Archive for August, 2010

August 29, 2010

Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’

This might contain very minor spoilers but don’t worry, I haven’t even finished the book yet so I can’t really ruin anything.

I don’t read much but whenever I go travelling I need something to keep my occupied that doesn’t rely on battery power. Therefore every time I fly, I read. Now I don’t fly a huge amount, probably twice a year, so I definitely couldn’t class myself as a reader. However I do enjoy a book every now and again, although they’re such time sinks that they’re confined to periods of my life where I have no electricity.

My most recent trip had me picking up The Stand by Stephen King. I like Stephen King, yeah it’s not really an inspired choice… he’s pretty popular and mainstream, but whatever, I like his stories. The last King book I read was Cell, which was really cool. I wanted to get Under the Dome but it was only released in hardcover, and at 1100 pages that’s a pretty heavy book (and expensive). I wanted an epic to read, something I’ve never done before, so I went to the King area and looked for the biggest book. The Stand is what I decided on.

.

.

I’m about 75% of the way through and I’m loving it. I didn’t really know what to expect, it’s a post-apocalyptic (although it includes the ‘apocalypse’) thriller about a biological weapon which is accidentally released in the US. The weapon was an advanced form of Flu and has a 100% fatality rate. Luckily, some people are immune and the story so far is about 2 groups of survivors who have been united under the ‘Dark Man’ or ‘Mother Abigail’.

What interested me about the book is that I was barely a quarter of the way through and everyone was dead already. I was imagining the whole book to be about the flu, but it turns post-apocalyptic and becomes much more interesting. There are a lot of characters from all walks of life and there are so many intriguing events which I’ve never really thought about before. It’s definitely worth a read.

So what’s the point of this post? Well as I was reading I couldn’t help but think The Stand would make an incredible video game if it could be pulled off. It should definitely be an MMO of some kind. What makes The Stand such an interesting book is the huge amount of characters. There has to be a massive component to the community to really simulate the complete randomness of who survived the flu.

.

Tom Cullen & Nick Andros first meet.

.

For example, Nick Andros is a deaf-mute. He is immune and the only person in his town who survives the epidemic. He is alone and does not know what to do. He begins to travel towards Mother Abigail, a woman he sees in his dreams (as all the survivors do). Eventually he stumbles across another survivor. This guy is Tom Cullen and he is mentally retarded. The two of them find it difficult to communicate (Tom takes a while to realize that Nick can’t talk or hear) but eventually they get to Mother Abigail’s place. The chance of the 2 people both being handicapped and surviving the flu is extremely slim.. but this dynamic is what makes the story so interesting. The whole book is full of unique characters, most of them crazy in some way shape or form.

So it has to have a large community, that’s for sure. But when do you start the game? You cannot start while the flu is still killing people, it would suck if your character wasn’t immune and just died. Plus it could not be a persistent world because the victims have an expiry date. It would have to start just after the flu had killed its last victims. Players would have to start in a random location (not in a starter area with other people), alone and with the only instinct being to survive. One idea that came to me, and one that made me surprised that it hasn’t really been done before, was to have 2 games in one.

.

.

The Stand could be a single player game at first, one where you are taken linearly through the storyline of the flu epidemic. This part cannot be persistent so it could not be a MMO game. However it would be criminal, and confusing to players, to omit this important part of the story. The characters in The Stand are so interesting because they’ve all had a flu story. They’ve all seen their loved ones die, they’ve all had unique experiences which unite them. Players need to have these experiences too, they need to play the single player component of The Stand and then, when they meet the first survivor  online say, “Holy shit, you’re alive?! You won’t believe what happened to me…”.

If this could be done it would be amazing, although I’m not sure how viable it is. How can you have a single player story which isn’t the same for everyone? You could make it sandbox style, but these games lack emotion (in my opinion). You can’t really connect with characters in a sandbox game because you’re not guided through the relationship like a traditional story. They just don’t matter. So that would be a problem.

Ok, so once the players have finished the single-player component they are then allowed to enter the MMO part. Now I see why this hasn’t been done before, as it’s not really fair to restrict a huge part of the game to those who haven’t finished the single player. However, if the game is good enough then people will see it through. It would not have to be a lengthy experience (no games are these days), just a sort of prologue to the ‘real’ game.

Another factor which is conceptually flawed is death. The Stand should be hardcore. It should be like Diablo’s hardcore mode. If you die, you’re dead forever. It has to be like this because it’s a game about survival. It’s not about awesome loot and killing boss monsters, it’s about surviving in a world that’s been turned upside down. In a survival game you should be constantly afraid of death.

