Starcraft and Me

 

I play alot of Starcraft, perhaps 8 hours a week or so. It’s a popular evening recreation after my kids have gone to bed; a TV substitute. I much prefer to play 2v2 and 3v3 teams allied with friends, with voice chat over skype, but I play 1v1 when there’s no one I know online.

The social aspect is a big part of it’s appeal to me. Its brought me closer to the friends I regularly play with, both because we catch up on news while we’re playing, and because we have to work together to win games.

The level of play on the open leagues is very high. I’ve been regularly playing for nearly 2 years, on the Australia / SE Asia server, as a Terran under the name ‘bunge’, and I’m about Silver league standard. It must be daunting for new players to begin.

The game is very mentally stimulating and gets my adrenaline flowing. For 10-30 minutes you are required to constantly make decisions, act, react, outwit another human’s mind. In team games, there can be up to 8 humans minds contributing to the game, with concurrent battles going on all over the map. I like to think I’ve become a better thinker under time-pressure as a result of playing.

For the first 12 months of playing, I would have trouble sleeping for hours afterwards; not good, when you play in the evenings. It no longer has such an effect on me, but I do find myself reviewing what went wrong in a game, as I’m lying in bed going to sleep.

A Winning Streak, a Winning Strategy

Currently, I’m on my longest winning streak ever in Starcraft 2 league play, 11 of the past 12 games. The matching algorithm pairs you with opponents of similar skill level, so it’s hard to sustain wins for long periods.

In this case, the streak is associated with a particular strategy: fast cloaked Banshees, which I used in every one of those winning games. In higher leagues, players know how to defend them, but in my adopted home of Bronze & Silver leagues, they cause havoc.

Starcraft 2: on a winning streak!

My build:

  • Almost always wall off my base with a Barrack and 2 Supply Depots, to prevent scouts seeing my Banshee build
  • 13 Gas
  • 15 Orbital Command
  • Circa 16, Gas 2
  • Factory on 100 Gas
  • Continual marine and SCV production. Send a marine out to the towers and look around for anything unusual or vulnerable: Overlords, pylons, hidden expansions, proxy Barracks, etc. Place a marine in any dark corners of your base, to spot any incoming Drops or Warp-ins.
  • I pre-build a few Depots, so that once my Banshees are out I have some excess supply
  • Starport right after Factory
  • Factory builds a tech lab, then swaps off it so its ready for the starport to use.
  • Build a banshee as soon as Starport is hooked to the tech lab, and also I begin Cloaking research.
  • I carefully setup a multi-step rally flight path for my Banshees, so that they rally to my opponents mineral line. Aiming to avoid enemy held Xelnaga towers, hazards, etc.
  • Usually, by now you are building up minerals but are low on gas. So, once Banshee’s are out, start on
    • An expansion
    • Another Barracks
    • Engineering Bay
    • Turrets, if Mutalisks, Banshees or Dark Templars threats are suspected.
  • Produce 3-4 Banshees in all, while at home…
  • Transitioning out of Banshees into 2-base Marine-Marauder-Medivac

Using Banshees Well

  • Target workers as first priority
  • …except for Zerg, where a single queen can be killed off without needing cloaking
  • Turn on Cloaking when needed, turn off when no threats present
  • Target SCVs building turrets
  • Almost never take on anti-air structures with Detection: Turrets, Cannons or Spore Crawlers
  • Move Banshees around to find angles of attack that are not covered by defence
  • In team games, spread the Banshee love around between different opponents. I find that players who have not yet come under Banshee attack, will often be unprepared even if their team mates have been hard hit.
  • Preemptively pull wounded or energy depleted Banshees back into dead airpace to rest, before they are destroyed. Let the victim forget about them by waiting a few minutes, or attack elsewhere with a different Banshee. Then move back in again.
  • Cloaked Banshees continue to work very well late game in large team games. Spread them around, exploit the chaos and confusion.
  • Cloaked Banshees can also do duty clearing seige-tank clusters.
  • Even if your Banshees are not doing heavy damage directly, its remarkable how much they can distract and harras opponents, unhinging their own strategy and putting them into a reactive mode.
  • Run away from air-to-air units like Vikings and Mutas. They suppress banshees pretty well.

