Games Currently Playing:
Metroid: Other M
Dead Space: Extraction
Ascension War: Incursion

Entry 3: Sins of a Would-Be Game Designer

Its been a while since my last play session as work has ramped up on my projects. Still, there’s always a bit of playing here and there. Very soon I will be receiving a visit from someone very fond of zombie “lightgun”games so I bought a couple of pistol grips for the Wii and spent a couple of hours testing them out with the two “gun games” I have. The first is House of the Dead 2+3 which I’m happy to say is as ridiculously badly acted as ever, and quite fun with the pistol grip. Only caveat: the Wii doesn’t calibrate well up close, meaning something like 10 feet. The “wiistol” got heavy after a while but its that’s pretty arcade accurate; the game itself encourages short sessions anyway, again probably because of its arcade roots. Dead Space extraction is a different story altogether. Having played the original Dead Space on PS3, I am very much looking forward to whatever plot revelations come to light in this lightgun controlled prequel. I’ve only played a bit and won’t likely be playing much more until my visitor arrives in a bit over a week, but I already see a problem: unlike HotD, DS:E uses the nunchuck. That leaves the player aiming and firing the gun with one hand. The problem is, the very reason for requiring the nunchuck (more gameplay options) also means that the game encourages longer play sessions. I might write a mini follow-up on this later.

Sins of a Solar Empire

Much more interesting (and satisfying) to me right now is the fact that I finally(!) sat down and really played Sins of a Solar Empire. After briefly talking about it with Corwyn at class a few weeks ago, I hadn’t stopped thinking about it. A few months before Sins released, I’d purchased a game called Galactic Civilizations II, hoping to relieve memories of a game called Ascendancy, itself being just a particularly polished Master of Orion clone. GalCiv 2 was very good; I generally don’t have the time or patience for 4X strategy games, but I do enjoy them from time to time and GalCiv2 is as solid an incarnation of the genre as I’ve seen in a long time. I was interested, then, when I found out that Stardock, designers and publishers of the GalCiv games, were also publishing another space strategy game from developer Iron Clad Games. Their core concept seemed as appealing as it was ambitious; they were essentially attempting to make a real-time 4X space game. The advance press was all very positive and the screenshots were very attractive. I ordered the “collector’s” edition and eagerly awaited its arrival.

And then I didn’t play it. Not because I thought the game was bad; I hadn’t played much myself and reviews were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, later on it would receive IGN’s PC Game of the Year award, quite the coup for a small developer’s niche title. I didn’t play it because I was intimidated, frankly. 4X games take time to play, and I found the idea of playing such a complex game in real time to be overwhelming. It didn’t help that the earliest release featured overly-powerful pirates; my one game attempt saw my early fleet gutted before I even contacted my real opponent. And frankly, I’ve come to realize that very often I play games to unwind. The reflex-intense actions of an shooter game or simple mechanical intuitions of a puzzle game (like Bejeweled) let my mind relax and my instincts take over. After a long day of making stressful, time-critical decisions, it can be very nice.

The problem is that Sins is absolutely bursting at the seams with stressful, time-critical decisions. So I’d put it off, always thinking I’d get to it eventually. Well, now I have. And it is awesome.

Sins is unapologetically complex. Admittedly, it is simpler than most hardcore turned-based 4x space games, eschewing the custom ship building of its elder sibling Galactic Civilizations 2, for example. It also gives up some of the deeper politics and alternative win conditions of those games, although its second expansion, Sins: Diplomacy supposedly adds some of those factors back into the game. The base Sins game, however, is one of straightforward conquest. You expand your empire, build your forces, and face your opponent. Compared to the average “build your base and attack” RTS game, however, it is very complex. While you’re maneuvering your fleets, you are required to constantly be exploring new worlds, researching technologies, building colonies, and developing an overall strategy.

