Another Ambitious Space Game: Shores of Hazeron

Last week, I mentioned Artemis, the starship bridge simulator. This week, I present another ambitious space game, spotted by DocLazy at the Quarter to Three forums. Shores of Hazeron seems to be a first-person cross between SimCity, Master of Orion, Wing Commander and Dwarf Fortress. You design, build, and skipper spaceships, land on planets and explore them in first person, and build the cities that fuel your interstellar jaunts. The game’s ambition impresses and intimidates me at the same time.

For example, consider the amount of work needed just to get into space if you opt to start your own empire.  First you need to hunt animals or gather plant fibres to craft your imperial flag. Then you need to build a city, mine stone, lay roads, set up farms, wait for citizens to move in… Eventually you bootstrap your way to an aircraft factory where you can build a space rocket. Mission accomplished! Or… not. Because if you want to build a proper starship, you have to gather two types of handwavium. And to do that, you need to jump into your primitive rocket ship, explore your home star system, and build a moon base to harvest the handwavium. After that, you will finally have the resources you need for spacecraft. Spaceward, ho!

You can see why I don’t have the time to jump in right now. That said, I still look forward to giving Shores of Hazeron a try after my holiday. Anything that sounds this cool on paper is worth a try!

(By the way, speaking of Artemis, the full game costs $60 but you can get a copy free if you send the designer a video recording of yourself and your buddies playing the demo. The media page is regularly updated with the latest videos, too. So if you have a buddy or five who’d like fifteen minutes of fame…)

Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?

 

Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.

 

There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.

 

Firstly, as mentioned in the Three Moves Ahead podcast: at the scale at which 4X games (and probably most other strategy games) take place, you never come face to face with your victims. Nowhere is the saying that “one death is a tragedy, but a million are a statistic” truer than in gaming. Any RPG worth its salt will drive home the consequences of your evil actions, whether they be acts of mass murder such as detonating a nuclear bomb or planting a biological weapon, or “merely” kidnapping a baby. But in Civilization, an atrocity really is just a statistic. In Civilization IV, there’s a civic (social system) named “Slavery” which allows you to speed up a city’s construction by sacrificing population. You can probably imagine what this means in human terms: overseers flogging slaves bloody, monuments rising in the background as exhausted and half-starved labourers breathe their last. In game terms? Your city’s population goes down by a few points. The same goes for wars of aggression and dispossession.

 

Conversely, the squad-level strategy games (X-Com) and tactical RPGs (Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy Tactics) do not have this problem, at least when it comes to your own soldiers. In these games, instead of a vast empire, you only control a few, very distinct characters at one time. As a result, you grow attached to your soldiers. You’ll move heaven and earth to rescue an injured member of your squad, sometimes even at the expense of your objectives (as memorably described here by Rob Zacny). If all else fails, there is always the “reload” button, and I assure you I’m not the only one who abuses that. Feeling bad for leading my soldiers to their deaths in TRPGs resembles agonising over moral choices in RPGs, but is far removed from gleeful conquest sprees in 4X games. And that is a direct consequence of the scale of each of these genres.

 

Secondly, strategy games (and 4X games) are usually zero-sum. The game runs for a finite time before coming to an end, and ultimately there can be only one winning player or team. If my rival in Civilization IV is close to winning the space race, and thus, the game, it is in my interest to unleash a barrage of nuclear missiles to slow down his/her progress. The folly of this approach in real life is obvious. But in Civilization, I don’t care how much suffering I cause so long as I meet my victory conditions, because then the game will be over. This also applies to domestic policy. Because strategy games, unlike real life, are not open-ended, the well-being of my citizens is irrelevant except insofar as I enjoy playing a benevolent ruler, or to the extent that it contributes to my win.

 

Thirdly, crime, in this context, does pay. The size of a national economy in real life is determined by factors including the amount of labour employed (how many people have jobs and how many hours are they working?), the amount of capital employed (what tools, plant and infrastructure are they using?), and, crucially, the productivity of each hour worked and of each dollar of capital (one person with modern machinery can probably do the work of 100 Bronze Age labourers; bridges to nowhere might cost a lot, but they don’t contribute much to productivity). Games, though, tend to make raw population the most important metric, and they tie the population an empire can support to how much territory it controls. This has many consequences for the way in which they model reality, some of which I’ll discuss in future posts. But for current purposes, the key implication is that if a larger nation is richer, more successful, and ultimately more likely to win the game, then I have an incentive to gobble up as many neighbours as I can in a quest for Lebensraum (subject to any checks and balances in the game, such as badboy/infamy in Europa Universalis or corruption/upkeep in Civilization).

