Spoiled by Greatness

When we want to praise a well-made device, a skilful cook, a more convenient way of doing things, anything, we commonly say, “It’s spoiled me.” Usually this is just a figure of speech. But as with many other clichés, there is a literal truth at the heart of this: sometimes, we really do find something so good that it takes away our ability to enjoy inferior alternatives. And I think this is the case with two of my preferred forms of entertainment, games and books.

 

My most recent gaming example is Total War: Shogun 2 (my verdict here); in mechanical terms, the best strategy game I’ve played in years. Shogun 2 didn’t just fix much of the Total War series’ traditional bugginess. It also fixed two endemic problems with the strategy game genre: the boring late game, and pointless diplomacy. Now, when I think about other games in the genre, I have a much more critical eye for those two issues (especially the former) after seeing them done correctly. One studio that might suffer as a result is Paradox Interactive. I’ve loved Paradox’s historical simulations for years and I have plenty of cool stories to tell about them (see, for example, my Byzantine adventures in Europa Universalis III), but they are not particularly fun after the early- to mid-game. So Paradox’s upcoming Crusader Kings 2 and especially Sengoku will have to surpass a bar that Shogun 2 set pretty high, and Paradox will have to work that much harder to convince me to buy them.

 

Something similar may have happened to me in books, although here it may simply have been that my taste improved as I grew up. When I discovered fantasy fiction in my early teens, I loved Raymond Feist’s tales of orphans-turned-sorcerers and swashbuckling young heroes. Then, over the years, I read George R R Martin, and Glen Cook, both of whom specialised in taking apart the traditional fantasy novel. Martin needs no introduction; Cook’s Black Company series depicts a traditional fantasy world, with centuries-old wizards capable of destroying armies in the blink of an eye – but from the perspective of the underdog, the common foot soldier. Now I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at my Feist collection. My tastes in space opera tell a similar story. I used to happily read military science fiction novels that were little more than glorified after-action reports. Then when I was 17, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera novels – character- rather than explosion-driven, hilarious, moving, brilliant* – and I didn’t look back.

 

You can even see my own writing reflect the above trends in my literary tastes, albeit, it seems, with a lag. The first decent story I wrote, back around 2005 or 2006, was a heroic fantasy Tale of High Adventure, set in a world awash in magic and starring a hero who’s stronger, more cunning, and more superpowered than his foes. By late 2008/early 2009, when I wrote the first draft of The First Sacrifice, things had come down to earth. Artorius of Cairbrunn, the main character of The First Sacrifice, might be tough, clever, and a spirit to boot, but he’s decidedly short on superpowers. (To stretch an analogy, Artorius is the Daniel Craig to my earlier imagined Conneries and Moores.)

 

I’m not so sure whether I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, of discovering the good and being unable to return to the mediocre, in other media. Anime went in the opposite direction –  I discovered most of my favourite anime within the first few years after I started watching the medium. While I am unable to enjoy the majority of anime, I think this is more because common anime tropes annoy me than because I’ve been “spoiled” by watching the cream early on. And I don’t really watch enough movies or TV, nor am I sufficiently analytical when I do, to be spoiled for lesser works.

 

Is this phenomenon a blessing or a curse? Often it feels like the latter, when I just can’t find anything that interests me. On the other hand, bypassing the uninspired is what allows us to have time for the truly good. And if being spoiled is the price that must be paid to encounter greatness, well, I think it’s one well worth paying.

 

* You can legally read most of Bujold’s space opera series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga, for free here. Highly recommended if you like space opera at all.

Terraria first impressions: Patience seems to be required

Dig, fight, explore, build! Nothing is impossible in this action-packed adventure game. The world is your canvas and the ground itself is your paint. Grab your tools and go! – official Terraria blurb

 

I picked up Terraria, the 2D Minecraft-alike, over the long weekend, and I’ve spent a little bit of time messing around with it. So far, I can see how this could become either very addictive, or very tedious.

 

My first in-game day was a lot of fun. I knew I had to build shelter before nightfall, when monsters would come out, so that immediately gave the game a source of tension. I hacked down trees, dug away at the earth, and finally threw up a simple house for myself. It was satisfying to plonk each bit of wood down to form a floor, wall and roof, add a door, and build a workbench.

 

The problem became every day after that. Most games are built around offering the player a constant stream of rewards. In Civilization, this means building new farms and mines, researching the wheel or electricity, or completing a Wonder of the World. In RPGs, this consists of levelling up and recovering cool loot. And in Terraria, this consists of obtaining higher-grade ores that I can then use to craft better gear. Unfortunately, so far I’ve found very little in the way of decent ore. I have wood and stone aplenty; and I’ve found crumbs of iron and copper and even gold; but nowhere near enough to feel as though I’m actually making significant progress. So after several in-game days, or possibly even a week, my gear consists of a basic helmet and nothing more intimidating than a wooden sword.

 

Now, this issue undoubtedly arose from my inexperience leading me to “play the game wrong” (I’ve read the wiki and some forum threads, but I’m still very much learning as I go). I seem to be doing a little better now – tonight I found a cavern where I recovered some decent ore. But I was perilously close to boredom before I found that cavern, and I no longer have enough free time to be able to invest significant amounts of time in a game while I wait for it to become fun (or resume being fun). So the jury is still out….

