Archive for December, 2007

New Year Gaming Resolutions II

Monday, December 31st, 2007

2. Accept That You Can Only Be Friends With RTS Games. Something happened in the last decade that started to sour my RTS fun. I’m guessing it was the slowing reflexes, the dwindling neurons and the already palpable stress of having small kids yelling at you for your attention while you are juggling other time intensive activities. I tried a bunch of times to “get” some of the best RTS games this year. And there were some great ones that were making efforts to meet me half way. Whether it was by grouping units into squads Kohan style or adding “card powers” that made for extra fun strategizing on a different level, they made the effort but I just have had a progressively worse time at managing time as a resource. Still, like a moth to a flame I come back again thinking that the great explosions and flights of arrows that blot out the sun will make up for the agonizing feeling of having to be in 10 places at once.

3. Use Gaming As An Opportunity To Learn: Back when I was a teenager I knew every capital of Europe because I played the board game Third Reich by Avalon Hill all the time. Well, I usually played at least up until the dice deserted me during the Invasion of France and then the board went up in the air….or just sat there in the basement waiting for me to figure out how to save the situation. War gaming is great because you can learn some history and geography at the same time usually. But gaming in general is a great way to teach yourself and your kids some of the mysteries of this universe. One of the big ones that I stress to my kids was taught to me by my father and reinforced by Charles Bronson himself (cf. The Mechanic) . The 5 “P’s”. Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Note that you can add a little flourish and hyphenate one of the P’s by adding Piss in front of Poor. Strategy gaming is all about having a plan and those who conceptualize and articulate the plan even just in their heads have an advantage.

4. Stay Away From Anything With The Word Collectible In It: You won’t find a bigger supporter of free market economics and American style Capitalism than me. I’m not going to condemn anybody’s choice of business model but as a consumer I have learned enough to stay away from this. It will only bring you remorse and so many copies of “common” cards that you will not be able to find enough shoe boxes for them.

5. Play More Board Games With Real People I love computer games because they give me instant access to a range of experiences from mental stimulation to just watching things explode. Board gaming requires real people all gathered together at the same time and getting along. Even if they are family and friends they can be stinky, disruptive, and difficult. But there is also just nothing like it as far as plain old fashion fun goes. All my life I’ve loved board games and played them usually solitaire…but when you can get real people together nothing else comes close.

Tom Chick’s Top 10 List

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

Somehow I missed the fact that Tom Chick’s QT3 quarterlies list had gone up. QT3 has been one of my favorite water coolers since I first discovered it in 1848. If you had told me that Armageddon Empires would be a top 10 pick while I was working on it, I would have assumed you had been dreaming of the Great Old Ones. What an honor! Being compared to Imperialism II is enough to make you giddy….. and feel a bit unworthy and insecure as well. But it is also invigoratingly motivating. I shall redouble my efforts going into the new year!

QT3 Logo

New Year Gaming Resolutions

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

1. Finish More Games: This was a bad year for finishing games. In addition to having to hustle hard to get AE finished, I had to fight a few bad habits. I tend to get distracted by something shiny and new and notch off a few more gigs of the hard drive without a second thought. I am happy that I did pretty well in the “buy the box and not install routine” into which I have sometimes fallen. That thankfully didn’t happen this year. However, I finished a mere two games this year. You can probably guess one of them. Here it is:

COD4

Not surprising since the single player game is an epically short experience. I’m not complaining mind you. I paid full price and I have no regrets. It’s a great value for the money and a rocket sled to excitement type game. And maybe being a short game has a payoff… I did finish it and it feels good. There are games that you need to finish to keep your street creds. If you haven’t finished Planescape: Torment and you are a D&D CRPG fan then you are not complete. I don’t think COD4 quite falls into that category but it does feel nice to finish it. Yes, there are some niggles about the puzzle like move forward at this point or die scripting but I look at COD4 as something just to be experienced. For me personally there were a lot of cool moments. Having spent over a decade studying Russian and Arabic it was fun to hear the background dialogue and be able to make out a bunch of it… it was very well done. The story is a bit incoherent and not very plausible but hey so was Transformers and I enjoyed that as just a good popcorn flick. So here is to being bite sized and delicious! Well done Sgt.

