Archive for December, 2009

Less Brains, More Rules

Bad artificial intelligence seems to be the most common problem afflicting strategy and wargames, at least judging by complaints I read on fora. It’s Exhibit A in my case against the Total War series, where features have long oustripped the AI’s ability to manage them. RTSs are often burdened by AI that misuses special unit abilities (or doesn’t use them at all), and cannot properly place defensive structures to save its life. If you can survive their initial rushes, victory is a foregone conclusion. Wargame AI tends to be dependent on scenario scripting to provide the illusion of a clever opponent.

I sympathize with developers who face the thankless task of creating AI for a single-player strategy game. No matter how good a job they do, gamers will find the places where the AI breaks down. It will never be as consistently clever and rational as the people it plays against, especially since many of those people have years of practice and experience under their belt.

Unfortunately, many strategy games depend on the “worthy opponent”. Without an enemy laying plans to derail yours, strategy and tactics can seem pointless. What’s the fun in out-thinking a punching bag? However, if the game is designed for solo play, then perhaps the primary challenge should be the rules of the game and the constraints placed on the player. If developers can create a situation where the player is fighting against a system rather than an AI, then enjoyment and challenge aren’t dependent on the AI passing a strategic Turing test. For instance, let’s consider Europa Universalis 3.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

I have no idea whether or not Europa Universalis 3 features good AI, crazyAI, or stupid AI. Given that I can only ever see about a hundredth of what is happening in the game, I never get a good sense of what the AI really up to. I’ve suffered perfectly timed sneak attacks that leave me devastated. I’ve also seen the AI disperse its armies haphazardly across the countryside, letting a superior force get snapped up piece by piece. Perhaps there’s a logic to that, perhaps not. All I can say with certainty is that EU3′s AI seems competent. It won’t give the game away.

In the context of the game, however, this makes it a perfectly good opponent, because the challenge in EU3 is not your opposition. It is the status quo, and the force it exerts against all efforts to overturn it. All factions struggle against systems that resist change and reduce the effectiveness of brilliant tactics and strategic opportunism.

For instance, I just started playing a game as France and, on the second day of the game, I received a “national mission” to take the Aquitaine, which was occupied by the English. This seems like an eminently sensible, doable objective. The English holdings on the west coast of France are an annoying little toehold surrounded by French territories. The English can only reinforce by sea, while I can build entirely new armies on the doorstep of the Aquitaine. So I wasted no time in putting a large army together and declaring war.

The war began in 1400 and by 1405 it seemed to be over. I had captured both English provinces, fended off relief armies and repelled a counterattack in Normandie. I had even gone ahead and occupied Calais. So I offered the English peace in exchange for their recognition that I was now the rightful owner of the Aquitaine provinces.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

The English, however, were undaunted. Then things began to get ugly, because they were able to launch nuisance invasions via the sea, while my armies raced from the Mediterranean to the Channel and back again. As years of nonstop fighting took their toll, my national manpower reserve drained until my armies could no longer replenish their losses. Plus, I could not hold onto the Aquitaine. It started changing hands every few years as the English would swoop in, retake it, and push into southern France. I would then roll them back. This meant that by 1425, I was still nowhere near being able to annex the province.

This is because EU3 doesn’t really want provinces to change hands through military conquest. Rather, all gains must be recognized by the international order, through a peace treaty, or as a fait accompli. If you can occupy and hang onto a province for a generation, it’s yours. But that’s a tall order, because you have an entire kingdom to defend in addition to your latest conquest (which is likely to rebel against an occupation). So the smart play was to try and get peace with the English but, as I realized too late, there was no reason for them to sign a treaty. They were safe on their island. They had lost the war on the Continent but could still contest the outcome indefinitely.

All of this is more a product of rules than the vagaries of AI. The AI responds to peace offers through rote calculations. What has each side gained and lost weighed against the offer you are putting on the table. Provinces are weighted very heavily, so it’s very much a “from my cold, dead hand” situation. Even decisive defeats in a war rarely yield the victor more than a couple border provinces.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

So the stage is set for indecisive wars with trifling settlements. Even when you have pounded an adversary into dust, as long as he still exists as a political entity (which does not require an army or even a free territory) he can still resist by refusing to recognize your gains. You could try and wait it out, but the nature of EU3 is that other problems will arise for you in the meantime. For instance, I was waiting for England to give up the Aquitaine in the 1450s when Castille, Burgundy, and Brittany attacked my from every side. 50 years of warfare had done nothing but make me vulnerable to other powers. I ended up settling with the English on the basis of the prewar status quo, and turned my attention to escaping the triple alliance with some of my kingdom.

