Category: Game Design

Embracing the Bottom

I recently read two very different and excellent articles on independent game development.

The first was from Owen Goss of Streaming Color Studios, in which he detailed the sales figures (so far) of his iPhone game Dapple.  He expressed frustration with the fact that although Dapple cost $32,000 to make, it has only made $535.19 in its first available month.

The second was from Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software in which he detailed the sales figures (so far) of his PC/Mac game Geneforge 4.  Geneforge 4 cost $120,000 to make and after six months has only made back $111,412.

Neither of those sound very good, but Jeff is actually pretty happy with how Geneforge 4 is selling (although he admits that these sales are unexceptional).  Within another month or two at most, Geneforge 4 will have made back its costs and everything it makes from then on will be sweet, sweet, gravy.

So what’s the difference?  I think the difference is that (despite his protests to the contrary) Owen was hoping to strike it rich in the iPhone gold rush.  As soon as his app fell off the front page of the Apple Store his sales dropped to near zero, and getting articles about his game on Kotaku and Slashdot generated exactly 21 new sales.

Owen’s claim in his follow-up post that he desires to build a software company slowly over time doesn’t really match up with the type of game he made.  While Dapple is a clever little game (especially the two-player mode) it looks very generic – because it is.  It’s a color-matching game.  There are tons of color-matching games available for every conceivable platform.  The gaming industry is awash in them.  You simply cannot stand out in that genre, especially if you’re an indie.

Jeff has chosen a different route.  He makes turn-based, single-player RPGs.  This is a market that the big game companies aren’t serving sufficiently.  The lack of cutting-edge graphics has never hurt his sales – indeed, it makes his games very older-hardware/laptop friendly.  He has found an underserved market and intends to keep serving it until it goes away…which, since Jeff’s been in business for fifteen years now, it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to do.

Jeff also understood that when he chose to take this path, he would have to be in it for the long haul.  It’s taken six months for Geneforge 4 to make its costs back, but now every time it sells (and it will sell, for years) it’s gravy for Jeff.  And since he now has fifteen games out there, each one selling away, his overall income is high enough that he can make a living.  In his inimitably cynical style, he calls this “bottom feeding”.

Now, Jeff got lucky, true.  He found a market that he loved but wasn’t being served.  He finished his first game and started selling it just as the internet was getting started.  His development cycle (make a game in eight months, then spend two porting it to the PC) allows him to make a ton of games – at least one new one every year.  And the games outsell their costs, leading to profit.

But it can still be done nowadays – indeed, it can probably be done easier, because when Jeff started he was having to advertise his games on bulletin boards and over AOL.  There are plenty of underserved markets out there.  You can still stand out, make your mark, and make your money.

You just can’t do it with a color-matching game, which is what Owen found out.  I truly do wish him better luck next time.

Unintentional Gameplay

I recently noticed that my four-year-old daughter was doing something a little strange when she was playing The Maw.

In case you’re not familiar with the game, it features a user-controlled character named Frank and a non-user-controlled character named…The Maw!!!

Uh…sorry. Anyway, Frank can call Maw to him and Maw will come if he’s close enough to hear. I noticed that my daughter was calling Maw and then immediately running behind a tree, then running around and around the tree to see how long she could keep Maw from touching Frank. And giggling madly the whole time.

She’d found a new game inside the game. The developers of Maw never intended for people to play keep-away inside their game but it grows naturally out of the gameplay elements they did put in.

Which reminded me of a couple of stories. My friend Ryan Clark told me that he was working on an early version of the Zarria engine (which later powered Hit & Myth) and he was testing the 2D physics of the game. The test map consisted of a house, a whole bunch of NPC frogs and the player’s character. There was no combat, but if your character bumped into one of the frogs it would be thrown back away from you.

He showed it to his brother, who immediately found a game that Ryan hadn’t programmed – trying to wrangle all the frogs into the house by bumping into them. Of course, the more frogs you got together the more they’d bump each other around. The only way to keep the frogs inside the house was to stand in the doorway, but you had to leave the doorway to go get another frog, which means that three would probably escape.