The other game I finished was Company of Heroes The single player campaign of course. I’m just not a multi-player gamer. Well I’m not a real time multiplayer gamer. There are a handful of games that I have ever really played multiplayer. Playing competitively that would be Dominions II, Panzer Campaigns, and Combat Mission. Do you sense a pattern here? They were all played by email as well (DOM II server doesn’t count). I’ve also played Diablo II and Titan Quest cooperatively….but that is another tale.

Normally I play against the computer AI or with my son against multiple AI’s and CoH provides not only a great visual feast but a real time experience that doesn’t overwhelm. It cuts it very close but it succeeds even with the need to micro the placement of a grenade or a panzerfaust. Which brings me to my next gaming resolution but first a mention of some of the games I’m still working on finishing…skipping the debate over whether some games you can really finish or not.

RPG’s — These have the most unfinished games naturally because normally there is some fabricated content that must be experienced to call the game “finished.”

Titan Quest Gold – Still playing and working on finishing the Immortal Throne expansion with my son in coop mode

Puzzle Quest PC – Fire it up just for some relaxing fun now and then

NWN 2 – Still working on the OC with my Paladin

The Witcher – A long time in the making but good fun

FPS —

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. — just got distracted and need to get back to it.

Strategy —

Civ IV Beyond the Sword — Finished a game but you can’t really finish. You are either playing Civ or you are not

Civ IV Fall From Heaven II — Why this isn’t snapped up and released as a retail game is beyond me. At the least hire Kael full time and let him design his own game.

Medieval 2: Total War — Lots of niggles but a great game. The real time aspect is manageable for me. Very rarely do I feel so stressed out because of a lack of situational awareness on the map due to time constraints.

On the strategy hit list:

AGEOD’s American Civil War — The civil war is tough for me. I spent years researching and recreating many of the major battles on animated battle maps. I’ve grown a bit tired of it but this game might be what rekindles the old fire.

Carriers at War — I come from a Naval family. My Grandfather was a seaman in WWI. I’ve got a 1,000 hour pin and over 1,500 hours as a mission specialist in the EP-3E. My father was an F-8 pilot in early Vietnam. The first book he ever bought me was “Queen of the flat-tops.” Just wish there was a demo for this one.

Coming Next: Resolution Number 2

Armageddon Empires Wallpapers

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Just wanted to let you all know that Josh over at Indie-Games has created some cool looking AE Wallpapers from some of his favorite units. You can check them out at the bottom of the page:

Wallpapers

Also, here is another image from the upcoming free mini-expansion pack “Cults of the Wastelands.” Rumors of a “Palace of Love” sitting majestically in the middle of the wasteland began to trickle into the Imperial Outpost system. The descriptions of an oasis of fresh water and green foliage were dismissed as the ramblings of mad men. When Recon patrols started to go missing they sent crack agents to investigate. No word has yet come back to confirm or deny the existence of this so-called palace of love. Enjoy:

The Palace of Love

Goals – AI Wars part II

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

It’s the end of the year and AiGameDev.com is having an open nomination session for best game AI’s of 2007. One of the categories is for Indie Games. What I really like about the competition is the following from the AiGameDev website:
___________________________________________________
Criteria
Remember, you’re giving an award for the best artificial intelligence in a game. This means it must be a balance of two things:

Entertainment — The AI in a game isn’t supposed to behave perfectly; in fact it’s often supposed to make mistakes in a convincing way. So, are the non-player characters (NPC) or non-character AIs fun to play with or against?

Intelligence & Believability — Do the in-game actors fit in with the design and story? It’s not purely about smarts — but it helps!

Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, on the contrary! The best games each year successfully use intelligent behaviors to create a fun experience for the players.
_________________________________________________

I’d like to tell you that I intentionally programmed into the AI for Armageddon Empires all the boneheaded moves that you might occasionally witness. As I’ve explained before the role of hidden information plays a large part. And to be honest the limits of the AI play a large role as well. When it comes right down to it the AI is just a collection of competing goals. There are over a 180 goals covering everything from building resource collectors to evacuating heroes when somebody like Nod is on the loose. Which goals are selected and what priority they are given determines how the AI will play. Here is a screen shot from my development environment that shows some of them:

AI goals

So the big three elements to the AI are:

1. Which Goals are selected

2. What priorities they are given

3. What they actually do when they are “processed”

Goals can also contain subgoals which is an aspect where it gets really fun and interesting. I created goals of 3 different basic types: Top (the big idea goal), Atomic (no sub goals) and Composite (a goal that sits in the middle and holds sub goals).

