Sunday, January 18, 2015

Victoria 2: The Crisis system

I've always thought it was kind of strange that I have a thousand hours poured into various Paradox 'Grand Strategy' games, and not a single post on any of them. Part of it is that I have one in mind that might be a little too ambitious that I might want to pitch somewhere professionally if I feel I have a decent handle on it, and part of it is that I have a tendency of playing them the most when I'm feeling down and thus less likely to feel like writing, but strange nonetheless.

Anyhow, that changes today. I'll be discussing a very specific mechanic in one of their less popular games, so this will require more than a bit of background information.

Victoria 2 is a strategy game where you control a country through the 'Victorian' era, specifically 1836-1936. (I believe an expansion was required to take it through the interwar period, but I got into it after all of them were released) Likely the most unique aspect of the game is the complex production and industrial system, but that's for another post. This one is discussing the 'crisis' system, which is the game's main way of forcing conflict between major powers. (

Basically, how the crisis system works is that areas of high tension (colonial races or separatist movements, usually) a meter ticks up based on various factors, and when it hits 100%, a 'crisis' breaks out, and the involved parties (typically the nation wanting independence and the ruling nation) look for 'Great Power' (top 8 scoring countries) backers to support their side (unless they are a great power themselves, in which case they head up their own side and only need an opponent). After each side has a GP power involved, other GPs on the same continent (I think) (basically 'not the US' until Japan and China westernize) are asked to take sides, with a harsh penalty if they try to stay neutral. If no decision is reached (white peace or concessions), war breaks out, people die, etc. etc.

Critically, if no one backs both sides, the crisis peters out and nothing happens. We'll get to that later.

Anyway, the system works... okay, most of the time. I certainly understand the need to force some kind of conflict between the great powers, who usually need a *very* compelling reason to fight, and it does that fairly often. It does, however, feel very forced and arbitrary. Aesthetically it almost feels like the GPs backing one side or the other are doing it just as an excuse to fight the other GPs - very rarely is it actually a critical issue (sometimes it is, mostly in the case of Poland or Hungary - neither are sovereign realms at game start). Of course that would sometimes be the case, but it still feels awkward.

One thing Victoria 2 is bad about is throwing numbers at you that describe what is happening but not why. One example is how crises are generated - you can see the progress on a dedicated map mode, and a breakdown of how it's changing, but those numbers are very obtuse. (greek unification movement, +.12 per month! ... why?) I've played quite a bit, and I still have no idea how pops (populations) decide to back nationalist movements, although I assume the crisis progress is based on the strength of the internal movement. It just kind of happens and you respond.

My biggest issue, however, is that unresolved crises have a tendency of repeating themselves. Many of the games I've played have had one crisis repeat half a dozen times in a row over a couple of decades. (one in particular, usually - a greek reunification movement in.. Macedonia? Thessalia?). One side or the other almost always fails to garner a backer, and nothing happens, which seems... odd. Particularly if someone backs greece and no one backs the Ottomans. Logically, if someone backs the nationalists and no one backs the status quo, either the rebels should win or at the very least war should break out between the GP and the ruling nation (90% of the time with the same result, or worse), and if that was the case, crises wouldn't get nearly so stale, forcing a resolution much more often and thus allowing other crisis areas to develop.

Another idea that actually just came to mind was an idea for a new type of crisis - but this requires more background gameplay information. Sorry, it's an.. involved game. Each GP has a 'sphere of influence' - basically the countries they dominate politically and economically. (Ex: Indian minors with Great Britain, and german minors with Prussia or Austria) Anyway, you add new countries to yours by generating 'influence' with them, and oftentimes this evolves into a kind of 'bidding' war between two powers as each competes to gain dominance - a cold, soft war that seems like the perfect situation to evolve into a hot, hard one, and not a hard one to implement into the current design, although I won't get into the specifics more than I already have.

Despite all these issues I have with what is definitely one of the most important individual mechanics in the game, I do enjoy Vicky 2 quite a bit, and the crisis system's basics are a very interesting way of reflecting geopolitics in the period where the concept really began to take center stage. These ideas are just me nitpicking something that's irritated me while playing and trying to come up with fixes.

