March 28th, 2006

Gaming

Some Computer Gaming Stuff: Starcraft and EVE Online

Ghost: I saw on Slashdot.com that Blizzard is canceling altogether their long-delayed game Starcraft: Ghost. According to the Slashdot article, this had its own independent development team, it's not that all the resources are going into World of Warcraft. It's just that they've finally realized what I concluded within five minutes of hearing about the game back when it was just a technology demo and some mocked-up screenshots, namely, that the game was going to really suck.

For those of you who haven't played the original Starcraft ... and you should, it's the Lord of the Rings trilogy of computer gaming ... somewhere halfway across the galaxy, a slow-boat of human colonists settled, built colonies, waged their own wars, and only then discovered that they weren't alone. A vast and profoundly alien hive mind species called the Zerg had finally expanded as far as human space. And the advanced ultra-tech and powerful psychic race called the Protoss were determined to stop the Zerg from incorporating human beings into the hive mind, for reasons only slowly explained in the story, even if it meant killing every human being in the galaxy. The storyline consists of the attempts by two competing factions within human society to use the aliens against their enemies, while they war against each other; we then switch viewpoints to the other two species and see the war through their eyes.

But anyway, the humans have their own psychics, with much more modest abilities than the Protoss psychics but useful nonetheless. They're recruited into the Special Forces and given the special rank of Ghost, because if they realize that you're looking, and if you're not using sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment on them, the Ghosts can use their psychic abilities to keep you from noticing that they're there. And what Blizzard originally promised people was that they were going to release a first-person shooter where you played a Ghost, in the wreckage of the aftermath of the war, in a series of scripted storyline missions. Think Splinter Cell with aliens. They were so sure it was going to ship (at least a year ago) that they even took money for the pre-orders. Who knows if those people will get their money back.

I love Starcraft, and can't get enough of it, but I had no interest whatsoever in playing Ghost. Starcraft and its sequel Starcraft: Brood Wars are played from a sort of Babylon 5 like viewpoint. Whichever side you were on, the storyline character representing you was an active participant in setting wartime policy and planning. Not as active as some people would like, but you were at least in the room and participating when every decision was made. The individual troops at the grunt level, whether medical corpsmen or infantry sergeants or fighter spaceship pilots, respond to your orders with a fairly limited set of recorded (but distinctive, and often funny) ways to say, "yes, I'll do that." Some specific individuals, all of them very memorable, appear in the 3D computer-animated brief movies that appear in the opening credits and approximately every three missions thereafter. But we don't watch the main battles from their viewpoint. The closest we come is a brief snapshot from the very end of a renewed Zerg attempt at over-running a small human settlement, in the opening credits of Brood War, and even then we see half of the battle from the bridge of the battle cruiser over head. So the idea of being a peon, even an elite peon, in a world where things are changing that vastly above you and you never have any say over it, and at best only find out about it after the fact, would have been profoundly annoying to me.

No, if I'm going to play a grunt in that universe, I want it to be persistent, with the possibility of advancement to the point where I and the military unit I recruit under me become real players in the politics of that corner of the galaxy. I want World of Starcraft, if anything. But that's not even on the drawing boards, so far as I know.

EVE Online: There's an ad on the PennyArcade.com comic book's web page for a special promotional offer of a 14-day free trial of EVE Online. I actually briefly considered downloading it and trying it out. But while I was thinking about it, I flipped to their New Player Guide and started reading it. And I'm afraid it confirmed the impression I got from watching over people's shoulders while they were playing at the (now defunct?) Rivalz cyber-cafe: this isn't a game, it's a screensaver.

Have I got this right? Most of the non-combat economic activities involve sitting and watching your ship fly, for hours, from the space station to a bookmarked or sought-out business opportunity, whether mining or a courier delivery or whatever. You watch this, with no intervention on your part except that maybe, for the longer runs, there will be two manual course corrections in there that you have to make at more or less the right time. The rest of the time, you just watch your ship. Then you get there, and issue at most two commands. If it's a courier mission, you then watch your ship slowly automatically dock and do the job for you. If you're mining, you watch your ship slowly approach an asteroid, deploy automated mining equipment, and watch your ship until your cargo hold is full. You then reverse the travel process, watching your ship fly all on its own for hours, until it gets back to the station. Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary.

That's not a game. That's watching paint dry, no matter how pretty the paint is. And telling me that it stays exciting because some random time in that several hours your ship might be attacked by pirates and need you to operate the combat equipment doesn't reassure me. I'm not going to sit and watch it do nothing for hours because somewhere in there I might actually get to play the game for a couple of minutes ... but I have little or no control over which couple of minutes. Again, have I got this right? People pay money for this?
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