Tuesday, August 31, 2010

And now for something completely different

Thanks to Rock, Paper, Shogtun for dredging up memories of the Fighting Fantasy genre of games. I wiled away many an afternoon when I was about 13 playing through these kinds of books.

Lone Wolf was a big favourite. I can see how it might have scared some people away due to the seemingly random, endless potential for unbelievably brutal death lurking around every page. For me this created a splendidly compelling atmosphere. I'm not the type to feel "immersed" in games or books much at all, but after playing through these I think the closest I can come to immersion is when I genuinely care about every action and decision that I make, because I know it could be the last. This forces me to actually "play a role", but it's not what you'd usually think when we talk about role-playing games. The desire to play some stereotype like a Male Elf or a powerful wizard or a plate-wearing do-gooder is over-ridden by the simple desire to *live* to the next page. I find myself playing the role of *me*, making the decisions that I would actually make were I in the story. That's a pretty powerful thing.

The series also gives a great long-term "achievement" feeling with the powerful items and abilities that are progressively unlocked and carry over with you to the next adventure.

I've fired up the game referred to in the link above and it is fantastically well done, featuring the (fully licensed) complete text and illustrations on a worn parchment background and managing all the fiddly parts of the game mechanics while still letting you observe what's going on beneath the hood. I definitely recommend it to anybody who has played these kinds of books or thinks that they sound interesting.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Game designer lineage

Brand names are a great way for companies to build up trust and repeat business from their customers, and games are no exception. It's a pretty sure thing that anything new from Valve, BioWare, Blizzard, or ArenaNet will be at the top of my "must try" list thanks to some stellar games that they have produced. As gamers we learn to distinguish these development houses from the parent companies and publishers such as Activision, EA, or NCSoft for the above. They are little more than suits; we know where the actual talent lies.

Or do we? After whining recently about some odd design decisions that ArenaNet are making for Guild Wars 2, I decided to dig into the Guild Wars 1 credits and see which people were responsible for making the bits that I was most interested in keeping. I was not concerned so much with the visual style or with the story, but with the core mechanics. Here is what I found.

Once upon a time, there was a young game designer named James Phinney. After proving himself with some minor roles at Blizzard he managed to find himself on the "Strike Team" (I gather that this is a Blizzard term for the "main dudes" overseeing the general design of the game) for the first Diablo. Proving his mettle on this classic he went on to be the Lead Designer of the original StarCraft. This is a game renowned for the beauty of its mechanics - the units, their skills, the upgrades, all tremendously fun to use but at the same time wonderfully balanced for 3 different races. What an all-star guy, right? In 2000 his buddies Mike O'Brien, Patrick Wyatt and Jeff Strain splintered off from Blizzard to found ArenaNet, and some time not too long after this Phinney joined them and became Design Team Lead for the original Guild Wars.

In short, Lead Design on StarCraft + Guild Wars = this man is my new god.

However a couple of weeks ago, unbeknownst to me, it was announced that Phinney was leaving to go and join Undead Labs, the new start-up from ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain who are working on making a console-focused Zombie MMO. Great move by Strain. Bad move by ArenaNet for letting him go. We can only speculate as to the reasons involved for his departure - surely ArenaNet have deep enough pockets to keep him interested. Let's hope it was something simple like personal problems, or him being sick of working on a fantasy game. However the worry is that he butted heads with corporate fat-cat types who wear suits, smoke cigars, have little dollar signs light up in their eyes every time someone mentions the word "MMO", and generally try to WoW-ify everything. Did this game design guru leave ArenaNet because Guild Wars 2 was turning into an un-salvagable mess? It seems frankly bizarre otherwise to leave a game that is so close to release and that is receiving so much hype.

But surely there are other talented designers working at ArenaNet, right? Well... tracing such an impressive pedigree in terms of design credentials for ArenaNet's other employees does not seem to bear fruit. The new Design Lead is Eric Flannum, who does have an impressive resume but mainly in relation to things like art and level design. He has been design lead on Sacrifice and The Bard's Tale, but I found both of these games fairly cruddy (especially Sacrifice). My main man Phinney was involved with Sacrifice too, but it was in terms of writing the story so I do not consider his record sullied. Anyway, next we have the 3 founders linked above who are all extremely talented programmers, between them having been lead/senior programmers on Diablo, the WarCraft series, StarCraft, and Battle.Net. But design magic is nowhere in their ancestry either.

Most of the other employees on ArenaNet's design team are either involved in art or level design like Eric, or are fairly new college graduates who do not have any specific role listed. Some of these could turn out to be budding design wizards, but it does not inspire much confidence. The one name that is listed as being involved with combat mechanics, and one that will be familiar to anybody that has spent some time reading a Guild Wars forum, is Isaiah "Izzy" Cartwright. "Izzy" joined ArenaNet 12 months before Guild Wars was released and was in charge (with input from his boss - Phinney - and a few others) of balancing the skills for several years after the release of the original Guild Wars, and as such was often the subject of much player ire. From my observations of the years I would say that he did not do a perfect job, but his hands were tied quite a bit by the addition of 4 new classes and a couple of hundred new skills when the Guild Wars expansions were released.

