Thursday, November 16, 2017

Wash Up and Eat Properly

There's been a recent uptake in discussions regarding the cost of game development.  In particular single-player story-driven experiences are, according to certain triple AAA  publishers, no longer financially viable as a one-time 60 dollar charge; hence the reason we see companies like EA abandoning the market space, while other publishers (such as WB) try to cram as much DLC, loot boxes and other microtransaction driven schemes into their games as possible.  Personally, I have doubts about these claims of infeasibility...it's not like any of these companies are allowing us inspect their accounting records.  Sure making video games has become a much more resource intensive process than it was during the 8 and 16-bit eras, but to offset that there's a wealth of third-party development tools available, in addition to a much larger potential customer base.  However, for the sake of argument let's presume that they really are in the red.  I can think of three easy ways these poor publishers could get back in the black.

Rumor has it that some of EA's past games were marked on budgets equal to the amount actually spent making the game.  In other words, they could have reduced the development costs of certain games by nearly 50 percent simply by dumping all the thirty second advertisements in lieu of sending some free copies out to Youtubers and Twitch streamers.  It seems silly to do otherwise considering word of mouth has, for a long time, carried more weight than simple product placement.  Visceral Studio, the now defunct makers of the Dead Space series, was based out of San Francisco...one of the most expensive cities in the world.  When you look at companies like IBM, they have all but deserted their corporate offices in large part because it's no longer necessary to have everyone under the same roof.  A variety of video games, including Kerbal Space Program as well as Ori and the Blind Forest, were made by a team scattered across the globe that coordinated their development efforts via the internet.  This sort of dispersed workforce brings up the question of executive supervision.  Former EA employees have gone on record saying that the company has a nontrivial number of people who get paid a lot to do very little.  Reducing wasteful administrative spending though is only one part of the problem when it comes to leadership.

Asset creation is a time consuming process that needs to be channelled by a strong directorial vision.  Too many games waste time and money on stuff the player doesn't notice, doesn't care about, or is thoroughly unimpressed by.  When you look at games such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, or more recently Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, it's amazing what a relatively small team can accomplish.  Could they have added more provided they had the time/money/people?  Sure.  Would it have improved the experience significantly.  Not really.  Some developers have a bad habit of stretching the scope of their game in the vain hope that bigger equals better.  This often leads to over budget hot garbage, or titles that are trapped in an early access limbo for, seemingly, an eternity.  In other words, it's better to come up with a tight concept and execute on it rather than faffing about half conceived notions of open-world games with crafting and rogue-like elements.  Fun isn't going to materialize from the ether just because you keep attach more bells and whistles.

This brings me to my final point which is trend chasing.  As far as I know nobody has gotten rich making Minecraft clones or Clash of Clans copycats.  Worse still are flash-in-the-pan hits like Angry Birds and Farmville.  Real success comes from franchises like the Soulsborne series...which, I should stress, wasn't an instant hit; Before Demon's Souls there was King's Field and before Command and Conquer there was Dune II: Battle for Arrakis.  It takes time, money, effort and a few iterations on an idea to cultivate something that is both innovative and entertaining.  Hitting paydirt straight out of the gate is exceedingly rare and in most cases fleeting.

Of course most businesses only see the future in terms of next quarter profits, and as such often screw themselves when it comes to sustainable profits.  They can scoop whales and dolphins out of the water for awhile, but how long until that well runs dry?  More importantly, where's the respect for the craft?  I'm not going to climb on my high horse and claim video games are art, but at the very least they are supposed to be for the express purposes of entertaining the people who buy them...not to abuse and exploit.  This is rapidly degrading into a rant so I'll wrap it up by simply saying developer harassment and death threats are not acceptable, but publishers and shareholders that push this kind of garbage need to engage in some serious introspection rather than dumping their problems on enthusiasts of the hobby. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Indefinite Act Structure

How about an action-adventure game instead
of a multiplayer FPS with CCG mechanics?
Sometimes no story is better than a bad story.  When it comes to video games like the Middle-earth duology or Evil Within franchise, I'm inclined to agree.  On the other hand, I can't say EA's decision to abandon single-player narrative-driven games has me excited either.  My guess is they want to use their Star Wars IP rights to make a Destiny clone.  Technically, the Destiny series has a story, but it's an obfuscated mess.  Bungie Studios has never been particularly good at spinning a compelling yarn.  However, it hasn't mattered all that much because they nail the thing that makes or breaks a video game, the quality of the gameplay.

One of the nice things about Resident Evil 4 that doesn't get mentioned often is its fast paced, unobtrusive (albeit cheesy) story.  The narrative isn't needlessly complicated either, Leon Kennedy is on a mission to rescue the president's daughter...and that's ultimately what he does.  Unfortunately Shinji Mikami didn't continue this "economy of storytelling" when he moved on away from the Resident Evil franchise to work on Evil Within.  I have to admit that I rather liked the visuals and non-linear elements found in the IP, particularly the sequel, but the overly long cutscenes rub me the wrong way.  Not being much of a Twin Peaks or Stephen King fan, it's possible that I might not appreciate the inspiration for Evil Within.  Then again when it comes to Shadow of War, I can't say my interest in J.R.R. Tolkien has made me enjoy the journey of Talion the Ranger all that much.

