Friday, May 20, 2016

Ghostbusters Review

Since so many people have decided not to review the new Ghostbusters movie, I have decided to fill that gap! Here is my review.

The movie has definitely suffered from its inheritance: like most eighties megahits, the sequels drown under the weight of greedy hands. Forty writers and two hundred producers means the movie was destined to be a patchwork. The question is: how nice is this patchwork?

Well, it's clear that the (editor/DP/sound guys/caterers) did a stellar job, but everyone else on the crew clearly struggled under the deluge of conflicting orders. It was difficult to watch without quipping, given my long experience mocking B movies.

I did enjoy the cast, each distinct both visually and in character. I was especially blown away by (McCarthy/Wiig/McKinnon/Jones), as she managed to actually say the script's driveling with a straight face.

As the movie wore on, it became clear that my biggest problem was not the confused writing or meddlesome production: it was the (racism/sexism/homophobia/objectivist politics). Despite the progressive tint the casting gave this movie, in the end it was poisoned by the same weird old crap that poisons nearly every big-label reboot.

In the end, is the movie good or bad?

I would put this movie substantially above the Transformers reboot (which was unwatchable if you speak English). I would even put it above the Star Trek reboot, as the camera work didn't make me physically ill and the writing didn't actively betray the ideals of the original.

Yes, if I see this movie, it will definitely be in the top 3 new releases I saw this year.

No matter how I order them.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tech Economies in The Galactic Line

(This is an essay about a specific, in-development game.)

In most space games, you have science and money. You discover gravitic sensors, now everyone in your space nation has access to them, and you can slap them onto ships as fast as your money allows.

In The Galactic Line, it's a bit different. Every colony has a tech economy, basically a bunch of different economies stacked up. Each one represents a specific level of technology.

You never "research computers" or "research gravitic sensors". If you have an economy capable of producing them, you are producing them. If not, you aren't. To simplify this, individual technologies are clumped into "tech tiers" - you don't track 10,000 different specific production lines, you just have a few "economies" that produce that tier.

This gives us a lot of potential play.

Let's say you start a game as 1960s Earth. The planet has a tech level 0 economy of 100. This represents all the mining, smelting, truck-building, pipe-laying, glass-making, food-growing, etc. The earth economy is more complex than that, of course, especially because the planet is divided against itself. But that 100 represents it.

When we decide to build a space station (say, the ISS) or a space ship (say, a moon landing mission), we assemble it out of ship components using the construction system. Each component has a cost attached to it. So we build a small crew cabin (0.5 T0), the solar panels (0.2 T0 each), the cooling system (0.2 T0), the docking elements (0.1 T0), scanners and comm rigs (0.3 T0), medical chamber (0.2 T0) etc, etc. At the end of it, we have a final cost, something like 3.5 T0.

So our T0 economy drops from 100 to 96.5. If we wanted to, we could have built a much larger station and ground our economy to a halt funding it, but that's generally not a great idea. This also reduces the number of gainfully employed people - a bunch of people now have jobs as advertising execs, instead.

What's the point? Building space ships and space stations actually harms your economy! Why would you build them?

Well, the space station has a number of missions it can take. For example, monitoring the astronauts for medical changes due to micrograv, radiation exposure, and so on. This mission arises from and is enabled by our medical chamber. This mission, if successful, teaches Earth to make more advanced medicines. Functionally, it exchanges 5 T0 economy for 1 T1 economy.

If you spend some time and take that mission ten times in a row, you'll end up with 46.5 T0 economy and 10 T1 economy.

The T1 economy represents computers, phones, lasers, industrial robots, plastics, particle accelerators, magnets, and so on. We are now capable of building a much more advanced space station, if we want, or maybe a new ship.

Of course, losing that much T0 is pretty bad. We probably wouldn't want to just have that one mission running over and over. Mix in a few Earth-scanning sensors - their missions help to bolster T0 economies by finding new resources, monitoring dangerous weather or pollutants, providing phone/TV signal relays, and so on. Each of these is also a mission which has specific constraints and difficulties.

So we might provide signal relays. This is a relatively easy, short mission. So we cycle those while we do our medical research, and in the end we have 100 T0 and 5 T1.