Apparently as of February last year Izzy has now moved on to be "involved in the development of combat, economy, and other unspecified "big systems" for Guild Wars 2". Here is me officially crossing my fingers and hoping that Izzy has learned some lessons from the first game and can steer this one away from the precipice it seems to be teetering on.

Friday, August 20, 2010

World of Guildcraft 2

I don't know what to make of the facts that are dripping out of the gamescom footage from Guild Wars 2. First there was the "damage in the thousands" silliness. Then today I learn via Ravious of some more bizarre design decisions.

Example the first: "using a skill will no longer automatically put the character in range of the enemy. Instead the spell will cast as normal, fly towards the enemy as normal, and then fall short. As it falls short it then tells the player “out of range.”

I don't know what the rationale for this is. Yes it's more "realistic". It also sounds like a pain in the arse and a good way to completely waste mana/cooldowns.

Speaking of which: Elite skills apparently have a recharge time of 720 seconds. You may recall me harping on about how revolutionary the short cooldowns of Guild Wars are a while ago. Now they're doing a 180 on this as though their initial success was just a coincidence.

Could it be that ArenaNet are not the game design prodigees I've been talking them up to be? Or maybe the people who made the smart decisions on the first game aren't with the company anymore? Or has ArenaNet been infiltrated by the Zerg mastermind that rules over Blizzard? Tune in next time for answers to these and other questions readers, same fail time, same fail channel...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Zerg Rush : A Case Report

My experience with the 1v1 aspect of the first StarCraft didn't last long. I was happily mining minerals in my base and contemplating how lovely it would be to cultivate my ultimate fleet of 10+ Carriers to demolish the enemy, when half a dozen Zerglings ran into my base. I had not yet even created my first military unit and was promptly crushed, despite a valiant effort from my army of workers. The game lasted about 3 minutes.

How could I be crushed so mercilessly? I, Melf, Slayer of Noobs? Possibly this mysterious gentleman was some kind of Korean with "crazy micro" living in a net cafe. I knew that I could never pull off such a feat of human dexterity. The entire reason that I had selected the Protoss race was for their smaller (but higher value) number of units, to reduce the amount of clicking that my feeble non-Korean brain could accomplish.

Enter StarCraft II. A little older and wiser now, I knew that I would face the same "dirty" tactics again. There was only one way to prepare myself, to truly know my enemy. I would have to play Zerg and get this rush thing down pat so that I could defend against it.

Of course there was no way I would just jump into 1v1 battles to try this. Instead I practiced against the AI. StarCraft II is a huge step above its predecessor in terms of skirmishing vs AI. There are 6 difficulty levels, and the AI does not "cheat". It does not receive extra units or resources. It is simply smarter in terms of the order it builds units in, makes smarter decisions in battle (e.g. sometimes the enemy will run when they see that your army is larger, before the first drop of blood is shed), and of course micro-manages like a Korean on speed. After floundering around on Medium difficulty for a while, I moved up the ranks, trying different combinations of build orders until I was able to beat the AI on Insane difficulty. This shocked me - I had never managed to beat Insane difficulty with my beloved Protoss, and in fact I did it here in under 5 minutes.

There was something exciting I realized from all of this. I realized that this did not require "cracy micro uber hax" after all. In fact, it requires a lot less clicking and multi-attention-splitting craziness. Why let my games proceed to be longer than I need to? The longer the game proceeds the more units, more upgrades, more expansions, and more backdoor tactics there are to deal with. I get worse at the game by the minute!

Now I was ready to unearth my strategy on the unsuspecting n00bs of BattleNet. First, let's see what we're dealing with here:

This is the post-match "build order" of both players in one of the games I played. You can see that I make just one worker unit (Drone) in the beginning, before saving all my pennies for a Spawning Pool. This will allow me to make my little precious Zerglings. While I'm waiting for the Pool to finish building I make another Drone, and an Overlord to nourish my army. When the Pool finishes building I have exactly enough minerals to convert my 3 larvae into 6 Zerglings. With a waypoint set into the enemy's base, in no time at all these hatch and scurry off. With my base hot-keyed it's a simple matter of hitting 0 (select base), S (select larvae), Z (make zerglings) every time I see that I have another 50 minerals gathered. This brings a steady stream of reinforcements in and lets me focus on micro-managing the fragile Zerglings to make sure they don't do silly things like get slaughtered by an army of workers.

The fellow on the right was playing smartly. He starts off with a few probes to boost his economy, lays down a supply source (pylon) to keep them coming, and saves up enough for a couple of Gateways. This allows him to start creating Zealots, a strong melee unit that is the only early defense the Protoss has time to muster against my Zerg rush.

