To Hell with "The Show"

I haven’t talked about it much here, but I’m a huge Formula 1 fan. I’ve been watching for about ten or fifteen years now, since around the time Michael Schumacher made his switch from Benetton to Ferrari. At this point I’m addicted to the racing, the engineering, the business, and all the melodrama that comprise an F1 season. Even with all the egotistical posturing and the ruinous politics that have marred the sport, I still tune in on race day to see the best drivers and racing teams in the world competing for the most prestigious title in motorsport. I simply cannot get it anywhere else.

After watching for so many years, and doing a great deal of reading and virtual racing, I see a lot of things that average viewers probably don’t.  I can see battles for position opening up well before cars appear to be dueling, just from the way the pursuing driver is taking corners. I scrutinize pit stops for the slightest misstep or wing adjustment, and can often tell you exactly why this stop took 9.2 seconds and that one took 10. I can see when a driver is beginning to have trouble with his tires, and can probably tell you why. F1 races often look uneventful, the same way golf or baseball can look boring and uneventful, but if you have a trained eye then most of them are fairly filled with interesting action. Just not wheel-to-wheel racing.

Yet it is something of an obsession within the sport’s governing body and among its fans to find ways to improve the show. The argument goes that F1 has become far too processional at the expense of the drivers’ duels that are the reason most people watch the sport in the first place. Something must be changed, perhaps the rules and regulations or the tracks, in order to make passing and fights for position more regular occurrences.

I love great drivers’ duels. The Hakkinen – Schumacher battles around the turn of  century, with first one then the other having the slightly better car, were a thrill to watch even if they weren’t going neck-and-neck most of the time. For years McLaren had the better cars and when Schumacher managed to get out in front of Hakkinen, it sometimes seemed like he was making a heroic fight against the inevitable as Hakkinen surgically trimmed the gap to nothing. Schumacher was perhaps never quite as good a race tactician as Hakkinen, but few drivers could wring as much performance from a car as Schumacher. The clash of styles and strengths was always fascinating to watch.

Perhaps there used to be a lot more of that kind of thing. Certainly in the 60s and 70s the running order seems to have been a lot more fluid, and longtime fans are quick to wax nostalgic about the great battles of the 80s and early 90s.

So it’s possible I’m biased toward the kind of F1 racing that I have always known: strategic and perfectionist. Passing opportunities come only rarely. Most races I’ve seen are about positioning and timing, and it’s not too often that drivers get in a dogfight for a points-paying position. It also makes those moments that much more fraught, because it’s difficult to battle back once a rival passes you.

In order to bring back “the show” that supposedly makes racing worth watching, however, we find ourselves facing the same kind of rule-tweaking and politicking that has made Formula 1 so dysfunctional. One of the major problems with modern Formula 1 cars, as opposed to those of the 60s, is that so much of their grip is aerodynamic rather than mechanical. In other words, they perform worse when they are near another F1 car, such as when you are trying to pass.

One of the reasons F1 cars are such high-performance vehicles is that they are covered in wings, winglets, and diffusers that generate grip. They are able to take turns at ridiculously high-speeds because the air itself is forcing them closer to the track. Problem is, they need “clean air” moving predictably and smoothly over the body in order for these elements to do their jobs. Out on a track by themselves, it’s not an issue. But if you’re chasing another F1 car, with the same aerodynamic elements leaving weird currents and air disturbances in their wake, then you have a major problem. The guy you’re chasing is getting everything from his aero elements, but your performance is suffering, which forces you to either back off or take serious risks.

The solution I hear proposed most often, and one they’ve tried to implement in various forms over the years, is to eliminate the number, type, and placement of aerodynamic elements that a Formula 1 car is allowed to have. Reduce the amount of aerodynamic group, leave the cars more dependent on mechanical grip (suspension and tires), and they will not suffer the same degraded performance in passing situations.

Problem is, they will likely be inferior race cars, incapable of matching the pace set by their aerodynamic siblings. In the name of improving the spectacle of F1, we would be turning the clock back 30 years and mooting the accumulated aerodynamic expertise of racing engineers who have steadily improving on their craft and learning ever more about how to make air interact better with a car’s body.

As I said, F1 is about the best drivers and team in the world competing at the highest level. Engineers are part of that, and to start reducing their role is to reduce the sport. If the cars have trouble passing because of the way they are designed, then that’s the nature of great racing machines. It’s not really a problem we should be trying to fix by hamstringing the cars or their designers.

Casual fans are always going to be clamoring for more, flashier action. A lot of people tune into baseball games and just wait for the home runs to start flying out of the park. NASCAR explicitly markets itself to yahoos who watch it for the crashes. I’m sure a lot of people just wish hockey was just made of brawls and shoot-outs. But that doesn’t mean these sports should go out of their way to cater to this uninvolved, sometime audience. F1 is a hell of a show if you know what you’re looking at: the culmination of the efforts of hundreds of talented, passionate professionals. There’s far more to it than passing.

(I just found this article on Grandprix.com, which is thorough and fascinating explanation of the techniques and physics of overtaking, and why modern F1 features so little close racing. I highly recommend it.)

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.

Accidental Hiatus

At the end of every year, I tally the books I read. Everyone in my family does this and we usually end up comparing reading lists around Christmas. My father is a very fast reader and can burn through a couple hundred books a year. I’m not as fast a reader and only ever managed around 100, but it was nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, I usually made it a point to read a wide variety of excellent books.

This year I checked my tally. 47. The worst year on record. Even allowing for the fact that I moved from Wisconsin to Boston, and was preoccupied with getting moved and settled for about two months, it’s a depressingly low number. To be honest, it’s also not a terribly impressive reading list.

My partner is on break right now and, even though I meant to stick to a mostly regular work schedule through the holidays, I’ve found myself getting more and more disconnected from games writing, world news, and even gaming itself a little bit. Instead of spending two hours a day patrolling my blog reader, I’ve spent days curled up in my chair, reading books. I haven’t given much thought to games, haven’t played them too much, and haven’t given Twitter more than a few passing glances.

Vacations, especially the ones you didn’t actually mean to take, have a way of pointing out things that are wrong and the ways they could be better. What I’ve realized over the past weeks is that I have let myself become to distracted, multi-tasked into oblivion. I read too much crap that I don’t care about, because for some reason I think it might be important to be able to say I’ve read something that, if I were brave enough to be honest, wasn’t worth reading. I spend too much time being immersed in “virtual worlds”, but never manage to get lost in a novel.

Now that vacation is winding down and deadlines are starting to dot the horizon, I am reluctantly conceding defeat and coming back to the internet’s hyperactive embrace. I have good friends here. But I will also be making more time for reading in quiet rooms, watching sports, and taking walks through this city that I am coming to adore. I hope that it makes me a better, more prolific writer than I have been in the last few months. I am sure that 2010 will find me a happier one.

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.