Tuesday, February 22, 2011

RUSE: The Positives

I’ve played over 200 RUSE matches since the game was released last September. RUSE is definitely my favorite RTS. The game does some very important things right. In this post, I’m going to walk you through a few of the highlights. I’ll assemble a list of criticisms over the next week or two.

(I lost a few posts in a hard drive failure a couple of weeks ago, that’s why I haven’t put out much more than a post a week, and it’s also why I haven’t put out the first real part to my series on the fundamentals of games.)

Low APM requirement

I believe that RTS games should be about comparing your planning, perception, and prediction skills against your opponent's. Great RTSes make the act of implementing plans as intuitive and easy as possible--why get caught up in implementing a plan when the real fun is it actually testing it against your opponent? RUSE does this right: you don't need to have more than 20 APM to play the game well. This shows that RUSE is about planning, not about clicking around constantly in a struggle with the interface to make your units behave reasonably. I could write an entire post on how this is accomplished and how great it is, so I'll leave further elaboration for the future.

Active Counters

Spamming isn't an effective strategy in RUSE unless you've already won the game through resource supremacy. If you spam a unit, your opponent can recognize this and build fractional amounts of counters to effectively deal with the threat. The game's score is based on units killing a higher value in opposing units before they die, so the cost effectiveness of counters causes your opponent to suffer a severe setback by throwing countered units at you. Because the tech tree is flat, these counters are easy to build if you recognize the strategic situation is ripe--you can also be forced to counter the wrong thing through use of ruses and unorthodox strategies, which adds depth to what might otherwise be a simple "build counters to win" game.

A Broad Strategy-space

Some strategy games have a few narrow strategies. Such strategies are sequences of optimal actions understood by the community to be optimal. If you stray from these paths, you are playing poorly--you may win a couple of times by surprising an inferior opponent, but going outside narrow strategies won't get you much farther than that.

Contrast this with a broad, but flatter strategy space. You have a large number of options at any one time and many of them will get you an acceptable distance towards your strategic goals. The optimal choice becomes so dependent on the currently game state that you can't accurately deduce optimal strategies. This lends the game a certain dynamism: only a minimal amount of mechanical logic can be generalized from match to match, you must build each strategy fro the particular situation as it arises.

Short Matches

RUSE boasts large battlefields with sufficient room to maneuver, yet matches can be played competitively in 30 minutes or less on average. The scoring mechanism allows timed games to work well--players can make decisions based on the amount of time remaining, which leads to a further blossoming of possibilities. Though units are generally "slow" in the context of the whole map, unit production is fast. This allows players to produce units for decisive battles without it taking too much time. The relatively slow unit move speeds are balanced by the ability to produce units quickly, which leads to the game being paced properly for an enjoyable 20 minute 1v1 match or 30 minute 2v2 match.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Global Agenda’s Loot System Fails

Like character advancement, the advancement engendered by loot can be seen as vertical or horizontal. An item that vertically advances your character has flat-out better stats than your previous item, but does nothing that the previous item didn't do. Horizontal loot advancement comes from new abilities granted by items, or different kinds of damage dealt, absorbed, mitigated, etc.

Vertical loot is only exciting if it represents a big gain. Horizontal loot can be more exciting more often without necessarily advancing the character, because it can afford the player more interesting options to try out as long as the metagame is not in a moribund state.

The real question is: What effects can an item have? The more you restrict this, the more boring the system will be. If you go too far, you risk imbalancing the game due to the slot machine taking over and player skill being no more than a secondary factor in gameplay. This isn't a problem in most MMOs because such games are no more than social environments with slot machines that require mostly-thought-free manual effort to pull the lever by killing mobs, opening chests, and completing quests. In a(n ostensibly) skill-based game like GA, a prevalent slot machine turns what otherwise is a fun PvP system into an awkward environment where time-based play and skill-based play clash.

The universe of possible useful pieces of loot in GA is too small. It's exacerbated by the fact that the sole way of progression available, vertical progression to higher bonuses, caps out at 21% with an exponentially lower chance of getting loot of higher qualities once you get above the base 10%-ish. Boring, linear vertical progression with no horizontal opportunities is not fun. If I know what I want and feel like I'm just waiting for the random number generator to swing my way, I'm having less fun than if there is a reasonable chance I may find something cool that I hadn't considered.

The number of useful pieces of loot that you can possibly find starts out small and only gets smaller. Because GA is skill-based, players set their skill specs in stone and know exactly what they want to make it work optimally. Because gear is primarily vertical in variety, the player knows exactly what he needs at any given time for his spec if he has even a minimal knowledge of how the game works. there is no chance of a serendipitous drop--only for drops that either give the player a "finally" feeling, or drops that are useless to the player.

You only get loot in GA when you win missions or PvP matches. In PvP, particularly, your chance of victory is largely dependent on the skill level of the rest of your team. Only the top 5% (or less) of players can carry any team to victory—and even they can’t successfully do it every game they’d like to.

Global Agenda’s loot system is a boring, naked time-sink. The best that can be said of it is that it provides an object lesson in how not to design a loot system.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Games From the Ground Up: Introduction

(In this series, I plan on writing a series of short posts about what I believe to be the basic features and motivations of videogames. Why do we play? Why are we looked down upon by many for playing? I’m going to try from the ground up to describe my theories of the basics of gaming. I look forward to hearing your reactions and discussing these topics further.)

When you play a game and enjoy it, you are allowing yourself to be fooled. You let the game hook itself into those basic parts of what makes you human. Games are pattern-recognition porn, pretty/shiny pictures, and reward addiction mechanisms.