P.S. If you're interested in reading a bit more about how Vicky 2 works, I recommend this Let's Play on the Something Awful LP Archives. It's how I learned to play, and it should be reasonably easy to follow even if you don't have the game itself.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cosmonautica: Thoughts

Cosmonautica is an interesting little game. It's in Early Access, starting just last week - but there's some potential here. Basically, you captain a ship with up to 8 crew members, cruising around the solar system (around 15 planets) trading, fighting pirates, completing missions and whatnot. There's some story to it, but the main campaign isn't available yet, just the prologue.

The ships are modular, with a certain layout and specs, and you have to decide what you want to prioritize. Do you want a smaller, faster ship with more weapon capacity, to fight off pirates, or become a pirate yourself? A fast passenger liner? Or a huge freighter with space for a ton of cargo - and all the amenities to support a huge crew? (There's 4 ships in the game so far, one starter and three others, each fulfilling one of the archetypes I mentioned above. I went with the passenger liner, although I was more focused on cargo than passengers, who are dependent on missions instead of the procedurally-generated prices)

Each crew member has certain skills, and you manage their time spent performing those tasks and free time, to take care of their needs - food, hygiene, exercise, etc. As they level up, they become much better at their tasks, but they also have more needs, requiring more room on your ship to satisfy those needs. It starts out simple - with a pilot, mechanic, and janitor - but relatively quickly ramps up as you add a scientist, maybe a weapons tech or a hacker, and have to balance their needs and tasks.

The trading system seems to work quite well for such a small game. I'm not 100% sure if prices fluctuate, but you can't buy and sell infinite numbers of goods (actually, the good routes are fairly harshly limited, if incredibly lucrative), which is good. The customs/smuggling system also seems pretty neat, although I think it could bear with a bit more fleshing out. I wish it told you the success chance for bribes, and there's only one type of non-mission-specific contraband so far.

One thing that makes Cosmonautica particularly interesting in my opinion, particularly when more content is added, is the research system. You have to unlock the outer areas of the system, where the trade routes are much more lucrative and the pirates much more dangerous (although I don't think the pirates are actually IN the game right now? It's very early access.) The interface promises more things to research later on, as well - new ships, new weapons, new rooms, etc etc. It makes for surprisingly effective progression and pacing, allowing you to putter around in the small starter area before pushing you out to the far reaches of the system.

The basics of the game are pretty simple, but I'm a sucker for trading in games like this so I found it reasonably fun for a couple hours - although very quickly I totally ran out of things to spend money on, and that 2 hours was enough to do basically everything as far as I could tell (well, I didn't mess with combat so I don't know how that works) Again, early access. If you want to take a look, here's the steam store page, where you can get Cosmonautica for just $10, ramping up to $15 when it hits full release in 4 months, according to the steam page. I'm looking forward to seeing them add features over the next weeks and months.

Disclaimer: I got this game for free from a giveaway IndieGamerChick has been doing on twitter, so thanks to her and Chasing Carrots, the developer, for letting me take a look!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Remember Me: Thoughts

Remember Me is the first game I've ever played where my end conclusion was 'this would be better as a movie.'

It's not a bad game, it just doesn't seem ... excited about being a game. It has boss fights, and combos, and chase scenes, and puzzles... and almost all of it feels totally superfluous and unnecessary. The only interesting thing mechanically is the memory remixes, where you dive into someone's mind to change a memory, but they're used more for narrative impact than as a regular gameplay mechanic, mostly consisting of choosing out of a set of variables to get the event you want.

The phrase 'more than the sum of its parts' often applies to games, but in this case I think it's the reverse - Remember Me is less than the sum of its parts. Everything is competent, but very little is unique and in the process it becomes a game without its own identity. The most positive thing I have to say about it is that it is paced rather well. Combat is broken up with exploration, boss fights are few and far between, and the memory remixes never stop being a big deal.

The concept of the game's narrative is stellar, but the only times it comes even close to following through are the opening and the oft-mentioned memory remix sequences. It never feels content to really dive into the ethical dilemmas it presents with the technology of memory manipulation, but instead presents them almost without comment, letting the player draw their own conclusions.

For better or for worse, I think I will remember Remember Me for quite a while. A shame it didn't live up to its premise.

