Posts Tagged ‘ Troy Goodfellow

Quo Vadimus

A couple springs ago, I logged into Quarter to Three and saw that I had a private message from Troy Goodfellow. I’d run across his name when I was researching another piece I’d written for The Escapist, but I didn’t know much more about him. He liked an article I’d done for them, and wanted to tell me so.

I don’t know many writers who go out of their way to drop messages of appreciation to their juniors, but Troy does. He was willing to chat a bit with me over the next few months, and provide advice and counsel when I needed it. And then at some point he brought me in to help out with a feature series he was running, and shortly thereafter he brought me onto Three Moves Ahead to fill in for Julian and Bruce.

Freelancing often comes down to who you know, and whether or not they like you. Troy reached out to me and opened far more doors than I could have hoped for, starting with his invitation to become a regular 3MA panelist. He vouched for me to editors, and he helped me build an identity and reputation. He is generous with his assistance to those he believes in, and I am very lucky to have won his confidence. There are not many so generous with help in so competitive a field, and games writing is losing more than you might think as Troy transitions to a career in PR.

On his way out the door, he has given me some more amazing opportunities and responsibilities. The one I want to talk about right now is Three Moves Ahead.

Continuity and Change

When 3MA began, it had four incredibly qualified panelists on hand to discuss strategy games. Julian has a very deep well of experience from which he can draw when it comes board games. Troy and Tom Chick know the strategy genre better than any other writers in the US, and more importantly, they can communicate their understanding to readers and listeners. Bruce knows wargames inside and out, and has a logician’s approach to discussion.

Had that group continued to have the type of conversations it did in the first half of 3MA’s life, I would likely never have been a part of it, and the show would be none the worse. They were a great panel and I still consider many of their episodes to be the gold standard against which I judge those I’ve been a part of.

But other commitments made it hard for four or even three of the panelists to record together, and their busy work schedules made it very hard for them to coalesce around a topic on short-notice. Remember that I came aboard as a semi-regular fill-in, and one of the great advantages Troy had in working with me is that I was chronically under-employed and was willing to crash-research a game or a topic. Until joining 3MA, I had never considered myself a strategy gamer. It just happened to be a genre where I spent a third of my gaming time. But I liked 3MA, I was honored to be helping out, and I was learning a lot. I dug into the genre so that I could make more valuable contributions. But I don’t flatter myself in to thinking that I bring what Tom or Bruce does to an episode.

So as I take over the show, one of my goals is to get the mixture of panelists closer to how it was in earlier episodes. It’s a better show when we have a larger group of intelligent people examining the topic at hand. Hopefully Tom and Bruce can help out from time-to-time, but I’m also hoping to add enough depth to the bench that the show is less dependent on me and Julian. In this vein, I’m also hoping to have longer fuses on each 3MA, so that we can better prepare for a topic. If we can get these two things right, I am certain 3MA will be as good as it’s ever been.

All that said, I have different tastes and views than Troy. My definition of what constitutes a strategy game is probably closer to Tom Chick’s heretical “everything is a strategy game.” While I’d never do an episode on Bioshock 2 like he wanted, I might do an episode on the Brothers in Arms series. Not all my favorite games are strategy games, but almost all my favorite games have significant strategic or tactical elements. From time to time, I will beg your forgiveness as I try to catch glimpses of strategy existing outside its natural habitat.

Likewise, it is inevitable that my increasing interest in board games, and Julian’s knowledge of the format, will result in board games playing a larger role on the show. However, I will try and ensure that board games come up in the context of theme shows where  they might be relevant, or when we uncover a particularly interesting game.

Beyond that, you should also expect more classic game analysis. Frankly, we haven’t really scratched the surface of games that are worth revisiting. If we can get the planning right, there’s a wealth of rich topics waiting to receive attention. Episodes like this will also allow Troy to rejoin us on a regular basis.

These are small changes, but I think they could have a major impact on the show. I have other plans in the works: a site for the show, better production equipment and practices, and perhaps even taking the show twice  monthly if it means we can make better preparations and and deliver a better product. But some of these are minor changes, and others are just ideas, not plans. In the last analysis, 3MA answers to two groups: the panel, and the audience. I want those of us who record 3MA to be proud of our effort, and I want those of us who listen to it to come away feeling like it’s as interesting and thought-provoking as ever.