Games draw you in with interesting metaphors. For the typical gamer market (18-30 year-old males), this usually involves war in some form. The metaphor drags you into a set of game mechanics that the tool-maker/tool-user in you inherently finds appealing. You quickly feel your way around this new world through whatever interface available to you much the way a newborn feels out the confines of his new body and the world around her. This innocent, real consequance-free learning is rarely afforded to adults and older children, so you immediately immerse yourself in the opportunity to indulge in pretense and leave real-world cares at the door.

Games work well when they allow you to fully buy into a self-contained system that seems meaningless on the outside. Most play in children is mimicry of the future roles they'll take on as adults. The pretense of play dissolves as the child grows older and actually has to engage in the behaviors they've been play-acting. Likewise, adults view playing most games, be they video or otherwise, as childish activities--playacting for behaviors that appear, on the surface, to be useless.

But we live in a world of useless. Most gamers live in a world of relative luxury where survival is nigh guaranteed. Entertainment, instead of being a marginal aspect of life, has graduated to a state of constant presence. Even when at work, many people spend much of their time seeking or reading about entertainment on the internet. Instead of watching television, reading, looking at pictures of your friend’s cat farm on facebook or otherwise “uselessly” passing your time, you play games instead. The interactive medium allows you to do so many interesting things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, so why not engage with it?

In order to keep the player hooked into a closed system of pretense, games use the feedback loops of tool development and learning. Games are tricks—they hijack parts of your brain that commonly were applied for other survival-related purposes but now sit underused most of the time.

Next: Pattern recognition porn.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I played Torchlight for six or seven hours before I realized that the game is nothing but polish. The graphics are reasonable and consistant, the sound is good enough, the gameplay is quite smooth and appealing, but when scrutinized the mechanics are subpar. The problem I have with Torchlight isn’t that it is derivative; my problem is that the individual game systems are middle-of-the-road, uninteresting, and do little to cover the flawed reward-chain it is at its heart.

Action RPGs are interesting to me because they combine loot and character advancement along with a progression of different enemies with odd abilities that cause you to vary your tactics. I do not play action RPGs to be intellectual stimulated, but keeping these systems interesting for as long as possible lies at the core of the action RPG experience. The combat itself is often trivial—the real game lies in picking between loot and getting that little shot of dopamine when you find an awesome item or acquire that next game-changing ability.


Torchlight’s loot system was boring. Few items, if any, had unique and interesting effects on gameplay. Items presented a bland optimization problem instead of leading to interesting decisions where the player has to choose between two very appealing, distinct mechanics to harness. These kinds of decisions are what made Diablo II such a great game in the genre. A chance of casting Frozen Orb weighed against life leach and improved attack speed is a much more interesting decision than +20 fire damage vs. +15 Ice damage and +5 Poison damage. Torchlight does allow items to carry spell effects, but the game’s abilities are generally as uninteresting and lack innovation as well.


The character advancement system was boring. Skill trees are small compared to Diablo II. A disproportionate number of skills are passive or are reskinned buffed versions of other skills.


You could play well using trivial strategies that were no fun. As a summoner, you should have no trouble butchering your way through the game unless you play at a high difficulty. You don’t even have to worry about mana much, because you can simply dual wield wands and do constant, credible damage to augment the punishment your pets provide.

What makes an action RPG exciting for me are abilities that I have to choose between depending on the situation. The decision has to be non-trivial. If I’m doing no more than maintaining some summons and shift-rich clicking to cast wand spells, the game rapidly bores me. If an action RPG can’t pace loot and advancement along with enemy power, it has failed at a basic level and there’s little reason to continue playing it.

In Summary

There was just enough polish that the game didn’t immediately give offense to my game design sensibilities.

Torchlight was an ego-tickling reward treadmill that gave just enough stimulation to players to keep them blithely clicking and button mashing their way to inevitable victory. A game doesn’t need to be hard to avoid this fate, but it does have to present the player with a variety of interesting decisions, not just the same kinds of decisions with bigger numbers attached to them.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chokepoint Hell: A Strategy Game Staple

Everyone loves chokepoints! They vastly simplify the decision-making in an RTS and often lead to epic-looking battles. The average player who does not want to micro and does not want to think gobbles up chokepoint maps. Most players want to expend no more than this meager amount of effort so every strategy game that makes any mainstream attempt will include a chokepoint-hell map.

These are not good maps. They severely limit strategic possibilities with ground units. This is worse in Company of Heroes than in RUSE, and matters even less in Supreme Commander games, because of the availability of air transport for ground units. The more units you can transport with ease, the less the layout of the terrain matters, so the restriction of available land routes has less of a constricting effect on the shape of the strategic space on the map.

To some extent, simplicity is preferable over complexity—but only if the complexity provides false difficulty. It’s preferable to have 10 units per faction and have 8 be viable than to have 50 per faction and have 9 viable. In the former case, the number of viable combinations of units is only slightly smaller than in the latter case, but the player is forced to trudge through a lot more information to decide which of the fifty unit types he wants to build, whereas when most of the units are viable the player has to wade through much less noise to develop sound strategies.

Chokepoint-hell maps do not simplify to eliminate false difficulty; they dumb-down gameplay and limit depth. This is fine if you’re designing maps for the early stages of a campaign, but in competitive play these maps are simply inferior.


On the left: “Vire River” from Company of Heroes.

On the right: “Above the River” from RUSE. (h/t BattleStrats)