Monday, March 30, 2009

BattleForge - Card Based RTS

BattleForge, from what I've played of it, is an inherently fun game. It doesn't do everything right but then, as it does several largely "new" things, it can be forgiven for some of its flaws.

For those who don't know, BattleForge is an online RTS with two defining characteristics: 1) Unlike other RTS's, it is built around cooperative "PvE" play. 2) Rather than having defined "armies", (e.g. zerg, human, and protoss or GDI and Nod), players can mix and match "cards" of different types. You can have 20 cards total in your army and each card acts as a production source of that kind of unit or effect. There is no concept of a "hand" of cards. All of the cards in your deck sit along the bottom and can be used multiple times throughout the game, consuming resources each time.

Now, not all cards are created equal. Some are terribly powerful and some are basic infantry you'll want to use all the time. The cards and decks are balanced using techniques borrowed from the worlds of RTS's and CCGs. The game, in fact, borrows very heavily from Magic: The Gathering: the cards are divided into four types: fire, frost, nature, and shadow. In addition to an energy cost (top left on the card above, 100 in this case), each card has an "orb" requirement. The symbols on the card above indicate that it needs 2 shadow orbs (purple) and 1 orb of any kind (the empty circle).

You meet these requirements by capturing "monuments." Monuments are scattered across the maps, usually placed at regular intervals of when you will reach them in the course of a scenario. When you find a monument, you can spend some energy to claim it and attune it to one of the four energy types. You then have an orb of that color that lasts until the monument is destroyed. Thus, if you have two "shadow" monuments and 1 fire monument, you could summon the fallen skyelf above.

The other major balancing factors are card charges and card cooldown. Each card has a number of charges associated with it. The above card has 2. As long as you can pay the cost and meet the requirements you can produce a number of units equal to the card's charge cost without having to wait. In general, smaller more rank and file cards have a higher number - 4 or 5 - and the big nasty cards start at a single charge. After that, you have to wait for the card's cooldown to elapse. Cooldown is usually very short for rank and file cards -- your zergling analogues -- and is very long for your giant all-your-eggs-in-one-basket cards.

This all has the effect of making the game feel, unsurprisingly, like a combination of Dawn of War and Magic:TG. This combination is a great idea, but it has mixed results. On the one hand, you do miss a lot of the tactical pleasure of a deeper RTS. The deck building mechanic comes at the expense of the tech-tree real-time RPS feeling of a StarCraft. You simply don't make many tech tree/play style decisions in the middle of the game. All of those come during the deck-building phase. There's much less exhilaration of the unexpected, one of my favorite feelings in a good RTS.

Having said that, the deck mechanics are by no means all bad. The magic-like orb threshods ensure for a smooth power curve over the course of the game. Capturing another momument has a clear and immediate payoff unlike capturing another goldmine, etc., which gives you a delayed reward. Deck construction is a lot of fun. It has a lot of the pleasure of putting together a deck in a real CCG.

In his talk at GDC this yeah, Chris Hecker put forth the proposition that the notion of user-generated content covers a lot more ground than we currently talk about it covering. The juice we get from making our own little Spore creature is the same juice we get from beating someone using only Voldo's facehump. We are creating unique experiences, sometimes shared experiences, things that make us feel special and things that we can talk about, show to others.

Seen in this light, the joy of deck construction in BattleForge is very much an act of user creation and playing one's deck, especially in multiplayer scenarios, is a real act of displaying one's own "art" whether that be to impress someone with how awesome you are, or how ridiculous you are, or to just piss them off. If you've ever played a serious amount of any CCG you know the feeling.

