Monday, April 27, 2015

Money for Mods

Digital distribution platforms are a great way to get games fast and cheap, but they aren't without their drawbacks.  Regional restrictions are my personal pet-peeve.  Another common complaint I hear is the lack of curation.  Piles of shovelware aside, Steam had a recent Greenlight game that was actually outright malware.  It got taken down fairly quickly, thanks to an attentive user community, but the fact remains that Valve takes a sizable cut out of every sale and in return fails to provide much in the way of quality control.

The Better Business Bureau awarded Steam an "F" grade due to a consistent pattern of complaints with regards to customer service issues.  While this is a bit of speculation on my part, the shear amount of deceptively advertised and poorly made games on Steam is going to lead to a lot of people feeling burned when it comes to Valve's refund policy.  Heck, I've picked up more than a few PC games over the years that had un-resolvable hardware incompatibility issues.

Regardless, the big new smudge on Steam's somewhat already tarnished record is the introduction of paid mods.  Traditionally free, Valve has decided to allow mod makers to sell their work on certain games at a nominal fee.  Normally I wouldn't have a problem with this except the person who puts in all the time and effort only gets 25 percent of the proceeds.  The rest winds up in Gabe Newell's pocket or else in the hands of the original game creator.  Now, I know that a few readers here are thinking that the popularity of Steam will ensure sales figures that far outweigh losses from the middleman.  Possibly...but here's the thing, there's a huge amount of overlap when it comes to the modding scene.  What's going to happen when a free mod comes out that does practically the same thing as a paid one?  Are we going to see copyright claims being filed when a mod uses third part assets?  Can Steam be trusted to be a fair and impartial arbiter of these kinds of issues?

I don't really see who this business strategy is supposed to benefit.  "We'll get better mods," is a phrase I've seen bandied about the internet, but I think it's equally likely that all we're going to see is a bunch of overpriced cosmetic garbage (or worse still unofficial patches).  It certainly doesn't benefit the people who make mods.  The best way to help them out wold be to have a Steam Workshop integrated (ideally royalty-free) tip jar.  I don't think Valve or even the original game creators benefit all that much either.  Ignoring the bad publicity that has been going around, games like Homeworld Remastered, Total War and Kerbal Space Program sell as well as they do in large part due to the consumer expectation that lots of free mods will become available for them, thus improving the value proposition of the game's original price tag.  Without that free-of-charge community support, long-term sales figures on highly moddable titles will probably take a substantial dive.  Most people, after all, only have so much money they can spend on games...or mods as the case may be.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Lions of Spain

When I first started to write this particular blog post my intent was to make it yet another entry in the reoccurring series, "It Should Have Been a Game."  The movie I was going to pick on was the 2006 Spanish film, "Alatriste" staring none other than Viggo Mortensen.  It had the second largest budget of any motion picture made in Spain at the time, and attempts to cover a long running series of novellas featuring the titular wounded war veteran turned sword-for-hire.  The problem is the books, known collectively as "the Adventures of Captain Alatriste," span years of history resulting in a disjointed narrative once compressed into a two hour film format.  Of course a video game adaptation of the property could decompress the story and more fully fleshed out characters.

This was what I intended to write about, but over the course of researching this little project of mine, I discovered that the setting is far richer than I initially assumed.  In video game terms think the best of Assassin's Creed 2 except without the need for elaborate conceits like Templar schemes, parkour assassins or a sci-fi animus.  Spain during its golden age had the Inquisition, numerous wars and every manner of courtly intrigue imaginable.  That, with just a little artistic indulgence, makes for an exciting time and place to be in itself.  Aside from naval combat during the age of sail, a topic I've already addressed extensively earlier this month, European land warfare had its own unique characteristics during the latter part of the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Often referred to as the age of "pike and shot," infantry were organized into closely knit blocks composed of a mixture of three soldier types.  First, there were the pikemen, who were the at the core, but could change formation quickly on command to a hollow square in which other troop types could take refuge.  When deployed as such, the long two-handed pikes would bristle outward creating a hedge of spikes to repulse enemy cavalry attacks.  Second were the musketeers, or harquebusiers, that stood in the wings and carried smooth-bore matchlock guns.  These soldiers gave the unit striking power at a distance and could be arrayed to unleash a single massive volley or alternatively a steady stream of gunfire depending on the desired configuration.  Lastly was a small, elite cadre of swordsmen tasked with guarding the banners.  In a pinch the could also be used for short range assaults, a tactic which proved to be effective at breaking pike-against-pike deadlocks.  It's important to note that this final group varied by nation.  In Spain they were "rodeleros" (or sword-and-buckler men), while in Germany they were "Doppelsöldners," strong men who got double pay and wielded two-handed swords called "Zweihänders."  Meanwhile the Swiss didn't use swordsmen at all, preferring instead to have halberdiers fill the role.

