Tag Archives: boring

Spreadsheet simulation for the planet-bound

DUST 514 should be boring.

I’ve finally managed to borrow a PS3 and get stuck into DUST for a while. As an EVE Online nut, I’ve been hoping to do this for quite some time. And also as an EVE Online nut, I’ve heard plenty about how it’s not really all that great a game.

It appears to have come a significant way since its release in terms of having bugs removed. I’ve still found a few glitches where the game can’t decide on your exact location, but they’re usually resolved once someone forcefully respawns you. There are also a few glitches with using a keyboard and mouse instead of the typical controller setup — sometimes the keys it tells you to use just don’t work, and sometimes it tells you to use a controller button instead. I’m using a keyboard-mouse because I’ve not been able to get used to aiming with the PS3 controller (the sensitivity always feels wrong to my XBOX-trained hands).

Press kit image of DUST 514 from CCP hf
I think he’s shooting at an enemy pivot table

But chief among possible grievances is that the game types seem extremely limited. (I should say at the outset that I’ve not joined a major player-owned corporation, so there might be things I’m missing here.) There are three game types for regular matches: “Ambush”, which is your standard kill-everyone mode with a time limit and a ‘clone limit’ of 50; “Domination”, which is a standard King of the Hill mode and which has a ‘clone limit’ of 150; and “Skirmish”, which is a multiple hill variant of “Domination”. That’s it. The ‘clone limit’ mechanic (each time you respawn you start in a new clone of yourself — a technological link back to EVE that’s fictionalised in the novel EVE: Templar One if you’re interested) and the abstracted victory conditions add unpredictability to the end point of the match; the match ends either when your team’s out of clones or when you destroy the opposition’s Mobile Command Centre by maintaining control of an auto-firing cannon for longer than the other guys. And despite taking place on differing planets throughout the EVE game world, there are a fairly limited number of maps. Perhaps humans in the distant future take the term “parallel Earth” a little too literally and just terraform planets to look identical.

What soon becomes apparent is that DUST 514 relies not on variety but on unpredictability, setup, strategy and cooperation in equal parts to make gameplay interesting. In hindsight, and being an EVE Online nut, I should have expected this from CCP (who develop both DUST and EVE) because it’s rather similar to the EVE philosophy. Setting up a dropsuit fit is almost absurdly similar to fitting out a ship in EVE, even to the point of using many of the same fictional technologies. As an EVE nut it’s sort of comfortingly familiar, but I’m certain that non-EVE players would find the translation of EVE‘s steep technical learning curve into the FPS genre a bit odd.

As for cooperation, it apparently happens sometimes. There are up to 16 players per side, which is enough to pull off some expert manoeuvres if you’re more coordinated than the other guys. This happens, though most games seem to have one or two organised squads and a much larger crew of lone rangers. I’ve never heard any comms on the chat channel for the entire team, so I’m guessing the squads use their own comms channel. Good one, guys. While this makes strategising fairly challenging, there are enough support roles built into the game to make tacking yourself on to someone else’s strategy a moderately rewarding play style. You can be a medic if you want, reviving your incapacitated team mates to prevent using up valuable clones. If you’ve got the skills, you can be a heavy gunner, or drive or fly a vehicle. Haven’t played around with those myself, don’t have the skills. What I have been mucking around with is being a sniper.

I think the way DUST does sniping is the biggest surprise I’ve had from this game. I’m actually better at sniping in this game than at regular soldiering (at which I’m fairly woeful). But I couldn’t possibly attribute this to my own skill. DUST‘s small collection of maps and game types hides the fact that the maps are far larger than would normally be required. When you’re a regular soldier, you find the space between your initial spawn point and where all the action happens quite annoying. But when you’re a sniper, the exceedingly generous amount of land surrounding the battle arena provides you with a plethora of tiny hiding places. Judging by the number of gullies, small mounds and structures along the ranges of hills at the periphery of these maps, I’d say the maps were designed partially with snipers in mind. You’re never safe anywhere, of course, but many of these hiding places are sufficiently far from where anyone would normally be looking that you can get a few kills in before you’re noticed. And when you are noticed, it’s usually by another sniper. Although sniper rifles seem underpowered, they’re still useful enough to provide support to your team mates closer to the action.

