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Life As An Intern Game Developer

Jump to: Introduction :: The First Day :: Three-Week Mark :: Personal Implications :: Conclusion

As of now, I am officially a two-week-old intern programmer at the game development division of Stardock; a company most likely best-known for their Object Desktop suite of Windows desktop customization software (of which I believe WindowBlinds and ObjectDock may be the most well-known). Within the game development scope of things, though, Stardock is famous for their turn-based strategy series: Galactic Civilizations; the most recently released of which was Galactic Civilizations 2 and its Dark Avatar expansion pack. The company also developed The Political Machine, a turn-based strategy game which revolved around the 2004 presidential election. And, here I am, a one-class-away-from-graduating English major at the University of Michigan who is, as previously stated, a game programming intern at a company best known for its turn-based strategy games, Windows customization software, and a history of excellent customer service. And I, somehow, managed a position there.

Though, in all honesty, I think the folks at Stardock thought they were actually hiring a kitten. Imagine their disappointment when I had neither fur nor whiskers. Though I do meow.

The First Day
I have a history of sleeping issues when I lay down with nothing on my mind; the kind of sleep I get on the night before starting a new job in a part of Michigan I had never seen to start work with a bunch of brand new people is restless at best. So, after getting to sleep at around 3am, I woke up at 7am to give myself time to have a nice, relaxing morning with a big 'ol breakfast (... instant oatmeal?) and, well, that's really all I had planned for the morning's activities. I was planning to show up to the office at 9am, but being relatively unfamiliar with the kind of traffic I would have to endure on the drive from Ann Arbor to Plymouth, I left at 8:15 "just in case." So, twenty minutes later, I was standing outside the very impressive building with the glossy, pretty Stardock logo wondering where I would be working. It's probably worth noting that I had never actually set foot inside of this office before -- when I interviewed for the intern position it was back in the "old" office in Livonia; my first thought at the sight of the new building was "Wow. It's all sorts of pretty.

Galactic Civilizations

The first mission as a soon-to-be-employed intern was to actually find my way within the office itself. There are three floors of the building: the first floor, which is shared with an accounting firm (and part of Stardock that I have yet to actually see the inside of), the basement which is undergoing renovation, and the second floor -- which, through the window of a locked door looked like the place I wanted to find my way in to... But, for whatever reason, the locked door was, in point of fact, locked to the uncleansed outsiders (ie, me) of the world. I walked back down to the first floor of the building and tried the door to, what looked like, the Stardock portion of the first floor (as indicated by the Galactic Civilization poster on the wall), and that door was also locked. The secretary within the accounting firm across the hall gave me judgmental looks as I walked around confused. Confused and scared. My next attempt at getting inside was to go down to the basement and see if there was a hidden stairwell that I would be able to access to get into the office. There wasn't. It was dark and basement-like, though. Eventually I decided just to play around in the elevator on the ground floor. This elevator took me up to the second floor and into the main lobby where I said "Hi. My name is Trent. I'm an intern. I'm, uh, starting. Starting today. I hope?"

After a short sit-down-and-wait period within the Stardockian lobby, Cari came and met me and gave me a tour of the second floor along with introductions to all the people who were at work at the time -- it was only about 9:00am and, as I know now, a majority of people don't show up until after 9:30-10:00am. Apparently there were some lack of notifications about when I was actually starting, so I had a bit of down-time for the first hour or so while I was there. Though, this downtime was well-spent getting the surprisingly speedy computer that I was set-up with; my worry that I would have a rough transition from my dual-monitor setup at home to a single-monitor workspace was instantly rendered naught -- not only is my work machine near-identical to my home one, but one of the two monitors at my desk at work is actually larger than both of my home ones. This was a very joyous realization.