The price of heroism: storytelling in X-Com

This entry is part 5 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.

 

 

Almost every game out there casts the player as a hero: someone who accomplishes great feats in the face of extraordinary odds. By the time we finish, we’ll have vanquished tyrants, terrorists, aliens and ancient evils. But few titles have had gameplay mechanics that convey heroism better than X-Com: UFO Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown), the 1994 strategy game from Microprose where you led a multinational force – soldiers, scientists, pilots and purchasing officers – against an alien invasion. And X-Com managed this without a single line of dialogue or scripted plot event.

 

First, being a squad-level game gave X-Com an immediate advantage: it was built around individual characters. It was individual characters whose stats, ranging from marksmanship to carrying capacity to reaction speed, you pored over at base. It was individual characters whom you controlled in battle, telling this one to take cover behind a wall, while his sergeant prepared a grenade and a tank scouted ahead. It was individuals you named for friends and colleagues (you could freely rename soldiers), individuals who saved the day with lucky shots and well-placed grenades, and individuals whose progress you followed as their stats and kill counts inched higher with every mission.

 

So far, so good. But I could say the same of any RPG, tactical RPG or squad-level game. Thus, while the focus on individual feats was necessary to X-Com’s storytelling appeal, it was not sufficient.  And this was where the “overwhelming odds” part of the formula became important.

 

For in X-Com, those feats came at a terrible cost in lives. Think of any science fiction scene where human soldiers plink away at armoured monstrosities, only to be slaughtered once the aliens open fire; that’s what the start of X-Com felt like, especially when the aliens showed up with heavy weapons. As your technology improved – once your soldiers started bringing home alien guns and grenades for your scientists to reverse-engineer, once your workshops began turning out armour made from the same material as UFO hulls – the situation did grow less dire, and by the endgame, the balance shifted decisively in favour of a human player who brought an “A” squad loaded with the game’s most powerful weapons.

 

Yet that lethality never completely disappeared, because even with the best armour in the game, one (un)lucky shot could still kill. You may have become better at preventing the aliens from ever getting the chance to move and shoot, but your finest marksman, your most seasoned veteran would die as quickly as the raw recruit once the aliens drew a bead on him or her.  As a result, this was one game where it was so tempting to reach for the reload button when something went wrong – but where it was equally rewarding to resist that urge. For it was that sense of overcoming the odds, of bouncing back from slaughter and catastrophe, which made victory in X-Com so sweet.

 

I remember Swordlily the sniper, a key player on my “A” team and one who steadily rose through the ranks. I gave her one of the most accurate weapons I had, and a suit of advanced armour to keep her intact. Then one day, an alien fired a shot right into the transport plane – where she should have been safe, at the far end of the troop compartment – and killed her where she stood.

 

I remember the time three soldiers, the last survivors of their ten-strong squad, straggled across a field to storm a giant UFO by themselves – and won.

 

I remember when the aliens came swarming in to assault an outpost manned by my “B” squad, undergunned and underskilled rookies. A guided missile sped around a corner and right into the midst of my defensive layout, turning half the squad to ash. One survivor, wounded and panicked, dropped her gun. But right opposite her was the less fortunate soldier who had carried my squad’s missile launcher. So on my next turn, once she pulled herself together, I sent her racing out of her hiding spot. Across the hallway she ran. With a few clicks, she grabbed the dead man’s launcher. With a few more, she returned fire with a missile of her own. And it worked. I salvaged that battle and saved the base. Not a bad accomplishment considering the odds – and it rested on one soldier’s courage.

 

If that isn’t a tale of heroism, one that X-Com made possible as so few other games could have done, I don’t know what is.

 

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.

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Episode II: Havoc on the High Seas, Losses in the Low Countries

When we left off with the first instalment of the Empire: Total War multiplayer campaign, Great Britain had held off the French at sea, while on land, the Dutch had driven a mighty French invasion force out of their homeland. What could possibly go wrong for Great Britain? (Wondering what this series of writeups is all about? Here’s the introduction.)

 

Read my  writeup, below, to find out…

 

***

 

The War of the World

 

At the start of the game, I had sent Britain’s shipyards into overdrive producing warships and merchantmen, and that pays off. With the defeat of the French fleet at the end of the first turn, this leaves the Royal Navy – and accompanying British ground forces – free to go on the global offensive, ready to make the world safe for tea, cricket and British trade.

 

Britain's targets in its initial Caribbean offensive

 

Britannia’s might lands most heavily in the Caribbean. The pirates, in their lairs at Antigua in the Leeward Islands and San Jose de Oruna in Trinidad & Tobago, learn that His Majesty’s soldiers do not know the meaning of the word “parley”. The undefended Spanish – formerly French – colony of Martinique surrenders without a shot.

 

To be sure, the Spanish computer player ensures that the naval campaign is not a one-sided affair. The Royal Navy takes its fair share of losses in a series of largely auto-resolved skirmishes in the Caribbean and in the East Indies. But when the smoke clears, the Spanish navy has been driven from the East Indies, leaving British trade fleets free to move in.