What’s more, in typical EVE-like fashion your setup plays a significant part in your sniping effectiveness. You could choose to buy-to-win through microtransactions, but who’s that much of a schmuck? It’s all about the slow grind. Skilling up, buying new gear, modifying your dropsuit to be less scan-able and boost your damage, and all the while honing your actual skills of aiming and finding good hiding spots. I dare say that to most FPS players this would be tedious, but to anyone familiar with EVE it’ll feel fairly natural.

But then, I suppose that’s one reason why DUST hasn’t really worked. It’s an FPS that appeals more to the players of a relatively small and infamously slow MMORPG than to regular FPS players. That DUST doesn’t bore me is probably more of a testament to how engaging a game EVE can be than to any particular qualities of DUST itself. DUST ostensibly builds a playable game from very few conventional FPS elements by adding a few RPG-like elements to the mix, along with its much-touted ‘orbital strike’ mechanic (which, by the way, I’m yet to see — I’ve seen “warbarge strikes” but they’re apparently weaker than a proper orbital strike by an EVE player, and I’d honestly be surprised if anyone in EVE was bothering). But underpinning those RPG-like elements is the RPG they were borrowed from. Take away that RPG, its world, its technologies, its story, and DUST would be nothing.

I should be bored. I’m not sure I should even be professionally interested — the four instances of music I’ve found in the game are basic loops that seem unrelated to the music in EVE. But, just like in EVE, I’ve kept returning just to see what will happen next, and whether the latest tweaks to my setup will give me the advantage against strangers in far-flung corners of the galaxy.

Kerbal Space Program and the Kinda Sisyphean Philosophy of gameplay

I’ve sworn off Kerbal Space Program in a fit of frustration.

It’s an impressive game simulation, even more so because it’s still in development. It’s one of the most challenging games simulations I’ve played—a supremely technical experience that rewards the intellectual effort you put in to it (to a point). It also rewards (to a point) your ability to realign your spatial awareness and twitch your keys accordingly to control your potential spacecraft. And though technical, it’s also quite beautiful and more than a little cute. Your mission is to hurl tiny green googly-eyed people into a space vista that is often quite pretty. I really like the music that accompanies leaving Kerbin’s atmosphere, which is as wide-eyed and awestruck as music can be. But somewhere along the way Kerbal Space Program also redefines “tedious”.

To be fair, much of my frustration is my own fault. For instance, during one spectacular waste of a day I failed to realise that my spaceship’s trajectory would miss the intercept with the planet I was aiming for. I then failed to realise that waiting for another intercept while in an elliptical orbit around the sun was utterly futile. I know, I know… If I’d played it less like a noob I’d have had more fun and left fewer Kerbals aimlessly drifting through space. Poor things.

But the fault can’t be entirely mine; Kerbal Space Program can be genuinely slow-paced, as any supremely technical experience open to noobs behind computer screens must be. Creating spaceships is best done either a) painstakingly, or b) recklessly and with explosive intent. Orbital manoeuvring is done in precise, slow-moving increments. And confusingly, everything in between creation and orbit relies on twitch reflexes and a gymnastically bendy spatial awareness. All the pains you take building a ship can come to naught in a millisecond at 11,000m when you twich down-left instead of down-down-twist-right. Like Sisyphus, it seems you’re cursed to push your boulder-sized collection of fuel tanks into space, watch it plunge back down/miss its target/hit its target rather too hard, and repeat ad infinitum.

Option b.

