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The blog is dead, long live the new blog
Feb 26th, 2012 by AlexWeldon

I’ve completely overhauled my website. I’m in the process of adding content to the new version, but this old blog is now officially dead (although it has been effectively dead for quite some time). Since the new website is completely powered by WordPress and Disqus, there’s no specific “blog” page – everything on the site basically amounts to five separate categories of the same blog. Just go to www.benefactum.ca and start reading, or subscribe to the feed to be updated whenever anything is added.

Thoughts on Tepiiku
Oct 14th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

My game Tepiiku did unexpectedly well when I released it last year, and I just had a comment on my blog yesterday from a fan who said he wished I’d make a post about making it. Meanwhile, I’ve just released my next game, Oliver & the Basilisks, and though it’s much more polished, it didn’t do as well as Tepiiku. Taking all that into account, it seems worth it to go back and look at the design elements that make Tepiiku work.

Like most of my games, Tepiiku was inspired by a desire to take certain aspects of other games I like, roll them into one, and throw in a bit of my own personal style. In the case of Tepiiku, the games I was looking to for inspiration were a popular dice game I know of as “Nada,” though it also goes by other names, and no-limit poker.

Nada, and other similar games, focus on an “improve-or-bust” mechanic, where the player can keep rerolling dice in an effort to improve his score, but at the risk of losing all progress on the current turn if the score does not improve. In Nada, the goal is just to score as many points as possible, rolling 1s (worth 100), 5s (worth 50), or three-of-a-kind (worth 100x the number, except triple 1s, which are 1000). There are more sophisticated games in the same family, such as Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop. This mechanic provides a nice ramping-up of tension within each turn, along with progressively harder decisions.

What this reminded me of, in a strange way, was the escalating pot of a no-limit poker game, where a decision early in a hand might only involve two or three dollars, while one at the end of the hand might involve two or three hundred, depending on how the hand plays out. Again, the tension increases, as does the complexity of the decision-making as the hand plays out: As community cards are drawn (assuming this is Hold’Em we’re talking about), the number of possibilities increases, while the betting done earlier in the hand has given the players more information about each others’ hands.

The reason that the pot escalates so much in no-limit poker has to do with odds, and the so-called “dead money” already in the pot. A $10 bet may be more than enough to provoke a fold if there is only $5 in the pot at the time, but the same bet in a $100 pot will almost never do so against a reasonable opponent, because one needs to win the hand only 10% of the time for a call of $10 into $100 to be profitable. Thus, the rule of thumb is that most bets in no-limit poker should be between 1/3 and the full size of the current pot, usually around 2/3. This ensures that the decision for the opponent will be a significant one.

Given that bet sizes are proportional to the pot, the pot then grows exponentially with each bet, producing the same sort of ramping up of stakes and tension as the improve-or-bust mechanic in the Nada family of games.

Tepiiku was born from the idea of combining these two concepts into a single game, producing a sort of double-whammy of escalating stakes and double-or-nothing risk-taking. And indeed, once the pot has grown to a certain size, decisions to re-roll do become nail-bitingly difficult. To my knowledge, no one has ever tried playing Tepiiku for real money, but I can imagine that critical rolls in large pots would have the same emotional impact as all-in situations in no-limit poker, albeit with the strategy rooted more in statistics than psychology.

An interesting side-effect of Tepiiku’s rules is the fact that the intuitively worst position to be in – that of the Fish – is often the best, especially early in the round. Although the Fish is the only player who risks immediate loss, she is also the only player with any control over the round. She can get out cheaply, or she can try to improve to the Hook position… but most importantly, she can attempt to play the odds to control the pot size before doing so.

For example, if the current Hook has a hard-to-improve set of dice, including many Gems and/or non-negated Fires or Waters, the Fish may not wish to jump into the lead right away; if she shoots for the middle position, then the former middle will now be the Fish, and will probably re-roll, putting the original Fish at the bottom once more. If she then rerolls again and now becomes the Hook, the former Hook is likely to be at the bottom, while the pot has grown eight times as large. Even if she loses some small pots by rerolling more than necessary, she still turns a profit in the long run by ensuring that when she wins, she wins big.

The six faces of the dice were also not chosen arbitrarily, but rather to enhance these essential qualities of the game. Ingots and Gems, simply worth one and two, are obvious; the sort of baseline by which other rolls are judged. The Fire and Water mechanic is meant to enhance the contrast of weak-but-flexible vs. strong-but-committed; ending up with several Waters (and no Fires) in a big pot, as the Hook is good… but starting off with non-negated Fire or Water seriously impedes the player’s ability to re-roll, as having it negated means an almost-certain Bust.

The Skull, meanwhile, is the opposite. Though rolling one late in the round often spells doom, a starting roll with several Skulls is actually extremely powerful, as they can be re-rolled with relative safety – even one at a time, if the player wishes to build the pot a little before doubling it.

