Saturday, May 18, 2013

Homeworld

Anecdote:
I was playing Homeworld online against one other player. He pushed me back, constantly, a wave of frigates and strike craft whittling down my defenses until he reached the mothership, the equivalent of the "main base" in most RTS games. I seemed to have lost the resources race: I had too few ships, constantly losing ground. In the end, I was even cannibalizing my resource-gathering vessels for a few spare resource points. Slowly I ran out of cash, ran out of defensive craft and looked about to lose. My mothership explodes in a massive ball of flame, he spouts the usual "GG" to add insult to injury... but the game doesn't end. He had ignored a single sensor blip, far above the main plane of battle, the asteroid field through which he'd been hounding my meager defenses.
It was a carrier, a mobile base, which had been quietly building up a few dozen strike craft and inching its way toward his now-defenseless mothership. As he suddenly realized the game wasn't ending because my missing resources had gone into something he had not yet encountered, the carrier dove, released its swarm of bombers, and I won the game before he could ever recall his forces to defend.
I punctuated the victory by paraphrasing Ender Wiggin: remember, the enemy gate is "down".

There hasn't really been anything quite like Homeworld since. The sequel failed to live up to the original's standards and I don't know of any well-funded RTS (or indeed any independent projects) which have tried to become a spiritual successor. Homeworld, the mothership, the slow ballet of fleets scattered through the void, has remained a unique experience. It was a nerd's dream, a brainy, sedate, melancholic atmosphere (or lack thereof) of tactical options. It was a game of spatial awareness, not an actions-per-minute clickfest.

It was not simply the fully-functional third dimension which made Homeworld so enjoyable but the simple elegance and balance which permeated its basic design choices. Movement, timing and positioning were key. Ships' speeds, turning rates and the positioning and firing arc of their guns decided their utility. There used to be a lot of talk in game reviews about "taming the randomizer", providing meaningful variation without either removing too much player control or falling prey to the law of averages like any game which cites the Damage-Per-Second of all its supposedly different weapons and abilities. Homeworld came much closer than others by relying on approach vectors, firing arcs and tracking speed instead of damage ranges. An ion cannon, the heaviest weapon in the game, could one-shot a fighter craft... if the fighter approached dead-on center from its front. Hotkeyed formation and AI settings allowed players to constantly change their ships' movement patterns without constantly clicking new destinations or directing individual units.
Just as importantly, Homeworld was very slow-paced compared to other RTS games. Distance measurements were readily available on the UI. A fast-moving scout ship moving at 1000 m/s would make a 20-km trip in 20 seconds. A destroyer, carrier or cruiser might take ten times as long. Ships rarely got one-shotted. Even in large fleet battles, small strike craft could duck in and out of weapons fire. There was time to re-assess, to counter, to countermand. There was little benefit to clicking faster, and much more to timing single commands correctly.

This is not to say Homeworld was just a range and first-strike race. It featured most of the special unit abilities one associates with RTS games. There was invisibility, healing, a force field, even crowd control through gravity well generators which could trap strike craft, all slowed to speeds which made each use of such effects meaningful without becoming an absolute advantage. Salvage corvettes could steal enemy ships but unlike instantaneous "conversion" spells in other games, they had to return the ship to a hangar in order to complete the switch, giving the victim plenty of time to mount a rescue operation.

All of this amounted to much more complex combat than other RTS games. Mental multitasking, the ability to keep track of the position and status of various unit groups and switch to them at the appropriate time, over-rode button-mashing. This scared away most of the leet kiddie clientele. It also had slightly steeper learning curve despite the familiar resource>research>build>kill RTS routine because of the three-dimensional camera rotation and movements. Many commands were given through hotkeys instead of the more user-friendly context-sensitive mouse clicks. Still, there was not nearly enough challenge to scare off would-be strategists. Not accidentally did I spout a phrase from Ender's Game in the anecdote at the start of this post. Most of Homeworld's customer base was obsessed with the book, dissatisfied nerds hungry for chances to display their superior tactical ability. We were all a bunch of wannabe Enders, a fanatical core following which Sierra could have easily handled into a long-term market base.