I think there’s an element of this in all gameplay. Load -> play -> die -> load -> play -> … Win one race just to start another… Quest after quest, match after match, character after character, game after game… The cyclical gameplay experience has caused a bit of a stir as it leaked into the outside world over the last decade (see the film Run Lola Run for an oft-quoted comparison to gameplay). But within the game world it can still test your patience. Some games use this well, like the maddeningly addictive Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition, and those racing games that strike a good balance between racing and car setup like Gran Turismo or the Forza series. If, on the other hand, the recurrent experience gives you time enough to ponder, and your ponderings turn from the game to the recurrent experience itself, you can lose sight of why you’re playing. Gameplay becomes as banal as washing your hair or putting out the garbage. At which point you might as well do those things because they’ll be quicker and more beneficial to your mental wellbeing.

I’m no stranger to slow gameplay, and often I prefer it. And I don’t mind going back to repeat something if I noob it up a bit. But there’s a limit, you know?

Fable 3 and the slow, painful death of interesting gameplay

A few weeks ago I fired up Fable 3 for the first time. It came with the XBOX 360 my wife and I got for our wedding.* I’d not had any real desire to seek out a Fable game in the past, but since this one came for free I thought I’d give it a shot. I thought I might even give playing a game as an evil character a go. Fable, so I though, was all about good vs. evil and forging your own path.

Well, I might have discovered that I don’t really do evil characters all that well. Maybe. Truth be told, I got nowhere trying to answer that question. Fable 3, for all its self-proclaimed (assumed?) non-linearity and its posturing as a single-player steampunk Second Life, gives you only the most minuscule hints of power over your character’s fate. And then, like a crazy clown wielding a wet and slightly rancid fish, it hits you in the face with its linearity over and over again and begs you to like it. You choose your mission (if it’s not chosen for you) then you follow a line to your goal. You literally follow a line. It glows and you follow it, desperately hoping the corner of your eye distracts you towards some enthrallingly-growing grass or some paint you can watch dry.

Perhaps, despite not really expecting anything from this game, I was expecting too much. I understand that games aren’t just made for gamers these days, and that a growing industry can’t alienate its newest devotees. But I really feel like Fable 3 missed all possible targets. This is not a childrens’ game — it’s rated MA15+ in Australia for “strong sexual references and violence”. But you can’t view its goofiness and cartoon ambiance as a wholly aesthetic choice when the delivery lacks any maturity. The themes of civil unrest and the power over life and death are jarring in their disparity to the child-like initial game activities (getting dressed to go outside, shaking people’s hands, making friends); the disparity is so inelegant that it couldn’t be part of the conceit. This game feels clumsy, almost rude, as it asks you to make decisions over people’s lives before it’s finished introducing itself. Even more so as you realise the first few hours of gameplay are a drawn-out, potentially never-ending tutorial. You’re left feeling infantile and inept, following a stupid gold line, wearing a chicken suit and shouldering an unavoidable blood guilt.

A game for children with adult themes, or a game for adults with a child-like heart? Neither, just a game that failed. Is this the way the game industry is going? Is it going to become the game tutorial industry, churning out games which end at the precise moment you learn how to play them? Will challenging gameplay be dropped in favour of the boring-but-easy in the hope that numb time fillers net more revenue than games which are actually games? If so, count me out. I’ll go study something interesting like why “minim” is spelled with two i’s or why Bach wasn’t born in Venezuela. Speaking of which, Fable 3‘s music sucks. It has some orchestral panache but it’s excessively dramatic outside of fight scenes or main plot branches, crippling its narrative ability and making you wish it wasn’t there.

The one good thing I found about this game was that you can win fights using only magic at an early stage. Oh, and it has a bit of an all-star voice cast, with cool people like John Cleese, Zoë Wanamaker, Stephen Fry and Simon Pegg (I didn’t hear the last two but Wikipedia knows all)… though that kind of reminds me, yet again, of how cool people sometimes lend their awesome talents to truly unworthy creations.

(Ponderings on the theme of “pointing things out with music” will return once I’ve forgotten Fable 3 enough to want to play games again. Getting this off my chest should have helped.)

*Thanks all!