Regardless of the exact details, when these three types of troops worked in close collusion they were an incredibly resilient fighting force.  Units of a single type lacked their tactical flexibility, and even French heavy cavalry couldn't break them in a charge.  Artillery was still in its infancy and skirmishers such as pistoleers (horse riders bearing handguns) could at best hope only to harass the pike squares.  Even these specialists were at a a disadvantage because a swath of mounted riders presents a bigger target than compact infantry formations.  Cavalry still held an important role though, just not the dominate position on the battlefield.  Spain, in particular, excelled at this unusual form of infantry driven warfare by way of the "tercio," which in English means "third," as in "one of three."  Oddly enough the tercio wasn't named so in reference to the three types of soldiers it was made up of, but rather three tercios were needed to form a full brigade.  Ideally, each of the three tercios in a Spanish brigade could support each other which was oftentimes essential in order to compensate for their relative lack of mobility.

Getting back to video games, I think it would be cool to take the role of an alférez and command a tercio in battle.  At your side would be the alabardero and arcabucero (officers in charge of cold and hot steel respectively).  Tercios were made up of professional volunteers (sometimes pardoned criminals) and often nurtured by low ranking nobility called "hildagos."  In that sense the player could handle recruitment, equipping, training and management of his tercio.  A strong emphasis on retaining veterans meant experience and determination were extremely important, not to mention skill in combat.

There is a Steam game called none other than Pike and Shot based on this period of history, and while the A.I. is quite good the game is sorely lacking in presentation.  Worse yet, it's too detached to capture the uniqueness of the experience.  A game about this kind of thing has to let the player see the smoke and blood, feel the pride and passion, and hear the marching drums mixed with battle cries.  Otherwise it might as well remain a miniature war game.  At least then you have the amusing table banter.  Off the battlefield gameplay could consist of interludes, where the player gets wrapped up in intrigue in addition to acquiring allies and rivals.  Sword duels were common back then and could occur for all sorts of reasons.  Jilted love, drunken insults, outstanding gambling debts...the men of the tercios were obsessed with personal reputation and honor.  Unflinching bravery even in the face of almost certain injury or death was also considered a requirement of the job.  This all might sound ridiculous to the modern day reader, but remember we're talking 400 years ago...not to mention conflicts in places like Portugal, Italy and southern France.

I should end this by noting that Spain's golden age represents a country at the height of its power and decadence, not to mention wealth.  The "golden" part isn't a called so because of some sort of cultural enlightenment (although many great works of art were made then).  It's called such because huge amounts of wealth flowed from the new world into Spain, feeding corruption, decadence and petty violence at all levels of the social strata save the ever hardworking peasants at the bottom of what was a very top heavy empire.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Calabozo Mas Oscuro

The developers of Darkest Dungeon (Red Hook Studios) have gone on record saying that their game was heavily influenced by the 1908 surreal horror novel House on the Borderland.  The author, William Hope Hodgson, was an Englishman writing about fictional events taking place in a remote part of Ireland.  As such, Darkest Dungeon has a very northern European vibe to its locals and characters.  Now, there's nothing wrong with that in itself, but part of me wishes that southern European locations like Greece, Italy and Spain were more well represented.

