Monday, May 14, 2018

The Technology of War

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was introduced to Battletech through the first Mechwarrior video game.  Soon after, I picked up the starter box set and a copy of the 3025 Technical Readout.  To me the setting was very evocative and I often found myself pouring over the capabilities and battle history of various mechs during long car trips.  In my mind, I always saw the setting as being practically post-apocalyptic with most inhabited worlds severely devastated (both ecologically and infrastructurally) by centuries of unrestricted interstellar warfare.  Built to last, battlemechs were artifacts of a long gone golden age that had managed to persist into the current timeline by virtue of their relatively simple, robust and yet still malleable design philosophy.  I pictured these warmachine being used to fight over basic necessities like hydroponics gardens on a barren moon, or the last working geothermal power plant on an entire continent.  As I recall even the base game came with a default map that gave the impression that the battlefield was centered around an oasis in the middle of a desert.  I also imagined the Successor States as extremely diffused political entities.  House Kurita and the Draconis Combine might model themselves after feudal Japan, but it must have been like the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, I thought.  The Free Worlds League was like the United States after the Declaration of  Independence, but before the war of 1812.  The Lyran Commonwealth could be like Prussia before Frederick the Great...and so on.  When I got around to actually reading some of the novels, I was a bit disappointed to find this wasn't the case.  Most of the characters feel very modern-day paramilitary with a surprising lack of emphasis on the fact that mechwarriors were basically space knights/samurai.  As I've said in the past, space feudalism might seem implausible at first glance, but when you're the guy that controls the jumpships and dropships then you control the connections between planets.  Maybe in the battletech universe people don't bother with obstificating titles like "first citizen" or "great leader" and instead cut to the case by calling the rich and powerful "lords" because they lord over everything of value.  It's true there's no divine right of kings going on here, but ComStar has a monopoly on the Hyperpulse Generator Network (essentially an FTL telegraph) and as such their prices don't come cheap.  So a privileged few control the flow of information, but their grip isn't perfect.  It's still possible to pass the word via interstellar courier (albeit slowly).  This situation with a social elite trying to control the message, but unable to become a true police state, is something the new Battletech video game nails perfectly.  Governments are decentralized enough that it's impossible to impose direct control, but communication is fast enough that it's possible to disseminate policy from a central authority (or in the case of the Inner Sphere, five major ones and a bunch of smaller ones).

Another area in which the new Battletech game excels is in the department of system mechanics.  Not only is it the first official game to fully utilize the ruleset from original tabletop wargame, but it manages to smooth out a lot of the rough edges as well.  Throughout my teenage years I tried numerous times to play a standard lance against lance engagement, but I was never able reach the conclusion do to the shear amount of dice rolling and result table consulting it required.  Say, for example, a player controlling one mech wants to launch a rack of six SRMs (Short Range Missiles) at an opposing mech.  First they have to check the range of SRMs to determine whether it's a short, medium or long range shot (or simply out of range).  Next, they have to check how far the target mech moved on its last turn.  They then have to apply additional modifiers such as the competence of the pilot and if they were walking, running or jumping while shooting, not to mention heat and sensor issues in addition to LoS (Line of Sight) complications such as smoke, trees, buildings or simply the lay of the land.  Once all this has been taken care of there's a roll-to-hit.  Assuming it's a success, there's another roll that needs to made to determine how many missiles in the rack strike home.  It was actually very easy to miss with an entire volly which makes me think they should really be called rockets and not missiles, but I digress...for the purposes of this example let's assume it's an average result of four hits.  Now, each of those hits needs a location roll, which are checked against one of four different tables depending on the target's facing in relation to the attacker.  Only now is the damage applied.  There can be even more rolls after this if any missiles do internal damage there's a crit chance followed by another roll to see which component is affected.  Then there's heat buildup to keep track of, plus possible piloting rolls to see if a mech ends up standing or lying prone on the ground.  As you can probably see all this dice rolling and table consulting takes time.  Factor in the reality that every mech has multiple weapon systems, compounded by there being multiple mechs in any given combat, and it's easy for the amount of time consumed to increase exponentially with each new warmachine added to the board.  Thankfully, the computer game handles all this number crunching for the player expeditiously enough that tasks normally taking minutes are reduced to seconds.  Skirmishes that would typically take an entire day to resolve can now be handled in under an hour.

