Revisions to A New World

March 15, 2011

I’ve been revisiting my Uni project recently and looking at the colony production/consumption chart and the interface notes I had for managing production I found I wanted to make some changes.

Old Version:

New Version:

You’ll notice a number of the buildings are gone, deemed somewhat unnecessary. In this fictional setting, the residential blocks are setup as a sort of self contained living, shopping and recreation zone – With music halls, theatres, shops and all sorts of other basic amenities in addition to housing. Second, the chart takes into account that many of the goods are consumed by people rather than buildings which may or may not be crowded.

Bio Plastic Crops were added, because when you’re setting up a colony on an alien world, there’s not likely to be any fossil fuels from which to make plastics.

Note also that the Life Support, Mine/Smelter, Agriculture, Factory & Laboratory are facilities that produce more than one sort of good, each with their own production capacities and this would be reflected in the user interface.

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Planetside

January 23, 2011

Oh, Planetside, how I love thee.

So, Planetside, eh? Planetside is primarily a First Person Shooter. What makes it special is the scale at which it operates, where instead of constricting conflict down into hundreds or thousands of small skirmishes involving up to 64 people (if you’re lucky) all the players instead play on a large server (There were 5 of these at launch, 7 years on only one remains) with up to 500 people fighting on a continent at the same time.

Big deal, just more players in the same place, right? Wrong. This changes the way a war shooter plays substantially because now you’re fighting a war where a small group of players can gather together to achieve a single goal and contribute to a larger conflict as a result.

For instance, in my time in Planetside, I’ve been part of a squad dropping out of a Galaxy dropship (Large troop transport) into the middle of a HOTLY contested base and knocked out the power plant inside, allowing the rest of our forces an opportunity to push through the weakened defences in the courtyard and on the walls to capture a base.

I’ve personally led a tank platoon, 13 tanks strong, each with 2 crew members and all of them living, breathing humans, and commanded them into an existing battle with hundreds of players already fighting. No other game has quite managed to pull of this sense of being part of a large conflict to this degree, so it’s a shame it went unnoticed by a lot of fervent FPS gamers.

By adopting an MMO model, the game also takes on a level of persistence, whereby you can join an outfit (Equivalent to a guild) and regularly team up. And unlike clans, the chance of your organised outfit running into an enemy organised outfit purely by chance was above zero (properly organised clan fighting, by its nature, needing to be organised with a time & date set).

As a result, you can effectively form friendships in the game in a way a standard war shooter can’t match. Backing eachother up with medical, engineering or fire support, sharing banter over chat, teaming up to use multi crew member vehicles and all this without having to arrange to meet up on the same server in advance. It’s deceptively powerful stuff, but it results in a sense of cameraderie I’ve never felt in any other game.

However, this isn’t meant to be a review, what I feel I want to talk about most is how this, as a multiplayer game, relies on the players to provide a lot of the day to day, moment to moment content in the form of opponents to fight against. Here’s where it starts to get icky, also note that as a 7 year old subscription based game it doesn’t quite have the numbers of players it used to and suffers for it.

Player behaviour

Public vehicle usage

It is rarely clear to players whether a vehicle is being made available for anyone to use or if it is locked to a specific squad until you get close enough to see the vehicle access symbols that are drawn on the ground, though you can see the number of players residing in the vehicle by the names atop the vehicle name. It would be helpful if the driver of a public vehicle could designate a vehicle as needing crew, and at the press of a button (In GUI or on keyboard, or both) a symbol would appear above the vehicle and a number to denote the number of empty seats.

Two manned Vanguards go in search of enemies.

Command Rank 5 (CR5)

This one is particularly interesting. As well as gaining experience for battle ranks (Gives you certification points, meaning you can have access to more equipment in the battlefield) a player can earn command experience by being a squad leader when an enemy base is captured. Initially this was a system that worked brilliantly, as the squads who engage in teamwork are most likely to be involved in base assaults that don’t get bogged down and take hours before the base is captured. As a result, during the early life of the game, the players who reached CR5 first were the ones most capable of using the ability to message all allied players on a continent or all continents effectively (In a way that encouraged them to do specific tasks willingly). Unfortunately, CR5 also comes with the ability Orbital Strike, think of it as a satellite based weapon firing at the ground, mostly used to destroy entrenched AMS positions. Additionally, it isn’t necessary to be a good squad leader to get CR5, just a lot of patience and being at the right bases as they are captured. After a time, too many cooks were in the kitchen including some players who had no leadership ability what so ever. There would be bickering between commanders across the global/continent wide chat, conflicted counter orders and CR5 players insulting the player base or engaging in plain stupid and childish behaviour. The end result is a distrust of the players who earned this rank and a proliferation in attitudes such as “You don’t pay me to play the game so I’m not listening to you”. The game is actually at its best when squads and outfits(/guilds) work together towards objectives rather than when trying to order an entire ‘zerg’ (The large bulk of players who go from base to base like a rampaging mongol horde are commonly referred to as the zerg by more experienced/veteran players) and this really should’ve been where any commander gameplay mechanics were focused at (I could give this one area a treatment by itself).

An Orbital Strike lands on top of a cloaked AMS.

