Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Savage 2 and Egomania: A Morality Play

Savage: Battle for Newerth (oh it's 'new Earth', iseewhatchadidthere) was an old team FPS/RTS hybrid game of the standard size, about 20-40 players per server. It was quite enjoyable for its time, despite many glitches and balance issues. It featured a vague post-apocalyptic backstory about human civilization collapsing and various beasts achieving intelligence and fighting against the human survivors.
Best of all, the maps were created with this in mind, featuring crumbled stone structures in the middle of wilderness areas and hyena-like humanoids wielding bone clubs fighting against tribal human societies with bows and arrows and rudimentary hand-cannons. Magic played a small part aesthetically, but for the most part it was a steampunk/wilderness mix.

The sequel, Savage 2: A Tortured Soul, which came out a few years ago, was much better in all technical aspects: nice graphics, streamlined update system, integration with the company's website, nice, quick and responsive gameplay mechanics, and balance, balance, balance. There were some useless or overpowered units and abilities from the start, sure, but the dev team was making excellent efforts to knock these into their appropriate places. It had melee-centered units and speedy harasser units, and siege units, the usual RTS mix with all their strengths and weaknesses. Teams won by cooperation, filling whatever roles were needed and launching attacks in unison. It also had a microtransaction system which i've always condemned and this greatly unbalanced things, but it did not entirely kill the game experience.

Now before i go on it should be mentioned that S2Games was a small company. Each individual project was apparently not supervised by any uber-paper-pusher to make sure one catastrophic blunder doesn't wreck the whole thing. It also bears mentioning that one of the developers used the alias 'Maliken' (important plot point, make a note of this). He gained a certain reputation for spouting all the usual macho redneck trashtalk when he occasionally visited servers. He also may have been the head of the project or the company itself, i forget. Moving along.

Savage 2 dropped the steampunk/tribal feel almost entirely. Magic, in the new setting, was abundant, which meant a lot more flashing, colored light effects, and players could use units like something stitched together from corpses or a giant flaming demon with a big honkin' sword. The new backstory centered on one 'Maliken Grimm' (yes for some reason he's sporting a fu manchu) an all-purpose mystical 'badass dude' again with a big honkin' sword, who travels to hell and sparks a demonic invasion... or something, honestly, i lost track at about the third cliche.

Now, so far, we're just talking aesthetics, and while angry nerds like me will complain, it would hardly kill a game. No, here's the hilarious part. Just as the game was getting its stride, balancing things out, removing most of the bugs, gaining customers worldwide steadily if not rapidly, a new unit was introduced: Maliken. You could now gather items during a match and piece them together to spawn as the legendary badass dude himself. And dude, was he ever badass. His badassitude (badassness?) cannot be overstated. He had more health, more spells, more armour and probably a bigger dick, he could out-damage almost everything in melee and everything else at range, he could teleport, he could knock down buildings, he could heal himself, long story short, the first team to get a Maliken won. Why? 'Cause he's Maliken, dumbass, he's like, awesome! Players could even emote "Maliken RUUUULES!"

The game quickly and predictably devolved into a race to the overpowered. There was absolutely nothing to do but get a maliken on your team, or you'd lose. This meant that even for the dumbest insecure brats looking to play a 'badass dude' and kill everything in their path, the game got stale after a few plays through the same predictable match outcome. Now, you'd think that by the time the angry nerds like me started abandoning the game, a couple of weeks after the unit was put in, the developers would backpedal and remove the stupid ego-trip that was destroying their product, but the situation apparently lasted for months. The game lost almost all its customer base, to the point of struggling to keep a single server filled in each hemisphere.

The devs did eventually remove the Maliken unit from the game, and the emote referencing him changed to "Maliken ruuuuules... my plant garden". I don't know whether they fired him, demoted him or just hit him with a rolled-up newspaper but i wouldn't blame them if they did mutiny and make him walk the metaphorical plank. In desperation to regain their customer base, they had to remove the $20 initial cost of the game and make it free to play, charging only to 'upgrade' to the full version which included access to the big flaming demon unit and i forget what else, and making a bit of money from players who use the legitimized cheating (microtransactions). Still, by the time it recovered most of its players, Savage 2 was old news, its hype burnt out. It's limped along since then, managing to fill a few servers consistently, but never reaching anywhere near the popularity it could've had.

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