Monday, January 31, 2011

All Work and No Play, Make RTS a Dull Genre..

When we work, we do it because we are obligated to. We work for food because
we are slaves to our bellies. We work to pay the rent because we are slaves to our safety and comfort. Some of this servitude is willing servitude, such as willingness to earn money to care for our families, but it is servitude nonetheless. We are doing it because we have to, not because “we feel like it. ” The more obligated you are to do something, the more it feels like work.
~Excerpt from Art of Game Design - A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell
Now, let's apply this quote to something near and dear to our hearts.
When we work, we do it because we are obligated to. We harvest resources because we are slaves to our factories. We work to build up our bases because we are slaves to our safety and... well, unit producing factories, again. Some of this servitude is willing servitude, such as willingness to earn credits to care for our armies, but it is servitude nonetheless. We are doing it because we have to, not because "we feel like it." The more obligated you are to do something, the more it feels like work.
Anyone else get that feeling when playing any of the recent mainstream RTS games? It was novel at first. But now, it is work. When you are playing anything but "no rush 5 minutes, n00b game"s, be it single player missions or multi player matches, you are building the base because you have to. Because it is your only way to build up an army. And, for the most part, you do it in a time constraint, fearing the coming onslaught of Red Helmeted Fanatic Zerglings under strict orders from Saruman to wipe you off the face of Middle Tib Sara.
It's a chore on your way to the fight. Some might even go as far as calling it a hindrance.

Some games have attempted to change that, by getting rid of that whole part of the game. A move met with hostility, anger and outcry. In his book, Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell gives the story of Rico Medellin who turned his job into a game:
The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform — the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record?
So, basically, by restating the goal of the chore, Rico turned his mundane, repetitive and otherwise stagnating task into a game. Now, anyone who just said to himself "Achievements", in an overly excited outburst, go outside and... hit yourself with some heavy and maybe even spiky object. Whatever you choose, please make sure the pain will last long.

We can't solve this with Achievements. Turning the resource and building part of an RTS into CityVille will just distract and detract from the Action and core of the game. And, in the end, we'll just end up with the same problem.
That said, permit to contradict myself, at least partly. Maybe such an approach can work - if two conditions are met:
  1. As with the story of Rico, these Achievements are properly defined and described. Not just a mere "Build two factories, a condo, brick walls with Obelisks and a brown and blue eyed Siberian Husky to guard the gate" type of achievement, but something more endogenous. Something that has meaning in the context of the fight we are fighting - specifically the current goal and mission.
  2. Perhaps more important than the above - certainly complemented by the above - is the issue of persistence. If you have a mission that only takes 20 minutes, or even 2 hours - if you cram to many of those Achievements it'll bog down on the core game, if you don't, you've achieved nothing new anyway.
    No, what needs to be considered are larger missions - or arenas of play. An approach in which the built up base can be revisited and added to over time. Instead of just building a base for the purposes of unit production, we build it first for a foot hold, then a presence and ultimately a permanent staging area.
    Allow the narrative to support this need, by revisiting the area and, of course, providing the player with the same built up base he left there. Make the player care for that base, or even for several interacting bases.
In the original Red Alert there was an Allied mission to quickly establish a foot hold and destroy a near by Soviet base so that a convoy could pass. Later, you had to return to that base in a following mission, expand it, build up an army and destroy a larger Soviet base to the north. Obviously the technology at the time did not allow for the Allied base in the second mission to be exactly as it was built up by the player in the first... but imagine the possibilities.
Once you provide such small persistence, you have open before you many other options - options you can provide the player with. For example; without revealing future missions, provide the player with intelligence regarding Enemy movement in the north, allow him to recon there and allow him the freedom to expand his base where he wishes. Later, when that future mission is reached, the player is either under attack already (base being large and expansive), or under siege, with a tiny, purpose specific stronghold.
The difference in this impromptu example is situational and well within the scope of current technology. There is no need for branching morality, dialog and decision trees. The difference comes down to the "EVA/Adjutant" informing you of either an enemy spotted or a base under attack. The player will decide for himself whether to panic.

