Posts Tagged ‘ Three Moves Ahead

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.

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.

One Move Behind – Narrative & Stairway Thoughts

I have hit saturation point with 2 v 2 Age of Mythology comp-stomps, I realized last night. My girlfriend and I had a date for some LAN gaming, but the thought of more AoM made me a little ill. What we need to do, I realize, is just bite the bullet and get another copy so that we can go play online. But for some reason, paying $20 for a game we already own just rubs us the wrong way.

While we were negotiating what else we could play (a conversation that requires UN mediation), I noticed Skype was blinking at me. Troy was about to record Three Moves Ahead and it was looking like it was going to be just him and Julian Murdoch unless I could join. The topic was narrative and story in strategy games, and we were recording in three minutes. I ran over to the bar, poured a drink, and got back to the computer just as the call began.

Given the lack of prep time, I was surprised at how well the podcast went. It’s one of my favorites. It turns out I had lots of things to say on this subject, as did Troy and Julian. Nevertheless, within ten minutes of wrapping up the podcast I had thought of a couple things I should have said.

First, I made the argument that the nature of a strategy game doesn’t gel with the nature of story, which is all about the author manipulating events. Strategy games are more systemic than shooters, because their mechanics are inseparable from competition between players. Julian, in what I consider an almost criminal abuse of semantic agility, made the case that all games are systems and this is no more a problem for strategy games as it is for shooters. Shooter fans are as focused on multiplayer as strategy players.

Seeing both sides of an argument tripped me up here, but on reflection I still think Julian was underplaying a key difference. The strategy game usually has no existence outside its multiplayer mechanics. Build a base, destroy the enemy base. Capture and hold some key locations. It’s the same in both multiplayer and single-player. That’s just not true in shooters.

The most popular FPS game modes (capture the flag, king of the hill, control point, assault-defend) have no single-player analogue. The single-player shooter is about a one-man army versus an actual army. All the systems that govern multiplayer depend on teams and magic-circle constructs: my team and I are going to defend this flagpole because that is the point of the game, and you are going to try and take it. We will all use different weapons that complement one another, and whoever fights best and coordinates best will win.

However, I do have an example of an FPS game that is a competitive system and tries to adapt that system to a single-player campaign: Section 8. Section 8 brings all the multiplayer mechanics into the campaign, and result is exactly the kind of brainless, repetitive missions you find in RTS campaigns. So there is a case in point for you.

Second, I wanted to mention World in Conflict as a great example for a story with great production values and some good characters that is hamstrung by the player’s lack of identity and its lousy mission structure. In World in Conflict and the Soviet Assault campaign, you play as the American Lt. Parker and the Soviet Lt. Romanov. Parker is ostensibly your narrator, Alec Baldwin, but he is mute in all the cutscenes involving other characters. He just nods while the NPCs argue with one another, at which point you have to ask why they bothered making your guy a character at all. At least he has an avatar, however, whereas Lt. Romanov is invisible. This gets awkward as the other characters make decisions that your guy would want to discuss, presumably. It’s especially bad in the Soviet campaign, where your character plays no role whatsoever in a growing schism among the Soviet leadership.

Worse, however, is the way the missions are crafted. No matter how dramatic the situation, each mission boils down to a list of menial errands. You start off capturing a hill  at the edge of a town, and are then sent to capture the bridge. You capture the bridge, but naturally the enemy destroys it before you can cross. Your commander then tells you that you have to march all the way around to the other side of the map and capture another hill. You go do that. Then he orders you to march around the map again (at this point you have traveled in a full circle) and take a road leading into the town. Then you have to go take the town. Then you have to hold it.

That is every mission in this game. Over and over again.  Just a lot of pointless marching around to different victory locations with the vague assurance that this is all very important.

Third, I wanted to mention the exact mission that made me stop playing the Company of Heroes campaign: the V-2 mission. Every WW2 game has some bullshit mission where you have to go infiltrate a Nazi base, usually to stop them launching V-1 or V-2 rockets. It’s always a Top Secret mission, which means that it’s obnoxiously difficult and you’re hamstrung from using most of your equipment.

I had played this exact mission, and variants of it, in a wide variety of shooters and strategy games. Running across it again in Company of Heroes, which was already straining itself trying to be Saving Private Band of Brothers: The RTS, was a bridge too far.

Oh, and I could have been more articulate about Myth, but it’s difficult to explain why that game works so well without getting into a serious discussion about its elements. Hopefully we’ll have a Myth retrospective on TMA, and really do the game justice.

One Move Behind – EU3: Heir to the Throne Edition

Troy Goodfellow asked me to fill the third seat on the Three Moves Ahead podcast over the weekend, so I spent a few days furiously playing the latest expansion in order to get a feel for some of the subtle yet significant changes Paradox has made to their flagship strategy game.

I have to admit I was really apprehensive about Heir to the Throne because it seemed like a solution in search of a problem, or perhaps a glorified patch. EU3 was not a game that I felt needed significant improvement or changes, and I was a bit put out that I’d bought the “Complete” edition only to have it rendered incomplete a few months later.

By and large, I think the expansion is a significant improvement over the Edition Formerly Known as Complete. Troy and Tom both felt that the casus belli system was good except for how much easier it made prosecuting wars. Now it’s very easy to start wars without suffering the instability that usually follows a war declaration. I don’t really agree with them, but I’m afraid that might be because they understand and game EU3′s rules much more effectively than I do.

One exploit I wanted to mention on the podcast, but it slipped my mind: the AI seems not to request military access to neutral countries (who are usually very willing to grant it). This wouldn’t be such a major issue except that it makes it very easy for the player to fight wars from the safety of neutral territory while the enemy is hemmed within its national borders. As England I fought both Burgundy and France using neutral kingdoms as the jumping-off points for my attacks. Even though I was clearly using Brittany and Aragon to maneuver against France, France never did anything about it. Makes it a little too easy to kite the AI.

The other thing I noticed as we were talking about EU3 is that it’s a dangerous game to start talking about, because you could very easily never stop. Frankly, I would love to do an entire show just talking about the way EU3 models diplomacy and international relations, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do a better job. There are so many things going on inside EU3 (especially with this expansion), and all the various components interact in such interesting ways, that there are endless nuances you could spend time dissecting. Plus, every game produces a host of, “This one time…” anecdotes.

Final caveats: my sound quality is a little dodgy on this episode, possibly because I couldn’t record in my office and had to use a laptop. So I may sound a bit like I’m podcasting from aboard the Nautilus. However, I also started coming down with a cold during the show, so if I sound a bit crummy, that probably why. As you listen to this show, you are listening to my health fail in real time.

Also, we all mostly recommended this expansion, but take Tom’s recommendation with a grain of salt. I think he may have been recommending In Nomine when he thought he was recommending Heir to the Throne.

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.