Superficially, I was fighting against England and, later, three other states. To their credit, they all acted fairly rationally. England used its navy to harass me and wait me out. Castille and its allies reached a point where I was diplomatically isolated between them, and capitalized on the opportunity. However, the rules of the game governed how events would play out more than anything the AI did. Because the game does not equate conquest with ownership, I could never use occupied territories to expand my power. Because war destabilizes countries, especially long wars, I was faced ever-increasing chances of revolt within France. Because I could only field as many troops as there are service-eligible men in my kingdom, I could not indefinitely sustain a large army and major battles. England was incidental to these problems.

Which is probably for the best. My hands are so full of upstart nobles, nationalist rebels, and runaway inflation that the AI factions are just more icebergs menacing the ship of state. My first enemy, always, is circumstance.

One Move Behind

On Monday night I got a message from Troy Goodfellow that he was going to be short two panelists for the Three Moves Ahead podcast, and he would like me to step in if possible. The topic was epic failures in strategy gaming. I warned him that I might not know too much about the subject, but that I’d be happy to join him and Tom Chick.

Podcasting is one of those things that always sounds really easy, especially when guys like Garnett Lee or Shawn Elliott are doing it. Just put on a headset with some pals, and talk games for an hour or two. I’ve certainly wanted to get on a podcast, judging by the sheer number of times I start arguing with the voices coming out of my stereo.

However, I found that once Troy started recording, I was thinking more about how this would sound once Troy published the podcast. I never got so comfortable that I felt like I was just chatting with friends. Having a voice in your head going, “Be articulate, dammit!” is a surefire way to end up with a lot of “ums” and hedging phrases. Fortunately, Troy’s listeners are very cool, very nice people who have been surprisingly positive about my appearance. I look forward to the next chance I get to take part, especially now that I know the panel better.

My biggest handicap besides being a podcasting tyro was the fact that I simply don’t know much about epic failures in the strategy genre. Unlike Troy, Tom, and Bruce Geryk, I’m not a reviewer and so I’ve never been compelled to play a shitty game. I’ve always enjoyed the advantage of being able to read their reviews and take a pass on lousy games. So while they shared war stories about Master of Orion 3 and Superpower, I was thinking, “Boy, sure am glad I didn’t buy that!

But I also left thinking about a shortcoming with the topic: strategy and wargaming do not lend themselves to “epic” failures. Our little niche features very few gargantuan projects and runaway egos that lead to Daikatanas and Duke Nukem Forevers. And because most strategy / wargaming outfits run on smaller budgets, a disastrous project often fails to make it out the door. Poor business decisions, perhaps, but not something you can point to with glee and ask, “What the hell happened here?”

Even when there is something that seems like a disaster in the making (I’m sorry, HistWar, but it’s been close to a decade and your demo crashed every time I tried to play it), it’s not something that leaves anyone really eager to talk about it. Daikatana was clearly born of hubris and incompetent leadership, and there was something satisfying about watching it melt down. But if HistWar: Les Grognards doesn’t pan out, that’s a tragedy for Jean-Michel Mathe, who has spent years trying to make his dream game a reality. I started to disparage it the other night, but I thought about the years of work he’s put into it, and all the smirking doubt he’s had to put up with on message boards… and I just couldn’t do it.

I do think we raised some issues that are worth following-up on. I mentioned the Star Wars strategy game, Rebellion, as a case where failure to meet expectations ultimately proved fatal to the game. Sometimes I think the problem is with my expectations, but for some games that’s not true. Star Wars is iconic and, if you’re going to set a game in that universe, you need to give it a sufficiently Star Wars feel. Rebellion completely blew off its responsibilities to the setting, committing the unforgivable sin of being generic. It even filtered down to the strategy: commanding the Rebel Alliance or the Empire was exactly the same. In no time at all, it became a game of symmetric warfare with slightly different ships. That’s breaking a promise that you make with your title.

A lot of these games also fell into the trap of throwing more and more crap into the game in the hope that depth and strategy would magically occur. That can be a survivable mistake, but not if it begins to obscure the player’s relationship with the game. With MOO3, Tom talked about how the game ultimately didn’t want to player to actually be playing it. It wanted to play by itself, and the player could watch. If cause-and-effect become too blurry and the importance of game elements is unclear, strategy becomes impossible. The game has just defeated its entire reason for being.

