Thursday, March 22, 2007

Starting Up Da Shield!

Let me recount one of the most fun experiences I've had in a game. A long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was a lone, Imperial Starbase orbitting an Imperial stronghold. It was a dull day, as usual for this starbase. It wasn't responsible for producing any of the mighty ships of the imperial fleet, nor were any based here. It was just a simple outpost, guarding a remote sector. Until, of course, a Rebel contigent of blockade runners and frigates, accompanied by a few squadrons of fighters dropped out of hyperspace. I thought my space station was doomed. Little did I know how well the station alone could defend itself.

In Empire at War, space stations can call in a limitless supply of reinforcements. The level of the station determines what kind of reinforcements it can call in. The smallest stations have only fighters, while the bigger stations can call in Acclamator-class cruisers (the ships the clone troopers shipped out on in Episodes 2 and 3), each of which also has a squadron of bombers and fighters. These space stations, if used properly, can defend your sectors with relative ease. I've had one amazing showdown between a large rebel fleet, including Home One and another Mon Cal cruiser, and my lvl 5 space station. I won, but not without taking a lot of damage. The defensibility of the space station makes defense a fun task, instead of a chore.

I have to admit, this concept is only really applicable to space and sector-based games, and it very well may only work well with a game like Empire at War. However, I think it is a very awesome feature, and certainly makes an enemy assault fun, instead of something to dread. The dread comes in when your space station is damaged heavily, and your reinforcements are minutes away.

Imperial Bastion

So, Star Wars: Rebellion has an inherent flaw. It is almost impossible to gain control of a well fortified planet without literally blasting it to pieces. I experienced this aspect just the other day, when trying to gain control of Commenor, an Imperial held planet with a dozen squadrons of TIE fighters and intercepters, as well as twelve squads of various imperial troops and a General Veers in command.

Let me explain some things to you about this situation. First, a planet blockaded with an enemy fleet, or with fighters is harder to run missions on (because units have trouble getting there). Secondly, every additional unit of troopers on a planet makes each mission harder to succeed at. The third problem, is having an enemy General on the planet, which increases the chances your mission will be detected and foiled. So, all three of these aspects make it extremely difficult to run a mission on the enemy planet. So, running missions on the planet to kill troops, destroy facilities, and capture the enemy general is just a waste of units.

So, what is left to do? Invade with a space force, and take decisive action by planetary bombardment or assault. The first problem, is taking out the opposing space force. At this time, I was running around with a few frigates and an escort carrier, with very few starfighters left operational. Once invading the system is complete, the planet is still sitting there as a fortress.

Planetary bombardment is often difficult. It has many problems, especially if the enemy has planetary shields and laser batteries. Your fleet is likely to be heavily damaged from the space battle, and you will loose ships if the enemy has a laser battery. Also, bombardment lessens your opinion in that system, and will cause neutral planets to join your enemy.

Alternatively, you can invade before bombardment. This means that the units you can carry with you will take on the entire enemy force. They have two disavantages: the enemy general and the defensive power of the planet. Both of these things make anything but an overwhelming invasion (2 or 3 times as many troops) impossible.

What's the point of this discourse? Simple, a nearly impenetrable base should not exist in any game. Difficult to crack, yes, but never so difficult to crack that it takes a significant part of your resources and actually hinders your ability to play the game. Let's face it, it's easier to blockade that planet, and any other fortresses, and wait for the units to be destroyed from lack of maintanance resources. There needs to be a way in to defeat the enemy.

Monday, March 19, 2007

We Can Rebuild Him...

Progress must invariably be made, and in Video Games, nothing is better than seeing your old units get upgraded and become better and better. Let's face it, we like it when our stuff gets bigger and better.

We looked at the research system in Evil Genius already, but the research system in Star Wars: Rebellion is much different. In Rebellion, you don't so much select individual projects as assign research teams to start work in one of three areas: facility deisgn, ship design, and troop design. To progress, you must assign a hero to work on design, and wait...and wait...and wait. Your hero will provide you with regular progress reports, and ask if you want to continue research. Eventually, you'll unlock more and more ships and facitlities and troops. At the end of everything, your hero will tell you that there's no more research potential, and you can stop researching.