 

In conclusion, several things explain why we so often resort to conquest, aggression, slavery, and tyranny in strategy (especially 4X) games. Saying “it’s just a game” is no answer, because it fails to explain why we play other genres that offer moral choice, such as RPGs, more humanely than we play strategy games. And just because these things happened in real life, and they are presented as options in the game, doesn’t itself explain why we then choose those options. But we can point to other factors that do answer that question: we choose them when our victims are depersonalised and reduced to numbers on a map screen; when the game has a definite end, so we don’t have to worry about ongoing or long-term consequences so long as we win; and when aggression does, in fact, make it easier to win because the game’s economic model places territory and population foremost in determining national power.

 

Do these factors set our behaviour in stone, then? Not necessarily. Each can be addressed by other genres, and even by merely changing the way we design grand strategy and 4X games. Depersonalisation is not an issue with squad-level strategy and tactical RPGs, and even when the game takes place at a scale where we never encounter individuals, developers can try to make us aware of the toll of our actions – that is my limited understanding of Introversion Software’s DEFCON. The players don’t care about anything except victory? I would think that ongoing games, such as MMOs, would require a more long-term attitude – and even though most games can’t be ongoing, why not set up a scoring system to give bonus points to happy, well-managed empires (Civilization actually does this), or to players who refrain from wars of aggression? Your economic model encourages territorial expansionism? Play up the role of technology, institutions, governance and human capital to reward players who invest in nation-building as opposed to nation-grabbing. For the player of a strategy game (particularly a 4X game), power often corrupts. But by understanding why, we can design games so as to reduce that temptation, provide players with more interesting choices – and encourage them to build empires that deserve to stand the test of time.

 

 

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

Another game joins the backlog: AI War

Since Arcen Games’ AI War, which I’ve previously mentioned, is currently 50% off at Steam and Impulse, I took the plunge and bought a copy. I’m still in the midst of the tutorial, but one look at the game’s very extensive wiki is enough to make me look forward to getting the chance to play.

 

I also really like the game’s conceit: you, the human playing against the computer, are in fact leading the remnants of humanity against a mighty empire of AIs. And while initially your rag-tag forces are simply too small for the AIs to notice, progressing through the game by seizing territory, destroying AI installations or building superweapons will make the AIs progressively more and more alarmed and hence, more and more lethal. Thus, the game becomes about trade-offs: conquer just enough territory to give yourself the resources you need to fight the AIs, but don’t run so wild that the AIs wake up and squash you like a pancake. This seems to me to be a pretty nifty way of fusing gameplay mechanics with the game’s subject matter, and I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

Storytelling in Games: “What’s it all about?” Or, the importance of gameplay mechanics

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

“What’s the story all about?”

 

At its heart, every story or creative work comes down to that deceptively simple question. Deceptively, because “what a story is about” encompasses many things:

 

  • It includes the capsule summary: “Star Wars is a space opera about a dreamy kid who turns out to be the saviour of the galaxy.” “Yes, Minister is about a British politician who’s constantly thwarted by his chief civil servant.”

 

  • It includes the general feel of the work: “Band of Brothers is about what it would be like to be a US paratrooper in World War 2.” “The Black Company is about what it would be like to be a foot soldier in a world dominated by immortal wizards.”

 

  • And it includes theme, the central ideas that underpin the story: “Fallout 3 is a game about sacrifice.” “Lord of the Rings is about the ability of power to corrupt; and the fading of beauty from the world; and that even after the defeat of evil, the world will never be the same again.” Or, to return to an earlier example, “Yes, Minister is about the grubby little compromises needed in order to stay in power; and what a weak thing human nature is.”

 

Ultimately, “what it’s about” is what the reader, viewer or player takes away from the experience once it’s all over. It is the sum of plot and characterisation and worldbuilding and prose, motifs and messages – and, relevantly, gameplay mechanics. And this is the big strength of games as a storytelling medium: it adds a new layer to the experience.