Finally, the People are there to reflect and enhance the exponential growth theme of the game. A starting roll with one or two People will tend to have a low score, but great potential for improvement. Each successive Person added increases the score exponentially, but also reduces the pool of re-rollable dice (as the player will never want to reroll his People), and thus lowers the chances of getting the next one. Getting five (or six!) People will produce an almost-unbeatable score, but getting there requires a lot of luck!

The trickiest rule in the game to get right was what to do when players tie. On the initial roll, it’s easy – the situation is symmetric, so both players just have to re-roll. But during the main part of the round, it’s different. There were many possibilities to consider: Do you allow the tie to stand, and if so, whose score is considered higher, the one who got it first, or the one who rolled the tie? If it doesn’t stand, who re-rolls, or do both players re-roll? Is it a “safe” re-roll, or can the player Bust? One die, all dice, or whatever dice the player wants? What’s the effect on the pot? Do you double it, halve it, increase it by one, or leave it alone?

Having both re-roll seems to upset the balance too much. Forcing the Fish to re-roll again, while busting him if he doesn’t improve seems unfairly punitive, while giving him a safe re-roll seems overly kind. The original rule was that the Fish was given a re-roll, and Busted only if his score came up less than his original score (before the tie). However, since this score was no longer shown on screen, players found it confusing.

In the end, it proved impossible to find a solution that satisfied all the playtesters, but I felt the rule that made it into the final game was the most fair to all players, and the most consistent with the rest of the rules. The other player (not the Fish) is forced to re-roll, but it’s a safe re-roll. This means it could be either good or bad, depending on the situation – anything situational adds to the tactical interest of the game, so that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, the pot doubles, because a change of player order is likely… but only on the first tie, not if the re-roll results in a new tie; this is to prevent two players from ganging up and re-rolling so as to try to repeatedly tie one another in order to produce an impossibly huge pot when the third player is in a bad situation or has a big chip lead. Also, to prevent it from being a way for a player to deliberately get into a pot much bigger than her remaining stack of chips.

Tepiiku certainly has its flaws; for instance, I’ve never been happy with the fact that Fire is almost never a good symbol to have showing, whereas the others are all more context-dependent. Also, a lot of players complain about the fact that you can’t re-roll when you don’t have enough chips to pay double; this is an inherent problem with gambling games when the players don’t have an infinite supply of money, however. Even the way no-limit poker deals with it, using “table stakes,” is a little clumsy; multi-way all-ins with different sizes of chip stacks and multiple side pots can get confusing, and break the elegance of the game.

Overall, though, I think it’s a charming little game, and the response from the Flash community was much better than I expected; I may even attempt another dice game at some point in the future.

Games are art, but they’re not movies
Aug 30th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

The article Games Minus Stories = ? over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun struck a chord with me. I felt that my comment on it, with some rewording, was an important enough point that it merited a blog post, so here it is:

The article is itself a response to yet another writer’s claim that “If games want to be taken seriously as art or a worthwhile storytelling medium, there will have to be more games that aren’t simple diversions.” In Games MInus Stories, Jim Rossignol challenges the basic assumption here, namely that the artfulness of games lies in their capacity as a storytelling medium. I’d go even further, though, and say that games need to move away from the idea of narrative in order to mature as an art form.

Today’s games seem to have an inferiority complex and try to emulate movies, as the latter are already accepted as legitimate art. When I see people pointing to the most movie-like games as evidence for games-as-art, I feel like they don’t believe themselves that games are art, because they’re choosing examples that remind us of another medium more than they remind us of games.

What makes a game a game is the way it plays, and any game designer can tell you that making a fun game requires creativity, cultivated instincts, flashes of inspiration and lots of hard work and experience, just like painting, or writing a screenplay. Limiting our discussion of games as art to the narratives is like going to the art gallery and describing only the subjects of the paintings and sculptures, rather than the pieces themselves.

“Yeah, it was totally art. One painting was of some sunflowers, and there was another of a man and a woman in front of a farmhouse, with the man holding a pitchfork. And then there was this sculpture of a guy sitting with his chin on his fist. There wasn’t an orc or a space marine anywhere.”

Visual art outgrew its obsession with representation a long time ago. Then it outgrew its obsession with being non-representational, and now it’s in a relatively mature state where artists can be representational or non-representational as they see fit, and the subject of a piece, when there is one, is only one detail out of many aspects of the piece to be discussed and appreciated. The fact that the mainstream games industry is still struggling for more and more movie-like plots indicates its immaturity. At least the indie scene is starting to dabble in abstraction and symbolism, albeit heavy-handedly.

When you’re trying to create “art,” then inevitably you’re trying to imitate some other thing that you consider art… but imitation is not art, so these efforts will always fail. Just create the best game you can, and it will be art, regardless of whether it’s at the Tetris or Heavy Rain end of the scale.

