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Formulaic

I am basically done with Subterrain. There is plenty of “game” left, but my completion of it is a forgone conclusion made evident by the full accounting of its remaining systems. In other words, it has become formulaic, and that formula has been solved – there are no possible surprises left. Much like many Civilization endgames, it is simply a matter of going through the remaining motions.

And ain’t nobody got time for that.

The whole situation got me thinking about the design of formulaic systems in gaming, and why designers lean on them so heavily. The only explanations I can come up with is either laziness or fear. There is probably a more legit reason out there, but I can’t imagine it, because it almost always makes the underlying game weaker, and why would you do that intentionally?

Let’s use the most common formula as an example: the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I have no particular idea why these elements exist in 99% of RPGs (and even non-RPGs) when the designers ensure that elements bring nothing to the table. Yes, some monsters are stronger against some elements and weaker to others. Congratulations, you have just optimized combat against the entire game’s monster lineup after playing a Nintendo game 20+ years ago. In practice, those elements are really just different colored numbers – they have no gameplay impact beyond exploiting arbitrary weaknesses.

Compare that with the way, say, Divinity: Original Sin plays out. There are still elements, and still strengths/weaknesses based on them, but those elements actually have secondary consequences. Having fire spells create a Damage over Time effects and Lightning stun people is pretty cliche, but there was a tertiary concern with interactions between the elements themselves, e.g. poison clouds exploding with fire, electricity stunning everyone standing in water, etc.

That is good, interesting design.

As I said before, I can only imagine that designers are either lazy or scared when they lean so hard on formulas. “Scared” in this context means potentially introducing an unbalanced aspect to the combat system. For example, Ice damage slowing the target is pretty cliche, but many designers don’t even go to that level because it’s possible that players could cheese certain encounters by slowing and kiting the boss around the room. But imagine a designer who looks at that possibility and then crafts a boss in which that strategy is basically required in order to succeed. That would be great… until you realize that all the other players might not have learned that spell/chosen that class/etc.

I’m not trying to imply that game design is easy, but… c’mon devs. Surprise us once in a while. Maybe don’t have a Fire/Water/Air/Earth Temple unlock mechanisms. Make the spells be something more than different colored damage numbers. Embrace asymmetry when it makes sense. Switch up the formula… until switching it up itself become formulaic. Then do something, anything else.

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Civ 6: Just Kidding

I have already uninstalled Civilization 6.

I have gone over this before, but my history with the Civ series is deeply rooted in the past. My first experience was with Civ 2, which I played for hundreds of hours on the Super Nintendo, of all places. The very next Civ game I played was Alpha Centauri, which blew my teenage mind and honestly affected my intellectual trajectory almost by itself. Remember the real-world quotes that pop up once you complete a Wonder or research a specific Technology? They were so cool that I started writing them down, which led to collecting cool quotes wherever I found them, which led to reading the books in which they were quoted, all in service of finding more cool quotes.

After Alpha Centauri though? Nothing. Well… nothing until Civ: Beyond Earth, but we don’t talk about that one. FPS games satisfied my itch for immediate stimulation, and MMOs gave me long-term goals to work towards. Spelled out that way, my prior criticism of Civ 5 makes sense:

I did a sort of beginner’s match in Civ 5 and just started a second game on normal difficulty/Civ spread. With things approaching 1000 AD, I am sort of wondering when the fun starts. The problem from my perspective is that I don’t seem to actually be making any decisions very often. I’m perfectly fine playing the “long game” in strategy titles, but I’m not particularly fine with spam-clicking Next Turn for 200 years. Moving a War Chariot around looking for Barbarians isn’t exactly cutting it.

