Why The Wii Changes Everything

Well, for one thing, there’s this.

I remember when the Wii was announced. A great many of the commenters predicted its failure. “It’s hardly more powerful than the GameCube!” they complained. But I had a feeling it would be a success.

Because I wanted one.

Now, I’m a gamer. Whether or not I qualify for hardcore anymore is certainly debatable. I don’t game as much as I used to, and I’m less willing to invest in the big games any more because I know it’ll be a challenge (at least) to get past the learning curve to where I’m actually reasonably good at the game. (And I don’t mean good in some Internet competition way, but just good enough to actually enjoy the process. Which is the point, after all.)

But I’ve been playing with computers since back when they were shared and billing was done by the millisecond. And I played on the first Pong machines. Certainly, I played computer games when doing so meant you had to type in the code yourself. And that was where I left off with video games (as distinct from computer games): When I could program my own.

The last console I owned, therefore (and one of two or three in toto) was the Channel F. I didn’t like the action on the Atari 2600 (or the graphics), though the Atari 800 was a cool computer. By the time the NES rolled around in 1983, I had long abandoned the arcades and really couldn’t much relate to the kinds of games that ran thereupon. (I was playing strategy, PC-style RPGs which are entirely different from the Japanese style ones.)

I wasn’t real thrilled to live through the late ‘90s and the constant calls of “PC gaming is dying!” For one thing, PC gaming is the wild west of development: Anyone can write a game and try to sell it. There are no licensing fees. I’m not a Microsoft fan but they’re smart enough to realize that making their development platform available for free benefits them tremendously. (Of course, they struggle with the other side, which is artificially restricting games from the PC platform to boost their XBox cred.)

What I realized about PC gaming, though, is that I played it when since before it was worthy of the word “niche”, through the years where entire stores were devoted to PC games, and now, as their relative market shrinks. So why wouldn’t I keep on playing when it goes back to being a niche again?

Which brings us to the Wii. Since I missed out on the NES and all subsequent iterations of consoles (though I bought an N64 and a PS2 for The Boy at various times), I really, really, really hate the controllers. One thing I’ve never been fond of, gaming-wise, is the tendency of some games to require artificially complex control sequences to do stuff. (Yeah, what I like about fighters is offset by annoyance over having to do these 7-8 sequence combos.)

So, somewhat ironically, consoles are to me, a closed world. I can’t bring myself to memorize random codes. I’ll do a little finger training for a strategy game, for example, but the basics mechanics have been standardized on those for years. To me, the control interface is a barrier that we should strive to eliminate. (This is one reason I always look at what Molyneux is doing; I know he feels the same way and it’s interesting to me how he manifests this drive.)

Even if I did go through the trouble–what is essentially meta-game effort–when it’s all done, I’m clicking buttons. If part of the fun of playing a computer game is doing something you can’t really do otherwise (slaying a dragon, fighting a god, etc.) then the fact that you’re doing it just by pressing buttons removes some of the elemental joy. (A good place to start with any game is to find some action that’s pleasurable, and that you can find a pleasurable form of feedback for.)

The action/feedback cycle is the key element of electronic gameplay. There are some games that are little more than that. There are some games which have all the elements of gameplay but miss on that, and they’re virtually unplayable. But once you’re oriented within a game, there’s another element to the cycle:

intention->action->feedback

You mean to do something, you take the steps needed to accomplish that, and the game gives you feedback. The complex key-sequence is an artificial barrier introduced into the action sequence and the learning curve for any game is what it takes to unite intention with action.

The Wii changes that by using your native action to power the game action. So you don’t have to train much, and the training you do parallels what you would actually do in real life. It’s a weak parallel, of course, a shadow of what’s necessary, and in some ways completely wrong from a technical standpoint. (Think Guitar Hero which, while not a Wii game, is the exact same principle.)

Anyway, the introduction of the whole body into the game is an element of immersion completely lacking from traditional gaming, and it’s simultaneously both powerful and intuitive.

So I’m not surprised that the Wii sales figures are comparable to those of the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined. And I’m not surprised that the Wii Fit was the #1 selling game on Black Friday. The games are absolutely trivial: On the Wii Fit, there’s a game where you hit soccer balls thrown at you with your head by leaning left and right (and returning to center as needed). This is a two button game, or three button at the most, and you’d be bored of it nigh instantly.

Add the body factor, though, and you’ve got something.

Ski jumping? That’s practically a one-button game. But make the actions leaning and flexing like an actual jump, and there you are.

I suppose it’s good for you in some ways, but that misses the point. It’s the feedback. Eventually, of course, you’ll get so good at the the controls that you’ll need something subtler and more challenging, which isn’t something we’ve seen a lot of yet.

But this is promising. Hell, the Wii Fit board is fun, but why not have, alternatively, ankle controllers? Cap or ear piece for head motion?

Think not? Well, consider that one of the prime laws of gaming has been that you couldn’t get people to buy peripherals. You always had to make your game for the lowest common equipment denominator. What changed that?

Dance Dance Revolution.

Then what?

Guitar hero.