 

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An indie game developer’s journey: from beta 1 to beta 2 and beyond…

This is the second of a series, here is Part 1.

After Heroes of Arcadia Beta 1 (Sept 2007), it took 13 months of development to reach Beta 2 in October 2008.

Towards a Story-driven RPG style…

We remade the game, essentially, in a lighter, more streamlined single avatar model where story counted for more and resource management for less.

Instead of requiring the player to manage the whole village concurrently, by default we focused on a party of adventurers led by a single Hero lead character.  The village became an NPC faction managed by the AI but allied to the player, that serves as the backdrop to scripted interactions with NPCs, each leading to quest sequences.

Scripted Content

The scripting itself is one of strongest innovations in the Arcadia engine. It supports a Domain Specific Language (expressed as a fluent API) for describing the logic and content that drives character interactions and game quests.

This language is encoded in a sequence of executable objects that are run in response to event triggers that fire within the Arcadia world model. Script objects are also Serializable, so they can be saved to- and loaded from- both the downloadable game package and the mobile device’s memory.

Single-Avatar Control

During beta 1, while watching play-testers try to play Arcadia, I observed a key problem that turn-based games with many concurrent avatars suffer from. The more avatars that a player controls concurrently, the longer it takes to take a full turn among them, and thus the slower of overall game goes.

So the intended reward of growing the number of units under player control can in fact become a curse, because the per-turn effort to play becomes unsustainable.

Our response to this challenge was to introduce a simple level-of-detail system into the player interface, so that they could switch between

  • Quest Mode: Controlling just their Hero, with the rest of the party running in an automatic “- Assist Mode -“, but with the option for the player to manually control of other party members when desired.
  • Tactical Mode: Controlling their whole Party in round robin fashion by default.

Removal of Resource Rules and Growth

We also removed the village operation, food production and human reproduction aspects of the game from player control. It just didn’t seem to fit in an adventure-oriented game where zones of in-world locations can be loaded into and out of memory, as the player travels through them.

If a player controlled the village unit’s, what would happen when his or her attention moves to another zone, and the village gets unloaded from memory? Presumably it waits fairly passively until the player re-enters the zone, at which time the player-aligned units indigenous to the zone re-join the player’s party. These are certainly big ideas to explore in a future game, but the the first release I wanted to keep it simple and focus on a small group of mobile adventurers.

Zones

Zones have been a key idea in Arcadia since the early days. Each is a named rectangular region of the game world, complete with inhabitants, quests and scripting, as large as can be comfortably fitted into the memory available to the game at any one time. Beta 2 saw us develop a robust method for traveling between them, while maintaining a history of past events previously visited zones..

Getting the player’s transition between Zones to work properly was some of the most difficult design and programming I have yet had to do in my career.The main challenge was determining what objects in the current zone’s World Object-Graph are player owned- and which ones are zone local-, and devising a  method to separate them when a transition occurs. A transition can result in dangling references where zone-local objects (eg a monster) were referencing a player-owned object (eg party member), that was then suddenly removed. Ensuring such situations were handled gracefully was one of the trickiest problems.

Zone transitions also required:

  • A PlayerProfile record to store the player’s current and on-going transferable state, including the Hero character and their traits, inventory and effects, all other party members likewise, XP and Monetary wealth, and the state of any active or completed multizone Quests.
  • Re-combining the PlayerProfile and the incoming Zone’s local- objects when a transition occurs, by injecting the wealth, units and quest state into the appropriate points in the world Domain Model — though this is much easier than the extraction process.
  • A reasonable process of logging and error recovery for the transition process, which involves 2 large -reads and 2 large -writes to the mobile device’s store, as well as a major memory reclamation and re-allocation, and is thus prone to failure.

Beta 2 Process

For beta 2, I again used something like a dozen workmates, friends and acquaintances who had expressed interest in the game.

As a general heuristic, I found that I tended to get good feedback from a given play-tester only on one release version / trial, though there were exceptions. Feedback fatigue seems to take place when you ask the same tester to evaluate multiple editions of the game, if they are at-all similar.

