Archive for February, 2010

One Move Behind – Sins Diplomacy

For once, I don’t have too much to add beyond what I said during the podcast. I was a bit more nervous than usual during this recording because I don’t feel all that qualified to talk about Sins of a Solar Empire. As I pointed out during the episode, I didn’t come to this expansion with much Sins experience under my belt, and so I am still struggling to learn the game as a whole, much less the impact of one expansion.

This was one of those times that I really envied the other panelists’ abilities to see into the way strategy games work. I sort of felt like Charlie Brown in that one strip where he and Linus are lying on the hilltop, staring at the clouds. Charlie Brown asks Linus what he sees, and Linus describes this vivid, exciting scene that he perceives in the sky. Then Linus asks Charlie Brown what he sees. “I see a horsey,” he says.

Troy, Tom, and Julian seemed to get Diplomacy and understood the avenues of play that it opened up, while I basically did not. I have yet to decide whether that is my problem or the game’s. My own feeling right now is that Diplomacy runs on a parallel track to everything else I am doing. While I am fighting to stay competitive on the battlefield and keep a robust economy fueling my military, a diplomatic game is going on behind the scenes that allows players to do an end run around the core game. I can’t quite make out the connection between the diplomatic game and the rest of what is going on.

For example, my partner and I were playing a three-sided game and both of us were having serious problems with an AI player. It was overrunning the system and cutting off our avenues of expansion, and we were constantly skirmishing with it. It was an endless cycle of raid and counter-raid, and it was splendid fun. But when I looked at the “Relationships” window, I found that this aggressive AI was more than halfway to a diplomatic victory because of its good relations with other factions. According this readout, it was getting the most diplomatic points from MK and me! Excuse me, but I think if you’re going to be racing for a diplomatic victory, you should probably be penalized for pummeling the living crap out of certain players.

Update: A Discordant Note!

[Now fixed. See update below.] Since we recorded and I wrote the above, MK and I have played a great deal more Diplomacy and have discovered that the game is pretty broken for me. I basically can’t play multiplayer.

It’s insidious, because the game appears to be working. It isn’t until you and your playing partners start really communicating about what you see going on that your realize that you aren’t in the same game.

MK and I were two hours and fifteen minutes into a 2 v 2 v 2 multiplayer match when she asked if I could send a fleet to help her out at the planet Giada. Red had broken their ceasefire and was attacking. I said I could and gave the orders. Then I checked out what was happening in her part of the star system.

“Um, hon, red isn’t attacking you. They’re just hanging out at Giada.”

“What? No, I’m fighting them there right now.”

“I don’t even see any of your ships.”

She came over to my computer. “Wait, this isn’t right. I’m seeing something completely different over there. Does this game model delayed information due to the speed of light?”

I laughed. “No. That’d be awesome, but I don’t think it does. No.”

“Then this is all screwed up. I don’t even see you as owning that planet. I’m seeing that blue owns it.”

As we compared notes and looked at each other’s games, we realized that our games had diverged. In mine, she was at peace with red and I was aggressively expanding into blue’s holdings. In hers, red had just betrayed her and launched a massive attack at her frontier while I was pinned into a corner by an emerging blue superpower. In my game, the pirates were about to launch, while in hers there were 10 minutes left on the countdown timer. Later, going back through our save files, we found that the games had ceased to match after 1 hr 15 min.

It happens in every game we play together, regardless of setup. Now that we’ve started looking for it, we can see it happening as early as a half hour into the game. The pirate countdown de-syncs, and then we start looking for discontinuities. They’re easy to find: ships fighting in the center of an enemy system on my screen, the same fleet just dropping out of a jump on hers.

Depressingly, this appears to be a known issue with the game, and I’m not sure what progress there has been toward resolving it. But it is a total show-stopper if you want to play with friends. It was probably happening in the games I played with Tom and Rabbit, but the diplomatic victory brought the game to a close before anyone could notice.

Add the fact that the game will crash for me after two hours or so of play, and the future for me and Diplomacy starts to look awful stormy. Here’s hoping a patch fixes it soon.

Update II: Fixed

It does appear that the new patch for Diplomacy fixed the sync problem I’d been having. I haven’t had a chance to play more than 90 minutes of the patched version, but we didn’t run into any problems and the games still matched when we finally quit for the day.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this game soon.

A New Column and Addenda

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a new column for GameSetWatch, and it went up today on Gamasutra. It will probably be appearing on GameSetWatch in the next few days. My goal is to examine how social and political issues are translated into videogame elements, and to identify the assumptions that underpin a developer’s approach to those issues.