MMOs and the potential for real choices
May 11th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

While working on a much larger piece about subversive game design, a thought occurred to me that I felt didn’t quite fit in to that argument, but that’s worth its own blog post.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about adding ethical dilemmas to games. Many games endeavor to do so, but the results are almost always disappointing. Non-linearity and branching plots are a constant problem in game design; for games with a story, such as RPGs, it’s important for the player to feel like his character is a real part of the game world, and that his actions have consequences. However, since standard game design techniques require everything to be planned out and scripted at least to some extent by the designer, any decision allowed to the player that has real consequences, results in a multiplication of effort on the part of the developer.

Thus, most games handle ethical choices in one of two ways – in the first version, the game world itself diverges only briefly from the core storyline, so that in the long run, the player’s actions do not really have consequences (except perhaps on the player herself, such as gaining different skills depending on whether she decides to be “good” or “evil”). In the second, the consequences of decisions are deferred until the ending of the game, whereupon the player is given a different final challenge and/or victory cut-scene depending on her choices.

Both of these design strategies lead to very shallow, heavy-handed A or B choices with predictable and/or trivial consequences. As a result, rather than teaching the player anything about real-world ethics, these games only help perpetuate the childish notion that morality is generally self-evident. Furthermore, since the consequences tend to be immediate, obvious and reversible, players are not really encouraged to think carefully about these decisions before making them.

It seems to me, though, that there is an interesting game design opportunity presented by the popularity of MMOs. In MMOs, new content is added on a regular basis – additionally, old content is sometimes, though more rarely, phased out or modified, usually for reasons of balance. Here, then, is a real opportunity to periodically present players with opportunities to make real choices, and make the consequences of those choices both significant and permanent; perhaps not on the individual level, since it would be impossible to customize an add-on for each individual user’s decisions, but rather in the aggregate. If each add-on features one or more quests that each have multiple possible resolutions, then the developer could consider the proportion of players choosing each option when deciding what to do in the next add-on.

As an example, imagine there is a quest involving three conflicting parties; an iron-fisted King, a tribe of orcish barbarians in the mountains, and a rebel Duke. The King has stolen a religious artifact from the orcs in order to harness its power to put down the Duke’s rebellion. As a result, the orcs have been raiding villages, looking for their artifact.

Players might choose to “solve” the quest by going into the mountains and killing the leader of the orcs, or they might instead break into the king’s castle to steal back the artifact and return it to the orcs, thus convincing them to stop their attacks.

If the majority of the players choose to kill the orcish leader, the next expansion might have the orc area removed (as they have fled), and martial law instituted in the cities, as the King has put down the rebellion. Meanwhile, the Duke has fled into the forest with his men, and continues the fight as a band of outlaws. There is a new “outlaw camp” area, and a new “brigand” player class. The next quest might involve the abduction of the princess by the outlaws, or some such thing.

If the majority choose to return the artifact to the orcs, then the Duke’s rebellion is a success, and an uneasy peace is made with the orcs. The orcs in the mountains are no longer automatically hostile to players, and their stronghold has shops available to the players. Orc becomes a player-character race, and orcish citizens begin to be seen in the human cities. On the downside, racial tensions ensue, and a new prison opens up (a new area to explore), where many of the prisoners are orcs, who tend to get themselves in trouble due to their short tempers and the hostility of some humans towards them. Perhaps the quest for this add-on involves a prison riot or jailbreak.

In this way, because only the branch chosen needs to be created by the developers, players’ choices can have realistic consequences – realistic in the sense that they are both permanent and not completely foreseeable by the players. Once the players have collectively chosen which option they prefer, the game world will change based on that choice. Several years and many choices later, the mood of the game may have changed dramatically, and players would only be able to speculate what their game might look like if they had, for instance, opted to help the humans’ lumbering operation instead of siding with the elves in protecting their forest.

It’s not a perfect solution, as the players who make the less popular choice will find themselves in a future they are not responsible for… but many real-world decisions, such as voting, and environmental responsibility have their effects felt in the aggregate, rather than on an individual basis. Indeed, if an MMO were to implement such a system, we might even see player-vs.-player conflict resulting, as players who have already made their choice might attempt to influence others, either through argument, or physical means, such as coming to the defense of the orcish leader. It’s impossible to know how well it would work without trying it, but I think it would be an interesting experiment, at least.

Neptune’s Pride – Some Strategy Tips
Feb 5th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

As stated in the review yesterday, I’ve only played one game of Neptune’s Pride, and it was a free one. However, in the two weeks or so that it took to play, I learned a thing or two. I ended up winning, but in some ways, I was just lucky… however, I think, based on my observations that first game, I might know how to duplicate that luck in the future.

United we Stand

This may be obvious to players of Diplomacy and other, similar games, but in Neptune’s Pride, the most valuable asset is not money, tech, stars or ships, but allies. Except for giving a small advantage to the defender, combat essentially boils down to a straightforward numerical comparison of forces, and more so as the game goes on, and tech levels go up, and fleet sizes get larger.