 

What’s Spanish for “‘tis only a flesh wound”? The Battle of the Invincible Frigate

 

When the Spanish fleet finally shows up in force in the Caribbean, my luck looks like it’s run out. Against my fifth-rate frigate and sloop, the Spanish have brought a frigate and sloop of their own, plus a galleon that tremendously outguns anything else on the field. My first response is to panic. And then, once the battle starts, I breathe a sigh of relief: the Spanish ships are damaged and missing most of their guns. It’s still not a done deal – even in its weakened state, the galleon is able to blow away my sloop when it strays too close.  Still, the frigate duel is as one-sided as I could have wished. I shoot away the Spanish frigate’s masts, destroy many of its remaining guns, leave its hull blackened and punctured. Yet the crew neither flees nor surrenders in the face of volley after volley of cannon fire. And, to add insult to injury, their morale remains high even as the ship rides lower and lower in the water.

 

The Ship of the Black Knights?

 

I am left wondering, over the in-game chat, what the Spanish sailors are eating for breakfast. It takes the outbreak of fire for the crew to abandon ship, by which time I am convinced that if they had been around 120 years earlier to man the Spanish Armada, history would have taken a very different course.

 

Disaster in the Low Countries (I): Never rely on a computer-controlled ally

 

Back in Europe, though, things don’t go quite as smoothly. When we left off, the French had been repelled at the gates of Amsterdam and John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, was leading a mid-sized force into what is today Belgium. The small Spanish garrison in Brussels falls quickly, and I turn the territory over to the Dutch. I feel well pleased with my raid! While my army doesn’t have the movement points to make it back to the sea on the same turn, I am able to withdraw my army so that it’s close by a friendly, smallish Dutch force. What could possibly go wrong?

 

As it turns out, plenty. The French army – numerically superior, even after its defeat at the walls of Amsterdam – moves in to attack Marlborough. The Dutch computer player, instead of taking up a good defensive position, charges out into the open field, and I follow suit, fearing the piecemeal annihilation of the allied armies. My infantry-short army lacks the numbers to shoot it out with the French, and I botch the timing of a cavalry charge at the French flank. When the dust settles, the British army in Europe is reduced to Churchill, a single artillery battery, and a handful of horsemen who escaped the rout. In an eighteenth-century version of Dunkirk, they slink back across the channel, and with them goes any thought of a quick land victory in Europe for Great Britain.

 

That did not go according to plan

 

Disaster in the Low Countries (II): Le Roi, Jeeeenkins!

 

Still, when the French army follows up on its victory by marching into the Netherlands and laying siege to Amsterdam for the second time, I am less than fazed. True, the Dutch are outgunned – the professional garrison is small, so most of the defenders consist of hastily armed townsfolk.  But as the first battle of Amsterdam showed, even armed civilians can put up a good fight from within the fortresses protecting the city.   “No problem,” I shrug. “I held off the French once, I can do it again.”

 

The turn ends. And the Dutch AI player abandons the shelter of its walls to attack the French.

 

The ill-fated Dutch sally

 

The resulting battle, trained and experienced French soldiers versus the Amsterdam mob on an open field, goes predictably. The best thing about the fight turns out to be a bout of unintentional comedy, when one Dutch regiment, retreating from the massacre, climbs the walls of its own fort to get back inside after the gates refuse to open.

 

Amsterdam falls soon after. And with that, Britain’s strongest ally is now out of the war. (Portugal remains in the fight, but is too far away to threaten France.) With the French in force across the channel – over the coming turns, they march out of Amsterdam and briefly lose control of the city, but retake it soon afterwards – and a mighty Spanish fleet of galleons crawling up towards the English Channel, I’m getting nervous. For all my successes overseas, the European theatre isn’t looking too good for the British Empire…

 

Unfortunately, at this point, we had to switch French players, as PC issues forced Peter Davies, our original France, to drop out of the game.  Stay tuned for the next update!

Frozen Synapse: A good first impression

Over the weekend, I picked up Frozen Synapse, a new, cyberpunk-themed indie squad tactics game, and so far I’m quite impressed.

 

First off, the actual game seems pretty cool. It’s stylish, with its green-and-red outline soldiers, blue backgrounds and futuristic music. It’s minimalist: there are only five unit types in the game. And it’s quick-to-play, due to the extreme speed at which units die off. But the real genius of Frozen Synapse is that turns execute simultaneously: the players input their orders, trying to guess what the other will do, and then they see just how little of their plans survived contact with the enemy (this synergises really well with the lethality of combat; one foe unexpectedly lying in wait can cut down half your squad). As a result, I get the impression that this is one of those “minute to learn, lifetime to master” titles.

 

The second area in which Frozen Synapse has impressed me is its multiplayer. This is one game where the basic concept – trying to anticipate what the other guy will do – is just tailor-made for playing against other humans, and the designers have taken advantage of that. The game’s multiplayer is asynchronous – i.e. players can take their turns at any time, upload them to the server, and load the latest turn when it’s ready – which makes it easier to work around clashing real-life schedules. And the designers were also shrewd enough to integrate a touch of Web 2.0 – at the end of a multiplayer match, there’s a handy button to upload a replay to Youtube.

