Broken Game Mechanics

In some ways, sports fans have great advantages over those of us who are computer gaming nerds. In general, most popular sports were established decades ago at the minimum. The vast majority of the flaws and loopholes in the rules have been corrected and closed, so sports are, in a sense, predictable. (As predictable as anything run by humans, of course.)

Video games, on the other hand, generally don’t last long enough to work out all the problems. Developers may patch the biggest problems, but very few games have a lifespan of a decade plus with active development to improve the game and remove options for play that are game-breaking.

And make no mistake – sometimes code, implemented as designed, is game-breaking. Developers are not gods; they make mistakes, miss implications of their own ideas, and generally screw things up.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been pondering some elements of Star Wars Galaxies.

Before talking about the particular game-breaking issue I have in mind, I suppose I should define “game-breaking”. And to do that, I need to point out that what’s game-breaking in a multiplayer game is not necessarily game-breaking in a single-player game.

Take, for example, KOTOR 2. KOTOR was, first and foremost, a lightsaber game. There is no doubt the devs intended it to be played as a Jedi, swinging a lightsaber to cut down Sith Lords. KOTOR 2, on the other hand, introduced feats and specials to make ranged combat viable – even against lightsaber-wielding enemies. On the balance, the game still favored lightsaber combat over Force combat over ranged combat; however, the game was playable and beatable with any sort of build. Some were certainly more optimized than others, but players had options.

If you carry that paradigm into multiplayer, it fails, especially if it’s player-vs-player multiplayer. As a rule of thumb, you have three types of players: min-max players, who do everything to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths to make their characters as powerful as possible; casual players, who generally choose skills and options they perceive of as “cool” without worrying about overall effectiveness; and players looking for a challenge, who either gimp their characters deliberately or try to pull off feats that the developers intended to be impossible.

When player-vs-player is introduced, you’ve now put your casual players at a great disadvantage. The min-maxers are going to stomp on them, and the challenge players are probably going to be min-maxing too.

With that in mind, in an MMO, I’d define game-breaking as “Skills, items, or game mechanics that render entire player classes moot.”

In Star Wars Galaxies, particularly pre-CU, that mechanic was Armor Piercing.

SWG had some amazingly in-depth systems. The crafting system was insane (and is still something I struggle to completely grasp) in its depth. Space and starship outfitting was almost an art in mass and power management to maximize fighter performance. Entire cities were built and managed by players. Even decorating was almost a profession in itself, due to the options available to players.

But parts of combat were very wrong.

Raph Koster wrote a series of posts on SWG this year, and they’re well worth reading from a game design perspective, so I understand why they got it wrong and things didn’t work. But there are still fans of the old pre-Combat Upgrade SWG that don’t seem to understand how broken several aspects are.

I’m now six hundred words in, and I’ll finally get to the topic I wanted to talk about!

SWG’s damage reduction worked in several ways. If you had the appropriate skill to examine a creature, or if you picked up a piece of armor, there were several sets of stats to look at. Damage reduction from armor was handled by two separate, yet equally important stats: Resistances and Armor Level.

Resistances offered a flat reduction to incoming damage based on the percentage. If the armor had 80% resists to energy, and you attacked with an energy weapon, only 20% of your damage got through on a successful hit. Not rocket science. The proliferation of the best armor in the game, composite, due to overpowered doctor buffs led to many people using stun weapons, since composite’s lowest resistance was always to stun.

Armor Levels for a target could range from 0 to 3. Think of it is unarmed, light armor, medium armor, and heavy armor. (That’s how it was described in game.) Player armor maxed at 1, but creature and NPC armor went all the way up to 3. Armor Piercing on weapons could also range from 0 to 3 (none, light, medium, heavy); player weapons were acquirable at all four levels.

The interaction of those two numbers was catastrophically game-breaking.

When AP was compared to AL, damage penalties and bonuses applied, starting at 25%. AP2 attacks against AL1 meant 25% bonus damage; AP3 attacks against AL1 meant 50% damage bonus.

Flipping that, an AP0 attack against an AL3 creature meant 75% damage reduction…before the flat damage reduction from resists. Attacking a creature with AL3 with your AP0 weapon, and said creature has 80% resists against your damage type? You’re doing 5% of your weapon’s rated damage.