The Political Machine

Since I had yet to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), people in the office were avoiding me like the plague, so I sat at my computer setting up software and downloading some of the necessities for fifteen minutes until I was given the requisite NDA; the moment I signed it, people around me lit-up and I was briefed on what my first task as an intern game programmer would be. I, unfortunately, cannot divulge any of the details here, but I can say that I was absolutely not expecting to be given a task of the kind of importance and awesomeness which I was given. As a measly intern, I was expecting to be doing nothing short of programmatically cleaning the office's gutters and scripting the trash bucket's cleanup routines. Instead, by the end of the first day, I was working alongside what I would consider to be a "veteran employee" in designing and organizing fairly major component of a project.

I could not have asked for a better job.

The First TwoThree Weeks
As of today, I have been at Stardock for a grand total of two weeksAs of when I started writing this article, I had been at Stardock for a grand total of two weeks; now, as I come back to this masterpiece in e-penmanship and creative thinking, I'm ending my third week there. It has been a weak and timid amount of time in the whole scheme of things (or, erm, I have been a weak and timid employee in the whole scheme of things; toe-may-toe/toe-mah-toe), but it seemed as good a time as any to finally write the little article that I've been meaning to get to since that first day.

I was talking to one of my friends earlier today about my job and, for a bit of background, this is someone who's greatest familiarity with the concept of video games is knowing friends who played Halo in dorm rooms, much less with the knowledge of what kind of work goes into modern video games. Anyway, I was talking to this friend, and I was trying to explain the kind of work environment present in Stardock -- the lead-in to this conversation being that I said it was difficult to imagine a larger development company being this... homey. Even as an intern, I don't get foul looks for walking around in flip-flops, being essentially draped across my chair/desk in an awkward looking, albeit surprisingly comfortable, bodily configuration while programming. For a quick break every now and then, there is a consistently-stocked lunchroom area with pop, fruit, snackables, mini-meals, and so on. Basically, the whole of the second-floor workplace (I still have yet to actually see the first floor) is a very comfortable, easy-going environment that makes working and adjusting to a completely new kind of work environment about as painless as I could have hoped.

Galactic Civilizations 2: Dread Lords

And then, of course, there are the people. I don't think I've had such pleasant things to say about such a wide variety of people in recent years. Even as a measly intern, people have been not only friendly, but also incredibly helpful; during my first few weeks if I was ever confused about something, there was never any intimidation factor in seeking out someone to get some help from. On my first day, I was given some very basic goals for the component of something that I was working on, on the second day I got some clarification, and on the third day I was playing around in the codebase working on implementing some of the most basic of features that would come in handy; other than these first few days, I've had nearly complete freedom in the way I go about designing and implementing my personal task (which is a fairly independent one, at the moment). This was not only surprising for me in the sense that I have a lot of freedom about how I go about working on things, but also that I would be given this amount of freedom on a non-trivial and fairly significant component of one of the company's current projects. Being vague and sketchy is fun!

Personal Implications
All of this really makes for a very encouraging experience for me, personally. After my first professional programming job the summer after my freshman year doing what was, essentially, contract work for the U of M Space Research department, I had a lot of my love of programming beat of me. Between that and my first-year Engineering courses at the school -- which, not to sound like too much of a jerk, were very work-intensive without a whole lot of actual learning occurring -- I decided that I would take my academic education in an alternate direction for my time at the school and do something... Well, different. So, despite changing my major to English, I found myself craving programming as a purely extracurricular activity; I got involved with implementing some additional features into the then-beta Torque Shader Engine and doing some very basic contract work (none of which really panned out). More recently, I decided to take a few additional Computer Science classes during the school year, since I had a large majority of the classes necessary for my English degree, along with playing with XNA during my spare time. It's been a weird sort of combination of work for me; surprisingly, there really are not a whole lot of similarities between English and Computer Science -- though, oddly, aspects of my Linguistics courses had connections to some aspects of computer programming languages.