 

The experience so far hasn’t been flawless. The documentation is practically nonexistent, even by my “never read the manual” standards; I had to visit a forum to find answers to basic questions such as “what are the units good for?” and “who shoots first if two units spot each other? Correction: the game is in fact pretty well documented by the readme file in the game directory. The playerbase is currently split amongst several different servers (which the designers have said is just a stopgap), and the servers themselves have a tendency to go down (for maintenance?) when I’m free to play in the evenings after work. Still, none of these issues has been a game-breaker for me – now I have found answers to my questions, and I could also play the single-player campaign or botmatches.

 

All in all, Frozen Synapse is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of the game’s genre.  Check it out on Steam, Impulse or the developer’s website!

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Episode I: The War Begins (France)

The following post, by Peter Davies (aka Beefeater1980), playing France, is the belated first instalment in the Empire: Total War multiplayer campaign write up! Click here to see what it’s all about.

 

In this episode, Britain and France go to war on the high seas and in the Low Countries. Will one side score a knockout blow early on? Or will the war turn into an early stalemate?

 

Over to PD…

 

***

 

Here they come (Crick! Crack! Bang!), those red-coated, black-booted, musket-toting minions of a mercantile empire, flags waving and cannons bristling. In ETW, Britain has advantages to make a royal weep and hang up his ius primae nocti: unassailable home regions in Europe that can each churn out a land unit or several every turn; high-value ports, ready to knock out those sleek and deadly fifth-rate ships that will demolish the sixth-raters I can build in the time it takes to say ‘Hornblower’; and the most powerful alliance in Europe at its beck and call.

 

Against them stands France and my enviable record of five defeats and no wins against the campaign AI on ‘Normal’. Oh, and Spain as an ally: 10/10 for machismo but, in deference to Real Historical Fact, her glory days are behind her and she will lose interest a few years in, only to spend the rest of the game swigging Sangria and reminiscing about Pizarro and Cortes. Gentlemen, place your bets!

 

And yet. PS may have more and better ships and an invulnerable home base but the British army starts the game small and unimposing: France on the other hand has a solid core of infantry, cavalry and artillery in Europe itself and a huge income from her home regions – after a couple of turns I was pulling in around 8000 income per turn net despite a comprehensive trade blockade. If anyone can save the world from the fate of British hegemony, association football and the expression ‘eff off’, it is La Grande Nation.

 

Empire: Total War - The War Begins

LE PLAN: France is likely to fall behind Britain diplomatically early on, since my fleet is made up of a couple of bathtubs floating in the channel with only three one-eyed gunners between them. Unfortunately, the one thing CA didn’t mess up in programming this game was making the AI a vicious little jerk whose sole aim is to kick hard in the unmentionables the human player it judges to be weakest. Naval strength is a major component of that determination. Left to their own devices, Britain’s AI allies (Portugal, Netherlands and Austria) will declare war on me in the first few turns, leading to a three-front war on sea and land and a very, very short LP.

 

However, I have a cunning plan. Because my position starts uncertain, Peter S (who is a solid strategist) will probably expect me to try for a boom, building a couple of grant continental armies – he’ll never suspect a pre-emptive attack. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds: attacking in turn 1 will force Britain’s scary allies to make a snap decision on whether to join the war at a time when the calculus is more likely to be more favourable to me. This is why my first action in the game is to move my leaky little fleet to attack the nearest British armada, a move which goes swimmingly in the sense that the remains of my navy are now doing the breast-stroke back to Le Havre.

 

Empire: Total War - We are sinking, we are sinking

 

A SHAMEFUL DISPLAY! Over the next couple of turns, PS moves his fleets into both of my northern ports, leaving them smoking ruins. However, what we lose on the swings, we gain on the roundabouts. Austria and Hanover – the only land powers in Britain’s coalition – decided that they had better things to do than get in a bust-up with my army and have said ‘Nein’ to this war.

 

On the home front, while conventional wisdom is to tear down those religious schools as soon as possible and replace them with hotbeds of radical study so as to speed off down the tech tree. I want to see if the additional tax and stability I get from keeping Europe Catholic can outweigh this, so I’m following the Jesuit path for now. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

 

DIPLOMACY: Diplomacy? Diplomacy! I’m worried about protecting my American colonies, since I need all my resources for the struggle in Europe. To get around this, I sell a few of my less wealthy colonies to Spain for 1000 / turn over 10 turns. It’s probably not a great deal, but it’s better than trying to extract income from provinces I can’t reliably hold.

 

Over the next couple of turns, I start my army marching on Amsterdam. My initial plan was to carry out the siege for the full 5 turns, but immediately after deciding to end turn 4, I get a bad case of invader’s regret; now that he’s smashed my fleet, PS probably has an army inbound and, while it’s not going to be as big as France’s, if it catches our force at the walls of Amsterdam, my only army is going to be ground into so much mincemeat. Since I have more artillery than the defenders, I will try an assault next turn, and hope that it it goes badly I’ll have enough of a force intact to hold off a British counterattack until reinforcements get there.

 

Drawn up before the walls of Amsterdam. Imposing, aren’t they.