The game has problems but the sheer freedom of deck creation and the natural ability to display creation to others simply by playing is an engaging core idea. The business model is a little off-putting but only a little in this day and age. My question is, can we have a game that has this level of "user generation" both in out-of-game time and in game as well?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crawl - Usable Roguelike Gaming

Crawl is currently my favorite roguelike. I first got into the game when it was still called Linley's Dungeon Crawl during my computer-broke-moving-home-from-college phase where I learned how to use linux and played a lot of low-tech games. I recently became spontaneously nostalgiac for it while playing the recent real-time roguelike Triangle Wizard. I discovered that, apparently, Linley Henzell has left Crawl behind to develop things like White Butterfly and that a team of fine upstanding coders has picked up maintaining and adding to the game, turning it into what is now called Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

Yes, it is currently my favorite. Don't get me wrong, I've had a lot of fun with Nethack and *Angbands. But these are games built on complexity. Crawl certainly has its share of complexity -- it has more starting classes and races than I've seen in another serious roguelike -- but at the same time, the game is all about making the user experience as pleasant and simple as possible.

The game's manual contains a large section on philosophy that lays out these design goals:

" Major design goals:
* challenging and random gameplay, with skill making a real difference
* meaningful decisions (no no-brainers)
* avoidance of grinding (no scumming)
* gameplay supporting painless interface and newbie support"

They also mention striving for an "exquisite" user interface elsewhere in the documentation. These are design goals that I can get behind and reading these now, years after I came to enjoy Crawl, I begin to see why I fell in love with it.

As I said before, the game strives to be easy to use. For example, the autopickup function, which often proves to be a mixed blessing in other roguelikes, is indeed exquisite in Crawl. There is a mechanic where you must "butcher" your food before eating it - so, if you don't have a bladed weapon and walk over one, you will pick it up so you can butcher your food. You also automatically pick up small, nonperishable food that you can eat. If you are a Spriggan, and eat only vegetables, you don't pick up meat rations. If you are a ghoul and can eat only flesh, you don't pick up veggies. If you are a mummy, who cannot eat or drink, you don't pick up food or potions. etc. etc.

This simplicity allows the game to get very complex without it being overwhelming to the player. Instead, the player can use these details to make their character unique. There are several races and classes that offer completely unique play experinces -- the aforementioned mummy gains experience slowly but doesn't need to eat allowing for a thinking, exploring player to take his or her time. The ghoul must continually kill and eat his enemies to survive, indeed even to heal at some points. The demonspawn gains semi-random mutations making for a different play experience every time. etc. etc. The magic starting classes are just as varied, allowing for traditional pew-pew mages as well as for "transmuters" who distill potions from the dead and throw them like grenades at their enemies.

There are many more great things about the game that I'm not going to go into here except to say that the experience system is a fantastic blend of gygaxian levels and a skill-based system (a la Oblivion). Also, Crawl also has an excellent tile-set that actually enhances the play experince and integrates well with mouse use, a rarity in the rougelikes I've played.

Overall I've enjoyed going back to crawl. The big takeaway for me was that, by making a few systems that are discovered over time and handling them well, you can present a lot of different material in your game.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Short: Opera Omnia - Theoretical Engine

As the title suggests, this is a short post. I hope to post more of these, intermittently, in the future.

Opera Omnia is a small indie puzzle game with a genuinely inspired central premise: you play a historian. The central mechanic revolves around developing theories of population migration to support a given set of facts. You do all of this using a "historical model" program where you outline migrations between population centers over time.

For example, you might be given the job of supporting the theory that the population of Philadelphia used to be the same as the population of New York. You would be given the current populations (Philadelphia: 1.4M, New York: 8.2M), and a range that the city populations should be at at the beginning of the time line (say, 20k-40k for each). Your job is to scrub through the timeline and set up "migrations" between the two cities. For this puzzle, you might start a migration in the middle of the timeline from Philly to New York.

The puzzles get much more complicated, adding in famines and seasonal droughts, different ethnic populations within a single population center, etc. The framing story and the point fits the mechanics particularly well. It begins to get into the difference between theory and truth, and how facts can be bent to prove points.