I think the most accurate assessment of the Middle-earth games is they're fan fiction roughly on par with Kirill Eskov's novel The Last Ringbearer.  It's apparent that both works tried to subvert some of the tropes that Tolkien invoked, but in doing so they created a tale that doesn't mesh with the original material.  In the case of Kirill Eskov's book, I'm not exactly sure what could have been done to improve it, but for Shadow of Mordor they could have simply trimmed or edited out the whole Minas-Ithil-Palantir-Spider-Lady plotline in favor of focusing on what makes the games fun - namely the Nemesis System.

I've often heard tell that multiplayer games and/or purely sandbox games have longer lifespans than single-player experiences.  The reason being there's no hard endpoint on how much time you can invest in them.  For me though that's actually the main turn-off.  I guess you could say that eventually the servers will get shut down or the player base will move on to other titles...either way though there really isn't any sense of closure.  Sure, a lot of times video game developers will drop the ball when it comes time to wrap things up, but at the bare minimum I'm glad when the course has a set finish line instead of a nebulous treadmill with a carrot dangling off the front.

Would have been a better game without the 
Assassin's Creed storyline baggage

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Mismatch Making

Activision recently filed a patent having to do with online matchmaking.  It's got a bunch of legal gobbledygook in it, but the essence of of the submission is an attempt to acquire exclusive rights to a system in which players who have made microtransaction purchases are deliberately matched up online with players who haven't (at nebulously specified opportune times).  Activision claims that they have yet to implement such a system in any of their games.  It's possible they are being honest here.  Then again, big-budget game publishers such as EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros Interactive and (of course) Activision themselves have a pretty poor track record when it comes to telling the truth.  Regardless, I'm fairly confident that this sort of matchmaking in online games has been going on for a while now.

War Thunder and World of Warships are two examples I can attest to regarding the implementation of this sort of microtransactions sales strategy.  Supposedly, both games (made by different developers) are designed to set the player up with teammates and opponents of roughly equal skill.  At first this definitely felt the case to me.  However, after advance several tiers into the progression system found in each game things started to change.  Instead of going up against players of roughly equal ability, I ran into long strings of unbalanced matches, resulting in defeat after defeat (often six times in a row or more) before eventually eeking out a single victory.  Normally, I don't mind if my team loses an online game so long as I felt like I did my part.  Unfortunately, both War Thunder and World of Warships like to offer a daily first victory bonus which are essential for progression, hence the grind became more and more pronounced for me.  Other cheapskates like myself reported having similar experiences.  On the other hand players who shelled out a bit of real cash tended to have much better win/loss ratios.  I should stress this wasn't directly because of in-game purchases.  Far from it...a long running joke with both games is the fact that most real money upgrades are basically just flashy cosmetics, like pusher planes in War Thunder, or famous historical vessels in World of Warships.  That makes good sense if you want to maintain the outward appearance of fairness.  It might be an illusion though in that these games actually reward players who spent real money on microtransactions through some underhanded coding in the matchmaking system.

Granted, this is all anecdotal evidence on my part.  I could be wrong and may have simply had the mother of all bad luck streaks...twice.  Frankly, it doesn't matter all that much to me one way or the other though because War Thunder and World of Warships are free-to-play games that I invested zero dollars in.  Maybe I wasted a bit of my time, but I got a lot of enjoyment out of each game before deleting it from my harddrive after things got a bit to grindy for my tastes.  Still, if word got out that the programmers for either (or both) of these games were guilty of fixing matches in subtle ways to benefit paying customers I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Sigh...Where to Begin?

Poké-orcs...gotta catch'em all!

Anger leads to hate
Hate leads to suffering
Suffering leads to LOOT CRATES

A "collectable card game" minus the letter "d"

You know that thing every game provides for free?
Now you got to pay real money for it...

We gave them an inch and they took a mile

"Lute Crates"

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Of Orcs and Men

In Peter Jackson's film "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," Gothmog (the commander of Sauron's army) declares, "The age of Men is over. The time of the Orc has come!"  Flush from his victory at Osgiliath, the statement would prove to be demonstrably false.  It does beg the question though, "what are orcs exactly and how do they differ from men?"  J.R.R. Tolkien spilt a lot of ink developing races of men, elves and dwarves, but despite being major antagonists orcs only get a vague backstory lacking in details.  According to the Silmarillion, Morgoth (the original big bad) brought orcs into being by capturing elves and through torture/mutilation infused them with malice for all living things including themselves.  It's important to note that Morgoth could not create life so orcs are a purely malignant form of that which they previously were.  It was a great way to create hero fodder, but as he elaborated on them further through a glimpse in a story here or a fragment of a letter there it became less and less clear as to what orcs were really supposed to be.