Destroying equipment with no intention of repairing it

All the large bases have a power reserve (Nanites) where damaged facilities (turrets. equipment terminals, generators, etc) will drain the resources in a base. Turrets will auto fire on large vehicles that enter their detection range and frequently become a target for people who don’t like getting the paintwork on a medium battle tank scratched. When the Zerg finishes with a captured base, their first response is to move on. The base is left behind with heavily damaged facilities, if they aren’t repaired they can drain the base dry and repairing all those turrets (A base typically having 6 or more turrets) and internal facilities isn’t fun. It would be nice if in addition to manual base repair, deploying an ANT (Advanced Nanite Transport) to recharge the base would upon bringing the base to near full capacity also push repairs through the bases systems. Thereby freeing the rest of the players to get on with the game rather than being forced to repair the damage of the zerg before moving on (You get experience for recharging a base, you don’t get experience for repairing it, though you can get support experience if someone scores a kill via repaired turrets now).

Repairs underway at a damaged base turret

Poor use of vehicles

It’s not uncommon for a player to be seen running through the open with little to no support and no transport, even across long distances (Where it takes 5 minutes to run from one base to the next). The end result is that many deaths happen that are entirely preventable. Many players are unaware of ‘deconstructing’, the act of entering a spawn tube, pressing ‘g’ and then being able to choose to spawn at a different facility. This way, it is possible to respawn at the nearest tower, base and AMS that has working spawning functionality as well as an additional manually set bind point at a base or AMS that the player binds to whilst there – The existence of this could be better communicated to the player. Additionally, whilst most types of tower come with spawns and two turrets (plus possibly aircraft repair/resupply pads), the ‘observation tower’ has nothing but the ability to spawn there, not even defensive turrets. Such a tower could have a mini-vehicle spawner, that allows a player to pull the ATVs (a one point certification, useful for getting from place to place) as well as possibly some of the other light vehicles, including the assault buggies and lightning (light tank with paper thin armour) which would provide observation towers with their own useful benefit whilst also providing players with increased access to vehicle spawning and increasing the usefulness of the games lighter vehicles. Also, early in the games life, when it had 200k subscribers, the bases that had only one vehicle spawner would develop large queues of more than 30 people and creating painfully long waits for transport to be acquired, these facilities could also be given the mini vehicle spawners (tucked into corners) to help improve access to vehicles.

This trooper would be easy pickings for any nearby aircraft

Abusing dominant strategies as infantry (AKA ‘Tower Whoring’)

Often times, balancing a game involves correcting a single object/mechanic that is too powerful or weak, such as a particular weapon. That isn’t always the case though, sometimes the dominant strategy involves the abuse of a collection of elements that are combined to create the dominant strategy. So, here’s the setup – a soldier wears the most damage resistant armour possible (Caveat, I’m not talking about the MAX suit here, which has balancing weaknesses such as not being able to repair yourself quickly), equips the most damaging close quarters weapon (Heavy Assault, so either Jackhammer, MCG or Lasher) and the implants person shield (Or second wind) and surge (Not allowed to equip weapon but boosts run speed). Finally, the player takes position at the dividing wall of the staircase inside a tower and switches to third person view mode as seen below.

A heavily armed soldier awaits some victims

Once in this position, the player waits. If an enemy starts running up the staircase, he’ll pop out using latency/lag and surprise to give him a short head start firing the most effective gun, usually making short work of the target unless a serious mistake is made (particularly with aim), with personal shield to give extra protection if necessary. If the enemy attempts to use a grenade launcher, the player will quickly run as close to the enemy so that the grenade launcher is as likely to damage himself as he is the player. If the enemy attempts to approach in a MAX suit, he’ll use anti-vehicle and a firing retreat to pick him off. If the enemy attempts to approach with more than one trooper at the same time with a similar equipment loadout to the player he engages surge to retreat in the hope that the enemy players will get distracted (And possibly user Boomer remote explosives to try and pick off one or two troops in the process). This effect is multiplied if multiple players are attempting to hold the tower in this way and becomes a chore to uproot for the enemy. Ultimately, the aim isn’t to win battles by taking risks, the aim is to get as many kills as possible without dying. This might be good in a holding action where you’re trying to delay enemies attempting to resecure a base, but it’s often done for the kills rather then to properly contribute to progress in a battle and could be regarded as a form of MMOFPS grinding (For experience or achievements of some form). One of the producers once tried suggesting the possibility of removing the use of third person view mode or making access to it cost an implant slot to enable (Which seemed like a sensible move to me), unfortunately, an MMO audience doesn’t tend to appreciate having one of its toys taken away or messed with and the producer had to back down in the face of a backlash that included death threats. (Yes, really)