Something I tried for this release was a web survey form to collect responses, via SurveyMonkey.com. I felt the survey helped to harvest good constructive feedback, though observing people play your game, and listening to their verbal accounts of the experience, are probably the most important activities. I did need to remind people to complete the form though, and even then only about half filled it in.

The road ahead…

  • Improving the experience in the first 5-minutes of the game.
    • Popup tutorial/info boxes that teach the player the game concepts and interface unobtrusively as they play, drip feeding them enough info to progress without forcing them to learn everything upfront.
    • A 60-120s scripted “Woodhaven Village Raid” scene at game start, which ends with heroine Eleanor hiding in the bushes from the raiding orcs.
  • Better player character growth through expandable unit abilities, purchased from earned XP.

An indie game developer’s journey: The road to Arcadia’s first beta release

Inception       Jan 2005

I had a month off between jobs, and spent much of it in the beautiful and inspring surrounds of Sherbroke in the Dandenong Ranges, a hilly region of cool temparate rainforest 40 kms east of Melbourne. During the time of relaxation, I amused myself by learning to work with J2ME, and chose to build a toy game to drive my own discovery.

Arcadia was born, through when it began it was simply a motionless grid of self-made terrain tiles.

Go for Funding!     February 2005

From February my wife Louise starting trying to convince me to make an application for funding from Film Victoria’s Digital Media Fund.

May 2005          Putting a Funding Application together

Fortunately she prevailed and by May we were both hard at work putting an application document together.

Here’s what we said we were going to try to do:

“Playscape Games is making this application to fund the development of the first episode of mobile phone game-series Arcadia to a feature-complete prototype stage. Our vision for Arcadia is to create a Java mobile game of unusual depth and richness, which innovates in its game design, usability, and technical engineering. It will be one of the first mobile titles developed with a turn-based strategy/adventure format, in a fantasy/mythic setting. It will appeal to gamers who want to play a more deeply engaging game over a longer time period than the current staple of short-duration action games can provide.”

July 2005   Our primary artist Albert Sandaja (aka Alex Huang) signs on to start designing sprites for us.

September 2005     You’ve Got Funding!

…made especially sweet by the fact that the message arrived while I was having a lovely time on holiday staying with Louise’s uncle Phillip on Bribie Island.

November 2005    The first tranche of our funding, approximately $11k, gets paid to us.

Jan 2006      Leave Goldman Sachs JB Were behind to work a 3-day-week at Internet Business System as my day job. Turned out well, as Im still there now almost 3 years later. This freed up 2 days a week to put towards Arcadia (at least in theory – distractions were and are a major problem).

Feb 2006 Attend GDC Mobile in San Jose. An eye opener.

April 2006  Milestone 1

Deliver 40 page Business Plan to Film Vic. Main objective is to become a niche provider of very high quality and innovative RPG & Strategy content, distributed through a mixed aray of channels, into a variety of global markets, including direct online sales. In response, the Full funding program confirmed, and another trnache paid.

January 2007 Milestone 2

This was a tough milestone to pass. We demoed our playable prototype to Amelia King of Film Vic. It had lots of rough spots and while it technically worked, broken game mechanics and poor usability made it only barely playable. We agreed on some improvements to target for the final milestone.

Feb 2007   GDC in San Francisco.

I learned more at this second conference. I started to feel the strength of the competition in the space, but I also saw alot of techniques I realsed I could apply in Arcadia.

August 2007    Final milestone, which led onto…

Sept 2007     Beta 1

I used friends, family and work mates as the beta testers.

Went Well

* Shipped a working mobile game that ran decently without crashing much on a number of different phones, including Nokia, SE, Motorola and Samsungs.

* Main map view looked good and clearly showed what was happening.

* Fantastic bestiary of animal and monster sprites, from snakes and spiders through to tribal orc bands, huge bears, wyverns and cyclops. Thanks are due to Alex Huang, the talented artist who drew the set.

* People able to use the menu system fairly intuitively.

* MIDI Music worked well. Very nice musical selection created by James Langford.

* Interesting resource system based around farming to produce food that allows your village population to grow and evolve.

Do Differently

* Confusing to play: lots of controls, not enough help, steep learning curve.