“Get yourself a weapon with higher AP rating!” seems like the obvious answer, right? The problem is that many classes couldn’t get an AP3 weapon. Particularly gimped were Pistols-based builds; no pistol had a ranking higher than AP1. Period.

Entire classes built around weapon types were utterly useless at high-end PvE or PvP. (Yes, some PvPers could pull off pistols at various points, mostly due to bounty hunter’s eyeshot and a Geonosian sonic blaster for stun damage, while maximizing dodge by taking points in fencer. I’m talking casual play here, not min-max. Also, no one could PvE at high end with pistols.)

At the time, the implications weren’t well-understood. It took time for players to understand the mechanics in-depth, and quite often those at the top of the food chain weren’t in a hurry to share that information with others. But years have passed since then; now days, log into a SWG emulator for pre-CU, and what classes are almost everyone playing?

Rifleman: Armor Piercing 3 T-21 blaster rifle.

Swordsman: Armor Piercing 3 blast hammer.

Could something have been done to fix it?

I would argue, from Raph Koster’s posts, that no, nothing could be done about it. Giving all classes an AP3 weapon would be a very stopgap “fix” – it means everyone needs to use their high-end weapon. The way weapon refire rates were calculated meant speeding up lighter weapons wasn’t an option; pistols were already at the 1 attack per second cap, and combat speeds even faster than that simply weren’t an option at the time. (See Raph Koster’s post on the server hardware limitations.) Slowing down the heavy AP weapons would’ve been virtually impossible, again due to how weapon speeds were calculated. (With a full set of skills in a weapon, everyone attacks at or very near speed cap.)

I have no doubt the idea of Armor Piercing/Armor Levels was designed to allow more diversity in weapon choice. Instead, it killed off all but a few viable options for combat.

When designing a mechanic, think long and hard about all the repercussions of it. Also, bring in a min-maxer or three and see if they can figure out a way to exploit it that you haven’t thought of. I guarantee they’ll find something new.

Rogue One

It’s like 1999 all over again.

Star Wars fans have been getting a crazy amount of content since the entire franchise was bought by Disney. Though Clone Wars ended, and canon was subsequently reset, there’s been multiple novels, comics, and the new Star Wars Rebels cartoon released (which ended its first season on a high note, including the return of Clone Wars character Ahsoka Tano). Information on upcoming media continues to pour out, from long-awaited Battlefront 3 to rumors of Episode VII‘s plot.

Today, Episode VIII got a release date (subject to change, I’m sure, given how far out it is) and, more interestingly, the first stand-alone Star Wars movie was announced: Rogue One.

For readers who aren’t big Star Wars fans, the title doesn’t mean much. To longtime fans, though, this is an extremely exciting announcement.

Pre-canon wipe, Rogue Squadron was an elite fighter squadron led by Wedge Antilles in the war against the Empire. Founded by Luke Skywalker, they were the “best of the best” X-wing unit and were the spearhead of offensive operations.

Rogue Squadron featured in a series of comics by the same name, plus a set of four novels written by Michael Stackpole. The late Aaron Allston wrote a trilogy of X-wing novels that immediately followed Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron, though Allston’s relegated the Rogues to secondary status to focus on the screwups of Wraith Squadron.

Among the original expanded universe novels, the X-wing series is consistently listed among the best and most-loved, often just after Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series that kicked off the entire EU.

Before The Phantom Menace, the Rogues also inspired a series of games also collectively referred to as X-wing – the titular game, which started it in 1993, followed by TIE Fighter (often considered the best of the series), X-wing vs TIE Fighter, and finally X-wing Alliance. The final game came out just before The Phantom Menace, and the series has never been revisited, though it had a spiritual successor of sorts in the Star Wars Galaxies MMO’s Jump to Lightspeed expansion.

Among the Star Wars fandom, there are distinct groups (though they’re seldom spelled out as such). Jedi and Sith are definitely one group (and arguably the most popular); there’s also the stormtrooper cosplayers (most notably the 501st, which does a large amount of charity work); and a smaller segment of X-wing fans.

So, at least a part of the fanbase is very fired up to see an X-wing movie. And this is a huge change of pace – for the first time since The Phantom Menace released in 1999, there’s a major Star Wars project that isn’t based on Jedi or Sith.

And pilots everywhere rejoiced.

Star Wars: Episode 7 Teaser

Since the teaser hit on Friday, I’ve had people (usually very excited) asking me about my reaction to the trailer. Oddly, I’m feeling rather ambivalent.

