Saturday, July 31, 2010

Air Units in land-based RTSes

Air units are a source of tremendous cognitive dissonance in RTS games. As a metaphor, air units usually seem awkward. They hover in the air infinitely or, if the developer wants to be "realistic", they fly to accomplish some objective and then run out of fuel and ammo and have to fly back and land again. The sorties usually do not see units going too far afield, which makes sense considering air units that would realistically go 100x the speed of ground units instead travel at barely double their speed (at most). In terms of game mechanics, seldom do air units make sense and offer balanced viable options for a player. Air units often are the most powerful units in the game (Battlecruisers and Carriers in Starcraft, bombers that can level base buildings in one run in RUSE) if they are allowed to be built on-map and are treated as units.

Land-based RTSes are generally based on map control. The map is critical to how the game unfolds. Where are resources? Where do players start? Where are the impassable boundaries the players have to work around? All of this is circumvented by air units. Air units generally do not exert map control unless they're implemented simply as ground units that ignore terrain. Ignoring terrain is, itself, an issue in games where much of the interesting strategic choice blossoms from terrain.

When given the viable option at the beginning of a match, a player should almost always choose air units before they begin to use ground units to cement map control. An air unit that is equally as effective as a ground unit at ground attack is significantly more valuable in that it can ignore terrain to harass the opponent from any angle. Since games have a sharp divide between units that can shoot air units and units that cannot, the early game units generally are putrid at air defense. If they were good at air defense, then air would never be a viable strategy because building basic units would hard-counter it.

Most standard RTSes circumvent this problem by requiring a bit of tech research before the player can buy air units, or by nerfing air units to the point where they are weak enough to not be much of a threat unless massed. Both approaches remove air from viability in the early-game. The best approach to air unit design allows air to be effective and viable throughout the entire game--or at least until the opponent builds counters.

Air units are too fast and too long-ranged to be presented effectively with similar mechanics to ground units in most RTSes. Unless the game is on a very broad scale--a scale which is very rarely attempted in RTSes--air units will not fit into the balance of the game. The speed of air units can cause then to be a must-have in the early game because they can project force much farther and much faster than any other unit and then run away from danger just as quickly. The advantages of going air may be too great for competitive palyers to pass them up, as they were in RUSE during open beta, which leads to the set of viable builds being constricted because the player needs to build air (or a significant amount of ground-based anti-air) first.

There are two ways to "fix" air units in land-based RTSes.

The easier but less satisfying way involves making all air units act as if they're nothing more than ground units that ignore terrain. These air units have to have speed comparable to land units, or perhaps be slower, to avoid obsoleting ground units.

The best way to solve this problem (at least that I've encountered) is to make all manifestations of air power into special abilities. "Off-map" air. Company of Heroes does this to great effect. The key is to not make on-map anti-air units required or common. Give otherwise-useful units the ability to shoot down planes if the planes take certain paths. For instance, the flak 88 in Company of Heroes is a powerful, long-range anti-tank gun primarily, but also acts as a supremely powerful anti-air gun that can shoot down a plane in one volley. As long as air use is relatively rare in the context of the game, making all air units off-map call-ins tremendously increases the seeming realism and fun of air units while doing nothing to damage the metagame.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Engy Update is Credit to Team

In case you've been so caught up in RealID drama to ignore the other happenings on in gaming news, Valve released the final class update for Team Fortress 2 yesterday following an interesting promotion. The Engineer update also came with a few new maps, including a new Payload Race map, plr_hightower, and it looks like Valve finally figured out how to make PLR fun.

The update focused on adding new weapons and features to the Engineer class with the goals of untethering the player from their buildings, particularly their Sentry Gun, and increasing Engineer mobility altogether. The update hits the mark perfectly; I haven't even played the new Engineer yet, but I love all the new choices presented. A big issue with typical class updates is that the class gets overplayed. We have class caps (limit 4) on our server, but I have no qualms with more teleporters and dispensers!