* The game involved controlling the whole village’s units; an uneasy mixture of Hero characters and their party members on one side, and peaceful farming civilians on the other.

* Control of multiple units concurrently involved lots of flicking back-and-forth as each unit was moved once per turn in a round-robin fashion. This was hard for people to learn. A tendency made stronger, I feel, by the small size of a mobile screen and limited controls.

* The problem of concurrent unit control was addressed by way of an Automation feature, which allowed units to be put on a program The most useful programs were Escort, which sent a unit following and fighting with a designated leader, and Tend Fields, which keep the food supply ticking over back home. This released the need for constant manual control.

However, most beta players were not able to discover and use Automation feature, because of unintuitive controls.

After Beta 1, it took 13 months of development to reach Beta 2 in October 2008. Having finished our Digital Media Fund program at Beta 1, this period was marked by greater fiscal dicipline. I’ll try to cover the Beta 2 release and the present state-of-play in a future post.

At least five things got us to Beta 1

  • Talent: do what you love, do what you’re good at, do it well and with passion.
  • Help from others, eg my lovely wife, and the Digital Media Fund.
  • Luck, eg meeting Albert at the start of the project
  • Hard Work,  lots of evenings and weekends spent on the project.
  • Tenacity:  You have to Suffer for your art. When things get tough, just Keep Going. Dont give up.

Heroes of Arcadia progress update

Playscape Games mobile Strategy-RPG Heroes of Arcadia (renamed from ‘Arcadia’) has been 3 years since inception to date. I suspect some friends and observers of the project, quite understandably, wonder (a) what we’re doing all day, and (b) if we’ll ever finish.

Well, I’m hard at work. Making a quality RPG, on any platform, involves a large investment of effort is a wide variety of areas.

To convey a sense of the many little details that go into it, here’s my notes for a source code commit spanning 9/3/08 – 31/3/08, about 6 man days of development time on my part-time schedule. Apart from demonstrating a lack of discipline when it comes to regular source control checkins ;), I’m quite happy with the steady progress we’re making.

As for a “release date” – sorry, I cannot estimate that accurately enough to speculate on. However, we’re aiming for a second beta release mid year.

Numerous enhancements and fixes (too long between commits):

Hero class removed, replaced by ExtendedUnit
HeroType removed, heroes become regular UnitTypes

Added/updated sprites:
-Animated structures
-Increased size potions, fixed tombstone
-Shadows removed

TargetSelectionRequestor
-Merge with its interface, removal of dead code
-becomes a Runnable task
-Less filtering of invalid target applied by UI
-MapViewInputHandler greatly simplified by moving target selection logic to TargetSelectionRequestor

Remove World methods delegating to Zone

MapView
– Health bar goes yellow/red when wounded
– Fixed bug where sprites faced wrong way in combat
– Made ranged/melee attack code pathways more uniform
– Removed turn counter from the HUD
– Removed “Cannot enter” warning when attempt move to impassable location

IOManager
-Fix: Zone added to read table when deserialized
– Better exception handling when content script init fails

Textwindow
-Globally enforce rule requiring use of task queue to display text boxes

Scripting:
Completed northern wolves quest
Completed forest shrines quest

Removed remaining resource rules code

Party leader passes baton on death, new leader selection dialog

Big speed up in Faction invoke code
-NPC factions serially called from Zone
-Zone runs from Task queue, World dosnt anymore
-NPC Factions not intersecting player faction are only run periodically
-Faction class no longer runnable, PlayerFaction remains runnable, code diverging alot.

Relationships
-Added 5th alliance state Neutral, renamed old neutral to “wary”

Pathing & Movement
-Replaced Breadth-First Search with AStar pathfinder
-AI now prefers not to paths thru other npc factions

boost AI aggression to pevent units fleeing too much

Introduced consistent unit targeting rules and added AI
-Melee: defender nominates defender
-Ranged: attacker nominates defender

New AddTrigger command for scripting

Remove obselete Abort- and Contiue- TargetSelection commands

New LocationFunction types: Location -> int, used in pathfinding

Fixed bug in unit’s cached event history causing party escorts not to
attack

Fixed divide by zero bug when finding minimum threat locations

Quests now award XP on completion

Situationist Game AI

I have just become aware of Game-Developer/Philosopher Adam Russell through his thought provoking article on Situationist Game AI in Game AI Wisdom 4. I look forward to reading more of his work in the near future.