There are a lot of subtle changes in Civ 6 that I enjoyed. The city districting system, for example, really grew on me. For one thing, it really made you think about where to place your cities strategically – you really cared about the terrain and what you’d be giving up for a district. For another, the fact that Wonders take up a tile all on their own means you can’t have just one uber-city with 37 Wonders piling up. There had never been a scenario in prior Civs where I unlocked access to a Wonder via Research and then was literally unable to build them. “Can’t build the Pyramids without access to a desert? I guess that makes sense. Wonder if there are any desert tiles around…”

Another feature I enjoyed was how Civics was on its own sort of research path, and the whole “policy card” thing. If you were gearing up for a war with your neighbors, you can make unit production faster, or focus on Trade Route bonuses, and so on. There was granularity there, with the design bonus of, again, preventing uber-cities that were good at everything.

Fundamentally though, a Civ game is a Civ game, and that’s where it lost me.

The whole “Just one more turn” byline exists because nothing ever happens in a turn. Or even over a couple. The most fun I have playing Civ games occurs immediately after world creation. You have reasons to move your scouts around, and the possibilities for city expansion are wide open. Things can still surprise you. There are barbarians at the gates, and hunting down their camps is a big deal.

Then, at some point, you hit the ADs and the game becomes clicking End Turn 10 times in a row. If you are shooting for a Science or Culture win condition, you literally have no reason to engage with other civilizations at all. Just sit around, wait for your cities to gain another population, wait for the Workshop to be completed so it can add X more Production to finish your Y project Z turns faster in the future.

Domination and Religious victories give you more things to do, of course. But that’s just the thing: the only way Civ becomes fun for me is with more moment-to-moment choices. In which case, why am I not playing a moment-to-moment game? Civ 6 is a terrible war game, compared with say, the Total War series. When you look at the Science and Culture victories though, again, it’s a whole lot of pressing End Turn and inevitably winning 300 turns later.

It’s entirely possible (and likely) that I’m missing the whole point with the Civ games. I mean, I did pound out something north of 33 hours in Civ 6 within a week, which is more than a part-time job. Obviously there are some components of the base game that I enjoy.

But that’s all there is for me: components. If you love the whole Civ package, that’s fantastic, I can see what all the fuss is about. I just… don’t. There is a gradient between instant gratification and the Zen-like abandonment of all earthly pleasures, and I find the spaces between payoffs in Civ games about 20 turns too far apart. There are options for shorter games, I think, but that’s not necessarily what I want either. Strategic density is more what I’m looking for.

And that’s something I’m going to have to find somewhere else.

CivHammer

I’m not sure if I’m necessarily hooked on Total War: Warhammer, but I do happen to have spent 100% of my gaming time playing it this week. And going to bed much, much later than I have any rational reason to.

Basically, I’m treating the game as a Warhammer Civilization. Civhammer, if you will. Every army clash is resolved via auto-complete, for good or ill. The reason for that is because I still have no idea how these battles are supposed to go. Scratch that, I know how they are supposed to play out, but I am having an incredibly difficult time actually getting my troops to behave that way. Selecting multiple units already in a formation and clicking 100 feet forward causes them to disperse in a huge line. Why? I have no clue.

There is also an incredible amount of cheese I have organically discovered and am exploiting judiciously. By default, there is a “reinforcement” mechanic that allows you to combine one or more armies for a particular battle as long as they are nearby on the campaign map. Makes sense, I guess. The issue is that the reinforcement army might not have had any movement ability left, e.g. not had the ability to actually attack the army themselves, but now they can contribute their military might in 3+ nearby battles. The AI in this game uses this quite often.

That said, there is an ability that your army commanders can learn around level 6 called Lightning Strike. This ability allows you to attack armies without the benefit of reinforcements for either side. As noted before, the AI leans on the Reinforcement mechanic pretty heavily, and so Lightning Strike can (and did) completely change the battle calculus.

Just recently, for example, I was fighting the last strongholds of the Vampire Lords, but was unable to siege anything because of their two full-unit armies kept combining with the garrison to smoke me out. Unfortunately for them, only one army can occupy a city at a time, so I used Lightning Strike on the army left outside the walls and slaughtered them. Then I attacked the survivors again – Lightning Strike has unlimited uses – completely wiping them out.