Several troops holding a tower

Abusing dominant strategies as pilots

Here’s another case of trying to get as many kills as possible without dying. A player will equip with light armour, a heavy assault weapon an anti-armour weapon in backpack and then pick either the Mosquito scout plane or Reaver assault plane. The player will now travel around looking for enemies to pick off that are either weak by design or weak due to having recieved heavy damage and will swoop on any such targets, hovering over them if necessary to get the kill. So what are the counters to this? Anti-vehicle infantry weapons are mostly useless for this, though the striker has missile guidance the Vanu & New Conglomerate equivalents are difficult to score a hit with and even if the enemy soldier gets close to defeating the player, he can respond by bailing out of the aircraft with full health possibly dropping said aircraft onto the enemy before retreating to get a new plane. In theory, the best response is to use anti-air weaponry to defeat the player and this often takes the form of an anti air MAX, but the Reaver & Mosquito are both equipped with afterburners that can give a sudden boost to speed, and the players response is to either afterburn to safety or afterburn over the MAX user, bail out and use anti-armour weapons to pick off the MAX user with ease. The lock on anti-air weapons give a warning beep to pilots so they know to immediately retreat when the beep starts. There’s a slightly involved approach I would take to deal with this, but in summary, it involves removing the ability of most aircraft to hover in the air unmoving (A stalling speed, the pitch of the aircraft (Nose pointing up/down) creates additional momentum, a player that wants to land the aircraft points the nose skywards as he does so, the player is required to do a flight training tutorial before being allowed to acquire aircraft certifications). I could probably give an entire article to what I’d like to do with aircraft in a game of this sort (Now that I have the benefit of hindsight from Planetside) but in short, the issue is that the Reaver & Mosquito are capable of going from full speed to hovering to afterburning up to a speed that’ll take them away from every threat (Including most anti-air) except for other aircraft.

A hovering Reaver spams rockets at soldiers below

Abusing dominant strategies as BFR pilots

The Battle Frame Robots are probably the most controversial addition to the game. They are effectively mechs, large walking behemoths with powerful shielding and weaponry. Typically, a vehicle is balanced by its damage resistance (Armour, shielding and manoeuvrability), damage output and finally, by the number of crew members required for it to be fully effective. The BFRs were a form of heavy tank, with shielding that would regenerate over time and could fire beneath their feet at enemies that got close if need be and whilst the Medium Battle Tank required 2 or 3 crew members for full effectiveness the BFR required 1 or 2 crew members for full effectiveness, worse you could choose whether to equip anti-air, anti-vehicle or anti-infantry weapons on it. Theoretically, the best counter to this kind of vehicle would be a bomber, which could deliver a large amount of damage onto a single target in a short amount of time, but a good BFR pilot need only watch the minimap for approaching bombers and use the strafe controls or dodge whilst in run mode to evade all the bombs, even if the bombardier approaches at a low altitude. The result was a mech in a game that was supposed to be about combined arms mass warfare (At least as far as the players were concerned) and the game haemorrhaged players for a time whilst an attempt was made to rebalance the vehicle. Ironically, at the time the vehicle was announced, the community had been discussing the introduction of a special form of multi-crewed aircraft that would have belonged in Planetside far more than the concept of a mech, whilst still being a heavier equivalent of that class of aircraft.

Battle Frame Robotics stomping into a base courtyard

Manipulation of mouse and keyboard controls

There are many specialist forms of mouse and mouse trickery available for gaming now, many of which incorporate lots of extra buttons, functionality and scripting. In the case of Planetside, this scripting can take two forms, the first of these is the ability to change the mouse movement speed at the press of a button so for example, a player could put on a MAX suit which is designed such that mouse movement has a slower turning speed for where the player is looking, the player can now press a button to boost the mouse look speed and over-ride the design intended for the MAX suit. The same applies to the Pheonix missile launcher which is supposed to be ponderously slow to adjust the aim, but can suddenly be made to do much quicker turns than normally intended. The other scripting method takes the form of chaining a sequence of actions together, for instance, left right strafing could be turned into a script that loops three times, possibly with tap crouching added for good measure and the player can now just press a button to automate strafing for him whilst he aims the gun with the rest of his concentration, placing players who aren’t using these techniques at a disadvantage.

One in the Razer line of gaming mice

Cheating/Hacking

Planetside, unfortunately, had some serious problems with people creating tools to give them an unfair advantage over other players. During my time in the game, I’ve seen players firing guns with an accuracy impossible for any normal player to achieve (Known as a cone of fire hack, the interface has an indicator for accuracy, standing, running around and so on will reduce the accuracy of a weapon as the ‘cone of fire’ becomes wider). I’ve seen players teleport away in a way that is not permissible in the games mechanics when in trouble. I’ve seen a base full of soldiers get killed in a matter of seconds (Far as I can tell, it’s like the player has teleported ghosts of all these players which can take damage, then lined up a very effective weapon for killing those players). I’ve seen Vanu armoured MAX suits hovering at the games flight ceiling because they’ve gotten themselves infinite jetpack power. And this is just a selection of the cheats that have been employed, there’s also some question as to whether some players are cheating but doing so in a way that isn’t obvious, such as increasing the firing speed of a gun by a small amount (say 10%) to give them an edge over opponents. It’s also worth noting that certain soldier implants give poor feedback, two noteworthy implants are personal shield and second wind. Personal shield basically gives you additional damage protection by turning stamina into bonus health points, second wind meanwhile kicks in when the player is about to die, giving them a boost of health in exchange for draining the stamina reserve. Whilst personal shield causes the activating player to glow for a second this can still be missed, and there is never any clear indication to an opponent that they had died because Second Wind had saved the life of the player. These can be mistaken for hacking (“How could he possibly have survived”) and because the existence of cheats is widely known, there is a distrust of other players that can erupt in the form hateful ‘/tell messages’ that can make the game experience unpleasant for some people (Sometimes trash talk is done for comedic effect, other times, less so).

