March 12, 2004
Over the years, one of my favorite types of computer games has fallen under the rubric of "turn-based strategy"; basically, traditional units-in-hexes wargames where the computer takes care of all the bookkeeping for me. The first of these was probably, I'm guessing, Empire for the VAX/VMS system (and yes, I played it).
For my money, the best in class of these games was the Warlords series. The original Warlords, which had both Mac and DOS versions, took place on a large continent named Etheria. 8 kingdoms each started with a single castle, a hero, and an army. Castles generated income, which could be used to fund more armies (and to support them; you had to pay upkeep for your existing troops). The goal was simple: take over the world. I liked Warlords better than the alternatives because the designer made some smart simplifying assumptions about unit management and generation. Often in games of this class the early game is fascinating and then by the late midgame you are staggering under the logistical weight of managing several hundred units, and suddenly it's not fun anymore. Warlords avoids that syndrome.
Steve Fawkner, the author of Warlords, has continued to turn out the sequels. Each sequel has, to me, played progressively worse. I hate to say that, because he has always been kind and courteous to me, and I know that there are countless improvements under the hood. Steve is an AI geek. He'll talk about how the pathing in Warlords III blows away the WL II version, and how much more challenging the opponent is, yadda yadda yadda, but all I know is that it took me 15 seconds to play a simple turn of Warlords II Deluxe, and it takes 5 minutes to play a simple turn of Warlords III, 4 minutes and 46 seconds of which is spent watching the lovingly rendered animation of an orc move deliberately across the screen, pausing to make himself a hot toddy. You can actually watch the molasses drip from the jar into the teacup. It's very detailed. And oh so very slow.
Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria likewise continues the trend towards more bigger slower. If you don't believe me, download the demo and try it for yourself.
So: newer doesn't always mean better. Prettier graphics doesn't always mean better. I would argue that some games can be made better by giving the player a view of his units that has less graphic detail, not more. Graphic designers that work in the real world understand this. Consider the icons used by the Olympics to denote sports. Surely, we could probably replace those with 3d holographic movies of people actually participating in those sports. And it would probably result in everyone having to take a few more seconds to think about what they were looking at rather than immediately mapping the simple icon to "Oh, that's skiing".
I feel bad slamming the newer Warlords games in this way, because I'm sure it's not as if Steve walked in to the office one day and said "Hey, I've got this great idea: let's degrade the user experience somewhat and make the game slower." I have no doubt that he shopped an incremental improvement to Warlords and got told by a publisher "If it doesn't look as good as this other game over here, we won't be able to get it on the shelves, so therefore we won't publish it for you, so therefore no more Warlords sequels." I've been in that position myself, albeit not with games. If you're not a sales and marketing expert and the marketing guy says "Your product must have feature X or no one will buy it," you either decide that you know more about marketing than he does and ignore him, and then you go out of business and starve to death and people laugh at you, or you shrug, sigh, and go back to your office and add the feature the marketing guy asked for, even if you personally think it's sort of stupid.
Thinking about it a little more, I'm not really saying "I wish Warlords III (or IV) had worse graphics." I'm actually making a complaint about the user interface. I'm saying "In the old version, I could accomplish this task in X seconds, and in the new version that same task takes four times as long." (Please note that I haven't gone and actually measured the times. I'm speaking of impressions here, but I think that that's valid: half of UI design is about managing user perception.) Perhaps if I hadn't used the older, more responsive UI I wouldn't care. Maybe I'm not Steve's market any more. Maybe I'm more persnickety about response time than other old Warlords fans. But fundamentally, this is the same complaint people make about Windows XP taskbar animations, or the 'genie' effect to and from the dock on Mac OS X.
So the reason this all matters is that I'd rather spend time playing the (open source!) game The Battle of Wesnoth than buy Warlords IV because it has a better response time, even though I am 100% positive that Warlords has better graphics, better sound, better production values, fewer misspellings, and superior computer AI. That's how much the response time matters to me. I'm playing a strategy game. Strategy games are like chess. How often would you play a chess game if every time you told the computer to move a piece you had to watch it move for 15 seconds? Another way of saying this is: I have more confidence that there will be patches to Wesnoth to improve enemy AI than I am that I'll ever be able to make Warlords III's UI more responsive.
