Games * Design * Art * Culture

Tuesday, May 31, 2005
G4 tomorrow
So apparently I'll be appearing on a G4 show called "Attack of the Show" tomorrow... I'm told it airs between 4 and 5 PST. I'll be speaking about the death of innovation in the industry, the need for a parallel distribution channel for indie product, yadayada... Nothing regular readers haven't already heard from me, of course...

Sunday, May 22, 2005
Why 3D Is Not Always a Good Idea
One of the most cost-effective game purchases I ever made was Heroes of Might & Magic III. I'm a fan of turn-based fantasy games in general, and it was probably the best ever published of its genre. I played literally every campaign and every individual scenario on the disc. And 3DO did well off of me, too; I bought every expansion pack for the game (and there were quite a few). Heroes III was a 2D game; when Heroes IV came out, I instantly bought it--and put it aside rather quickly. It was 3D. It may have had other flaws--I think the level design for III was rather better than for IV, and I didn't like the ability for heroes to die in IV--but I think the major flaw was the fact that it was 3D.

When I first bought III, I was running it on a Win95 machine with a 600x480 monitor, running at 150mHz. The terrain tiles were, I believe, 32 pixels across. That meant you got a bit over 18x15 tiles on a screen, giving you a view of a substantial part of the world, even in a "large map" scenario. At the time, it was also a little slow, mainly because each time you told a hero to move, you had to wait while it slogged across the map, and on a 150mHz machine, this took a while. By the time I finished the last expansion, I was running it on an 800mHz Win2000 machine, and it was zippy--and since I was using a better monitor, I was running in 1024x768 mode, and got an even larger view of the world.

With Heroes IV, all the units, and many terrain features, were 3D. In order to display nice view of their detailed 3D models, units were, I believe, at least 64 pixels across, and maybe larger. At 1024x768, this meant you were getting, in effect, 16x12 tiles on a screen--even less than Heroes III on my old monitor, and the contrast with Heroes III on the newer monitor meant that instead of getting the nice, large portion of the world I was used to, I was getting what seemed like a cramped, tiny portion. And if you were at a city, the effect was even more cramped, since the city took up the bulk of the view.

There was an additional problem, as well; in the world view, the units you move are iconographic; its a hero, really representing the hero plus all the units under his command. In a 2D game, this felt natural; in a 3D game, you had a literal hero striding over the landscape, and that no longer really felt iconographic. It felt like a single guy, not a representation of an army. Additionally, everything now felt out of scale; a hero standing by a city made either the city look tiny, or the hero like a giant. It felt wrong--as if we were moving, in a sense, into uncanny valley territory. The literalness of the 3D representation made everything seem out of kilter.

And, of course, because rendering 3D in real-time takes a lot of processing power, the zippiness of Heroes III was lost--the game was slow again. Whether or not it was actually slower to play than Heroes III had been on my old machine I can't say--but again, the contrast with the older game on my new machine was stark. Heroes IV was tedious. I hadn't the patience.

One of the games I saw at E3 was Heroes V, now under development at Ubisoft. (Ubi bought the rights to the franchise at auction when 3DO went out of business.) It, too, is a 3D game--and things having moved on, the models are more detailed than ever. Thus, for example, instead of having iconic forests, we now have literal trees. Thus, a forested area between two cities now also looks vastly out of scale--like the distance between the two is a short path between two suburban houses. And yes, moving a hero seemed to take forever.

I'll pick it up and try it when it comes out, I suppose--but I don't have high expectations.

Which leads us to Civilization IV, currently under development at Firaxis. Civilization is one of the two games I've had on every machine I've owned for a decade or more. (The other one is NetHack.) In moving from Civ II to Civ III, the game took the common approach of sequels--adding more complexity and detail. This is a potentially risky path to go down for too long, as it leads to grognard capture--ultimately, you get a game so detailed and complex that only the hard core who have followed its evolution for years can play it, cutting yourself off from a potential audience of new players. And yet there are obvious business reasons to want to refresh the franchise and sell more stuff. Thus, with IV, Firaxis is moving to 3D. The reasons to do this are clear: conventional industry marketing holds that 2D is dead, and moving to 3D alone makes it easier for the developers to hold the line on increase in complexity, because the 3D nature differentiates the new game sufficiently.