First, for reference:

The first time I watched it, I actually thought it was another fanfilm trailer mashup. JJ Abrams is delving really hard into the old Ralph McQuarrie concept art for the first trilogy – something the people creating Star Wars media seem to be doing since we saw the Y-wing bombers in the first season of Clone Wars.

Parts of the teaser made me smile and thrilled me a bit – namely, the trio of X-wings skimming the lake (I don’t even mind the new design) and the Millennium Falcon evading TIE Fighters (presumably over the sands of Tatooine). Some of that is probably nostalgia for the golden years of LucasArts gaming: X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighters, X-Wing Alliance, or even Star Wars Galaxies before it shut down.

Much of the rest of the teaser did almost nothing for me. The (presumably) Sith Lord’s lightsaber design didn’t bother me (though it was why I first thought it was a fan trailer, not the real deal), and the new droid looked ridiculous. The rest of it looked pretty much like I expected a Star Wars teaser to look.

Maybe I’m getting cynical. The past fifteen years of Star Wars productions has been very hit-or-miss across the board, from movies to television shows to gaming. For every good production it seems like there’s been two terrible ones. Maybe JJ Abrams is the guy who will turn that around, but I’m reserving judgement until (at minimum) I get to see a full trailer.

And maybe someday, when Shattered Expanse is a multi-billion dollar media enterprise, I’ll be in a position to comment and actually have something to say that people will listen to!

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed II

This continues my ongoing review of the Assassin’s Creed science fiction/alternate history game series.

Remember all my complaints about Assassin’s Creed?

There’s a reason Assassin’s Creed II, set in Italy during the Renaissance, is considered by many to be the best of the series. Released in 2009, it continues the frame story of Desmond Miles from right where Assassin’s Creed left off (in a very ugly fashion, I might add, that would have angered me had I not had Assassin’s Creed II queued up and ready to go). The character of Altaïr is gone, though, to be replaced by the much more dynamic Ezio Auditore da Firenze.

Ezio’s a bit of a womanizing happy-go-lucky guy until his father and brothers have their necks stretched following a treason conviction based on trumped-up evidence. Donning the robes of an Assassin, Ezio spends Assassin’s Creed II pursuing his revenge.

Ezio also takes up the leadership role for the Auditore family after his father’s demise, and a minigame involves restoring the family’s estate. While that sort of world-building makes its first appearance here, it certainly won’t be the last time in the series.

Assassin’s Creed II takes the series from alternate history to very alternate history. I don’t recall another game that involves a fight with the pope over an artifact from a pre-human civilization that can be used to control the minds of other people. Seriously. And, as with Assassin’s Creed, the game ends on a nasty cliffhanger that’s downright irritating. (Seriously, closure, people. Closure.) However, part of that cliffhanger is information tying the frame story far more closely to the main story, which was desperately needed given the player time spent on the frame.

The game plays better than Assassin’s Creed. Combat is a bit more dynamic and adds some new weapons to the mix. Ezio is actually an interesting character, and his conflicts with his family and his desire for revenge seem far more organic than Altaïr’s flat performance. Large jumps in time are a bit jarring, but this is a far superior game to Assassin’s Creed.

The Assassin’s toolset expands a bit. First, and most importantly, Ezio can actually swim. Add to that dual hidden blades (instead of the single in the first game), poison, and a gun, and there’s a lot more ways to end a target’s life than in the original game. There’s also the addition of a notoriety system; actions now have longer-term consequences.

There’s also more world interactions than before. Ezio takes to the air in Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine, drives a wagon with a team of horses, and rows a gondola, along with the familiar horseback sequences in the “world” between the game’s major cities.

AC2 is improved in virtually every way over the original Assassin’s Creed. It’s definitely a worthy successor.

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed

My adventures in Assassin’s Creed started last Christmas when a good friend bought me Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag after hearing me say it looked interesting. During various Steam sales, I picked up all five previous games and have, over the course of the last six months or so, played through them all.

With new Assassin’s Creed games launching last week, I figured I’d better get some reviews up. I’m waiting for Rogue to be released for PC, and it’ll be a while before I get a new video card that’s capable of Unity. One of the downsides to running a mini-ITX computer with a single-slot graphics card is that you usually can’t get the latest and greatest crammed in the case; I’m still using a Radeon 5770 slim card.

