Monthly Archives: April 2015

Opinion – The State in Games

You are what you program.

Whether we like it or not, every video game reflects an opinion of the world.  Every aspect of a game is a hint about how the developer views a particular topic.  To be sure, sometimes elements of realism are sacrificed on the altar of gameplay, but even that is a reflection of the developers mind.  Realism is sacrificed, but elements the developer deems core to know that a thing is a thing are preserved so that the audience can identify whatever item or concept the developer is trying to convey.  Case and point, guns.  Guns in an FPS never jam, don’t have weight, and have magnetic ammunition that leaps into your pocket when you walk over it.  These unrealistic aspect of guns are included because they are deemed inessential to the idea of a gun.  Today I’ll be looking at the idea of a state.  Many strategy games model the state, but they rarely reflect a state as it actually is.  Many have a different idea of how states function as compared to their real counterparts.  Here are a few:

Civilization V – Centralized dictatorship

Putting aside the immortal sovereign, the Civilization games function as a dehumanizing centralized dictatorship focused on control of major cities.  Decision making is done entirely by the leader without much input from independent interests or other government agencies.  The only part of an empire that actually has a voice is the population based on generalized notions of happiness.  As a result, very little gets done without a direct command.  Everything from basic public buildings to countryside infrastructure is dependent on the player making the order and releasing the resources.  Even supposed changes in government rarely restrict the leader from doing what they want to do (I do recall that democracies could prevent the player from declaring war in Civ2.  Ahh, the glory days.).  Of course, most real governments have interests other than a generalized notion of “the people”.  These interests play an important role in prioritizing resources and are largely ignored by the Civilization series.  Especially in dictatorships, the ruler must appease these interests or face serious problems down the line.

Rome Total War 2 – Bureaucratized Oligarchy

The Total War series attempts to model various interests in the empire.  The Roman Senate plays a role in determining the support a given leader has and special characters, such as generals, each have their own traits and ambitions.  The opinions of the people matters, but, like the Civilization series, only insofar as they cause trouble.   If the people are happy, then the player must respond to a small group of specialized interests.  To do so, the play has access to an efficient and effective bureaucracy that is able to maintain control over a massive empire.  Orders from the center are reflected quickly in the priorities of the provinces with only a corruption increase to show that the bureaucracy has interests of its own.  Modern bureaucracies are only half as effective as the Rome Total War 2 ones.  The idea that a pre-industrial society could have detailed control over such a massive amount of territory is ludicrous and likely reflects the developer’s bias towards modern governance.  Like the Civilization series, Rome Total War 2 also doesn’t model the institutions that would inevitably develop to handle such a difficult task.

Crusader Kings 2 – Legalistic Feudalism

The last game on our list is the most realistic attempt to model an actual government.  Rather than rely on a faceless, obedient, and super capable bureaucracy, Crusader Kings 2 creates a government and society built on individuals with their own interests.  Individuals have titles which reflect their area of control and the individuals they rule.  Those individuals will negotiate with their superiors, fight wars for them, and rebel.  Without direct input, NPCs will develop their own territories and conquer new lands.  It’s a fascinating system, though not without its flaws.  The most notable is the high degree of legalism inherent in the system.  While medieval lords were a far more legalistic bunch than they traditionally get credit for, they didn’t stop crushing victories against their infidel foes because they promised they’d only crusade in a certain area.  Furthermore, borders of provinces shifted all the time whereas Crusader Kings 2 acts as if they were set in stone by Charlemagne.

There are plenty of other things to nitpick.  All three games (and all strategy games that I am aware of) assume an instantaneous response to all orders regardless of distance.  Every leader has a crystal clear view of all resources they possess and the capability to move them wherever they need to be.  I could go on.  Still, these feel like conceits to gameplay and less like a world view.  The governments outlined here seem reflective of a viewpoint, or a blind spot, of developers who didn’t quite understanding what they were saying when they made their game.

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Failing where no man has failed before.

