look wise, sad, and strong.
  3. Courtesy of Winter is Coming: a list of stations outside the US which will broadcast the series. In Australia, the series will be on Showcase, “possibly in July”.
  4. Also from Winter is Coming, a summary of a fifteen-minute, non-public preview video (SPOILERS for the first few episodes).

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.

Carpe Fulgur’s next game is Chantelise; Recettear sells 100,000 copies

Carpe Fulgur’s next release will be Chantelise, a 2006 hack-and-slash game from EasyGameStation (more details on Chantelise here). I have to wonder whether it’ll enjoy the same success as Recettear, given that Recettear had a unique premise to hook RPG players who otherwise may not have taken notice of “an indie game from Japan”. Still, worth keeping an eye on. Chantelise is just one of the titles Carpe Fulgur has planned for 2011, so maybe we’ll also see an English release of Territoire? (According to Google’s translation, the Territoire demo is already available in Japanese – check out the EasyGameStation website here, click Download and then the first link.)

 

Meanwhile, Recettear has now sold over 100,000 copies! Granted, most of those sales were heavily discounted – for example, during the Thanksgiving Steam sale, Recettear was effectively being sold for $1 ($5 spread over five games in a bundle pack), but 100,000 people playing a niche indie game is still pretty impressive.

 

What does this mean in dollar terms? A while back,  I estimated Carpe Fulgur would have seen a little under ~US$500,000 in revenue (based on 26,000 units sold, half at $18 and half at $20), so if I update my numbers to assume 13,000 pre-orders @ $18, 17,000 sold for the full price of $20, 60,000 @ $1, and 10,000 @ $10 (the current Steam sale price – it was $5 on a daily sale, but let’s keep things simple), this gives us total ex-Japan revenue for Recettear of $700,000. Carpe Fulgur also mentions that its share of Recettear sales proceeds – in other words, its gross profit margin – is slightly under 25% (vs my earlier guesstimate of 33%), with the bulk of the money going to EasyGameStation. If we assume, say, 22.5%, then multiplying by $700,000 leaves $157,500 to pay salaries, tax and any other bills. Assuming minimal expenses, that equates to $52,500 for each of Carpe Fulgur’s three members. This isn’t that far from my earlier estimate of ~$55,000 from 26,000 copies, because the higher number of (mostly discounted) sales netted out against my too-high gross margin, and is still a respectable figure.Of course, the most important thing is how it affects the viability of the business, and there, Carpe Fulgur sounds pleased as punch.

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.

And my Game of the Year – 2010 is…

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Game of the Year Awards

This would normally be the time to review the best and worst of 2010’s games, except I only played a handful of the titles which came out this year. Despite being an RPG fan, I played neither Mass Effect 2 nor Fallout: New Vegas, and despite being a strategy fan, I did not play Starcraft II.

 

That said, I liked most of the ones I did play. Highest-profile amongst them, and the one into which I sank the most time, was Civilization V – here are my thoughts on the city-states, and on the game design as a whole. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with Resonance of Fate, the steampunkish gun-fu JRPG from tri-Ace, or Supreme Commander 2, the RTS from Gas Powered Games, but I liked what I saw, and I know I’ll return one day to finish off Resonance of Fate.

 

Ultimately, though, one game this year charmed me more than all the others. It was just right for me in every way: in its length, its pacing, the feel of its world, its gameplay mechanics, and its premise. And it alone makes me think, “I wish there were more games like that!” With that, I present:

 

Game of the Year – 2010: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (write-up here), developed by EasyGameStation and localised by Carpe Fulgur.

 

Congratulations, guys. Keep up the good work, because I’m looking forward to what you do next.

 

Happy new year, everyone!

An extraordinary life: storytelling in Fallout 3

This entry is part 4 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.

 

 

Warning: this post contains extensive spoilers for Fallout 3, including its ending!