One of the more confusing aspects of orcs is the numerous ways they can be referred to.  "Goblin" is a synonymous term, as are "urco" and "orch" in their respective eleven dialects.  The dwarves use the word "rukhs," while the wild men call them "gorgûns."  In the Black Speech they are "uruk-hai," literally "orc-folk."  Physically, orcs are described by Tolkien as sallow-skinned, flat-nosed humanoids with slanted/squinty eyes.  Their stature varies from a hobbit to a full-grown human, but with short, thick, crooked legs and bent backs.  This, combined with descriptions of long arms and large hands give the impression that orcs are vaguely simian looking from a distance.  Unlike apes though they fashion their own crude arms/armor and even possess some equally crude healing arts...oh, and they sing.  As for languages, orcs speak a kind of cockney English in addition to a smattering of the Black Speech (which isn't actually their native tongue).

Tolkien suggested in correspondence a number of ideas about orcs; they were made out of slime and heat found in the earth, the were mindless beasts without the influence of a powerful master (such as Melkor, Sauron or Saruman), some were actually half-breeds that basically looked like ugly humans.  The problem with all these "theories" is none of them jive with facts already established in published works.  Couple that with the wording used (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ways ethnic groups are ostracized or demonized) and things start smelling a bit fishy.  Was Tolkien racist?  It wouldn't surprise if that were true to some degree given how hard it is to find someone who is completely free of bigotry these days, let alone a century ago when Tolkien was in his formative years.  However, even if the answer is a resounding "yes" it only serves to muddle the mystery of orcs even more.

A big problem with much of the fantasy literature that came after Lord of the Rings is copycat authors not thinking very deeply about their influences and source material.  Monolith's Middle-earth video games are no exception.  By attempting to expand on what Tolkien created the pitfalls, plot holes, and problems not only carried over, but in some cases were amplified.  Of course, the well-worn fantasy trope of black versus white, light versus dark or unambiguously good versus irredeemably evil, is worth considering as well.  Remember that Tolkien saw Middle-earth as a precursor to our actual history, a time of myth and legend.  The concept being that divine influence faded over time, followed by magic and finally binary shades morality until things became the world we live in now (with it's various hues of grey); no more good elves, but no more bad orcs either...except that's not how it actually went down.  Again, in the Silmarillion, there are instances of elves doing awful things.  Some of the lesser entities in the pantheon who had a hand in bringing about Middle-earth were also flawed in the way Greco-Roman or Norse gods are.  This serves to only raise further doubts.  If the light did bad things, doesn't that mean the dark could have done some good?

Further adding to feelings of skepticism is the simple fact that we, the audience, don't get to witness (or even hear first-hand accounts of) the lives of orcs.  That said, they are clearly horrible, especially the way they treat each other, but then again how old are most orcs?  If they are derived from elves then they should be immortal, but the oldest one ever mentioned was Azog, who died at the age of 140.  Perhaps the vast majority of orcs are basically deranged children who rarely live long enough to grasp at the reins of maturity.  It appears that orcs, when left to their own devices can form self-sustaining collectives such as those found in the Misty Mountains, Moria, Mount Gundabad and Mount Gram.

Can orcs be redeemed?  Probably not, but since nobody has ever tried it's impossible to say one way or the other.  Maybe Monolith will explore this matter further in DLC for Shadow of War.  Until then though, I don't blame people for casting a critical eye on something that has never really added up.     

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Great War

In the immortal words of Jedi Master Yoda, "Wars not make one great."  It is an adage that has never been more true than during the First World War.  As far as military conflicts go, it was only surpassed in terms of death and destruction by World War 2.  Compared to WW1, the losses incurred in the Korean War or Vietnam War, at best equate to a single battle on the Eastern Front.  The Gulf War death toll probably would end up being an unnamed "skirmish," "raid," or simply chalked up to unavoidable attrition...and yet despite the sheer amount of bloodshed The Great War is often passed over by game developers in lieu of other armed conflicts.  The reason for this is, I think, very simple.  The opportunity for badass heroics were few and far between.  Casualties were so high that British Expeditionary Force in France burned through its initial strength of 120,000 highly trained soldiers after just three months of deployment.  As bad as that is it got worse with 57,470 killed or wounded in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme roughly two years later.  Many miles away from the front, Generals could hardly be called heroic either...even the few that tried to use innovative tactics still wracked up horrific losses with little to show for it.  Still, despite the demoralizing carnage there are some examples of video game developers that tried to make a game about the war to end all wars.