I suck at Minecraft.  This is theoretically impossible as Minecraft has few limits and almost no goals beyond not dying yet I suck at it all the same.  I can survive so that rules out the last bit.  The reason I suck at Minecraft speaks to the core of the motivation behind playing Minecraft.  Whereas most games have a distinct goal (kill this dude, conquer this thing, etc), Minecraft is notable for being without one.  As a player, I’m motivated by the goals provided for me and have trouble making them for myself.  I suck at Minecraft because it demands the player decide their own direction.

Well, it’s not that dramatic.

Most games I play have a direction.  This helps guide my play and give me ideas on how to get the most from a game.  I know what the game wants from me, and I just have to figure out how to get there.  The directed experience is nice, because it gives the player a clear goal and allows for greater expansion of story elements that may require the player engage in a specific activity.  Elements I like in games, such as narrative and character building, are much easier under the direct control of a developer.  Of course, directed play has its downsides.  Players who wish to engage in other activities don’t have an option.  This can be particularly frustrating when there are parts of the game they like and parts they hate.  Then the player must go through the annoying bits to get to the gameplay they actually enjoy.  Another issue is the lack of emergent gameplay.  Some of the best story and gameplay comes from the interaction of game systems.  As those systems are restricted, so too is the chance that they will combine into something unique and interesting.

Minecraft takes the opposite approach.  It dumps a ton of tools in the player’s lap and says “You figure it out.”  Player set goals are the only goals which can become exhausting at times.  The true sandbox games wants the player to effectively create their own fun while providing very little if the player loses motivation.  The game effectively quits when the player no longer wants to invest the time and energy into creating things from its tools.  Of course, that also means a motivated player has considerable freedom to do as they wish.  If the player has a goal, or is good at creating them, then the open sandbox is an ideal way to create their own fun.  With tons of tools and plenty of potential projects, a solid sandbox game can provide near limitless play.  As long as the motivation is there, so is the fun.

The best games are the ones that include both sandbox and directed elements.  This gives the player things to work on while also leaving them the option of branching out and accomplishing something strange and interesting.  This gives the player a task to accomplish when they want something more directed and the opportunity to do something different when that doesn’t appeal.  In my personal favorite game, Crusader Kings 2, the player has the opportunity to do just that.  The game never explicitly sets a goal, but rather provides tons of clear goals for the player to choose from.  The player can do something more directed, such as conquering a kingdom, or freeform, such as converting the Holy Roman Empire to Hinduism.  It’s up to the player to decide what experience they want, but both options are there.

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The Problem with MOBAs

Or why everyone hates you and you hate them.

Team sports should bring us together.  It’s one of those things we hear from a young age and is reinforced from then on.  Working with others towards a common goal helps us understand the importance of relying on each other and the potential of the group.  At least, that’s the theory.  In practice, there are some important caveats to that idea.  Teams need to have a common goal and a common understanding of their interdependence.  They need time to establish enforcement mechanisms and an understanding of the capabilities of each member.  When you don’t have these things, then the team is just a random collection of loosely affiliated individuals.  Or, in other words, you have a MOBA.

Let’s start with the problem.  MOBA’s (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’s) are multiplayer games where two teams (usually of five players) fight on a map with monsters and treasures with the ultimate goal of destroying the other team’s base.  Like all team based video games, MOBA’s also have a means to allow individuals to join by cobbling together random interested players.  Players often won’t know who they’re playing with or who they’ll play with next.  This creates an unfortunate scenario that is at the heart of the poisonous atmosphere that haunts the genre.  Players must play with team members who they didn’t select and have no control over, but are totally reliant on for their individual success.  When everything goes well, this isn’t a problem.  Victory papers over any differences as everyone is getting what they want.  When a team is losing a game, players lack the levers to get their team back on track and so their frustration erupts in the form of harsh comments and rage quits.  This behavior is even more common when the player believes they could win with a team of comparable skill.

