New Games and Old Series

September 17th, 2011

These runty little goblins will be some of the critters you’ll face in the new Swordfall successor, which for the time being I’m calling ‘Arkeia’. They probably won’t be too great a challenge though, unless of course they bring along the whole clan. But they’ve got some much larger friends who will likely show up in your future nightmares. In all honesty though, it may yet be a while before you get to fight any of them. Progress on this game has been rather minimal so far. To be fair, I do have a solid start on the assets, much of the unit concepts done and a healthy set of design specs. The code just isn’t there yet. I did take a version of Swordfall yesterday and started cutting stuff out of it in an effort to turn it into my new game, but now I’m not so sure I want to go down that route. The games seem similar enough to turn one into the other, but on closer inspection there are quite a few differences. Just taking out the old maps, units, techs and generals leaves my code with a ton of obsolete references that need to be hunted down and cleaned up. On top of that I really feel like I should merge some of the class structures, using new methods I developed for Rise of the Colony. Plus, it would be so much cleaner to start with a fresh, brand new application and just copy things in as I need them. Might take a fair bit longer to get running that way, but I’d likely end up with fewer headaches and a more efficient end result. Bottomline is this may all end up going into November, though I’d like to finish it by the end of next month. Just from a financial viewpoint I kind of need to get it wrapped up and sold by January, so at the very latest I will have it done by the end of November, leaving a month for auctioning and sponsor branding. Of course that would probably push back the actual release to January or maybe even February, depending on what the sponsor wants. I don’t think a Christmas launch makes much sense in the flash world; you can’t exactly stuff one of these things under a tree.

So yeah, I have been a tad lazy these past couple weeks, and a little busier with other things than usual. Mostly this is due to starting my visual arts studies at the University of BC, though with only two courses I’m not exactly feeling overworked. And they are artsy courses too; not anything serious like ‘Advanced Human-Computer Interaction’, a course in which I naturally dealt with motion tracking and brain interfaces. Or more likely it was an introductory Java GUI course, but no one has to know that. Anyway, my homework for next week involves dripping ink on two sheets of paper… and nothing else whatsoever. I think I can handle that and still make some games.

So aside from taking my first steps to becoming a true artiste, what exactly has been on my mind lately? Well games of course, that goes without saying. Has there even been an entire day in all of time when that was not the case? Although these days I almost feel like I’m growing out of games. At least the playing them part; I’m as thoroughly fixated on game making as I’ve ever been. It might just be a lack of good games, but there’s been very few in recent years that I’ve managed to really get into and actually finish. Starcraft 2 is the only example I can think of right now. That definitely entertained me for a few months, but the ladder matches ultimately got really repetitive and hectic. Then there’s been some fantastic open world shooter games like Red Dead Redemption and Deus Ex, which I haven’t managed to finish but feel like I should. In the case of the latter I haven’t even finished my first mission yet. The high regard for it makes me feel an obligation to give it a chance, but all the crawling around vents just isn’t triggering the right neurons.

I could of course tell myself that I’m just picky with my genres, that I’m only really into deep RPGs and strategy games. Then again, I haven’t finished a single player RPG since Final Fantasy X and only reached level 35 in World of Warcraft. The latest iterations of classic strategy series like Civilization and Total War also leave me cold. In the case of Total War the reasons are at least clear enough. Empire covers a period of history that really doesn’t interest me much, and I found the ‘line up dudes into lines and wait while they shoot each other’ gameplay a bit on the simple side. Shogun seemed like a return to the glory days at first, but it’s just such a small game. There’s barely any units and all the factions are effectively identical. Then of course there’s a certain lack of attachment to it, having virtually no background knowledge in the machinations of feudal Japanese clans. Leading the mighty Chosokabe clan to victory just doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Civ 5, on the other hand, seems like it should be great but hasn’t been able to hold my interest very long. There’s definitely features in there that I don’t care for, but they don’t seem major enough to put me off the game by themselves. The reduced ability to optimize cities definitely does have some role to play; building the wealthiest or most productive city in the world was a major hook in the Civ 3 days. I also hate having land units turn into boats when they hit water; that just makes seas way too trivial of an obstacle. But surely that’s not enough to ruin the entire game, is it?

That naturally leaves us with the sad fate of the revered Age of Empires series: the cruel abomination known as Age of Empires Online. Okay, that might be a bit too harsh of an expression, but a healthy dose of scorn at this trend-wallowing, facebooky, freemium MMO-ification is definitely called for. Sure, the core game is essentially just AoE 2, which is a fine and safe way to go. The art style is heavily casual, but nonetheless pleasant to look at and pretty unique. No real complaints there. But the MMO frippery piled around this core doesn’t entirely work. It takes way too long to unlock a decent roster of units (meaning something akin to AoE 2), making the game feel awfully grindy as you slowly bash through one enemy camp after another with the same few unit types. This of course isn’t helped by the lack of enemy diversity, virtually nonexistent story, and the complete absence of any type of challenge, at least for the eight hours or so that I played it. But at least now all the casual players like three year olds and the mentally handicapped can feel like they’re winning all the time. Oh joy, what a wondrous gaming age we live in. Then of course there’s the afore-mentioned frippery: the endless stream of shiny gear you can put on your little warrior men. Admittedly, an interesting idea at first. In all honesty, I do like the idea of customizing and upgrading an army, considerably more so than doing the same with a single character. This is after all something that has barely been explored in games, and I do still like strategy games, at least in theory. AoEO’s approach might be a bit too much of a cut-and-paste hybrid, but still I think it deserves a few points for originality.

Execution though is another matter. The first problem is that the upgrades are too trivial to really notice, and seem terribly simplistic and arbitrary to boot. +5.1% damage output on one unit type is hard to get excited about. And these numbers just seem so strangely precise; some of the percent bonuses have two significant digits after the decimal. I’m not sure if this is evidence of highly tuned balancing or just an effort to make sure you won’t forget the whole thing’s just a shallow illusion built on meaningless numbers. And despite these upgrades resulting in a barely perceptible sense of power progression, they’re still enough to make fair matches with friends difficult to arrange. On top of that you have to level up for a while just to unlock the ability to even play multiplayer. Too bad for those who erroneously believe multiplayer to be the whole point of the genre.

Being the somewhat ill-considered, cut-and-paste job that it is, the game is riddled with muddled metaphors that make little sense. The crafting system is really the most glaring misfit of them all. You craft items out of planks and ingots like in any old MMO, but then those items are equipped on unit classes and mass-produced in battle using generic resources like wood and gold. It would all make much more sense if it were presented as developing new technology, but logic has very little place in this game. AoEO is not interested in finding new and clever ways to represent real world systems. This is simply an exercise in cutting successful pieces out of existing games and then nailing them together. A trendy Frankenstein concoction if ever there was one.

– Peace and better games

Posted in Game Critiques, Random Musings | 8 Comments »


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