I don’t entirely know what that will entail, which is why I want your input and suggestions. In the meantime I am, as ever, honored by Troy’s trust, and the goodwill of the listeners who have been offering their congratulations and best-wishes since we made the announcement. I will do my best to live up to the standard he set.

Easy There, Tiger, That's a STRATEGY Game

Eagle-eyed Civ-aholic Troy Goodfellow spotted an odd subhead on GameSpy’s Civilization V preview that promised, “It’s not just for the hardcore anymore.” This brought Troy up a little short.

It’s not? When was it? Is Civilization a hardcore game for hardcore people? I tweeted my curiosity and was met with a nice chorus of replies from friends and colleagues. Former PC Gamer Editor in Chief Gary Whitta pointed out that Civ gives him migraines, and of course it is hardcore; anyone can pick up a shooter and know what to do. Kombo’s Tiffany Martin said that I was seeing the game from inside my strategy gamer bubble where Civ is positively user friendly compared to, say, Hearts of Iron.

Reading this, I felt a mixture of bewilderment and outrage. Because the Civilization series has always made a point of keeping the door wide open for anyone who is interested in giving it a try, and it still gets written off as a niche title because it is a strategy game.

This touches a raw nerve. I still remember a community of gamers that seemed less picky and less intimidated by genre barriers. My friends and I were thirteen year-old renaissance men, talking Civ at morning recess (my friend CJ once proposed that we discuss “Feats of the Phalanx”, because the quirky rules of Civilization sometimes led to a phalanx wiping out a modern battleship or artillery), describing TIE Fighter dogfights over lunch, and chainsawing our way through Doom by night. Mindless, savage violence comprised no more than a third – well, definitely not more than half – of our gaming lives. Strategy was just another kind of game, but not another kind of gamer.

I still don’t really accept the categorization and audience-splitting that is widely taken for granted, especially because so much of it seems arbitrary. To my way of thinking, Civilization is more accessible than a Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2, or even an Arkham Asylum. Those games all presume motor skills and intuition that have been honed by years of 3D action gaming, but good luck if you didn’t grow up playing games like that. Acquired tastes like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and any JRPG are treated like general-interest videogames.

“But those involve basic skills,” you say. Most gamers can use WASD or dual-analogue sticks to drop the crosshairs on a target, and anyone can press the buttons required to advance the story in a JRPG. True, but what does a game like Civilization really entail?  Not on the intermediate or advanced difficulties, but at its most basic.

Not a lot. No motor skills, certainly. And the game is wonderfully self-explanatory. You start in the Stone Age, you build a city, and then it asks you if you want to research The Wheel or Hunting. It doesn’t require a lot of insight to figure out what those technologies might let you do, and the game makes sure to tell you the specifics right there in the research window. And that’s pretty much how Civilization rolls. Common sense takes you 85% of the way, the game’s own tooltips and help text take you the last 15%. All you have to do is make some plans, try to think ahead, and play along.

But the moment a game, any game, asks you to do those things consciously, it gets the marginalizing treatment. Which is ridiculous, because these are no more special skills than walking or speaking. You can’t get through a day without hatching a plan or adapting to circumstances.

On Three Moves Ahead, I think there’s a good reason that Tom Chick jokingly calls every game he happens to like a strategy game. Maybe he is just trying to bother Troy by bringing up shooters, but I suspect he has a point. The games I engage with are the ones that force me to strategize and live by my wits. It doesn’t matter if they are shooters, flight sims, or wargames: if it demands planning and tactics, I probably like it.

Now you could argue that these other genres have proven to have broader appeal, either through sales or through the readership drawn by articles covering them. But I can’t help but think we’re in the presence of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. If people are constantly being bombarded with the message that a game is somehow for an elitist niche audience, they’re going to be turned off well in advance. Eventually they might decide the entire genre is for specialists, with no room for the mildly interested novice. Then we get more articles that begin from the position that a game or a genre is flawed because it is too hardcore and too demanding, and something different should be done to convince more people to give it a try.