This reminds me of an anti-rant post on the Mass Effect 2 forums by a guy called Omnicrat:
...Your choices in one have a HUGE impact on the story in two! In fact, the stories are vastly different! What IS simmilar/identical alot is the specific dialogue. Example: you say pretty much the same things to Wrex/Wreave minus the bit about how Wrex is enacting his plan. Yes, the dialog is similar, but the story is compleatly different! Wrex is the de facto leader of Tuchanka in one story and Wreave can't beat that green clan in a fight in the other! These are vastly different stories.
What I'm trying to say here is that while the basic missions and objectives may be the same, the narrative as perceived by the player can vary -and maybe, if done right, vastly so.

Still, what other options are there to make the Base Building and Resource Gathering aspects of RTS not being chores?
Perhaps another approach is the Meaningful Achievement.
In the original Mass Effect, for example, only the Soldier class was a born Sniper. Meaning, that only characters of that class could start off and use the Sniper rifle(s) to their full potential... Unless, as a different class, you've completed the Head Hunter achievement - basically, get an X amount of Head Shots. What this did, beyond the Head Hunter medal in the otherwise useless medal list, was allow the non-Soldier classed character to gain all the advantages of the Sniper Rifle(s). Finally, actually having focused cross-hairs, instead of the screen wide circle, and the uncanny ability to use the Sniper Rifle's zoom feature!

Can something similar be done for Base Building and Expansion? For Resource Gathering?

The Terrans in StarCraft 2 have this Automated Miner thingy which, for a limited time, comes down from Orbit and auto mines Minerals. What if mining an X amount of Mineras, in a limited T amount of time (maybe spread out, for a X / lim T per Mission kind or ratio), allows you to have that Auto Miner, for free, at the start of each mission after the achievement is reached?
Easily doable in Single Player. Might require some more tweaking if considered for balanced Multiplayer matches.

What about Objective based Achievements?

A mission that requires you to fortify your base from coming attacks, but an underlying achievement may be of creating a base strong enough to withstand the attacks without the use of offensive units? Kill all the incoming forces using base defenses and the Engineers to repair them! The Design a Death Trap achievement.
Gives you stronger base defenses? Less power consuming or cheaper ones?

The two activities - base construction and resource gathering - complement each other. Rather, the latter is a requisite of the former. As such, the resource gathering is in itself endogenous. So, maybe the focus should be given more to the base construction aspect, as the heavier element of this Pareto duo.

I'd love to read and discuss more ideas on making that aspect of the RTS formula, preferably as an integral part of the action of the game, less a Must Chore and more a Fun Play.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

If you put a Video Game on the top 100 of all time...

If you put a Video Game on the top 100 of all time...
At the very least, make sure you put it there for attributes that make it a worthy Video Game.

Here's a copy of a short Facebook discussion I started with a status update:

PCGamer Feb 2011 - Top 100 Of All Time List:
#9: "It's one of the few games here you can be a fan of without playing it much. My StarCraft2 time isn't usually spent playing the game - it's watching the commented Korean tournament matches that reach us via GomTV. When I play, I dabble. When I watch, I'm consumed."

To me, that's one of the WORST arguments for the quality of a GAME one is supposed to enjoy playing.
    • RS: Don't forget: EA tried trumping up the same feature/concept with C&C3.
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      It's not about the feature. I'm fine with the feature. It's a neat feature.

      I'm not fine with ranking a game high, when you prefer watching it instead of playing it.
      Hell, I'd rather go out and play ball instead of watching the Lakers.

      When you've created a game that more "players" prefer watching than actually playing, well... Here's Kotaku's completely unrelated to SC2 quote: "For a video game to truly exist, it needs players. Otherwise, it simply stands still. Role-playing game Final Fantasy Versus XIII doesn't have players, it has viewers."

      What I'm saying, is if you have more viewers than players, you've got a problem.
    • RS: Oh you're hitting on the nature of the review. In which case I fully agree.
    • JK:
      ‎"I'd rather go out and play ball instead of watching the Lakers."
      Totally lame :)
      Startcraft is a sport indeed. So if you hate watching sport, you're part of a minority on earth, and that's not a problem related to video games: it's just you being lame :)
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      Hey, if it's a sport, why bother creating a single player campaign?
      A lame single player campaign at that.