These might be basic rules in designing a good strategy game, but I think lousy games really highlight their importance. It’s too easy to look at a game like Civ IV and not see the ways it provides the correct feedback, or ensures that everything you can do serves a puprose. But you sure as hell notice the absence of these qualities in a bad strategy game, and you can often see how the developers botched it. So raise a glass to failures, noble and otherwise. They are still best way to learn.

"Dark Forces" Is How I'd Describe Them

This week’s issue of The Escapist is one of the best I’ve seen. I’m really proud of my article, but I also love the Christmas stories that my fellow contributors shared. Jim Rossignol reminded me of both why I need to get around to playing EVE, and the ways that online worlds sometimes bring you face-to-face with the real one. Mark Brown shared a really touching story about a gift he created for his parents through Little Big Planet, and John Szczepaniak wrote a good memoir of Christmas in Johannesburg. Also, spare a moment to appreciate the art for each of these articles, because the art team really knocked this issue out of the park.

My own article is about an incident that happened when I read a review of Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, and then realized that our computer had finally, definitively become obsolete. It’s a story I remember really clearly, and which has therefore seemed a little more important over the years.

Ironically, this was the second time Dark Forces brought misery into my life. A few Christmases earlier, I’d received the first game (which I still feel was probably underrated), and for some inexplicable reason it didn’t work. Our computer easily satisfied all the hardware requirements, but the game just would not load after running the executable.

My parents didn’t know how to fix the problem, or even what the problem was, and so the game went on the shelf. Meanwhile, my cousins were playing the hell out of it and telling me how great it was. Finally, sometime in February, my parents took pity on me and took the computer into the local mom and pop shop. To get this $50 game working cost them a new stick of RAM and a new CD drive. It probably amounted to a couple hundred dollars.

I still have both the games sitting on my bookshelf, testaments to the joy and misery that was mid-90s PC gaming. Speaking of which, you should go read my article.

Driving Game

Cleanly! Scores of hours logged at Spa, Magny-Cours, Zandvoort and a dozen other Euro-American racing cathedrals, and all in the service of doing everything cleanly. Passing cleanly on the inside of a straightaway, or neatly nipping through the inside of a corner and slamming the door shut on the guy caught outside.

The Line is clean and perfect, and if I hit all my marks then my driving will be smooth and beautiful. My tires whine a bit as I accelerate through the Parabolica at Monza, but they don’t shriek and the the car doesn’t try to bust loose. My control is perfect, and that is the entire point of the game.

But God, the concentration and practice required. Sometimes I want to play a racing game and I look at my wheel sitting beneath my desk, and at GTR 2 atop my bookcase, and I just can’t go through that. It’s eight at night, there’s an icy draft seeping in through the windows of my apartment, and I just completed a long day of revising the same article until it was good enough to send back to my editor. Who will want more changes, and I’ve already gone from Draft A through Draft L. I want to play a racing game, but my sims want perfect reflexes and sharp senses, and I’m too used up to try and pilot a GT3 around Valencia. The torque alone is more than I can bear right now.

Yet GRID is so messy, like all arcade racers. All the cars slip and slide with greased tires across glass tracks. A simple 90 degree right-hander turns into a crescendo of shrieking rubber, roaring engines, and crunching metal and glass as cars smash each other into walls. I try a clean pass, outbrake my opponent going into a corner, take the line on the exit… and pound my wheel in frustration as he shoves me straight into the tire barrier. We were second and third, but now the entire field is driving past as as I try to extract myself from the the scrum.

We hit the barriers at 85 mph and my windshield is cracked and starred so badly that I can hardly see the track. Replays of the race will show that the front of my car now describes a check mark. It was straight line before. But my crew chief is on the radio telling me that I’ve “got some damage, but nothing too serious.” I reverse into my opponent, slewing him around as he tries to get back into the race, then roar off in pursuit of the long-gone field. The car still handles like it just rolled out of the factory.

Arcade racing games, like the ones that Codemasters produce, merely take real-world racing as their theme. TOCA and GRID are, to borrow a term from Tom Chick, Car-RPGS (caRPGs). You hop behind the wheel and work your way from driving sedans to super grand tourers, buying new cars and kit and unlocking new challenges along the way. Progress is constant, and all your training is on-the-job. Races are combat, where you put bruising hits on the opposition and use guardrails to help you negotiate sharp corners. The great skill in a caRPG is not driving, but in playing automotive pinball through the field until you accumulate enough prize money to move up to the next tier of challenges.

