Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How Far Beyond Earth?

- or, the concept-death disease.

 "You are the children of a dead planet, and this death we do not comprehend. We shall take you in, but may we ask this question: will we, too, catch the planet-death disease?"
- Conversations with Planet

Few games are truly memorable. Oh, sure, we remember small anecdotes, tidbits which fit into our personal narrative. This one time I built a mag tube around the world in Alpha Centauri. However, for aspects of a game to truly become memorable, they must generally offer something outside the distilled formulas which define genre. What truly stood out there was being able to alter the game map to ring Planet with dry land and metal. "Features" are supposed to be the criteria by which we discern the worth of one game from its competition... something more specific than "we've got big bad guys you can shoot a laser / magic pistol at."

Alpha Centauri was full of features.
Its atmosphere, painstakingly amalgamated from various science fiction novels, turned the various odds and ends of flavor-text which are in other games only disparate distractions into a set of over-arching themes immersing the player in a coherent, developing world. It felt, at many times, like playing through a novel.
Unit and base customization served as a vehicle for this immersion. While good/evil/chaotic/neutral labels are treated as nominal Disneyed platitudes by most games, Meier and Reynolds' team pulled out the stops to science fiction brutality. The aliens which assault your units are not lovably Spock-ish humanoids, but the tiny, gut-wrenchingly fearsome nerve-runners of the Pandora series. As a faction leader you could act not just hyper-aggressively as in most games, but viciously, suicidally evil. Want to build torture chambers to keep your citizens in line? Nerve-gas all your enemies? Exterminate the local wildlife or befriend it? Blow a gigantic crater in Planet's surface with an uber-nuke? Go for it, signor Borgia!
Faction leaders with actual personalities and agendas, potential for supporting bases both from inside and outside their individual territories, aquatic bases, psionic combat, all of this made Alpha Centauri much more than simply Civ 2.5 - in space! It was a nerd's game, a stab at fame for experienced developers who had just left their old company to strike out on their own.

Unfortunately, we've learned a little thing or two about how computer game developers secure and expand their playerbase, from the development pattern of online games and WoW in particular. Nerds are useful for an initial attention-grab, when you need a discerning audience which will discern you from your competitors based on actual features. You promise big features early in a product or product line and even deliver some few to whet the nerds' appetites, to get them talking and advertising your game for free. Once you've drawn them in as a core fanatic base, once you've made them invest themselves in your product, it's time to dumb everything down. Screw features. The mass-market is where the money's at, and the mass market is, well, reality-tv and sports fans. Idiots. To appeal to them, your product must advertise novelty (which the nerds will keep on doing for you for free so they don't have to admit to getting ripped off) but deliver the sort of mind-numbing blandness the less to threaten conventional minds.

In 1999, Firaxis was a start-up trying to make a name for itself. It is now one of the well-established names in the game industry, lending its customers the respectability of playing the most-referenced strategy game series of all time. Actual content, complexity, features...  well, those might get in the way. Teh internets has built a fair bit of hub-bub about the release of Beyond Earth next month. Some of us old-timers have been waiting for a sequel to Alpha Centauri for a decade and a half, stuck in one of those simmering infinite hope situations, and whatever the marketing hype does or does not state outright, Beyond Earth is blatantly meant to draw on free nerd advertising as SMAC2.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be shaping out that way. Beyond Earth is being marketed in the corporate manner: hype minus concrete details. Most troubling, though, is the apparent absence of Alpha Centauri's grandiose, globe-altering terraforming. You see, SMAC wasn't just a 4x game. It grew out of a time when the nerdy public still remembered Daisyworld and computer models had just spread from science labs to the PC. It followed in the footsteps not just of Civilization or Master of Orion, but Maxis' line of Sim games, most relevantly in this case SimEarth. Planet was not only a backdrop against which player activity played itself out, but a living, breathing thing. Its seas rose and fell, its immune system reacted to invading human presence, its winds carried moisture across continents. Planet was Gaia's sister, her bones, blood and breath the rock, seas and winds you attempted to manipulate to your advantage.

Terraforming was just one feature, true. Unit customization sounds like it might indeed be improved in Beyond Earth over SMAC, writing and voice acting might be good, might... might. But if this were a true sequel to Alpha Centauri, then one might expect it to bank on expanding its most memorable feature, the interaction with a complex simulated ecosystem, terraforming complete with raising and lowering terrain or digging moholes, the planetdeath disease. Other tidbits sap the hope of a new Alpha Centauri, like the image of a Dune-ish sandworm or other would-be kaiju in place of more subtle, insidious monsters like mindworms. More than anything though, terraforming and its impact on the rest of gameplay set the old masterpiece apart from other strategy games. Unfortunately, Firaxis is no longer selling to an informed, educated niche of science geeks and if it can't be expected to confuse its much wider audience now by making them consider prevailing winds and terrain elevations then we have to wonder about everything else they've dumbed down.

Beyond Earth is worth watching, on the off-chance Firaxis hasn't become entrenched in a mass-market mentality quite yet... but don't hold your breath, old-time SMACkers. It'll take some new start-up with dreams of glory to give us a true Alpha Centauri sequel.

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