Tuesday, May 26, 2009

RTS Devolution

A very interesting thing happened in the last week - I picked up a copy of Starcraft, and with it a realization about the progression of RTS as a genre. Firstly, though, I feel obligated to defend myself for the terrible oversight of not having played Starcraft earlier. The reason I didn't pick up Starcraft when it came out was simple - it looked like Warcraft in space, and I'd played Warcraft, so Starcraft seemed redundant. In retrospect that was a very silly thing to think, but that's my excuse.

Anyway, I have since played just about every other RTS game I could get my hands on, so the experience of playing Starcraft has effectively been a way to return to what you might call the "core" of RTS games and understand the overall trajectory they've taken. What struck me immediately about Starcraft as someone who hadn't played it before is that it actually felt "fresh", moreso than some more recent RTS games, even though it's over a decade old. The races are more differentiated and well defined than in most other RTS games, and yet it's clear that every unit has been meticulously balanced. The gameplay is aggressive, chaotic, and micro-management intensive, and yet immediately more comprehensible than in many games that are less chaotic.

That's enough gushing about a game that's already got plenty of acclaim. The point is that I was expecting to enjoy Starcraft when I bought it, but I wasn't expecting to think that it was still better than most games in its genre made in the last decade.

So what's the difference? It's actual quite simple: what Starcraft has is fluidity. The game isn't about building up a huge base and teching up - it makes you branch out, build forward bases, and constantly skirmish with your opponents. There are a lot of small design decisions that work together to make this work, but there are a few that stand out as missing from more recent games (yes, it's time for a numbered list!):

1) Base defenses are weak. That's not to say that they're not useful, but they're ultimately there for support - you can't just build a couple photon cannons and then consider an area safe. This is even more true for the Terrans and Zerg, who lack a single anti-ground/anti-air defensive structure. All defensive structures are available very early on, and useful for repelling rushes, but by the end of the game they aren't really turning the tide of battle anymore.

Compare that to more recent games: AoE2 and AoE3 both have upgradeable towers AND castles (forts in AoE3) that can only be overcome by full armies. In Command & Conquer Generals, one general can build EMP missile defenses that disable any vehicle they hit, making a direct assault suicidal. Perhaps the most egregious case is Supreme Commander, in which you can cover your defensive turrets with energy shields to make an impregnable fortress.

Building powerful defensive structures is so popular that it's become its own genre of game (Tower Defense). While there's certainly a place for games that are about building towers that shoot things, effective base defenses have become an assumed in RTS games and I'm not sure most designers recognize the kind of effect it has on gameplay (hint: it's called turtling).

2) Resources are not infinitely reproducible. As far as I'm aware, it was Age of Empires that introduced farms and the idea of renewable resource gathering. Like effective base defenses, it has come to be an assumed part of many modern RTS games. This, more than anything else, enables turtling, because expanding your territory is always risky, if only because you have more ground to defend, whereas building more resource-producing buildings comes with no risk at all.

Getting past turtling economics in RTS games doesn't strictly require that resources in your base run out, however. It can also be effective to simply limit the rate at which resources can be gathered from a single base. In other words, the important thing is that you can't endlessly grow your economy without opening yourself up to risks.

3) Maps are full of chokepoints. This feature has more to do with level design than systems design, but it's clearly part of the overall gameplay concept. In most RTS games, you're building on open plains with occasional geographical features of interest, or else on islands connected by water. In virtually every map in Starcraft, your base is in a fairly small, defined area with 1-3 points of entry.

The significance of this is that it's what makes turret-less defense of your base possible. If you know that your opponent is going to come from one direction, you can concentrate your forces there and stand a good chance at repelling attacks. On open plains, no matter where you place your units, the enemy, if they scout ahead, will be able to go in a small circle around them and enter your base. To avoid this, you need walls or other defensive structures you can place around your perimeter to buy you time to respond to attacks...which leads us back to point 1.

So overall, it seems that in the last decade RTS games have become more about building (and thus about defense) than about fighting. That's not necessarily a bad thing (building is fun!), but the fact that I found Starcraft to feel "fresh" reinforces my belief that there are very few more recent representatives of the Starcraft model of tactical-skirmish-centric gameplay. I believe that Dawn of War II sees itself as being such a representative, but I find it kind of hard to get into the game for several reasons (forced Windows Live registration plus a CD-key even when you buy off Steam, it's laggy on a computer that meets "recommended specs", there's no real tutorial, etc.).