With this first piece, I stayed on terrain I know pretty well: Europa Universalis III. It’s such a rich game that I could have focused on any number of elements, but what I really found fascinating was how it represents sociopolitical change. Here is a game that starts in the twilight of the Middle Ages and concludes on the edge of industrialization, and the player has to guide his country through all the upheavals that occurred within that historical span. How does it describe that process, and the role of government within it? That was the question I attempted to answer, and you can let me know how well I did with it.

One thing I fervently wished as I formatted the post is that EU3 screenshots did not all look so hellishly boring. While I find its aesthetics wonderful, it takes about the least interesting pictures possible: “Look at this exciting popup! Craaaazy!” The irony, of course, is that people who ignore EU3 because it looks boring are missing one of the most exciting games in strategy.

EU3 aficionados might notice that the story I tell in this column is a bit condensed. I had to cut out some of the context and some of specific events that contributed to the wave of misfortune that befell me. Early drafts read too much like, well, a blog entry. The important part was to illustrate the effects of the game’s mechanics, not give Gama/GSW a detailed after-action report.

I must also admit that my story shows EU3′s mechanics at their best. Readers and TMA listeners might recall that when we did a show on Heir to the Throne, both Tom and Troy had misgivings about how well the stability mechanic worked over the long haul. I argued that the mechanics worked fine. Having played much, much more of the game, I can see now that my fellow panelists were correct. In the end, a decent EU3 player will break the game wide open.

A full campaign in EU3 covers 421 years, but the mechanics really only work for about half that. Once the player has had some time to start working his will on the gameworld and provide the kind of strategic continuity that his state’s historical counterpart never possessed, the mechanics start to break down. They cannot overcome the money and power the player will eventually possess. The challenges stay the same, but the player’s capacity to meet them only increases.

Truthfully, I think the problem would be solved if Paradox changed the stability mechanic. Rather than having it act like a series of steps, it should be more like a steady slope. If the player wants to keep increasing stability past the level equilibrium point, he should be forced to keep putting forth effort to do so. At the highest levels of stability, the marginal cost should be dissuasive. As things stand now, once the player gets his society to the highest stability level, it stays there until something bad happens.

Anyway, during those turbulent decades that follow the beginning of a new campaign, those mechanics work well, and make some trenchant observations about just how national mismanagement can happen even under responsible rulers. EU3 does a wonderful job of puncturing the judgments of the armchair emperor. Here’s how it pulls it off.

Clear Sky – The Cordon

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl fell apart in its last act when it started throwing up roadblocks that required thorough foreknowledge to pass. If three guys sporting Gauss rifles just teleport right in front of you when you enter a room, they are going to kill you unless you already know where and when they will show up. I got through the end of the game by saving and reloading with every step.

When I arrived at the Cordon in Clear Sky, I realized that the same problems persist in the prequel. You emerge from a tunnel that connects back to the Swamps, and you receive a warning that you just came out near the army guardpost. I knew the location well from the first game, and figured it would be no problem to sneak past.

After going thirty meters down the ridge toward the outpost, a siren keened and then someone on a loudspeaker snapped, “Stalker detected!” I wondered how the hell they had seen me (motion sensors on the perimeter?) and ducked down behind a large tree. That helped, but not as much as I hoped it would: a heavy machine gun opened up in front of me and started blowing through the tree trunk. My mercenary crumpled to the ground, torn to pieces.

On the next run I hid in the tunnel until the alarm stopped. Then I headed back downhill. I reached the tree, and the machine gun got me again. The next time I tried to sprint my way to safety. Killed in the gulch at the foot of the hill. And the next three attempts saw me get killed before I even got that far.

I tried bouncing from cover to cover. Didn’t work. Hiding amidst some boulders sheltered me from the machine gun, but the moment I tried moving again it blew me to hell. It always knew exactly where I was. It tracked perfectly, as if I were tagged by a laser. If it didn’t get me, soldiers did. So I tried to stay in cover and deal with the soldiers first.

That failed miserably: heavily armed and armored, they soaked up rounds from my Kalashnikov until it ran dry, at which point I had nothing but small-caliber weapons at my disposal. Even if I was making progress at mowing them down as they approached, one or three of them would hurl grenades at me from fifty meters away, all of them arcing perfectly until they landed at my feet. If I left cover, the machine gun got me. If I stayed, the grenades exploded and killed me. Little known fact about the Ukrainian army: all their soldiers have their right arms replaced with mortars.

After twenty or thirty attempts, I alt-tabbed and went to Youtube and looked up some walkthroughs. Turns out that there’s a bunch of hits for “clear sky cordon machine gun”. Half the internet thinks this is bullshit. I watched a video walkthrough (which helpfully told me to stop whining and go do it) that showed the character race down the hill, through the gulch, under a tree branch, and clear through to safety. Spamming the medkit hotkey the whole way. I tried to match the guy in the video about twelve more times. Never made it.