Thus, if you’re fighting someone who’s about on equal footing with you, it doesn’t matter that much who has the better strategy – either a few stars will get picked off and you’ll call a truce, or more likely, you’ll both lose most of your ships in the conflict, and someone more powerful will swoop in to claim both your stars.

On the other hand, if two players gang up on one, they will both still have enough ships left to defend themselves from others once the dust settles.

And so, the game is a lot like reality shows like Survivor, where the best players tend to form coalitions, and pick everyone else off one by one. There is also a more subtle power struggle within the alliance, of course – whoever reaps the greatest spoils while sacrificing the least for his allies will win the game in the end… unless he overdoes it and his former friends decide he’s no longer on their side. You can worry about this later in the game, though; the important point is that if you’re not in a strong alliance early on, you have no hope of beating those who are.

More generally, we can say that the ultimate goal of this game is to be a member of the larger side in any conflict.

The Neighbour of my Neighbour is my Friend

So, given that allies are of the utmost importance, one’s choice of allies is clearly going to be a big decision early in the game. Like most people in my game, I started off by contacting everyone adjacent to me, and trying to negotiate border agreements. Although there’s nothing wrong with this as a stopgap measure until you’re ready for war, it’s clearly not going to work in the long term – in order to win the game, you need to expand, and you can’t do this while remaining at peace with everyone you share a border with.

Rather, if we go back to what we said in the first section, the objective is to be on the larger side of any conflict. Thus, the most appealing target for you is going to be a player who shares borders with multiple other players, and your best allies are going to be those other players. Best of all is if these other players do not initially share a border with you themselves – then you have an opportunity to cooperate with them against a common enemy, and no reason, nor possibility, for one of you to betray the other, at least until the “sandwiched” player is dealt with, and you and your friend meet in the middle.

The Dangers of Exponential Growth

What this game shares with other 4X titles, like Civilization, is the idea of “booming,” or exponential growth. You collect money each turn, and can invest it in a variety of things, including Economy upgrades, which earn you more money. Theoretically, if left alone, a player who started off investing only in Economy would eventually be able to outpace everyone else in the galaxy. This, however, is a risky path.

The main problem is that ships are not purchased directly. Rather, the best the player can do is upgrade his stars’ Industry, which in turn affects the rate at which they produce ships. This means that Economy has a second-derivative effect on fleet strength – Economy affects rate of income, which affects not the rate of fleet growth, but rather, the rate of Industry development, which in turn determines the rate of fleet growth. What that means is that, while a strong Economy can have an even greater long-term impact on fleet strength than if ships were purchased directly, in the short term, there’s a great deal of inertia in switching from economic development to ship production.

In my first game, I noticed from early on that I was WAY behind most of the other players in Economy (and Science), but ahead in Industry, and thus way ahead in fleet strength. I knew this would put me behind in the long run, so I had to strike quickly… so strike I did, capturing, in the process, many desirable stars, and pillaging their economies. I could also make up for my Science deficit by capturing other players’ Science stars, and by trading military support for technologies researched by others.

That’s the problem with going all-out for economy and neglecting your fleet early on. It makes you both a very dangerous long-term threat, and a very appealing short-term target. Put this together with the principle I arrived at in the first section, above, and you’ll see why this doesn’t work – your objective is to make sure people want to work with you, not against you.

Thus, investing in Industry early on means that the risk involved in attacking you will outweigh the rewards, and people will be more likely to want to work with you than against you. Investing too much in Economy has the opposite effect, unless you have neighbours willing to trade fleets for cash.

Needless to say, this isn’t a suggestion that one should only purchase Industry upgrades – a balancing act is required. It’s merely an observation that at least six out of the eight people in my first game invested much too heavily in either Science or Economy early on, and neglected to defend themselves adequately. I imagine this is a bad habit developed over years of playing against comparatively “nice” AIs, rather than brutal human opponents.

Built like a Walnut

The most obvious way of choosing where to develop is to decide what you’re investing in that turn, and use the “Find Cheapest E/I/S” button, but this isn’t generally going to be correct. Stars with a lot of Economy are appealing targets, due to the immediate cash bonus of capturing one. Science, even more so, as it’s so expensive to purchase. Thus, if you develop the Economy and Science of stars in scanning range of your neighbours, you’ll need to keep them heavily guarded in order not to make yourself too succulent. This means you’ll have fewer ships available for your conquests elsewhere.

Rather, you should think of your territory as a walnut. Keep the delicious part inside, and a hard shell outside. Build up industry around your borders, and find high-resource stars that are as far away from everyone else as possible, in order to build your Economy and Science there. This will be more expensive than spreading everything out, but better in the long-run.

That said, buying one level of economy in a system with decent resources costs less than $20, and will pay itself off in 48 hours if you can hold it that long. So, it is worth spreading your economy out a little, especially since it doesn’t matter to you where the money comes from, as it all ends up in the same place.