Bonus image: A gathering of a large number of troops

Base Capture Timers

Waiting for a base capture to go through can be a chore for players. There are two ways in which a base are captured (Each facility is made a particular type in this sense) one is effectively a form of capture the flag, carrying an LLU from the base you’re capturing to one you already own, the other involes waiting 15 minutes on a hack timer. It’s the second one where problems can occur, players will get bored and either wander off or go away from the keyboard to get a drink and during this time a single enemy can potentially wander in and kill all the defenders (Including the one or two still paying attention) and resecure the base, often with several players running around outside not quite sure what to do.

Soldiers and armoured MAX units defend a Control Console

My instinct is a solution that’s a little over-the-top perhaps, to have a system of mini-games built into the game that allow friendly (And opponent?) players to compete with eachother whilst waiting for things to happen in game (This could be everything from waiting on a base hack to go through, waiting to spring an ambush, waiting for your troop transport vehicle to arrive, etc), in addition to this, the mini-games can allow friendly competition between members of an outfit and be used as part of a website marketing scheme where the mini-games are available to play on the games website for free alongside advertising for the main game.

Mock up to show an arm mounted computer for showing info like the continental map or a minigame of some sort

The main constraints are that the games would need to take up only a portion of the user interface space (So you can see something coming) and be able to support pause states at a moments notice so that a player can respond to an event in the main game (including for mini-games where two or more players are directly competing with eachother somehow, like how a multiplayer tetris game might have players impacting on competitors tetris chamber). As an amusing aside, I’ve seen conga lines form inside a base during the wait for a base capture to go through, such is the boredom that can be experienced by players. Basically, if you game has any downtime, giving players something meaningful to do during the downtime is advisable.

Do the conga!

Killstealing/experience sharing

When an opponent is killed experience is rewarded to the person who scored the killing shot, this also applies to vehicles. This can lead to the unfortunate scenario where two tanks are battling eachother, and a reaver or other unit swoops in, deals the killing blow and walks/drives/flies away with all the experience. The idea that one player can steal the effort of other players like this can be a source of frustration for other players. It doesn’t matter so much with soldiers which can potentially be killed in one hit but for vehicles the damage dealt should be tracked so that the player that did the most damage gets the bulk of the experience. This of course introduces some complexity in terms of tracking what happens when the vehicle gets repaired but is worth the effort because it saves players from an upsetting game experience that might give them cause to cancel a subscription to play other games.

A hovering Reaver unloads on troops in the courtyard

Other things: Core Combat

Core combat was an attempt to introduce more urbanised combat to Planetside with a new kind of environment within which to fight. With a lot of structures rising up out of the ground or up in the air, with base facilities that do not have exterior walls. The result was only partially successful because rather than having a series of small caves, a cave system of sorts, the caverns instead are single large open spaces (With entry cave corridors large enough to support vehicles) where aircraft and vehicles are able pick off troops with great ease, even ‘camping’ the doors leading into the facilities with one-shot-kill tank shells that cripple a soldiers ability to move out and make progress.

An example of the main chamber of a cave zone

As it turned out, the best battles happened (in my opinion) in the tunnels leading in and out of the large cave systems. Air and ground vehicles have limited room in which to manoeuvre and there’s lots of stalactites/stalagmites that troops can use as cover or in which vehicles can get themselves tangled up in, creating a much more infantry focused battle (Aided by the side tunnels that still allowed flanking around enemy positions). In many respects, it’s a pity this wasn’t spotted early in the development of core combat (Though I’m assuming this wasn’t noticed, perhaps someone did but tight scheduling prevented a change of approach), possibly through prototyping.

One of the entry corridors into the caves, good fights here

Other things: Outfit/event organising

As a senior member of the Immortal Serial Killers (Werner, back before that final server merge into one server, our regular playership is now 2 people, rather than the 20 – 40+ ‘back in the day’) I found that simply informing outfit-mates of a special event that’s being arranged (Such as a tank group/squad/platoon) was problematic. You couldn’t rely on people to visit the outfit forums to tell them about it and different folks log in at different times of the day. As such I had to make sure I was logging in at different days and times for the week leading up to the event I had planned so I could catch as many people as possible. It would have been nice if there was some form of internal messaging system that allows sending of notices to outfit members, one that requires you to input the time into it so it can automatically adjust for players in different timezones as well so an event can be organised with much less effort.

A screenshot of the interface, with outfit pane & kill/death bar

Other things: Kill/Death ratio tracking

When the game was first released, it wasn’t possible to bring up stats in game telling you how many kills you’d made or how many times you had died. This had two advantages which were gradually revealed over time following the addition of this feature. The first advantage is that it obscured knowledge about how badly you were doing as a new player to the game, when you’re learning the ropes it’s not uncommon to have one kill for every ten deaths and surprisingly it would only be a problem (Where the player gets discouraged and gives up on playing the game) when you knew it was happening.