The benefit of this type of research is that it feels real, and it doesn't tie up too many of your resources. Yes, you can assign multiple heroes to research, but you really only need one. You can research everything and only tie up three of your heroes. The minimal resources for research is very nice in a strategy game where every hero counts.

What is also nice is that you are told if you still have any research potential, or if everything is researched. More often than not, you aren't told that you're done with research, and still send funding to it, wasting those resources. Knowing when your research is done is almost vital to accurate resources management.

So, to recap Rebellion's research style is very user friendly. You can set a hero to research, and forget about him until he mentions that progress has or hasn't been made. You'll be made very aware that your research is done, as well. This system works well, and was remarkable for it's time. For newer games, however, there's a need for further interactivity in research. The simplicity is both boon and bane of Rebellion.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Rebel Scum

For those of us who enjoy Star Wars, we know that the heroes are everything. Let's face it, the whole damned universe revolves around the plot involving Luke and Vader. All the supporting plot elements involve huge characters as well. Boba Fett, Han Solo, Leia, Mara Jade, Wedge Antilles, etc. We all know that these names make the universe what it is.

Which is why it's no surprise that heroes are such a big deal in Star Wars: Rebellion. Basically, each side has about 30 unlockable heroes, each of which is free, compared to units that can accomplish comporable missions, and can grow in power, as opposed to units which stay the same. Also, special forces are limited to one kind of mission, whereas heroes can go on two or more types of missions. Also, while there's a chance that heroes can be killed outright, it is rare, whereas special forces are cannon fodder. Heroes are much more likely to be injured or captured than killed.

In Empire At War, heroes take a lesser role. Yes, they are still powerful (there's one mission where the emperor alone takes on a whole planet of bothans), but far from unbeatable. Damage them enough, and they'll retreat and be unavailable on the galactic map for a short time. In tactical mode, they provide a definate advantage or raw combat power, but never enough so that they're unbalanced. EAW turns unbalanced, superhuman heroes and brings them more in line with the rest of the units. They're still heroic, but not to the point of being Gods.

Which brings us to the concept here. Heroes can work well in a game. They're present in ever-increasing numbers these days, and in some cases it works really well. The thing to note, however, is that heroes alone should not be able to win the game, and they need to be kept in balance with the other units in the game. Command and Conquer: Generals did a good job of this. Colonol Burten, Black Lotus, and Jarmen Kell are all very powerful, and damned deadly when micromanaged. However, Burten is very vulnerable, especially to gattling fire, when he's setting bombs. Black Lotus can't defend herself, and is vulnerable when using any of her abilities. Jarmen Kell's ability only works on vehicles every 30 seconds, and leaves him open long enough to be hit and killed.

Balance is key to heroes, as with everything. They must not be the entire game. Even Neverwinter Nights relied on henchmen, NPCs, and pets to some extent, and that was a game entirely about heroes. Heroes are an addition to the game, not a game maker.

Next time: I'll explore Research as it applies in a Rebellion and an Empire At War.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Beta Testing Too

Well, Rich replied to my last post, mentioning Beta Testing, and so, now I have to talk about that too.

Open Beta testing is probably one of the worst ideas ever. It does two very bad things. 1. It makes the players aware of the hidden mathematics and systems in the game (which is just asking for exploitation) and 2. It gives players an unfinished product, and makes them think that their suggestions will actually be listened to.

The first point is something people often actually want. Let's face it, in the MMO world especially, knowing the precise math behind your actions can make things work a lot smoother than they would otherwise. If you know exactly how many points of agility per point of strength you need for that uber character, then you're just a little better than that guy who's just guessing. For a player, knowing the math also means less in-game experimentation and fun. Figuring out the game and how it works is often most of the fun of the game, by beta testing you loose a lot of that.

For a Game Developer, knowing exactly how the math works means exploits are easy. You start seeing very specific hacking, and players utilizing strange combinations of items to produce a profound effect. If the players know the math, they will use that for any advantage they can, whether these advantages are legal or not.