By contrast, there’s a strong incentive to concentrate most of your Industry in a few systems, or clusters of nearby systems. When waging war, you’re going to want to pick up ships from systems far from the battle zone and transport them into combat. The fewer stops your carriers have to make in order to achieve “critical mass” (be that 30 ships, 60, 100, or whatever, depending on the stage of the game) and become useful combat tools, the faster they’ll be ready to join the fray. Eventually, you’ll have a sort of “bucket brigade” system going, with depleted fleets returning from the front to fill up at your Industrial centres, while others are already on their way out. If you plan your Industry well enough, and are responsible in sending your fleets only into battles they can win, you’ll be able to make do with far fewer Super Carriers than your opponents. Although they only cost $25 a pop, that’s usually enough for an Economy or Industry upgrade somewhere, so making do with fewer, rather than more, will help inch you ahead.

No System Undefended

A common mistake I observed in my first game was players only leaving ships in developed systems. Small, resource-poor stars may not be appealing to develop, but they can serve as entry-points to your sector of the galaxy; having claimed them, an opponent will have a much better view of where your forces are located, and a convenient staging ground to launch fleets deeper into your space, where – if you’re employing the walnut strategy – you won’t be adequately defended.

Leaving one ship behind in each system you visit is an excellent policy. The cost is minimal, even early in the game, and the difference is substantial – although it won’t stop an enemy fleet from taking such systems, they will lose W+1 ships every time they do (where W is your Weapons tech level), while you only lose the single ship. Since war in Neptune’s Pride is a straight-up numerical comparison, this is a trade you want to make all day and night, equivalent to sacrificing pawns for bishops or rooks in chess.

I’ll be the Bait, You be the Trap

As the saying goes, the best offense is a strong defense. Fleets get a pretty substantial advantage on the defense, so destroying someone else’s 100-ship fleet might cost you 120 of your own if you attack, but only 80 if you trick them into blundering into a huge fleet of your own.

This leads to one possible exception to the above “Walnut Rule.” If you’re not sure if you can trust a given neighbour, try building a Science upgrade in a lightly-defended system within his scanning range, especially if you can see a large fleet of his stationed nearby. In the meantime, move a larger fleet of your own to a system just behind the “bait” system, outside of his scanning range (be sure to check the Player Browser, as his scanning tech may not be the same as yours).

To make the bait even more appealing, you can tell him that you’re starting a war with a player at the other end of your territory, and let him see you jumping some fleets away in that direction. He’ll assume that you’re committing your forces over there and the time is ripe for a sneak attack.

Just make sure that your “trap” is close enough, and your Speed technology good enough, that you’ll be able to get it into the “bait” system before his attacking fleet gets there.

Once the trap is sprung and his fleet annihilated, there will probably be several poorly-defended systems for you to snap up in its wake, since he will have collected ships from them for his attack. Best of all, and especially if anyone else was in range to see what happened, you’ll be able to point the finger at your new enemy as the one who violated the border treaty, and come out looking like the good guy.

The Right Tech for the Job

Not all technologies are of equal value at all stages of the game. People tend to rush for Weapons early on, because the game is, after all, about fighting. However, there’s generally quite a bit of build-up before the fighting gets going. Rather, Speed is probably the most important tech at the very beginning, in order to expand your borders as quickly as possible. Scanning is also more valuable than most players seem to believe, as it allows you to claim the best stars, rather than wasting time jumping blindly to distant stars, only to discover that they’re barren.

After a couple of Speed upgrades, Range becomes important as well. However, unlike the other techs, which continue to be useful no matter how high you get them, Range seems to peter out around level 4 or 5 in most galaxies. You need to get those first few upgrades early on, in order to be the first to reach remote star clusters that are out of other players’ grap… but other than that, its only advantage is in allowing you to plot a straighter line between distant points, and a high enough Speed tech can easily compensate for a slightly more crooked path with more waypoints.

Scanning and Speed are also very valuable in battle, as they allow you to see where your opponent is going, and get there first. This goes with the point above about baiting your opponent into blundering into a strong defensive fleet.

Of course, choosing which technologies to research is greatly dependent on your allies, and ideally, you’ll be trading with enough people that you can get a little of everything – nonetheless, my feeling is that, all other things being equal, it’s good to focus on Speed and Scanning early on, and trade for the others. Partly, this is because they’re so useful, but also because they seem to be researched less often (especially Scanning) by other players, so you’re more likely to be able to trade them. Perhaps, as people gain more experience, Speed and Scanning will become more commonplace, and researching something like Range from the get-go will be the way to get something of value. Time will tell.


That’s all I have to say for now, but it’s already a longer piece than I’d meant to write. As I said in the review, it’s a surprisingly deep game for such simple mechanics. Please feel free to comment and discuss your own findings, and I’ll include them if I write a follow-up after my second game.

Web Game Review – Neptune’s Pride
Feb 5th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: Minimal Sound: Minimal Originality: 9/10 Overall: 8/10

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Play at: http://np.ironhelmet.com

Neptune’s Pride is a multiplayer, real-time strategy game with the emphases on “real,” and “strategy,” and a heavy dose of diplomacy. Whereas Starcraft and its ilk unfold at a breakneck pace and stress reaction time and memorization of effective development sequences, Neptune’s Pride is slow-paced, maddeningly so… and that’s what makes it brilliant.