And Ryan even found an unintentional game in an early version of Inaria. I made a map with one of every creature on it to test their AI. Most of the AIs were designed to hunt you down as soon as you came near. Ryan instantly started triggering every single unit and then seeing how long he could stay alive. Since there were structures on the map he eventually found a way to trap or block them all and stay alive.

And then of course, there’s these guys who found a new game to play in Super Mario 64:

In case you don’t understand Japanese, these guys are activating a one-up mushroom and then running away from it and seeing how long they can prevent it from touching them. This is hard because it not only moves pretty fast, it can fly through the terrain of the level. It’s pretty funny to hear them freak out whenever it suddenly appears through a wall next to them.

And let’s not forget this excellent article by Shamus Young, wherein he programs Starcraft to play itself so he can find out which enemy AI is the strongest.

So what’s my point? Um…I dunno. It’s long been known that humans can make a game out of anything, and you don’t even need a good framework to do it. Maybe I just wanted to brag on my daughter 🙂

Dungeons of the World and the Craft of War Dragons

So. Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition has certainly raised some ire, hasn’t it?

New roleplaying game, roleplaying not included…

World of Warcraft Refit…

D&D for Dummies

This is NOT D&D!

D&D 4th Ed. is a travesty. It’s a terrible game with terrible mechanics.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

D&D 4’s detractors tend to hammer on three points:

1. The new edition is inspired by MMORPGs, most specifically World of Warcraft.

2. The new edition doesn’t actually promote roleplaying (with some going so far as to say that it doesn’t even allow it).

3. The new edition isn’t Dungeons & Dragons.

How valid are these points?

While I haven’t had a chance to play D&D 4 yet (Hi, Tom!) I’ve read the Player’s Handbook and The Keep on the Shadowfell quite thoroughly. I’ve also listened to the complete D&D podcast where Scott Kurtz and Gabe and Tycho play D&D 4 for the first time. Gabe had never played a paper-and-pencil RPG before but is an experienced World of Warcraft player, and he was continually finding parallels between the two.

Gabe: I should have gone with “[Jim] Felmagic”.
Tycho: No, you’d get a call from Blizzard. “‘Fel‘ is our word for dark magic!”

Gabe: This reads very much like a [Final Fantasy] Tactics game.
Tycho: Doesn’t it?

Gabe: What did you give me?
Scott: I gave you a +2 against this target – so my attack gives an ally +2.
Tycho: He buffed you.
Gabe: Okay.

Gabe: I cast Arcane Missiles. I mean Magic Missile.
Tycho: Same thing.

(after several encounters in which his character is the only effectual one)
Gabe: I’m going to one-man this instance.

As an exercise, let’s compare a famous spell as it matured through the editions. Let’s use the classic first-level magic-user spell Burning Hands.

Here’s the description of Burning Hands from the first edition of the Player’s Handbook:

Burning Hands (Alteration)
Level: 1
Range: 0
Duration: 1 round
Area of Effect: Special
Components: Verbal, Somatic
Casting Time: 1 segment
Saving Throw: None

When the magic-user casts this spell, jets of searing flame shoot from his or her fingertips. Hands can only be held so as to send forth a fan-like sheet of flames, as the magic-user’s thumbs must touch each other and fingers must be spread. The burning hands send out flame jets of 3′ length in a horizontal arc of about 120″ in front of the magic-user. Any creature in the area of flames takes 1 hit point of damage for each level of experience of the spellcaster, and no saving throw is possible. Inflammable materials touched by the fire will burn, i.e. cloth, paper, parchment, thin wood, etc.

Here’s the description of the same spell from 3.5 edition:

Burning Hands
Evocation [Fire]
Level: Fire 1, Sor/Wiz 1
Components: Verbal, Somatic
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: 15 ft.
Area: Cone-shaped burst
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Reflex half
Spell Resistance: Yes

A cone of searing flame shoots from your fingertips. Any creature in the area of the flames takes 1d4 points of fire damage per caster level (maximum 5d4). Flammable materials burn if the flames touch them. A character can extinguish burning items as a full-round action.