The second problem with beta testing is the simple fact that players get to see the inner workings of the game. They get first-hand experience of game elements that may not make it to final production, and they get to see what the game developers are really like. They also get to see the broken game, before it is polished and finished. These aspects can quickly sour a player to a game.

Also, players who beta test ofen have a lot of good ideas, all of which cannot possibly be implimented. A good idea may be cast to the way-side. Sometimes, this means a loss in faith of the dev team. Sometimes, a really good idea is skewed by the devs, and it seems ruined. Players often don't forget these infractions.

Something to weight carefully when considering a beta test is the potential for fixes and retooling beta testing provides compared to the raw impact of a released game. Beta testing takes away some of that thunder, because gamers, like everyone else, want to be the first to try something. Games loose some appeal after a beta test (unless it's an amazing game, and then they only gain speed).

Overall, beta testing has more negatives than positives. It doesn't really fix all that much more than an in-house testing could, and often releases too much information about a potential game. I just don't think it's worth it to have any sort of beta testing outside of the gaming company.

So, up next is a continuation of Star Wars: Rebellion. Stay tuned.


I saw a comment to my rant about pictures on game boxes, and it brings up an interesting point. Owen writes that "All games should have demos." I'm not sure I fully agree, but I think that demos serve a very important role to the gaming industry.

Anyone who's seen the Spore trailer is probably waiting less than patiently for the game to be released. Now, what if there were a demo for the game? You'd go out, download it, and try to make it reveal every secret about the game before it's released.

So what happens if the demo is poorly contrsucted, locks up, crashes...the graphics aren't quite what you expect...things don't work as promised...what do you do in that situation? Well, chances are it will turn you off to the game. It doesn't matter if all these bugs are fixed in production, it will still sour your mood to Spore.

However, if the game is awesome, then you'll be expecting even greater things from the full version. You'll get even more impatient and end up cursing the guys who released an early demo for you to play. You'd be hooked on it, and unable to escape the draw of the game.

That's how demos work. Games that can develop amazing demos almost always tease you, excluding important features but showing you enough of the game to hook you. It's like having a clear class cookie jar with a solid, steel lock on it. You can see the delicious cookie, but can't touch or eat it.

If the demo doesn't work, and is bad, it probably is never released. The developers rely instead on their game box and advertising to sell their product instead of a shaky demo. Sometimes, these demos get released after production is done, or get leaked, though.

The problem is that demos are often created as an offshoot of the actual game. They tend to include many aspets of the game, but there are key differences. Features will be removed from games, or added, and the demo is left lacking because it was concurrently created. Often, the demo will tease a player with a cool idea or feature that was removed from the game after the demo was released.

So, bottom line in my thinking, a demo is only viable if it is released after the game is "finished," and even then it's only good if it accurately reflects the game. It's also my experience that games without demos are more likely to by pirated*, because let's face it...if you can't take a car for a test drive, you're not going to go buy it on a whim. Pirating is like a free test drive, because you don't have to buy the game in order to test it out.

Tomorrow: Star Wars Rebellion's finest men and women.

*I do not condone software piracy. While I will admit it has uses, it is wrong to take something that is not yours. Video Game piracy is no diferent than walking into a store and taking the game box off the shelf and walking out with it. If everyone stole games, no game company would waste money making them.

A Galaxy Far...Far...Far...Far...Far...

Finally, I'm getting to one of my favorite old games. Star Wars Rebellion was published a decade ago...suddenly I feel really old. Anyway, for it's time, it was the pinnacle of large-scale strategy games. For it's time, it had a good UI, excellent balance, an innovative tactical mode to a strategy game. For it's time, it was THE Star Wars game to play.

However, today is a decade after it's time, so what worth can be found in this game? Well, there's gotta be some good, because Lucas Arts decided to remake the game as Star Wars: Empire At War, which is basically an upgrade to Rebellion. It's important to look at the aspects that carried over: a unique tactical subsystem in the strategy game, and the possibility for a huge, immersive game.