I'd like to see more RTS games taking some of these points into account.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Mission Architect and Creative Gameplay

So shortly after my last post on user-generated quests, Cryptic actually released a user-generated quest system for City of Heroes. The initial reaction was very positive, and Raph Koster gave a particularly rosy assessment of the situation by claiming that users were just as good at creating game content as the designers were (perhaps not surprising that he would take this stance, given the extent to which his own virtual world emphasizes UGC).

Then came the bad news: players were gaming the system, in this case by creating missions designed to provide the most experience in the least time. Of course, anyone who bought the game did so with the explicit intention of “gaming”, but there’s clearly been some confusion about what exactly that means. In the minds of the developers, the players are supposed to be contributing to and enriching a virtual game world. In the minds of the players, they’re supposed to be gaining power as quickly as possible.

So there are a few points to take from this:

1) Players will always try to game the system. You should always anticipate the most abusive way a player could use a system and then either decide that you don’t mind, or find a way to prevent the abuse. You certainly can’t just hope players will be reasonable.

2) If you want to introduce a feature that’s as fundamental to gameplay as user-generated quests, you should incorporate it into the game from the beginning. The thing that made the system abuse particularly harmful in this case was the fact that City of Heroes already had a carefully crafted set of quests that lead the player through controlled level advancement. If, on the other hand, the game had been originally created with user-generated quests in mind, other elements of the game could have been altered to accommodate it.

3) I’m afraid I’m going to have to radically disagree with Raph Koster and suggest that most players are, in fact, terrible at designing games (or levels/missions). The main reason for this is that it’s so different from what they do as players. Most games involve power fantasies on some level, and when a player thinks about what they want from the game, it’s colored by the fact that they, as players, wanted power. What does this lead to? Unbalanced design proposals.

For that matter, you might see this as a problem amongst the professional designers, as well. They started off as players themselves, and when it comes time for them to design, they're going to come to the table with "what would I want to see in a game I'm playing?" If they're used to power fantasies in their games, then the things they "want" in their game is, on some level, power. This can result in what I'll call the Dragon Ball Z effect. Stories and mechanics can become more and more unbalanced over time if the goal is to more perfectly serve up a power fantasy.

Balanced design requires a different outlook. Sure, you can make a badass main character and make the player feel special, but in order to do more than that you have to be able to think beyond "what would I want" and think about "what makes for a more interesting game?" Outside of game design itself, there are a few places to exercise this idea. One of them is being a dungeon master.

When you're the dungeon master in D&D, you have vast power. As the arbitrator of world events you can decide if the players live or die. With that much power, gaining power is no longer an interesting objective - the goal of being a dungeon master is to figure out how to make an adventure fun for the players (and if successful, yourself as well). This is what I call creative gameplay - unlike the players, the dungeon master doesn't have a clear goal to work toward within the confines of the rules. Rather, the dungeon master has a goal that exists beyond the scope of the rules, and has to figure out how to make the rules a tool to reach it.

So the point is, if we think that user-generated content is something we want, we should be encouraging creative gameplay on the part of players, something that is fairly rare in digital games.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Rise of Magus on yoyogames

The Rise of Magus can be played on the Game Maker site now at:


There are several nice things about this. For one, it means the game is available even when my site is down (which it apparently was an hour ago). It also means that it's possible for users to play the game without having to download the .exe file (if they install the yoyogames plugin, they can play it off the site), which will hopefully make people less scared of trying it (and I wonder if that works on macs - I should test at some point).

Also, the site keeps track of how many people are playing it and what score they gave it, so that makes it a useful source of feedback for me.

-Silent Ellipsis

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Rise of Magus

Alright, it's time for a post that's both exciting and a little anxious. The exciting part first: I have officially put up version 1.0 of a game that I've been working on for 10 months in my free time. It's called the Rise of Magus, and is a platformer based on the character Magus from Chrono Trigger, a classic Japanese RPG.

The official site for the game is here: www.silentellipsis.com/riseofmagus

If you go to silentellipsis.com, you'll also find a nifty link to this blog (henceforth the official blog of silentellipsis.com). Now, a necessary awesome looking title screen:

Now if the page on the other side of that link looks suspiciously like this one, it's possibly because I just ripped off the style sheet for this blogger page and made a couple changes.

The game was a lot of fun to make - I created it in Game Maker 7 using, among other resources, sprites from Chrono Trigger. That's where we get to the anxious part...