Sorry, but I don’t have a second-edition player’s handbook. But notice that the spell isn’t that different. The range has been increased from the first edition version and it does more damage (1d4 per caster level instead of one point per caster level) and the target now gets a saving throw. But the spell isn’t that fundamentally different.

Here’s the description from the fourth edition player’s handbook:

Burning Hands
Wizard Attack 1
A fierce burst of flame erupts from your hands and scorches nearby foes.
Encounter ✦ Arcane, Fire, Implement
Standard Action
Close blast 5
Target: Each creature in blast
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: 2d6 + Intelligence modifier fire damage.

That’s a nice impenetrable description, isn’t it? It’s pretty much just a bunch of keywords. So let’s go over them.

Encounter means that the power can only be used once per a combat encounter. Arcane is the power type of the spell, so it can only be used by characters with access to arcane power. Fire is the type of damage it does and Implement means that if you have a wand, staff or orb that improves your rolls you can use it on this spell (for instance, Gabe could use his +2 Wand of Accuracy in conjunction with this spell). Standard Action means that you must have a standard action available to use it (every player gets a standard action, a minor action and a move action in a single turn). Close means that the area affected must be right next to the character. Blast 5 means that the area affected is a square five tiles on a side. The wizard then makes an Intelligence attack on all characters (friend or foe, PC or NPC) in the square, which is compared against the target character’s Reflex. Any affected character takes 2d6 + the wizard’s intelligence modifier in fire damage.

Notice how incredibly defined that description is. Notice also that it refers to tiles on a grid. D&D 4 completely integrates miniatures into the base game – it’s no longer possible to play without miniatures.

So the detractors’ first point is confirmed in my mind. The goals of the designers of D&D 4 were to make the game both easier and faster to play and they achieved that goal by studying how computer role-playing games had done just that. (I’ve no doubt that this will make Bioware‘s job easier when they make Neverwinter Nights 3.)

But does conceding point one prove points two and three? Is it such a bad thing that D&D 4 has stolen mechanics from computer RPGs? After all, computer RPGs have been stealing from D&D for thirty-five years – and I don’t mean “taking it as inspiration”. I mean directly ripping it the eff off. Practically every designer of classic RPGs says that they started by trying to program the Dungeons & Dragons experience into a computer and the entire industry progressed from there. What’s wrong with D&D finally taking some of those improvements back for itself?

I think the explicit definition of each power is what prompts comments like the “no roleplaying required” one I quoted above. Such definitions take away options from both the player and the GM.

But again, is that such a bad thing? Notice that the “sets flammable stuff on fire” part of the description for Burning Hands is gone. Why? Well, what GM hasn’t had a conversation like this?

Player: Okay, I cast Burning Hands on the enemy wizard.
DM: Okay, he takes three points of damage.
Player: And he’s on fire now, right?
DM: What? No.
Player: What?! He’s wearing cloth armor, right? He can’t wear anything else!
DM: Yeah, he’s wearing cloth armor.
Player: Well then I set him on fire! The spell description explicitly states that…

Et cetera. Another trick I’ve seen players use is to try to use Burning Hands to ignite any lanterns or flasks of oil an enemy character was carrying. The previous rule editions don’t say anything about this, which means it’s up to the GM. The only problem is, what does the GM do? Let the spell become horribly overpowered or piss off a player? This way no one gets pissed – but if the GM wants to allow the player to use the spell in a non-standard way, he still can. I can imagine a situation where a player needs to burn a rope and says he wants to use Burning Hands to do it, and the GM allows the player to do it if he can beat a target number on his attack roll and also gives up his use of Burning Hands in his next encounter. That’s the kind of flexibility that comes from both the players and the GM having the necessary imagination – and in the end, that’s the real component of roleplaying. With enough imagination and goodwill around the table, you could roleplay just with Toon’s fifty-percent rule (though I doubt my own roleplaying skills are good enough for that).

So while point one is valid, I think point two is very weak.

