Space Herpes is the New Dysentery

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about my favorite games and how they inspire the making of Astrobase Command. There are a lot of great games that didn’t make the list (see: title of this post), but these are the ones I found particularly innovative and insightful.

Also, some of these games I haven’t played in years. So I’ll be doing this from memory — which is the point, these are the most memorable games I’ve played.

#10 — The Secret of Mana (SNES)

 

 

The Secret of Mana is genre-defining. It has real-time combat. You fight with a team of three characters. If you want, you can play cooperatively. There is customizable AI settings. You can equip the characters, specialize their skills and magic abilities. The magic system was way ahead of its time. The storyline is deep, the character progression is meaningful. You can talk to random townspeople, and the towns feel like real places.

Map-travel in the later-game involves flying a dragon around the world, and you can visit locations non-linearly. A. Flying. Dragon.

Keep in mind this is on the SNES and released in 1993.

Why is the Secret of Mana on the list? I’m not a fan of JRPGs. I have nothing against them, but it’s not my thing. But once in awhile a game comes along that is so good it completely transcends its genre. This game isn’t really a JRPG, it’s in a genre called “The Secret of Mana” in which there is a single game.

#9 — Sim City (NES)

 

 

This is the first game I played that can be legitimately called a sandbox. I remember playing it in my basement in 1989 for hours at a time. If there was a game that made me a gamer (as opposed to a guy who plays games), it’s Sim City.

Other than “not having your city go bankrupt” there are no extrinsic goals in the game (outside of the scenarios). The goal is to build your city how you want. How high can I get my population? How well can I optimize the traffic? I set these goals myself. They are intrinsic. Asking the player to set his own goals is successful because the game makes you feel in charge of a real-life city. It feels authentic.

As a designer, the most important lesson from Sim City is that being authentic doesn’t mean being accurate.

As an actual urban planner, the most important lesson from Sim City should be “don’t do this.”

#8 — Syndicate

Ah, a game where missions mean something. Assassinations. Kidnapping. Performing specific objectives without being discovered by your enemies. Syndicate isn’t about wiping out a pile of hostile NPCs and going home. Some missions recommend you not to use shotguns or uzis, because collateral damage draws too much attention.

Pro-tip: The police don’t bother you if your guns are holstered. Squad-based covert operations.

The setting is an extremely atmospheric dystopian cyberpunk future, where the globe has been carved up by corporations vying for territory and influence. And your corporation is one of them.

How can this not be on the list?

#7 — Rome: Total War

 

 

The campaign is pretty good, but that’s not where this game shines.

Rome: Total War is made by the battles. Armies in multiplayer are assembled using a points system (money). There is something incredibly zen about directing regiments. Supporting a flank. Bringing in the reserves. You use develop strategy and tactics to beat your opponents while intelligently using the terrain, and each regiments’ strengths. But beating an opponent isn’t just about overwhelming their stats with yours. It’s also about morale, and breaking your opponent by hitting him from the rear. Creating clever traps, feints and out-maneuvering.

The most satisfying victories are taking a smaller force and defeating a larger one by employing battlefield tactics which pick on a weak point in your enemies defenses and watching his lines collapse as his units route from the impact of the charge.

The game has a fairly simple input. Direct a regiment to attack, move, or reform — you get to set how many ranks deep. Each regiment type has a couple of buttons. Spears can form a phalanx. Archers can light their arrows on fire. And so forth.

So out of simple mechanics is born complex dynamic behavior. I’ve played this game for 10 years and I still discover novel tactics.

In Astrobase Command, this is how we want battles to feel. But instead of uniform regiments filled with clones, your squads are comprised of individual units. In Astrobase Command regiments don’t gain experience but rather characters do.

#6 — Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword

 

 

What, that doesn’t look like the Civ 4 BTS you know and love?

It’s a player mod called Fall from Heaven 2. Seriously, if you haven’t played this mod go download it right now.

To say this game Civ 4 is customizable is an understatement. It was designed to be modded. It comes with an editor. Everything is scriptable. There are files and files of plain-text parameters. Even if you don’t mess with that, the amount of options for customizing your play session are insane. To give you an example, in the stock game UI there’s a check-box for whether or not you want a new random seed when you reload.

I played this game for years. The settings I used used the island map in multiplayer of 6 people on a small map size and balanced resources. I wore out 3 CDs before buying it on steam.

Customizable parameters + random generation + multiplayer = infinite replayability.

But this is all civ games. This is even a lot of civ-like games. What puts Civ4:BTS heads and shoulders above the pack is the game-balance (especially with respect to the tech-tree and resources), and the pacing. Because of this, there are dozens of ways to win. Your strategy needs to adapt to your start terrain and the challenges you meet during the game.