The second problem was it affected the behaviour of even veteran players, with an emphasis on attempting to ‘farm’ situations for kills, being more interested in the kill/death ratio than in progressing the overall situation for their empire*. When soldiers should be pushing/charging into battle, they’ll freeze up and hold back getting in the way of retreating friendly soldiers and clustering into a clump of troops that would make a tempting target for orbital strikes, grenade launchers, tank shells, and various other outdoor attacks.

I’m not going to claim the information should be done away with altogether, but it might be nicer if you could either only see this information at the end of a play session, or if you could only see the number of kills as a way of encouraging you to push harder against the enemy, it’s the inclusion of the death number in addition to kills that is causing some issue in my opinion.

* It probably doesn’t help, of course, that the high level game could never really go anywhere. The best you could do was capture all of the enemy continents, but it was never possible to truly defeat the enemy because you couldn’t capture the enemy sanctuaries and deliver a complete defeat to the enemy. So you were locked into this perpetual high level stalemate that could never be resolved, it shouldn’t be a surprise that focusing on kills over base captures would gain such importance to the player.

Not long ago I posted two diagrams showing the layout of an island and a sequence of actions required to ‘complete’ the game, here’s the island layout.

And here’s what I’ve put together so far in the last 24 hours (and slept):

Where I am so far:

I’ve built the general layout of the island. There’s a ton of tweaking to with the textures/terrain shape and those trees are place-holder assets that come with Torque 3D.

In addition to that there’s placement of the camera/scene transition triggers and objects the player interacts with…

…Which means I’d need to create the following assets (World objects and frequently inventory icons) – Trees, Ship wreck, Cooking Utensils (Pot with water in it), Sharp Knife, Axe, Sewing Kit, Jug, Map & Compass, Damaged sail, Repaired sail, Logpile, Incomplete Raft, Complete Raft, Vines, Coconuts, a Boar (Boars meat as an icon), a player character/avatar, Long stick, Spear, Berries (& a bush), Cave entrance/Interior. Since I can’t really use Maya without breaking the law now (Can’t afford my own copy) I’ve got a book on Blender and plan to learn using that, guess I’ll have to learn the Blender – Collada – Torque DTS workflow for that.

And whilst I’ve scripted out the code for camera position/scene changing, I haven’t yet built the UI, nor coded the picking up & using of items.

There’s a long way to go. Might focus on the coding side of things once I’ve done the scene transition triggers before I worry about making tons of art assets. Decisions decisions.

 

Tropical Island Escape

October 22, 2010

I’ve been toying around with an idea for a simple adventure game where the goal is to escape from a tropical island you’ve washed up on. I think it’s best to summarise the gameflow with the following two diagrams. (You can click on them to see them enlarged)

Comments/Notes

Yes, I wanted it to be an easy game as far as adventure games go, things that an ordinary person might guess (I do wonder about veteran adventure game reviewers who claim an adventure game was too easy in the review, will the people who don’t review adventure games for a living/hobby find it so easy, hmm?)

In theory I could add information on camera positions to the world layout map, but I’m not ready to say for certain if that layout will work at this point (have to start blocking/roughing it out in Torque before I know for sure).

I’m a little bit iffy on the number of items found in the ship wreck, but I decided to omit the tedium of forcing the player to create his own makeshift compass and/or axe, though those are possibilities if I chose to add difficulty to the game.

I considered assigning values to each action within the game that correspond to how much time it takes for an action, so that even moving from one scene to another would advance time in the gameworld. I decided instead to elect two tasks as things that would require a long time to do (Repairing the sail and chopping down some trees) because it would be easier to implement & less likely to invoke bugs and/or fail states that make the game harder (Remember I’m going for an easy game). As such, when you’re about to do the two things that would take a whole day to achieve, the player character first requires food (Berries or Meat) & Drink (Fresh Water) so that they have supplies to keep up their strength after a long day of work and a nights sleep.

You can chop down the front row of trees anywhere between the two vantage points to create the pile of logs that you make the raft from. Also, for believeability, I decided that the player character wouldn’t carry around entire tree trunks in his inventory and would instead stockpile them near the water.

I was going to put the cave on the coast, but a tide coming in could make living in a cave very dangerous so I swapped the position of vine & cave around. Not that I’m modelling tidal currents in the game, just as something that otherwise wouldn’t quite make sense.

Blue sky thinking here: In theory you could completely change the game and make it more about survival. Maybe the player character gets injured and needs to get herbs to heal the wound. There’s building a proper house. Doing stuff to keep your character from going insane.

One Page Concept: Discovery

September 8, 2010

I figure I’m overdue to put some new content here, so here’s something to mull over. Exploration is the central focus of the game, many games which lean heavily on exploration as part of the gameplay have done, shall we say, rather well. The Myst series, World of Warcraft, The Fallout Series, The Elder Scrolls series. We do love exploration, us gamers.

Discovery

A game of exploration

Goals: The players’ role is effectively that of a cartographer, and must explore the continent/island whilst attempting to achieve four main goals/achievements:

1. Discover all the places of importance – Something to tell the children.

2. Find a mate – For a lasting legacy (Different partners have different requirements before they’ll like you, though maybe that’s a bit old fasioned. Examples might be, chase a fallen star, like out of Star Dust, or protect the local wildlife from some threat)

3. Earn (Amount) – Retirement is expensive

4. Buy/Build a house – Have someone to settle down following your exploits

The above are the main ‘achievements’ to be pursued in the game, there are also minor achievements which can help enable completion of the major achievements. Notice that whilst there is combat as an option, it’s intended to be mostly out of the way, creatures wandering the wilderness will generally be tame or only aggressive when defending territory, aggressive monsters will only be found in dungeons/deep-caves and you don’t have to go inside one to ‘discover’ it, just find the entrance.