But--I suspect this is a bad idea, for essentially the same reasons that made it a bad idea for Heroes. Given that the map represents the whole globe, everything is going to be out of scale; my phalanx unit will be as tall as the mountains. Moreover, my phalanx unit will presumably be an individual Greek soldier, and will no longer feel like an iconographic representation of a phalanx; imagine combat between, say, a phalanx and a fighter jet. The Greek soldier thrusts his spear at the plane, the fighter's machineguns sputter. It's ridiculous.

Similarly, the 3D objects will be larger, in terms of pixels, so I'll be able to view a much smaller portion of the world. And the game will undoubtedly be slow. I'll be spending a lot of time watching Greek soldiers march across the world, when previously I could click on a destination and the icon would slide there pretty fast.

I'm (reasonably) sure Civ IV will be a good game; after all, the foundation is good, and Firaxis is a good developer. But frankly, I'm not at all sure it will be better than III--and it may well be worse.

Oh, well---at any rate, I'm looking forward to Civilization for N-Gage, which looks like a stripped down version of Civ II. Sounds like a good thing to play on the subway. And yes, it's 2D.

Friday, May 13, 2005
Old Farts and Young Turks
I suppose there comes a time in the maturation of any creative industry when the originators of the field, the people who got into it from a sense of passion, look up and say "This is not what I wanted"--out of a sense that while the field has become a successful market, it's now dominated by philistines and fools chasing after a dollar instead of the heady visions that motivated them.

And there comes another time, sometime down the road, when another generation of people look up and say "This sucks"--and reinvent their field.

One of the things that's occurred to me of late is that today--maybe it's because we're approaching the Singularity, or maybe it's just because change happens more quickly in the digital realm--we've reached both points at once. Melies and Charlie Kaufman never met; Scott Joplin and Joey Ramone never met. In both cases, the Old Fart was dead before the Young Turk appeared on the field.

The thought occurs to me because the people who've responded to my GDC rant seem to fall into two discrete, and quite separate, categories: Old Farts who remember what gaming used to be and don't think much of where it's going--and Young Turks, who want to create something new, and aren't all that interested in working on the same old crap at a sweatshop in Redwood City.

Maybe what we really need to do is get the two sides together. What happens when Eric Zimmerman meets Hal Barwood? When Johnny Wilson encounters the New Game Journalism? When Game Girl Advance and Gary Grigsby collaborate? (Okay, maybe that one's far-fetched.)

In other words, maybe we're at a unique moment in history: a moment when the disatisfaction of the Old Farts meets the passion of the Young Turks, and the two can be brought together in a single strand, a challenge to conventional wisdom, a revolt against the established game order, to create a new independent movement based solidly both in the wisdom of the past and in aspirations for the future.

I'm being uncharacteristically optimistic, I know.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Mobile Developers Gobbled
So according to today's Fierce Wireless, Real has just bought Mr. Goodliving, one of the few remaining high-profile independent game developers. There's been a bit of a feeding fury of late, with Infospace taking over IOMO and Atlas Mobile, Jamdat taking over Blue Lava (for $137m, forsooth), Digital Chocolate taking over Sumea, Sorrent buying out Macrospace, etc., etc. Part of the story is that the VCs that funded mobile game developers 4-5 years ago want their liquidity event, now that the space is hot, and part of it is that the larger mobile publishers all now have cash (either new VC money or, in Jamdat's case, money from the public markets--they now have a larger market cap than Midway, if that can be believed). They need development resources, there aren't that many really good mobile developers out there, and they'd rather take over a good one that see a competitor nab it.

I suspect Real has no idea what they're getting into; this is a very different market from anything they've done before--their music and online game offerings are themselves portals, and don't need to rely on intermediaries (that is, the carriers), and as far as I can see, Real has no relevant corporate expertise--carrier contacts and the like--other than the fact that they do run a casual games operation for non-mobile games. I'm not surprised that someone is snagging Mr. Goodliving; the surprise is in who.