 

To be sure, gameplay can’t provide plot or dialogue. And it’s not a panacea: sometimes it works at cross-purposes to other aspects of the storytelling experience. In his twopart series, “Theme is Not Meaning”, Soren Johnson gives some examples: while Civilization is ostensibly a game about history, its mechanics are as far removed from history as you can get. Civilisations can instigate a neat revolution on command to shake up their social systems; while rise and fall are replaced by static borders that only change in response to external invasion. The net effect, to quote Soren: “… the games mechanics tell us less about world history than they do about what it would be like to be part of a league of ancient gods, who pit their subjects against each other for fun.

 

But consider what gameplay can do, when it does work together with the rest of the game’s narrative elements:

 

  • Gameplay can be used to flesh out characters: in Valkyria Chronicles, Marina the loner sniper will sometimes take a penalty if she’s too close to fellow squaddies, while ladies’ man Salinas can receive bonuses from being near female comrades. How well would I have remembered those two minor characters had their personality quirks not had in-game effects?

 

  • Gameplay excels at worldbuilding: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior showed us what a post-apocalyptic world would look like, but it’s even more effective to discover that world for ourselves by wandering around in Fallout 3, being poisoned by radiation with each gulp of water we drink; and reading the journal of a nurse dying from radiation sickness after the bombs fell, or the notes of a man who resorted to slave labour in his hunger to rebuild civilisation.

 

  • Gameplay is, I think, second to none at creating a “feel” or “mood”: we may read epic, high-magic fantasy novels, but to get the experience of being a warlord in one of their worlds, nothing beats playing Dominions 3. Star Control 2 (aka The Ur-Quan Masters) captures the experience of being an space captain, boldly going where no explorer has gone before, in a way that a book or a TV series or a movie can’t.

 

  • Gameplay can even bring across theme: UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense is a game about sacrifice and struggle in the face of an overwhelming foe.

 

In short, gameplay is one of the most powerful storytelling tools around. In response to the original question, “So, what’s the story all about?”, for any other medium, we would point to the experience created by words and images and sounds. When the mechanics of a game are at their best, we should point to the experience created by words and images and sounds… and to what we actually did.

 

To quickly find this, or other posts in my Storytelling in Games series, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Calling all wannabe starship bridge officers! Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator

Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator is one of the more entertaining game ideas I’ve seen in some time. Six players get together around a LAN, with each player taking on a specific starship bridge officer role: Weapons, Communications, Science (sensors), Engineering, Helm or Captain. You can see gameplay videos here.

 

I also love the developer’s explanation as to why this game was designed for LAN, not internet, play:

 

I always wanted the players to be in one room together, just like a spaceship bridge. I want the captain to be able to push the helmsman aside and shout “Full power, DAMN you!!!”

 

Give it a look if you’re a space opera fan!

Fallout 3 finished – time to rummage around in the backlog once more!

After 80 hours, I finished Fallout 3 last night. While I can see why people were angry with the ending in its original state, those flaws didn’t detract from what I liked about it. I’ve put the postgame content added by the Broken Steel DLC to one side, though, as I’m all Fallenout for now. Over the next week or two, I plan to write up why I liked Fallout 3 so much as a storytelling experience; watch this space!

 

Now I’m wondering what to move onto next. I have a bunch of other RPGs in my backlog: I didn’t get very far into either Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs the Soulless Army (PS2) or Dragon Age (PS3). And I ran into analysis paralysis during chargen with the last non-Fallout Western RPGs I tried to play: Mass Effect (PC) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (PC). Then there are the non-RPGs (for instance, I still haven’t played the original Bioshock), novels, TV and movies, non-fiction… well, the beauty of a backlog is that it’s better to have too much choice rather than too little!

Fallout 3: So near and yet so…

I haven’t yet finished Fallout 3, but I love the game. It is one of my favourite games of all time, and so when I came home today, I was eager to proceed with the main story questline. The ending, I thought, looked tantalisingly close.

 

Imagine my reaction when the game repeatedly crashed to desktop after one story scene. I adjusted my graphics up, I adjusted my graphics down, I turned mods off, and I turned them on again. I reset my key bindings, verified the integrity of local files on Steam, waited in-game, cleared the cache. And each time, the game crashed. Perhaps making matters worse, the game was generally pretty solid for me until now.

 

Now, I was lucky enough to find, via the Google cache, a thread on a dead forum in which someone worked out how to use the console commands to bypass the problematic segments. But I think I understand exactly how Tom Chick felt in this review of Fallout: New Vegas.