Now, the Wii Fit. And what do they all have in common? A level of physicality that hardcore gamers eschew. Even Guitar Hero: You can just click the buttons, but isn’t what makes it attractive that you can ham it up as a guitar god? Hell, I play guitar–but I don’t play anything like the archetypal rock star. It doesn’t appeal to me much, but I can see the appeal–and it doesn’t surprise me that various real-life rock bands play it.

The Wii itself may be a fad. And it may be supplanted by additions to the Xbox and the Playstation, or by another console altogether. (Although Nintendo certainly seems to be using its brand well.)

But the physicality? I think that’s here to stay.

Combat Systems II: Batman Wins

So, last time, I was talking about the complexity of actual combat–particularly space combat–and ended by allowing how it was understandable that games simplify it. Good board game design means simplifying as much as possible while keeping it interesting, while good computer game design can allow tremendous complexity but needs to still be accessible so that a player can puzzle out good choices from bad.

Take a game like Risk: Military battles on the scale modeled in risk are vastly complex things as well, but reduced to the players rolling (no more than) three dice at once. Fair enough. That keeps things at the strategic level. First edition Dungeons and Dragons took the entirety of martial combat and reduced it one 20-sided die roll–though with substantial rules behind that. 4th Edition D&D is basically geared toward detailed, tactical combat (incidentally signaling its demise as a storytelling medium).

But 4th Edition D&D illustrates perfectly the struggle of the game designer: You want to allow free action on the one hand, but on the other you have to make actions which are compatible in order to compare them meaningfully, which in any system, requires restricting actions. 4th Edition answers the question of Batman vs. Superman by saying, “Superman–but Batman shouldn’t encounter Superman until he’s leveled up and has comparable powers”.

Yet everyone knows that whenever Batman and Superman clash in comic book fiction, Batman wins. Because the alternative is boring and predictable. In fact, Superman almost always loses to every good guy. He has to: He’s invulnerable. That’s almost a literary necessity. It is a literary necessity that the battle be difficult, or you have no story. (Intriguingly, combat gaming must also be difficult, or you have no game!)

But can you have a game system that can make it possible for the Batman to win, simply by being smart? Can you have a game system that allows Frodo to defeat the big boss?

This feeds into the starship combat discussion, at a slightly different angle: Can you have a game system that allows for a wide variety of variants so that creativity is endlessly rewarded?

Let’s look at StarDock’s highly regarded Galactic Civilizations II, a game that I’ve played far more than I’ve actually enjoyed (for complex reasons best left for another time). GalCiv–a space-based form of Civilization–actually goes back to the OS/2 days, but in its latest incarnation has the option to “act out” space battles.

GalCiv, much like Civilization 4, takes a “rock-scissors-paper” approach to combat. But before we get to that, let’s look at what the next step might be past “roll a die/higher score wins”.

Obviously, the “higher die roll” is boring. It works in Risk because Risk is a strategic game, and the tactical simplicity gives just enough randomity to make the strategic game something more than a decision tree.

If we go back to Civ 1, we see the next level of complexity (or one potential level of complexity). In Civ 1, (if I recall correctly) units had an attack strength and a defense strength. Comparing the attacker’s attack to the defender’s defense gave the probability of success. Let’s say any unit has a 50% chance of successfully destroying another. Now, let’s say the attacker has an attack value of 6 while the defender has a defense value of 4. We can do the math like this:

6/4 = %150 * 50% = 75%

So, an attacker has a 75% chance of success. The problem with this approach is that it gets dull, fast. If the attacker has a value of 8:

8/4 = %200 * 50% = 100%

So, in any situation where the attacker’s attack value is double the defender’s defense value, the attacker always wins. This isn’t the way Civ actually worked, as it was famous for having the occasional stone-age spearman beat the occasional modern tank.

A better approach is to improve the odds without ever making them zero. So, if we have attackers with varying attack values of 6, 8 and 800, we could calculate the chance of failure as:

½ * 4/6 = 1/3
½ * 4/8 = ¼
½ * 4/800 = 1/400

Not bad. This sort of system allows us the opportunity to reflect a wide scale, and it works pretty well for a strategic game where technology allows creation of units with higher attack and defense. This single dimension of attack/defense allows us to evoke a battle between swordsman (high attack) and spearman (high defense). It also creates the user-infuriating situation where a spearman–maybe one time in 400–beats a tank.

The next level of complexity, for Civ games, was to add hitpoints. Instead of one “die roll” to determine the fate of a confrontation, one die roll determined whether a point of damage was done. So, where our little spearman before had a one in 400 chance to destroy the tank, now it has a one in 400 chance to cause a point of damage. And the spearman might have one hitpoint where the tank has 20, and his chances of success go down to 1 in 8000.

If we go back to our Batman v. Superman battle, we can see Batman’s in serious trouble. Superman is at least a tank, and Batman doesn’t even carry a spear.