The other side of the story, of course, is that it sucks to be a mobile game developer just as much as it sucks to be a connventional game developer. A lot of product is developed on a work-for-hire basis, and even when there's a revenue tail, it's typically 5-(at most)25% of net dollars (that is, after the operator, Qualcomm, or other intermediaries take their cut). With dev funding, as always, considered a recoupable advance. It used to be that good developers could go direct to the carriers and do reasonably well, but the operators are increasingly cutting back the number of vendors they'll deal with, basically because operators typically have very small teams dealing with game providers, and they have limited business development bandwidth. Also, the conventional wisdom now is that you need global reach (or at least distribution in both North America and Europe) to maximize revenues from a mobile title, which makes a takeover by a publisher with global distribution attractive.

It's all, I suppose, part and parcel of the maturation of the mobile games market--something that doesn't please me, really. I'd almost rather the wild and wooly days of, say, 2000, when revenues might have been negligible, but it was still possible to experiment with weird stuff. Today, it's branding, branding, branding, porting to a hundred different handsets in a dozen languages, and schmoozing the carriers. It's a business, but it has become, if anything, an even more stultifying field than the conventional games industry.

Monday, May 09, 2005
"Viva la Resolution"
So imagine an alternate universe in which a major game publisher--Microsoft, say--actually embraced the notion that games are an artform and encouraged innovation. If that were to happen, they might conceivably commission a song like this to get game developers excited and pumped up and ready to go.

Now here's the weirdness---apparently, they did commission the song, from the Fatman (George Sanger, one of the industry's best-known composers)--and then canned it when they heard it and found out what it was (Sanger tells the story here).

Guess it wasn't the message they wanted, eh?

Update: /. Games picked up on this, and George's servers are being hammered. Through the miracle of Coral and the folks at NYU, the tune is now available here. Follow that link and save George's servers from meltdown (although it's still worth following the link above to read his story).

Thursday, May 05, 2005
How Many PC Gamers?
Off the top of my head, I told someone recently that I guessed there were 5-10m hardcore PC gamers in the US, meaning someone who buys two or more games in the course of a year--and I was asked if I could justify that claim. Poking around online, I actually don't find much... The Entertainment Software Association says 54% of US households buy at least one game a year, but they don't break out PC from console. Of course they also say 52 million PC games were sold in 2003, which makes 10m look maybe low. The ESA used to break out PC games more, at least in terms of demographic information (PC gamers skew older), but I guess they've stopped doing that for some reason (probably because they don't think the PC is particularly important any more).

Anyone have any pointers to reports or sites with more information? Thanks....

Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Gary Grigsby's World at War
The English pig-dogs will pay for their purblind refusal to acknowledge the fall of France. That fat slob Churchill sits at 10 Downing, but soon the shops of Britain will be empty as I unleash the U-boats across the Atlantic...

Wait... What the devil do you mean I don't control production? I don't want all this damned armor, I need more subs-- I'm going to ignore the Reds until 1943, when they enter automatically.... Oh, you set production to "auto" by default. I guess that probably is easier for newbie players, but I really don't want to play too historical a game--I want to see if an England-first strategy is possible. Restart.

Yes, our forces mass at Alamein, and soon Cairo will resound to the sound of goose-stepping German soldiers! And the blitzkrieg drives across Spain to Gibraltar, closing the Mediterranean to the evil British fleet! Bwahahahah. A little low on supplies, but I'll fix that in the production round....

Wait! Why are all those damn partisans acting up? Mutter mutter. Better look at the manual again. Ohhhh... I have to keep one supply unit per occupied province, to fuel anti-partisan activities.... Guess I shouldn't have been so hasty on the Spanish offensive. Restart.

How can I possibly build enough damn U-boats? I'm being fought to a standstill in the Atlantic.. And now the stupid yellow bastards in Japan have brought the mongrel Americans into the war! My strategy is in tatters! I'll play it out a little longer... Ach, the 43 invasion of Russia is not going so well... Africa is lost to the Allies... Ach du Lieber, I cannot even defend the Low Countries...