When losing in games is NOT fun

One of these days, I will write about losing in games and how to make it fun. But for now, I will just say, I know when it isn’t fun: when the player feels cheated out of victory. This is probably a major part of why I cannot compensate for bad AI in games simply by dialling up the difficulty level to give the computer bigger and bigger bonuses. It also explains why the outcome of my latest game of Sins of a Solar Empire aroused such fury in me.

 

I had set up a 1v1 game against a Cruel AI — the second-hardest difficulty level, which gives the AI plenty of bonuses. I had finally destroyed the bulk of the AI fleet by luring it close to a mighty starbase… then triggering the self-destruct. Now the initiative was mine. My fleets drove back the AI. My coffers were filling. My research led me towards the Novalith Cannon, a superweapon that could level the computer’s worlds from across the map. After two-and-a-half hours and numerous setbacks, I knew I had finally turned the corner.
Then out of the blue, a message popped up that the AI had won a diplomatic victory (based on reaching a certain threshold of “diplomacy points”, which are awarded based on a player’s relations with the other players in the game).

 

A diplomatic victory? In a 1v1 game where we’d been doing our best to slaughter each other the whole time???


I reloaded. Looked more carefully at the relationship screen. I saw the AI was, indeed, getting diplomacy points from positive relationships. How on earth was the AI getting that from me, though? I hovered the cursor over my portrait.

 

“AI Relationship Bonus: +10”.

 

In other words, the massive AI Relationship Bonus (presumably due to the high difficulty level) meant I’d have to race the clock to beat the AI before it racked up enough diplomacy points to win.

 

On any objective reading, the fault was mine for not turning off diplomatic victories (because I thought they’d be redundant in a 1vs1 game) and for not realising the significance of the AI Relationship Bonus. Yet I still felt enraged and robbed of victory. And my experience, I think, underscores what Sid Meier and Soren Johnson have said about human players tending to feel cheated when a game or a die roll goes against them (see this write-up of Sid Meier’s GDC 2010 address, and Soren Johnson on randomness and cheating AIs).

Arcen Games: a sobering reminder of the expenses involved in indie game development

Last week I wrote about Recettear’s sales figures, which, on my assumptions, would have pulled in revenue of ~US$500,000. However, expenses would be pure guesswork. Today’s post serves as a sober counterpoint. According to this PC Gamer article, “AI War and the Hidden Cost of Indie Games”, Arcen Games, developer of RTS AI War and puzzler Tidalis, is having difficulty bringing in enough to pay the bills. Here are some highlights, extracted from Chris Park of Arcen’s email to PC Gamer:

 

2010-thru-April

Total income for Arcen during this period was $101,401.38

Total expense for Arcen during this period was $91,314.76, including paying staff and myself, acquiring new licenses and technologies (Unity 3D, and some sound software, etc), legal fees for contract negotiation, payroll taxes, health insurance, site hosting, all that stuff…

  • May $19,085.06 income, $12,684.28 expense
  • June $17,233.70 income, $26,434.89 expense (a fair chunk of this was taxes)
  • July $6,956.48 income, $18,243.52 expense
  • August $13,847.02 income, $18,682.68 expense
  • September $13,395.42 income, (not full data yet, but expenses looks to be about the same but a little lower than August)

 

Note the apparent rebound in August is not, in fact, like-for-like: Arcen’s second game, Tidalis, launched in that time, while sales for its first, AI War, softened in July.

 

However, there is one question lingering in my mind. From the sound of the article, Arcen’s labour costs are highly variable: it pays the staff in royalties rather than wages. So what are the other costs? Arcen mentions a few:

 

  • Taxes;
  • Licence fees (“Unity 3D, and sound software”);
  • Health insurance;
  • Site hosting;
  • Legal costs involved in striking publisher deals;
  • MacOS machines for development;

 

I wonder how much these various costs ran to, and what the implications for other indie game developers are. (As a localiser rather than a developer, my first impression is that Carpe Fulgur must have a lower cost base than Arcen, but I could well be wrong.)

 

In any case, I am downloading the demos for AI War and Tidalis as I write this. Check out the demos if they sound interesting to you!

Sea power in strategy games: How to ensure it’s not an oxymoron

By now I must have played the Civilization games for sixteen or seventeen years, but never did I see an armada to match that in my latest game, over the weekend. Multiple stacks, each consisting of several to half-a-dozen modern warships, destroyers and battleships and carriers, lay massed off my shores. It was a splendid sight.