My first exposure to a World War 1 themed video game was the somewhat oddly sounding The Ancient Art of War in the Skies.  The third and final entry in the Ancient Art of War strategy game series by the now defunct MicroProse.  Essentially, the player took control of the air war while ground battles were handled automatically by the AI.  It was possible for the player to influence what was happening down below through bombing runs, but the aerial viewpoint provided to the player depicted trench warfare as two squiggly parallel lines that would flash and rumble with distant explosions and gunfire.  The trench lines shifted slowly this way leaving blasted, cratered terrain in their wake.  It wasn't a particularly good game, but it did come with a thick instruction manual that also included a lot of history about the actual conflict.  Ever since then I've taken a great deal of personal interest in the time period.

Over the years there have been many other attempts to adapt the air combat aspect of the First World War.  Aside from the one I just mentioned, they have been without exception flight-sims of varying quality.  Then, there are a couple of RTS games which conceptually sound like a deliberate exercise in frustration and futility.  Perhaps it's true to the spirit of The Great War, but it's not exactly fun to play (especially when numerous bugs and bad AI are factored in).  A couple of FPS titles have also come out over the years, the most recent of which - Battlefield 1 - deserves praise simply for showing that WW1 was truly a global conflict rather than focusing exclusively on the Western Front (which already tends to get the lion's share of attention).  One other title that happens to be my personal favorite is a little flash game called 1917.  It plays a bit like a tower defense game, but has enough polish and style to separate it from the pack.  On a side note there's also a rather odd indie horror game called 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg that puts the player in the shoes of a German soldier who is being stalked by velociraptors in trenches too deep to climb out of.  In fact the whole objective of the game is to find a ladder so that the player can go over the top...with depressingly predictable results.  On the opposite end of the spectrum there is the light-hearted Toy Soldiers, which allows the player to take control of a variety of units that must repulse wave after wave of windup infantry, cavalry, vehicles, aircraft and even a Tsar Tank in all its impractical glory.

One final take on The Great War, I want to mention is a mod for Hearts of Iron 4 that begins with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or four years prior depending on the player's choice.  I opted for the latter and decided to give the Ottoman Empire a try.  As fate would have it, I got caught up in the First Balkan War between myself and an alliance four lesser powers consisting of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro.  After about an in-game year of fighting, I emerged the victor with Serbia and Bulgaria conquered while Greece and Montenegro sued for peace.  Imagine my surprise when 1914 rolled around, but The Great War didn't begin.  I guess it's hard for Russia to declare war on Serbia when it no longer exists.  A happy ending?...not likely given what a powder keg European politics were at the time, but as far as alternative history goes it's a more plausible turn of events than trenches becoming overrun with carnivorous dinosaurs.   

I feel like I forgot about something...

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Even Homer Nods

Some references in gaming are obvious and other times they're hard to spot.  A lot depends on being in the know, and what might seem obvious to one person may fly completely over the head of another.  Here's three things that took me a long time to notice.

The assorted shrine puzzles found in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild come in a variety of forms.  One type that stands out though involves manipulating oversized glowing ball bearings.  Specifically, the challenge is to get them in shallow bowl-shaped depressions in order to trigger a particular mechanism.  Some require the use of pistons to knock them around, while others utilize motion controls to tilt the terrain (which causes the balls to roll a particular way).  The thing is these "marble mazes" are surprisingly similar to some of the toys Nintendo used to make before they got into the video game business.  I've heard a lot of people claim that Breath of the Wild is an example of Nintendo returning to its roots.  I think they're right even more so than they might realize.

It's no secret that the Wing Commander series is basically World War II in space.  Instead of the Empire of Japan though we have an alien race of anthropomorphic felines called the "Kilrathi."  I'm not sure why they went with cats...maybe because asian sometimes have a more slanted shape to their eyes than people of european descent?  Personality-wise I think the Vichy French in North Africa are a better fit, but I digress.  Slightly racist undertones aside, the space fighter craft found throughout the Wing Commander series look vaguely similar to modern jet fighters, but oftentimes use real WW2 combat airplanes as a template.  Missile systems aside, most medium fighters seem to be based on the Bf 109 or Mitsubishi Zero.  Meanwhile, heavy fighters (particularly the "Jalthi") feel like copies of the Bf 110 "Zerstörer."  Additionally, the Dralthi IV resembles the Heinkel He 100 prototype fighter.  Not to mention in one of the novelizations the Asjaka torpedo-bomber is a rather obvious stand-in for the B6N "Jill."  Granted, WW2 didn't feature neutron guns or tachyon cannons so the analogy isn't perfect, but then again, if we're talking accurate depictions of space warfare then Children of a Dead Earth has pretty much everything else beat.