***

Ask people what they enjoyed about Fallout 3 (2008), the post-apocalyptic RPG from Bethesda, and most would point to its setting, the ruined Capital Wasteland where Washington DC once stood. It’s a truly impressive world, both for its sheer scope and for the little touches that went into each area. But there was also a story far more character-driven than the game usually gets credit for. At its heart, Fallout 3’s main plotline revolved around the journey of its protagonist, the Lone Wanderer. It explored themes of hope, courage, and sacrifice, made all the stronger for their bleak backdrop. Ultimately, it’s a story I’m glad to have played.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the game world, but what stood out for me was its interconnectedness. At one point, the Lone Wanderer is trapped in a virtual reality where a vicious scientist has tormented his victims for centuries. Who would voluntarily risk a run-in with such a man? Well, later on, a quest took me to another scientist, Horace Pinkerton, a recluse established as egotistical and brilliant in equal measures. In true RPG fashion, I took the time to look at Pinkerton’s notes – and found he stole some of his equipment from the madman, as easily as taking candy “from a little girl”. How did he know where to look? Once he made it there, how did he get in? And most importantly, how did he get out? The game doesn’t elaborate on those points, preferring to leave it up to our imaginations. But it says a lot about Pinkerton: he must have been both incredibly brave (or plain arrogant), and incredibly skilful. And it hints at adventures in the wasteland beyond what we ourselves experienced.

One aspect of the world becomes very clear, very fast: its tone. The Capital did not become a Wasteland because of aliens, dragons or long-sealed ancient evil. It became that way because of people, in all our greed, our stupidity, our selfishness. And the game goes to great lengths to drive home the resulting gloom. The surroundings are desolate, of course: beyond the shattered buildings and treeless desert, what sticks in my mind is a skeleton on a subway-station bench, slumped next to a handgun and a bloodstain. It’s pretty clear what happened all those centuries ago, and why.

But what we see is just the tip of the iceberg, compared to what we do. For Fallout 3 dared to put you into situations where there was no happy ending. One side quest (which I haven’t played, but which I did read up on), involving a dispute between bigoted humans and the hideously mutated ghouls, presents RPG players with a familiar choice. Do you sign on as a hired gun for the humans, or for the ghouls? Or do you go for the peaceful solution: reconcile the two sides? Clearly, only one of these is a win-win solution. Except it’s not. If the ghouls settle their differences and move in alongside the humans, they will go on to massacre their new neighbours anyway. Today’s victims, the game tells us, may become tomorrow’s oppressors, given the opportunity.

Still, as bleak as this world is, it’s not hopeless. There are spots of light woven in here and there, as individuals try to make what difference they can: Three Dog the DJ sets up a radio station to bring news and information to the survivors of the waste; Moira the shopkeeper-cum-tinkerer decides to pen a “Wasteland Survival Guide”; Dr Madison Li sets up hydroponics labs to feed her adopted home. And then there are your own deeds. Even small acts of kindness, on your part, can make a huge difference to their recipients’ lives: give an orphaned woman the last message left by her dying father, and listen to the gratitude in her voice. Or retrieve the last Stradivarius in the world for an elderly widow, and hear the airwaves come alive with her music.

Hope and valour exist on a grander scale, too. The second thing I love about Fallout 3 is the hero(ine)’s character arc, as chronicled by the main plotline. From the very beginning, Fallout 3 is something special. The first we see of the Capital Wasteland is an operating theatre, as the Lone Wanderer is born – and the moment the Wanderer’s parents learn his/her gender and appearance is the same moment in which we choose them. As we learn how to move in the game, the Wanderer takes his or her first baby steps; the Wanderer receiving a BB gun for a birthday present is the occasion on which we learn how to aim and shoot. We’ve all sat through character generation and tutorial segments in games before, but none immersed me so much as Fallout 3’s integration of these mechanics with its story.

But it’s not until later on that we discover the significance of the Lone Wanderer’s birth. Early on, we learn the hard way: water in the game world is almost always irradiated. And during the course of the story, we eventually find out: the Lone Wanderer’s parents were working in a near-war zone to create Project Purity, a device capable of supplying enough clean water for the entire Wasteland. It could have transformed the game world, had it succeeded… but the Wanderer’s father, James, abandoned the project after the Wanderer’s mother died giving birth to their child. James didn’t throw away Project Purity and the future of the Capital Wasteland for the hell of it. He didn’t do it because he lost heart without his wife. He did it because now that his child was born, the constant attacks on the purifier were too risky for him to bear. And eventually, James gives up his own life, too, arranging an explosion so his child can flee an onrushing invasion.