The tacitcal subsystem is more important as an idea in Rebellion than as an execution. The space combat was clunky and hard to see what was going on. The camera controls sucked, and all in all, it usually ended better letting the computer calculate out the result. Basically, in Rebellion bigger ships > smaller ships, and a fleet of larger ships usually outlived a much more massive fleet of smaller ships. The importance of this idea in Rebellion is how it transferred over to Empire At War. In EAW, every battle is tactical, and every map is unique. The game requires at least some skill, tactically, as well as ability on the strategic map. That is what being a galactic commander is all about.

The second great part of Rebellion is the scope of the game. The smallest Rebellion game type has about 100 systems. This leads to games that take hours if not days to fully paly out. Don't get me wrong, I do have a life, but that kind of massive scope is delicious. Having a single game that could last days is an awesome feeling, and fully conveys the scope of this galactic war. EAW scales this back a bit, but still consists of huge, diverse maps. Large maps work well for this kind of game.

It's important to note that, contrary to Yoda's teachings, size matters. A game that's premise involves a single island (a la Evil Genius) doesn't need to go beyond that island very much. A game where you fight to control the galaxy, needs a galaxy to control. Scope is very important to games. Morrowind was gimped, in my opinion, because the island was a little confining and small (once you got to the end of the game and got all the stilt strider points at least). Games like WOW are almost too big to be effective. It's all a balancing act, and everything must be done to correspond with the game itself.

Up next: More on Rebellion's Hero System

Friday, March 16, 2007

What happened?

So when did game companies decide that putting screenshots and game features on the game boxes was a bad idea? I walked into the store the other night and picked up a box or two, and saw maybe one, badly zoomed out shot with no idea of how the UI looks like. Often, most of the box is taken up by arbitrary artwork that has nothing to do with the game. Yes, that is a great picture of what a massic army looks like, but I'd rather see what it looks like in the game. How can I judge if I want the game, if I don't see anything about it?

I guess that's part of the new marketing. If we just showed you the game, you may not be interested in it, so we're gonna show you a really cool picture. Look, here's something shiny, give me your money. I just find this a little depressing. There are a lot of games that could be good, but looking at the box makes me not want to spend the money on a potentially bad game. If a game company isn't willing to show me the game before I purchase it, then I'm not going to purchase it.

Let's face it, it's kinda like buying a car after only seeing a picture of a really nice looking car. There's no promise that that is your new car, and you don't get to see it until you buy it. It's totally assanine, when you think about it. What's the harm in putting a screenshot on the back of the game? I'd rather buy a bad-looking game than gamble on a pretty picture with no look into the real game. Given game mechanics, the bad-looking game probably has a solid system and game underneath the bad graphics.

Anyway, I'm ranting now. Tomorrow, I'll take a look at Star Wars: Rebellion.

Ironic Bonds

We all have seen at least one James Bond movie (or failing that, an Austin Powers movie). We know how it works. No matter how many minions, henchmen, and devious traps the Evil Genius has laid out, the lone superagent with his PP7 get the jump on the whole base, and foil the plot.

Yeah...that's how it happens in real life. That's why the CIA employs thousands of people instead of just one.

In Evil Genius, the cliche of James Bond appears five times. There are five superagents, one from each of the world powers. These superagents don't appear until you reach a certain level of notoriety, but once they do, they can only be eliminated in one unique way for each of them. For instance, you take the typical Bond-girl superagent (complete with bikini, which is the best gear to spy in) and strap her to a plastic surgery table and make her ugly. You can eliminate four of the five agents by in-game actions and missions before the end of the game. The last superagent, however, you can only kill by strapping him to your doomsday rocket and launching it, which is pretty much the end of the game.

So, before you can kill these agents, they wander around, blowing stuff up, killing your minions, and all that do-gooder stuff. The problem is that, even if you "kill" them, they are really only incapacitated. They will recover stats slowly, but soon will rise again to harass you. One of these agents is enough, but it's possible to have all five beating down the doors of your base. Since there's only one way to eliminate them, they are nearly indestructable.

Which leads me to the point of this post: No enemies or units in any game should be indestructible, or have only one way to kill them. I understand many games incorporate tough enemies, and I'm not against that. Let's face it, World of Warcraft is successful partly because the toughest enemies require large, diverse groups of players to defeat. Also, Neverwinter Nights (another of my favorite games) had several bosses that were very difficult to beat unless you did things in a certain order or had certain items. The thing I'll note is, there are multiple strategies for dealing with WOW bosses, and in Neverwinter Nights, you can blunder through the game without a walkthrough or strategy and defeat bosses in many ways. Some are obviously harder (such as not having a cleric when fighting hordes of undead) but they are still do-able.

