Monday, June 25, 2012

Sometime during the third or fourth day

Yahweh: Ok, wait, i got a new one. See that fluffy thing over there? That's a cloud.
Lucifer: Oh, not again... what does this one do?
Y: Do? Well, it's umm, fluffy, and it floats, and occasionally it falls apart.
L: Look pops, we went over this when you started poking holes in space-time, you can't just clutter the place up for no reason, people are going to notice. You come up with nonsense like this and you wonder why we don't respect you anymore.
Y: Hey, give it a chance, you'll love it.
L: What are we supposed to do with it?
Y: ...
L: You don't know, do you?
Y: OK, tell ya what, i'll let you take joyrides on it.
L: Yeah, alright, i guess that's sorta cool then.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I have nothing to say about Portal

I want to talk about Portal. I really do. There's just nothing i can add. I've been wanting to write something down about it ever since i played it long before i started this blog and i've simply never known where to start. The game is everything it set out to be and more than i could have made it. It is a slap upside the head of every imbecile who says that FPS mechanics limit a game to macho shotgun duels. It's action, suspense, challenge, freedom (or enough discovery to give the illusion of freedom) and humor both kind and bitter.
It's the company that put out one of the most popular shoot-em-up games ever made saying: "we are not our customers; yes, we know we make games for idiots playing for moronic e-peen contests, but there's more to us." There are many, many examples out there of talented individuals bowing to perceived market demands, the sculptor from The Fountainhead making kitschy baubles to sell for whatever scraps society deigns to throw his way. Portal is a very rare instance of quality slipped past the public's tastes for simplicity and repetition, the promise of the craft made good.

It's something to play for its own sake, not for ambition or empty promises, not because everything better is vaporware, or for achievements or stats or the illusion of advancement. Don't play it for the promise of cake.

I finally found something i can say about Portal. I only wish that at some point i'll get to where its developers were when they made it, to be able to sell quality, to say "I'm doing science and I'm still alive."

Monday, June 18, 2012


I play League of Legends quite a bit. I wish i could be playing Demigod. I ran through the basics of 'Aeon of Strife' games in a previous post. You could also call them single-unit RTS games. Right now i'm simply musing on the particular reasons for Demigod's failure. It is sickening to see games like Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends thrive while a much better version of the same concept died in the cradle.

Being a nostalgic old fool, i check in on Demigod once in a while. There is usually a single custom game starting up, evidence of a handful of die-hard fans struggling to keep the dream alive. Given that the game is several years old now, it's safe to say that things will never get better. The only hope for it is to be brought out at LAN parties (if those are still "in") and publicized among friends. Trying to play online now is hopeless, as the automated matchmaking system will never find enough players for a decent match, and in a custom game hosted on some kid's home computer you will likely end up with 500 ping, playing against a clique of fanatics who start telling you "you suck omg don't even play noob". Single-player is amusing enough once in a blue moon, but the AI, though surprisingly competent in simple fights, cannot handle the planning and cooperation which make up a good team pvp game.

And it is good. It could have been great. By all rights, this game should have been another Counterstrike, Everquest or Starcraft, a reference point for others. I suppose that before i get into the reasons for its failure, i should address its positive qualities.

Start with aesthetics. The game looks, sounds, and even feels impressive. There is a weighted, visceral quality to the characters movements and abilities that suggests motion and impact. Graphics are quite detailed and the game has a very individual style. This is a view of an entire game map, showing the general theme. Instead of putting you in generic landscapes with trees, rocks and ore mines, the game is set in fantastically constructed arenas based on vaguely Roman and Gothic architecture. The basic swarms of AI units aren't human or the usual elves, dwarves and goblins, but minotaurs. Everything from backstory to voicing, music and graphics is unabashedly bombastic, maintaining scale and contrast while putting players in a higher, inhuman setting, the realm of, well, demigods.
Units vary in size, as best seen in screenshots of the playable character "The Rook". Here he's the one on the left in the center, fighting a giant. The smallest playable characters aren't much bigger than the hordes of minotaurs scurrying about in the image. Those lizards flinging rocks from their tails on the left and right are "catapultosauri", Demigod's answer to stale old catapults. The harasser units players can buy for their team's AI aren't archers as in most games, but angels, darting in and out of combat, flitting off the map's edge, slicing at random targets in the equivalent of aircraft strafing runs.
These AI units bring me to the game's best quality, the team-oriented buildup in AI forces. Players get money by killing each other or automatically by holding certain objectives, and this money can either be used selfishly to buy items for oneself or invested in upgrades to the team's AI. Unlike in other games, the AI units are far from helpless, and the most common victory screenshot includes a swarm of computer-controlled giants hammering down the enemy base. Improving and making use of the waves of cannon fodder is central to the game, not just something players outgrow as they level to make them feel big about themselves.
There is also great variety in the player-controlled characters. Unlike in most AoS maps and games, you will never level up enough to get every skill on your character in any one match. There is more than enough variation in skills and items to allow most champions to be played as tanks, support, demolishers, assassins or support fire. The game does not boil down to a simplistic dick-measuring contest over who gets the most kills.

