Archive for May, 2010

Staycation

Someday I’ll be comfortable with what I do, and I will be able to believe that it is a job at which I work very hard. But it is hard for me to say that with conviction, when I spend so much of my time playing games I love, and discussing them with people I like. It is harder still to acknowledge any toil of my own when I identify and agree so completely with this passage from A Connecticut Yankee:

There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about “the working classes,” and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they know all about the one, but haven’t tried the other. But I know all about both; and so far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down — and I will be satisfied, too.

Still, writing is work. And if you play enough of them, and if you have to play them because you’ve promised colleagues and editors that you will play them, games become work as well. Consider, also, that I still try to play games for relaxation, I also try to read a bit for enjoyment, and I still try to write for pleasure. Then, of course, there is the fact that a lot of my work involves strategy gaming, which requires rather more than shooting character models until they stop moving.

I get tired, and I don’t acknowledge it because I don’t feel I’ve got the right or the reason. But sometime in this past week, it dawned on me that I could not remember the last time I took a weekend off from work. I could not quite recall the last time I had played a game that wasn’t eventually going to be the subject of a Three Moves Ahead, a column, a review, or a blog entry. So MK made me promise not to do any work on Saturday or Sunday, including playing games for professional purposes. I agreed, and worked until late on Friday so that I could keep my part of the deal.

What I needed the most, besides a break and a day full of stiff cocktails and buffalo wings, was violent and kinetic videogaming. I needed brutal power fantasies and faster-than-thought gameplay, and I needed games without a single fucking hotkey. Feel free to argue with my choices, but Mirror’s Edge and Grand Theft Auto IV seemed made to order.

Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto was the better game for my purposes. When you’re running in Mirror’s Edge, and the motion blur starts to creep in around the edges of your vision as Faith kicks it into high gear, the rush in incredible. But the endless dying and capricious save points means the game delivers that feeling only sporadically.

On the other hand, the game gets me so involved that I find myself leaning forward with every long jump, willing Faith to go farther. I flinch when she hits the ground too hard. Few things are more satisfying than sprinting toward a SWAT trooper as he draws a bead, and dropping into a slide-kick just before he pulls the trigger, punting him to his death with a savage kick to the stomach.

Still, GTA IV was the more mindless, escapist activity. Niko Bellic gave me a simulated life to live in the endlessly involving Liberty City, and I enjoyed role-playing his character. Thrilling car chases, brutal back-alley killings, and the casual carjacking of a driver who nearly hit my on the street was my kind of diversion. Like Niko, I didn’t need to think or plan what was going to happen. I just waited for the phone calls that told me where there was killing to be done, and then I went and did it.

Neptune's Confusion

Thank merciful God, our Neptune’s Pride death-struggle has finally reached its end. I logged out for the last time yesterday afternoon, conceding my inevitable defeat to the powerhouse duo of Nick Breckon and Chris Remo. I finished a solid third in the game, and maintained my territorial integrity far longer than anyone initially thought possible.

There is so much potential in a game like this. But it goes unrealized. Problems bedevil this design, not least of which is the fact that it becomes increasingly burdensome to play. The technology progression only serves to make the game happen faster, as ships travel through space more quickly thanks to upgrades. Battles also become deadlier, because the ships are better armed. So the stakes get higher and the game moves faster, which means you have to spend even more time watching it, despite the fact that it is not appreciably more interesting.

The other problem comes from how players interact with the game. With most boardgames or email strategy games, everyone is on roughly equal footing. But with a persistent, synchronous strategy game, the game is skewed by the fact that people are trying to fit this game into everyday life. We had relatively strong players vanish from the game just because they took the weekend off. Neptune’s Pride, so dependent on shifting alliances and power-balancing, can get thrown into chaos because someone visited some friends out of town.

So here’s how my game went:

I started strong, and diplomatically isolated two of my neighbors. However, in honoring my agreements with an ally, I ended up doing the lion’s share of the fighting in a two-front war. I saw that the game rewarded being a vulture. There is no way to fight a war without getting torn to shreds, especially since the game heavily favors the defender. But a third-party joining a war late will clean up. At the end of a grueling two-front war, I had expanded my holdings only very modestly.

Here, and for the only time in the game, I made a significant mistake. I took a weekend to watch how the game developed, and did not attack my weaker neighbors.

However, the game was already being lost across the map. For some reason, nobody else seemed to realize that Remo and Breckon were collaborating. Their neighbors sat paralyzed while they were picked off one by one. Bryan Mark saw the trouble early, but none of his neighbors intervened against Remo or Breckon when he was under attack. By the time they started to realize that Remo and Breckon were a major problem, they were too weak to do anything. They waited, even though time was against them.

Then Megill seemed to lose interest in the game. As Wasteland and I formed an alliance to head off Breckon’s expansion in the north, Megill stripped his empire of ships and hurled them at Breckon. Unfortunately, this eliminated him as a balancing force. At that point, the game was over. It would go on for another week and a half, but it was over at that moment. If Megill, Wasteland, and I had held a line against Remo and Breckon, we might have stood them off. But with Megill’s collapse, Remo doubled in power. The rest of the game was a slow delaying action as I fell back to my core star systems.

So what went wrong? I say two things, neither of which could be foreseen. First, Megill giving up on the game. At the time he cashed out, he was running a solid third in the game. He was in deep trouble, sharing a border with Breckon and Remo, but he might have held out with alliances. With his departure, the entire balance of the game (which had existed from Day 1) was destroyed.

Second, Remo was never really playing to win, and I’m not sure Neptune’s Pride really works if people are not aiming for victory. Breckon and Remo were able to win because they could trust one another and collaborate on their strategy. On my half of the map, nobody could trust anybody that far. The whole game is founded on reciprocal paranoia. I think I could have trusted Justin Keverne far more than I ever did, but our border made that impossible. He was only ever a 12-hour jump away from my most crucial systems, so I had to watch him. Megill was surrounded by potential betrayers,  but was also powerful enough to crush some of his neighbors. Paralysis set in.

Remo and Breckon were freed from that system, which meant they were basically free from the game’s constraints. That gave them a huge advantage that nobody else really enjoyed, and that was ultimately what decided the game.

However, I’m not sure when they decided that Breckon would win and Remo would settle for second. Remo mentioned that he thought he could have confronted Breckon, but he was going on vacation and also did not want to deal with having to backstab a personal friend. Real-life concerns, once again, played a huge role in the game’s outcome.

Remo also argued that the game rewards second and so that is a viable goal, but I’m not really sure about that. I think the rewards for finishing second or third are consolation prizes for people who go the distance, but I suppose that is up to the player. But games like this depend on everyone sharing an understanding of what the object of the game is.

Or do they? Neptune’s Pride is an odd game. It is designed so that real-life can easily interfere with it, so perhaps Remo is correct. The “magic circle” is porous from the start, and that contributes to the game’s unpredictability. On the other hand, that does not seem like a recipe for good strategy gaming, which is about making plans and choices within a well-defined system.