The game plays in first person, though it might be wise to move to third person for any close quarters combat with swords (etc). The game will fit well with console systems that require ‘achievement’ functionality as choosing and achieving goals is the primary focus of the game.

Possible places to discover by type:

Man made – Fortresses (Some abandoned), Pirate Cove(?), Villages/Towns, The Great Bridge, Lighthouse, Quarry, All piers.

Coastal – Island, Beach, Coastal Cave, (Coastal) Cliff face, Archipelago,

Inland – Mountain peak, Cave, Glade, Cliff face, Tar pit, valleys, Mountain walkway, fallen star landing site.

Inland water – Waterfall, Fjord, Marsh/Swamp, Lake/Pool/Pond, Oasis

Possible professions the player can pursue (Note that adventuring can involve killing and finding things as either/or):

Finding things – Hunting, gathering (berries etc), Archaeology, Adventuring, Mining, Thieving(?)

Creating things – Smithing, Woodworking/Carpentry, Farming

Killing things – Bounties (Hunting Criminals), Adventuring

Smuggling(Illegal goods)/Trading

Unlike many roleplaying games, this isn’t a land that’s under threat from some great big evil. In a way, it’s a game-ified medieval life simulator.

Lately I’ve been growing increasingly concerned about an over-emphasis on simplicity, there seems to be this assumption that simplicity is ‘the goal’, the thing to strive for in games, that your game will sell better if only you can make it that little bit simpler.

Honestly I just don’t agree, it’s too easy, too simple an answer, it almost sounds like an assumption. Ok, granted, there’s historical precedence for it, the early side view fighting games would have a punch button and a kick button and they’d combine that with how you were moving and lots of people got into it despite it just being a game about fighting. Then they added more buttons – three kinds of kick, three kinds of punch – WOW this is progress! Look at it, isn’t it great!…

…Except it wasn’t, by adding those extra buttons they lost me because I didn’t want to play a game that forced me to have 6 standard attacks and combos. If they’d allow me to play the game through once or twice without having to worry about combos however, I might have given it a chance. You see, it’s not the complexity that is the problem, it’s your introduction to the complexity where the danger is because if you get the introduction to the complexity wrong (Introducing too much, too quickly or with insufficient explanation) you break the game for some or most of your players (depending on how fortunate you were). I found the jumps between difficulty in one of the Guitar Hero games nightmarish, especially later on, I really needed the option to have 2.5a & 2.5b difficulties, one where the overall pace would go up and one where the next column of button presses are added so that I can get used to each of the two elements of added difficulty in separation before going up to difficulty 3.0.

Simplicity can be valuable from a designer perspective – start with something simple, then build it up slowly overtime, evaluating each element you attempt to add both for its own inherent complexity and for how easy it is to introduce a player to that element, you might need to experiment with different ways of doing that introduction and that’s fine and natural. Simplifying things for the sake of simplicity though, I feel that’s dangerous because it risks you avoiding introducing an element to a game that sets it apart from the competition and that’s boring for the people who actual want a little bit of variety in their games. (Plenty of people say they want games to be completely different, whole new ideas, not sure about that either, it can be hard to get people to buy into a completely new idea, not saying it isn’t worth doing but you have to consider carefully how to approach the audience when doing it, so that what they’re expecting is what they’ll get. Setting the right expectations is an art form, not many have mastered it, too many seem to assume that the way to do it is to simply control information to stop the wrong bits leaking out)

Simplicity can be good for the player too, I’m sure many of us are familiar with interest graphs/flow channels (The last time I saw it mentioned was in Jesse Schells The Art of Game Design), where a game starts simple and then grows in difficulty as the player becomes more experienced; the same applies to complexity, if we’re going to add complexity, it should generally happen over time, making sure that at each step where complexity rises the game continues to be interesting/fun/enjoyable to play. Spore fell into this trap, there’ve been reports of people who were quite happy to play the first stage of the game and never venture forward, in some cases that first stage was just the sort of thing that person wanted and that’s fine, the question is, how good was the introduction to stage 2?

Ok, let’s move on:

“I’m going to make this game simple to try to reach an audience not usually interested in games!”

Woah, hold on there bucko, why aren’t these people interested in games? Maybe it’s because people are quite content with books and TV and film and don’t feel the need to try new things… That, also, is fine. What about the sort of person who says they’re “not interested” in games though, why is that?