But, how do you do a hardcore game in an MMO environment? You’re going to get griefers who just stand around starter areas and kill everyone who spawns. That’s what the internet is like, unfortunately.

Firstly, death must be rewarded. It’s what I like to call the Funeral Mechanic. Your funeral is a celebration of your life. In The Stand there should be some persistence regarding your character. Even though you die and have to create a new character from scratch, you should receive some form of bonus which makes you stronger in your new character. If you had a successful previous life, you will be rewarded in your next one. Very zen! We want people scared of death, but we don’t want them to quit (or not play) because their life has been wasted because some idiot griefer decides to shoot them in the back.

Secondly there does have to be some form of punishment for assholes. The problem with this is that we want the game to be ‘realistic’. There are assholes in real life. Hell, even in the book you get tons of assholes who hurt others for the thrill. Removing the ability to kill someone as and when you please would be terrible for the theme. However there has to be some form of disincentive to kill new players, otherwise people will never communicate in game. Everyone would be scared of each other. It would be a very interesting social experiment but not a viable game I feel. My main idea is that there should be a bounty on players. If you kill one or two guys a day then you’ll be fine, your bounty will stay relatively low. However, if you start killing lots of low level players in a short period of time then you’ll accrue a hefty bounty.

There are two ways this could now work. The first is that other players will be told about the bounty. There could be vigilante justice. When there’s an incentive to kill some guy then there are gonna be some players who want that reward. This would be a great system because it’s non-interventionist. Intervention in a game like this will just ruin the mood. The second option would be to have bounty hunters, AI bots who patrol around the area. They would obviously not look like police, they’d just be some crazy Mad Max style gang. As your bounty increases, the chance of them finding you will be greater. You could probably evade them at first, but if you take the piss then you won’t sleep a wink at night.

.

A prisoner left to rot in jail is forced to take desperate measures of survival.

.

This is getting to be a pretty long post so I’ll end it soon (thanks for reading!) but there are a few other things I’ll quickly mention. There has to be food and water. If you don’t eat and drink enough, you die. This forces players to meet each other and also adds a unique dynamic which further emphasizes the survival tone. Finally there should be a random generator of genetics. When you create a character, you could be anything. You might be stronger than most. You might be stupid. You might be old, you might be young. This will make every experience unique and perhaps players won’t mind dying because it will be like playing a new game.

In conclusion, someone make this damn game! Well, at least a game based on The Stand.

.

.

Sam

August 24, 2010

Cannon Canon: Wild Ones

Cannon Canon is where I’ll be sticking my thoughts on the Artillery game genre in this new age of Social gaming. See this post for an intro. The Artillery game is a genre which lends itself quite well to a casual web game environment. Cannon Canon will discuss what’s out there, what has been before and what I think the future of Artillery gaming will be.

.

This first edition of Cannon Canon will discuss a game I’ve been tasked with playing and analysing quite a bit over the past 3-4 months. I thought I’d  likely feature it in my Gamebook series but it crosses over here. Wild Ones has been around for a long time, in social gaming terms, debuting in December 2009. It’s backed by Playdom who were recently acquired by Disney for a substantial price. As one of the more hardcore games on Facebook, Wild Ones is an interesting case study and a project I’ll likely follow for some time. Why? Well it’s got real gameplay, real-time multiplayer combat. Secondly, after the Disney acquisition and the new phase of oligopolistic Facebook developers, it will be interesting to see if the trend moves in the direction of ‘Wild Ones-style’ games or takes a different path entirely.

.

.

Here is a quick primer on ‘Artillery games’. You are against an enemy in a 2D environment with a large array of weaponry. Weapons are fired by aiming with a firing arc (much like a tank) and by holding down the trigger to increase the power of the projectile. Often there are variables which effect the trajectory, including Wind. It’s your goal to reduce the enemy’s hit points to zero, or to destroy the terrain they are standing on (causing them to fall off the screen). Simple, fun and surprisingly deep. Worms is the epitome of the Artillery game, being responsible for its popularity. The Worms series has been around since 1995 and I’ll likely do a history of Worms for the next Cannon Canon. In fact, the first new 2D installment of Worms on the PC; Worms: Reloaded, is due for release in a couple of days so perhaps I will check it out and give you the verdict.

.

Battling in the lab

.

Onto Wild Ones. If you’ve been a fan of Worms, you will already be able to see some similarities. The cartoon style and colourful graphics are very reminiscent of Team 17’s foray into the Artillery game and the similarities don’t stop at the graphics. It has Bazookas, it has Grenades and it has Ninja Ropes. While I initially thought it was a complete rip-off, there are a few differences which make it a more varied experience.