Reductionism vs Constructionism

The article lucidly describes one of the key design tensions in designing any game with story:

  • Reductionism: You want your world to be filled with interesting, autonomous agents that the player can interact with
  • Constructionism: You want to choreograph these agents in a very controlled, predictable way when required to tell the story

These tendencies are conflicting; for example, through interacting freely with an agent you might move, re-align or even kill it, which compromises the ability to use the agent to advance a pre-conceived story. He gives a nice exposition of how this tension has been handled, or more correctly, “worked around”, in various games to date. Its the best explanation Ive yet read of a tension that has plagued me during the developement of Heroes of Arcadia.

The beginnings of a solution

Adam’s response is to advocate a hybrid approach dubbed Situationist game AI. Unfortunately, this solution is much less precisely articulated than the problem. But he starts down the road with vigour. He draws parallels with debates about local vs global influence in sociology and psycology, and finds middle ways in both fields where an autonomous agent’s environment strongly conditions and shapes its response.

He then sketches how these ideas might be applied in game animation, perception of the environment, and in layering of multiple action-states in an agent’s behavioral representation. Little that’s directly usable at this stage, but I do hope it spurs other more practically-minded developers to make advances in this area.

Audiosurf

Check out Audiosurf, an incredible and inspiring indie game and rags-to-riches story that has gone from a IGF finalist at GDC 2008 in February to the number one most downloaded title on Steam in March! Because it’s so good.
Theres a free demo through Steam. An unmissable experience for gamers.

Mechanics of Turn-Based Videogames

Most turn-based videogames use non-simultaneous turns, where one unit of one player or side moves at any time.

Simltaneous turns are more difficult as they raise lots of concurrency issues, and I will not discuss them here.

See also this blog article at Gone Gaming for a broader discussion of turn-based game mechanics.

Non-simultaneous turns come in at least 3 common flavors:

Units on each side Chunked together

1. Each side moves its units in turn. Individual units make a move/action once per turn. Examples: Advance Wars, Ancient Empires, Many Board Games.
2. Each side moves its units in turn. Individual units can interleave their moves & actions arbitrarily within the turn, changing focus in between. Examples: Civilisation, Arcadia

I see option 1 as really a lite form of 2, where the mechanics are simplified because a unit is never in a partially moved state, and there’s less need for controls to cycle between active units.

Individual Turns

3. Each unit in the game moves separately from others on its own side. Different side’s unit’s actions are interleaved. Examples: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.

    Variable Action Frequency

    What Indivudual Turns allows that Chunked approaches cannot, is the ability for fast units to act more frequently than slow ones. Their turn can come up more often. I really like it, its quite realistic and better matches real time games. However, I dont think it scales well to losts of units that need to execute team maneuvres, because their individual turns are scattered through time. Hence, that mechanic tends to be used in Tactical style games featuring a small number of participants. In Strategic games like Civ, where you control many more units concurrently, having all your unit moves happen at once makes it easy to execute large plans of action.

    Chunked approaches often struggle to model different unit speeds of in a meaningful way. Typically, units can move different amounts but are allowed one attack, spell or similar action per turn.

    Movement Points In Arcadia

    In Arcadia, we are trying to meet the challenge of variable action frequency via variable number of Movement Points (MP) allowed to each unit.

    • A unit can attack, cast spells or any other action multiple times per turn, if it has any points remaning. (So MPs are really Action Points.)
    • Different actions have different costs; movement in the open costs 1; a melee attack costs 3.
    • If taking an action would result in a negative MP balance (eg Unit with 1MP attacks, costing 3MP), we allow that! But, we store up the debt and repay it, in effect an overdraft, so that next turn the unit will be able to do less.

    Where this approach is really nice is its robustness to MP-reducing effects. For example, imagine a Slow spell reduces a unit’s MP-per-turn to 1. Without an overdraft, it would struggle to every attack, as attacks cost 3. With an overdraft however, it can attack ever 3rd turn, which feels just.