Galactic Civilizations 2: Dark Avatar

As I stand now (one class away from a Bachelor's degree in English), I can't say I regret taking my academic "path" down a very different educational branch from my very Computer Science-heavy experience outside of school... But I did find myself worried that the degree in English would make finding actual employment as a game developer far, far more difficult than it would have been with a CS degree. And, as far as I know, an internship as a game developer may not make it a whole lot easier... But the one thing that has made an impact on me is that, in conversations with my coworkers at times, when I mention that I'm actually a near-college graduate English major the only reaction I receive is "Really? Wow, that's kind of weird for a programmer." I expected to be looked down upon -- nay, shunned -- for such a divulgence of my education. Saying that the lack of such a negative reaction gave me a bit of hope for myself would be a tremendous understatement.

I think the best way to sum up my experience thus far as an intern game developer at Stardock would be with a conversation I had with a housemate upon my return to my house at around 7:30pm last week. He looked at me with a grin, saying "Wow, you must have gotten to the office real late this morning." I looked confused -- it's a natural look that doesn't necessarily signal actual confusion -- saying "Erm. I think I got there at around 8:30 this morning, actually." He looked at me, eyes filled with confusion, asking "Did you... Did you do something wrong? You must be pissed!" I shrugged -- another natural reaction of mine. My response was simple: "I just lost track of time, I guess."




Come On! Let's Boogie to the Elf Dance!

Jump to: The Apology :: The Personal Touch :: The Geeky Touch :: Games of 2006 :: Parting Sentiments

The Apology
Now that I'm officially engulfed in the first day of my Christmas vacation, I can address an increasingly vocal group of readers who are dissatisfied with the amount of entries that have been written within the last few months in a more-or-less rambling fashion. This method of rambling has been, by and large, dismissed in the favor of far more technological in nature -- read: nerdy, as can be seen in exhibits one, two, three, four, five, and six -- and I do apologize to those five of you who enjoy the more casually-written Intarwebian endeavors. At the same time, I won't make any promises about the frequency which these sorts of posts will make in the future, as the amount of technical and gaming writings are proving to be far more enjoyable to write than I had originally planned. This admittedly bizarre exuberance that I experience in writing about various game genres and programming projects is something that is fairly unexpected even to myself. And, as far as I'm aware, I am the foremost authority on myself (contrary to popular belief). Every now and then, throughout the site's three or four year lifespan, it has taken an unanticipated slant in the variety of content it presents to the unknowing, and potentially unwilling, Internetians who stumble upon it and this is... Well. It's nothing like the kind of changes (v0.1, v1, v2, v3, v4, v5 -- each featuring some kind of "gimmick" that never lasted long), that it's gone through in the past; it's just more focused in the tech direction than in the emo-blogboy direction that it once reveled and bathed in.

The Personal Touch
As of December 20, 2006, I have completed the first semester of my senior year at the University of Michigan. Even though I've had some really great experiences over the course of my time as a student there, I can safely say that this semester has been the best I've had since I came to the school in fall of 2003. This past semester I was able to take a fairly hefty amount of classes (and do well in all of them, save one), see three performances by the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company (two of which featured Patrick Stewart in a leading role), along with some other more personally awesome things which don't sound quite as impressive when spoken from the Intarwebian rooftops. At this point in my education I finally managed to really lock-down my academic goals. After starting at the University as a Computer Science student in the U of M College of Engineering, I am now a declared English major at the school. I'm going to have my bachelors in English at the end of the next semester, then I'll be going on to get a minor in Computer Science, and to finish my time at the school I'll be getting a Secondary Education certificate. I'm told that the dream of one day teaching High School English/Computer Science is one of insanity and guaranteed poverty. I'm okay with that. As for what I'll actually be doing when I get done with my degree(s)... Well, that's a bit fuzzier.