Which brings us to point three. Is this game Dungeons & Dragons? You’ll be casting Magic Missile on kobolds and using Great Cleave on umber hulks…is that enough? Wizards knows that the game is vulnerable on this front, which is why the first adventure they’ve released for it pays direct homage to the classic D&D adventure The Keep on the Borderlands. They also released a fourth edition version of the Forgotten Realms very quickly and are working to get Eberron upgraded, though that won’t be out until 2009.

But of course point three is all perception. Some people will say yes and some no. My opinion is that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is definitely Dungeons & Dragons. My only wish is that they hadn’t dropped the name “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” with the third edition…I think it would be much clearer (and inspire less ire) if 3.5 were still Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and this new edition were the new “basic” Dungeons & Dragons. As for the haters…well, I’m reminded of one day back in the early nineties when I was in an arcade watching this guy play the Dungeons & Dragons arcade game. He cast Magic Missile but died before it hit its target. He sniffed, “I thought Magic Missile never missed and instantly hit.” At which point I knew I was in the presence of snotty geek greatness.

But I’ll leave the last word to Scott Kurtz:

Scott: I guess the guys I play with at home are idiots. I am having such a good time.

EVE Revisited

Good grief, I’m just completely torn over this. If you’ll recall, my first couple of hours with EVE Online practically induced narcolepsy, but I’ve got so many smart friends who love it.

And then I ran across a blog called The 0.0 Experiment.

If you’re not familiar with EVE a bit of explanation is in order. Each system in the EVE universe has a security rating from 1.0 to 0.0. Security rating 1.0 means “This sector is patrolled by NPC guard ships who swoop down on anyone who so much as target locks anyone else.” Security rating 0.0 means “You are on your own, buddy. In fact, someone is probably coming over right now to pod you, after which he will keep your frozen corpse as a trophy.” Players typically venture into the lower-rated areas only after gaining high amounts of skill and powerful ships to protect them.

So a relatively new player creates a new character named Innominate Nightmare and decides that he is just going to take his dinky little shuttle and jump out to 0.0 space as quickly as he can…and stay there forever. He forbids himself from ever traveling through a system with a security rating higher than .4. Since he’s consciously decided to throw himself into the deep end (in a very “make a mess, clean it up” fashion), he can be surprisingly laid-back about how often he dies. And since he’s actually a pretty quick-witted and funny fellow, he finds himself making friends everywhere. And since he blogs about the whole thing he finds himself becoming a minor celebrity in the EVE world.

That blog really shows off the depth of the EVE universe – and that depth is attained by creating a monstrously complex system and handing it to the players and saying “Here you go!” which is exactly what EVE’s creators have done. (For the most part. When the creators have interfered with the game the results have always been a disaster, and they have pretty much learned their lesson.)

And boy howdy does that appeal to me. There is nothing like that sort of depth in any other MMO I’ve encountered – certainly not in World of Warcraft.

I may give EVE another try real soon. If I do, I’ll blog the results.


So the eternal war between “casual” and “hardcore” rages on, with Spore as its current battleground. Actually, I should amend that statement: the hardcore continues its war against the casuals, while most of the casuals don’t even know the hardcore exists.

I was really surprised at the low scores I was seeing for Spore before release. They made me kind of nervous…had Will finally dropped the ball?

But of course I did not allow them to deter me from purchasing the game myself (Galactic Edition, of course).

In the end, reviewers are hardcore. Most of the reviewers who played the game dinged it for its ease and lack of depth. I guess they were expecting the Tribe stage to be as deep as Rise of Nations and the World stage to be as deep as Civ IV and the Space stage to be as deep as Galactic Civilizations II. The problem is that Will wants people to be able to progress through each stage to the next one without too much trouble. He doesn’t want people to get to a stage and realize that they either just don’t like it or can’t do it. Because he knows that’s a shelf-level event. Thus each stage (up to Space) is designed to be an interesting experience, but not a particularly challenging game. This is very, very “casual” thinking.