There was one slight problem: It wasn’t my fleet.

And I felt rather like the German major from the Longest Day, who, upon seeing the Allied fleet poised to invade Normandy, howls to a disbelieving superior that there must be “five thousand ships out there!

But the really odd thing isn’t just that fleets that large are a rare sight in Civilization. It’s that fleets that large are so often a moot point in Civilization, where on the map types I play (balanced, continents, Terra), control of the seas is often just not that important. This made me think: How does a strategy game designer ensure that sea power is worthwhile, that it isn’t an oxymoron? And what factors influence this?

Geography is the first and most obvious. If I’m fighting someone on the same continent in Civilization IV, investing in an amphibious landing force, and warships to protect it, has little point when I can just drive my tanks straight across the border. You can contrast, say, Europa Universalis, where the European powers have to invest in navies to protect their overseas colonies from one another.

But there is a second factor: how well does the game represent the importance of sea lanes to trade and communication? My example here is Empire: Total War, which modelled this in two ways. Much of your income comes from trade, and firstly, this often travels along defined sea routes. Put a ship astride your enemy’s route, and you can seriously harm his/her war chest. And second, certain spots on the map allow you to park lucrative “trade ships”. Again, hunt down your rivals’ trade ships (or just interdict their routes), and you will hit them where it hurts.

The third factor I can think of is the ability of navies to project power inland. This is best seen in any game where warships can bombard distant targets: plenty of RTSses, but Total Annihilation is the one that sticks in my mind; Advance Wars; even Civilization V (going by descriptions I’ve heard). When you can flatten wide swathes of territory from the sea, navies become important.

These are factors I’d like to see more strategy games play up. Warships are inherently cool, hence all the documentaries about aircraft carriers. Particularly for a historical or quasi-historical game, they add a lot to the flavour of the period. And they give players one more choice to juggle: do I invest in ships now at the expense of an army and infrastructure? It behoves designers to ensure that choice is an interesting one.

Congratulations to EasyGameStation and Carpe Fulgur on Recettear’s sales figures

Update, 3 January 2010: Recettear sells over 100,000 copies. My latest post here.

 

Carpe Fulgur, the company which localised EasyGameStation’s Recettear (see my two earlier posts), has announced Recettear has sold over 26,000 copies in the last month. I’d been wondering how well the game had sold after launch (before launch, I remember it was at #4 or #5 on Steam at one point), and I’m really glad to hear it remains successful.

In fact, Carpe Fulgur’s website says Recettear brought in enough money to allow “all of [Carpe Fulgur’s] members to make wages comparable to “proper” jobs in the industry for an entire year”. What does this mean in dollar terms? Out of interest, I crunched a few numbers:

I assume half (13,000) paid the pre-order price of $18, and half paid full price ($20). This produces revenue of (13,000*$18) + ($13,000*20) = $234,000 + $260,000 = $494,000.
I then assume that EasyGameStation and the distributors each take one-third, leaving Carpe Fulgur with gross profit of $494,000 * (1/3) = $164,667.

Now, I have no idea what kind of expenses (other than salaries) would have to be paid out of that revenue. However, I understand that the Carpe Fulgur team members have no office and worked from home, in which case expenses would probably be pretty minimal. Carpe Fulgur’s legal structure is an LLC, which — if I’ve understood the IRS website correctly — means it’s not a taxable entity, so taxes would be paid by the individual members.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there are no expenses beneath the gross profit line. And as our last assumption, let’s say that Carpe Fulgur splits its profits equally between its three members. That gives us a figure of $54,889 per member of Carpe Fulgur.

That is, in fact, a pretty neat sum (of which I’d say they deserve every penny). This has to bode well for our chances of seeing EasyGameStation’s next project, Territoire, in English!

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale — The Verdict

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the demo of a game named Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (please see the initial post for the game’s premise). I’ve now spent around ten hours with the demo + full game, and my verdict is, this was a great diversion, albeit with a finite shelf life.

Continue reading “Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale — The Verdict”

The other Paradox game I’m looking forward to: Crusader Kings 2

The other Paradox Interactive game I’m looking forward to (once it’s had a good dose of patches and maybe an expansion pack) is Crusader Kings 2.