While the frustration of having little control over the success of a round plays a big role in MOBA meltdowns, there are other key factors in play.  One of the biggest is the lack of long term relationship between the players.  MOBA teams are born and die all within the space of a single round.  Players are given less than two hours to figure out their team dynamic and sync up.  Not surprisingly, this doesn’t happen.  The resulting clumsy play frustrates players, even though they all may be skilled.  A team of skilled individuals that wishes to pursue separate and reasonable strategies will lose to a less capable, but more cohesive, opponent.  This expands the frustration over “poor play” from individuals with low skill to individuals with skill, but no coordination.  The short life span of a team also prevents the establishment of enforcement mechanisms.  Teams create mechanisms to improve poor play and prevent bad behavior.  These might take the form of mentoring, private criticism, and shared experiences.  Unfortunately, short term teams lack the time to implement these practices.  Instead, the only two options available are helpful direction (hard when you’re losing and playing) and insulting.

To alleviate this problem, I suggest that MOBA developers work to ensure that teams play with each other long term.  Give players the option of selecting teammates they liked playing with at the end of each round.  Assuming the other player agrees, place players on teams with people they have selected as players they like.  This will give the player the opportunity to understand their teammates better and establish the mechanisms that help enforce positive play.

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First Impressions – Heroes of the Storm

Go team!

MOBA’s are intimidating.  They require a high degree of skill and knowledge coupled with an often hostile community that penalizes new players.  The genre’s standard bearer, League of Legends, works feverishly to mitigate the abuses of its community, but still must convince its players to be nice to each other.  On the upside, the incredible depth and free-to-play model mean that there is a reward at the end of all the pain.  Blizzard wants to shorten that trip with its new MOBA entry, Heroes of the Storm.

The basic gameplay is nothing you haven’t seen before.  Teams of five players battle across a closed arena filled with monsters and cut through with specific lanes.  Automatically generated minions called creep rush headlong into each other while players fight with and amongst them in hope of knocking down powerful towers that guard the lanes along the path towards the enemy base.  Players win when they destroy the enemy base.  In addition to the gameplay, Blizzard carries over the free-to-play model from the genre staples.  Players receive in game currency at the end of every round that they can use to purchase playable heroes and experience points to net them in-game content.  Players may also use real world money to buy heroes and character costumes.  To this, Blizzard has added the daily quest system from Hearthstone allowing players to fulfill quests and acquire in-game currency.

What sets Heroes of the Storm apart is the focus on accessibility to new players.  Much of the character specific complexity of the genre has been replaced with straightforward, build oriented choices.  Players can’t buy items or equipment and nor do they pick abilities.  Instead, heroes start off with access to all three of their main abilities and modify them with choices that arise at specific levels.  At level 10, players may choose between two ultimate abilities that play to the character’s available builds.  Heroes of the Storm’s restricted approach make understanding and devising character builds easier by reducing the number of options.  The game also increases accessibility by creating a shared pool of experience.  Other MOBA’s count experience on an individual level meaning new players inevitably fall behind as better players leap ahead.  This shared system ensures that new players always have the tools to compete, even if they don’t have the skills.  It’s clear that Blizzard hopes to fill the gap between the interested players and the barriers that stop them.

Veterans will inevitably complain about the lower skill ceiling, but they’ll appreciate some of the interesting design decision.  The first is the introduction of map gimmicks.  Each of the 7 maps has an interesting gimmick that can have a major effect on the battlefield.  For example, Haunted Mines has a separate map where players go and collect skulls.  Once teams collect all the skulls, they receive a powerful golem whose strength is based on the number of skulls collected.  The balance between achieving the gimmick and pushing a lane is tight and forces teams to make tough decisions.  Another interesting change is the speed of the matches.  Heroes of the Storm adds ammunition to the towers (towers stop shooting after the ammo runs out) and building destroying oriented gimmicks to prevent drawn out fights around super powered buildings.  These changes combine to combat the common MOBA situation where a team has won, yet must play for another 20 minutes to overcome the enemy’s defenses.

Heroes of the Storm is still in beta, but plays like a finished product.  To be sure, the matchmaking still pairs newbies with veterans and the practice mode insists on cluttering the screen with controls, but these issues don’t detract from the solid gameplay and quality formula changes.  Blizzard’s attempt at creating a new player friendly MOBA succeeds.  Experienced MOBA players might object to the changes, but even they can appreciate the casual model with faster battle resolutions.  When Heroes of the Storm hits the public, check it out.

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