I’m a workman type AI builder. I enjoy reading the theory but I am not its master. I have an electrical engineering degree from almost 2 decades ago that helps me get a foot in the door but what I built for Armageddon Empires was very single minded and goal oriented (pun intended). If I had to accomlish something I scoped out what I needed and then scowered the web and fell back on my programming books. Speaking of which here are some of the books that I found really useful:

Programming Game AI by Example by Mat Buckland

AI Game Development by Alex J. Champandard

AI for Game Developers by Bourg & Seemann

AI Game Programming Wisdom (All of them) edited by Steve Rabin

Goals For the Future:

Improve the AI’s evaluation of and response to the opponents’ grand strategies.

Improve and expand the use of influence maps to identify key geography, danger areas and force dispositions.

Improve the system used for ranking basic things: Right now it is a mix of fuzzy logic and weighted sums…I’d like to try and expand the use of memory with the ranking system for things beyond animosity….and keep track of how goals performed.

Animosity – How much do I really hate you?

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

Armageddon Empires is a game about annihilating your enemies. There is no negotiation, no sweet words, and no co-existance. It’s a zero sum game. There can be only one. Even in such a savage environment there is an order of sorts. Some enemies are greater threats than others. Some need to be dealt with now while others just need a watchful eye until it’s their turn to feel the trod of your boots. Figuring out who poses the greatest threat is not always trivial.

The AI opponents in Armageddon Empires use an animosity system. There are two components to the system: a memory that stores a stack of animosity incidents and an animosity processor that calculates an animosity number at the beggining of each turn. The number varies between 0.0 and 1.0 and is assigned to each opponent the AI faces including human of course. The sum of all these animosity numbers across all opponents is 1.0. So if the animosity against opponent A goes up 0.05 then it must go down by 0.05 against opponent B in a 3 player game.

The memory gives the system some stability so that it isn’t flip flopping in its threat assessments. Things that generate animosity are your run of the mill aggressive actions like destroying collectors, capturing outposts, assassinating heroes, picking off recon armies and fighting full scale battles.

Critical Shift: Sometimes two opponents can be skirmishing on a border trading blows and building up animosity between each other. Suddenly from out of nowhere a killer stack from a different opponent shows up at the doorstep. Since animosity and threat are heavily correlated there has to be a system in place to account for sudden shifts in threat. This is accomplished by backloading a lot of animosity into memory if some specific threatening event occurs. Moving a large army two within a few hexes of an AI’s stronghold is going to generate a big spike in animosity and shift it considerably. This will affect the offensive goals that the AI generates.

Defensive goals will be effected as well. The AI’s have multiple tiers of defense goals. Two of the most important are Threat Readiness and Threat Response. Threat Readiness is keyed in to animosity. It determines things like patrol routes for recon armies, the types of attachments that should be created and…. “other good things too.” Threat Response is a set of goals that get created when any enemy threatens the AI. Animosity does play a part in assessing the threats but at this stage things like range, power, and assets at stake are going to weigh more in the fuzzy logic that generates a threat rating. Every threat gets a rating and resources are assigned accordingly.

I had a bit of fun with creating the threat response goals. Assessments are made on the threat and fitness numbers are generated to select the best goal objects to create. Some of my favorites are using an assassin to decapitate the army, finding a choke point to cut off supply, harrassment with air attacks and coordinating multiple armies to intercept.

Spaceballs, There goes the campaign!

Flotsam and Jetsam

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Things have been crazy hectic in a good way. The Games For Windows Tom vs. Bruce feature was a real boost and some great exposure. The effects should ripple throughout the net for weeks and months to come. It’s like that bad hair product commmercial where they tell two friends, and so on, and so on….until it looks like the Brady Bunch intro piece on steroids.

Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper and Shotgun penned a nice review of Armageddon Empires for Eurogamer I almost feel bad having tricked him into reviewing the game because I have been using his article on “Using and Abusing the Gaming Press” as a hand book. It’s like that scene in Patton where having mauled the German attack George C. Scott starts yelling “I read your book you Magnificient Bastard!”