The game I played, on a “small” randomized map of about 20 planets, lasted about 4 hours, but I could have finished it in three, and I think a more experienced player could have forced a decision much earlier. Owing to my previous experience with the pirates, I started a game on the easy difficulty and got to playing. The first thing one notices about Sins is the smooth combination of graphics and interface. Indeed, the only thing keeping Sins from becoming an unplayable mess is the truly impressive interface. With a flick of the mouse wheel one can zoom out, continuously and without a break or interruption, from a close up view where you can see your capital ship’s individual cannons track the enemy and fire, to a godlike view of the entire star system where the game takes place. Icons clearly show all the player’s assets on the left hand side organized by planet/zone and can be clicked on or collapsed. It takes just a moment to, for example, select your entire military force (but not utility or civilian ships) in a system and send it to another. Ships, planets, and stations can all be selected in various different ways. Having so many alternatives seems daunting at first, but it quickly becomes second nature. Of course the system isn’t perfect, and its still not easy to find, say, a specific group of a specific kind of ship while things are hectic in more than one system at a time, but its still an impressive achievement given the task at hand.

It quickly became obvious to me that the game is not a tactical combat RTS at all; for the most part fleets fight by themselves and make mostly correct tactical decisions. At times I did feel the need to target a particular craft, or withdraw one of my more important ships to a better defended sector rather than let the AI valiantly fight to the bitter end (and it was my AI opponent’s reluctance to do the same that probably cost him the game). But this game is about overall strategy; selecting what to build and where to build it; what systems to set up defenses in, etc. More than once I was reluctantly forced to concede a poorly protected sector, pull my fleet out, and entrench a more defensible position, then return in force. At one point I had to halt a long advance when it became clear I was spreading myself too thin, so I built up a recently conquered planet and “bottled in” my opponent, knowing he would not be able to rebuild as fast as me given his lack of resource worlds. Understand, I am not really a strategy player; the fact that such strategies came naturally to me is more of a testament of the game’s play systems than my skills.

Overall, my brief experience with Sins was very positive. I think I knew it would be. Its long and exhausting, even on easy on a small map, but its also very rewarding when you win. It remains a niche game and exhausting and certainly not something I’d pick up and play on a whim, but its a wonderful experience. It succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to do. Its not perfect, but I can’t really think of any one thing to fault the developers for. I don’t know when I’ll work up the courage (and time) to face my interstellar nemesis again (maybe even on… normal?) but I’ll be looking forward to it.

Other thoughts: Its becoming a habit for me to post thoughts about the industry in general after these gameplay journals, and since I think its a useful habit, I think I’m going to keep doing it.

This time I think I’m going to go back to a favorite topic of mine: game genres and gameplay hybrids. Genres are both a good thing and a bad thing in all media; they can help a person identify something he or she is likely to enjoy, and they create a common language. But they can also be restricting and limiting. The problem with video games sometimes is that the genres exist for artificial reasons. Unlike movies and books, in digital games genres refer to the format as much as the content. Halo and Hexen, for example, are both “first person shooters”. If they were books, they’d both likely be “fiction novels”, but their genres would likely be “military sci-fi” and “high fantasy” (or swords and sorcery). Genres then describe gameplay more than the thematic concept of the game. That’s not necessarily wrong in and of itself, but it does often mean that developers stick to a handful of gameplay formulas that can be as limiting as they are helpful. Surely this early in the industry’s development we haven’t exhausted >all< possible gameplay combinations. That’s what I like about Sins of a Solar Empire. Once, the idea of a real time strategy 4X game seemed impossible, so developers never attempted it. But Iron Clad Games solved the problem, simply by adjusting the scope of the game by creating a new interface that was up to the task. That is all it took. I find more and more each day that I am attracted to games that deliberately mix genres. The most popular combinations seem to be those mix “twitch” (reflex) based gameplay with “RPG” elements such as levels, classes, weapon loadouts and customization. With faster internet connections becoming more prevalent, even MMOs are adding more “twitch” based content.

In particular I am very interested in seeing how the new Deus Ex turns out. I’ve only played bits and pieces of the original, but Deus Ex has a reputation for being one of the better genre benders around. Lets hope the new prequel lives up to the original. At any rate, there it is. As developers look to new gameplay formulas to stand out in an ever more competitive market, genres may become more and more fluid (again) and in my opinion that is an encouraging trend.

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