As an aside, arcade racing games also make sure to include lots of tedious bullshit to appeal to the entitled mouth-breathers who thought Gone in 60 Seconds and The Fast and the Furious were the Godfather and Easy Rider of their generation. If GRID is making a selling point out of the fact that you can drive the 24 Hours, or wrestle an old TVR around Donington Park, why is it making me master the pointless unfun of drifting? What could possibly make them think I’d care about such a thing? Let me be clear: drift racing is to real racing as tequila is to good liquor. There are people who are passionately devoted to it, but they a small, crazy subgroup that most of us would rather ignore.

But once I adjust to GRID’s icky collisions and near-gripless cars, I do find myself enjoying the cheerful madness of the racing action and its wise inclusion of a “flashback” that lets me undo catastrophic mishaps. Taking a Mustang sideways into a corner, punching the throttle at the apex and wrestling with the savage force of its fishtailing is exactly the kind of thing I want from an arcade game. I begin to enjoy the take-no-prisoners savagery of the races, especially when you nudge someone else into a wall at top speed and cause a massive pile-up in the rear-view mirror. I love the sudden quiet and solitude that follows the moment you just crashed the entire field somewhere in a chicane behind you.

Still, what I really want is a game that occupies the sweet spot between the mad chaos of a GRID or Need for Speed and the taut immersion of a SimBin game. A game that places a premium on smart, clean driving but doesn’t demand the monk-like devotion that characterizes a racing season in RACE or GTR 2. I love great racing and good driving, but sometimes I don’t want to be my own race engineer, or approach a play session the way Lewis Hamilton must approach a race weekend at Silverstone. Rather than taking a slug of GTR 2 with a GRID chaser, I’d like something that blends their strengths. Something that still keeps the racing clean, but not immaculate.

A Very Thankful Weekend with Joker and Bats

Writing about my slight case of Thanksgiving Blues actually chased them away. By the time we sat down to dinner on Wednesday night, I was filled with holiday cheer and ready for the weekend to come. When work started back up on Sunday night, I had enjoyed a mini-vacation that was everything it could and should have been. Shockingly, it included a lot of gaming.

While my girlfriend proceeded to demolish Braid and The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition in the space of three days, I was hopelessly lost to Arkham Asylum. A lot of people compared it to Bioshock, but I’d have to say Arkham owes a lot more to Beyond Good & Evil. That explains why I never found myself getting bored and why I’ve gone back to the game on a higher difficulty immediately after completing it the first time.

The melee combat and the battle with Poison Ivy stand out in particular as areas where Arkham borrowed wholesale from BG&E, but the way Arkham keeps mixing up the challenges is very much in the same spirit. Before you have a chance to tire of beating thugs, you have a stealth sequence in which you pick them off one by one. Before the stealth sequence can slow down the game, you are working your way through the next section of the map. Then you fight a miniboss and get a new tool.

For the most part, I would say that Rocksteady were very careful about ensuring they never provided too much of a good thing. Although I must say that two encounters with Scarecrow would have been sufficient and I got a little tired of the fights against the super-thugs, since the trick was the same every time and Arkham Asylum goes to that particular well quite often.

Aside from those very slight missteps, Arkham Asylum was a smashing success for me. What I particularly loved was how the game consistently raised the stakes and tension every time I thought it had maxed out. The game opens with Joker seizing control of the Asylum and before you’re a quarter of the way through, you’ve had to rescue Jim Gordon and fight Bane. No sooner have you won that victory, and started thinking that you’re on the way to restoring order, than you discover Joker is planning on creating an army of Banes once he gets hold of some research materials. Even as you parry that attack, Ivy gets loose and starts to destroy the entire island.

Learn about Jokers fantastic retirement benefits!

Learn about Joker's fantastic retirement benefits!

At no point did I feel like the writers or designers were trying to stretch their premise and put some filler into the game. From the start it is clear that the Joker has a plan to keep Batman putting out fires throughout the long night, and it is totally in keeping with Poison Ivy’s character that she causes a completely unforeseen catastrophe midway through the game.