What you can't see from this is that he is also placing these buildings to try and prevent early rush tactics. Each base has a narrow choke point leading to it - he has actually placed both gateways and a pylon such that my poor little pets can not make it up the ramp without first chomping through his buildings. This theoretically buys him enough time to make enough units to stop me, and then trump me with his superior economy. However, using a pylon to make this wall was a bad idea because it powers his buildings. Chomp, chomp, chomp (eventually). There is a Zealot waiting for me on the other side but my 'Lings stream on past so that they can surround him, and once he is down go and begin munching his other pylon. This fellow does not make it easy for me - he sends his entire army of workers to come and harrass me. Fortunately my steady stream of reinforcements allows me to ignore them and get that pylon down. Once this happens his Gateways have no power and can not create units; there are no more Zealots to deal with and I slaughter the rest of the worker army at my leisure. A bare 3 minutes after the game started:

Now, I do feel a little bad. But this is all in the name of research, you understand. We must learn to fight the Zerg menace from the inside if we are to have any chance of prevailing in this war against the cheap, dirty tactics employed by the BattleNet hordes.


Sunday, August 8, 2010


I've been playing StarCraft 2 now for for about a week and a half. Most of this time was spent doing the campaign or learning strategies for each of the races in co-op or custom games. It's all been fun, but my PvP heart was yearning for more...

So this weekend, Melf and I decided it was time to hit the big leagues. We skipped the rest of the practice league and jumped straight into some 2v2 team quick matches... oh boy...

For our first game, Melf and I both played Protoss. We'd been practicing a joint Warp Gate maneuver against 2 very hard AI with success, so we thought we'd use it as our starting tactic. Our opponents were playing Protoss and Terran. The game started beautifully. Not a single mistake from Melf or myself. The nerves were racing and the adrenaline was pumping. Every second of the initial base building was crucial for success. I was so focused, a passer by could have sworn I was having a staring competition with my computer. By about the 4 minute mark we both had a Probe scout close to their bases (hidden of course) and deployed a Pylon each. We both had 3 Gateways ready for when our Cybernetics Core finished the 'Warp Gate Upgrade' research (Crono Boosted of course). When your entire strategy relies on a single piece of research being complete, you watch that progress bar like a hawk. The second it finished, we converted our Gateways into Warp Gates and Melf and I warped in 3 Stalkers each to our hidden Pylons. We each warped in a second wave of 3 Stalkers before unleashing hell on our unsuspecting opponents. They both put up a good fight, but it was no match for a dozen Stalkers and another dozen on the way. When the 'You are Victorious' message box appeared, I sat back in my chair and smiled. This game is seriously awesome.

"Another game?", I asked Melf on vent.

"Of course", he replied.

We went on to play another 7 or so games with varying success. We managed to win 3 in a row at one stage, netting us both the 'Team Hot Streak: 3' achievement.

As the evening set in, Melf's girlfriend Lillsy joined us, and our 2v2 turned into 3v3. We played through to about 3am. Probably the most memorable game was the one where my base got destroyed in the first 4 minutes of the game and it was left to Lillsy and Melf and hold the team. I managed to save a probe and Melf patched me some minerals to get another based started. Unfortunately that got destroyed as well within the next few minutes. I was almost ready to surrender, but I thought I'd hang around and see what happened. I still had 1 Probe to my name which I hid in Lillsy's base. Melf and Lillsy somehow managed to hold their own against 3 opponents while I started a new base inside of one of Lillsy's expansions. Progress was slow, but I managed to get back on my feet. I amassed an army of Zealots and sent them out of Lillsy's base ready for action. To my absolute amazement, there was nothing left to kill. Melf and Lillsy had won the day without my help. Hat's off to their ninja skillz. My Zealot army was cool though ;)

Here's a screen shot of this weekend's results:

Good times...

Monday, August 2, 2010

StarCraft 2 first impressions

After reading a few reviews prior to purchasing the game, I was expecting to play SC1 but with better graphics and higher resolutions. Well, yeah.. it pretty much is. I don't want to repeat what you could read in other professional reviews, so I'll keep it short. Is SC2 worth buying?

If you are like me and enjoy hardcore PvP on casual terms, then yes SC2 is definitely worth buying. They've made PvP convenient and awesome! There is a 'Quick Game' button that launches you into a PvP 1v1 match against someone of 'equal' skill. I honestly couldn't design a casual PvP game better than that. Click, boom your in! Pow, pow! Awesome!

At my level (very noob), your average game goes for about 35 minutes, which is perfect for slotting into those free time gaps. I can see this becoming the TF2 of RTS.

As another positive, it's very easy to play with friends and there are achievements and unlocks that you can showcase for your e-peen. The single player campaign is pretty good too. They also have challenge missions that are like playing mods from SC1. For example: Defeat 3 waves of enemies with limited units. You buy the most awesome RTS ever made and get a bunch of free mini games... can't complain.

I spent the entire weekend playing it and I want to keep playing it. Starcraft 2 was definitely worth the money I paid, and then some. Love it!