Monday, December 19, 2005

The Art of Building Empires

Real-Time Strategy games and their evolution over the past decade

Most of us will be familiar with Chess, and recognize it as a strategy game that requires thought, cunning and for the really good players, a fair amount of planning. As we all know, chess is a turn-based strategy game, where each player has to wait while the other thinks and executes his move on a board. In the computer gaming world though, there exist different genres of strategy games: Abstract Strategy, Simulation, Real Time Strategy, Turn based and City Building. Over the years though, while turn based strategy games have enjoyed very niche popularity, Real-Time Strategy games have emerged at the most popular because of the quick micromanagement and quick thinking required.

A real-time strategy (RTS) game is a type of computer strategy game which does not have "turns" like conventional turn-based strategy video or board games. Rather, game time progresses in "real time": that is, it is continuous rather than turn-by-turn. Players play simultaneously, and opposing armies and economies are built at the same time. Early computer strategy games adhered firmly to the turn-based concepts of their board game ancestors, where--by necessity--players had time to plan their turns before their opponents had a chance to move. Here, I'll be referring to the (harvest - build - destroy) type of games, which has arguably seen the most evolution and popularity since the genre was first defined. Real-time strategy changed all of that so that games would begin to more closely resemble reality: Time was limited, and if you wasted yours, your opponents would probably be taking advantage of theirs. These games are played either against computer opponents or against human players over a network or over the internet. Imagine playing in the persona of Joan of Arc and defending France against the English, or Genghis Khan in his conquest of Europe, or even an army of the human race fighting to save earth from destructive aliens in space battles - all this and much more is possible by playing some of the best games created this decade.

A brief history of how the genre started: in the early 80's game developers were toying with the idea of introducing war strategy into their mostly action packed shooting and gathering games, but were limited by the technology available at the time as well as the difficulties in getting the elements to strategy to work correctly in a simultaneous play setting. Dune 2, released in 1992 and was the first real-time strategy game which defined the genre, and even today's games have a lot in common with this classic. Whwasn'tit wasn't a huge commercial success, Dune 2 went on to inspire hundred of game developers to create better, faster, and more complex strategy games.

I was first introduced to the genre of turn-based strategy games in 1995 with Heroes of Might and Magic, an epic series of games that survives to this date - version 5 of the series is due to be released early next year. While turn based strategy has it own charm, when the original Command and Conquer series was released, I became an instant fan along with gamers all over the world who were delighted to play a real time strategy game that looked great and played well. Blowing up tanks, building aircraft carriers and playing multiplayer in real-time lead to a huge jump in fun playing a strategy game. Then cam e along Warcraft 2 in 1996 (in India), and that set the stagebeginininge begiing of the strategy game revolution. The Warcraft (Blizzard) and Command and Conquer (Westwood Studios) series were bitter rivals over the next few years, each trying to outdo the other in terms of features, gameplay and graphics. So who won the battle of the most played strategy game at the time? According to game historians, Blizzard, the makers of Warcraft, won by a huge margin - but not because of Warcraft! In 1998, Blizzard released arguably one of the best strategy games ever made: Starcraft. Not only did this game become a huge hit with gamers, it pushed the genre to a completely new level; world of real-time strategy hasn't been the same since. In a time where there were other good strategy games like Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Total Annihilation, Dark Reign and the classic Age of Empires 2, Starcraft just cleanly ripped apart the competition with its simple to use interface, deep strategy possibilities and addictive gameplay.

Age of Empires too needs a mention, as one of the best strategy games ever created; but it was too complex for some people, and while it got very pdidn'tar, it didn't see the kind of numbers Starcraft did.

Fast forward to 5 years later: Warcraft 3, Age of Empires 3, Command and Conquer: Generals, the Homeworld series and Rise of Nations are just some of the RTS games that have attracted a lot of fans. While the basic premise of these modern strategy games hasn't changed much, (the harvest, build and destroy theme still applies) the games are a huge step ahead of their predecessors. For one, they're all 3D games, with beautiful environments which can be zoomed into and camera angles can be rotated. What this means for the player is immersive graphics with unprecedented attention to detail, among other things. Zooming in on one of your 40 tanks and being able to see the tank commander giving orders, or clicking on a hero and watching his cloak blow in the wind and his sword gleam are just a couple of example of what I mean by detail. Today's powerful computers and graphics cards have made this possible, and the future looks even better. Future games are likely to further enhance the realism of RTS games, giving each unit a limited intelligence and experience levels, similar to what Warcraft 3 and Age of Empires 3 have already done to some extent.

