Daily Archives: August 5, 2011

A Small Strike Team Can Succeed Where an Entire Army Will Fail (repost)

Again, with the malware-splosion of the Apex Book Blog, I’ll be reposting things I did over there over here, for posterity’s sake! Here’s one I did about how small strike teams in video games…

A Small Strike Team Can Succeed Where An Entire Army Would Fail

I was playing Mass Effect last night to get myself prepared to finally – finally – tear into Mass Effect 2, and I was reminded of a pet peeve of mine in most RPGs. As a hero in an RPG game, I generally attract the help of other heroic people. They have big weapons, powerful special abilities, and would be very handy if the proverbial shit hit the fan against our mutual enemies. I think it’s great to have party members with me, to provide cover, and extra ass-kicking powers when I’m defeating the forces of evil. I love my party members. Literally. I fall in love with one of them, and usually get some awkwardly done sex scene wherein still-partially-clothed avatars with wooden facial expressions commence foreplay until a black screen cuts me out of the good stuff. Anyway, the point is I really like having them around. All of them.

So, when a game designer hands me a party member, I am always fascinated by the next screen, wherein I choose who gets to come with me. In Mass Effect, I never get to take more than two people with me. Everyone else stays in the comfort and safety of the ship, somewhere far off-screen, where they are of no use to me.

This annoys me. RPGs do this all the time. I never quite understood the notion that a small strike team could succeed in – for instance – charging directly into a massive army of Darkspawn at the heart of the capitol city to kill a dragon, in Dragon Age: Origins. You know what? Fighting a dragon in the end boss battle through wave after wave of enemy darkspawn is, to me, quintessentially the moment I want to have every one of my allies with me to help me kick dragon tail. Why would a small strike team do a better job charging through the war-torn streets past wave after wave of Darkspawn until the climactic battle at the highest peak in the city? Because the design team decided that you don’t get to have an army. It would – I presume – throw the balance off, create difficulties with processing power, and otherwise confuse the micro-managing sort of player that wants to give each member of the team a specific command each moment in combat.

Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights 2, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Fallout 2, and uncounted others all are guilty of this same strange trait. Player choice is limited to forcing players to take their favorite party members along. Player choice is not extended to taking as many or as few party members along as one wants.

This could be a new way of looking at difficulty settings. Using a small strike team is “hard”, a medium one is “normal”, and every single ally who can hold a gun and walk is “easy”. This could also be a new way of looking at death. Another strange thing in these RPGs is what happens when someone dies. Someone can get knocked out in combat by losing all their health points, but they aren’t actually dead. There’s another way of handling that mechanic. At the end of combat they hop right back up again. Giving us a lot of NPCs and encouraging us to try to keep them alive is something that happens in first-person shooters. An emotional connection to our squad mates in an RPG-style dialogue system could really make the natural death of party members in a wartime scenario meaningful. Imagine having to decide between reloading to keep party members alive against an insurmountable boss battle that you finally, after hours of trying, won, or deciding that you don’t want to face that enemy for the twelfth time regardless of who bought the farm.

Another approach – which I like the best – is one of the reasons why a dusty, old RPG from way back in 1990 is still one of the best RPGs ever made. “Planescape: Torment” didn’t just throw a bunch of party members at you and let you pick and choose between them for your small strike team against crazy odds. No, instead, you begin the game with Morte. For the first few hours of gameplay, that floating skull is the only friend in the world. After a while, you earn people like Annah, Nordom, Dak’kon, Ignus, Fall-From-Grace, or Vhaillor. Honestly, you could play the whole game through twice and never even meet Vhaillor or Nordom, and Ignus might turn on you just before the last battle. The beauty of the game was that the individual characters were so well-written and so well-acted, you didn’t feel like you wanted to choose other party members. You accumulated them slowly, making you feel like you earned them instead of just being handed these party members. And, I played through that brilliant game more times than I can count, and I never recall being asked to choose which party member to let go so I could keep the one I have. And, nobody ever said the words “…a small strike team” just before a giant pitched battle with wave after wave of bloodthirsty creature.

