Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fan Fiction

In general I don't read a lot of fan fiction.  Mostly because it tends to be found on the internet, which in turn means it has to be read on a computer screen.  For whatever reason I have a hard time devouring large amounts of text unless it's printed on good old fashion paper.

That said, I have enjoyed scanning through a number of entries in the LP Archive concerning video games like Dark Seed, the original X-COM, and Dwarf Fortress, as well as other little odds and ends found around the web.  By far my favorite piece of video game fanfic has to be Kleptomaniac: The Not-So-Bright Project, which is a rather hilarious retelling of the classic stealth FPS Thief: The Dark Project.  I've tried my hand at writing a few tales of my own.  The first I can remember penning was based on the old Lucas Arts game X-Wing.  Since I was a teenager at the time it actually predated Rogue Squadron by several years.  Other than that, I wrote about the obscure Mac game The Colony and Bunjie Studios' Marathon 2: Durandal.  More recently I've done some mission reports for Kerbal Space Program and now I'd like to share my latest outing; a sample of my Homeworld fanfic.  I must confess that I'm a big admirer of the Starfire-series by David Weber and Steve White, not to mention the Wing Commander novelizations (which I already discussed in detail here).  The setting for Homeworld is so rich it's very easy to project a far more detailed story than the one given in the actual game.  What I've done here is an attempt to be faithful to the original, but increase the scope and depth somewhat.  Since this is a bit long for a blog post I embedded the story below, just pick the button to view the whole text.  Hopefully it will be as fun for you to read as it was for me to write.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Random Number Generation

I might be in a minority when it comes to video game players who also grew up rolling a lot of dice in table-top games, but here goes.  In essence, I learned at a young age that probability is a cruel mistress, and "natural 20s" really only happen when you don't want them to.  Granted, the vagaries of dice mechanics have not really transitioned over to modern video games outside the rogue-like genre...until very recently.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown was the first big surge in chance-to-hit gameplay.  Since then it has been popping up in other games every once in a while.  Each time it does there comes a wave of complaints about how RNG screwed up the experience.  On some level I can sympathize.  I could never get into gambling simply because it's not much fun losing, and in order for casinos to exist they pretty much have to ensure that you lose (sooner or later).  Even so, video games can, and usually are, more generous.

The risk of failure is used as a tension building device which can be mitigated somewhat by careful planning and good tactics.  Sadly, there are times when lady luck turns her back on us, laying waste to even the best strategies.  Good games mitigate this with the opportunity to make a dramatic comeback.  However, I notice an alarming tendency for pessimism among certain segments of the video gaming populous.  When they're having a good streak it's what's expected, but when fortune turns foul then RNG has screwed them again (rather than the inevitable results of probability).

My inclination is to dismiss such individuals as ill-tempered teenagers, but the reality is this sort of disdain for chance is extremely prevalent among board gaming communities.  Statistics gathered from the database website board game geek strongly indicates that the community there dislikes games that utilize randomness in the mechanics.  It's a sentiment I can't really relate to since, to me, nothing is more boring/frustrating than knowing what the outcome is yet being powerless to change it.  If I were to play a competitive match of chess or "go" against a grand master, my defeat would be guaranteed.  On the other hand, if the game has an element of chance then the possibility exists for a different outcome even in the face of a vastly more skilled opponent.  That's perhaps overly optimistic way of looking at things, but lets face it; real life has a lot of RNG, and I don't want to hate life.

Then again...

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Beginning of the End

The Master System was Sega's first foray into the console market, but for me (and probably a lot of other people) the Genesis was my first exposure to Sega and 16-bit gaming.  In truth, I would never call the Genesis, or Mega Drive (as it is sometimes called), the pinnacle of design.  Rather, from a technical standpoint the Dreamcast was probably Sega's best piece of hardware.  Having said that, I feel the old adage about a console only being as good as its games really applies here.  Sega has an uncanny ability to ruin its franchises, often within the time frame of a single sequel.  Check out the history of Altered Beast or Valkyria Chronicles for some great examples.  However, during the Genesis era most of Sega's works were fresh and vibrant.

Allow me to begin jogging your memory with the names of classic brawlers like Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, JRPGs such as Phantasy Star 2, 3 and 4, tactical RPGs like Shining Force, puzzle games such as Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, RTS precursors like Populous, Powermonger, Herzog Zwei, and Dune II: Battle for Arrakis, hardcore sci-fi side-scrollers such as Another World (or alternatively Out of this World) and Flashback: Quest for Identity.  There were all kinds of great platform driven action/adventure games like Strider, Shinobi, Rolling Thunder, Rocket Knight Adventures (that's one awesome possum!), Kid Chameleon, and Earthworm Jim, as well as genuinely fun kid-friendly Disney licensed games represented by QuackShot and Castle of Illusion Staring Mickey Mouse.  Conversely, there was no shortage of brutally challenging games; The Immortal, Target Earth, Ghouls and Ghosts, not to mention the top-down/side-scrolling shooter hybrid Thunder Force.  I, for one, was very glad I never played any of those last four in a quarter-gobbling arcade.  No shortage on the sports front either with the NBA, NHL and NFL licences all held by Sega.  Then, there were also a number of non-traditional sports titles like Road Rash, Mutant League, and Pig Skin (basically football played circa 621 A.D.).