This takes us to the game’s much-maligned ending. The finale confronts the Lone Wanderer with a choice. Run into an irradiated control room a la Spock and sacrifice his/her life to prevent the now almost-functional, but critically damaged purifier, from exploding? Or be a coward, and ask an accompanying soldier to lay down her own life instead? (The original ending has a nasty plot hole – you have allies who could survive the radiation, but instead of helping, they spout lame excuses about it being “your destiny” to die in there. No wonder people were mad*! The Broken Steel DLC revised this, so now the Wanderer ultimately survives even if you opt for self-sacrifice, and it finally allows you the third option of sending in a rad-immune buddy.)

But with the benefit of Broken Steel, I love the ending for how it rounds off the Lone Wanderer’s story arc. It takes the Wanderer full circle: back to the purifier, not far from where he or she entered the world. And just as the Wanderer’s birth, at the start of the game, triggered James to sacrifice the greater good for the sake of his child, the end of the game asks: can that child make good James’ sacrifice by paying the debt forward? Will the child be a true hero and ensure James didn’t die in vain? It is one of the most satisfying, moving endings I have ever played through.

Last but not least, from a storytelling perspective, I loved so many more things about Fallout 3. Some of the characters I met, such as Amata, the Lone Wanderer’s childhood friend; and Fawkes, the intelligent, principled mutant who swears friendship after you rescue him from the cell where he’s been imprisoned for centuries. The set-piece battles worthy of Hollywood. The unscripted canyon shoot-out against a gang of hit-men, which put me into Clint Eastwood’s shoes. “The world” and “the main character’s journey” would mean nothing if they were boring, but thanks to the characters I encountered and the battles I fought in the Capital Wasteland, my experience was punctuated with humour, pathos, and excitement.

I would have liked any one of Fallout 3’s storytelling elements, in itself.  The game is deservedly recognised for its world’s size and attention to detail, and that world struck a perfectly appropriate tone, dark but not hopeless. But I also loved the Lone Wanderer’s character arc, as presented through the game’s main plot. Viewed from this angle, Fallout 3 is the story of an extraordinary life, from birth to death (or near-death, if you have Broken Steel), book-ended by sacrifice. And it was a story made all the better by the other characters, both friend and foe, I encountered along the way. Putting all these elements together, Fallout 3 is one of my favourite games ever. And after 85+ hours, I can walk away with a smile.

Notes


* This interview explains why the companions were so badly worked into the original ending sequence: the ending was written before the companions were added to the game!

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.

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.

How to make dilemma effective: Stargate SG-1, “Between Two Fires”

In real life, how often have you had to make an unpalatable decision because you felt it was the lesser of two evils?

Characters in fiction, though, get off easy (especially if they’re the heroes). Often, they’ll find some way to weasel out of the dilemma, a “third way” that allows them to have their cake and eat it. So this makes me admire the courage of the odd story that doesn’t present that as an option, that forces the characters to choose and then doesn’t shy away from the consequences.

My example here is Stargate: SG-1. (Warning: spoilers for “Between Two Fires”, an episode midway through season 5.)


***

In this episode, our heroes are called in to investigate skulduggery on the planet Tollana. By this stage, we’ve been familiar with the Tollans for several seasons, seen their lovely planet, learned that while they are technologically superior to Earth, their society is peaceful as a lamb. So imagine the shock when SG-1 learns that the Tollans are building weapons capable of devastating Earth – and that they’re doing so at the behest of the Goa’uld, the villains of the series so far.

Now, why would the Tollans do this? Why would they even go so far as to murder one of their leaders who was opposed to the idea? Was their benevolence a facade a whole time? No. They built the weapons because the Goa’uld arrived in overwhelming force and told them to do it, or be slaughtered (the Goa’uld themselves, for reasons previously established on the show,  can’t directly attack Earth, so they need a plausibly deniable proxy).

Of course, SG-1 thwarts the threat to Earth. They talk one of their Tollan friends, another recurring character, into helping them sabotage the new weapons for the greater good of the galaxy. He does so knowing he condemns his homeworld to annihilation. The weapons cache goes up in flames. The Goa’uld see the Tollans have not lived up to their bargain, and so they begin their assault. SG-1 manages to escape, but their Tollan friend stays behind to fight. Back on Earth, they hear a last transmission from him: “I just want you to know that—”

Static.

And that is the last we ever see, or hear, of the Tollans.