Homeworld's death was gradual, spurred on by both bad marketing and design decisions.
Most importantly, it lacked comprehensive strategic AI. Single-player games never got uninteresting because computer opponents always sent out a constant stream of small ship groups. AI lacked any adaptive response to player actions or over-arching goal, only one script the computer would use in all situations.
Despite this, Homeworld could easily have survived as a pure multiplayer game, and for a while it did. Its multiplayer service was easy to use, required no third-party services like Gamespy and featured a good variety of maps geared toward PvP play. There were leagues and ladders galore.

For me, the breaking point came through a single game balance patch which destroyed the dynamics of PvP combat. It gave scouts, the starter unit type, a bonus on their self-destruct ability, which put that one action at a higher than even benefit-to-cost ratio. Because scouts were fast-moving and easily destroyed, the game devolved to a contest over who could suicide scouts most efficiently. It worked against any unit type, even early-game units specifically designed to counter fast-moving strike-craft. If you could spot which of your scouts is taking damage and order it to suicide before it's destroyed, you could easily defeat any actual strategy the other player might have - without researching anything, without the need for formations, interdependencies or any sort of planning. You could completely cripple your enemy before the match got too complex. Homeworld instantly became a twitch game.

Now it must be understood that this sort of change comes about because of player demands. Players always demand easier games. They always demand an obvious "best" option so that they can feel clever for finding it. Suicide scouts were wildly popular because obviously the thing to do with scouts was to sucide them. No uncertainty as to formations, attack angles, unit combinations, etc. It proved such a popular change that online matches immediately devolved to scout battles. Every single game was decided by the same scouts vs. scouts kamikaze race. Refusing to use the new uber-strat, trying to counter it with anything else I could, I went from a twenty-game winning streak to a twenty-game losing streak. Then I quit.

Obviously that in itself did not kill the series, but it did set the tone. Either Relic or Sierra or both thought they saw a need to make the gameplay more accessible, less cerebral. Under the guise of improving control over units, the sequel increased the number of clicks needed to get anything done and lessened the reliance on formations and movement, needlessly organizing fighter craft into squadrons (groups-within-groups) or giving players specific subsystems to target on capital ships, rewarding again, not planning and foresight but micromanagement of minutiae. Even ignoring this tendency, the sequel did not develop Homeworld's gameplay enough to be worth a switch from the original, which likely resulted in a split in the playerbase. For my own part I passed it by because EVE-Online showed more promise of expanding the concept of strategic space combat.

Ever since then there's been nothing. The rights to Homeworld apparently languished in the vaults of various industry bigwigs, most notably THQ. As the purveyor of mass-market titles about macho soldiers and wrestlers reached its well-deserved bankruptcy this year (though I'm sure its top-level fatcats made out like bandits) Homeworld has a new home... with Gearbox, an equally mass-market-oriented nest of mediocrity. No other companies have seemed willing to try to emulate Homeworld. There are no big three-dimensional strategy titles being made.

There is, however, some glimmer of hope, to quote Wikipedia:
"After the acquisition several Relic Entertainment founders and Homeworld developers left Relic Entertainment and founded Blackbird Interactive in 2007, to produce a space RTS without the Homeworld name and franchise license."
And here they are. Unfortunately, they are advertising their new game as FTP, which always translates into legitimized cheating, pay-to-win. Also, the little they've released makes it look like a standard ground-crawling RTS, not another Homeworld. Still, if that's the closest we can come...


_______________________________________
edit 2016/03/16
Reviewed and edited this post, capitalizing my Is and removing some commas and passive verbs. Yes, I'm a worthless little wannabe writer. Sue me.
In the meantime, Deserts of Kharak was released. However, until it makes its way off Steam and onto GoG or some other DRM-free distribution service, I refuse to buy it, so I can't speak on its quality.

No comments:

Post a Comment