Multiplayer strategy games have always been amazing fun, because of the fast gameplay and intense micro and macro management required. But multiplayer strategy games have always had a "ceiling" of 8 to 12 players playing simultaneously, simply because more players controlling armies would create serious performance issues for everyone. But the killer RTS type for the future is the Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy (MMORTS). This new type of strategy game combines real-time strategy (RTS) with a large number of simultaneous players over the Internet. It is a type of massively multiplayer online game, and this genre is set to be the next revolution in strategy gaming. These are early days, and while the current MMORTS games out there are still a little raw, once the big publishing houses like Blizzard get in the foray we can only expect nothing but more beautiful graphics, more addictive gameplay and intense online strategy gaming in the coming years.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Demise of a Revolution

The erasure of videogame arcades from popular culture across the globe

Remember the dark lights, constant bling-bling of coins and the heady rush of being in a place where most people’s egos make Mount Everest seem like a molehill? Yes, I’m talking about the ‘friendly’ neighborhood videogame arcade of yesteryear, where you could pop in with only 10 rupees in your pocket and get over 5 hours of interactive entertainment (if you’re good – if not, the ten bucks wouldn’t last you more than 2 minutes).

For those not in the know, videogame arcades are commercial establishments that house large videogame machines for people to experience on a “per play” basis. You’d have to put in a few coins (it used to be Re. 1 and Rs. 2 about 10 years ago, but in today’s arcades its Rs. 20 per game) and try and keep your game character alive for as long as possible – if your character died or the game ended, you’d have to put in more coins to continue your game.

Mostly the bastion for teenage males, videogame arcades all over the world have had their fair share of negative vibes; they typically have subdued lighting to inhibit glare and enhance the viewing of the game's video display, making the ambience seem a little, well, dark and dingy. Add to that the ‘putting in coins into a machine’ phenomenon and most people automatically thought that these arcades were gambling houses! *sigh* I wish they were, I’d probably be a millionaire by now :) But anyway, this atmosphere and the combination of people’s perceptions added to their negative reputation, and arcades in the US, Japan, Europe and even India came under a lot of flak by concerned parents and tax-greedy politicians.

The arcade scene in India was comparatively late in arrival, and when arcades did start to sprout, they were restricted to only a few places in the beginning; one of the first videogame arcades in India was in Pune, called “Shoot-In”. Small place, packed with pinball machines and arcade cabinets, it was one of my favorite hang-outs as a kid simply for the fun Tetris competitions they used to have :)

By the mid-1980s, however, the arcade video game craze was beginning to fade in the west due to the reputation of arcades as being seedy, unsafe places as well as the advances in home video game console technology. The last gasp of the youth arcade subculture in Europe and the US, may have been the advent of two-player fighting games such as Street Fighter II (1991), Mortal Kombat (1992), Samurai Showdown (1993), Fatal Fury (1992) and the Tekken series (1996), to name but a few classic all-time-favorites. In India, though, “homebrewed” arcades sprung up all over the place in the late nineties, with homemade arcade machines created out of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis consoles combined with cheap control systems, video monitors and of course, pirated games.

So what was the difference between the original arcade games and these Indian/Taiwanese arcade games? Well, the Indian ones would “pause” every 3 minutes, forcing you to put in another 2 rupees to continue your game. So it didn’t matter if you were good at the game or not, you’d have to shell out 2 bucks to play for each additional 3 minutes!

Nevertheless, these arcades too came under a lot of flak, and, like the rest were shut down over time. Over the years I’ve been to quite a few arcades: 3 in Mumbai, 1 in Mangalore, 4 more in Pune and even one in Goa, at the Cidade De Goa. I’ve heard of a few in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and even Kolkatta – however, only a couple of them remain open to this day. So what happened to these arcades, and why did they close shop?

The so called “golden age of arcade games” was the mid-eighties to the early nineties, according to historians, where video arcades were at their peak popularity in the US and Europe. After that, though, the rapid fall in popularity was due to a combination of three things: the growing power of home consoles and PC gaming; the negative reputation of video arcades; and the lack of new games and technologies coming out from the game developers, who shifted focus to (the more profitable) console and PC development.

In India, however, the reasons videogame arcades died are quite different: the game cabinets were expensive; the arcades come under the entertainment tax scanner; the newer arcades just didn’t become profitable due to their student-unfriendly prices and therefore low occupancy; and quite often, arcades got into trouble due to the betting habits of a few unscrupulous individuals.

With the increase of Internet cafes opening (which also provide gaming services), the need for video arcades and such arcade games have reduced, and therefore many old video game arcades have long since closed. The classic coin-operated games have become largely the province of dedicated hobbyists all over the world, who manage to buy old arcade cabinets at amazing prices.

Japan is now the only country in the world which still has a popular video arcade culture, where they are called “game centers”. New age arcade games are usually tested out in Japan, with new genres like “Dance Dance Revolution” (where the player has to do certain dance moves on a floor-pad) and “The House of the Dead” (where the player holds a gun and shoots at a light-sensitive screen) which were created in the past 5 years. Unfortunately, even in Japan, arcades aren’t what they used to be, and with a very few new games being made, most believe the games centers won’t last too long either.

The good old neighborhood arcade is no more, well, at least not till someone perfects virtual reality machines; but have we lost all those amazing games? Not really! If you’d like to play the arcade games of yesteryear again, you could use an ‘emulator’ called MAME and play most of your old favorites on your PC! You probably won’t get to experience the dark, excitement filled ambience of an arcade again, but at least all the games are still there for the taking.