I'm simplifying the actual gameplay process, because we're discussing the back end. In terms of the player experience, these missions are similar to the "day jobs" in The Sims. While they affect the world, the real purpose is to give your crew something important to do while they live their lives. So the explanation I just gave is very similar to having a house in the sims and saying "this guy works a day job as a cop to earn cash for the house, this guy is trying to be a musician."

The missions have limits on how strong they can make the local economy. If you're trying to increase the T1 economy, then the difficulty is based on the current T1 economy. Same with the T0 economy and improving it. Higher difficulties not only increase the amount of effort required to complete the mission, but also increases the chance of failure when you do finish the mission. Every time we repeat our medical study, it takes longer and is more likely to fail. Basically, there's an upper limit on how effective these techniques can be.

There are a lot of things that can increase these limits. More people and more medical bays will make the missions go by faster. Adjunct missions can increase your chance of success - for example, a computer core can have a mission to correlate and organize the data, a residential hub can have a mission to account for secondary variables, etc. These also take people and facilities, so you'll need larger and larger space stations. Of course, more expensive facilities have less difficult missions: the T1 medical facility has a lower-difficulty version of the T0 medical bay research.

This is like in The Sims, how your jobs pay more but require more skill as you rank up.

But the scaling isn't linear, and it doesn't makes sense to simply build bigger and bigger stations. Instead, colonization is an impetus.

That crappy T0 medical bay might not be able to get your homeworld above a T1 economy of 10, but it could get fifty asteroid bases up to a T1 economy of 10. Since they all belong to Earth, Earth's local T1 economy might only be 10, but it has a total T1 economy of 510 thanks to 50 asteroid bases. This is like if your Sims houses could share their bank accounts with each other.

"But", you say "that's at least 50 space stations. And if we want more efficiency, we'll have to build hundreds of ever-more-expensive space stations-"

Yeah. Did I mention that The Galactic Line is mostly a space ship game?

Build one expensive space ship, send it to each asteroid in turn, bring their T2 economies up. Or their T1 economies to 50. Whatever you need. And the whole time, the people on the ship have lives and look out the window at the asteroid below and chat with whoever is on the asteroid, talking about how mnamnamumblemna and moomumblemoomum.

Space ships have a lot more capabilities than that, too, because a lot of missions are only available in specific situations. For example, building to T3 economies is really rough. The easiest way to do it is to analyze space wedgies. But space wedgies are temperamental. You might be able to find one or two permanent ones and build colonies nearby, but usually you'll want to send out a well-equipped science ship when a temporary space wedgie pops up. They do the mission, return to a planet for the finale, and that colony gets some T3 economy even though it's nowhere near a space wedgie.

Now, this is the simple version. In practice, there are many things I could do to make things more complex and interesting. But don't you think it's already complex and interesting enough?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stellaris' Uncomfortable Spotlights

Let's talk about sci fi, about 4X games, about Stellaris.

In my lifetime I have played a staggering number of 4X games. I even created 4X board games when I was a kid. It's a genre close to my heart, because I like building things and I like science fiction.

Most game genres have slowly matured. They have gone from simplistic simulations to more complex offerings that integrate many layers of player choice and interactive narratives. First person shooters started at Doom but matured into Mass Effect 3 and Just Cause 4. Sure, not everyone wants the added complexity of a cinematic universe, complex skills, construction, leveling, etc. But many people do, and those people have found these new games more rewarding and interesting than the "flat" old games.

4X games haven't done that. They're pretty much the same as they were with Masters of Orion, just with snazzier graphics. Stellaris is just another one in the chain, struggling to make its mark but refusing to step away from genre conventions that were outdated twenty years ago.

I'm not saying Stellaris is bad. Like many retro shooters, there is a place for oldschool games. The genre was invented to serve an itch, and the itch hasn't faded. But there are many of us that play 4X games because they are just vaguely close to what we want, like people that played Doom but wanted Mass Effect.

So let me creep up on the subject. Don't want to scare it off.

I knew I wouldn't like Stellaris too much, because all the marketing is about space battles. When it comes to 4X games, the space battles part is always weak. At first glance, it's odd how much focus these games always put on combat, since it funnels you into playing a warring species even if A) you don't want to and B) that makes no sense.