Given the technology on display in the world of Darkest Dungeon it feels like it's set sometime in the sixteenth century, which was the "golden era" for the Spanish Empire.  Granted, what I'm getting at here is a pipe dream barring a major content update, full-on sequel or serious modding effort.  Still, I think it would be interesting to have a similarly accursed estate on the isle of Minorca which is part of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean.  Classes in particular could have a distinct look and feel, setting them apart from more generic fantasy IPs.  At the same time they wouldn't be entirely unfamiliar either.  Let's explore some possibilities, shall we?
  • Caballero, or "Knight" wears a buff coat, high boots, short cape and wide brimmed hat with a feather plume.  He sports a huge mustache and duel wields a Milanese side-sword plus "Vizcaina" (or parrying dagger).  Abilities include a lunging attack, bleed inducing cut, and twin slash similar to the brigand cut-throat.  Personality-wise these individuals tended to be short-tempered and overly proud.  
  • Matador, or "Bullfighter" has a flamboyant costume with gold trim and a red cape which he uses to draw agro.  He can also mark targets with barbed javelins called "réjons" and deliver a powerful deathblow with his estoc.  Stats-wise he should have high dodge and crit, but low HP.  He's also a real show-off, who shouts "olé!" to his teammates.    
  • Rodolero, or "Sword-and-Buckler-man" is outfitted with an open-faced helm and "coselete" (brestplate).  He holds a basket-hilt sword and small metal shield, which he uses for both attack and defense.  In other respects I imagine he's similar to the man-at arms class. 
  • Conquistador, or "Conqueror" is akin to the crusader in many respects.  He wears heavy armor and a full-faced Argonese helm.  Under stress he becomes outright masochistic.
  • Mochilero, or "Backpacker" is a stand-in for the merchant class.  Basically this youth increases the amount of gear which can be carried by the adventures, as well as having a useful set of camping abilities.  In a pinch though he does have poniard to use in combat.
  • Harquebuiser, or "Musketeer" carries a matchlock gun and stand, as well as a baldric with "The 12 Apostles" (rounds of ammunition) hanging off it.  He also has extra fuse cord tided bellow his knees. 
  • Hidalgo, or "Noble" without a landed title, is a delusional old man who wears a Toledo steel blade at his hip, a burgonet helm on his head and demi-lancer armor from the neck down.  His faithful "escudero" (squire) accompanies him wherever this Don Quixote goes.  Abilities are probably similar to the Houndmaster with all that entails...  
  • Inquisitor has a his classic red robes and sash.  In combat his abilities including zealous accusation, buffs, debuffs, and a powerful "auto-dé-fé" attack that does massive damage to any marked target (including allies!). 
  • Apothecary has spectacles and a jerkin with ruffled white collar.  His only weapon is a stiletto, but he has a variety of support abilities that can cure status ailments, restore lost HP and debuff enemies or blight them.  
  • Pistoleer, or "Reiter" if you prefer the German term, carries twin wheel-lock pistols that he can only use from the back two rows.  Moving back while firing is one option, shooting two adjacent targets at reduced accuracy is another.  A trick shot ability allows him to hit one random enemy with a small boost to damage.
  • Janissary is an elite soldier from the ottoman empire.  Armed with an iconic yatagan or kilij saber, these professionals also make use of two handed weapons such as flintlocks and halberds.  
  • Corsair, but of the Barbary coast rather than the Caribbean, attacks using scimitars or hand axes, in addition to firearms.  Other abilities tend to be similar to the grave robber, including a good chance of successful scouting and trap disarmament.
Having finished my brainstorming session, it occurs to me that none of the classes mentioned are female.  Perhaps I'm being a bit too historically accurate in that regard.  On the flip-side the Occultist and Leper work extremely well as is.  If you happen to be a Darkest Dungeon modder (or developer) feel free to steal, borrow, modify or the list of ideas above.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pull for Lucky Jack! (Part 2 of 2)

Regardless if it's a sloop, bark or galleon, all sailing ships have a lot of shared tactical considerations.  For one, every ship is vulnerable at the bow and especially the stern.  Only a small number of "chaser" guns can be mounted in fore and aft arcs meaning that the vast majority of a ship's firepower is concentrated in the flanks.  Compounding the lack of armament in the front and back, is the effect of "raking fire," shots that travel the length of the vessel potentially causing considerably more damage than if the shots bisect a much narrower section of the ship's profile.  Having the "weather gauge," i.e being upwind of an opponent, is usually advantageous in a number of ways ranging from holding the initiative to being more likely to pierce the target's hull below the waterline.  The reason for this being downwind vessels tend to tilt over a bit when turned perpendicular to a strong wind.  In extremely bad weather though the disadvantage might be on the windward ships because they lean so far over as to make it impossible to open the lower gun ports without sea water rushing in.