P.S. What are leapers, again? I feel like the only reason they exist is to give you something to fight. Another decision made in service of video game conventions?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Neverwinter Nights 2: Thoughts

Well, that was interesting. I've spent the last couple weeks playing Neverwinter Nights 2 and its first expansion (and the only one that's a direct sequel), Mask of the Betrayer and... wow, are those two very different stories. For this post I'm just going to talk about the original campaign (OC for short), since if I wrote about both it would have ended up being quite unwieldy

I first played NWN2 (just the OC) a long time ago - maybe '07? - and I'm pretty sure served as my introduction to Dungeons and Dragons and was one of the first party-based CRPGs I played (I might have played Knights of the Old Republic before it). It's a very typical CRPG story, what with the protagonist growing from humble beginnings into the Chosen One, and the main plot being mostly concerned with an ancient empire torn down by their own hubris kind of stuff. How NWN2 handled companions and character interaction did a lot to influence my expectations of later games - including the Bioware games I had yet to play.

Mechanically, it's passable at best. D&D wasn't really meant for a computer screen, but NWN2 is the best translation I've seen, and quite likely better than some later CRPGs that drew inspiration from it (Dragon Age, I'm looking at you). I do appreciate that it starts off slow, instead of doing like Baldur's Gate did and throwing you to the wolves at level 1 (literally). That said, it's a bit TOO slow. Act 1 and it's artificial plot gate are probably half the game, and easily the least interesting part of it. I could have done without the hours and hours of politics and fetch quests. I'm not saying the main storyline is the best thing ever, but it's significantly better than playing guard.

Later on, though, you're awarded your very own castle and troops to control. Crossroad Keep is awesome and feels awesome. It's a bit buggy, because Obsidian, but it's just COOL. Training your troops up, getting them equipment, sending them out on missions, and just generally becoming the best Knight-Captain ever is pretty awesome, including how it's implemented in the endgame.

The story is nothing special, really, but I've always enjoyed a good hero's journey, and aside from that ridiculous plot door (I forgot just how long that really is. It's around 15-20 hours), I don't think there's anything particularly egregious. I liked how Jerro's Haven was presented, both from a story presentation and a gameplay one, and from then on Act 3 just kind of keeps ramping up to the end. The siege of Crossroad Keep was a pretty interesting sequence as well.

Overall, it's a pretty.. average game, I guess (Except for its length!). Sometimes that's not bad, though, especially in a genre that doesn't really have that many entries. I certainly enjoyed it enough myself.

Next time, however, I'm going to talk about Mask of the Betrayer, which is anything but typical.

Monday, January 13, 2014

VVVVVV: Thoughts

Wow, I haven't posted anything on this blog since last April? Man, I should fix that. So I am!

I'm planning on writing at least one post about every new game I play this year, and here's the first, for VVVVVV.

VVVVVV is a puzzle platformer designed by Terry Cavanagh (who also did Super Hexagon, which I've enjoyed immensely over the past few months) that I picked up for like 30 cents in the holiday steam sale. I'd played the demo before, and I've played several flash games with similar conceits.

The main mechanic in the game is a simple gravity switch - notably, however, you can only activate it when you're actually on the ground (or the ceiling). The objective is basically to explore and find your missing crewmates, puzzling your way through gauntlets of laser beams and spikes and such. There's also 20 collectibles that serve as much more difficult bonus challenges.

The story and art style are both pretty unremarkable, but I enjoyed my time with the game as far as it went. There's a definite speedrunning bent to it (including a time trial mode), and I believe there are also plenty of community made map packs and such, so if it does grab your interest there's plenty of content beyond the hour or two a basic playthrough will last.

Controls are THE most important part of a platformer, and they seemed a bit finicky to me at first - lots of platformers have momentum when you're running, so you don't just stop when you stop hitting the key, and sometimes it doesn't feel right. That said, I definitely got used to it, only coming close to ragequitting a couple of times. I think the most times I died on a single puzzle was... 28?

Overall, it's a nice, super cheap flash-style game. I especially appreciate the presence of the map packs - it's a good way of just providing more content for a game that people enjoy.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Random Musings: Leveling

A while ago (a few months actually) I was thinking about the leveling system in Skyrim (because I really like analyzing Skyrim for some reason), and the thought occurred to me: Why have player levels at all? It wouldn't even be hard to remove them entirely - you get a perk in a skill tree every time you get 10 levels in that tree, and you get a point in each of the three main attributes for every level in a related school (warrior skills - health, mage skills - magicka, thief/rogue skills - stamina, following the paradigm already in the game.) This even ends up fixing a lot of the problems I have with Skyrim's perk system - the arbitrary level requirements for perks, with a bit of retooling, the tendency to never put perks in certain trees because of game balance (I'm looking at you, speech), and probably a few others I haven't thought of, while simultaneously having an absolutely equivalent result to the current mechanics. 