We can’t be pushing developers to make strategy games for people who don’t like strategy games, but that’s what we’re doing when we say that Civilization is somehow suffering from a major accessibility problem. Do you honestly think anyone would have run a preview where someone asked Infinity Ward, “So, some people really disliked the fact you had to control your character and shoot other characters in a modern military setting. How are you going to fix that problem with Modern Warfare 2?”

I’ve always considered convincing people to try new things to be a part of my job. There are a lot of reasons why someone might not like EU3, but when I wrote about the game, I tried to show the reasons why someone might love it, even in spite of those obstacles. Fourteen years ago, my friend CJ begged me to give Civilization a try, despite the fact that it sounded lame, because Civilization is not a name that promises action and excitement. But I tried it just so he would shut up, and that experience changed my life.

The irony of the story is that I was basically right about Civilization. It was a civilization builder with square units and cities on tiles. I built granaries and invented simple tools. There was no action, and no excitement in the sense that I usually used the word. It turns out I didn’t really know what I would like. That was my problem, not Civilization’s.

One Move Behind – Year One

Troy Goodfellow celebrated the anniversary of Three Moves Ahead with Episode 53 last night, and we spent an hour or so talking about the last year and our relationship to the podcast. My own anniversary with Three Moves Ahead will not arrive until Episode 94, but I have been listening since week one. And believe me, that first episode was not easy to listen to.

Long before I had even the inkling that I might be a panelist, Three Moves Ahead was one of my favorite gaming podcasts. It was different in style and content from the other podcasts I listened to, and I valued the contrast. After GFW Radio went silent, there was a dearth of intelligent, PC-oriented gaming discussion. Especially for someone who played as many strategy games as shooters and doesn’t give a damn about the Japanese game industry. Three Moves Ahead arrived in the nick of time.

More than the other podcasts I listened to, TMA was about ideas and understanding. At its best, the show is closer to a seminar than a gaming podcast. The panelists arrive with different areas of expertise and slightly different views on what strategy games should be, and each is legitimately interested in what the other has to say. I came away from most episodes feeling like I understood games a bit better than I had before.

Last night they talked about the Mark Walker interview / “debacle” (as Troy called it). But kidding aside, I’ve never understood why they felt that conversation took a wrong turn. It was an intense discussion about game design with a game designer, and they weren’t trashing his game so much as they were offering a strong critique and interrogating him about some of his core design decisions. It’s the kind of thing I wish I heard more of, not less. On a lesser podcast, with less informed and passionate people, an interview like that might have degenerated into rudeness. On Three Moves Ahead, it remained a spirited discussion from beginning to end. And by the time they signed off, I was intensely interested in Lock N Load, a title I had not cared about at all only an hour earlier.

If you asked me what I think separates Three Moves Ahead from its peers, aside from its strategy focus, I would have to say that it’s the panelists’ impatience for having their time wasted. Between their diverse interests and their often busy professional lives, they do not need games merely to stave off boredom and make the hours pass. They demand engaging and thought-provoking experiences.

As a listener and a fan, I think Troy and the other panelists have done a great job of holding Three Moves Ahead to that same standard. I am grateful that he gave me the chance to be a part of it, and to the listeners who helped him decide that I should remain a part of it. I look forward to Year Two.

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

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.

Looking Back at the Aughts

For the next several weeks, I’m going to be working with my friend and colleague Troy Goodfellow on a special project over at Flash of Steel. Troy is wrapping up 2009 with a decade retrospective on strategy gaming since the turn of the millenium, and he was kind enough to invite me to contribute. Troy, Bruce Geryk, and myself are picking out a game from each year of the decade that we think was significant in some way.

In true strategy gamer tradition, we don’t remotely agree one what constitutes a strategy game, so you may see some eyebrow-raising choices over the next couple months. We’ll probably stretch and twist the definition pretty mercilessly.

Anyway, I kicked things off yesterday with a piece on Shogun: Total War. It’s not my favorite of the Total War series, but I would argue it is the most important and perhaps the most interesting. So come gaze into the Pensieve, and together we will revisit 2000, and a pivotal moment in my life as a gamer.