One of the best implementations of attack/defense/hitpoints in tactical game was the combat sequences in the Heroes of Might & Magic series. In these classic games, a stack of monsters would attack another stack, but instead of chance to hit, the monsters had a range of damage they would cause, and the attack and defense values were used to scale that damage. The stack itself functioned as another layer of hitpoints, only one that didn’t regenerate after a battle.

This gave Heroes tremendous opporutnities to provide interesting combat. For example, the genie (in HOMM I) had the power to halve a stack (which was huge, and overpowered, but not dull). The top troll in any stack could regenerate (I think). Ghosts (in HOMM I & II) added to their stack for every creature in another stack they killed. And so on.

But HOMM added something else to the mix we haven’t talked to, because the combat was highly tactical, and not the sort-of strategic/tactical mix of the Civ games: A combat field. In HOMM, the combat field was like a chess board, and the two sides were placed on opposing sides of the battlefield.

So, the first thing an attacking monster had to do was to close on an opponent it wanted to attack. This offered huge tactical possibilities: Range attackers didn’t have to close (but in version 3, they did half damage if their targets were far away or had cover); flyers could cross the board in a single swoosh (in version 1, in later versions, that was only true of some flyers); regular melee attackers had to walk across the board before they could attack. A range attacker also did half damage if a melee attacker closed on it, which gave you the tactic of barricading your ranger attackers with melee attackers.

When you factor in speed of movement and range attacks, poor Batman is toast. Clark fries him from space with x-ray vision.

HOMM, being tactical, also had multiple types of troops engaged at once, which gives us another new attribute to consider: Initiative. (Who goes first?)

Now we have attack, defense, hitpoints, speed, range and initiative. And we’re still dealing with very broad abstractions. We also create the possibility of ships that can attack and not be attacked. (A ship with a high enough speed and a long enough range attack can attack and stay out of range of a slower ship.)

If a system can’t produce a disastrously unforeseen outcome, it’s probably not very interesting.

Next time we’ll look at how we could build a space combat system with these ideas in mind.

Combat Systems, Part 1: Who Would Win In A Fight Between Batman and Superman?

It’s the modern version of How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (Can there be any doubt that monasteries are where nerds used to go?) Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman?

The answer, of course, is whoever the writers wanted to win. This is true for a fight between Superman and Pikachu, or The Hulk and Bambi’s mother, as well.

I was thinking about this because–well, actually, I used to get that question a lot on the playground, or one like it, being the neutral and wise arbiter. (In any straight-up brawl, The Batman loses. No superpowers.)

But more relevantly, I was thinking recently about how, in my early teens, I turned my spaceship doodles into a pen-and-paper combat game (that I ultimately somehow coded–at least partially–into a now long-gone computer program). I had probably about a hundred different ship designs, mish-mashes from movies and TV shows, and remember giving thought to the question of scale and technology advancement.

For example, Star Wars technology struck me as far more primitive than Star Trek technology. The Death Star can destroy a planet, sure, but it’s intimated that the Enterprise could do the same. And Star Fleet has six or seven of those. And while there’s talk of shielding in the Star Wars universe, clealry there isn’t any to speak of, since every little X-Wing fighter could shoot the freakin’ Death Star and cause an explosion on the inside. We won’t even talk about unguarded exhaust ports.

I was thinking about combat systems in games, and what makes them interesting (or not). I particularly was thinking about them in a space opera concept; sometimes when I sit down and consider the ramifications of minuscule objects traveling at, potentially, hundreds of thousands of miles per hour, throwing particles at each other, the very concept of space combat seems ludicrous.

The Star Wars model is heavy on the dogfighting/aircraft carrier style. But the modern dogfight requires our jet pilots to slow down if they want to engage. Targeting someone going mach 3–seeing someone going that fast–must be challenging indeed. One would presume that star fighters could go much faster, though actually, I’d guess the Death Star run in Star Wars is actually happening at something more like car-chase speeds, if you scale appropriately.

The Star Trek paradigm, on the other hand, views space ships more like battle ships. Slow moving and somewhat cumbersome. This, curiously, only applies to battle. The Enterprise otherwise navigates tight turns at light speeds that would make you spend your day writing out zeroes if you tried to calculate the amount of energy used.

Energy is something only discussed for plot purposes, as well. Nobody ever ran out of gas in the Star Wars universe. I mean, Darth Vader pilots his damaged tie fighter to safety–despite being surrounded by watching enemies–in between the original movie and first sequel.

Battlestar Galactica incorporated the concept of fuel into their dogfights. They also had turbo boosters and could–without any harm coming to pilot or ship–push a button that shot them in the exact opposite direction. This always surprised the Cylons, as well it should have, defying physical law and common sense.

Babylon 5 used a more sensible approach of having ships simply flip around and fire backwards, which I suppose beats mounting guns that can fire to the rear. B5 also re-introduced the beam weapon, which in Star Trek was always portrayed as leaving the ship as diverging lines, but which always managed to converge on their target.

I guess the point of all this is that combat in space is very complex. Especially when it’s primarily a, you know, literary invention.

So game designers can be forgiven for having a system where combat is resolved by each player rolling a six-sided die, and the higher one winning.

Next up, I’ll discuss different existing systems.