Naval gunnery was still in its infancy during this era and as such ship engagements tended to happen at extremely close ranges.  Technically most cannon were capable of sending a ball of iron out a thousand feet (300m) if not more.  However, due to "windage," gaps between the projectile and barrel, it was all but impossible to hit a target accurately or with enough punch left to be of any value unless the range were a fraction of that distance.  Rates of fire averaged out to about 2-3 volleys every five minutes, an eternity for FPS fans, but from gameplay standpoint I think it's fine since the long interludes between broadsides allow the player time to plan their next move.

Ammunition types also varied considerably.  Aside from cannonballs, chains or bars of spikes were used to damage rigging and sails.  Other than that "grape shot" was used to inflict harm on the crew while "fire arrows" could keep crews busy dumping buckets of water on anything combustible.  "Double shot," loading two balls in the gun at once, was sometimes employed as well since it essentially increased the weight of the broadside twice over.  Although it was really only viable at point-blank rages.  On rare occasions whatever happened to be on hand (referred to as "langrage") ended up getting loaded into cannons, effectively turning them into oversized blunderbusses.  Seaside fortresses, having the advantage of being predominantly made out of stone, could make use of "hot shot" by heating cannonballs glowing red before loading and firing them in the hopes that they would ignite flammable materials should they hit a wooden target.  Toward the very end of the age of sail explosive shells were introduced although this type of ammo could only be used in mortars found on land or in special "bomb ketch" ships.

Despite all the deadly weaponry brought against sailing ships and the men that inhabited them, sinking as the result of enemy fire was a fairly rare occurrence.  Wood, after all, is naturally buoyant and patching a hole in the hull quickly enough to prevent catastrophic flooding was well within the ability of a skilled ship's carpenter.  Because of this inherent resilience, and relatively safe placement of powder magazines, a much more common outcome was crippling caused by the destruction of masts or rudder control.  A warship that can't maneuver is like a soldier who has his hands and feet lashed together.  In such cases the only sensible course was "striking the colors" or more simply put - surrender.

A popular tactic for fast ships that were outgunned was to attempt a boarding action.  Pirates were especially keen on this since taking the opposing ship (and its cargo) for a prize was how they made a living.  While close quarters combat with cold steel was an essential part of capturing another ship, gunpowder weapons still held an important role.  Swivel mounted guns on the forecastle and poop deck were used to "sweep" the decks of enemies, sharpshooters would fire down from high above in the crow's nest, and primitive grenades could be used to gain a foothold on the enemy's decks.  Flintlock pistols tended to quite popular too since they neutralized threats quickly.  Long reload times meant that these single handed weapons tended to be one-shot affairs.  However, as a partial solution to this limitation, boarders could carry several loaded pistols with them.  The notorious English pirate captain "Blackbeard" was famously described as wearing a bandolier of "three brace" (six!) pistols in battle.

On modern gaming platforms it's possible to have realistic wind, water, smoke and fire effects.  Individual tracking for each gun could be used to calculating the effects of a broadside with unprecedented detail; right down to planks of wood, swaths of sail, lengths of rope and every single crewman (from the commanding officer down to the powder monkeys).  Granted all this might overwhelm even top of the line GPUs in large scale battles, particularly the physics engine in the event of catastrophic explosions like the one that destroyed the French flagship L'Orient during the Battle of the Nile.  When you get down to it though some of the most interesting engagements during the age of sail were one-on-one duels; Constitution versus Guerriere,  Drake versus Ranger, or if you prefer a fictional account HMS Surprise and the privateer Acheron.