      As I told you in person - yeah, as a sport it's great. As a sport it did the perfect thing - it did the same as it's predecessor (though, at this point, Brood Wars is far better balanced than SC2 - which is understandable, as it takes time to balance).
      That's my problem with SC2. It's on par.

      It is not Awesome. By definition, since it reiterates on the same thing consciously staying away from change (being a sport), and we've seen [most of] it all before, it is not Awe inspiring.

      If the US did another Shock and Awe campaign over Iraq, no one there is going to be Shocked or Awed, they will just go "Oh, those bastards again... just leave us alone, would you?".
      SC2 only Awed people because of the wait. And I'm betting that the Zerg and Protoss expansions/games, will suffer from that "Oh, that again" mentality - not in the Sport niche, but the SP one. Unless, of course, they do radically different or, better yet, radically interesting things with those campaigns.

      And no - a completely Naked Kerrigan based Zerg campaign will not do.
      I do have a great idea they could try, and actually Dustin Browder already did the basis of it in one of his previous games, where he led the Design....
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      Also, I'm not arguing it's not a spectator's sport. To each his own.
      Hell, even Golf has Spectators, and while I completely agree that Golf is a challenging and even rewarding Sport on it's own, I don't feel or think it's a Spectator's Sport.
      Unlike Basketball or Soccer (not for me, the last one) or Football etc'.

      My argument is more of a question - should a video game really strive to be a Spectator's Sport at all? Or should it strive to reach as many audiences as possible?

      Or, to take the Ebert argument, is a game a piece of Art when all it is is a Sport?
      I'll restate that - should games strive to be Art or Sports?
      Cause, dammit, if you distill it to a Clicks/Actions per Minute based sport, it ain't Art no more.
    • JK:
      What it "should be" or what it "shouldn't be" is not the point. There is no morality issue here, it's about the nature of people... we love watching interesting competitive events. When a sport is a great platform to host someone's talents, when it has the right rules and the right balance between luck and skill + room for creativity... then it's a great sport to watch and to enjoy. You may not be receptive, it's OK - it's one of parameter that is defining a geek :) Once more, this is unrelated to video games.
    • Mark Kotlyar: Okay, then you agree that while as a sport, SC2 is great. Superb even.
      But as a video game, it lacks. A lot.

      Good. ;)
    • JK:
      Absolutely! I didn't even bother with the solo campaign, I just played in multiplayer. Starcraft 2 is standing out. Starcraft 2 has a purpose, it answers a need, a desperate need of a real competitive game that was invented by the first Starcraft, and was never equaled by any other RTS. When C&C4 and DoW2 will last 1 year, Starcraft 2 will remain THE reference of the genre for the next decade. That's Blizzard choice. They took video games to another level. You cannot change football rules, and you cannot change Starcraft balance: this is a perfect game.
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      Jeremie my man, a bit of the fanboyism (really, no offense) is audible from your text (ha!). Perfect it is not. Superb it is (at least the Terran faction...).

      But, my whole point here was that they put SC2 in #9, because it's great to watch. Not great to play, but great to watch! WTF?
      And, considering that currently SC2, balance wise - i.e. Sport Rules wise - is worse off than Brood Wars - it boggles the minds that they put the original StarCraft, a game superior in Single Player, a game superior as a Game, as a piece of Art and Experience, and, again, currently with better balance, at #86! While 2 is at #9.

      Again, given the reasons that it's great to watch!
      Ipso facto, they gave it #9 because of the great Battle Cast feature... ????
      Because of the awesome streaming, broadcasting, commenting and marking capabilities (all of which, BTW, they more or less copied from EA's C&C3 Battlecast feature - but that's not the point)???
Just a note regarding the Art thing.
I can definitely consider, in certain cases, Athletes as Artists. Kobe Bryant pulls off many feats that are definitely Poetry in Motion - no question about it. And I'd love to see a Cyber Athlete do the same. Which, in that case, make the move or action as the Art.

Anyway, discuss, if you wish.