Additionally, the Genesis library had some unique curiosities that defy easy genre classification.  Some noteworthy titles include Gain Ground, Alien Storm, Sword of Sodan, Bimini Run, Dick Tracy and the iconic duo Toe Jam and Earl.  Even horror games got some coverage in the form of Splatter House 2 and 3.  Realistic military combat sims, normally confined to PC market, dipped their toes into Sega's proverbial play pool in the form of M-1 Abrams Battle Tank, and F-22 Interceptor.  Of course fighting games were well represented with Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2, but there were also some excellent titles of lesser renown such as the prehistoric dinosaur duels in Primal Rage or the dismemberment obsessed, time-traveling "what if...?" versus scenarios of Time Killers.  Underwater games your thing?  No problem!  From the comical James Pond to the somber Ecco the Dolphin, Sega had it covered.  They even made a rogue-like by the name of Fatal Labyrinth.  There were ports of arcade classics such as PAC-MAN and Paperboy, as well as early computer classics like Prince of Persia and Sid Meyer's Pirtaes!  Pretty much every major 90s entertainment property found its way to the Genesis; Jurassic Park, The Lion King, X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker and some bizarre crossovers like Battletoads and Double Dragon.  Even a few pseudo 3D titles were made in the form of Space Harrier and Super Thunder Blade.  I could go on, but I think I've more than made my point.  Sega was on top.

More than two decades later though look at what Sega has become, a broken shell of a company deriving barely enough sustenance to sustain itself off pachinko machines and the efforts of subsidiary companies.  Its franchises have long since been run into the ground and Sega's mascot, Sonic, currently has about as much dignity as a comatose quadruple amputee on life support.  The future business strategy of Sega is to layoff hundreds of employees while shifting focus further and further toward the mobile and online space.  So long Sega...it was great during your Genesis days, but now I think the Apocalypse has come for you at last.                                                      

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Money, Money, and More Money

This particular blog entry might sound a bit like a lesson in economics, but bear with me.  I want to explain what, in the game industry, separates the artisans and craftsmen from the con artist and snake oil salesman.  To start with lets break down the sources of video game revenue into three basic categories; content, perks, and resources.

The first is the least offensive of the bunch from a consumer perspective.  Simply put you pay for the thing and then you get the thing.  More purchases might be possible later on because new content has been added in the form of DLC, expansion packs, or direct sequels.  Generally speaking though people don't have a problem with this arrangement so long as the additional content doesn't give the impression that the game is being chopped up and sold piecemeal (day-one DLC or pre-order bonus exclusives are prime examples of the abhorrent side of this practice).  Compare that to indie games like FTL: Advanced Edition or Teleglitch: Die More Edition, which have major updates free of charge despite not being in early access, and it's easy to see why some people might get upset at big publishers.

The second category, perks, is much more of a mixed bag.  Purely cosmetic stuff is fine, but video game developers have an annoying habit of locking powerful/useful items and abilities behind a pay wall.  In a single player experience this isn't necessarily a problem (although it can be...more on that in a second), but in the case of multiplayer this tends to turn into a pay-to-win situation.  More frustrating still is the fact that freebie games like Card Hunter deliberately have difficulty spikes or large amounts of grinding which, in essence, ruins gameplay for the sake of a perceived short term boost in digital sales revenue.  Ironically, purchasing in-game perks can sometimes go in the opposite extreme, make the game uninteresting because it becomes too easy due to an overpowered player.

The third category is by far the worst offender.  At least with the aforementioned content and perks categories there are theoretical limits to how much one can spend.  However, resource driven models of revenue tend to encourage repurchasing the same in-game "currency" for real world money over and over again.  It's a system designed to prey on "whales," a euphemism for fools and the rich.  No matter how one slices it the practice is disgusting (both metaphorically and literally).  Problems with perks and resources have become so endemic in mobile games that the Apple has begun to segregate pay-once-to-play games into a special section of their online app store for customers who have grown sick and tired of micro-transactions.  For me it's a welcoming trend that needs to be more wide spread.

While I'm on the topic, there really should be a condition of service imposed by Kickstarter that forbids developers from using backer money to make micro-transaction spin-offs to what was originally pitched as content based game.  We've seen this bait-and-switch once with the Banner Saga: Factions, and again with the tablet version of Godus.  In both cases the only thing these side projects did was sap time and money away from the development of the main game.  Neither attempt was particularly profitable from a business standpoint either.  It's an unfortunate regression in the game industry that Stoic Studios managed to overcome by delivering on their promised product.  Sadly, it remains to be seen if 22Cans will weather the storm of their own making.