Now, there’s precious little detail about this one; a quick search turned up nothing more than a few tidbits on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. But I’m looking forward to a continuation of the first Crusader Kings’ unique take on grand strategy: where most strategy games cast you as this kind of amorphous, immortal, omnipresent guiding force behind a company / country / faction, Crusader Kings cast you as a medieval European dynast. So you would follow the lives of your courtiers over time (see this review for an example); dole out offices at court to keep the barons happy; search for brides who would get you into the line of succession for choice territories (I seem to remember there was also an element of heredity in your heir’s stats, which prompted quips about Kwisatz Haderach breeding programs); etc. The expansion pack, which I never played, apparently went even further in facilitating awesome Cersei Lannister-like hijinks.

This is probably as close as we’ll get to a Westeros political simulator – yes, I am aware of the actual forthcoming Westeros adaptation (A Game of Thrones: Genesis), but judging from the press release on the official website, it sounds as though they’re aiming for something more like Total War. And for that reason, I look forward to seeing what Paradox will do for Crusader Kings 2.

Another game I’m looking forward to: Europa Universalis 3: Divine Wind

Yesterday, I forgot to mention another game I’m looking forward to: Divine Wind, the forthcoming expansion pack for Paradox Interactive’s historical grand-strategy game, Europa Universalis III.

The EU games model world history between, roughly, 1400 until 1800; the key word here is “model”. Other games place you in charge of an entire nation in a historical timeframe, such as the Total War and Civilization series, but they tend to use history as a veneer for conquer-the-world / build-a-utopia / etc fantasies. EU, in contrast, actually attempts to simulate  real life: the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation; the resistance of society to governments’ attempts to impose change from the top down (as described in this article by Rob Zacny at Gamasutra); the possibility for empires to overstretch themselves and fall apart, as happened to a monster Ming China in one of my games (at its peak, it spanned the world from Manchuria to Sumatra… then China proper fell into civil war between competing dynasties, and the subjugated nations broke free).

However, as its name implies, the series is also rather Western-centric. This is where the Asian-centric Divine Wind comes in, with features (per the press release) including:

  • Play as one of four major daimyo’s in Japan vying for influence over the Emperor and control over the Shogunate
  • Enhanced diplomacy with more options for alliances and peace negotiations
  • Dozens of new culture-specific building types allowing greater control over the development of provinces
  • More realistic development of trade
  • Manage the internal factions within China to keep the Mandate of Heaven

The first two designer diaries don’t contain much information, but I am interested in hearing more about trade, in particular. While I know little about Asian history, what I have read indicates that you can’t do justice to European/Asian interaction in this period without an in-depth examination of trade. I look forward to hearing more about this expansion pack.

(By the way, if EU3 interests you and you’d like to learn more, there is a demo available for the previous expansion pack, and this Greg Costikyan piece offers a more detailed writeup of the game’s mechanics.)

Strategy games that built to climactic endings

How does a strategy game provide a satisfying late-game experience?

This, I think, is a two-pronged problem. Part 1 is avoiding the things that actively drag on the endgame: micromanagement (see my previous post) and the snowball problem, when someone – usually the human player in a single-player game – runs away with the game early on, turning the endgame into a tedious exercise in mopping up. In this post, though, I’ll focus on Part 2, which is the reverse: designing the game so that it builds to a tense climax, much like the traditional three-act plot.

Here, I think the highly open-ended nature of Paradox games works against them. In contrast, I can think of at least three games that set the player a clear victory condition that could only be triggered during the endgame: the Civilization series, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and Rome: Total War (if you played a Roman faction):

Continue reading “Strategy games that built to climactic endings”

Strategy games and the grind of micromanagement

Grindy late-game micromanagement is an endemic issue with strategy games, especially 4X and TBS games. Normally, this is “simply” a matter of having to look after too many cities, provinces, and/or units. If I never have to spend another hour scripting dozens of mages in Dominions 3, it will be too soon.

But several games throw additional busywork at you. Pollution, in the earlier Civilization games, was a great example of this – populous, industrialised cities would emit pollution from time to time, which you then had to detail workers to clean up. As your cities grew richer and richer, and in turn, filthier and filthier, so did your workload multiply. I am not sorry to see the back of that mechanic – I much prefer Civilization IV’s “health” metric, which is simply a city malus that doesn’t need to be constantly babysat.