There's a long running gag in Paradox Interactive games involving comet sightings.  It usually happens toward the start of a new game and has no real significance beyond what appears to be an auspicious beginning.  More recently though platypus sightings have become the à la mode.  Stellaris featured free DLC in the form of a mammalian race that looks suspiciously like a platypus.  Hearts of Iron IV also features an easter egg of sorts in that converting Australia into a fascist regime earns them the name "Empire of the Platypus."  Some players on the official forums bemoaned this for making the game seem silly, while simultaneously failing to realize that the whole idea of Australia adopting such a system of government is completely ludicrous to begin with.  When you think about it, the platypus is a weird animal; it lays eggs like a reptile, but has the feet and mouth of a duck attached to the body of a beaver.  Also, for some reason it has poisonous barbs in its appendages.  Because the platypus is such a bizarre and contradictory creature, it's not hard to imagine why a company called Paradox Interactive adopted this particular animal for their corporate logo. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Combat VR

I don't have a VR headset, nor do I plan on getting one anytime soon.  They're not cheap and I'm not rich.  Plus, the kind of hardware need to make an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive run to its fullest potential is on the pricy side.  Another major hangup is my lifestyle, which doesn't often allow for long uninterrupted sessions of gaming.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all though is the lack of killer apps.

Of course, what makes for a must-play game varies from person to person.  In my case it certainly isn't gallery shooters.  If anything I'd like to see more combat sims that take advantage of all the immersiveness VR has to offer.  Track IR (a somewhat similar technology) is currently supported by combat flight sims such as IL-2 Sturmovik, Rise of Flight, and War Thunder.  However, out of the three only War Thunder fully supports VR headsets.  IL-2 Sturmovik has partial support in that Battle of Stalingrad does, but Cliffs of Dover doesn't, while Rise of Flight completely lacks support for VR.  I suppose the choice is obvious then...go with Track IR, right?  Well...first off Track IR isn't cheap either, and second, it doesn't fully solve the tunnel vision problem that plagues pretty much any game that utilizes a cockpit POV.  Don't get me wrong, Track IR is a vast improvement over nothing at all, just not enough of a solution to this particular issue I have with a lot of hyper realistic combat simulators.

The problem isn't just VR related either.  A lot of games trying to emulate a particular historical theater of war are often lacking in crucial little details.  To clarify a bit, in all the aforementioned examples the aircraft are meticulously detailed.  The experience is also highly customizable in terms of control schemes, allowing for everything from flight sticks, throttles, and rudder pedals  to a mouse and keyboard setup.  It's all great stuff that sadly feels like it came at the expense of the environment outside the machine the player is in.  To illustrate my point, take a look at the trenches in Rise of Flight.  They're nothing more than flat textures.  The decks of ships traveling across the English Channel in Cliffs of Dover are bare even when they're returning from the evacuation of Dunkirk...and War Thunder...well...let's just say that the developer is determined to keep their game rate 'G' not matter the cost to realism.

I know this sort of layering of detail is resource intensive, both in terms of development and rendering, but the hardware and tools exist to make it possible.  I've been playing flight-sims since the 1985 DOS game Jet; and while VR seems to have a lot of potential in enhance the subgenre, I hope there's going to be more to these sort of games than vehicles with greater polygon counts and higher-res textures.        

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bring on the Bronze

I'm afraid that this weapon and the person
who wields it are both ahistorical.
The mediterranean bronze age (3200 B.C. to 600 B.C.) is one of those oddly neglected eras in history when it comes to representation in entertainment media.  Sure, there has been a few movies ("Troy" and "Clash of the Titans"), a little bit of fantasy literature ("The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"), and a few games (Apotheon and Rise of the Argonauts), but not anywhere near the amount of attention medieval Europe gets.  What's more, the little we do see set in the region tends to be iron-age Rome or the Crusades.  It's a shame because there's no real reason why we couldn't have a Game of Thrones style epic set during that era.

I think one of the most common turn-offs is the titular metal - bronze.  It's weak compared to iron, but has some beneficial qualities that are often overlooked.  For one, it's possible to make bronze weapons really sharp...so sharp you can shave with them.  In fact, bronze razors are a common artifact found in ancient tombs.  It's easy to mold thanks to a relatively low melting point.  The optimal ratio for weapons is a simple ten parts copper to one part tin.  Castings that feature a thick ridgeline along the spine of a blade can greatly strengthen the weapon, as can tempering the edges.  Iron will completely rust away over time, but bronze only takes on a red or green hue with age and neglect.  It's perfectly possible to clean up and still use a bronze sword that has been buried for thousands of years.  Bronze also tend to bend rather than shatter like iron.  One of the net positives of this is if the weapon gets tweaked it can be straightened without any special tools.  So, for reasons such as these it's easy to see how bronze became so popular.  It's not as good as more recently discovered alloys, but it is a big improvement over flint or plain old copper.

Hey!  You got Dynasty Warriors in
my Greco-Hungarian epic!
Considering how ancient they were, the societies of bronze age were surprisingly advance in places.  There were written languages, trade networks, centralized governments and settlements that had sewers, as well as aqueducts to supply fresh water.  There were carts and chariots although fighting from horseback had yet to catch on mostly because horses were smaller back then...not to mention the saddle, stirrups, and horseshoes had not been invented yet.  There's also the simple fact that horses can pull weight a lot further and faster than carrying an equivalent load on their backs.  Ships traveled by sails or oars though the galley was a single deck affair.  So, what does all this mean for video games?  Well...simply put, it means would-be developers can have a lot of the things they like to include in games; world exploration, highspeed action, ship battles, secret messages and interesting urban centers (such as acropolises and ziggurats).