 

Empire: Total War - The French at the gates of Amsterdam 

 

Onward for France! They charge, they charge…

 

Empire: Total War - Here Come the French

…and they retreat, as natural to my troops as eating frogs and cruelty to geese.

 

Empire: Total War - The French Retreat
So, yeah. That went well. At least the army didn’t get totally smashed. To add insult to injury, as my battered soldiers flee in disarray from the walls of Amsterdam, PS has landed a large army under the command of John Churchill, aka 1st Duke of Marlborough, aka the Mindelheim Murderer, who eats Parisian babies with his morning breakfast and cleans his teeth with toothpicks made from the bones of French grenadiers, to besiege Brussels. I try to console myself with the knowlege that it would have been even worse if the army had attacked while I was besieging Amsterdam, but it doesn’t help.

 

Things are looking bleak for L’Hexagone.

 

Next up, in Episode II, the Royal Navy goes on the offensive around the world  — but closer to home, events proceed a little differently…

Xenonauts, the fan X-Com remake, draws closer to completion

One indie game project I‘ve followed for a while is Xenonauts, essentially a fan remake of one of my favourite games: X-Com (which I played under its UK title of UFO: Enemy Unknown), the strategy game where you led a secret government organisation against an alien invasion. Many of Xenonauts’ bullet points seemed promising, from a backstory tweaked to explain the familiar X-Com starting position, to the addition of a feature I’d always wanted, allied NPC human soldiers. Still, I was cautious. Would the project simply turn out to be vapourware? Even if it did come to fruition, well, X-Com clones generally haven’t been well received.

 

Well, today, I saw a developer diary on PC Gamer that highlights the current state of one of the two main game modes, ground combat – and I was impressed. The basic gameplay – moving your soldiers around, taking cover, shooting it out with aliens, using tanks and rocket launchers as support – is in place, although the art assets aren’t all there and the game balance is still a work in progress. I’m not a huge fan of the tile graphics, but the unit sprites themselves look pretty good. And a glance at the Xenonauts website, which I hadn’t visited in some time, indicates that much of the game’s other key component, the world map, is also in a playable state (for example, air combat, base building, and R&D are all present).

 

The finished product could still fail to work out, but after seeing the latest coverage of Xenonauts, I do have more confidence that it will see the light of day. For fans of the original X-Com, this is one title to keep an eye on as it draws closer to release.

 

(Link to PC Gamer courtesy of No High Scores)

Section 8: Prejudice – First impressions

Over the weekend, I had the chance to spend a few hours playing Section 8: Prejudice (see here for my “looking forward to…” post in which I mentioned the game), and so far I like it quite a bit. Here are some specific thoughts:

 

  • The game’s pacing feels about right. It plays quickly enough to have a joyous, madcap feel, and it doesn’t take long to get into the action. Power-armoured soldiers blaze across the map only to be cut down by in a volley from entrenched defenders, while respawning players take a mere 6-7 seconds to drop down from the sky. That said, the game is also just slow enough for me to keep up.

 

  • I really like how well the game accommodates players like me, who are terrible at the actual running and gunning in shooters. There are plenty of fun things I can do instead – I can indulge my specialty in video games, fortification, by patrolling the base, throwing down turrets in key locations, and repairing defences when necessary. I can equip myself to take out enemy turrets or outposts (which are easier prey than other players…), I can repair teammates’ vehicles, and so on.

 

  • And on that note, one area where I do seem to have an edge on random online players is teamwork and tactics. In one match, I thought I was the only guy who had ever heard the words “repair”, “fortify”, or “convoy”, and it’s a pain when other players capture an objective and charge off to the next one, only for the enemy to waltz back in and recapture the undefended objective. None of this is surprising, but still…

 

  • I also like the ability to call down vehicles as a match progresses. Not only are the vehicles themselves – a hover bike, a mech, and the holy of holies, a tank – pretty cool, but saving up for vehicles gives me something to look forward to.

 

So far, so good…

Total War: Shogun 2 – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

This is the third post in my series on Shogun 2. You can find my early impressions here and my write-up of the game’s diplomacy here.

 

 

Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in Creative Assembly’s grand strategy, conquer-all-before-you franchise, and its core strengths are those of the series as a whole. Play Shogun 2 for making you feel a master strategist as you build cities; develop farms and mines; raise armies and march them across a beautifully drawn map of Sengoku Japan. When those armies meet, play Shogun 2 for making you feel a natural general as your samurai flow across the battlefield with an easy click of the mouse. Play Shogun 2 for the tension as you wonder how long your beleaguered men can hold, and for the thrill of triumph as you tilt the balance with one well-timed charge.

 

But unlike its predecessors, Shogun 2 offers more than that, for this is the game where Creative Assembly applied the lessons learned from earlier missteps. Where previous Total War titles started strong but wore out their welcomes with boring late games, Shogun 2 is about planning and preparing and gathering momentum for a decisive endgame showdown. Where previous Total War titles were aptly named because diplomacy was so dysfunctional, Shogun 2 makes diplomacy not only viable, but a vital part of the preparation for that showdown. Where previous Total War titles were buggy and often crash-prone, Shogun 2 seems much more stable. Where previous Total War titles suffered from risibly inept AI, Shogun 2’s computer opponent appears more capable (though it still sends generals on suicidal cavalry charges, while failing to repair ships). Last but not least, where it was painful to keep track of a growing empire in previous Total War titles, Shogun 2 offers a far more user-friendly and better-documented experience.