Expect weekly reviews for the next six weeks.

Assassin’s Creed is an ongoing science fiction/alternate history video game series. Launched in 2007, it’s been releasing at least one major game a year on a pretty insane production schedule. The general quality of the games has gone up and down, so we’re going to start at the beginning.

Assassin’s Creed (the original game) started the whole affair. Players switch between modern-day prisoner Desmond Miles and his ancestor Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. (I so copy-pasted that.) The modern plot is just a framing story for the real action, in this case taking place in 1191 during the Crusades.

Altaïr is a powerful, high-ranking Assassin in his order. However, during his first mission in the game, he breaks the tenets of the Creed and, as a result, is busted down to novice after barely escaping a well-deserved execution. As penance, he has to hunt down nine Templars in order to restore his rank.

It would be unjust to judge Assassin’s Creed by comparing it to the later games; it established a new universe and played smoothly (for the most part). The combat system is largely counter-based, and attempting to take offensive action instead of counterstriking usually doesn’t end well.

The game offers a variety of weapons (the infamous hidden blade, swordplay, and throwing knives) and is fairly open-world, although the objectives stay the same. Unfortunately, the game suffers from obviously being a game – by which I mean there’s a set pattern you follow for each assassination. Arrive at the city, talk to the local Assassin’s Bureau contact, gather intelligence, talk to the contact again, and then head out to knife your target. The first time, it feels cool; the sixth time, you’re ready to chuck a controller out the window.

The character of Altaïr also feels a little flat at times. He doesn’t seem to have interests outside of sticking sharp things in other people; and while he is hunting down Templars to restore his rank, he doesn’t seem real concerned about it either. He just feels flat, like characters often did in older video games. (Although, given its 2007 release date, Assassin’s Creed could have – and should have – done better.)

While later entries far exceed Assassin’s Creed, it’s still not a bad game – it suffers from having created the baseline all the following games started from and improved upon.

Definitely worth playing.

Verdict: 6/10

Well, There Went My Plans for the Week…

Nostalgia-driven gaming site Good Old Games announced a new set of releases this morning. Gamers everywhere, including the one writing this, are ecstatic.

X-Wing and TIE Fighter absorbed a large chunk of my misspent youth.

X-Wing set the bar for space combat sims at the time of its release. While Wing Commander was already firmly established, X-Wing took it up a notch with full 3D polygonal graphics and advanced ship systems. Star Wars was the perfect setting for such a simulation, and let thousands of pilots grip joysticks tight and lose themselves in the same ship-to-ship combat we saw in the original trilogy.

I eventually got involved with an online gaming organization that custom-built missions for X-Wing and regularly had competitions and storywriting around them. Really, this involvement was my first “serious” writing outside of school assignments – and it was because I wanted to, not because I had to. While the various writeups are long-gone, it was cooperative fanfiction at its finest – a stolen setting, yes, but original characters, original plots, and a fantastic time by all.

But going on the merits of the game itself, TIE Fighter took an excellent game and made it into a shining star that still appears on “Best Ever” lists whenever they are written by someone old enough to have played it.

TIE Fighter swapped the cockpits. Instead of flying for the good guys in the alphabet fighters of the Rebel Alliance, players pulled on the dark helmets and clung to the yokes of the evil Galactic Empire’s TIE series instead. And while X-Wing‘s storytelling was good, especially for the time, TIE Fighter‘s writing still stands up as an amazing product today.

A big chunk of games now days have a good/evil alignment system of some sort, and allow players to be “evil”, but I can’t think of one that managed the subtlety and moral shadows that TIE Fighter pulled off with style and eloquence.

While we all know the Empire as evil embodied, the average pilot or soldier doesn’t see it that way. The player flies on the side of order against the elements of chaos that, frankly, cause death and pain for innocent people. Various tours of duty include yes, hunting Rebel elements down, but also bringing a halt to an inter-species civil war, eliminating pirate gangs, establishing new security outposts on the frontier, and putting an end to traitors (who don’t have pure or even ideological motives themselves).

It’s a game that makes you root for the bad guys, and enjoy doing it. And suddenly the black-and-white of Imperial vs Rebel isn’t nearly so clear-cut.

These are two fantastic games that have been way overdue for this sort of re-release.

I guess it’s time to dig the joystick out of the basement and get myself set up to fly again. There’s a war on, after all!