Except that maybe sometimes it does. For now i'll just say that Demigod kept one of the mainstays of its predecessors, and this contributed to its downfall. There was still too much an emphasis on killing other players. Not only does the killer receive a bounty, and the amount was set a bit too high, but the victim's gold income is halted until he respawns, making it very difficult to make up for killing ability.
For the most part, the game failed because of a lack of financial backing after its release. There was no advertising that i can remember. Despite the fact that i already owned a game published by Stardock, i only found out about Demigod by word of mouth while playing Savage 2, quite ironic because one of Demigod's direct competitors was S2Games' own Heroes of Newerth.
The game's online infrastructure also left much to be desired. The mainstay of online play was meant to be the 'Pantheon', a series of random matches in which players picked a side, limiting themselves to one half of the possible character choices to fight against the others. The automated matchmaking was unfortunately not very good at judging players' pings and one in every few games was bogged down by game-breaking lag.
There were also balance and playability issues, and here it's the developer that must take the blame. The player characters were split into assasins, which operated by themselves, and generals, which could purchase small retinues of units to follow them. Unfortunately, the developers made generals' units controllable, which undermined the concept's "one unit" feature by making players flip through unit groups as in regular button-mashing RTS games. Aside from this there were also a lot of niggling details like the generals' healer pets healing for much too much.
Another flaw was the fact that players who disconnected were replaced by AI. This was worse than simple absence, since the AI would routintely fail to follow players and cooperate with them and simply run in and feed the opposing team bounty after bounty. it's as if they wanted to automate the process of griefing.

The final nail in Demigod's coffin was an unfortunate decision which combined most of its flaws into one nosedive into unplayability. Each iteration of the Pantheon had a different theme: good vs. bad characters, tanks vs. squishies, etc. It should have been obvious that this might potentially make it very difficult to form balanced teams, but for the first couple of months it was bearable. At one point, the pantheon matchup was assassins vs. generals, and that's where the game fell apart. Generals, with their extra healing from their pets which had not been properly balanced yet, had a distinct advantage over the assassins which were suddenly without support. An all-assassin team had no staying power. Pantheon matches because pointlessly one-sided and when players tried to pass the time in custom games, they met with even worse connection and lag issues than in the Pantheon. As players started drifting away, the pantheon advanced slower and slower towards its 1000-win victory condition, only prolonging the game's worst period. By the time the developers stepped in and changed the matchup, the game had lost so many players that getting a low-ping match was impossible, and the few remaining customers gave up.

And now i'm playing a simplistic, cartoonish, watered-down version of the concept simply because it has a playerbase. It would take only minimal effort from Stardock and Gas-Powered to bring Demigod back up: iron out the general pet balance issue, remove the ability to control them directly, and get some publicity out there, a few banner ads in the right places. Given that the match size is 2v2 to 5v5, it would require relatively few players to revive the community.

As it stands though, there is only one way to play Demigod, and that's at LAN parties, for which it would be ideally suited. The game makes a very good first impresssion, it requires few players, matches only run about half an hour, and you'd be avoiding the lag issues by staying offline. Who knows, maybe that will actually happen, and word of mouth will spread from LAN to LAN, bringing a new batch of players online to petition Gas Powered and Stardock to reinvest in their flawed gem.
Not holding my breath, though.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

With apologies to Ms. Dickinson

Tell all the truth and tell it blunt
Our path in logic lies.
Too bright for God's astonished fright
The wonder in our eyes.

Like free thought on the elders forced
By isolation proud,
The truth must free us mercilessly
Or all our race stay blind.

(sorry, Em, please don't haunt me, i'm deranged enough already)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Say it ain't so, Ray

Being a fairly well-read science fiction fan, i am familiar with and quite appreciative of Ray Bradbury's more famous works. The recent news of his death led me to skim his wikipedia page, which mentions his early fascination with some of the previous big names in scifi. I was expecting Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, sure, but i foolishly ignored the probability of the inclusion, among true masterpieces like, say possibly 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or The Time Machine, of Burroughs' Mars/Barsoon books, one of the sleaziest collections of primitive, instinct-driven crowd-pleasing trash ever to masquerade as literature. You're telling me that the visionary responsible for Fahrenheit 451, the Martian Chronicles and the October Country was inspired by stories of a personality-challenged macho-man beating up giants with his bare fists to get at red-skinned nudist princesses?

Ok, fine, realistically i'm not entirely outraged. Bradbury was what, in his early teens, if that, when reading Burroughs' trash? I must admit it would've become a major influence in my life as well. For all their sleaze, Carter's adventures on Barsoom are still basically valid fantasy stories, and as someone who grew up idolizing Arnold Schwarzenegger as android or barbarian, i'm hardly entitled to moral high ground.

I wonder how damaging it is that our 'gateway drug' into speculative fiction is often this kind of sensationalistic tripe populated by sexual archetypes. I have no idea how it works with the female half of the species (i have no idea how anything compares with those alien creatures) but the peak of fascination with flashy laserguns and spaceships in boys seems to pretty securely coincide with prepubescent 'male curiosity' and the rush towards violence and machismo, so the stories which mix these elements acquire the gloss of nostalgia. I doubt whether we're capable of ever being sufficiently critical of these early influences, no matter how sophisticated our tastes become.

This is an interesting departure from normal human behavior. The basic setup is that as soon as it's socially advantageous, we apes all agree to belittle everything which appeals to the younger crowd, everything that's 'for babies' or 'kid stuff' and stick our noses way up into the lofty realms of action movies with machine guns instead of lasers and romance novels with explicit details instead of adolescent pining. Everyone else is willing to give their childhood the old Judas kiss in return for membership in the exclusive club of maturity. Is it only we scifi fans that still stick pointy plastic ears on our heads whether we're thirteen or thirty and fondly relive our fantasies of beating up four-armed, green-skinned giants?