And then, as if to clear up any doubt as to what kind of game Spore is, Will gave an interview to MTV’s Multiplayer Blog, where he said, “We were very focused, if anything, on making a game for more casual players. ‘Spore’ has more depth than, let’s say, ‘The Sims’ did. But we looked at the Metacritic scores for ‘Sims 2’, which was around 90, and something like ‘Half-Life’, which was 97, and we decided — quite a while back — that we would rather have the Metacritic and sales of ‘Sims 2’ than the Metacritic and sales of ‘Half-Life.'”

A lot of people have taken this as a ding against Valve, but it’s not really. Half-Life 2 was a very successful game. Very successful. And it sold about one-tenth as many copies as The Sims 2 and its expansion packs.

Wright has figured out that he can both make great games and make a metric asston of money simply by appealing to a wider audience. This was obvious with The Sims, but was far less so during the development of Spore. The high-pitched whine you are hearing is the “hardcore” faction realizing that a game they assumed would be “for them” isn’t.

Will Wright has created the ultimate casual game.

That costs $50 and requires a pretty hot computer to play.

It’s this schizophrenia that is driving everybody crazy.

(So how do I like it? Well, being firmly mid-core, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I’m currently at the Tribal stage. I can’t wait to get to World stage and see how Will has simplified Civilization. Of course, the game still has plenty of time to kick me in the Mean Bean Machine, but I kind of doubt that it will.)


Braid was the first game I ever bought on XBLA. I did so at the behest of Megan, who played through the trial and loved it. I had also enjoyed the trial version even though I thought some of the puzzles were too hard to execute (of course, she benefits from having the reflexes of a thirteen-year-old).

So we’re playing Braid, right? We’re having a good amount of fun figuring out the puzzles and unlocking new worlds and seeing how time changes in each world. Some of the puzzles are just ridiculously difficult, but the game isn’t that long so if you keep at it you’re sure to finish it eventually. It’s going pretty good.

And then it ends.

I guess it’s just not possible for an indie game to have a satisfying, upbeat ending. While the maudlin text throughout the game alerted me that the ending was probably going to be a downer, it didn’t prepare me for the game becoming a lecture on the evils of the creation of the atomic bomb. No, seriously. I am not making this up. Johnathan Blow even includes the director of the Manhattan Project‘s famous “Now we are all sons of bitches” line in the ending, which came as quite a surprise to me and Megan. Lest you think I’m spoiling it, believe me – it’s pre-spoiled.

If I want to be lectured on the evils of nuclear weapons, I’ll…you know what? I grew up in the 80’s. I’m never going to want to be lectured on the evils of nuclear weapons.

So overall: excellent concept, fairly well executed, with an ending that gives Metal Gear Solid 2 a run for its money. Hopefully Blow will realize that propaganda is the enemy of art and his next game will be more satisfying.

Feeling Cantankerous

Ugh. Sorry I’ve out of touch for the last couple of days. Of course, as soon as I commit to a long-running project like “Let’s Play Starflight!” I get sick. There will be an update tonight, though. I just may sound really froggy for the next couple of days.

On a completely unrelated topic, allow me to present you game designers out there with a hypothetical situation. Let’s say you get embroiled in a conversation with a couple of your fellow designers similar to the following:

Designer 1: “Oh, my god I just had the best idea. Let’s put a monster into the game-”

Designer 2: “Yeah?”

Designer 1: “-And let’s make it so that the player has to fight it in the vehicle. But let’s make it practically impervious to the vehicle’s weapons, which, even though this game is an RPG, you can’t upgrade.”

Designer 2: “That was brilliant, by the way.”

Designer 1: “Thanks!”

Designer 2: “Too bad you had to concede on the shields.”

Designer 1: “That’s just it! This monster’s attacks will be long ranged and go right through the player’s shields, doing damage directly to the vehicle! Plus, we’ll make it so that the monster can dive underground at a moment’s notice, and if it surfaces under the player’s vehicle, the player instantly dies!”

Designer 2: “Ooh, ooh! I know! And we’ll force the player to fight one as part of a side plot, and once he does, we’ll have that monster start popping up on every other planet he visits!”