At least two hours had passed since I first encountered the machine gun. So I went to plan B: go back through the swamps to the other entry point to the Cordon, this time farther north. However, this breaks the game’s scripting. I came into the Cordon on the other side of the railroad embankment, and when I tried to move through a checkpoint stationed by friendly stalkers, they attacked me. So I ended up having to use a maintenance tunnel farther west, where I massacred a half-dozen neutrals. Then I could finally walk to the bunker where my contact waited. He gave me a mission to go through the railroad embankment and said he would put out the word to let me through. Which they did, forgiving my bad manners twenty minutes earlier when I killed a squad of their friends.

It’s crap like this that dooms STALKER to cult status. When journeying within the Zone, observing its ecosystem and battling through random encounters and side-quests, it’s one of the finest games I have ever played. But when GSC attempt to funnel the player into scripted encounters, the results are usually disastrous.

New Article and Weekend Note

I have a new article up at The Escapist this week called “A Gamer in the Kitchen”, and it is a near-total exercise in self-indulgence as I explain how cooking and gaming hit a lot of the same pleasure centers. While food was the theme of the issue, I have to admit that I was worried people would just say that I was stretching to make a connection that doesn’t exist. While I see clear similarities, there is always that worry that a personal perspective is just a little too individual.

Fortunately, most people seem to have gotten where I’m coming from and enjoyed the article. Now I have to go project my insecurities onto something else. I’m sure I have plenty from which to choose.

At any rate, I badly need this weekend. Between a podcast, a ton of blogging, finishing up production on another article that should (appropriately enough) go up on Valentine’s Day, and a lot of pitching, I am completely wiped out. Not unlike the gentleman across this library table from me, who put down his books, opened his laptop, and fell asleep on it.

So once I finish some proposals and correspondence this afternoon, I am going to get serious about relaxing. There will be drinking, West Wing on DVD, a new Adrian McKinty novel, unhealthy food, and lots of gaming. There will, under no circumstances, be work or thinking about work until Sunday afternoon. I hope you have a good weekend. I plan on having a great one.

One Move Behind – And the Science Gets Done and You Make a Neat Gun

Why yes that is an obligatory Portal reference in the title, but it’s apt here because that verse is, in a nutshell, how most strategy games treat science. You set up the “science farms” – colleges, labs, whatever – and the worker bees inside them get to work doing science. After a variable amount of time, the science machine shudders and wheezes, a bell chimes, and a neat gun rolls out of the knowledge factory.

This mechanic, originating in the Civilization franchise and inherited by most every other strategy game, was the subject of  the most recent Three Moves Ahead podcast. In between Bruce-baiting and liberal-baiting, we managed to talk about science, game mechanics, and history. You should give it a listen.

It’s dangerous to play armchair game design, especially because many of us who are not game designers do such a terrible job of it. Ideas that sound cool over drinks start looking pretty awful once you try to make them work and see how they start breaking other systems and messing up the design. Still, I think we were too willing to give the durable old Civilization model of discovery a free pass. It’s a great system, but why does it remain effectively the only system?

My partner and I were talking that morning about the way scientific discovery has momentum, and how it also exists in tension with other social goods. Few games really explore these in any detail. Why are research assets always able to shift gears from agricultural research to advanced weapons design without missing a beat? The advancement of knowledge is always treated as a bucket to be filled with some kind of universal unit of “science”. But we know from experience that you can’t redirect lines of inquiry on a whim. From the discovery of radioactive decay, more and more scientists and institutions threw themselves into atomic research and that research gathered a momentum that culminated with controlled fission and nuclear weapons.

However, those energies couldn’t be completely redirected toward a new destination the moment they reached the goal of a hydrogen bomb. Los Alamos can’t just flit from nuclear science to theoretical physics to industrial engineering, and if you try to make it respond to whatever is the research priority d’jour, you’ll break it.

On a related note, why does science rarely have an impact of diplomacy? The race for nuclear weapons sowed tremendous distrust between the western Allies and the Soviet Union during WWII, and the US’s increasingly proprietary attitude toward nuclear research placed strain on the relationship between the US, Britain, and Canada. Some technologies and lines of inquiry are more political than others, but games rarely touch on it.

Why is there no contradiction with a society that is packed to the rafters with both cathedrals and research universities? Science and religion step on each other’s toes all the time, and as a society comes down on one side, the effectiveness of the other suffers. If society is underpinned by a theological framework, then promoting reason and objective observations over belief and tradition has huge ramifications. But that tension is rarely very pronounced.