The first enormous change (that doesn't involve acquiring new weapons) is that Engineers can pick up and redeploy buildings now. If an upgraded building is redeployed, it begins life as level 1 but instantly starts upgrading itself to its old level right before the Engy's eyes, without any input or metal. To redeploy a level 3 Sentry Gun takes maybe 6 seconds. There were plenty of times last night when I rounded a corner to find a level 3 SG there when only moments before there was nothing.

One problem with the old Engineer was how reliant the class was on its Sentry. If destroyed, typically the Engy was in hot water. Well Valve added a new shotgun called the Frontier Justice that shoots "Revenge Crits" after the SG is destroyed (even if blown up by the Engineer himself!). For every kill the Sentry gets, the shotgun stores 2 Revenge Crits; for every assist, 1 crit. The downfall is that the Frontier Justice has half the magazine size of the normal shotgun (3 versus 6), and doesn't receive normal crits.

If planning isn't your thing, you can equip the new melee weapon, a mechanical hand called the Gunslinger. It provides an extra 25 Health to the Engineer, guarantees a crit on the 3rd successive melee strike, and let's the player deploy a Mini-Sentry. This cute little tripod costs only 100 metal (versus 140 for the normal SG), builds 4 times faster, and deploys with full health. Problem is that it cannot be repaired or upgraded and only deals half the damage as a normal Sentry. This certainly helps the Engy be more offensive.

Another game changing weapon replaces the pistol and is called the Wrangler. Activating this device let's the Engineer take control of their Sentry, letting them aim the stationary gun with no range limits and fire at double the normal rate. A laser originating from the Engy points to the target, and the Sentry gains a damage shield that absorbs 66% of incoming damage. Should the player die or deactivate the Wrangler, the SG becomes inactive for 3 seconds. Previously infeasible sentry locations and now usable since Engineers can overcome the range limits.

There is also another wrench you can find which adds a bleed effect to victims, making pesky Spies easier to dispatch.

I think it may be too soon to tell if the game has completely changed. Very rarely does anyone do the typical Sentry turtling, but that may be because of the novelty of the update. The game does feel fresh though, as many people are trying out crazy tactics and enjoying all the new options.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Blizzard Should Have Done

Regardless of whatever Facebook integration plans or independent social networking plans Blizzard may have, and however optional posting may be, they should not unveil a player's real name on the forums. It is absolutely unnecessary, and just plain asinine. I was on the fence about purchasing StarCraft II, but now I will be giving that one a pass. I could just watch matches on Youtube, since I always end up spectating RTSs more than playing them anyway.

This is how RealID should have gone down. Upon account integration or creation, the account holder should create a Player Handle. This handle would be a singular player identity across and Blizzard's games. If a player posts on the forums, the handle is used as a pseudonym. Reputation is maintained, and players are held responsible.

So players have 3 levels of identity:
  • a real name which is as global as it gets;
  • a player handle which unifies a player identity across characters and Blizzard games;
  • and a character name (or player alias in the case of non-RPGs).
This is exactly how most gamers structure their identity already; the worst part would be working with the interface in making it official.

When someone is RealID befriended, a player only shares the handle. There would be no code to share someone's real name; it isn't needed. Sharing of someone's real life identity should be done on a individual basis, thus simply stating your name in a private message would be enough to "share" it. Of course if a player chooses to integrate with their Facebook friends, their Facebook name must be displayed. Just add the name in a comment in BNet's friend list.

Notice above that I said Facebook name. I have a close friend who does not display her real name on Facebook because she is a middle school teacher. It would be disastrous if her students found her Facebook profile. She obviously already has everything hidden from public view, but that includes Wall Posts, an entirely optional feature of Facebook. Posting on a Blizzard forum would not only share that comment with everyone, but it would use her real name, an identity not even presented on Facebook itself!

I can only imagine two cases for Blizzard. Either they thought about this immensely, did the research, watched the Facebook privacy debacles, and then decided to go through with it anyway; or they have absolutely no idea what they are doing, haven't consulted a single privacy expert or sociologist, and think that people don't care about privacy.