These quality-of-life improvements aren't all though, the humble machine gun has received some basic rules tweaks to make it actually useful.  The same goes for autocannons, which are a lot more enticing now that energy weapons have had their heat and damage values balance adjusted a bit.  Missiles also behave like they actually have some kind of guidance system built into them which is nice.  However, I find myself wishing for an updated version of the anti-missile system to counterbalance players who lean too heavily on the mechs-as-walking-missile-platforms strategy.

Harebrained Schemes' Battletech has a robust selection of mech types as well as variants and customization options.  Still, there are a few more designs I find myself hoping they'll add eventually such as the Raven, Javelin, and Cyclops.  Then there is the Annihilator, the only other type of 100 ton mech to canonically exist in the Inner Sphere.  Although, if you ask me, its design is more battleship than battlemech.  Other than that, some more combined arms stuff like VTOLs and river gunboats might be cool.  Aerospace fighters, while probably too complex to implement in their entirety, could still be used to vary mission dynamics by making the occasional battlefield strafing/bombing run.

One last thing, I want to mention is all the little nods this game has to older Battletech properties.  I got a kick out of seeing the training simulators on-board the Argo (they look just like the machines used at Virtual World Entertainment Centers).  The "power business suits" worn by independent merc contractors (complete with padded shoulders and brightly colored fabrics) are a nice reference to the 1980s influences on the visual style of Battletech.  My favorite call back though, has to be the display readouts on in-game monitors.  Whenever the player goes to check on their battlemechs or mechwarriors, direct copies of the record sheets used in the tabletop wargame and RPG can clearly be seen in the background.  Great stuff!


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

There and Back Again: A Battletech Tale

When a lot of people think back on their Battletech video game experiences (assuming they have any) they're probably reminded of MechAssault for the original Xbox, or maybe even  as far back as Mechwarrior II on the PC.  For me though, the story begins with the first Mechwarrior designed to work with the DOS operating systems.  After that I did some backtracking to The Crescent Hawk's Inception.  The first Battletech video game was, in fact, a 1988 SRPG wherein the player takes the role of Jason Youngblood, a mech pilot who, as far as gameplay is concerned, spends a lot more time outside battlemechs than in them.  The actual mechanics are fairly similar to the wargame and it's tabletop RPG expansion.  However, typical for the time in which it was released, Crescent Hawk's Inception does a poor job of introducing the player to the setting.  What a vibroblade or gyrojet gun?  SRM?  AC?  PPC?  What do all these acronyms stand for?  Better look through the instructions manual.  Ultimately I never finished the game because of a rather difficult combat section involving Jason getting into a fight outside of his mech...hmmm...thinking back on it, that might be a lesson in humility that all mechwarriors should take to heart.

The sequel, Crescent Hawk's Revenge, was a very different kind of game.  Instead of the player directly controlling one character, and by extension a single mech, the player was instead given overall command of multiple mechs.  Unlike the newest entry in the franchise, the player had little say-so as to what each mech did beyond designating targets.  Even the weapon loadout of each mech was abstracted into general levels of firepower at short, medium and long ranges.  The storyline was actually kind of interesting, but the hands-off approach made it difficult to enjoy the battles despite nearly being an RTS in terms of gameplay mechanics.

