Monday, May 29, 2006

Bang! Howdy

I downloaded the new open beta of Bang! Howdy yesterday, under the mistaken impression it was related to Bang!, a game I very much enjoy.

Turns out, it isn't. But that doesn't make it bad.

I thought I would review it a little. I'm presuming, since it's an open beta, they don't mind people talking about it.

Bang! Howdy is an interesting MMOG. Extremely minimalist. The game is a real time turn-based tactical game. You take four or five characters into a stage with one or two or three other players. You get to choose which soldiers you bring in - choices like "gunman", "steam gunner", "tactician", etc. At the beginning, it's not so much "choose which to bring" as "choose which one not to bring", since you start with a bare minimum of unit choices.

The stage and game you play are random. You might be cattle-rustling or gold-hunting. Presumably, they'll add more games (such as train heists, indian raids, etc) in the future, since at the moment there are only three, two of which are nearly identical.

This makes for a moderately interesting game - a strongly tactical game. I'm pretty good at this sort of thing, so I quickly started winning my matches - second is the lowest rank I've gotten since my first match.

The game suffers, however, both in-match and out-of-match.

In-match it suffers because there is a heavy weight for whomever has spent the most money. You can get cards that allow you to do some pretty hideous special moves (although I'm the only one in any of the matches I've been in that uses them), and you can use special units (such as the sniper) which are simply better than the starting units.

This isn't always a bad thing - most games benefit from a bit of lady luck's touch, and you gotta fight who you gotta fight. But the problem is that this is a positive feedback loop: people who are better have better cards and characters, people who suck have worse characters and no cards. This means that lady luck never works FOR you, only AGAINST you. When it's FOR you, you don't need it - it just makes your domination easier.

I would think they would add some "levelled" games. For example, a train robbery game where two weak players defend against a strong player.

Out-of-match, Bang! Howdy suffers from two problems.

First, everything is really freaking expensive. Even winning in first place rarely nets more than 130 scrip. Cards typically run 50-100 scrip per card. Buying a new unit costs around 2000-5000 scrip. Buying a new hairstyle costs about the same.

There's probably some trick I don't know. I've only played about a dozen matches, so perhaps as you play more matches you start getting more scrip for a win. But I kind of doubt it's that significant: the game plans on using RMT, so they need to keep prices high.

The problem being, that means any given match results in a net reward of almost zero. If you use cards, you'll probably win the match, but the price of those cards comes out of your winner's purse - usually 70-90% of the purse goes towards paying for the one card you use.

So, why play? There's no reason to play any given match, except for fun. And, sorry, they're not that fun. The tactics are pretty simple.

The other problem they have is really the same problem: there are no other rewards.

The town is extremely minimalist. You can't "run into" other people. You can't choose who you're going to fight with (except by setting rank limits). There's no progression: fighting Steam Susan doesn't mean you and Steam Susan are rivals - it just means you might win a few scrip.

This means there's no emotional investment in the game. The monetary reward for a match is minimal, but the emotional reward is non-existant.

If there were another portion of the game, they could be woven together. For example, you could own some territory and, by landscaping it, build your own levels. Cool! But not allowed!

There are dozens of possibilities. I guess they wanted to keep it "casual-friendly", but if you lose the hardcore audience, you lose the core of your audience.

Anyway, you do get "rewards" for playing. After a while, you earn badges which reflect the number of matches of a given type you've played in. But these are meaningless. First, they don't tell you what you need to do to get a badge, so you can't aim for it. Second, you can't choose what kind of match you want to play, so you really can't aim for it.

They do have a few exceptions: the sniper and shotgunner can both be earned by doing very well in matches. But these are not enough to keep people coming back.

I don't think Bang! Howdy has any staying power as it stands. This is, however, just a beta. Maybe they'll fix things up before the release... but they can't just release more of the same kind of content. The drawing power of that content isn't enough, on its own.

Edit: Turns out you can start a back room and specify the kind of game you want there... but not only is that a pretty hacky workaround, it also crashes my computer when I try it...


Patrick Dugan said...

I suppose its a good design consideration to appease the hardcore while maintaining a "casual friendly" stance, you need hardcore players to evangelize to a casual audience. Then again, I consider myself fairly hardcore, and I got stuck on some bug or UI flaw, where I tried to use a card, but became unable to execute the card or control my units. I began frantically clicking on my troops to no avail, and they were massacred. It seems like a fun core play loop, but it definetly needs some work. Utilizing PCC would definetly be a boon to the final release.

Craig Perko said...

I just had the same bug. That's irritating.