A good game has enemies that are challenging, but beatable. Bosses especially should push a player to their limits to some extent. It's okay for a player to have to reload a saved game and try to beat a boss a second time. Heck, WOW guilds run in to beat the same boss 20 or more times if they don't succeed the first time. It's all about balance and fun, relative the boss. There shouldn't be only one way to beat any character in a game.

I'll make one caveat here. There are instances, especially in the Final Fantasy game, of boss fights where there is only one way to win. These work only because they are done once or perhaps twice, and they serve to further the plot. This creates a tricky balance, but a boss that's only limitedly defeatable should be an exception, not the rule, and should only be done for further gameplay, storyline, and fun.

Up next, we move away from Evil Genius and on to an older game: Star Wars Rebellion.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Progress must be made

Amost every game these days has some form of research or upgrades or ages or something. Basically, you pay a bunch of resources to get some sort of improvement or new unit or building or something. Evil Genius is no different, but this research system has a twist.

We looked at the tag system in my last post, and briefly touched research. Now let's look at it full-on. Basically, to do research in evil genius, you need a research lab, research machine, one or more research tools (the most cliched of which is the big laser you can strap prisoners to, which every evil genius has on their Christmas lists), and, of course, science minions. Basically, what happens, is your idle science minions wander throughout your base taking notes, until they have that eureka moment and find that the chalkboard in your lab might have research potential! When this happens, you get a flashing notifier that something is available for research.

You go to the research screen, and then select what you tool you want to use to research with. Let's use the Impact Stress Analyzer for our example, because a machine that hits glass sample jars with big hammers and leaves them undamaged is awesome. So, you order your research, your minion runs to the chalkboard, gathers samples, then runs to the Impact Stress Analyzer and runs the samples through it. After they've been pounded, he puts them in the research machine for analysis, and viola, you get the plans for a nuclear reactor. Don't ask me how a chalkboard hit repeatively becomes a nuklear reactor, but aparently Iran should invest in chalk and big hammers if it has nuclear ambitions.

I am torn on this form of research for two main reasons. I like this form of research because it feels like there is no limit to the amount of stuff that can be researched. Also, the loot you steal often has research potential, making it fun and beneficial to take things that aren't yours.

The problem with it is waiting. Don't get me wrong, I can wait patiently in-game, but waiting for your minion to think that running parts of the big screen through the centerfuge is a good idea is just boring as hell. Not to mention the fact that if you want to research everything, you often have to have at least one of everything sitting around your base, which leads to space problems. Heck, the loot I have sitting in my staff room takes up way to much space, and they don't even want to research any of that.

So, the basics of it. The research form is good, in that it seems limitless, and you never quite know what you're going to get. It keeps the game fresh, and strategies innovative. On the downside, however, you run the risk of waiting a very, very, very, very, very long time for that little technician to decide that shooting everything in your base with the big laser might be cool.

Next time, more Evil Genius. We'll look at those dastardly super agents that are just far enough away from James Bond characters to avoid a lawsuit.

Evil Evil Evil

Ok, so I started playing Age of Empires 3 again, but that fact that it was my second day blogging here and I'd already fallen behind what I was going to post stopped me. So here's the dirt on Evil Genius.

Evil Genius is a game where *Gasp* you play an evil genius trying to take over the world. Naturally, the forces of good don't like you gathering henchmen and pilfering stuff from around the world, and they certainly don't want you to build any doomsday devices, so they start swarming you from almost the get-go.

But enough background, and into the game. The thing that you will notice almost immediatly is the tag system. Instead of ordering units directly, like most other games, in Evil Genius, you have to tag objects, enemies, and places for your minions to go to. In other words, you have no real control over your minions, but can order them around rather easily.

The good part of this is you don't have to micromanage as much. You order some stuff, and eventually it'll get placed. You don't worry about the nitty-gritty, you're too busy worrying about your world domination plans. In terms of generating the real feeling of being an evil genius, the tag system does absolute wonders.