So, overall there are a lot of layers to this onion, from the strategic decisions made by the admirals to the tactical ones made by individual sailors, game designers have a wealth of material available to them.  Some might look and cry that the time period is a huge knotted mess, but to me it's a wealth of opportunities as deep as the sea.  You just got to grab a piece of thread and go from there.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pull for Lucky Jack! (Part 1 of 2)

I've talked about the oar driven galleys of antiquity and the iron-hulled steam driven ships of the industrial age, but until now I haven't paid my respects to wood and sail.  That period of time from the late 16th century to the early 18th century where the oceans were fought over by broadsides and boarding parties, cutlasses and flintlocks, but most of all by tall ships and firm hearts.

Very few have tried to adapt this era in naval history to a video game, and of these few even less have had much success.  Part of the problem is the shear amount of nautical terminology, such that it's almost a language unto itself.  This barrier to entry is in partially the result of people spending large amounts of time in isolated floating communities wherein a distinctly separate subculture emerged complete with unique songs ("Yo ho, yo ho..."), superstitions ("Right foot first!"), and expressions ("Yar!").  In all seriousness though the only way to tackle this sea monster of design with any hope of success is by a two pronged approach, the macro and the micro.

Regarding the macro, I've heard it said that sailing is the art of getting nowhere in a hurry.  Unlike modern GPS linked propeller driven vessels, sailing ships depend on trade winds, sea currents, sun sighting, and the stars in the sky to navigate.  The fastest route was rarely the shortest, and the speeds at which these craft traveled would seem unbearably slow to modern day first world car driving, bike riding, plane flying sensibilities.  That said, time compression is always an option (heck, it works well for Kerbal Space Program) and a kind of strategic overlay would do wonders for comprehension.  From here players could make meaningful choices.  For example, shoals pose greater danger to larger ships with a deeper draft, but rough seas are more of a threat to smaller ones.  Frequent visits to port reduce the threat of malnutrition such as scurvy, but raises the danger of diseases like malaria.  It's a lot to take in, but the trick is to using broad strokes that capture enough to achieve verisimilitude without becoming overwhelming.

On a micro level there's even more to consider.  Any game set during the age of sail needs to have tactical gameplay.  Players need to be able to tour their ship, turn the wheel, and give the orders.  At the same time they need to know which thing does what.  Unlike modern classifications such as destroyer, cruiser and aircraft carrier, tall ships had less than easy-to-comprehend labels.  Sure, some terms like "brig" and "fluyt" are precise enough, but others like "man o'war" or "ship-of-the-line" are awfully vague.  Worse still are ship types like "cutter" and "yawl" which to my landlubber senses seem to be one in the same.

Further exacerbating the confusion is the fact that the ship cannons were also lacking when it comes standardization.  Rating a gun by the weight of its cannonball was one method used (typically 6 to 42 pounds), but the system was somewhat deceptive because the length of the barrel varied depending on the bronze casting.  Topping this all off, ships of this era didn't necessarily carry the number of guns they were made for.  A brig, for example, might be rated for 18 cannons, but it could carry more by placing them on the weather deck or quarter deck.  Then again it might carry less for better stability or simply because of insufficient crew to ready a full broadside.  Generally, it was up to individual captains to decide how to outfit their ship.  This all might sound discouraging from a design standpoint, but in my mind this situation allows for an incredible amount of player driven customization.

Rigging is similar in that on a fundamental level sailing ships tend to fall into one of two groups; "square" rig or "fore-and-aft" rig.  The former works best for traveling downwind while the latter allows for easier sailing upwind.  In practice though most ships used combinations of these two forms of rigging to various degrees.  Adding to this are "studding sails," essentially extra canvas fastened to the existing sail plan to get a bit more speed.  Put simply each sailing ship is uniquely different from the next from the figurehead on the bow all the way to the name on the stern.  The British Admiralty understood this and as such tried to stratify warships on a scale of first to sixth.  First rates had the heaviest broadside while sixth rates had the lightest, but still more than frigates.  In reality though having big ships with up to three decks of cannons wasn't a guarenteed way to dominate the seas.  The ocean is a big place and things like speed and seaworthiness are just as important as raw firepower.