Designer 1: “You’ve learned well, young padawan.”

Should you become involved in a conversation like the above, I want you to lean over and crack Designer 1’s lower jaw with a sharp right cross. Then, while he’s writhing on the floor, raise your fist menacingly at Designer 2 until he cowers. Seriously. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

Why…why, yes, I have been playing Mass Effect rather a lot lately. Why do you ask?

“Ben There, Dan That!” and the Supremacy of Community

So two froody dudes, Dan “Gibbage” Marshall and Ben Ward, decide to stop piddling about with their own pathetic projects and team up, creating Size Five Games (previously Zombie Cow Studios) in the process.

And to celebrate, they decided to give away a game for free – an adventure game called Ben There, Dan That!, which stars…um, them. That’s right, you control Ben and Dan as they bumble through a loving homage to the classic Lucasarts Adventure games, doing things like smacking priests with bibles, visiting alternate dimensions, and…um…climbing out of a cow’s rear end. Hey, they’re British.

Now, even given the fact that they used Adventure Game Studio to create the game, that’s a heck of a lot of work to just give away. But I heartily, heartily approve of the process, and not just because I’m cheap. I think it’s the right thing to do because it helps them grow their community, and I believe that community is the solution to all of gaming’s problems.

Does your game stink? Get people interested in the potential your game might have and they can help you fix it. And you don’t have to do it all before you ship. Feedback after you ship is just as vital – but those lines of communication must be open.

Are you having trouble marketing your game? Again, community can help. Bungie‘s testers sang the praises of Myth: The Fallen Lords to all their friends once their NDAs were lifted, which helped Bungie as they took their first steps into the PC market.

Are you having trouble keeping people interested in your game? Once again, community to the rescue. The most popular online first-person shooter in the world is still Counter-Strike, which kept copies of the original Half-Life on store shelves for years. The incredible response of the Korean community means that you can still walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a copy of StarCraft – a game that was released in 1998! Caravel Games goes even farther with their Deadly Rooms of Death series. The DRoD games consist of a layout of rooms, each containing a puzzle. The DRoD website gives you an overall map of the game – and clicking any room on the map takes you to a forum thread discussing that room. It’s an excellent way to provide player-based support, in addition to player-created content.

Are you having trouble funding your game? Yes, this is the iffiest one, but it’s been done. Lots of people have started by creating a small, well-supported game and then rolling the profits from that into something much larger. I think my favorite story of this nature is that of Jeff Minter, who was saved from having to get a real job by the incredible response to Llamatron, which Minter released for free along with a README.TXT file that included this paragraph:

Here’s the deal. You play Llamatron and check out the hook. If it gets you (and I reckon it will if you like mayhem), then send us a fiver and, as a reward for being so honest, we will send you an ace poster of our gun-toting llama, a newsletter, and a complete copy of Andes Attack, originally released in 1988 to considerable critical acclaim. Two games for a fiver – can’t be bad. And if the response is good, there will be more Shareware. And better.

This is the kind of thing Jeff Vogel is talking about when he says, “Shareware is a force for good.”

And finally, the big one.

Are you having trouble with people pirating your game?

Well, of course you are. People pirate stuff. They’re going to do it. You can’t do much about it.

If you want to come to terms with piracy, you need to come to understand that you’re not trying to eliminate it. You’re trying to reduce its impact to the point where you can still make the money you need to make on your game to stay in business. I wish I could tell you to just ignore piracy but I can’t – you should be going onto those download sites and demanding that they remove your game, because you do want pirating your game to be more complicated than just doing a Google search.

How can community help here?

Well, it’s harder to steal from somebody when you feel like you know them personally. It’s also harder to steal from somebody when they are trying to be the good guys.

The seminal example of using community to beat piracy is Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations 2. Absolutely no anti-piracy stuff on the disc. No CD key. No CD check. No phoning home. No refusing to run if there’s a compiler on the same system. No installing low-level drivers that monitor all data traffic without the user’s knowledge. Nothing. The only thing it uses is a unique account key that allows you to create a support account on Stardock’s digital distribution network, so that you can redownload the game if you lose your discs.