The downside to the tag system is the fact that there is no direct way of controlling your minions. They tend to get lost, do stupid things, build things in an illogical order, move things in an even more illogical order. You will find yourself at some point having too many minions in one area, and none of them able to move. The only solution is to have your genius execute some to clear the way, or have your henchmen gather minions and move them away. The longer you play the game, the more you get used to these things, and the more you secretly hate the tag system.

Another bad part of having no control over your minions is research. I'll be covering the research part of Evil Genius in my next post, but the basic problem, in relation to the tag system, is that you can't order your minions to scan certain objects for use in research. They have to find them themselves, and decide that it's a good idea. Also, if they ever abandon research for any strange reason (they are fickle little technicians) they will only very rarely pick it up again. Since you can't order them to keep researching, the project has to be abandoned and you have to wait for them to decide that it might be worth researching again.

So, the basics of a tag system. It is great to lessen micromanaging. It can really speed up gameplay, and it can lead to a very in-depth feel to certain game types (like Evil Genius). The obvious downsides are lack of control and a need for a very optimized AI. All in all, the tag system could be a good part of the perfect game, but I really doubt it will be included in many titles because of the demands on AI.

Coming up next: The Research system of Evil Genius.

Okay, I know...

I know I was going to talk about Evil Genius first, but I've been playing Age of Empires 3 for a little bit today, and I have to mention how much I like the idea of Home City Levelling. For those of you who haven't played this game, the premise is that you are establishing a colony in the new world, and periodically get shipments from your home city. These shipments vary from troops, to supplies, to wagons that unpack into towers, forts, and factories.

While that is nice in itself, the fun part of this comes when you get enough xp from killing stuff that your home city levels up. Each level allows you to select a new type of shipment to be sent. So, for isntance, if you can choose between shipments of food, wood, gold, or five musketeers, and your home city levels up, you can choose a new shipment and maybe get a couple of outpost wagons, or some artillery as an option.

Now, it gets better. Your home city level saves from skirmish game to skirmish game. So if you play as the Dutch and get a Home City of lvl 35, whenever you play the Dutch, your home city will start at lvl 35. However, if you play the British, you'll have a different Home City level (probably 1 if you're never played as them).

So why do I like this so much? Simple...you get rewarded for playing. I like the fact that the more time you spend on this game, the better shipments you get. Playing the game for a long time helps you play it better, beyond just building up your skills. It's similar to the campaign mode of Battle for Middle Earth 1, where every territory you conquer increases your army's abilities. This is a nice incentive to play and keep playing, kinda like unlockable guns in FPS games. There should be a reward for playing a game beyond the obvious fun you should get from it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My Mission

I have been playing video games since I first touched a computer eleven years ago. From the begining, I have, like most other gamers, been searching for that one, perfect game. I've flitted from title to title, all of which didn't satisfy my wants and needs. Don't get me wrong, I've played many excellent games, notably Star Wars: Empire at War, but none have fully satisfied me or kept me coming back time and time again.

So, my mission in this blog, is to analyze, think, and pretty much just spout out ideas about games. What makes a game work, and what doesn't...what I like in a game, and what I hate. All of this is to find a basis for the perfect game. A game that anyone can pick up and relate to, and anyone can enjoy. A game that will make a game company a lot of money, while still satisfying the customer. I want to find the strong points that would make a game that would transcend all previous videogames.

Now, I'll state right now, I'm not affiliated with any gaming companies, nor have any wishes to make a game myself. If you want to use the ideas I philosophize about to make an excellent game, go right ahead, but if you make it big, remember me :-p

A second note before I sign off on this first post. All the ideas represented here are my intellectual property. If you want to reference the ideas here, all I ask is a clearly visible link to this blog and the appropriate by-line for my material.

So, coming soon I'm going to examine the good, the bad, and the evil, as I look at my recent gaming experiences with a title from a few years ago: Evil Genius. I recently got back into this title, and was messing around with it. There are definately some good parts of this game, but since I've already fallen out of interest with it, it isn't quite the perfect game. More on that, coming soon.