It’s not enough to have technically infinite replayability due to random map generation and unique situations. Each of those playthroughs has to be balanced so that new challenges requires new thinking and developing strategies that are specific to that session.

#5 — Ultima Online

 

 

Ultima Online not only launched a ten-year MMO addiction, but caused me to quit my job at Microsoft to join the game industry making MMOs.

No, really.

For anyone that hasn’t played this game, it can best be described as “you walk around a world and do anything. With a thousand other people.” I played a harp, tamed dragons, brought them into towns, and released them. After they killed everyone I picked up the loot from the dead bodies of other players.

I had a tower on an ice continent overlooking the ocean. I sat atop my tower (that I decorated with my loot), and watched the little people walk by.

Sometimes, I robbed travelers. I don’t mean with a stealing skill (although, you could). I mean I hid in a mountain pass and when they walked by I paralyzed with them magic and said if they didn’t give me gold I would kill them. So they did. Other times, I would give my gold away and help newbies. One time I tracked a man half-way across a continent and killed him because he stole my hat. It was a tricorn hat. It didn’t have any stats or any special abilities, it was just my hat.

When you died, you became a ghost. When you typed it came out “OoooOoooOOoo” instead of words. There was a medium skill to talk to ghosts. I’m not making this up.

#4 — X-COM: Terror from the Deep

This is the best squad-based tactics / base-building game I have ever played.

The enemy AI was very, very good. By good I mean “plays strategically like a player.” The aliens send out scout ships. If you didn’t shoot down a scout, it would start sending bigger ships. Those ships would attack locations if you didn’t intercept them. Later the AI might build a base there. If it built a base, the base had supply lines and cargo ships.

Here’s the thing. The AI sent out scout ships regardless of whether you could detect them. So in the mid-game if you see a base on the other side of the planet you could only recently reach… that was because in the early game you weren’t detecting the aliens there. It had been there the whole time, building up.

In XCOM:TFTD the aliens agenda wasn’t to feed you missions. In fact, they tried not to feed you missions by doing activity where you weren’t. Their agenda was to take over the planet. You had to stop them. Compare this to the reboot.

There was no contrived or artificial penalty for failing a mission. It’s just that if you failed to shoot down a ship or blew a mission, the aliens would gain ground. Oh yeah, and they could attack your base. Then you played a mission in your base.

It had base-building. Resource management. Troop management. Research. Manufacturing. This was a sandbox. You you could play TFTD indefinitely and it wouldn’t get stale.

The maps were randomly generated, based off tile-sets chosen from the mission location. The enemy AI was actively trying to seek you and and kill you from the start of the mission. You did not know what a map looked like until you explored it.

I remember a mission on an oil tanker and I got dropped off at one end. It was multiple decks, so I did a sweep from one end to the other placing troops at places where the enemy could slip by. I missed a ladder from the hold. An alien got behind my lines into the “clean” zone. My squad started getting shot in the back, and I couldn’t locate the alien.

Game over man, GAME OVER!

#3 — Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares

 

 

Depth does not equal complexity. That’s the magic of Master of Orion II.

Every feature in this game is streamlined, deep, and compelling. And there are a lot of features — spaceship building, colony management, diplomacy, research, leaders. The leaders are a great touch and personalize your civilization. Individually, all of these features are fairly simple and straight-forward. But it’s the connections and combinations and the way the features work together that creates the deep gameplay.

Now, many 4x games have these features. But it’s easy to forget that’s because Master of Orion came up with a winning formula nobody has been able to improve on. Master of Orion II is the 4x game by which all other 4x games are measured. And it should be.

#2 — Fallout 2

 

 

The original Fallout games (1 & 2) did something no other game has accomplished — it immersed me so deep it made me forget there was a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and a GUI. The Pipboy (the GUI interface) was part of the RPG. It was the mechanism not just for you to interact with the game, but for your character to interact with his world.

And let’s be honest, the writing is fantastic but it isn’t “serious writing.” It is wacky, irreverent, and pretty much every line is a pop culture reference to something else. And that’s not a complete list. Entire quest lines are built around a reference, with a complete commitment to playing it out.

I remember taking out Pretty Boy Lloyd (reference to Pretty Boy Floyd — a bank robber from the 1930s) out into the desert, and playing out a scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. “You see Lloyd, in this world there’s two kinds of people: Those with guns and those who dig.”

You dig.

Another time I was trying to become a citizen of Vault City. Normally you try to take an aptitude test (which you fail), and then are sent to solve a problem the city is having with a nearby power plant. But I was trying to talk my away around it. On this play-thru I had a high intelligence / high perception character, for the specific purpose of seeing how much in the game I could smarts my way out of. So I kept pushing the conversation with the First Citizen. Eventually, I went down a dialog path that culminated in the option “Not smart enough?! I needed a 9 intelligence to get to this conversation node!”