***

The moral of the story is, for a dilemma to be effective, a storyteller must make the sacrifice matter. A hard choice must truly be a hard choice. “Avoid cop-outs” sounds so simple – but it works. And it made “Between Two Fires” one of my favourite episodes of SG-1.

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.

Trailer’s out for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Well, the trailer is out for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides. It automatically gets one star from me for being about Jack Sparrow rather than Will Generic Protagonist Turner, and a second star for having the licence to Tim Powers’ novel of the same name. I doubt the movie will have much to do with the novel and I haven’t read the book, but I’d like to — I enjoy Powers’ other works, such as Declare, and a movie adaptation would make it much easier to get hold of the novel.

 

As for the trailer itself? Yes, I know “trailers always lie”, but this lie was quite sweet in my ears. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush chewing the scenery? Self-consciously ludicrous action scenes? That glorious “ba-dah-dah-da-dum” music? Yes, please!

 

Now, please live up to the standards of the first movie…

A better way to classify games

Shooter, puzzler, platformer, strategy game, RPG – these classifications, and more, should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s spent a bit of time playing games. But what makes a shooter a shooter? What are the shared themes underpinning two seemingly different genres? What might your own favourite genres have in common?

Well, a really interesting article in last week’s issue of The Escapist seeks to answer these questions. It proposes a new system of classifying games along two axes: Action vs Strategy and Exploration vs Conflict.

  • Action vs Strategy deals with how you play the game. Action games emphasise the player’s physical skill at controlling his/her on-screen avatar. Strategy games, on the other hand, are about planning, analysis, and working out how to get the most out of the avatar(s), rather than about direct control.
  • Exploration vs Conflict, meanwhile, focuses on what you have to overcome. Does the challenge in the game come from defeating opponents who are playing the same game you are, with the same objectives? Or does it come from discovering  and overcoming the environment? The former, what Soren Johnson might call a “symmetrical” game, is Conflict. The latter is Exploration.

This chart shows the outcome, how these categories can be mixed and matched into genres (page 3 of the article explains what the acronyms stand for – ACE = Action/Conflict/Exploration, AC = Action/Conflict, etc).

 

Now, at a glance, this chart/classification system seem perfectly tailored to my own game-playing preferences. My preferred genres are RPGs (both Japanese and Western), grand strategy, and turn-based strategy – which all neatly fall into the bottom and bottom-right slices of the chart. I also play real-time strategy, adventure games, and “builder” games – all of which are adjacent to my home base in the bottom right. And the genres I am sadly inept at – platformers, shooters, driving – all have one thing in common: they’re at the top of the chart. In other words, this chart tells me I am much better at “Strategy” than at “Action” games – which matches my own observations.

How about you? Where do your favourite gaming genres fall on this chart?

Two very different characters inspired by the same person: Civ 4, The Curse of Chalion, and Isabella I of Spain

The name of Queen Isabella I of Spain should be familiar to any player of Civilization IV. And it will most likely not be a friendly familiarity. For in Civ, Isabella is a thoroughly unpleasant neighbour, a zealot with a penchant for declaring war on players who have adopted heathen faiths (i.e. anything other than what Isabella herself espouses) as their state religions. I get the feeling that while surprise might not be among the weapons in her arsenal, fear certainly is. In short, Isabella’s depiction in Civ is not a flattering one.

 

Contrast The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, a fantasy novel set in a land loosely inspired by late medieval Spain. One of the novel’s heroines is a young woman named Iselle, half-sister to the reigning monarch. Iselle is brave. Iselle is intelligent. Iselle believes in justice. Iselle, in short, is what royalty should be. And who seems to have inspired the character? None other than Isabella I of Spain.

 

Now, I don’t know enough about the real Isabella to comment on how closely Civ 4’s Isabella and Chalion’s Iselle resemble her. I doubt Civ 4 purports in any way to contain an accurate depiction of the real queen, and similarly, while Iselle and Isabella have similar backstories, I doubt Iselle was intended to be a fictionalised version of her namesake. (Although it is a funny thought to imagine Iselle growing up into the holy warrior of Civ 4…)

 

But the very fact Civ and Chalion aren’t trying to recreate the real Isabella is what fascinates me. This isn’t a case of two authors taking differing views of the same subject, this is a case of two works taking the same historical figure as a starting point and then going on to create two very different characters. And since it illustrates how the take on an idea is just as important as the idea itself, it’s food for thought for any prospective author.

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