Thinking about it a bit more, I now realize that I have seen this before, almost -- it's very similar to the "hard attack" / "soft attack" handling in Panzer General. This is actually another way in which Wesnoth differs from Warlords. In Warlords the natural unit of control is the city, which provides a defensive bonus for units within it and generates income and potentially builds new units. Unlike Warlords, units in Wesnoth exert a (panzer-general-like) zone of control (as in PG and other games), and so you can actually use your forces to shape the battlefield, rather than simply attacking or defending with them.
The scenarios were designed with care. The tutorial was a bit disappointing, and somewhat disorganized, and the unit recruitment rules are not well explained at first (you quickly figure it out once you move your hero out into the fray and then discover that you can't hire new units if you're not in your keep.) The first real scenario made things much more interesting, however, and the difficulty ramp is appropriately challenging without being impossibly steep. I liked that scenarios support victory objectives other than "kill everyone else" -- the first two scenarios in the first campaign, for example, are "reach this spot on the map without these two VIPs dying" and "kill foozle OR survive for 12 turns", respectively.
The game is still in beta, and there are some areas that need work. For example, while different terrain types exist and are implemented, their effect on the game is fairly opaque; the impact on movement is fairly straightforward, but it's clear that it also impacts combat, but not how. When you decide what attack to use, the game tells you the percent chance success you'll have, so you end up having to kind of intuit the effect terrain is having by comparing those percentages across several battles. Personally, I'd rather see something like "+10% bonus due to being in the woods, +10% bonus for bravery" and not know my absolute chance of success than the inverse. Better yet, give me both. Also, while I've already said I like the responsiveness of the game overall, there are definitely GUI nits; right-clicking is supposed to bring up a context menu, but this doesn't work on a Mac running OS X. There are too many spelling and grammar errors; hopefully they'll fix those soon (I know, I know, it's an open source project: I should volunteer).
The music is nice and understated. I enjoy being soothed while slaying the armies of darkness.
The Battle for Wesnoth is one of the most polished games I've seen released under the GPL thus far. I approve of its SDL/multi-platform nature, and the fact that it's clearly made by people that understand and love the genre. I look forward to seeing it develop more, and I hope the team stays together and works on other projects as well. Perhaps the answer to the unceasing but understandable pressure from commerical game publishers for sequels that focus on flash and not simply on improving the user experience is for small projects to demonstrate that fun does not require seed funding from Electronic Arts to exist.
Personal to Steve Fawkner: I can't promise you the sort of mad cash you get for making the top shelf at Best Buy, so I realize that I can't make a business case to you as well as your publisher can. But here's an offer: Your newest game, Warlords IV: Heroes of Etheria retails for $19.99 (at least at Amazon), and you just released Warlords II Deluxe for the PocketPC. If you update Warlords II Deluxe to work on modern Win32 systems -- most of which I bet you in fact had to do to release the PocketPC edition -- I'll pay you $19.99 for that, making it the third time I will have bought the game. I bet there's a few other people out there that would do the same, although, honestly, probably not more than a few hundred. But, y'know. While we may not be a market, we are dedicated fans.
Don't run it by your marketing team. This can be our little secret.
Some of these links may be of use to those of you who like turn-based strategy games.
- The Battle for Wesnoth is available for download.
- The Warlords series is what everyone else in the consumer space imitated.
- Xconq wasn't the first of this type of game, but it's the oldest ancestor still being actively developed.
- Arguably, the Panzer General games were a better implementation of the same basic gameplay mechanic with a different mise en scene (memo to self: try Fantasy General some time) (additional memo to self: Now stop thinking of General John Shalikashvili in a silk teddy. Ow ow ow ow ow.).
- Heroes of Might and Magic is another series of games in the same class that got worse with each successive iteration after the second. Milk that cash cow, boys! Branding! It's all about branding!
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