There were bronze age axes, spears, arrows and bludgeoning weapons.  Slings and stones were also quite popular, as were swords curved like sickles or shaped like leaves.  There were even bronze age rapiers though they, like most bronze-age weaponry, were shorter than the middle-ages equivalent.  Size might actually be one of the big reasons why developers pass over the era.  It seems like the preference in gaming is to exaggerate the dimensions of most weapons to the point that it looks silly.  Some of the blades found in skyrim are so wide they look more like paddles for rafts than swords for fighting.

The phalanx hadn't been invented yet, but the concept of closed ranks of armored soldiers had been pioneered by the Sumerians and quickly adopted by the other major powers of the day.  Individual glory was a big part of warfare as was polytheism and henotheism (see the campfire conversion between Subotai and Conan about their spiritual beliefs for a great illustration of the mindset that dominated that time period).  The term "king" was also used liberally at that time (in large part because there were no other ranks of nobility) and really just meant the boss of a particular region.  Theoretically, you could carve out your own kingdom if you could scrape together a band of 50 or so able-bodied and well-equipped soldiers.  In that sense there was a surprisingly degree of social mobility although just because you're a king doesn't mean you're not a vassal of someone even more powerful.

Anyway, I think I've established that the time period is full of gameplay and storytelling possibilities.  So instead of yet another For Honor or Life is Feudal copycat, how about more games with gods, monsters and a generous helping of bronze?


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Cyberpunk TBA

When it comes to subgenres cyberpunk has to be one of the most varied.  It's origins are rooted conceptually in the novel "Neuromancer" by William Gibson, and visually in the film "Bladerunner."  Oddly enough, most noteworthy entries don't really follow the format very closely (if at all).  "Akira," for example, has the moodily lit city at night, but forgoes bionics and cyberspace for bikers and psionics.  Another film, "Inception," has technology that allows people to share dream-spaces (basically high-res versions of cyberspace), yet lacks any of the signature visuals typically associated with cyberpunk.  Cases such as these make it hard to really define the conventions of the subgenre.  The best summary I've ever heard is, "High tech meets low life."  Almost every cyberpunk story involves criminal activity in a big way.  The technology on display also tends to be the kind of thing that might actually be possible sometime in the foreseeable future.  Granted, what actually becomes viable down the road is far from certain.  Cybernetic enhancements, wherein mechanical limbs are superior to organic ones, are still a heck of a long way off.  "Ghost in the Shell" has the concept of a human brain in a robot body.  At first it might sound like a plausible scenario not-so-many years from now, but it quickly becomes silly once you consider all that grey matter needing oxygen supplied by red blood cells, which in turn must be replenished by bone.  On top of that nutrients must be supplied which means stomach, intestine, liver and kidneys.  Replacing certain internal organs, such as the lungs and heart, with artificial substitutes is currently within the realm of possibility, but there's no way anything (short of a sprawling chemical refinery) can do the job of a human liver.  It's a common failing of science fiction writers to drastically undervalue the complexity or, for lack of a better term, "engineering precociousness" of the human body.

People uploading their consciousnesses into a computer is also one of those cases of "it might as well be magic."  Our current understanding of the human brain is pretty limited.  Even coming up with a way to get an accurate picture of the wiring, let alone copying it, is something that still eludes neuroscientists.  I have a feeling that even if they were to crack that particular nut, it would be incredibly difficult to translate all those neural pathways and connections into the binary language of computers.  At the very least I would be incredibly surprised if the file size for a person's brain came out to anything less than hundreds (if not thousands) of zettabytes of data.

Want to defeat a bunch of cyborgs?  The easiest way might be to simply cut off their supply of electricity.  Without it they won't have any way to power their machine bits...and don't get me started on issues associated with waste heat dissipation.  Another classic example of not thinking things through is your average cyborg with prosthetic arms picking up a car and throwing it.  Maybe it looks cool, but in real life it would result in dislocated shoulders and/or a crushed spine.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution does address this sort of thing to some degree by having the main character's superhuman abilities toned down along with bionic reinforcing across the shoulders and back.  Then again, if you're playing Shadowrun, who cares?  In a setting filled with elves, dwarfs, orcs, trolls, dragons and magic, why worry about realism at all?  Well...it depends on what kind of story the author is trying to tell.  Oftentimes the appeal of cyberpunk is its closeness to the world we currently live in.  Bigotry, corruption, and exploitation are common thematic elements of the subgenre.  They're also the kind of thing that resonates with many because it rings true.  Before it was called cyberpunk the term "tech noir" got passed around a lot as a descriptor.  While I won't got into the definition of noir, I will say it gained a lot of popularity by "telling it like it is."  In the case of cyberpunk I think its strength lies in "telling it like it will be."