If you are interested in privacy in social networks, I would recommend you check out Danah Boyd's blog. A few really great articles:

Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows. It's about being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately. To do so, people must trust their interpretation of the context, including the people in the room and the architecture that defines the setting. When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul.

Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what’s best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what's best for the privileged class. And I'm terrified of the consequences that these moves are having for those who don't live in a lap of luxury. I say this as someone who is privileged, someone who has profited at every turn by being visible. But also as someone who has seen the costs and pushed through the consequences with a lot of help and support. Being publicly visible isn't always easy, it's not always fun. And I don’t think that anyone should go through what I've gone through without making a choice to do it. So I'm angry. Very angry. Angry that some people aren't being given that choice, angry that they don't know what's going on, angry that it's become OK in my industry to expose people. I think that it's high time that we take into consideration those whose lives aren't nearly as privileged as ours, those who aren't choosing to take the risks that we take, those who can't afford to. This isn't about liberals vs. libertarians; it's about monkeys vs. robots.
And I definitely think that Spink's has the quote of the year:
There was a time when Blizzard was viewed as a company run by and for gamers. That time is now over. Even aside from the wrongs or rights of the proposal, no company that fails so badly in understanding gamer culture can really claim to be one of us any more.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

HiRez Saves Global Agenda

HiRez announced last week that Global Agenda will never charge players subscription fees. Global Agenda will follow the same business model of almost every game in existence: Charge for the box and then charge for expansions. The only twist is that they’ll offer token- (to buy loot with) and XP-boosting services at relatively low real-money prices.

Why did this happen?

AvA was supposed to be the key selling point for the subscription. AvA is a garbage mode. It’s not a good competitive mode and you can’t be competitive in it as a casual. AvA satisfies no one, and there are no fixes forthcoming. On the US servers, one alliance (JL) dominated. Your choices were to join them or lose. The mode only rewards first-place finishers, so competition is shelved in favor of collusion—this renders AvA a complete joke as a competitive mode. HiRez made an attempt to improve AvA by putting everyone into one huge zone with player-set territory opening times instead of having multiple independent geography-based zones that are only open for two hours a day at various times of day and night. This decision led to JL dominating the entirety of AvA instead of just a couple of US zones. AvA went from bad to pitiful in 1.3A, and AvA was the main reason why people would subscribe—at least theoretically.

Without AvA to draw players to the subs, why would players bother? There are only so many good-spirited people who would blindly throw their money at HiRez in the hope that they might get value in return. The potential low number of subscribers would have crippled all of the other subscriber content, each mode of which would have required queues to be busy enough for matchmaking to happen. None of those modes alone—and probably no combination of those modes—would justify paying a subscription (there were two arena, full arranged team modes and a PvE mode). The fact that matchmaking may not even be possible because of a low population of subscribers means that if matches were made, they would be terrible due to the matchmaker being starved of players at different skill levels to match-up.

A Bright Future?

I still don’t have much confidence in HiRez after the half-assed attempt to MMORPG-ize the game in 1.3A. I think that the decision to remove the subscription was necessary to avoid the game completely dying. Now players can reasonably have some hope for the future of Global Agenda. What HiRez will do with that future, we will see.

Current indications show that they are going to continue on the path of adding other diversions that will extend the number of half-baked things that you can do in the game—they’re adding “open-world'” zones in the next patch. I have no confidence that the “open-world” zones are going to be sufficiently “open” to please anyone; early indications show that zone populations won’t break 50. And HiRez had to spend a lot of time and resources reworking the UT engine just to get this excuse for an open world off the ground, let alone fun. Such poor benefit-per-cost decisions don’t bode well.

I have severe reservations about GA, but at least I know now that it will survive to see something of its potential. If HiRez polishes and builds on the strong points of the game instead of implementing, in an expensive and time-consuming way, half-assed MMO-impersonation features, they would have a much brighter future ahead.