It doesn't seem like I can improve my U-boat tech quickly enough even to replicate the historical Battle of the Atlantic... Better bring up the manual again... Hmmm... I have to switch the production screen to each individual country and region to maximize my output.... Well, that sure makes a difference... Did the tutorial even cover that? Probably... But it went by so fast... Restart.

All my pretty U-boats spread out across the Atlantic, reducing the British production drastically. I can't rely on the discretion of the twits in Tokyo, I'd best invade Britain now before the Yanks intervene--and then I can switch production to land units in preparation for the inevitable war with the untermenschen to the East. I mass my transports, my feeble navy, my hordes of heavy and tactical bombers; London's skies are filled with the moan of Luftwaffe aircraft as I knock out the few artillery that can op-fire against my invading troops...

What? What do you mean it's an illegal move? What the hell is that? Better fire up the manual again... I need transports, strat move, amphibious invasion, all looks kosher, Himmel forgive the word... Still can't figure it out... Oh, for God's sake; it's winter, that weird white tint across Northern Europe I thought was some kind of software artifact mean's there's snow there, I can't invade until the spring. Well, bitte, I'll wait til next turn...

But now Perfidious Albion has three damned artillery, and the Luftwaffe suffered serious losses in the winter air assault... And the Japanese have attacked the stupid Yanks, they've managed to transport in a couple of extra infantry... I kill a couple of artillery, and launch the invasion regardless... Op-fire kills my first two invading units, and a lone German armor faces off against the British home defense, bolstered by the Yanks... Disaster. And the war with Russia is that much closer... No way I can win this thing.

Restart. Clearly, I need to take out the UK by Fall 41, if this strategy is to work at all.

U-boats are arriving at the docks in Hamburg and Genoa every quarter. Spain and the whole Middle East has fallen to triumphant Deutschland. I launch Seeloewe--and triumph! England groans under the Nazi heel! Now it is time to switch production to armor and infantry in preparation for the victorious assault on the evil Reds! Soon the world will learn to fear and obey the Master Race!

What do you mean I have negative 26 population for production? Even when I kill any future production of naval units? Seasons go by, and I am woefully unprepared for the Eastern Front. Winter 43 comes--Romania falls, though I take Byelorussia--I mass for an assault on Leningrad and fail, meaning my doughty allies in Finland will not enter... Have they not lost Karelia already? Do they not know their future lies with Germany? Stupid Finns... Bulgaria falls... my armor is depleted... The Soviet hordes mass...

Better pull up the manual again. Building any unit other than research or supplies takes two population. Let's try that. Order an infantry built. Hmm--Why doesn't that number change? It changes when I do it for the Ities, but not for the Krauts... Probably a bug there. Guess I'd better try it again, trying to keep a mental record of how much pop I'm using each turn. Restart.

...France... Spain... Gibraltar... The Middle East... The British invasion... Yes!... And enough U-boats remaining to cut the US off from resources in Africa and South America... 43 assault on the Russians just before they'd auto-declare war... Mein gott, the Japs own half of Australia.... Slow progress on the Eastern front, but the Russians never seem to mass enough to hault the German war machine... 1946, and the Allies sue for peace. Deutschland uber alles!

A little background here: Gary Grigsby is, if you will, the Sid Meier of computer wargames. Computer wargames were once a big part of the computer games market--but as the overall market for games has grown, they have been eclipsed. My guess is that unit sales for wargames have not, actually, declined much, if at all, over the last decade--but the conventional distribution channel is now basically uninterested in any game that's unlikely to sell less than 100k units, preferably in the first month since launch. So the computer game publishers (like Shrapnel or Matrix--the latter the publisher of this game) have largely moved to sale via online download. They still sometimes get retail exposure--you might find this game at EB--but they actually do better via direct download.

World at War is actually a bit of a departure for Grigsby; he tends more toward big, long-lasting, complicated games, and World at War is essentially "Axis & Allies done historical." That is, it features areas rather than hexes, representational units rather than historical ones, a system vastly simpler than most of his games, and total playtime of maybe 4 hours, rather than 20+. In other words, it's clearly an attempt to make an historical wargame that might appeal to a wider audience.