Firstly, you control only one character. Worms has traditionally defaulted at 4 characters per team. Having one character drastically changes the way these games work and some of the criticisms levelled at  Wild Ones originate from this deviation from the ‘standard’.

A few months back, Wild Ones had an identical death system to Worms. Your character had one life, a la Counter-Strike. Since you had 4 worms in Worms, you would often focus fire enemies to give yourself a man advantage. The way maps were designed, it was often easy to do so. Terrain is destructible and you can simply destroy the land separating your target from their watery grave. Wild Ones has similar maps, and it’s similarly easy to drop your enemy in the drink. Unfortunately you do not have 4 worms, you have 1… so if you got unlucky with your positioning you would often die before getting a turn. Fortunately, Playdom have been very responsive to user demand and have added in respawning. In fact, respawn is now the default setting. It’s a much more accessible and enjoyable experience for newer players.

.

The visual similarities with Worms are undeniable.

.

Another problem that emerged with Old Wild Ones was “team sam”. It was a free-for-all game, but 75-80% of players insisted on forming teams. Every time you’d start a game, you’d get one guy asking to be team mates with the highest level player in the room (fair competition and all…). More often than not, they’d join together and obliterate one guy while the other player would be forced to team up in order to have a decent competitive battle. If it started with teams then that would be fine, but what this system mostly resulted in was 2v1v1 or, in some ridiculous cases, 2v1 battles. Yes you’d get people asking for teams in a 3 person battle. If this wasn’t meant to be a slightly professional blog I’d be giving you my uncensored opinion on that behaviour right about now. All I’ll say now is /facepalm.

Once again though, Playdom were watching! They introduced Team Battle mode. It’s at this point that I really do have to commend Playdom. They’re now one of the ‘big evil Facebook game companies’ (like Zynga) but they really do seem to care. The Wild Ones team is constantly releasing new content and hefty updates. Lets hope this doesn’t change with Disney behind the strings.

.

All filler, no killer.

.

One thing that has remained 100% intact during the transition from Worms to Wild Ones is the insane amount of stupid weapons you can use. I’m all up for variety but the developers of these games have absolutely no idea about quality over quantity. Worms has around 60 weapons, Wild Ones also has a stupid amount. The majority of them do the same thing with different visuals. Wild Ones also has super-powerful weapons, which cost a premium. Worms has these weapons also, complete game-breakers that take no skill to use. In Worms they were rare, in Wild Ones any monkey with a credit card can stock up on them. This is my major problem with Wild Ones and the direction it took. The Old Wild Ones had a few premium weapons but they were not overpowered. The new Wild Ones is completely broken, with at least 5-6 weapons that kill someone in one turn. I’m sure this is a great tactic for monetizing (the only people who would pay for OP weapons in this sort of game are the kiddies who just want to win at all costs), it makes the game boring for the 99% of users who don’t pay. Eventually, if Playdom don’t do anything, the users will start to decline. They’ve lost at least 1 because of it…

So what does Wild Ones do right?

The characters are cool. You choose a cartoon style animal avatar and the selection is good. Each animal has a unique ability (which I love) and different stats. This is a nice evolution of the genre.

Apart from that, there isn’t much else that Wild Ones really excels in. Playdom’s effort has been admirable but there is a lot of room for improvement. Social features, for example, are horrendous. It’s a Facebook game and you barely interact with anyone! In spite of all the complains, Wild Ones is a fun game. The ultimate goal of Cannon Canon is to identify where these games are going wrong and where they should be heading, so we’ve had a good start so far!

.

.

Sam

August 18, 2010

Gamebook: NanoStar Siege

‘Gamebook’ is a series which focuses on hardcore gaming on Facebook. These games are similar to those you’ll find on a PC or console, featuring skill based gameplay and PvP action.

NanoStar Siege is a strategy game in which an army of attackers attempts to breach the castle of an army of defenders. While the gameplay is very simple, the overall strategy and tactics set it a class above the competition and give it a unique flavour.

.

.

A simple (free) NanoStar Siege game goes as follows. First you select which opponent you wish to battle. The game gives you a selection of someone below your level, 2 people at the same level and one person stronger than you. If you attack the stronger enemy, you’re likely to lose but if you’re a Sun Tzu-style military mastermind (or your opponent is stupid) then you’ll get greater rewards. Once you’ve chosen your opponent you will see the battlefield. From here you choose how many troops you want to commit to the battle, and how you will compose your attacking force depending on the enemy’s defence (more on that later).