Between the two Crescent Hawk games there was also another game released, a pseudo-sim called Mechwarrior that put the player in the cockpit of one of these towering warmachines.  Aside from the first-person viewpoint, Mechwarrior was also innovative in that it allowed the player to take a much more open-world approach.  It was, in fact, possible to ignore the storyline entirely and simply travel the Inner Sphere as a mercenary.  The game always started with the player only having a lone Jenner to their name.  After slowly accumulating C-bills (money) though from mission payments and a cut of the salvage (paid in cash) the player could expand out their roster.  One way I used to speed up the early game was to take a base defense mission against a lone enemy mech (the bigger the better).  I'd waive the standard payment in lieu of a larger cut of the salvage.  Then, during the mission, I'd hide out near where I knew the enemy mech would have to pass through to get to my base.  Right after the mech would go by me I'd come out on its tail and blast a leg off.  In the original Mechwarrior losing just one leg meant that the mech was out of action.  No risk and hundreds of thousands of C-bills in salvage.  What's there to complain about?  Well...there were only eight mech types available in the game; Locusts, Jenners, Phoenix Hawks, Shadow Hawks, Marauders, Riflemen, Warhammers, and Battlemasters.  Sadly, there were no variants or customization options either.  Maximum team size was a standard lance of four mechs.  The player would have to buy and maintain each machine along with having to hire pilots for each of them.  Usually the first real landmark would be getting a buddy in a Locust to help you in missions, but eventually your team would expand and upgrade to the ultimate goal of a Battlemaster quartet.

It would be six years before a sequel was released.  Mechwarrior II had the same kind of in-cockpit combat as the original, but the gun-for-hire trappings were ditched in favor of being part of the Clans.  I've never been a fan of these eugenics obsessed, over-gunned mech driving, totem animal tribalist invaders from beyond the Inner Sphere.  That said, the game did have a nice variety of pre-determined missions in addition to a killer soundtrack.  It also allowed full mech customization which, in turn, led to me creating some hilarious designs.  I had a Mad Dog armed with nothing but two-dozen machine guns, as well as a Timber Wolf with so many PPCs it would blow up if I did an alpha strike due to overheating.  The only other Battletech video game I really played was Mechwarrior 3, although I can't say it made much of an impression on me since the only two things I remember about it were fighting the Clans and getting aid from a trio of support vehicles that could patch-up and rearm the player's mech while in the field.

Obviously there are many more Battletech games that I haven't even mentioned yet; the isometric one for the Sega Genesis (that has a spiritual sequel of sorts in the form of Brigador).  Then there is the proper RTS title MechCommander and of course, more recently, Mechwarrior Online.  One other noteworthy is Megamek, a free fan-made piece of software that basically acts as an emulator for the the tabletop wargame.  While incredibly cool, I could never get into it due to the simplistic presentation.

So which game is my favorite (curious readers of the this blog might ask)?  Actually, it's the Kickstarter version by Harebrained Studios.  In some ways it feels like the history of Battletech video games has come full circle.  We're now back where it all started though not entirely...I will get into the new game in the next post I make, but for the time being I'll simply say this - Like its predecessors, it's a game about 31st century combat, but it has a decidedly 21st century design aesthetic.         

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Making your own Fun

Waypoint did a recent podcast wherein they discussed games that were fun, but not for the reasons that the developer(s) perhaps intended.  I'm sure we're all familiar with speedruns, but there's also challenges involving self-imposed handicaps like only using the starting cutter weapon in Dead Space or going with the thief class in Dark Souls 3.  A couple of person examples I want to share here go back a couple of decades.

If you're a long time reader of this blog then it's no secret that I'm a big fan of Joust.  I played it a bit in arcades, but mostly with friends on my Atari 2600.  We had a code of chivalry that we devised involving things like not picking up eggs unless we earned them in a tilt, as well as rules of conduct should one player's ostrich knight strike down another player's.  There was even a flashy move we came up with called the "dagger drop."  The way it worked was by holding down the button on the controller the player could lock their ostrich mount's wings in the downward position, which gave the overall silhouette the appearance of having a jagged point protruding from the belly.  The idea was to then free fall in this position down onto one of the enemy knights.  Obviously pulling this move off was a bit tricky, but we attempted it all the time anyway for bragging rights.  After all...what is chivalry without an unhealthy dose of pride?