One of the sites on which I found some useful resources was the Chrono Compendium, and I decided that after I finished, I would submit the game to the webmaster and see if they wanted to put up a link to my game.

Today, having just finished my game the night before, I visited the Chrono Compendium to see an announcement that they'd received a cease and desist order from Square Enix over the weekend in reference to some of the other fan projects on the site. Obviously, this did not sound like it boded well for me.

However, when I looked at the cease and desist order more closely, I realized I might be ok afterall. The document (which they link to on their front page) is specifically concered with ROM-hacking, and a quick look through other projects that had previously been linked to showed that the ones to receive cdo's were either:

1) ROM-hacks


2) Recreations of the original game

While I'm sympathetic to the webmasters on the Compendium when they say that they disagree with Square's argument, Square has much more justification for ordering stops on these kinds of projects than they would have with one like mine. ROM-hacking, as a practice, enables game piracy, and recreations of the game compete with their own product (and at an advantage, since they're free). Whether or not these projects will actually result in a loss of revenue for Square Enix (I seriously doubt they actually would), the practices have the potential to hinder Square's business.

My game, on the other hand, is not a ROM-hack, mod, or remake of Chrono Trigger. It's an independent game that uses sprites from Chrono Trigger. The fact that the game is a different genre from the game that inspired it does a lot to support the argument that it doesn't directly compete with the original game, and since I didn't do anything with Square's software, I haven't violated any user agreement or tried to circumvent their copy protection.

That's enough for me to go through with putting the game up and posting about it on a couple sites. The folks at Square Enix aren't stupid, and they have no reason to pursue litigation against people who aren't actually threatening their business. What's more, the cdo against the Chrono Compendium shows that they looked into the situation in decent detail, so I doubt they'll be sending me an email just because they're in a litigate-y mood. Of course, they can prove me wrong at any time.

So I don't think I have anything to worry about, and for now will just enjoy the fact that I actually completed this project (of course, if I get enough positive feedback, I'll probably come back and add a little more to it). Seriously, check it out, I think it turned out pretty well.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Names as Identities

A few months back, a friend pointed out to me that in every Bioware game he'd played, there was a common element: the main character had a past to be discovered. He speculated that this was used as a way of simultaneously giving the player freedom in creating their character (that is, their character in the present), while holding onto the sense the character being played is more than just an avatar for the player. This is likely true, but I think it's also an indication of just how powerful the theme of uncovering an identity is.

Now let us consider Chrono Trigger, and the realization that led to this blog post (warning: minor spoilers ahead). Chrono Trigger has 7 playable characters, and while you can choose to name them whatever you want, they each have a default name. Here's the interesting part - only 3 of those characters use their "real" name as their default character names: Crono, Lucca, and Ayla. The other 4 characters are all using aliases. What's more, they're using aliases that obscure their identity. In fact, 3 of those names aren't really names at all - they're descriptions.

Frog is called so because he's a frog, Robo is a robot, and Magus just refers to the fact that he's a wizard (and yes, the fact that Magus joins your party is spoiler I warned of). In each case, the process of learning their true name is inextricable from the process of learning the character's true identity. At the same time, each character has undergone a change, such that their new name is a new identity.

The fact that the uncoverable past is used so many times in Chrono Trigger shows how ubiquitous the idea is in the minds of the creators (in addition to playable characters, you uncover the identities of the 3 gurus, Yakra, the ghost of Cyrus, and even Lavos). The fact that each character with a hidden past also has two names is perhaps more interesting. I know I for one felt that the "true names", once revealed, had some kind of inherent power to them; the mere fact of knowing a character's true name made me at once feel like I had some new level of control over them and made me empathize with them. The fact that it's a secret makes it a personal feature, and any entity with a personal feature feels richer for it (end of spoilers).

Ursula K. LeGuin, of course, takes the power of names a step further by literally giving not just every person, but every single object in the world of Earthsea a true name. Merely speaking the true name of creature of Earthsea gives you power over it. This seems to me a manifestation of something we feel the force of every day - that names carry identity, and that knowing the identity of another grants you power over them (hence, it would be completely inappropriate for me to address the president as "Barack" to his face).

That's as far as this will go for now. It was simply on my mind. As to why Chrono Trigger is on my mind, it's probably because I've been working on a fan project. It's what I was referring to in my last blog post, and it's an original platformer game about Magus, made using Game Maker 7. I'm hoping to have the first finished draft of it ready this weekend, so stay tuned, I will most certainly post about it if I do.

-Silent Ellipsis