Europa Universalis III (take a shot) deserves a shout-out here, because while it’s research mechanic is generally lackluster, it does introduce the concept of discovery as a destabilizing influence. Periodically an event will occur where some research is denounced and the player is given one of two choices: undo a ton of progress toward the next tech level, or forge ahead and suffer a stability drop. It’s a coarse approach, but it’s unique and it does illustrate an aspect of discovery that many games miss.

Anyway, check out the newest episode, and hear Bruce geek out on Hearts of Iron while Tom tries to explain how shotgunning mutants in the face in Bioshock 2 mirrors the scientific method.

A Brief Word about the Amazon Widget

Look to the right of this blog post and you will find a collection of recommended items relating to my current writing. If you purchase from Amazon through the links I provide here, I get a very small commission. But you already know how that works, so let’s talk about this blog and nasty, grasping commerce.

I primarily keep this blog as a place keep a portfolio, and stay in practice as a writer. It is not, and I never expect it to be, a money-making enterprise except insofar as it helps me generate more work. Still, it would be nice to defray some of the costs of running this website. Hence an Amazon widget, and the occasional appearance of an associate referral link, as a nod in the general direction of “monetization”.

A part of me that resents doing even this much. My encounters with sales have always left me feeling rather degraded. I remember once, the summer before I started college, I made the long, hellishly slow drive down US-41 in response to a want ad for sales reps. If I had been a bit more worldly, I would have realized that it was basically a Ponzi scheme, but I was desperate for a job and the ad called for someone with no discernible skills. So I found myself packed into a crowded conference room with about thirty or forty other men, most of us quite young but a few of us clearly older and recently unemployed. We were addressed by a twentysomething in a too-large suit wearing a watch the size of a tea saucer and a couple large rings on his fingers. He reminded me a lot of Boiler Room.

He wanted us to sell knives and cutlery, and talked about what great knives his company produced. God help me, but he cut through a tin can with a pair of shears and he cut through an old leather shoe. Then he talked to us about how much money he’d made the year before (it was a lot) and he put on a video from his mentor, who made even more money. And so could we! Now that we had seen firsthand how good, how cutting these knives were, would we have any objection to selling them to friends and family? Everyone agreed they were very impressive blades, and we’d be honored to have them in our kitchens.

Then the kid in the suit called us into his office for individual interviews. I sat down across from him and he said without preamble, “You know, Robert, based on what I’ve seen today, I think you’re exactly what we’re looking for in a sales rep. Do you think you could handle this job?”

What could you possibly have seen? All I did was sit and listen. But I didn’t say that. I said I could do the job, and received a packet and instructions to attend training the next week. I would, of course, have to buy a sample knife kit.

I never did. I knew enough to be uneasy and didn’t commit to anything, and my father explained how lead-generation works and what the job would really entail: sitting in the kitchens of friends, family, and neighbors with a case full of knives and mutual embarrassment between us. Once I had run through my acquaintances, the cold-calling would begin. He said that some guys are good at it, and are built for it, but he wasn’t sure I was. Then, driving the nail into the coffin, he said, “It’s sort of like Glengarry Glen Ross. Do you think you could do what Al Pacino does?”

Years later, just before I started freelancing, I worked at a really low-rent content mill. I’d say more about the place, but I’m not sure what the terms of my non-disclosure agreement were, and they were some of the pettiest motherfuckers I’ve ever worked for. Suffice it to say that users submitted articles for free, stuffed full of links back to crummy online stores that sold penis-enlargement pills. I felt like I was standing on a corner in the worst slum of the internet, listening to all the cheap hucksters and shills screaming at each other at the top of their lungs.

I USED TO WORK A 9-5 JOB NOW I MAKE $1000 EVERY HOUR FROM HOME!”

“THIS IS A PHOTO OF ME ON MY PRIVATE BEACH IN MAUI!”

That was my life and I hated it, and I hated the con artists who were wasting it even more.

I can live with the Amazon links because there are some things I will recommend that you might not have heard of, and if you’re interested you can buy them through those links. I won’t ever be pestering readers about buying merchandise they don’t want through my referral links. If you want the item, and you want to do me the favor of using my link, that’s great. But I’ve no interest in being a sales rep in my own internet home.

The other thing I should mention is that if I ever do have enough traffic to justify putting up ads or seeking sponsorship, I will be very, very picky. Whenever I see a “Local Mom Lost 50 lbs Following ONE GOLDEN RULE to a FLAT BELLY” ad, with some low-res snapshot of someone’s love handles, I feel a little queasy. If I ever saw an Evony ad on my own site, I would just want to burn this motherfucker down.

For the foreseeable future, though, it’s just going to be the Amazon links and widget. I’ll try to keep them both relevant to what I’m talking about here, and I’ll try to make sure I’m pointing you to things that are maybe slightly off the beaten path, but certainly worth your time. That is, I hope, kind of what this blog is about.