I think it’s a problem with perception personally, there’s this idea that’s gotten out there (Just as where all comics now are apparently just about people in tights punching eachother in the crotch, which turned into a self fulfilling prophecy – the market for comics is mostly super heroes because the audience has come to mostly expect super heroes) that all games are just for kids, just for people obsessed with violence, just for people addicted to “that sort of thing” and unfortunately, there’s a lot out there in the old media world that’s re-enforcing that view, we’ve got the newspapers that love to make stuff up about games (my particular favourite is claiming that violent games would lead to a surge in violent behaviour, despite the statistics saying otherwise) and particularly troublesome TV shows that like to abuse the existing misconceptions, it really doesn’t help that adverts for violent games like Grand Theft Auto (and soon Red Dead Redemption, I’m sure) also play on the telly, further cementing this misconception. Farmville has helped, yes, but its cute visuals re-enforce the notion that games are for children and the audience on facebook is already tech savvy to at least some degree, it is the people who are not on Facebook that we haven’t reached yet. These people have had a bad introduction to games before even picking a game up and ultimately, I feel that is the obstacle we need to climb over: A combination of making sure that there are interesting games getting into the public eye which avoid the predictable themes of space marines and elves & orcs that also do a good job of introducing people to simple or complex (or where ever you end up between those extremes) games.

So simplicity IS good, just please don’t do it for the wrong reasons or in a way that could be harmful to the end product.

I should probably also make clear that a good introduction doesn’t merely show you how to play the game, it should show or hint at how/why you’re going to enjoy the game, sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Earth & Beyond may not be a title you’re particularly familiar with – it was a space centric MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) being developed by Westwood and released in September 2002. Sadly, if MMOG charts is any indication (http://www.mmogchart.com/charts/), it didn’t exactly set the world on fire and peaked at around 40,000 players. Its players still hold a certain amount of animosity towards Electronic Arts (which bought Westwood back in 1998) and blame EA for the games lackluster performance.

I have fond memories of this game myself, I would read course materials for an Open University Computer Science  Degree (which became an abbortive degree attempt when I realised whilst struggling with a Java programming module that the final project requires you to use Java, a language I was learning I just didn’t have an aptitude for) whilst my space ship would be travelling from sector to sector doing trade runs or perhaps whilst exploring. Eventually the game was shut down (referred to as being ‘sunset’) in Sept 2004 and sadly I was too busy working on Open Uni work to visit for the closing down ceremonies. Earth & Beyond has recently been reborn in the form of an emulator project (http://enb-emulator.com/) and the people behind it are currently running stress tests, funded through donations from folks who have come back for its return. This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit it and I’ve been re-examining the game and seeing what I’m happy with and what I’m unhappy with, I’m going to break this game down into a few pieces and discuss it here…

(Disclaimer: The comments here are not intended as a reflection of the emulation project, but rather as a reflection of the original game itself, many issues will inevitably have carried over to the emulation project but that is not really the fault of the project which seeks to become like the original game as best as possible then expand from that point onwards)

Progression & Skills

One of the primary aspects of any game is in the progression, how does the game change as time goes on, what drives the player forward. In MMOGs the progression tends to centre around the concept of character levels (There are exceptions of course) and Earth & Beyond isn’t an exception to this rule in general terms. It does however take a slightly different approach – sub dividing 1 overall level down into three seperate roles – combat, exploration & trade. This has upsides and downsides, it gives a visible indicator of how you’ve progressed in the game but it also means that if you want to reach maximum overall level (150, at which point all experience goes into a single pool rather than each sub type progressing separately) you’ll have to do tasks that you might not otherwise choose to do. They wisely kept the crafting of equipment out of the equation except in the token way of contributing some points to one of the existing progression sets so analysing an object to work out what its composed of contributes to the exploration pool (your exploring how the device works) and making objects such as ammunition & shields contributes to trade experience. Not all of the character archetypes/classes have a strong manufacture element and not all of them can mine so to put those prominently as their own experience grouping would be problematic. Ultimately, I like this three tiered experience system as it lends the players an additional amount of agency “Shall I work towards exploration experience today, or maybe do some trade or combat, perhaps all three?”, this addition isn’t strictly necessary, you could streamline the whole thing out but the overall game would suffer for it.

I should also mention that each character class has a different selection of skills they start with and can get, theres some cross over especially in the core skills like shield skill, weapon skill and so on. The skills have their own requirements for advancement (in effect this is an alternative to the skill/ability tree system that some other MMOGs use) where missile weapons level 3 might require combat level 21 or 18 (etc) depending on which character class you’re playing. The skills system is a little problematic in that if you make a mistake when upgrading a skill you can’t undo it without the aid of a level 135 Progen Sentinel that has the ‘Call Forward’ ability (currently disabled in the emulator project as far as I’m aware), so for instance if I’ve decided to forgo upgrading beam weapons to focus on projectile weapons instead but accidentally upgrade beam weapons without thinking it through first I have to go through significiant effort to correct a mistake that is rather too easy to make (namely finding and meeting a progen sentinel willing to help out).

Inventory related – Trading, mining, manufacturing

There just isn’t enough cargo hold space, you get more as you increase in character levels, but the increases are small (2-4 cargo spaces every 10-25 levels). When mining if you don’t find resource fields that are of one type you can quickly fill up your cargo hold and be unable to get more minerals without first dumping a stack of ores (or what have you) that you’ve already collected. At a guess, it’s a database issue – that the developers were concerned about the impact of large cargo holds on ships, yet I still wish there were more slots even though it might be necessary to tone down the amount of trade xp earned for each crate of trade goods as a result.