 

In technical terms, then, Shogun 2 is a very good strategy game, one from which other developers could learn, and one that benefits from being built upon the foundations of previous mistakes. It even nails pacing and diplomacy, two elements that strategy games struggle to get right. The question of whether it is a great game is more subjective. As a game, Shogun 2 is so much better implemented than Empire: Total War that it makes me sad for the wasted potential in the latter, but I will still cherish how Empire brought to life a pivotal historical period and the real-world importance of seapower. Shogun 2 sheds no such light for me, but this is more a function of my own interests* rather than being any fault of the game’s. All in all, I would recommend Shogun 2 to any strategy gamer (especially one interested in the Sengoku era!) who would like to see the series’ core mechanics at their most refined.

 

*  While I am interested in Shogun 2’s subject matter, the Sengoku era in Japan, I am even more interested in Empire: Total War’s scope and subject matter: the Enlightenment, the wars of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the modern world.

 

You can buy Total War: Shogun 2 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.

 

 

The basis of my review

 

 

Length of time spent with Shogun 2: Roughly 29-30 hours’ playtime (adjusted for time spent away from the keyboard).

 

What I have played: Two short campaigns (one aborted as the Oda, one won as the Shimazu), two historical battles, several custom battles, several “classic mode” multiplayer battles.

 

What I haven’t played: The avatar conquest multiplayer mode, the multiplayer campaign.

Total War? Only for the undiplomatic: the lessons of Shogun 2

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Update: You can find my verdict on Shogun 2 here.

Total War: Shogun 2: A diplomatic victory, but not in the way you’d think

I’ve now finished the Total War: Shogun 2 campaign (short length, Hard campaign difficulty and Normal battle difficulty, playing as the Shimazu), and I can update one of my earlier impressions. In my previous post, I mentioned that getting too close to the finish line would trigger “realm divide” – a final showdown, with “almost every single computer player in the game [declaring] war” on the human.  It turns out this is not quite correct: even after realm divide I was able to stay on good terms with several allies both large and small. How did I pull this off?

You see, realm divide’s effect is indirect – it works by lowering the human player’s relationship with the AI  players. This negative modifier is big to begin with, and grows turn after turn after turn (there is a cap, but it’s ridiculously large). When that relationship becomes sufficiently negative, the computer will declare war1.

The trick, then, is to pile on every positive modifier possible. Research techs (such as the tea ceremony) that grant a bonus to diplomacy, and keep your daimyo’s honour high so everyone will be more fond of you. Then bribe your chosen buddies to get the ball rolling. Once they’ll agree to it, wed their daughters (or vice-versa) for another, large positive modifier. Strike an alliance for a further boost to relations. Exchange hostages – in my case, an eight-year-old grandson – for yet another boost. And for good measure, declare war on their current enemies (you’ll fight them anyway once the realm divides) for a final bonus.

The net effect: I never had to take on more than a handful of enemy factions, and the ones I did fight were usually busy with wars on other fronts as well! Good relationships bought me the time to win the game before my allies, too, turned on me.  In other words, diplomacy made the final war manageable before I fired the first shot. That is how it should work in a game like this.

How Shogun 2’s diplomacy stacks up to other games

Seeing diplomacy done properly in Shogun 2 underscores how weak it was in the previous Total War games. Afterwards, I loaded up Empire: Total War – from 2009, just two years ago – to compare the available diplomatic options, and boy, has Shogun 2 come a long way since then. Empire has barely any tools I can use to influence a relationship – I can give gifts, I can return land, and, uh, that’s about it – and the options which are there, in my experience, do not work nearly so well as they do in Shogun 2. Suicidal computer players, ahoy!

Shogun 2 also showed up the weakness in the diplomatic system of another game, one you might not immediately think of: Civilization V. Its predecessor, Civ IV, is much like Shogun 2 in that it provides plenty of ways to butter up a computer player, from trade to missionaries and shared faith to open borders. Civ V is a big step back from that. It offers a bare handful of ways to influence a relationship (I can sign “declarations of friendship”, denounce people I don’t like, and… what else?); those features present are poorly documented; and the computer’s attitude can feel infuriatingly random. This was not helped by a design decision to make diplomacy feel more like interacting with other humans – who are explicitly out to win, who are harder to read, and who are more prone to treachery – and less like the application of a game system. Firaxis undid some of the damage in a patch that allowed you to see some of the factors underlying the computer’s attitude, but the lack of diplomatic tools remains. The overall result, as I wrote around Christmas 2010, is an unpleasant throwback to Civ I, a game that’s 20 years old this year.

In contrast, Shogun 2 does appear to owe something to another game renowned for its diplomacy: Galactic Civilizations II, the 2006 4X game from Stardock. I only played a moderate amount of GalCiv2, but I did observe that like Civ IV and Shogun 2, it offered plenty of tools to influence relationships – including techs that conferred a bonus to diplomacy, an idea that Shogun 2 may well have picked up from here.