Friday, September 8, 2017

Monetization of the Dead

This topic has been converted pretty thoroughly by Jim Sterling and Totalbiscuit, but I feel compelled to dedicate a post about it on my blog simply because it bothers me that much.  Just to make sure everyone is up to speed, one of the heads over at Monolith Studios passed away about about a year ago from brain cancer.  By all account he was a well liked guy whose death was considered a great loss by many of the studio's employees.  Monolith collectively decided to make a tribute in the form of a character modeled after him that will appear in their upcoming release Middle-earth: Shadow of War.  Supposedly the character will come to the rescue when the player is in dire peril.  It's a nice touch, but there's a problem with all this, Monolith Studio's producer is Warner Bros.

In case you don't know, WB has a fairly tarnished reputation - loot crate driven microtransactions in a full-priced games, attempts to manipulate media coverage, and the abandonment of the bug-riddled PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight.  There's more, but for the sake of brevity their poor industry practices have brought the publisher down to level Ubisoft and Konami.  In other words, WB is some of the worst the industry has to offer.  Not helping matters is their handling of Monolith.  In a backhanded attempt to improve PR, the aforementioned tribute character is being offered as paid DLC through Steam.  After Valve takes their cut the remaining proceeds go to the family of the deceased.  It's not a great arrangement, but I could get behind it if it weren't for the fine print.  Specifically, purchases made in six states in the USA along with anywhere else in the world don't actually go to any charitable cause whatsoever.

In essence, WB is trying to make a little extra money off the death of a cancer victim.  It is, in my opinion, disgusting.  It also underlines how cluelessly greedy WB really is.  They could have simply said for every sale of this particular DLC they will donate the full amount to the family or, barring that, a reputable cancer charity.  Alternatively, the DLC could have been free; honoring the dead man in the same way a statue in a park or a bust in a university does.  Of course if that's too much work then a simple "In loving memory of..." at the end of the closing credits would have sufficed.  However you slice it though the current setup at WB is a mix of avarice and ineptitude of the lowest order.  One wonders if anybody calling the shots over at WB has even read any of J.R.R. Tolkien's works.  If they had they probably would have noticed the similarities between themselves and certain villainous characters that appear in the stories.

So the question is (metaphorically speaking), will WB perish by their own folly like Ungoliant, at the hands of a hero like Smaug, or will they redeem themselves after a fashion like Thorin Oakenshield?  Sadly, I don't have access to Galadriel's Mirror so we'll just have to wait and see what comes to pass.  Personally, I'd be happy with any of the above...

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Myth for our Time

There are certain pieces of entertainment media that maintain an important ecological message far beyond their years; the novel "Dune," the anime "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind," and (since this is a blog about video games) Myth.

Not to be confused with Mist, this is a series of three games, the first two of which were created by none other than Bungie Studios...before they became famous for the Halo franchise.  The first entry Myth: The Fallen Lords is my personal favorite in terms of story, while the second Myth: Soulblighter improves on the gameplay of the original.  Sadly, the third game was outsourced and is just all around bad.  It should probably be forgotten.  So how do these games play?  Well the genre is a little bit difficult to classify.  It's somewhere between an RTS and MOBA, but also has a few RPG elements woven in here and there.  The setting is your typical middle-of-the-road fantasy world wherein the big bad has all but won.  The narrative framing device comes from the journal of an ordinary soldier fighting in the war.  Stylistically, I've heard comparisons to "The Black Company" novels by Glen Cook although I think most people who play the game will be reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings more than anything else.  After all, Myth features things like treants, dwarfs, a dark lord, and a heroic wizard.  On the other hand there are some original aspects to the setting as well (such as The Tain, Myrkridia, Trow, Fetch and Ghols).  The plot mostly revolves around "The Legion," a melting pot of warriors from a variety of different backgrounds.  On one extreme you have shirtless claymore-wielding berserkers, while on the other end there are robe-wearing journeymen who use plant roots to heal the wounded.  Rounding things out are the Fir'Bolg (stand-ins for elven archers), dwarves armed with explosives and surprisingly ordinary swordsmen complete with mail hauberk, surcoat, nasal helm and heraldic shield.

The opposition is even more varied and includes ghostly peltasts called "soulless" that float over the terrain, as well as the aforementioned fetch that can shoot lightning from their fingertips.  However, the backbone of the armies of darkness are the thrall, axe-wielding zombies basically...Stages in which the player is charged with defending a fixed position against advancing columns of these foes are by far my favorite mission type, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of on-screen carnage.  Of course planting satchel charges and creating killzones is great fun, but equally exciting is targeting the shuffling timebombs known as "wights."  Hit them with a couple of arrows and the resulting explosion, created by these bloated walking corpses, causes the ground to ripple and can kill or paralyze anything caught in the blast radius.  Some other units also have interesting secondary abilities; thrall can pass through (or hide in) deep water, archers can release flaming arrows, ghols can pick up objects on the battlefield and throw them.  As you might have noticed, the bad guys have more interesting units.  Thankfully, players do get the chance to try them out in multiplayer.