On the subject of trade goods, most of them aren’t even worth bothering with – once you’ve learned about which trade routes are the better ones  you won’t even glance at the lower rated trade goods (level IV/V tend to be the best, there aren’t higher rated ones) and as a result you’ll get a high proportion of players following just 2 or 3 trade routes creating a potential performance issue in the handling of traffic in each sector. The player will rarely feel compelled to pick up trade goods as they travel from place to place even if they have a map to pre-plan routes, instead choosing only to do trade runs when they actually choose to do trading. There are also trade missions, but I haven’t really looked at them as they appear to be more for high level characters generally and it takes a while to reach high levels in the game (Theres a mission system built into the game, where you can get privateer like missions from mission terminals and serves as an extra alternative way of earning cash, experience and positive reputation with the games various factions). By putting in more high level trade routes that run around the outskirts of known space rather than just through the middle to Somerled station and back you spread the load out across the other sectors and reduce the risk of poor performance in one line of sectors.

Manufacturing meanwhile has significant usability issues, where information about what is required to build a component or equipment is only actively visible whilst the player is viewing the manufacturing interface. If the player then decides to build that device, it is necessary to walk to a vendor to buy the equipment, because the manufacture interface is now closed (it only opens when you use it, and places the avatar in a ‘busy’ state so you’re stuck there until you exit it) it becomes necessary to either write the components needed on paper or in a captains log facility (basically, think of it as a multi-paged version of notepad.exe that is built into the game itself). This is a waste of the players time and the game could do a much better job of supporting manufacture, perhaps by allowing the player to purchase the components required through the manufacture interface itself on condition that there is a vendor on the station that sells each of the required components.

Edit: Also, I can’t help but wonder if there’s really any harm in having a the ability to transfer stuff between characters through an extra slot of storage spaces in the players vault that is maintained between all the characters on an account. If the player wants to put in the effort of having multiple characters and having one of these characters be an object builder, then they should be able to without needing a second account or a helpful other player to move built devices between one players characters. /End edit.

On the subject of vendors, the games equivalent of shops, there is no at a glance indicator of what level(s) of objects are being sold by a vendor. This is especially proplematic in the case of component sellers where you might have to go up and speak to each vendor until you find the one selling the level 3 components you need to make that ammunition, again, wasting the players precious time unnecessarily. Some of the vendors will tell you the level of equipment being sold during the “hi, I’m shop vendor x and I sell items type y & z” but not all – the emulator project folks are addressing that to some extent by updating the shop intro texts to more clearly state what they’re selling but I think the situation could be improved further by putting numbers on the storeholders ‘shop type’ flags that hang from the vendor stalls as below. This isn’t an attempt to streamline the game, but rather a matter of not wasting the players time with weak handling of information.

Missions

This area is a little bit problematic as well, often times a mission will have requirements which may or may not be explained to the player, a mission that gives the player a ‘build shields’ skill might require Combat Level 14 but until you actually reach combat level 14 the non-player-character won’t acknowledge the possibility of the mission at all. There are several instances where an NPC does tell the player that he/she is not experienced enough to take on the task, but then does not tell the player what those requirements are – this can lead to the player running around looking to see if the missions have actually become available on occasion, wasting their time yet again. This is basically a case of poor feedback, not telling the player what is required to progress and shouldn’t really be allowed. I suspect some people would try to claim this is ‘dumbing the game down’ whatever that is actually supposed to mean and whilst I agree that sometimes games seem too streamlined often times ultimately it was right for the game and possibly also right for the target audience.

Combat

I hate to say it, but the combat was lacklustre and doesn’t really give you the sense of being in a spaceship flying about shooting at things. Whilst you can fly around a fair bit with missile weapons which will automatically wind their way to a targetted hostile regardless of your position or facing, the beam and projectile weapons require you to be looking in the general direction of the enemy and you inevitably end up with two turrets sitting almost perfectly still in space firing at eachother until one of the two combatants is dead, combat skills try to liven up things a bit but really only serve to provide you with a few extra buttons to press whilst your ship sits there turreting the opponent. Depending on which character class you play, fighting monsters and villians can be very unforgiving or almost comically easy, particularly with the use of a tactic called ‘kiting’ where you stay out of the range of an enemy by flying directly away from it whilst firing missiles to the aft, the only thing that slows you down with this tactic is running out of reactor energy. More could be done to make movement a stronger part of the combat, perhaps monsters have weaker armour on the sides or back so that players are encouraged to try and outmaneuvre opponents instead of just sitting there watching health bars slowly empty and occasionally pressing a button.

Overall

However, despite the games few weaknesses, it remains a compelling game – the 3 tiered levelling system gives the player a feeling of a greater degree of control over what to focus on with their character and despite being many years old the game still looks fantastic. There are some slight issues with the animations on certain player characters (at the avatars waistline) but this is only a problem if you’re looking for it. Its strongest aspect is the sense of place, of being there – space stations (the busier ones at least) regularly get the hustle and bustle of people going about their business whilst audio adverts for companies and other factions in the game world play in the background and theres plenty to explore. If you’ve played the game before and missed it, it’s worth revisiting and donating a bit to help the emulator project staff do their thing.

http://www.enb-emulator.com/