I began this post talking about Mass Effect. It’s a great game, sure. I expect Mass Effect 2 will also be great. Dragon Age: Origins is great, too. But, are they great in the sense that Planescape: Torment was great? Limitations of game balancing and game technology are the things that mark the artistry of Planescape: Torment. There was an elegance to the game, perhaps the first RPG I know of where the ultimate goal of becoming a powerful, unkillable, behemoth of death and influence in the world around you existed solely so you could finally die. I still have those CDs floating around here. I still pull it up when the mood strikes and read through all the dialogue, meet all the characters. There will never be another game like Planescape: Torment. For a game to be a work of lasting art, I hope part of the definition is that no one will ever throw the concept of a “…a small strike team” around just to explain away the seems of the design. Because that’s fucking lame. And, Obisidian figured out how to solve that design problem ages ago.

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The Collector’s Narrative (repost)

(With the malware-caused implosion of Apex Publications‘ Website, many of my blog posts were lost in the crash. I’m going to pull them up here for the sake of archivalism.

I’ve played approximately two days worth of EVE On-line. I had played it a little of it in the past, but it has been a while, and I wanted to get it back under my fingers before writing about it here.

Have you ever killed someone over a dull, gray rock? Ever smash your car into someone’s car just to get at the bags of groceries in their trunk? That’s Eve, in a nutshell.

More importantly, Eve is collection turned into a narrative experience.

EVE and MMORPGs in general suffer from a similar story quirk. The story is not where you think the story is. The quest texts one receives are unread, if they are even attempted. Players are here to be in the game, not reading flavor text. In fact, I think the real flavor text of EVE is the combination of intelligent, helpful people who exchange quips with the stoned-out potheads on the chat channel. Space is dreamy, gauzy, and mining is probably best done under the influence of something fun. (My drug of choice was chocolate milk.)

As these quest boxes, like every MMORPG I’ve ever seen, are silly at best, or absurdly poorly written at worst, I have to wonder what the narrative experience of this type of game must be.(“Apparently they do not realize how dangerous capsuleers are, so head out there and teach them a lesson. A very painful one”! *yawn*) It certainly isn’t the “plot”, either, where all these nations have scripted feelings about each other. There doesn’t seem to be a traditional narrative resent in the game, at all, as it is experienced, despite the efforts of the game designers to make it so. Without a narrative experience,I don’t think people would play the game as long as they do. Story arcs hold your imagination hostage, and make you feel like you are part of something greater. Pushing the button to get a pellet is not enough to keep people coming back month after month. There has to be some narrative that even a casual player can experience.

I offer two possibilities, that I think are both present.

One, as has often been said and written, this game allows a community of like-minded people to blow up another community of people who aren’t quite so like-minded. That’s awesome. It’s paintball teams for people that don’t actually want to get their clothes dirty or feel the sting of a point blank machine paint gunner. Much has been written and said about this, of course. The players can form fleets and conquer territory. Awesome. They can betray their Band of Brothers, causing a breakdown in the universal economy. Awesome.

Two, the player goes on a quest for the biggest, baddest spaceships of the universe. Collecting, then, becomes the narrative experience for players that don’t necessarily fall deep into the human dynamics. Even players who do fall into the human dynamics – I suspect – do so out of their desire to show off their cool shit. I suspect this is the most important part of the narrative of MMORPGs.

Even after two days, I feel this chocolate milk-withdrawal-like urge to get a bigger, more powerful space ship, for no apparent reason. I have no difficulty completing the quests, or joining other players for shared goals against our nemesii with my current fleet of practical, effective frigates. Yet, I want a bigger space ship, with more slots, and more lasers and rockets. I want it to look pretty. I want people who see my space ship to go Ooh and Aah…

Can keeping up with the Jones’ become a narrative? Do collectors of things live out a kind of story, where they see something they desire, and go through troll flame and hellfire to achieve it?

Two days ago, I’d be suspicious that this was not a narrative experience, but an expression of vanity. At work, I am surrounded by folks who religiously play another well-known MMORPG you might have heard of,World of Warcraft. They load their character pages on their web browsers and compare gear, achievements, badges. They talk about what they had to do to get these little blips of colored electronic blorps in their character’s electronic box to finally drop. It seems silly from the outside, like they are jus tbeing vain and showing off.