Starting from a small number of stars and a handful of ships, the players seek to expand their territory and vie for dominance of the galaxy. This is not remotely original. What makes it special is that space travel is slow, as it’s meant to be. Of course, your fleets, even with starting technology, still travel at physically impossible speeds, measured in light years per day. But compared to most so-called “real time” games, where events happen on the scale of seconds, sending your fleet to a “nearby” star and seeing an ETA of 8, or 12, or 14 hours is a very different feeling.

The graphics and sound are extremely minimal, too, just simple dots to represent stars, chevrons for fleets, and lines for plotted trajectories. There is a pretty nebula in the background, but that can be turned off for those seeking the ultimate in stripped-down experiences.

You’d expect that a game paced so slowly would take advantage of the added time to allow players to do more of the fussy micro-management that characterizes many other “4X” (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) strategy games, but in fact, Neptune’s Pride goes completely to the other end of the spectrum. Most of the time, there’s really very little to be done except wait.

If one has the cash, stars can be upgraded in terms of Economy (cash production), Industry (ship production) or Science (technology production). However, cash is only paid out once every 24 hours, and one is generally wise to invest most of it as soon as possible. Fleets can be moved around, but as stated earlier, they take hours or days to arrive at their destination, and cannot be redirected in mid-trip. Moreover, waypoints can be set, so that one can plan a multi-leg journey in advance, and let the fleet plod along on its own. Finally, one can switch one’s area of technological research; the four options are Weapons, Range (that is, the distance that one’s ships can travel in a single jump), Speed and Scanning. That is all there is to it – three stats per star, one per fleet (number of ships is all that matters), and four kinds of technology.

Despite all this, for the entire course of my first game, I found myself compulsively logging in about once every two hours. And, in fact, I came to the conclusion that doing so was instrumental in my victory. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, one’s visibility is limited to a certain distance from one’s occupied stars, as determined by one’s level of Scanning technology. Especially in the early middle game, when players’ expanding borders first make contact with each other, it’s critical to take a look around frequently, to see if any potential enemy ships have entered scanning range.

Secondly, and more importantly, Neptune’s Pride is a game of communication and diplomacy. Battles are a straightforward numerical comparison, with no luck involved and the advantage going to the defender. Thus, it’s very difficult to make headway in a one-on-one confrontation. Rather, the game places an emphasis on strategic alliances, persuasion, sharing of information and, of course, betrayal. Although a single fleet may take half a day to make a single jump to an adjacent star, the ramifications of that jump may involve several players, and may necessitate several exchanges of in-game messages in order to avoid (or instigate) a war. Thus, the players who log in most frequently have the most opportunity to communicate with one another, and therefore have an advantage compared to players who plan their movements for the coming day and then don’t log in for another 24 hours.

Someone over at RPS mentioned Neptune’s Pride in passing, in an article about another game. He brought it up as part of a list of games that he says he wishes the gaming media were giving more coverage. I found it funny, because I’d been thinking for a while about making a blog post about it, but I know exactly why it’s not covered very much.

The reason why I was waiting, and the reason few people have written about Neptune’s Pride, is that any respectable journalist wants to give a game a fair shake before writing anything about it. For a multiplayer game, that implies playing at least one full game… but in the case of Neptune’s Pride, that can take a week or more. That’s a big time commitment for a game reviewer who has new titles showing up for review on a daily basis.

So, now, I’ve finished (and won, I’m proud to say) my first game of Neptune’s Pride, and I think I can now assess it fairly.

First of all, and most importantly, it’s a fun game. From beginning to end, there will be plenty of tense moments, watching your fleets inch their way across the void, worrying about whether a larger enemy fleet is hovering just beyond the range of one’s scanners, negotiating for much-needed support from a neighbour of dubious character…

Also important, from my point of view, it’s a good example of minimalism in game design, as I discussed in my post Density, not Volume. I can think of a few flourishes that probably wouldn’t hurt the game, but I definitely can’t think of anything else that could be taken away. The mechanics of the game take only minutes to grasp fully, but have pretty deep implications.

One thing that’s sorely lacking is email alerts. The game reminds you once per day that it’s still going on, and that you’ve had your daily paycheque come in and should log in to spend it… but other than that, you simply have to log in to see what’s going on. Having an option to turn on alerts for e.g. new ships coming into scanning range, battles being fought, etc. would help immensely, especially for those who work 9-5 jobs and can’t be logging in constantly.

Another addition I’d like to see is some sort of numerical player ranking, similar to an ELO rating in chess. Aside from pleasing those with competitive natures, like myself, it would serve the important function of keeping losing players in the game – if finishing in 6th place resulted in less loss of rating than finishing 8th, players with no hope of taking 1st would be given an incentive to keep struggling, and looking for alliances with stronger players. As it is, my experience in my game was that only one losing player kept going until the end – everyone else, once crippled, either simply stopped playing and was placed under AI administration after 48 hours of inactivity, or began “donating” all their stars and fleets to whichever opponent they hated the least, or whichever was most likely to hurt the one who’d attacked them.