In fact, I was impressed with how right Rocksteady got each of Batman’s enemies. Fighting Scarecrow is a battle against insanity, and we get a deadly cat-and-mouse through Batman’s disintegrating reality. Bane is a knock-down, drag-out fight with a dangerous brute. Croc, as Batman says, is just an animal, and animals get trapped. Ivy uses plants to transform the battlefield until it favors her, and uses seduction to provide herself with cannon fodder.

I’m not certain how I feel about the final battle with Joker, because the thing about Joker is that he’s not difficult to defeat. It’s defeating his labrythine plots that poses the problem for Batman. Joker himself, however, is no great combatant. Rocksteady worked around this, but their solution seemed a bit off to me.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Still, it feels like a proper Batman adventure from top to bottom, and it was wonderful to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles for this game. And I must thank Crispy Gamer’s Russ Fischer for highlighting one particular sequence that really nails what it means to be the Dark Knight. He writes:

Arguably, the two missing elements are Gotham City and Bruce Wayne. Both of these, however, are almost more useful as things Batman wants and can’t have. Gotham, no matter how corrupt, is a dreamscape compared to Arkham Island. The city’s skyline is bright and tantalizing and unobtainable. Bats has to see the night out; he can’t just run to the city and do an easier gig.

There’s a reason, too, that the big Wayne building dominates that skyline. If Batman wanted to truly retreat from the insanity of Arkham, Bruce Wayne is the shell to hide in, and that building on the horizon is a reminder of his existence. The horror of Wayne’s childhood is all that he is allowed to revisit, and the game’s story is stronger for it. If we’re going to wallow in the madness of the lunatics who burst into existence along with Batman, we should really wallow deep, and Bruce Wayne is the shallow end of the pool.

If he hadn’t pointed this out, I would have missed the resonance of this one particular sequence midway through the game. Just after a truly nightmarish, harrowing encounter with Scarecrow and a tough slog through Croc’s lair, Batman breaks emerges from a tunnel built into one of the island’s cliff-faces.

It is the first clean breath Batman has drawn in what seems like hours, and the oppressive ugliness of the preceding scenes have done an admirable job of making you feel the same revulsion and emotional exhaustion he must feel. You stand on the edge of the cliff, a lovely promontory from which not a yard of Arkham is visible, and stare across the stretch of calm, moonlit water to the Gotham skyline. It is a sublime, peaceful moment.

Then you jump from the cliff and glide in a sweeping arc back toward the island, literally descending back to its madness and turning your back on the only peaceful vision you will see.

Mere Refinement

The other day, Troy Goodfellow was lamenting Crispy Gamer’s “Game of the Decade” bracket challenge, which saw Civilization IV and Peggle pitted against one another, with the result that Peggle came out on top. Now contests like these are patently silly, but they do spark conversation and the conversation that followed is where I started to get annoyed.

A number of people made the case that Civilization IV is “just a refinement of a previous design”, which diminishes its achievement, especially when compared with something like Peggle. Except they didn’t really make a case, because there’s no case to make with that statement. They just gave a sage nod in the direction of originality and Greater Significance represented by Peggle.

Not for the first time, I am thinking that the “IV” in its title does Civ IV a disservice. It creates the illusion that Civ IV is yet another iteration on Sid Meier’s old design, when the truth is that Civ IV is considerably more. Most of its mechanics don’t even appear in the first two games, and I certainly couldn’t have imagined fifteen years ago how Civ IV would be handling diplomacy, combat, religion, or governance. Culture would not even have occurred to me.

Perhaps the core elements of the design are the same, but if that’s the standard, then we can safely dismiss every FPS since Half-Life. Civilization and Civilization IV both take place on a square tiles, take cities as the chief game piece, and involve researching your way through human history in competition with other civilizations. But that’s about where the similarities end.  If you’re going to say that’s still “just a refinement”, then I never want to hear you breathe a word about the originality of a game in which you point guns at things and shoot, or take characters on adventures in which you gain experience and improve your skills.

Then there is the fact that so many in our little community race to denigrate anything that is not ostentatiously innovative and new. Like Daisy Buchanan attempting to impress Nick with her worldly disenchantment and entitled ennui, gamers are quick to sigh and inquire why everything seems so old and derivative. We are cultivating a studied boredom with everything that bears of a whiff of the familiar, while lavishing excessive praise on the accessibly novel. Truly great games like Civilization IV get lost between the narrow mainstream and the falsely discriminating taste of the enthusiast set.