From the inside, even after only two days, I know what they are also showing is a shared experience. One knows that the fellow with the wicked awesome battleship had to go through a series of occasionally thrilling but often tedious “work” in this space economy. They had to endure the sort of anti-social mining team that rams a cheap frigate into an expensive freighter, just so a buddy can harvest the minerals from the wreckage. They had to endure the slow search for anomalies that led to wreckage that led to blueprints that led to bad-ass battleships. When you speak with other players of your preferred MMORPG, you have the subtext of that experience, expressed by your ability to back up your claim with wicked awesome new gear. You can talk, together, through this framework about the silliness of those potheads on local chat, and about what you were doing all those hours in the basement, huddled against the glowing box that lifted you up out of the suburbs, and into the stars.

When I, in my little frigate, fly past that bad-ass Amarrian Carrier in a Caldari pilot’s skilled control, to his/her player-run corporation’s space station, that’s what I’m seeing all around me. Someone went through the experience to get that cool shit. Even if that experience involves grinding through asteroid after asteroid and enduring silly pirate attack after silly pirate attack – seriously, I just blew up your other three buddies without breaking a sweat, and you’re still attacking me? – and the tedious probing and probing and probing of deep space, the result of that effort comes in the form with a collection of things that are really, really cool: mother f***ing space ships. Big, large, beautiful, graceful, elegant, powerful mother f***ing space ships.

When book collectors meet, they tell stories about how they came about their greatest prizes. When WoW-addicts meet, they compare gear and badges and talk about how close they came to wiping in “Nax”. Just like these two, seemingly unrelated activities, in EVE Online, there is no actual narrative, per se, if only because what is presented by scripted quest-givers is so absurdly thin. There is a story, though, behind every Caldari Phoenix, and every beat-up frigate limping back to a station for repairs. It may be a story obtuse to people who are not engaged in the universe, but it is there.

As a writer of fictions, I’m always looking for new ways to tell stories. Eve is the narrative of collecting things, and showing it off to your friends, and helping your friends collect things while they help you collect things. I picture another story set in space, Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, where the main character, the reader’s ally and wish-fulfillment cipher, accumulates a collection of more and cooler people and larger and cooler ships and more people and larger ships in a tale that seems determined to continue until the author can take no more. It’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it? That urge to get bigger and stronger and more epic in the genre fictions? In reading these series books, I am often hesitant to follow authors down the long, long path. To me, I am always terrified that the very things that make the series successful, also mean that the ending will be shit. I read four Vatta’s War books, liked them fine, but hesitated to read the fifth. The very reason the early ones were good was shifting into a collector’s game. The Vatta will collect a fleet. They will collect pirate heads. They will collect power. Any setbacks will be temporary hitches on the warp drive to glory.

That brings me to this final thought on EVE, as I shut down my frigates, and sell off the cargo and turn the lights off on this, the third day…

Ah, EVE, a paradise of night sky, where my capsuleer’s journeys may never cease. I wonder what will happen when the starlights dim, and the ISK dwindle, and the capsuleers fade into the long dark night of other games. Will the stars burn out, one by one, like a universe disintegrating into old age? Will abandoned corporate space stations become the ruins of the salvager kings, who laugh and dance and set off fireworks while the universe dies all around them with that promise of immortality that all pilots got upon their creation a joke of the past?

For me, I am not drawn to these MMORPGs any more than I am drawn to long series books. I see them spinning forward like mad ships,refusing to come back to shore, promising the drunken revelers that life will go on like this forever. There will always be The Forge. There will always be Orgrimmar. Do not fret. Have fun! The rudder will never falter. The ship will never sink.

But ships always, always sink. Pour your life into these drifting pleasure cruises at your own peril, sailor. There may come a day when your saved games will no longer load, and adventures fade into obscure self-mockery, and all the coup that’s been counted will disintegrate into a memory of paper or electrons, as if nothing was ever there but a strange space anomaly that’s imploded into itself.

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