What I think I've suggested, in the description of my experience in playing, is that this is actually a kick-ass game--but it also fails to achieve its ambitions.

On the positive side: This is an excellent high-strategic simulation of World War II that allows you to experiment with a variety of strategies and can be completed in a (long) evening. I like it--a great deal. I will undoubtedly be playing this game many times to come--to see what I can do as the Japs aiming more at the Soviets than the Western Allies, and whether, as the Russians, I can utterly dominate the Euroasian landmass (with a little Allied help agianst the evil Nazis). Or even as the Western Allies--though they have such a huge resource advantage, that I suspect I'll have to crank up the difficulty level a fair bit to make that a challenge. I don't have the patience or time to play the largest boardgames on this subject any more (certainly not War in Europe or DNO/Untenschieden, probably not World in Flames, and even Third Reich is--well, too retro for me). And while an occasional game of Axis & Allies can be fun, it really doesn't have much to do with reality, and the digital versions thereof have been crap. I could, I suppose, play Hearts of Iron II, but that's really too much of a time commitment; World at War is a nice, straighforward game, completable in a reasonable chunk of time, and I like that.

But if the objective is to produce a game that's accessible to "Joe Gamer," the fellow who thinks reading manuals is for chumps, I think it's clear that World at War fails. I not only read through the manual--I also played through the tutorials. And still, it took me many tries to get a realistic understanding of the system.

Perhaps that's inherent in the nature of a reasonably realistic military simulation--but there are, I think, a lot of things that could have been done to make this more accessible to the newbie. Let's start with the fact that all controls are presented as Illustrator-like tools. There have been highly successful games that have taken this approach (Roller Coaster Tycoon, for one), but the reality is that icons are not inherently intuitive. Russia produces something--what the hell does that tank with the swirly arrow thingie mean? (They've improved their tank speed technology.) No, I want to move these bastards by strategic rather than tactical movement, to avoid the expenditure of supplies--which of those icons lets me do that? On the production display, do I left click or right click to cancel--and who can remember that? For that matter, do the little boxed thingies indicate "If you initiate production this will appear here", or "these thingies are in progress," or do the little icons below them mean that, or the other thing?

In other words, the UI is pretty damned impenetrable, for a game that's supposed to be simple--and while I certainly managed to figure it out, and I assume any reasonably intelligent reader will too (ultimately), I certainly didn't find it transparent, and you know, I am a reasonably sophisticated geek. I know that menus with actual text are now considered tres-retro and so declasse--but text does give a better and more immediate clue into what the fucking thing means. And while mouse-over text is available for all the tools (for which thank God, or Gary, as the case may be), it's still a pain in the ass to pause your pointer over every damn tool to try to find the one you want. Sometimes old school is better. Menus good.

UI impenetrability isn't restricted to the relentless reliance on tool icons; more than once, I found myself looking back at the manual and trying to figure out how to do something. Right click? Left click? Control left click? All I want to do is get the damned heavy bomber to drop these stupid paratroops---and how do I do that? And why can't I do it in the snow? (After all, during the siege of Leningrad, the Russians simply shoved troops out of planes in the hope that the snow would be enough to break their fall... And okay, maybe only the Russians would do that....)

If I were conceiving this product from inception (with, to be sure, the advantage of hindsight, of being able to see it already working, which the developers surely did not), I'd say: Not only do we need to simplify this UI as drastically as possible, we also need a series of programmed learning scenarios, along the lines of your typical RTS, that gradually and slowly introduce players to new concepts. Scenario 1, take France, Crete, and for bonus points Egypt by Fall 41, and we ignore the damn partisans. Scenario 2, everything is frozen except for Western Europe, you have to take Gibraltar, and we make the partisans ultra-important. And so on.

As it is, your typical Axis & Allies player is going to find himself stumped by this game.

And that's a shame, because when you get down to it, it's pretty damned cool.

On the other hand--if you aren't daunted by the thought of reading a manual, and like the idea of playing out the whole of WWII in an evening in a reasonably realistic game, this may be just your thing. And incidentally, both hot-seat and PBEM multiplayer provided.

Buy it via directly download from the Matrix Games site. Why should the retailers get a cut?

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