At this point, I’m in the endgame of my first playthrough of Total War: Warhammer, with all victory conditions engaged aside from stopping the Chaos army advance from the North. While there is a part of me that is interested in starting another round up once this is done – to check out the other races and their armies – the other part of me wants to move on. We’ll see how things go.

P.S. If anyone knows of some good Total War: Warhammer (or prior titles, for that matter) videos showing how exactly to manually control armies to unlikely victories, it would be appreciated.

Time-Soaking

[Blaugust Day 26]

Weirdly enough, I find myself back to playing Battlefield 4.

It all started when I was reading the comment section on a random Kotaku page, and someone mentioned that BF4 still had 100,000 people playing, whereas Battlefield: Hardline (the more recent game) had 15,000.

After looking it up myself, the numbers are indeed around those ballparks, but it’s a bit misleading:

As DLC, Hardline ain't doing bad.

Taken 8/25/15 at 10:30pm EST.

As DLC, Hardline ain’t doing bad. Then again, it ain’t DLC.

In any case, I had an itching for some shooting, so I queued up the Origin download, then the BF4 download, then the China Rising DLC download, then got in 5 minutes of gameplay before bed. The next few days after that though, I’d say I was back to my old pattern of soaking up my free-time with games that ultimately don’t matter. And I don’t like it/can’t get enough of it.

I know I’ve talked about it before in this space, but I have a huge love-hate relationship with these sort of games. By “these games” I mean games that are more entertainment than experiences. When I finish playing Battlefield 4, I awaken as from a fugue state, disorientated… and empty. I had fun in the moment, and the moment passed. Which is great if I were simply interested in killing time between meaningful activities, but I’m not. This is my life I’m whiling away. Surely there are better games for it? Games that leave you with something.

Sometimes I just don’t know. Metal Gear Solid 5 comes out in less than a week; I have not even started playing Metal Gear Solid 4. Not that they’re chronologically connected in any way, but still. I could be playing that! I should. I should be plowing through Pillars of Eternity for that matter. I actually am making more progress through that game, methodically, but progress just the same.

What is it about these sort of games – BF4, Civilization, roguelikes, etc – that simultaneously seduces and sickens me? Is it because they are more fun than “traditional” games? Is it because they are more approachable time-commitment-wise? Do I just secretly delight in frivolity? Or perhaps the cognitive dissonance stems entirely from my misplaced sanctimony for “real” games that “matter?”

I wish I had an answer. Because then I could just type that, and be back shooting faces in BF4.

Alpha Centauri 2

News out of PAX: Firaxis is working on a new Civilization game… in space.

Honestly, Alpha Centauri is basically one of those infinite-nostalgia games for me. My prior exposure to the Civilization games was actually Civ 2 for the SNES (yes, really), so you can imagine how blown away I was after installing those Alpha Centauri discs back in high school. Hell, I haven’t even played a Civ game since then – I have Civ 5 in my Steam library, but I was always a bit leery of getting sucked back in.

The thing that impressed me the most in Alpha Centauri though were the quotes that came with every technological advancement. You can read the big list of them if you’d like, but here are a few of my favorites:

Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.

  • CEO Nwabudike Morgan “The Ethics of Greed”

This was one of the first times I encountered a thought turned on its ear.

We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?

  • Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7. Activity recorded M.Y. 2302.22467. (TERMINATION OF SPECIMEN ADVISED)

I laughed. And still do at the meta-humor.

Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.

  • Academician Prokhor Zakharov

(Heard after researching Intellectual Integrity)

This was likely my first formal introduction to the Just-world hypothesis/fallacy. From a videogame! And beyond the above quotes, Alpha Centauri fielded a lot of more classical, real-world quotes from Plato and Aristotle which, combined with the coolness of the game itself, instilled a sense of wonder and wanting to know more. I definitely doubt I would have read The Republic without having played Alpha Centauri.

I don’t have any great expectations that Civ: BE will be better than my crystallized childhood memories of AC, but I remained cautiously optimistic nonetheless.

So far, it looks like the tentative release date is Fall 2014.