What makes Shogun 2’s diplomacy work – lessons for other strategy games

What underpins the successful diplomacy in Shogun 2 is the clear link between investment and payoff. In an RPG, if I spend points on my speech skill, that visibly pays off when I unlock new dialogue options. In Shogun 2, if I spend my money raising an army, that visibly pays off when I take my new recruits and use them to conquer my neighbour. And in Shogun 2, if I spend my money on bribes/gifts to other factions, my in-game time researching the tea ceremony when I could be researching gunpowder, and my real-world time messing around in diplomacy screens, that visibly pays off in a secure border and healthy profits from trade.

In turn, this is the result of both successful design and execution. From a design perspective, Shogun 2 provides players with a whole menu of options, most of which involve a tradeoff of some kind (the “investment” part of the equation), while making it very difficult to take on everyone at once in the endgame, especially in the absence of trade income (the “payoff” part of the equation). And from an execution standpoint, these tools work because the diplomatic AI in Shogun 2 is not – at least, in my experience so far – the spiteful and bloody-minded brute that it is in so many other games. Offer a good enough deal, and it will accept. Treat it well enough, and it will be your staunch ally for years.

The benefits to gameplay are real. Good in-game diplomacy means less whack-a-mole, more choices, more strategy. More intangibly, it contributes to immersion and suspension of disbelief. RPGs have party members and non-violent quest solutions, adventure games and shooters have sidekicks and snappy dialogue, Gondor had Rohan, and strategy games should have proper alliances. If even so martial a game as Shogun 2 can succeed here, then other strategy games should follow suit and offer us the rewards of jaw-jaw.

  1. I believe, but do not know for a fact, that realm divide makes the computer more willing to go to war when the relationship is negative (whereas pre-realm divide, a computer player that hates my guts may be more willing to keep the peace). This is conjecture, though, based on how quickly the computer is willing to attack, post realm-divide, once the relationship becomes low enough.

Shogun 2 impressions: THIS is a difficulty spike

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

EDIT: I’ve since won the Shogun 2 campaign! You can find my updated views on diplomacy here, and my verdict on Shogun 2 here.

 

 

A while back I declared that I’d hold off buying Shogun 2, but in the end, positive reviews and word of mouth, even from skeptics of the series, were enough to change my mind. I’ve now played an abortive campaign as the Oda on Normal, and I’m in the early-to-midgame of a Shimazu campaign on Hard. What are my impressions the game now that I’ve had the chance to play the full version?

 

For starters, two points were quick to jump out at me:

 

1. Shogun 2 is much more user-friendly than its predecessors: Compared to the earlier games, Shogun 2’s interface makes it much easier to keep track of your empire. In Shogun 2, a handy panel on the right-hand side of the screen that allows you to quickly jump to any army, province, fleet, and so on (a little bit like the information panel in Europa Universalis III). Previously, you had to open up separate menus to access this information; now, not only is it more convenient to access, it makes it much easier to hop between locations on the map. And Shogun 2 also makes an effort to better document itself: the various unit blurbs and statistics are now collated in the in-game encyclopaedia.

 

2. The diplomatic AI lives on the same planet as the player (on Normal difficulty): One issue endemic to strategy games is computer players that just will not say die. Their armies can be shattered, their homelands aflame; no matter, when you drag them to the negotiating table, they’ll demand your firstborn. But my Oda game was an overdue exception – if I beat a rival clan badly enough, they’d come to me begging for peace, and once I was even able to use diplomacy to demand a beaten clan become my vassal. I am not sure, however, whether the diplomatic AI is always sensible on the higher difficulty levels; in my Hard Shimazu game, AI players have a stubborn tendency to outright refuse (without even making counter-offers!) to sign trade agreements with me. (That said, even on Hard, the AI will surrender when it knows it’s beaten.)

 

And as I played more of the game, a more fundamental difference jumped out at me. My standard gripe with the Total War games – again, as with many other strategy games – is that they’re challenging for a few turns, then I break out of my starting position and snowball until I grow bored and quit.  Shogun 2 changes this formula in two ways: it’s both shorter and sharper.

 

3. In Shogun 2, the short campaign really does seem short: The short campaign requires the player to conquer 25 provinces, including Kyoto – and in about five or six hours of play as the Oda (and auto-resolving trivial battles), I wasn’t far off from the 20-province mark. I think that a skilful player, on Normal, could finish the short campaign over a single weekend, which is a pleasant change from long slogfests. However, in order to finish, you’d have to survive the endgame. And that leads me to my next point….

 

4. This game is the textbook example of a “difficulty spike”: All too rare in grand strategy games, Shogun 2 finishes with a bang rather than a fizzle. This is how my Oda campaign, on normal, compares to the other Total War games I’ve played:

 

Shogun 2 - the difficulty spike is not an exaggeration
Shogun 2 - the difficulty spike is not an exaggeration

 

Remember the win condition in the short campaign is to capture 25 provinces including Kyoto? Well, when you draw too near to victory by capturing 20-odd provinces (the precise number can vary) or Kyoto, that is Shogun 2’s “crossing the Rubicon” moment. This triggers a “realm divide” event that will make almost every single computer player in the game declare war on you. Allies, trade partners, neutrals, formerly subservient vassals, even clans all the way on the other end of Japan – all of them will soon be at your throat. UPDATE – I have corrected this observation; refer to my post on the game’s diplomacy.