Rommel You Magnificient Bastard

I’ve been working on Cults of the Wasteland. I’m going to include a toggle in the options menu that allows for a starting boost to AI resources. This will let people who want to up the challenge do so at their own discretion. I have been running a bunch of simulations with this and it looks promising. Things don’t always work out as planned though. What it really does is alleviate bottlenecks for the AI that a human would easily figure out a way around. It’s also got some unforseen consequences that I have to still work on. The easy reasource boost in the opening can make the AI think that it doesn’t need to worry as much about resource collection and thus put that at a lower priority than it normally should. When the resource boost depletes the AI finds itself playing catch up to shift its efforts to building up a better resource base. The boost can also cause more aggressive behaviour but not necessarily directed at the human player. It ups the chances of the AI’s getting into a cycle where they savage each other and this is to the human player’s advantage most of the time. So more work needs to be done.

Project Brimstone: I’m going to try and announce this in January so I can really start to talk about it. I’d like to start featuring some of the design decisions in this blog. It’s looking very good but I’m working on what has to be the most “Un Fun” part of the game….. the UI. It’s a real chore to build the data displays and menus. Right now there is only placeholder art so it looks awful. If I had to describe the game it would be Diplomacy meets Dune meets Ticket To Ride with a bunch of A Game of Thrones for good measure.

The Stars Are Right

Friday, December 14th, 2007

It’s been a good couple of weeks for getting the word out about Armageddon Empires. Last week Kieron Gillen and the crew at Rock, Paper and Shotgun put on contamination suits and wandered into the wastelands….enjoying the scenery.

Then I got the latest copy of Games For Windows in the mail and knew that one of my 15 minutes was forever gone. Tom Chick and Bruce Geryk (Tom vs. Bruce) took each other on in simultaneous single player games. I won’t tell you who won but pick up a copy and enjoy the banter as Tom and Bruce serve Man. They did get me to thinking that I need to use the Twillight Zone more as source material for inside references.

As a bonus Bruce Geryk took a further look at Armageddon Empires in his Line of Attack Column. I’ve seen a nice increase in demo downloads and people ponying up for a tour of duty in the Wastelands. Welcome aboard! If you have friends who might like the game then please spread the word.

Here is an image of something to which you can look forward. It’s the final card in the Fist of the Wasteland cult that will be a part of the free mini expansion pack due out before the Vernal Equinox (that’s cult speak for before 21 March) if everything goes according to plan. The Fist and his personal army of Doomsayers need some place from which to stage their purging of the wasteland. This is it.

Fortress of the Fist

Vizzini’s Strategy

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

The Princess Bride is one of my all time favorite movies. Adventure, Swordfighting, Sports, True Love….. it’s got it all. One of the most memorable scenes is when the Man in Black catches up to Vizzini played by Wallace Shawn after besting Inigo and Fezik.

So it is down to you and it is down to me

Vizzini has kidnapped the Princess Bride, Buttercup and intends to kill her to start a war between Florin and Guilder. The Man in Black has inconceivably pursued him despite having to face Vizzini’s hired muscle, a master swordsman and a giant. Knowing that he can no longer outrun the Man in Black, Vizzini awaits him with a modest picnic spread out in front of him. Vizzini doesn’t realize it but the Man in Black is Westley, the true love of the Princess Bride. Westley is intent on rescuing Buttercup. As Westley approaches, Vizzini makes it clear that he will kill the Princess Bride if he attempts to free her. An impasse ensues. Vizzini describes it best saying “I can’t compete with you physically…and you’re no match for my brains.” You can try and use a little game theory to understand the stalemate but it’s not really necessary or very helpful. It’s closest to a first strike/mutual assured destruction situation where the outcome of “defecting” is so horrendous that it “deters” either from taking the drastic measure of carrying out their threat…. Vizzini killing the hostage means he himself will die. The death of Buttercup is the equivalent for Westley of his own death because of True Love.

The impasse is broken when Westley suggests a game of wits for the princess…..to the death. Vizzini is confident that this is a game he can win and agrees. What is not immediately apparent is that the game is rigged. Vizzini pours two goblets of wine and Westley pulls forth a vial of deadly Iocaine powder. He shields the goblets from Vizzini and puts the poison into both then bids Vizzini to pick which one does not contain the poison and drink from it. Westley, having gone off to seek his fortune, has acquired some impressive abilities. Among them is an immunity to Iocaine that he has built up over that last few years.