Fast forward to the 16-bit era SNES and you'd find myself and another friend of mine spending an exorbitant amount of time playing one particular level in Super Mario World.  It was "Star World 4," if memory serves me correctly, a stage that gifted the player with a baby red Yoshi pretty much from the start.  The thing my friend and I were trying to do was use a cape-wearing Mario to run up, grab the red Yoshi right as it hatched out of its egg, then fly with it in hand up into the night sky.  From there the goal was to drop the baby Yoshi like an aircraft bomb on a group of Koopas down below.  You see...the thing is if a baby Yoshi eats five Koopas (or actually just their shells) it becomes an adult.  So my friend and I were trying over and over for days to drop the baby Yoshi just right so it could eat five Koopas in a single bombing run.  This rather silly task was aided by the fact that we could run back to the start of the level and pick up a freshly re-spawned baby should the previous one "accidentally" go off a ledge.  Pretty cruel stuff when I think back on it, but then again poor Yoshi was the victim of a lot of animal rights abuses back in the SNES days.

Stunt Race FX was, as the title indicates, one of those late SNES era FX-chip games that could render crude polygonal shapes in three-dimensional space.  In this case the shapes were a mixture of race tracks and motor vehicles.  The player had four rides to choose from; a monster truck, a coupe, a formula one race car, and a motorcycle.  One of the tracks had a section to it that was a bit like a water slide with a downward spiraling corkscrew shape to it.  I got the idea in my head that I could take a shortcut  here by flying off the track and dropping down to a lower section.  It wasn't an easy thing to do, because I needed the right speed and angel to pull it off.  After a lot of trial and error involving me going off the map entirely, I managed to land the jump only to have my motorcycle break apart on impact.  I tried the same thing with the race car and coupe only to end up with the same basic problem, neither couldn't withstand the force of impact on landing.  In a mixture of frustration and desperation I turned to the only remaining vehicle - the monster truck.  It was the toughest of the four, but also the most sluggish.  Getting it to build up enough momentum to make the jump turned out to be a major challenge, requiring a long approach followed by a sharp turn just before going off the edge.  Eventually I got it to work, although even the monster truck lost the majority of its health on touchdown.  In the end I deemed the shortcut too dangerous to take in a serious race.  All the same, I'm still glad to this day that I could ultimately pull a real stunt in Stunt Race FX

Monday, April 30, 2018

Making a Better 4X (Part 4 - Final)

Continuing where we left off...

Leaders in 4X games tend to bring some much needed faces to a genre that is traditionally dominated by numbers and objects.  However, when it comes to actual gameplay it's rare for these special characters to be anything more than a mild stat boost.  In the case of planetary administrators, each individual could have a personality to go with those production buffs running the gambit from Winston Churchill to...well...his predecessor Neville Chamberlain.  A die-hard planetary governor might never give up the cause even when an enemy fleet hangs menacingly in the skies overhead, but others might have more practical or even opportunistic outlooks.  Perhaps they could be persuaded with a big enough carrot or stick...or both.  Threats and bribes aside, another possibility could be what I like to think of as the "Lando Calrissian" scenario, a local leader who remains loyal in secret, providing information or aid through backchannels to their empire of origin (possibly because the conquerors aren't holding up their side of the prearranged bargain).

Espionage is  a tough thing to make interesting in a 4X.  All too often it's a pointless aside that adds yet another layer of unwanted micro-management.  When you think about it though the primary purpose of a spy network is to provide information.  Sabotage, theft, assassinations and instigating uprisings might be what players say they want, but knowing what a rival empire is up to or (better yet) planning to do is far more valuable on a regular basis than risky black ops.  Rather than taking the Stellaris approach of having to construct a colossal deep-space sensor array you'd think it would be far more practical to go the Galactic Civilizations III route of establish web of paid low profile informants scattered throughout the stars.  Of course this ties into diplomacy as well.  Knowing the disposition of other empires can be very useful when negotiating.  If nothing else it should be the reason why those intel tooltips popup regarding disposition and relative strengths.  A lack of espionage options aside, Stellaris generally has the widest range of options with guarantees of independence, mutual defensive pacts, vassalization, as well as federations with member or associate status.  That said, I feel like there needs to be more...not in terms of annoying busy work like establishing embassies or constantly renewing expired agreements, but rather the option to engage in more aggressive deal making.  It would be nice if the player could present more coercion (gunboat diplomacy) in their negotiations or incentivisation.  As is, most 4X games are too constrained in the diplomacy department to even present AI empires with proper ultimatums.

End Game:
It's a design conceit of 4X games that the player take on the role of a semi-omnipotent being, guiding the destiny of their species as it branches out amongst the stars.  Since dying of old age isn't a possibility, how do 4X games ultimately end?  In some cases it's when the player gets bored and decides to move onto other things.  Not a very satisfying way to wrap up an epic space opera story, so what's needed is some exciting victory conditions.  In Spaceward Ho! the utter extermination of all opposition is the only way to win.  Other 4X games include this option, but (for the sake of variety) offer up other paths to victory.  The most robust 4X in this regard is Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars.  Aside from the the aforementioned domination victory there are five other win conditions; Technological (ascend to higher realm of existence), Economic (hold a majority stake in the galactic stock market, Diplomatic (get elected leader of the galactic council), Heroic (defeat the universally reviled Antares in their dimensional-pocket lair, or simply have the highest overall score after a set number of turns.  It's a bit "board gamey," but does provide the player with a lot of viable approaches.  Stellaris, on the other hand, embraces a more simulation school of design with an end game crysis (which can have several different flavors) serving as the climax.  I can't claim one approach is inherently better than the other, but I do find myself drawn toward 4X games that aspire to be more than just spreadsheets and maps.  Random events, character backstories, independent traders and fleet tenders going about their merry way...these are the little artistic flourishes that make the setting come to life.  Even static images and artwork can inject a degree of vibrance that might otherwise be missing.  By the same token I understand why voice acting is best kept to a minimum.  It can cost a pretty penny, and that's money that might be better spent elsewhere.  Even so there's something to be said for 4X games that have style.  I'm not a fan of the year 2000 version of Reach for the Stars, but I have to admit it has one sleek looking interface.  There are certain aspects of Master of Orion 2 I do not care for, but that music sure sets the mood.  Even the third entry in the series (for all it's faults) does have an ominous, if not engrossing lecture on the nature of dominance.  I don't think the ideal 4X needs to be hard sci-fi, but if paying lip service to science leads to new and exciting gameplay why wouldn't you do it?

When you get down to it, the best sci-fi tends to be a combination of two things; scientific concepts spun out in a compelling directions and interesting characters that the audience can identify with.  Space 4X games tend to be hit or miss with that first part, but it's with the second that they really tend to drop the ball.  I get that trying to create an interesting cast in a procedurally generated game is a tall order, but if someone could crack that nut, even if only partially, then they'd have something truly special on their hands.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Making a Better 4X (Part 3)

...and we're back.  On with the show!

Ship Design:
Most space 4X games provide default templates for the player to use, but in my own limited experience designing ships and baptizing them in the crucible of war is a big part of the fun.  That said, constantly needed to update blueprints everytime a new piece of technology becomes available can get a bit tedious.  This is especially true in that it tends to come down to a fairly straight forward process, "what's the role of the ship?" after which the question becomes "how do I optimize the numbers?"  For combat vessels the process really boils down to attack, defense and mobility.  Each of these categories can be divided into three sub-components.  Attacking in space is a matter of deploying energy weapons, kinetic weapons, and guided weapons.  If you prefer World War 2 analogues then think of energy weapons being a bit like flak, kinetic weapons like guns and torpedoes, while guided ordinance is along the lines of aircraft.  If you've ever played the hyper-realistic tactical space combat game Children of a Dead Earth then it becomes readily apparent that none of these weapon types is unequivocally superior to the rest.  Defensive schemes employing the right mix of armor, shields and countermeasures have the capacity to neutralize pretty much any form of attack.  Mobility can be thought of as a culmination of three important factors as well - engines, delta-v and sustainability.  With regards to those first two points, current chemical rocket motors provide plenty of thrust, but at a poor fuel economy.  Meanwhile, electromagnetic plasma drives produce less power, but are able to get better gas mileage.  In a futuristic sci-fi setting the means of propulsion might be different, but I highly doubt the need to balance between these two conflicting concerns will simply go away.  Third in the mix is sustainability, or more specifically, the reliability of the various components that make up the spacecraft.  This also includes the crew, who need food, fresh water, oxygen and radiation shielding.  It's a lot to keep track of, but in reality most of these factors can be pushed into the background.  The important takeaway here is ship design as a triangle-shaped graph with each corner corresponding to the maximum possible emphasis that can be given to either offense, defense or mobility.  By breaking down ships in this manner it becomes easy for the player to make informed decisions regarding what aspects of a particular design they want to stress.  Looking for a raider or scout?  Choose an intersection near the mobility corner.  Want an escort or picket ship?  Lean toward defense.  Planning to make an all-out assault on a well fortified enemy starsystem?  Best set your sights on the offense point of the triangle.  Obviously more subtle variations can be made by selecting an area between two of the three points.  Alternatively combined fleets (a mixture of ship designs) can create some interesting dynamics as well.  More on that it the next section.

War and Peace:
Now we come to the final "X" - eXterminate.  In pretty much every space 4X this is done through violent interstellar conflicts.  Going back to FTL Gates, I like the idea of having multiple entry and exit points to each star system, as well as new routes which open up over the course of the game.  By doing this it's possible to launch raids through previously inaccessible nodes or probing attacks by sending strike forces through several different nodes at once.  Another option is a multi-pronged attack on a single star system in an attempt to overwhelm whatever garrison happens to be there.  Defense is still an option, but it requires planning in depth and a willingness to scuttle FTL Gates that are at risk of being captured by the enemy.  The dreaded "death stack" problem of players concentrating all their forces into a single massive fleet can be avoided easily enough by simply limiting the amount of ships that can traverse a Gate at one time before a cooldown period for the Gate is needed.  So rather than feeding forces piecemeal through a single point it's far more advantageous to have multiple fleets operating separately.  When two opposing fleets meet, it's a bit like jousting in that the time in which they are within weapons range of each other is exceedingly short (do to relativistic speeds).  Chances are this holds true even when both forces are in orbit around the same planet.  For this reason, I think a somewhat abstracted combat system is the best approach.  When you get down to it the 2D battlefields used in most 4X games feel a bit silly considering space is three dimensional.  That said, a turn-based system wherein the opposing fleets are abstractedly represented on either side of the screen would work well provided the player is allowed a degree of input such as setting formations and prioritizing targets.  Whether or not the two fleets take additional passes at each other depends on which side has the advantage in terms of overall mobility.  This can also lead to some interesting tactical decisions such as ditching slower ships so the faster ones can escape, or partitioning off a pursuit force made up of fast vessels should an opponent's hit'n'run attempt go sour.

Moving on, let's say that the player has achieved space superiority around an enemy colony.  In most 4X games there's really only two ways to go from here, orbital bombardment or planetary invasion.  Both tend to be very dull affairs and usually involve siege-like tactics mixed with systematic destruction.  The way I see it though, a player in this sort of situation should really have three options.  First, they could knock out any connections the colony has with space, essentially making it a non-contributor to the war effort.  Second, they can devastate the planet from orbit (an act that will likely upset empathetic being everywhere).  Third, the player could enter negotiations with the colonists for the surrender of the planet.  When you get down to it being a colonist in an interstellar empire is a bit like being a peasant in medieval fiefdom - the lord of the land may change, but what's expected of you will most likely remain the same.  As for invasion...it's a logistical impossibility for anything bigger than an asteroid base or miniscule outpost.  One thing the original Master of Orion got kind of right was the number of troops needed for full-scale planetary conquest.  Typically the armies were measure in the tens (if not hundreds) of millions.  The lack of large-scale ground combat might sound like a turn off to some traditional 4X fans, but I think this unorthodox approach has some interesting gameplay mechanics baked in.

Next time I'll continue this section on War and Peace by going into detail on leaders, diplomacy and espionage...