Now, from a thematic perspective, I like this a lot, for the same reason that I liked the noble lords dashing for the capital at the end of an old strategy game, Emperor of the Fading Suns. From a game structure perspective, I like this, too – I’ve argued before that games should build to a climax, and showdowns don’t come much more climactic than Player vs Everyone Else.

But a clever difficulty spike is still a difficulty spike. My Oda game went from “pushover” to “unwinnable” in the blink of an eye, as armies attacked me on every front. I had been able to coast up until that point; my fortifications were pretty minimal and my armies largely consisted of ashigaru zerg swarms, but they worked. By the time realm divide rolled around, I was complacent. Boy, did the actual endgame come as a nasty shock after that. Given that I did complain about the series’ tendency to have “a drawn-out, grindy and ultimately boring late game”, maybe this was a case of “be careful what you wish for”…

 

So far, the game is promising enough for me to keep playing. This time, with the Shimazu, I intend to dig in and tech up as much as I can before realm divide sets in. I’ve set the campaign length to “short”, this time, so the game should end on a high note with the realm divide showdown. And I’m looking forward to that, even after the hammering I took the first time. Finally, a challenge worthy of the name “Total War”!

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Introduction

The Total War series of PC strategy games does not dream small. Players choose a nation – a sweeping empire, ambitious upstart republic, barbarian horde, or anything in between – and set out to conquer all before them. On the games’ strategic map, players move around armies, spies, and generals; form new alliances and break outdated ones; and sink their money into economic development or raising fresh troops. When those armies clash, the game swoops down to put the players in control of a 3D battlefield showing hundreds or thousands of men at a time, charging, fighting, dying, fleeing. Set in periods such as the late classical world (Rome: Total War), Sengoku Japan (Shogun: Total War), and the Middle Ages (Medieval: Total War), the games wear a veneer of history, but ultimately they are not about accurately representing the past. They are about bringing toy-soldier childhood play to thrilling life.

 

The series’ ambition reached its zenith in Empire: Total War (my writeup here). Set in the 1700s – a century which started with a war over who should become king of Spain, and culminated with the American and French revolutions – Empire propelled the series into the age of gunpowder. And instead of tasking the player with the conquest of Europe or Japan, Empire broadened its scope to the whole world. In Empire, players can fight in three main theatres (Europe, North America, and the Indian subcontinent) and send ships to four lesser ones (the coasts of Brazil, West Africa, and the East Indies, and the straits of Madagascar). British redcoats can square off not just against French regulars in the fields of Flanders, but Iroquois warriors in the Thirteen Colonies, Maratha cavalry in India, or those same French in Quebec. Empire also plunges into naval warfare, allowing players to command their ships in battle and using overseas trade as a carrot to reward players for achieving command of the seas.

 

Unfortunately, Empire has a particularly noticeable Achilles’ heel. As with many other strategy games, the computer player cannot keep up with a human over the course of the campaign*.

 

The option to play the campaign in multiplayer alleviates this problem.

 

And this is what Peter Davies, aka beefeater1980 (edit: later replaced by Shane Murphy, aka Talorc), and I are doing. Each of us manages his respective kingdom and commands his troops and ships on the battlefield. And the way the Empire multiplayer campaign works, each time one human player fights a battle against a computer player, the other player is given the chance to take over for the computer. The result should be a game that’s exciting and epic in equal measure, and so far, it has lived up to our hopes.

 

The game: Empire: Total War.

 

The rules: The winner of the game will be determined by Prestige, which as far as we can tell is awarded for researching certain technologies, and building fancy public buildings ranging from infrastructure to palaces. We have set the campaign difficulty to Hard (which gives a boost to the computer players) and the battle difficulty to Normal.

 

The two sides: Peter Sahui (PS) as Britain (that’s me!). Peter Davies (PD) and later Shane Murphy as France.

 

Our game begins in 1700; historically, this was the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession. Great Britain** is allied to Portugal, the Netherlands, Austria and Hannover. France is allied to Spain. Britain controls the British Isles, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Prince Rupert’s Land; France controls metropolitan France, the Windward Isles and what, today, is eastern Canada. Each of us also has certain American possessions represented by a computer-controlled ally: the Thirteen Colonies for me, Louisiana for the French. Geography presents several obvious potential flashpoints for the two powers. But while conflict is inevitable, when it will break out, and the form it will take, are not set in stone.

 

And now, over to France…

 

 

* Based on my personal experience playing as the British in single-player.

** In real life, England and Scotland did not come together to form Great Britain until the Act of Union in 1707;  however, the game represents them under the British banner from the start.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

“Hi Peter,

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Total War: Shogun 2 – Demo thoughts

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Pricing Niche Strategy Games: Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Appendix: Product pricing, sales revenue, and profit


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Crusader Kings: Even medieval morality has its limits

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

 

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

 

Uh oh.

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Uh-oh again. They were furious.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

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2010 is so 1991: thoughts on Civilization V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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