Even breaking the fourth wall, I wasn’t pulled out of my immersion. It’s like the game knew how immersive it was and said to itself “Challenge Accepted.”

Fallout 2 doesn’t telegraph its plays. You don’t see dialog options when you don’t have the sufficient skills or attributes. You never know it’s there. The dialog is incredibly branching, and you can talk yourself into corners, miss dialogs you can never get back to. So every time you play, you can see something new.

Once on a whim, I played a character with intelligence 3. The game had unique dialog for every encounter. NPCs were patronizing, and generally told me to run home, because I was too dumb for their quests. Now there is one NPC Torr Buckner, whom you meet early on in normal play-throughs. Your interactions are very limited: Bugmen take moo-moos at night. Torr scared! Hep Torr? But at Intelligence 3, you can converse with him on a wide variety of topics and you have some very philosophical conversations.

There is no contradiction between being light-hearted and being immersive. You don’t need heavy, serious, moody writing to make a game-world feel real. You just need a total commitment to your RPG setting, and being able to write good.

#1 — Star Control II

And here we have it, folks. The best game ever made.

The depth of the backstory. The unique races. The gameplay. The combat. The dialog. The game balance. The attention to detail. Not only do all the NPC races have their own soundtracks, but they have their own fonts.

I played this game with a pencil and paper and wrote down star coordinates. It was a treasure hunt. The alien races you encounter don’t send you on quests to do something, they tell you what they want in general terms and you have to figure out on your own to make this happen. Adventure-game style. This is completely non-linear. You can go anywhere in the universe your fuel can take you.

Ostensibly you are seeking out stars which have resource-rich planets, mining these planets until your cargo hold is full, and bringing it back to Earth to convert into Resource Units which you use to buy fuel, hire crew, upgrade your flagship, and purchase ships for your fleet.

This itself is fun.

Along the way, you encounter other races with their own rich histories they reveal naturally in the course of the conversation. There is no “tell me about yourself” and a page of exposition. You have to ask the right questions, and they have to have motivation to tell you.

You are presented with dilemmas and decisions, and are generally thrust into the rich tapestry of the universe. You read the dialogs because you want insight into how to solve a specific puzzle, or just be more efficient at the game. And the writing is funny. I mean really, really, funny.

So we’re talking:

  • sandbox sci-fi with exploration, resource collection
  • ship building / resource management
  • fun arcade-style combat
  • non-linear story-telling
  • unique races, hilarious writing
  • adventure-game style quests
  • interesting over-arching conflict that threatens the universe where you have a real purpose and your actions matter

Star Control II takes the best aspects of every other genre and rolls it up into one super-game.

Stardock recently acquired the rights. I don’t think you need the rights to the Star Control IP to make a Star Control game. The only reason you need the rights to a beloved IP for is to create lazy money-grab shallowly-skinned shovelware. I’m looking at you, remakes of Syndicate and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.

Now I’m not saying this is what Stardock plans. I’ve played the hell out of Galactic Civilizations II and it’s an extremely solid 4x game. I’ve recommended it to people. You don’t make a 92 metacritic game by being lazy, or banking on money-grab shovelware using name recognition. So I would be surprised if Stardock blew this opportunity.

But my point is that Star Control isn’t about its specific story. Re-skinning Star Control II to be a steam-ship cyberpunk setting is more “Star Control” than taking the setting and using that to reskin a standard FPS, standard 4x, etc.

None of the games on this list are here because of their specific story. I believe video games to be a unique artistic medium. Strict story-telling belongs to books, and, to a lesser extent, film. A novel is good because, ultimately, it’s a good story. A game is good because it challenges a player’s expectations of play using innovation and immersion, while redefining the accepted conventions of what features can co-exist in the same box. A great game is not just fun, but a specific kind of fun that didn’t exist until that game was made. Being a good story can be part of this, but it isn’t this.

So Stardock bought a good story, but they didn’t buy what makes Star Control II great. The specific greatness of a given game cannot be replicated, because invention and innovation only apply to the first to make it work. Setting out to make a great game means doing something completely new. And you don’t need to own the IP to stand on the shoulders of a giant.

As a designer, I’m inspired by my favorite games and I think every game has a lesson (either good or bad). I believe people draw on their life experience when pursuing creative endeavors. We’ve talked about tabletop miniatures games, pen & paper, and old Atari games as additional inspiration for various aspects of Astrobase Command.

Come tell us on the forums what favorite (or not favorite) games of yours come to mind!

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