The Iocaine Challenge

Vizzini has made the fatal assumption that the game is exactly as Westley has described. But you have to admire his quick thinking. He has seemingly taken what was a weak position and turned it into a situation where he can win and keep the princess. He has a plan as well. Perhaps not at first. He delivers a long paradoxical monologue expounding on what information he can divine from his opponent to tell him where the poison is. As he is talking he hits upon a plan. He will distract Westley and switch the goblets then suggest they each drink from the one in front of them. If Westley proceeds then obviously the poison was in Vizzini’s goblet and now having switched them he is free to drink and Westley is dead.

The Old Switcheroo

What is really ironic is that as Vizzini is delivering his longwinded analysis on where the poison is, he actually stumbles upon the truth. He tells the Man in Black “You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong, so you could have put the poison into your own goblet trusting on your strength to save you.” What’s interesting is that the camera switches over to Westley and you can see him squirm a bit. He clenches his hand and his throat moves ever so slightly. These are “Tells” that Vizzini has stumbled upon some of the truth for this is in essence his plan with the addtional twist that both goblets are poisoned. Remember that if you are watching for the first time at this point the rigged nature of the game has not yet been revealed. Here is a shot of Westley and his “Tell.”

The Tell

Both Westley and Vizzini drink from their goblets. Elated that he has bested the Man in Black, Vizzini explains that he has fallen for one of the classic blunders….. “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line” and then promptly falls over dead.

Lessons Learned:

1. Never assume that information conveyed to you by your opponent is true.

2. Look for hidden or hard to detect information from your opponent that might shed light on their strategy.

3. Nothing is inconceivable!

Strategy Map

Friday, December 7th, 2007

If you want to design strategy games one tool in your box should be a solid grounding in military history. Humans have been organizing, weaponizing, and strategizing since the dawn of history. The “system” has changed tremendously but the core principles seem to be eternal and immutable. Santayana’s famous quip “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” captures the thought completely. Here is a very simple map of how I envision the state space for military strategy:

Military Strategy Space

This is a very simple two dimensional graph that maps the Offense/Defense vs. Direct/Indirect variables.

Offense vs. Defense: The idea of offense and defense can be as simple as the degree to which an agent can determine events on the battlefield. There can be a lot of ambiguity in trying to figure this variable out. Attackers are generally considered to have high degrees of initiative. They can determine when and where forces clash. A defensive strategy is usually reactive. It tries to anticipate the offensive agent’s intentions and respond in a manner that denies him success. A defensive strategy however might still entail “attacking” or “counter-attacking.”

Direct vs. Indirect: Frontal Assault vs. Flanking Manuever. Given some goal is the best approach to go straight for it or to strike some other element that will cause the goal to fall into your hands. Sir B. H. Lidell Hart was an influential military analyst/historian who strongly championed the “indirect” approach. Having fought and been gassed in WWI the horrors of the massed frontal assault made a big impression on Hart. Starting with the American Civil War the lethality of modern weapons shifted the advantage to the defenders if the tactics of neatly ranked lines of battle charging in grand Napoleonic style were used by the attacker.

I’ve charted out 4 points that I think are representative of the compass points of each combination of variables. It’s a good starting place to start brushing up on some military history.

Pickett’s Charge: The “high water mark” of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee gambles everything on a classic frontal assault into the center of the Union lines.

Rommel at Gazala: The Desert Fox outflanks Ritchie on the Gazala line then turns west to secure his own supply lines. A classic of maneuver warfare.

The Maginot Line: An impenertable line of heavily fortified strongpoints. Unbeatable if they come on in the same old way.

Hannibal at Cannae: Hannibal defeats a much larger Roman force by giving way in the center and enveloping the enemy on two sides.

Try maping out some of these. If you are not familiar with them then make some time and get a good book on the subject. I’m really making an effort to rekindle the eclectic thirst for knowledge that filled my twenties. My thirties was spent in tech/professional books. Time to enjoy the 40’s a little more and stimulate the mind as well.

Jackson at Chancellorsville

Nelson at Trafalgar

Von Manstein at Kharkov III “The backhand slap”

Leonidas at Thermopylae