Although I love this game, and I’m glad someone made it, I have grave doubts about its possibilities for financial success. I’m a big fan of the micropayment model, and that’s how Neptune’s Pride works – you can play small, standard games for free, or buy credits to play in larger and/or custom games. Joining someone else’s custom game costs the equivalent of $1, while creating one’s own is $2. These are reasonable prices, and in fact, I doubt many people would pay more than that for a single game of anything, especially not something as minimalist as Neptune’s Pride.

The problem, however, is that the game’s innovation is also its probable financial downfall. It simply takes too long to play. Most gamers these days lose interest in a new game after a week or two, if that. That’s how long it takes for someone to get through their first free game. Even those who like the free trial enough to by credits will probably get their fix after only one or two games, and not buy any more credits. Given that some of the larger games could go on for over a month, even the most dedicated users will only be netting the site maybe $10-15 a year, which is a low subscription fee by any standard.

Furthermore, I suspect that many players will not get the strategy right away… and given the game’s slow pace, the trial-and-error method of strategy formulation adopted by most players will take too long to get them there. Many will simply decide that they’re not good at the game, and abandon it early. As for me, I learned a lot in the course of just one play through. I’ll do my part in helping this game’s chances of success by posting a strategy guide tomorrow, with tips to help first-time players. It may seem a little pretentious to be making assertions about “correct” strategy after only playing a game once, but I doubt many people have played two or more full games, and we all know what they say about one-eyed men in the Land of the Blind.

Hammy Potter
Dec 9th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

This is not gaming-related, but I’m plugging it wherever I can. My friends here in Montreal have a yearly film festival called M60, for 60-second shorts. This year’s theme was “Deception,” and this was my submission, which I’ve finally gotten around to posting on YouTube. Check it out!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jRKoSp6zQ4

Bene Factum Mission Statement – First Draft
Nov 18th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

It’s now been about a year and a half since I joined the indie game development community and began seriously working on my own games. I’ve learned a lot, since then, and also undergone several minor revolutions in terms of my ideas about how I fit into the community. It’s only been in the last few months that I’ve finally started to feel like I have a long-term plan. That being the case, I think it’s a useful exercise to create a mission statement for myself (or, rather, for the organization that is Bene Factum, on the off chance that it ever consists of more people than just me).

Here’s a first draft. Feedback welcome, not so much in terms of the mission itself, as that’s personal, but in terms of anything that needs clarification or greater precision.

Bene Factum is an organization dedicated to promoting independently-developed games – digital and otherwise – and to encouraging positive approaches to game design and development. The eventual goal is to encourage independent game developers to focus on craftsmanship and simplicity, to present themselves as an ethical, community-focused alternative to large game studios, and to emphasize their differences from the large studios, rather than attempting imitate them.

Bene Factum’s role within the game development community is twofold. First and foremost, Bene Factum is a commercial entity, providing consulting and freelance services to independent game developers, including art, graphic design, writing and game design consulting. Secondly, Bene Factum is itself an independent game development studio, though its emphasis in that area is not commercial profit, but rather experimentation and an effort to change the attitudes of both game developers and consumers.

The attitudes and policies Bene Factum would like to encourage within the indie community are as follows:

  1. Games which challenge and educate the user, and encourage analytical thinking.
  2. The responsible use of technology – that is, the use of 3D, real-time, and simulationist mechanics as conscious design choices, rather than marketing gimmicks.
  3. Positive, community-based approaches to reducing piracy.
  4. Designing games for depth and lasting power, rather than initial flair.
  5. Distinguishing between real fun, and emotional manipulation or addiction.
  6. Emphasis on consumer awareness of the indie community as a grassroots, craft-based movement.
  7. Building tighter communities, both among developers and freelancers, and among the user base.
New Project – Reverie
Oct 30th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

Having recently decided to make a split and treat game art as my job and game development as a hobby, I’ve started a new project, more experimental than previous ones. The working title is Reverie, and I’d call it a roguelike, though it has less to do with the Big Four (Nethack, Crawl, ADOM and *band) than they do with one another. For one thing, it’s intended to be much shorter, beatable in a single sitting. For another, pretty much all the numbers will be hidden from the player – the game will be much more narrative and less about min-maxing than other roguelikes, and many things about it will be intentionally mysterious to the player.

That being the case, I don’t want to say too much about it, but because I love procedural generation so much, I wanted to share some examples of the maps that are generated for the huge forest in which most of the game will take place. My top priorities were to have lots of connectivity to encourage exploration, and a very organic feel, unlike the blocky dungeons that are most familiar to players of roguelikes.