And yet it sold a bazillion copies and was a huge moneymaker for Stardock. And as I’ve mentioned before, one of those copies was sold to me. Even though I’ll never have time to play such an involved game. Why did I buy it? Because they were doing it right.

I have said that game design is a conversation between the developer and the player. But now I’ve come to realize that the metagame of game development is the same thing.

If you want to succeed in game development, don’t just make games. Help people have fun. And that means getting personally involved, with all the risks that carries.

What My Friends Are Doing

Yes, it’s another “while you are waiting” post. Deal.

I’ve got a couple friends here at work whose websites are definitely worth checking out.

First, Patrick Rogers. He’s an avid Go player who recently hit traffic gold on his site by being the first person to post the complete lyrics to all three episodes of Dr. Horrible.

Second, Brandon “Rusty” Parks. Rusty’s a real character, as you’ll be able to tell when he starts talking about how the universe has a discrete pixel size and a discrete frame rate.

Third, Bobby Thurman…who I actually don’t work with any more and probably should keep in better contact with.

And finally, you know those people who keep coming into game development forums or IRC channels and ask how to program an MMORPG? Yeah, laugh at them. Go ahead. Because everybody knows that nobody can possibly write an indie MMORPG. And oddly enough, it’s being worked on by all three of the gentlemen I detailed above! What are the odds?!

Dawn of the Company of War Heroes

Okay, yeah. Way behind the curve on this one. Terribly, stupidly behind the curve. But I’m not going to let that stop me.

The most recent darling of the real-time strategy game genre is Relic Entertainment, a Vancouver-based company that got off to a darn good start with Homeworld, gained a lot of publicity with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, and finally struck pure, molten platinum with Company of Heroes.

But other than trying the Homeworld and Homeworld 2 demos back in The Day(TM), I’d never played any of their games.

So I was poking around Steam the other night and saw that Steam has some of Relic’s games, and they all have demos. Figured I’d give Dawn of War and Company of Heroes a shot and see what the fuss was about.

I loved Dawn of War.

I hated Company of Heroes.

Dawn of War is a superbly designed game, taking the base-building elements of Age of Empires, the resource gathering of Total Annihilation and the character of Warcraft III and blending them into a delicate tasting fruit smoothie.

Company of Heroes comes along and adds lots of crunchy, chewy bacon bits.

The thing I adored most about Dawn of War was that most of the decisions made took the emphasis off micromanagement. You don’t have to set up an ant line to collect resources; you get them automatically based on how many control points you own. You do have to manually build your buildings, but you can easily queue all that up and forget about it. And you can reinforce in the field.

Let me explain. Every time you create a “unit” of Space Marines (for instance), you actually get a squad of four. Clicking this squad reveals that you can add units to the squad wherever the squad is – no more making more units and then having to run them up to the battle. As long as one member of the squad is alive, you can create more wherever the squad is.

The end result of all these changes makes a game where it’s not nearly as necessary to micro. You don’t have to manually target your unit’s special weapons, nor are you constantly having to zoom back to your base to either defend your ant line or make new troops. My favorite tactic was to have one squad equipped with grenades and another with Storm Bolters. The grenadiers would knock the enemy squad down and the Bolters would make short work of them as they tried to get back up. It was pretty damn wonderful.

So how did Relic cock this system up with Company of Heroes? Simple, by adding back just as much micromanagement as they originally took out – they just added different micromanagement. You still don’t have an ant line and you still can reinforce in the field, but now each type of unit has at least one special ability that must be manually selected and manually targeted. Squads can come under fire and be suppressed or pinned. Control points you take must now be contiguous or they are considered “out of supply” and you get no benefit from them. And of course they had to add another resource to worry about – fuel.

The final straw for me was when I was directed during a tutorial to manually drive my tanks around so I could hit the enemy tanks in their weak rear armor.

I so hope that Dawn of War II is actually going to be Dawn of War II and not Company of Heroes in the Warhammer: 40,000 universe.