But the combat in these games plays two major roles, and the devs usually don't want to figure out a better way to accomplish those two roles, so they just keep combat in.

The obvious role is "meat gate". Other species, raiders, and passive alien hazards are all blockades that prevent you from just running roughshod over the whole galaxy. By forcing you to fight, the devs force you to spend time and resources on a navy. This means that non-warlike species don't have an overwhelming economic advantage - they still need to spend a lot of resources on their navy, even though it's not part of what they care about. This economic wall is a negative feedback loop that means star nations will expand at a similar rate regardless of their approach, which is a cheap and easy way to balance the game.

If you've played Stellaris, you probably already understand what I mean. There are a lot of random monsters, especially around high-value stars/black holes. These keep you cut off, force you to move slowly and settle for low-value stars. Eventually, you will need to use an expensive navy to fight those monsters. The earlier you do so, the more economic reward you get for having access to the high-value star and the more the science reward matters. It all balances out.

The other big role of combat is "storytelling". Humans are really great at weaving stories out of a few clear data points, and there's nothing clearer than a fight. We build a story in our head of our struggles against the Klarthians or whatever. This story keeps us connected to the situation, invests us in the universe. It gives the game punch.

It's easy to test this theory out: just play Stellaris after typing "invincible" into the console. You'll see how quickly the game falls apart. The pace and punch are gone, and it's just not very fun to play.

But I'm not holding that against Stellaris: every 4X game is like that. Stellaris has a few cool features to try and keep the game focused even in those situations, such as districts and such. But Stellaris is interesting because they accidentally stepped into my world, accidentally created a shadow of the game I actually want to play. A post-4X genre.

So, I settled on a big desert world named Dnar.

After a short while, my species evidently decided a desert world was a pain in the ass so, without asking (and without me having access to the tech) they genetically engineered themselves and called themselves "post-humans". Fine, neat!

This began what was obviously a scripted arc where tensions grew and then war bloomed between the standard humans and the post-humans. This is a really neat idea, meatily supported by the detailed population system, which allows for subcultures and subspecies to be clearly marked on the world maps. It was hampered by the way I didn't really get any options, couldn't really do anything. With every new event, the only option I had was "that's concerning".

Well, that was a bit disappointing, but it's a neat idea, right?

Here's the monkey wrench.

See, turns out Dnar wasn't an uninhabited world. There was a subterranean species and, after a short while, they joined me on the surface. Some kind of slug thing.

Then all the baseline humans left. The post-humans were suited to the desert environment, and the human-humans weren't, so all the human-humans just... left. Dnar was populated by post-humans and slug monsters only.

Still the scripted arc continued. The humans sabotaged the post-humans. The post-humans clashed with the humans.

But there were no humans. Everyone on Dnar was post-human or slug monster.

And there's the highlight.

This is real sci fi. This is where you let me shape the stories of whole populations, this is the story of people and places under the pressures of technology.

Of course it's all scripted and the script falls flat. It would have to: the setting is too diverse and chaotic to simply use a canned script.

But... you could use an algorithm.

The way the universe of Stellaris is set up, you know exactly what populations on what planets are what species, how happy they are, how strong their cultural drift is, and so on.

It would be possible to write an algorithm for how these species behave, how their events spool out.

The post-humans are considered travesties by the general population? But there's no general population on Gnar. The post-humans would have no outlet for that. Instead, it'd be about how they get along with the slug-monsters, with the human governor. How they emigrate.

Do they drift away from the core culture? Do they start to talk about succeeding from the empire? How does the governor deal with that? The president? The slug monsters?

To me, trying to govern that world, massage that situation is 100x as interesting as sticking pins in a map.

Now, that isn't to say that sticking pins in a map is bad, or even off the table. Sticking pins in a map is a great way to feel like you're part of the universe, a great way to manage your overall resources and the flow of your civilization. But the challenges and opportunities and complexities of a galactic empire stem from the isolation of space, the chaos of technology being adopted willy-nilly, the wealth and poverty to be found at each new colony...

That's the 4X game I want to play. One where you struggle to keep your empire intact. Not against the threat of war or random monsters from space, but from the simple threat of people under the pressure of technology. There's a huge space for this kind of game.