Anyway, here are three maps (the lower one of which has been magnified 2x). Black pixels are impenetrable trees, light green is open grass, the two darker shades of green represent different densities of brush, and the yellow lines are dirt paths.



reverie_forest

PC/Mac Game Review – Telepath Psy Arena 2
Oct 18th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

Gameplay: 5/10 Graphics: 4/10 Sound: 7/10 Originality: 7/10 Overall: 5/10

picture-19

Available for download direct from Sinister Design.

When I saw this game mentioned on Rock Paper Shotgun, I went straight to the creator’s website and bought it, without even trying the demo. This is an indicator of how much I loved the concept. It’s a turn-based, top-down, tactical battle game. Turn-based games in general are a sadly-neglected genre these days, especially turn-based strategy games. Even within the genre, Telepath Psy Arena 2 is unusual in that it does away with randomness – attacks always hit, and always deal a fixed amount of damage. Characters are persistent from one mission to the next, and death is permanent. Although it’s easy enough to purchase a replacement for a slain ally, all the money invested in training the character is lost, and it can take a while to get the replacement’s power up to par with the rest of the team.

There’s a lot to love in that concept, and it seems like a recipe for success. Unfortunately, the game does almost everything else wrong.

For one thing, the game is riddled with balance issues. The player’s characters have much higher movement than similar characters on the enemy side, so there’s little challenge in outmaneuvering the enemy. In particular, the Assassin character type can move 9 squares per turn, which is greater than the size of the map in its smaller direction, and quite early on, acquires the Leap ability, which extends the character’s movement range as well as allowing it to pass over friends, enemies and some obstacles. Combined with its ability to deal massive damage when striking from behind, investing a heap of money into an Assassin’s strength attribute (boosting attack damage) allows an insta-kill of almost any one enemy per turn, anywhere on the map.

The creator would probably argue that the Assassin’s offensive capability is balanced by its relatively weak defense, and that moving it far from the rest of the player characters to kill a distant enemy is likely to result in the Assassin being killed, but this leads us to my next major complaint about the game, which is that it’s infinitely grindable.

Any battle can be replayed multiple times. I’m not sure whether there’s a limit to how many times, since the game does seem to keep track of how many times you’ve beaten a given battle. It’s irrelevant in any case, as the game also allows you to fight battles against random assortments of enemies of whatever difficulty level you like. This sounds like a nice feature, but the problem is that it means that, rather than forming a better strategy in order to get past a difficult level, the player need merely spend an hour raking in cash by beating up on easier foes, and buy his way to victory by upgrading his characters.

The reason for the inclusion of this feature is obvious – if the player had to progress through a series of ever more difficult battles, without being able to engage in optional ones to earn money, then there would inevitably be a moment of Pyrrhic victory, in which the player’s team would be left so crippled that the subsequent battle would be unwinnable. This feature is not a good solution, however – aside from the above problem, it also means that character death punishes the player, not by having fewer assets at his disposal for the next battle, but by forcing him into a long series of boring, repetitive, easy battles in order to purchase and train a replacement. This is not good game design.

Technically speaking, the game is amateurishly programmed. There is little animation or special effects, and nothing in the gameplay should require much processor power, and yet the game crawls. Part of the blame probably lies with Adobe, as the game is written in AIR, and I’ve found that ActionScript in general runs poorly on Mac. Nonetheless, I’ve seen plenty of more elaborate ActionScript games that have run smoothly, so I’m positive that a more talented programmer would have been able to make this game perform well.

All of this could be forgiven, if the game’s most important aspect had been given more attention. I am referring to the AI.

If you make a game single-player, turn-based and luck free, you’re committing yourself to writing a strong AI opponent. Simply pitting the player against ever-stronger, but equally stupid opposition is fine for an action game, but it feels cheap in the context of a strategy game. Imagine purchasing a chess game, and discovering that increasing the difficulty simply gave the computer more queens, rather than having it make better moves.

Without having seen the game’s code, I nonetheless have a pretty good idea of what sort of decision-making it employs: first, it checks if it can kill any of the player’s characters. If so, it always does so. If not, then it attacks the one with the fewest hit points remaining. If it can’t attack anyone, then it simply moves one square in a more-or-less random direction. Enemy characters with healing abilities always default to using those, rather than attacking, unless there are no injured allies in range. It never makes any attempt to keep its characters’ backs covered, either, which simply increases the power of the Assassin character. This extremely predictable, simplistic behaviour on the part of the opponents makes the battles rather tedious.

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy this game. It would certainly be worth a download if it were a freeware title, which is what it feels like, but it isn’t executed in a professional enough manner to be worth the price tag, low as it is ($12.99). Those craving a challenging, turn-based strategy experience would be better off checking out Battle for Wesnoth, which is actually free, and open source. Meanwhile, game developers thinking about making such a title can learn two important things from Telepath Psy Arena 2 – firstly, they can learn from its mistakes, and secondly, my immediate and unhesitating purchase of it should confirm that there is a market for such games, and that it’s woefully under-served at the moment.

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