I've never actually really liked the idea of discrete 'levels'. It just feels so arbitrary. I've always appreciated the Elder Scrolls' 'get better by doing' mechanics, and they make it extremely easy to get rid of player levels entirely - although it'd be a lot harder for most RPGs.

In any case, let's take a look at what player levels do for you. They give you a very tangible goal and reward, usually a fairly substantial step straight up, maybe some sidesteps.  This allows the player to gain a sense of progression, sometimes to ridiculous degrees - how many JRPGs have you played where you start out dealing double digit damage and end up dealing hundreds of thousands every hit by the end? It separates controlling your character's skill progression and actually playing into discrete chunks, letting you optimize your build.

The big cons, in my opinion, are an encouragement of grinding (a practice that should be a capital offense in any competent RPG, in my opinion. THOU SHALT NOT REQUIRE GRINDING) and a total disconnect between actions and progression - 'Oh, you just hit some arbitrary milestone by mining that rock or talking to that dude? I GUESS I'M BETTER AT KILLING PEOPLE NOW!'

The pros are ease of design and balance, because it allows you to be MUCH stricter with player progression, and increased precision of progression for the player. It's much harder to metagame a skill-based rather than player level-based system, I feel - a con for some and a pro for others.

I'm not saying that getting rid of player levels is something every RPG ever should do, but I think it's surprising more haven't experimented with shifting the emphasis away from them, especially considering the runaway success of Skyrim. Perhaps a new breed of RPG is coming? (It usually is)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Random Musings: Crafting

So I was thinking about crafting systems earlier and what I don't like about them - specifically, the grinding and the spammy, impersonal nature of it. In most of these systems, you will make hundreds or thousands, sometimes more, of just a few items, and you can sometimes make dozens in a single sitting. Most of the time any alterations you CAN make are either not actually associated with the smithing or rather superficial, and rarely is any individual item significant.

I'd much rather have a system where each and every item you make is significant and somewhat unique, even your very first iron dagger or whatever. (actually, I'd rather have every piece of loot and every enemy be significant too, but hey you can't have everything so let's focus on crafting today.)

In real life, no handmade item is exactly the same, yet in many games your character might as well be a modern factory making items out of replaceable parts. There's absolutely no personality or character, either to your works as a whole or each individual piece. This seems odd, given what I see as the inspiration for such mechanics - named weapons in many epic fantasy stories, such as the archetypal Excalibur, and often forging scenes for such weapons.

I've never liked how variety and progression is accomplished through material tiers in many games, either. If you don't have variety in each tier, any customization is pretty much totally lost. There's a big difference between chainmail and scale mail and plate, and most of the time these are completely ignored in favor of just having 'armor', despite there being a world of difference between, say, a chain shirt and full plate mail. I'm okay with some tiering, but making cosmetic changes tied to material is just ridiculous, as long as they're the same basic type (like leather or metal)

Fixing this on a cosmetic level would be a huge step for roleplaying immersion, in my opinion, and wouldn't be too difficult. Just make a simple design-your-own sword system that lets you pick a blade, crossguard, and hilt, name it, and boom. For armor just having more styles available than 'armor' would go a long way too. It doesn't need to be too extensive, but not having every player look literally exactly the same when wearing crafted gear would be nice - especially in single player games where identifying another player's equipment is irrelevant.

Obviously mechanically is a lot more difficult. I had the thought of having a minigame where you actually make the item could be cool, along with balancing the economy and available materials in such a way that a single weapon is significant instead of just trash - it takes longer to make and the materials are more difficult to come by but the end result is a bigger deal as well. One thing you could do is have each of the choices mentioned above give certain stats, although making that significant and interesting would require a certain complexity of combat system most games just don't have. Armor can either have mobility scores that make taking certain actions slower, differing amounts of armor on different areas, or just simply different effectiveness against different types of armors (most games that seriously focus on melee combat already do the second two).

There's a lot of things you could do with smithing and other crafting systems that we don't even try to do. I know it's complicated, but surely we can do something more interesting than making 50 iron daggers and selling them for a pittance?