However, I think the prize for my least favourite exercise in micromanagement has to come from Paradox games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, etc). You see, when citizens are angry in these games, they form an armed rebellion that appears in one or more provinces. Individual uprisings usually aren’t dangerous, but they do require your time and attention to swat. But when you control dozens of unhappy provinces – say, because the Protestant Reformation is sweeping Europe, or you conquered a large empire – the game turns into a relentless exercise of whack-a-mole. Move the army to crush a rebellion in Kent! Move it back north to crush a rebellion in Edinburgh! Oh no, the people of Kent are rising up again! It’s enough to, in these games, make me play small countries and create puppet states rather than embarking on massive land grabs – the sheer hassle of constantly suppressing uprisings is just more trouble than it’s worth.

(Note: I’m in the midst of listening to this episode of strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead, on which Chris King, the lead designer of Paradox’s Victoria 2, is a guest. Hopefully they’ll bring up my issue of concern!)

EDIT: Well, I listened to the podcast, and Chris did talk about making rebellions rarer, but stronger and nastier when they do occur. That makes sense, and it calls to mind Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a “series of interesting decisions”: “how to deal with a once-in-several-decades civil war” being a much more interesting decision than “march them up to Edinburgh, march them down to Kent…”  The other idea I’ve seen, and I think it was on the Quarter to Three forums (link to the right), was to use economic/production maluses to represent lower-level unrest, similar to the Civ IV example I mentioned above.  I suspect it’s way too late to implement such a feature in the present generation of Paradox games — such as the upcoming EU3: Divine Wind — but it’s one I would like to see in future games. Maluses are less work than spawning enemies!

Civilization 5 doesn’t forget the little guys

Civilization V’s release is imminent, which means turn-based strategy gaming is probably headed for its biggest launch in years. Firaxis has just released the manual, if you’d like to study the rules for yourself. And early impressions are positive.

If you’re reading this, you probably know about the changes, such as the new combat/stacking system, the inclusion of city-states in addition to fully-fledged civilisations, the fact that each resource tile can now only support a limited number of units, the new use of gold to purchase  tilesone at a time, even the ability of ground troops to embark directly onto sea tiles (so you don’t need to build separate transport ships). The two that stand out most vividly for me are combat, which I think most people would agree with me is a big change… but also, oddly enough, also the city-states. I’ve always liked minor civilisations in games such as Galactic Civilizations II and Space Empires IV and I’m glad to see they’ll be in Civ 5, for several reasons.

First, they add to the possibilities in the diplomatic game. Reading the manual, it looks as though you’ll be encouraged to pull city-states into your sphere of influence or even fight wars to keep them out of the hands of rival Great Powers. If you don’t want to shed the blood of your own troops, you’ll  be able to transfer units directly to the city-states, which raises the possibility of using a city-state to fight a proxy war. Of course, I’m not sure how well competing for the affections of city-states would work against an AI — anything involving diplomacy would work much better with other human players — but it does throw up some interesting possibilities for multiplayer.

But they also add to the feel of the world, much like the cops in X-Com: Apocalypse or the nameless background bystanders in an RPG. There have always been smaller tribes, kingdoms, and nation-states nestled in between large empires; why should Civ be any exception?

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale

Have you played RPGs? Then you know how it feels to be gouged when you come into town to buy potions or stimpaks or shotgun shells. You know how it feels when you can barely scrape by selling hard-won rats’ tails, wolves’ pelts and +2 Vendors’ Trash. And most of all, you know that, “But I’m on a quest to save the world!” cuts no ice at the local item shop.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale puts the shoe on the other foot. As town shopkeeper Recette, you buy low, sell high in an effort to meet loan repayments (game over if you can’t pay on schedule!), and in a second, action-RPG mode, hire heroes to go dungeon-crawling in search of rare merchandise. You can only take a certain number of actions per day, and the challenge seems to be how to manage your finite time to  amass the most money before the next loan instalment comes due. I’ve played the demo and found it charming enough to pre-order the full version (which you can do through Steam, Gamersgate or Impulse), notwithstanding I lasted about twenty seconds in the dungeon mode.

Check out the demo, and have fun!

Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected

I went into Empire: Total War (“Empire”) with very low expectations. I had read the horror stories about bugs and horrendous AI, heard the jokes about “Empire: Total Crap”. My interest in the game’s concept made me throw it in at a hefty discount when I bought my new PC, but even as I sat down to install it, I wondered why I had been so quixotic.

 

I was very pleasantly surprised.

Continue reading “Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected”