Friday, September 27, 2013

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

I recently did a little snooping around the Moby Games database and was surprised to discover that there really aren't any video games that embrace the theme of ancient naval battles.  Oar driven war galleys bent on ramming, boarding or bombarding each other doesn't appear to have been a central mechanic outside of titles like the Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War series.  There are a few board games that have been published over the years, but until Total War: Rome II nobody has bothered to tackle this particular slice of military history for quite awhile.  I find this a bit odd considering it was the primary form of naval warfare for well over a millennium and featured a considerable number of decisive engagements between a variety of different factions.  Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Carthaginians and even peoples beyond the Mediterranean (such as Vikings and Maori) employed war galleys.

The vessels themselves had a significant amount of variation in design.  Uniremes (or if you prefer monoremes), biremes and triremes featured single, double or triple deck arrangements of oars on each side.  Quadremes, Quinqueremes and Hexeremes retained the triple configuration, but added additional rowers at each oar.  Galleys were not at the mercy of the wind and currents.  Crews could maintain speeds of 7~8 knots all day with top speeds of 10 knots in short bursts.  It was possible to operate in as little as three feet deep water and they could turn much faster than any pre-industrial era ship of equivalent size.  Sails could also be unfurled for a top speed of 5~6 knots should the oarsmen need a rest. The combination of light weight and flat keel made it possible to beach a galley relatively quickly should the weather turn foul.  This form of dry land storage had the added advantage of keeping the hull free of worms, rot and seaweed.  Some galleys even had a lead coating below the waterline to prevent barnacles.

Rams were up to seven feet long and tipped with a bronze head with flanged sides meant to rend holes in moving targets.  Even a slow collision at a mere three to four knots was capable of punching through another ship's side at oblique angels.  Getting T-boned by a large vessel at full speed might very well have been a back breaking experience for both the struck ship and her crew.  Even a glancing blow might be deadly in that it could potentially shear the oars off should the crew not bring them in quick enough.  Thus, crippling the galley and leaving it at a severe disadvantage.  Ramming became such a popular tactic that special defensive formations were devised to force an aggressor to open himself up to counter-ramming.

Experienced rowers were valued for their strength and endurance, as well as being able to keep tempo for hours on end.  Generally speaking, war galleys only had about 30 inches of wiggle room between each oar so it was vital to maintain the rhythm of each stroke.  One advantage of having two or even three rowers per oar was the fact that more senior center most oarsmen could keep their less experienced juniors in sync.

Bigger wasn't always better though.  At the Battle of Actium smaller more maneuverable Roman war galleys were able to swarm larger Egyptian ships.  Boarding actions were where Rome excelled.  Grappling hooks, either thrown by hand or via a launcher called the "harpax", were the primary method getting up against, and on board, an enemy ship.  However, the Romans also used a device called a "corvus" (Latin for "crow") to play to their strengths.  Basically it was a spiked boarding ramp held vertical near the prow until it could be brought down on the deck of an opposing vessel.  While effect in several major naval engagements, it had the disadvantage of making Roman war galleys top heavy and easier to capsize.

Rather than getting up close and personal another viable tactic was to bombard from a distance.  Arrows and javelins worked well for this and sometimes were sent not from the ship's deck, but rather from light weight collapsible towers in order to get a height advantage over opposing vessels.  Incendiary weapons were used as well, though they usually took the form of flaming projectiles or pots of oil suspended on long poles.

So, with all this said what eventually brought an end to the era of war galleys.  In a word - economics.  Having large teams of hard working oarsmen meant also having to keep them well nourished and hydrated.  This, of course, greatly limited the maximum range a galley could travel before it need to resupply.  Hence, logistics were an especially big and ever present concern for navel commanders of that era.  Most galleys never left sight of land even when navigation techniques improved to the point that it was no longer necessary to hug the coastline.  The reason for this was the danger of sudden storms, not to mention the need for dry land so the crew could have a place to stretch out and sleep on at night.  In other words the age of war galleys came to an end when the drum beat changed from "catch and drive" to "quick and cheap."    

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Some Do's and Don'ts

Bacon gone bad
Before writing this blog entry I did a bit of reading with regards to other lists that people had written with a similar theme.  In all honesty what I read was not good.  I could think of far too many exceptions to the blanket demands that were presented in each article.  Overall it felt like the authors really just wanted to spout pet peeves rather than give advice on how to make games better for everyone.  So, with that in mind I'll try to choose six things (three "do's' and three "don'ts") that I think almost everyone can get behind.  Here we go.

Do have good camera placement in your third person game.  It saddens me to say this but a lot of my favorite games have had bad camera usability; Dark Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, Resident Evil and the list goes on.  It can be tolerable depending on the game (especially less action oriented titles), but for shooters or brawlers it's vital to have a camera that doesn't get bunched up or pointed in a useless direction...doubly so if the games has third person plaftormer.

Do have precise collision detection in your three dimensional environments. Emerson breaking clipping aside, all too often these days I see games trying to cover their sloppy melee combat with bright impact flashes and particle effects.  What I'd really like to see is more games with enemies that implement a dynamic hit reaction system similar to the one used in Red Dead Redemption.  An improved version of the injury texture modeling in Silent Hill: Homecoming would also be very welcome.

Do have responsive controls.  This one sounds like a no-brainer, but the reality is it still remains a persistent problem (especially for a lot of games on the Ouya).  You could blame it on hardware, but the remake of Mickey Mouse's Castle of Illusion and TMNT: Out of the Shadows are other recent examples (and they're for the PC, PS3 and Xbox360).  There's no excuse for this kind of problem which brings me to my "don'ts" list.

Don't release a full priced game that is full of bugs and needs numerous patches to get to a playable state.  If you want to release it as early access on Steam - great!  If you want to do some kind of limited beta test with your fan base - even better.  Just make sure to be honest with us gamers about what we're getting into.  This has been such a major problem the last few years, I almost never buy anything until it's gotten patched a couple times or at least given a relatively clean bill of health on various gaming forums.

Don't do day one paid DLC.  Just don't!  I get that in order to make DLC for games in a timely manner plans have to be made early on in the development process.  However, if that extra content is ready at launch then there's no valid excuse.  There just isn't.

Don't remove features in your sequel that were previously well received by fans.  Why does Total War: Rome II no longer have "guard" or "fire at will" commands?  Why no co-op play in Golden Axe: Beast Rider?  Why doesn't Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs have any inventory, sanity mechanic or oil lamp management anymore? Worst of all is unlockables and cheat codes being turned in to micro-transactions, but that's a topic for another time.

That's my list.  Nothing profound, but given the number of games that fall into these traps, I figured it worth mentioning.  Especially since next gen consoles are just around the corner.    

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Food for the Soul

Music is an invaluable asset for establishing the tone of a video game.  Often the melodies we hear set mood better than words or images.  As such it might come as a shock to younger readers that PC gaming didn't have fully integrated sound and music until the late 1990s.  Before then dedicated sound cards (much like 3D graphics cards) had to be purchased separately for most rigs.  I can still remember trying to fix an IRQ conflict with my first "Soundblaster" back in the not-so-good old days.  Regardless, I think it was well worth the money and effort simply because hearing those tunes improved the quality of so many gaming experiences.

Allow me to show you a few examples:

Right as the main menu comes up players of Rome: Total War are treated to this little melody.  Evoking images of huge battles, lost glories and heroes of old all faded in the mists of time, I still think it surpass any of the music found in any other Total War game (Even Rome II).  

Command and Conquer: Red Alert wasn't my favorite real time strategy series, but I have to admit that the opening credits song does a good job of making you feel like a badass leader.  Incidentally, I wonder where they got that audio clip of the officer shouting orders?  It sounds like something out of the first World War...

Persians in space would be one way to describe the music of Homeworld.  While the original is still my favorite, Homeworld: Cataclysm was a worthy successor if only for the terrifying foe you must face.  Forget Dead Space!  If you want a horror game set in a science fiction backdrop this is the game for you, but I digress.  Choosing one song is difficult since all of them are all so excellent.  For the sake of brevity though here's the track from the first level.

MechWarrior 2 could have gone with something generic and still gotten four out of five stars, but rather than settle for OK the composer opted to give the game a distinct vibe with tribal sounds.  It's quite a unique score (especially for the time) and actually has a large number of distinctly memorable tracks.  Here's one of the first you'll hear when you climb into the cockpit of a clan battlemech:

While supposedly inspired by the "Black Company" series of fantasy novels by Glen Cook, Myth: The Fallen Lords always felt to me like an answer to the question; what if Frodo and Sam failed in their task and Sauron was able to reclaim the One Ring?  That's the plot in a nutshell, and boy do they ever do a good job of capturing feelings of melancholy and desperation from the moment the game starts.  There's more to it though, under the sadness runs a current of hope, bravery and grim determination in the face of overwhelming odds.

Moving on to something a bit more light hearted, here's the main menu music for Saints Row: The Third.  Personally, I'm more of a Grand Theft Auto guy, but I have to admit this music is a great way to get players psyched up for what's to be found in this series.  A perfect blend of the coolness of rap mixed with the enthusiasm of rock, superbly represents what it's like being one of the Steel Port Saints.

This last entry is pure nostalgia so take it with a grain of salt.  The Space Quest theme predates dedicated sound cards so what your going to hear is a remastering of sorts.  Nevertheless, it still represents the original very well; complete with adventure, mystery, intrigue as well as an undercurrent of whimsy that makes this venerable collection of titles distinct.

I should conclude by saying that tastes in music are highly subjective.  So while you might not find my choices particularly agreeable, I imagine you will find they reflect a certain kind of preference when it comes to music in gaming.  Especially since it can be (and often is) one of the things we remember most after setting down the and mouse...?  Well, you know what I mean.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Ad Revenue Must Flow

Monetization is a tricky thing when it comes to video games; episodic content, micro transactions, paid DLC, crowd funding, early access programs, monthly subscription fees, and the list goes on.  Traditionally, all these methods have have there place in the game industry depending on the business model.  However, one big exception is used game sales, a three way battle between publishers, used game retailers and customers who just want to get the most bang for their gaming buck.

Nothing new here, but there is another conflict of interest which has been rearing its multi-lassoed head more and more of late.  It is, simply put, an amalgamation of Youtubers, "Lets Play" videos and commercials.  In this case though the situation is more complicated than used game sales in that the entire arrangement is based around advertisers making money off advertisements.  That last sentence probably threw you for a loop so let me explain a bit more.

People will record footage of themselves playing video games and upload it to Youtube.  By opting in to slap a short advertisement at the beginning of each uploaded video they are able to make a little money from ad revenue.  In return the video game creators essentially get free publicity in the form of "Lets Play," "Quick Look," or "Machinima" style videos.  Some Youtubers are so successful they can even make a living doing this sort of thing.  Although it requires a large viewership, prolific video uploads and advertisers with a budget to burn.

Added to the mix are people who watch the videos, but hate having to sit through commercials.  Thirty seconds might not sound bad, especially compared to the four minute and fifty second commercial breaks on regular television channels such as MTV, but I can personally attest that having to sit and stare at the exact same obnoxious clips over and over for stuff I don't want (or  need) can get annoying really fast.  Especially when the videos themselves are only a few minutes long.  Of course the solution for viewers is to use "AdBlock," a simple free little piece of completely legal software that not only silences those buy-our-crap videos, but also gets rid of pop-ups and banner ads too.

The downside to AdBlock is those hard working Youtubers are out of some earnings.  Some websites with content similar to Youtube will try to avoid this problem by offering a premium (paid) subscription model or else straight up ask for donations.  Then on the other side of the fence are companies like Nintendo, Sega, and Square-Enix who will block (or rather take) revenue earned by videos using footage from an arbitrarily select list of their games.

So, who's in the right here?  Everyone...and no one.  It's really a case of greed, selfishness and an archaic methodology hopelessly inadequate for the times we live in.  The result is there are no winners in the tug'o war, only losers.  There also needs to be some reasonable ground rules, but in order for that to happen everyone has to uniformly push for it.  Instead, each interest group is pulling there own way which ultimately benefits nobody.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

King of King's Quests

When it comes to books or movies, the first in a series is usually the best.  However, in the case of video games, this is the exception rather than the rule.  Hence, it probably will come as no shock to you when I say that the sixth installment in the King's Quest series is hands down the best of the bunch.  Now, before anyone objects, let me explain why.

King's Quest 6: Heir Today Gone Tomorrow represents a culmination of all the best aspects of the King's Quest games which had come before while simultaneously avoiding the mistakes of the later entries in the series.  Unlike any of the other numbered titles, six also has a strong narrative thread running through the entire game.  This is most likely due to the storyline being co-written by Jane Janson of Gabriel Knight fame.  Pretty much all of Sierra's "Quest" games were a collection of item driven puzzles with a few story elements tossed in here and there to motivate or reward players.  However, in the case of King's Quest 6 these twin pillars of "story" and "puzzles" are masterfully woven together such that each compliments the other.  Better still obstacles encountered throughout the game have multiple solutions which leads to diverging paths in the plot.  The game has several different (non-failure) endings as well as whole areas of the game which can be skipped (or missed) entirely.  As you can imagine this lends King's Quest 6 a significant degree of replayability, something  rarely heard of in a point-and-click adventure game.

Moving from macro to micro, the cast of characters and writing are great, painted backgrounds are beautifully rendered, and the game features full voice acting.  Despite being one of the first Sierra games to have voicework the quality is surprisingly competent.  Onscreen sprites are well animated thanks to a kind of rotoscoping technique based off real actor's performances (it's sort of like motion capture before the ball covered suits).  Character portraits are a bit of an oddity though in that there appears to be two version for each character, one for the disk based version of the game, and one for the CD-ROM version.  Even stranger is the fact that the disk based portraits looks slightly better, at least in terms of meshing with the rest of the game's art style.

Environments have a nice variety to them, thanks to there being six distinct landmasses for the player to visit.  Five of them are islands making up an archipelago simply known as "The Green Isles".  Each local has a distinct theme from the 1001 Arabian Nights "Isle of the Crown," to the "Isle of Wonder," whose inhabitants feel like they came straight through Alice's looking glass.  Meanwhile, the "Isle of the Sacred Mountain" has a somber feel which borrows heavily from Greek mythology.  Interesting tidbits of information about these places, as well as other setting material, come from the game's instruction manual.  Doubling as a form of copy protection, it contains an in-fiction chronicle penned by a nautical explorer who sojourned to the isles sometime in the not-too-distant past.  Despite spoiling a bit about The Green Isles for players, there is a careful balance between introducing the setting and retaining an air of mystery.  The "Isle of the Beast" and "Isle of Mists" are only discussed briefly, while the sixth (and by far the coolest) area in the game, "The Realm of the Dead" is only alluded to in a section of the chronicle about local funeral rites and customs.

The meat and potatoes of King's Quest 6 is still, of course, puzzle solving.  Thankfully this is one of the few "Quest" games I could finish without a hint guide.  Yahtzee, once said on his video series, Zero Punctuation, that Sierra games suffered from "fairly tale moon logic," but I'm more willing to give series creator Roberta Williams the benefit of the doubt.  Her games were not that obtuse provided you were well versed in classic fantasy literature and folktales.  Even the infamous "throw bridle at snake" puzzle solution from King's Quest 2 is a reference to myths about Medusa and Pegasus.  Regardless, the puzzles in King's Quest 6 are a lot more fun, and feature one of my favorite bits of gameplay first introduced in King's Quest 3, spell crafting and casting.

When it comes to other Sierra "Quest" games, it's very hard for me to choose which is the best from each particular series.  That said, I don't have any such reservations when it comes to the King's Quest collection.  Prince Alaxander's journey to find his lost love, Princess Cassima, is the high point of the series.  Outside of fan remakes, I would recommend this adventure game to curious newcomers and nostalgic veterans alike.  It's point-and-click adventure gaming from a golden era when the genre was at it's best.