    Civilization & SimCity

    I have loved the Civilization game series since 91 – Civ 1 was my first truly engrossing game experience, at age 18.

    I consider the latest incarnation, Civ 4, to be my all time favorite game.

    Unlike so many sequels, its emphatically superior to all predecessors and derivatives (AFAIK), and displays a profound level of richness and subtle game balance. And its still really fun to play.

    Follow Through

    To me, Civ creator Sid Meier and SimCity creator Will Wright are both game design geniuses. But the diverging trajectories of SimCity and Civ 4 reveal some interesting differences in their characters and illustrates the great value of Follow Through (something I myself often struggle with, but are determined to improve through my life’s learning):

    Sid Meier & Civ

    Sid Meier created Civ in 90/91 and has continued to guide it’s evolution since. Each Civ title has been a refinement of the last without varying the fundamental formula.

    • Civ 2 managed simultaneously to be massively and incrementally better than 1.
    • Civ 3 introduced key new concepts Resources and Culture, both very cool, but strayed a bit with rampant Corruption.
    • Civ 4 threw away stinky features like Corruption, Civil Disobedience and alot of Micro-management, and added Religion, Promotions, Great People and better Displomacy.

    Its amazing how the Firaxis design team stuck at the problem and got the decicions right time after time, so that the resultant game has kept evolving better and better. Sid could have gone and done something completely different (he did: Railroad Tycoon, Colonisation, Gettysburg), but he kept on following through with his original creation. A+

    Will Wright & SimCity

    Will Wright, on the other hand, didn’t follow through as well.

    • Simcity was brilliant, but a beginning, like Civ 1 was.
    • Simcity 2 was great, the highpoint of the series.
    • SimCity 3 felt like Simcity 2.1, technically better and yet a dissapointment.
    • And then, along came SimCity 4,which is a nice looking, but really awfullly designed game that is not much fun to play! Not much Will Wright left in it by then.

    Wright was no doubt already consumed by Spore. Im sure Spore is going to be brilliant; it’s recently infected Civ4’s lead designer Soren Johnson, who moved over to EA from Firaxis. But surely Will could have spared a day a month to keep an eye over his firstborn, have ensured whoever led design on SimCity 4 was competent, and have taken corrective action when it became apparent the game was on the wrong track. Now it seems like there wont be anymore SimCity, which is sad because the idea of a City Simulator is still as awesome as ever. More Follow Through needed. A-

      Why is videogame “documentation” so often bad?

      Documentation for players of videogames (ie Manuals, Help) is often bad, full of holes or missing entirely. There is a practice in games of leaving gameplay, interfaces and product features undocumented that would not be acceptable in other types of software. For simple, intutive games, little documentation should be needed. However many games are complex, and include lengthy paper manuals, and yet the content  is still patchy.

      Patchy Documentation Examples

      Elder Scrolls Morrowind

      Its documentation does not include

      • What your magic spells actually do
      • What a permanently visible on-screen dial is actually showing: the red dial beneath the active spell icon in bottom left corner. I spent an hour Googling for it, didn’t find out, but it appears everybody else is wondering too.

        SimCity 4

        My retail copy  of this 4th generation city simulator came with only an install manual.

        The online site has a “Tips-n-Tricks” section, but no coherent high-level description of how the interface and game works.

        Black and White 2

        A complex Simulation/Real-Time-Strategy game that comes with a 40 page but very scrappy manual. The player grows towns and their people, but manual does not mention anywhere how to create new people, nor is there any visible control/button to do it. You need to drag one “breeder” person onto another breeder, and then they procreate and multiply. (Obvious, huh! …only it wasn’t for me.)

        Civilisation IV

        As similarly complex as a 3D tool like Maya or a programming tool like Visual Studio. To its credit, it comes with a 205 page manual and an in-game “Civilopedia” help. Evident effort was spent on documenting the game. Despite this, there are holes in the documentation where key aspects of the game design go unmentioned:

        • Civ allows you to group units together and issue orders to the group. First mention of this is in a keyboard shortcut reference chart in the appendix! No description of how Groups “work” is given.
        • Coverage of multiplayer internet play is half a page. You just have to try it out and then try to figure out what is going on. This is despite the fact that Civ has some really innovative and unusual multiplayer features that a player is very unlikely to understand at first.