Contrary to my usual gaming habits, I did play quite a bit of Myth and Myth II online.  In part it was because of Bungie's free, easy-to-use matchmaking service (a rarity in those days).  There was also a ranking system although I never made it past the lowest crown tier.  There were also some interesting mods for the game, including a vietnam multiplayer total conversion and a developer-endorsed fan-made single player campaign for Myth II entitled "Chimera."

Despite the vast array of features offered, when I think back on the Myth series my fondest memories are of the names of each unit and the accompanying flavor text.  The game tracks kill counts in addition to the number of mission survived for each unit.  These forms of experience affect movement speed, attack rate and even hit points.  One way to make the later levels easier in Myth (aside from turning down the difficulty setting) is to make sure more units survive earlier on - thus allowing them to become veterans.  So, in a sense, each of the player's units starts to take on their own personal history and value.  The names are also evocative and reflect the culture from which that unit came.  For example a berserker might have a name like "Eirik who Jams the Gates of the Underworld," or "Tyrgeis with a Shirt of Scars," while a journeyman might have a name along the lines of "Eight Flint Deer," or "Twelve Eagle Falling Sun."  Meanwhile, swordsmen have old English sounding names such as "Duncan," "Avis," or "Owen."  One particular race of foes called the "Bre'Unor" only appear in one level, but their bone armor, flint weapons, pet wolves, monolithic shrines and nocturnal ambushes made a lasting impression on me.

The flavor text made visible by selecting a single unit hints at a much deeper and richer setting than what actually makes it on-screen.  Steve Jackson Games actually ported over the setting to G.U.R.P.S. (Generic Universal Role-Playing System), but the sourcebook was oddly lacking in details.  Particularly with regards to the cycle of light and dark.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but the setting of Myth follows a 1000 (or possibly 500) year pattern of civilization rising and falling.  The concept is kind of interesting considering the mediterranean followed a similar course with the bronze age collapse in 1177 B.C., followed by the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., and now with war in Syria, civil unrest in Egypt and a major financial crisis in Greece one wonders if this simply isn't the third time around.  Even the "Leveler" takes on a quasi-symbolic importance in that the creator of one age is the destroyer of the next.  It's all too topical considering recent matters having to do with fossil fuels and climate change.  Did Bungie intend their IP to convey that sort of allusion to the real world?  I don't know, but there's no denying its relevance even to this day.  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Kickstopper

To quote someone off the internet, "Unsung Story has gone from hopeful to worrying to disappointing to unbelievably frustrating to past the point of caring to morbidly entertaining."  Like many people, I'm a fan of Yasumi Matsuno's work.  Final Fantasy: Tactics and Vagrant Story are probably somewhere on my top-ten list of PSX games.  Sadly, the last fantasy game he had a hand in was a little Nintendo eShop title way back in 2012.  Unsung Story, I hoped, would be a chance for him to return to form.  Unfortunately, the developers (Playdek) botched it.

I know that in the grand scheme of game development 660,000 USD isn't all that much money, but I've seen games made with far less.  FTL, for example, was made on one third the budget.  Banner Saga was made with only the slightly higher sum of 723,000 USD.  I don't think it was unrealistic to expect Playdek to make a game with the money they had.  Maybe it would be barebones.  Maybe it would be somewhat lacking in terms of graphics, but what backers ultimately ended up with was nothing.  Granted, the project has been handed over to another company.  However, the new custodians of Unsung Story (Little Orbit) say they are going to have to start from scratch.  What the heck was Playdek doing the last couple years?  To take over half-a-million dollars and 2+ years of time with nothing to show for it reeks of the worst kind of incompetence.  Who are these inept fools?  I doubt Yasumi Matsuno was one of them.  It's my understanding that he already submitted all his design work long ago.  Then again, if his handling of FFXII is any indication, he's not the most capable individuals out there either.  

On the flipside, the backers of Unsung Story are surprisingly mellow about being swindled out of their hard-earned cash.  Even one super backer simply mentioned that he was glad the game still had a chance of coming out eventually.  Maybe it's because I didn't throw any money at the game, but I don't share their optimism.  Looking at Little Orbit's credentials, they've successfully made several licensed games none of which are particularly good.  I shouldn't be too hard on them though.  At least they got their projects out the door...and who knows...maybe this is a breakout chance for them.  For all we know this new development team might be chomping at the bit to do a turn-based strategy title.  Regardless of their disposition, I do hope the dev team over at Little Orbit go back to the original concept art, and try to build something akin to that design.  What little pre-alpha footage that we did see was pretty rough and felt very generic.  I know Unsung Story is supposed to be a throwback to those classic strategy RPGs, but at least go with the chinese checkers layout instead of the generic square boxes that practically every game in the SRPG subgenre uses.  After all this is supposed to be an unsung story, not a story that's been told many times before.