Warning: it has a little bit of a learning curve. Don't let that throw you off. It's worth taking a look at, if only for a great timeline mechanic that I've never seen anywhere else.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dawn of War 2 - Co Op Campaign Mode

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II is fucking sweet. It is, in many ways, a game that I have been waiting to play for a very long time. Why, then, am I coming so late to the party? The multiplayer beta's been available for over a month. I never played it. The fact is, however, that I wasn't waiting for the game's traditional RTS multiplayer. I was waiting for the co-op campaign.

I like RTS games a lot. I started right around the first Warcraft game - back when there were just humans and orcs, and the orcs were just humans in funny suits (even more so than they are now). I, like the great nation of Korea, fell completely in love with Starcraft. The thing was, with the advent of (and really starting with WC2 over Kali) I realize that I wasn't the best at them. I enjoyed the campaigns, and playing against an easy computer, but I would get throttled by real human beings. See, I liked to either spend all my time building my base, or spend my time microing a few small groups. I always loved the infiltration missions. But I never paid the right amount of attention to micro and to building at the same time. Thus, I got eaten.

As time went on, I got better. I got a massive crash course in college as most of my friends at the time were freakishly good at the game. College is where I learned how much fun multiplayer comp stomps were. The cooperative experience was amazingly fun, whether or not we were able to hold off the computer.

When I heard that Dawn of War 2 was going to have a cooperative campaign my ears perked up. I already loved the 40k universe. I already really liked the first set of Dawn of War games. Adding to that the ability to play through the campaign with a friend sounded like an amazing opportunity. This was all before I had heard anything else about the game. Once I started reading about the game, I began to salivate.

Dawn of War 2's coop campaign works like this: each player gets to control 2 squads. Each squad has a different flavor and is led by a named character with a distinct personality within the story. One squad is composed of just the commander. Another squad is specialized for long ranged damage. A third excels at jumping into combat zones and dealing hand to hand damage to what they find there. While the first player always controls the commander, the rest of the units can be swapped around throughout play as long as each player controls 2 total.

As has been said elsewhere, this makes the game feel almost more like an RPG than an RTS: more Baldur's Gate than Command & Conquer. Well, that and the fact that units gain experience and have basically the same levelling system as you enjoyed in Mass Effect. And there's equipment that you can swap out. Really, it's a lot like an RPG. But then, the original roleplaying game grew out of war gaming. In much the same way that dolphins and sharks evolved dorsal fins independant of each other, the changes from the campaign in DoW 1 somehow bring the game into the world of the RPG. And this is great, because it lets Dawn of War be a fun RPG without almost all of the bullshit.

No towns to walk around or NPCs to interact with. No walking around the world wondering where the fuck to go to next. Very little traditional grinding -- you can clear a map, or you can shortcut to the boss. Video cutscenes that are just long enough. And to top it all off, I get to play it with my friend from back west who I used to play Dawn of War 1 comp stomps with.

Having said all that, the game does have some issues. For one, what I've seen of the story so far is just there as an excuse to keep fighting (to be fair, this does match the setting very well). The game as is could never manage the kind of stories that, say, Suikoden 2 or the aforementioned Mass Effect pull off. The boss battles do go on for probably longer than they need to, but then, so do all boss battles.

Most of my complaints are like this -- things that I would have liked to see but which are not strictly necessary to the game. I would have liked to see a broader loot tree. I would have liked to see a more involved story. But you know what? The compactness of it is a selling point. It's virtue lies in how boiled down it is.

In many ways, I think this game is the PC answer to the console tactics games. It has the same general misson based structure without fooling around in the middle. Yes, you lose the large armies to manage. However, I've never been able to adequately play a tactics game co-op with friends. There's a lot of juice that comes from saving somebody else's ass in real time, just ask Left 4 Dead.

As I said, it's not a perfect game nor is it my absolute favorite game. But then, I do love cooperative games, and I love RTS games, and this marries the two in a very satisfying way that I've been looking for for a while now.