          Let players write the docs?

          A result of this trend is that fansites that spring up around successful titles to compensate for their own lack of decent documentation, such as WowWikiCivFanatics, Simtropolis or TES3 . The quality of the material on many of these sites is amazing.

          Is it a cop out to let your player’s do your work for you? Well, to a large extent this player-driven documentation proves that players desire such material. Possibly frustration at not understanding the game has motivated them to contribute. And what tends to happen in many decentralized fansites is that fact, opinion, misinformation and spam get smeared together in an unstructured ball, and it takes a great deal of effort to dig out the answers to questions of interest.

          Good Docs => Informed Choice => More Fun

          Like most players, I really enjoy figuring out how to play a game well. I greatly value what Damion Schubert dubs Tactical Transparency, the principle of knowing what your options are and making an informed choice. When I simply do not understand how a game or interface works, and dont have a ready place to get help, both Tactical Transparency and my enjoyment are reduced.

          What Good Docs look like

          Its a stark contrast to the level of documentation I enjoy as a software developer, as a momentary look at the docs for Hibernate or Spring reveals. They describe both the Concept/Model behind the software, and the details that you need to know once you get the concept. I guess we programmers value knowing precisely how a piece of software works.

          Time to eat my own Dog Food. Yum!

          At Playscape Games, we shall ensure that Heroes of Arcadia’s game mechanics and interface are well documented online soon after the product becomes available.

          Lord of the Rings Online: My experience

          I played Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) for about 2 weeks during the free beta. Overall, I enjoyed the experience, yet felt the game fell short of what I hoped for. Over 2 years after Blizzard’s World Of Warcraft, Turbine have created something that feels like a clone of WoW’s world, interface and gameplay, yet with less humour and slightly clunky in the little details.

          The Good

          • LotRO copies WoW’s user-interface, and that works well. Consistency amongst game interfaces is a good thing; there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. I found it very easy to immediately learn the basics of the game.
          • The environment of the Shire is quite cute, humourous and fun. Beforehand, I thought it would be a boring region of the game, but Ive enjoyed it.
          • I tried a night’s Monster Play (playing a monster on Sauron’s side) as an Uruk in the Ettinmoors and greatly enjoyed the stylistic and gameplay contrast.

          The Bad

          • I have a level 10 Elf Loremaster. Loremasters abilities seem to suck. They have the armour and weapon restrictions of a magic-using class, but at level 10 Ive only got 2 main combat-orineted spells, Burning Embers & Summon Raven, which I use endlessly. The other abilities are limp Buffs and Heals that have little attraction.
          • My first hour of gameplay was poor: despite choosing to play an Elf Loremaster I was corralled into Thorins courtyard running errands for Dwarves.
            • When entering my first monster battle in minute 3, entirely scripted and unavoidable, I pointed-and-clicked my default weapon at the appointed opponent, and we stood there hacking until I died. Dying in your learn-to-fight battle is not fun. If you’re going to have a compulsory first learning battle, make winning near certain. (Likely explanation: difficulty was not calibrated for Loremaster weaklings)
            • After first battle, all characters and places I’d learned about were scrapped, and I got teleported to big empty elf ruins, containing one elf, who told me to leave ruins and go somewhere else. There seems little point of having the ruins if you do nothing but leave them…
          • I find the terrain ridiculously and needlessly hilly: in Ered Luin I repeatedly fell off cliffs and had to take boring back-tracks to return to the road. The creases in the terrain force you to take tiresome round-about loops when trekking cross-country.
          • What dissapopnted me the most was the heavily constrained geography of Eriador. Unlike Frodo and co, in LOTR Online, it’s not possible to slip out of Hobbiton at dusk to go tramping over hill and dale. The Shire is a walled zone with 2 exits, one to Bree and one to Ered Luin (in the Beta, at least). All other directions are impassable. Just think how it would have made those Black Riders jobs easier; post a wraith at both exits and wait! Turbine’s middle earth has a graph topology: nodes connected by edges. Its a sharp contrast with the solid earth, open skies and freedom of 4 compass points that one feels while reading the travel sequences of the novel.

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