Thursday, May 16, 2013

Majesty 2

Real-Time Strategy games tend toward one common failing: a lack of strategy. They reward mainly button-mashing, rapid cycling through units to micromanage movement and special abilities. This is especially true of multiplayer-oriented games, with Starcraft setting the tone for the rest of the industry, and there is some practical reason for it. Multiplayer matches must progress quickly when players are randomly matched against each other. You can't get players to sit there throwing units at each other for hours on end. Rather than remove elements from the concept, it makes more sense to design fast-moving games. It also appeals to a wider audience, allowing undeserving imbeciles to substitute twitch-reflexes for what should be a battle of wits, which brings the leet-kiddie market swarming in.

In general, attempts to address this issue tend to increase game duration. Multiplayer matches in Homeworld for instance routinely ran over an hour. A large-scale map of Sins of a Solar Empire with several AI opponents can take the better part of a day to trudge through.
The other angle is removing direct player control over individual combat units. AoS games do this implicitly by limiting the player to a single controllable unit and making the swarm of cannon-fodder into an fully predictable AI-controlled ally for each team of players. However, control can be removed altogether, giving the player only indirect influence on units' actions through waypoints and relegating gameplay to developing bases and deciding on the type of units to produce, upgrading them, placing static defenses, designating vague areas for expansion, etc. - in other words... strategy.

This is the main selling point of the Majesty games, and since there's not much difference between them aside from iterative improvements, i'll focus on the second one.

You're the king of a fantasy land. Your oafish but hardworking peasants and city guards just can't stand up to the various ogres, zombies, demons and so on which threaten your little town, so you enlist the aid of various adventurers. These of course have their own ideas about how to seek wealth and glory, but you can entice them and offer them various services. They kill things, decide when to drink potions and heal each other, kill more things, retreat or dive moronically into danger, kill some more, but at the end of the day they still come back to town to squander their ill-gotten booty.
It's a D&D-ish adventurer-centered economy. You spend money creating adventurer guilds and spawning and reviving the dozen or two would-be heroes and placing bounties on various objectives you'd like them to attack or defend, but you also create the shops they use when returning home with the loot. The town blacksmith and potion-sellers or simply the local tavern all pay right back into your coffers. Moreover, you need to equip those greedy glory-hogs well to keep your town safe so that the peaceful peasants can go about their business and build up little nest-eggs which your faithful tax-collectors will gladly funnel right into your treasury.

All in all, the challenge lies in creating a solid web of interdependence between the various adventurer guilds, from the cheap but rather ineffective rogue guilds to the much more expensive mages, elves, dwarves or special cults of spellcasters. Ideally, there is so much variation built into the basic game mechanics that no two matches would be he same. Build up adventuring parties of paladins, rogues and wizards one game, swtich to warriors, rangers and clerics the next. Turtle heavily behind towers and rely on a few well-trained adventurers for high-bounty targets or just build up a swarm of disposable heroes to strike out at the wilderness in all directions.

In practice though, one aspect of the game kills its potential. Not only does it lack a random map generator, which given the low number of map elements which need to be created at startup should have been quite simple to implement, but the game comes with almost no one-shot maps whatsoever. For some unfathomable reason, you're expected to be content with the few dozen scripted missions in the original campaign and the expansions, which wear thin quickly through their repetition. An RTS in which you're given a free-willed army to nudge down the winning path is perfectly, obviously suited to freeform gameplay and badly suited to specific mission objectives which require precise control, but for some reason that is exactly the mistake the developers made.

Majesty 2 ships with ten or so stand-alone maps, and most of these are again, scenarios. You're either fighting nothing but mages, or nothing but rangers, or you're given a specific castle to conquer or you're given a fully-developed core town. There are no maps whatsoever, none, which pit the player against several AI opponents, all starting from scratch.
The closest you can come to classic expansionist strategy-game satisfaction is in three maps which feature no AI towns, only monster generators, with the challenge being survival for a set period of time. They are further tainted by the fact that regardless of destroying the monster dwellings, mobs keep spawning at the edges of the map, removing most potential player control over the environment.

It's always odd to see a product miss its own point. How does one design a game so purposefully geared toward freeform strategic gameplay then simply give players no means to use it?

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