.

The opposing forces meet in a wall of death

.

There are 3 core troop types and 3 special ones. The swordsman has high health but causes low damage, use him to protect your weaker troops. The bowman has small health but a powerful ranged attack. As you can probably work out, a basic tactic involves placing your bowmen behind your swordsmen. In addition there is the berserker, which is the fastest and strongest unit… but also weak. You want to place your berserkers on the wings, to avoid fire from bowmen.

Once you’ve composed your force, you select your Heroes. Heroes are what make NanoStar Siege a great Facebook game. Using the NanoStar cards (which also work in NanoStar Castles), you have a number of abilities that you can cast to influence the battle. Without heroes, the 2 armies mindlessly wander towards each other. With heroes, you can choose which enemies to remove, which special units to summon and buff/weaken troops.

.

Creating a solid defence

.

Hero examples include ‘Hellhound’ which casts a medium power attack across an entire row. Use Hellhound if your enemy has placed all his weak bowmen in a single row. Master Archer lets you convert one of your troops into a powerful archer, who can attack outside his column and can shoot from much further range. Paralysis lets you target a group of enemy units and prevent them from moving and attacking. There are 151 heroes so there is a lot I haven’t seen (since the majority you have to pay for with real cash). This gives a lot of flexibility for how you’ll attack and defend, although I doubt many people have access to the full collection.

The final nuance of battle is reinforcement. Throughout time you can send more troops to the frontlines (although they’ll take a while to reach the ‘kill zone’). The longer you wait, the more troops you’ll get. However sometimes you just need to send troops to catch those sneaky enemies who managed to pass your army unscathed. If you wait long enough, you can recharge all your hero abilities which often spells game over for the enemy if your troops have managed to survive that long.

.

Using the 'Draft' ability to summon double reinforcements

.

What makes NanoStar Siege such an interesting game is that it feels like two games in one. On one side you attack, using your hero abilities as effectively as possible and trying to get through to the enemy castle. On the other hand, you also need to mount a defence. Despite the fact that you attack other players, you are not in fact attacking a real-time foe. Your enemy has chosen his defence before the battle, which you also get to do. This is actually surprisingly fun. You have to predict what your enemies are likely to do, then place your troops accordingly. The Hellhound ability is a great example. If you place all your archers in one row, then the enemy will just use Hellhound to wipe out most of your offensive power. If you place all your troops in one area then you can create a meatgrinder (using a few swordsmen to protect masses of bowmen), but if the enemy goes round the side you will be defenceless. In addition to troop placement, you can select heroes. Since it’s not real-time, you choose areas where the heroes should be activated. At the start of the battle, when the enemy is far away, you’ll want to cause damage with your heroes. Once the enemy is in the middle-ground, you’ll want to buff your troops or weaken theirs… so that your army can attack them without being attacked back. When they’re at your gates you’ll want to summon new troops or paralyze the enemy, to give your towers more time to kill them.

A well thought-out defence is surprisingly hard to crack and it’s lots of fun imagining what enemies will do. One feature which has been grossly ignored is a test mode. You cannot test your defence. You cannot see how effective it is, unless you’re playing someone at work and looking at his/her screen. It’s a big oversight because it’s quite complicated to imagine all the effects. A few people don’t bother with a defence, probably because it’s quite confusing.

NanoStar Siege also has a campaign. It’s called the ‘Frozen North’ (an obvious Warcraft III reference!) and it’s similar to the PvP single player game. However the enemy armies are designed by the developers, so you get to see a range of cool heroes that you’ll never see yourself. It’s fun to see these spells in action, which gives much more variety and longevity to the game. There are times I’ve been tempted to purchase some cards just to get some cool new abilities!

.

Battling in the Frozen North

.

Whether you can class NanoStar Siege as a real game or not is up for debate. While it’s most definitely very tactical and requires a lot of strategy (in a similar vein as RTS games), it also would be quite lacking for a real gaming experience on a console or as a standalone PC title. But perhaps that’s just the budget and technology, the game itself is very similar to the Fort Condor mini-game in Final Fantasy VII.

.

Fort Condor in Final Fantasy VII

.

If the game was fleshed out with more campaigns, a better selection of cards (for cheapskates like me) and a feature to test your defence… then maybe there would be a unanimous decision that “Yes, NanoStar Siege is a real game on Facebook”.

Right now it feels like a casual/flash game on Facebook, which isn’t to say it’s bad. However it’s definitely not up there in the ranks of true gaming experiences like Brave Arms.

.

.

Sam