Friday, May 25, 2018

Rest in Peace...

John "Totalbiscuit" Bain
1984 to 2018

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Videos About Games

Despite being a one man show
Angry Centaur Gaming is your
best bet for reviews these days
When I was little, trying to figure out what a video game was about could be a real challenge.  At an arcade it wasn't so bad because I liked to watch someone else play and, from them, get a feel for the gameplay.  Gaming at home though was a bit trickier.  Box art and (often, but not always) a couple of screenshots on the back gave would-be-players some idea of what to expect.  It wasn't much though, and getting to see actual footage was practically unheard-of.  There was a TV program called "Video Power" where I lived that would show some short clips, but it only aired for two seasons before getting cancelled.  So, what about the written word?  Well...bullet points and a paragraph of text tended to be less informative than one would hope for.  Magazine publications dedicated to gaming coverage back then were spotty and of even more dubious merit than modern day outlets.  Of course, you could rent games the same way you'd rent DVDs or (back then) VHS tapes.  However, that really only applied to the console scene.  If you happened to be like me and play a lot of computer games too then it was back to educated guesswork.  Now, here's where I want to say, that's all a thing of the past thanks to twitch streamers and video game channels on youtube.  Unfortunately, I can't genuinely speak those words because it's not entirely the case.  Sure, most of the problems I've mentioned above are pretty much gone now, but I also feel like the solutions have introduced a few new problems of their own.

One of the most blatant examples has to be "youtube bait," titles like Goat Simulator, I am Bread, or Surgeon Simulator.  They're all fun for a short time, but quickly start to suffer from shallow mechanics and poor controls.  A corollary to this are screaming-into-the-mic games such as Five Nights at Freddy's or Slender.  Their fast tension-building-and-release jumpscares tended to be a good way to attract a certain kind of fluid viewership, which in turn means raised awareness and ultimately higher sales figures...despite being pretty mediocre from a design perspective.  I doubt most of the aforementioned titles would have been commercial successes at all, if internet video content producers hadn't gobbled their gimmicks up so eagerly.

This ties into another problem - trend chasing.  I get that viewers are interested in whatever the new hot thing is, but if every youtuber and twitch streamer is playing the same game (or couple of games) then there's no benefit to be had here in terms of viewership.  Fortnight, PUBG, Rocket League and perhaps the originator of the me-too games coverage Minecraft, are all examples of games that got an oversaturation of coverage simply because they happened to be in-vogue at a particular moment in time.  I'm not saying watching or making videos about popular games in bad per-se.  I just think homogenization is antithetical to the whole point of having internet games coverage.  There are a few channels (such as Accursed Farms) that go out of their way to only really play older more obscure stuff, often carefully editing footage to not waste the viewers time.  Marshall Dyer is another, albeit somewhat different, example in that he tends to play lesser known indie titles...and even then only after any post-release hype around them has died down.

Don't be "Brad" at games
One might be tempted to say it's not really about the games, but rather the individual personalities of each and every streamer/youtuber.  There's a lot of truth to that statement, but it's also a deadly path to go down.  If an audience associates a certain kind of content from you then they'll get annoyed very quickly if it changes to anything different.  Case in point, Mangaminx had a lot of trouble transitioning herself to TheRPGminx.  Splattercat had a fair amount of difficulties too when tried to move away from survival games in an attempt to branch out to other genres.  It can also be frustrating in that I like Quill18, but most of the hardcore strategy games he's known for playing don't interest me.  I kind of want to see him spread his wings a bit more, but understand why he (and a lot of other content creators) don't.  Fanbases support, but they can be a limiting factor as well.  The real problem here though is youtubers and twitch streamers losing their passion for video games, and just going through the motions; covering particular games because it's what their audience expects of them.

I should wrap this up by saying that even though I use youtube and twitch as my primary examples, the problems I've mentioned aren't exclusive to those to sources of video games coverage.  Dedicated websites made up of supposed "professionals" can (and do) suffer from a disinterested staff, unwilling tackle the challenges of mastering the mechanics of whatever it is they decide to play.  Guys, you don't have to give up on your passions to be "successful" fact it's quite probably the opposite.     

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