In case it hasn't become all that apparent, I've also finally gone back to my hobby programming roots in the last few months. After getting a solid number of pages and words and grammarstuffs successfully down on digital paper for the novel I randomly came to the conclusion that hobby programming was, for me, a far more relaxing, enjoyable, and fulfilling way to spend my down time. Since I'm the kind of person who would rather be doing something rather than sleeping, I often am awake at times when most other people are not so much. What this eventually comes down to is that at 4:00am or so, I can be found plugging away at something or other in my room at night. During the time from 1:00am to whenever, I have a whole lot of time to get whatever I want done without any fear of being interrupted by a drunken housemate, stressed-out friend, or romantically-distraught brother-in-arms. And now, instead of sitting aimlessly during this down time hoping that some kind of divine inspiration will strike me, I can usually get right down to work on a programming project. For whatever reason, logic and inspiration aren't the kind of best-friends-forever-and-ever that written creativity and inspiration are. And I am thankful of this fact.

This change in hobby does mean one thing, though, and that is exactly how much less nothing time I have over the course of my down time. Since I find programming to be a much easier task to get into -- whereas with writing I had to set aside a block of time if I was "in the mood" to get something done -- I can generally fill aimless time far easier. So, in the past where I had lazy-time that may result in watching a movie, a new episode of a TV show, a new site entry, or time playing whatever the game-of-the-week was at the time, I spend far more time actually programming something. This is my way of explaining why the amount of site entries and updates over the course of the past couple of months has vastly deteriorated into... Well, nothing. I had a few of my friends bring up to me in the past questions along the lines "What happened to your site!? It's all... Icky!" I eventually discovered that "icky" was, in fact, the word to describe an Internet site which has gone inactive save for incredibly long and nerdy articles about video games and computer programming. To satiate this crowd of folk, I'll try to make a stronger effort to write the occasional rambly-type post -- but no promises.

The Geeky Touch
A few days ago I posted short, little entry about some of the new directions that my programming has taken over the last couple of months. Since I lost a decent amount of the work that I've done over the last few years with a pair of very unfortunately-timed hard drive crashes, I figured that when starting my new project that I would try something completely new. Microsoft's release of XNA and Game Studio Express Beta One (which I elaborate a bit on in the aforementioned article) occurred mere days before my jump back into the 'gramming realm, and I thought the idea of a suite of tools geared toward the indie side of things would be a neat first step. Granted, I had never even looked at so much as a line of C# before in my life, but I considered that to be a negligible detail (and, in fact, the transition from C/C++ to C# proved near-effortless).

I'll admit: I don't exactly know a whole lot about the actual game I'm currently making, but I am, in fact, making a game. I've said I would do this in the past and the end result was me neglecting the idea of a game entirely in favor of extensively research some aspect of the tech that I was working with. It was this deviation into a graphics programming frenzy which led to my first book and then a slow, but steady, decline into the High School teaching-obsessed, book reading', English major that you see now.

Currently, though, my goal is actually come out with some semblance of a playable game at the end of this projected timeline of a couple of months. The demo at the end is not exactly going to be the most polished or feature-filled game in the world, but I'd like to at least have one playable map up and running with a single match of the hypothetical game playing (whether or not that game can be played against an AI is possible, but doubtful). As for what the thing actually is... Well, best I can decipher from the dark, twisted, and incredibly cobweb- and cockroach-infested corridors of my brain is that the game will be a heavily stylized real-time strategy game which revolves around a hyperviolent war between cats and dogs. Yes. As far as I'm concerned, the game will simply not be a product solely done by me as myself unless critters were somehow the focus of it. The next week or so will revolve around various methods of rendering the environment and some placeholder 3D models to try and secure the look and feel of what I envision the game to be like. I've gotten the actual model rendering and have been playing with various types of vertex and pixel shaders over the course of the last few days and it's been a lot of fun. Here are some of the screenshots from the implementation trials of the High Dynamic Range rendering and tone-mapping code (which is now, for the most part, fully operational):

High Dynamic Range Rendering Experiments.

After that, I was trying some shaders and rendering styles that, in my head, seemed like they might be plausible effects to use for the terrain. Granted, these are very half-hearted attempts at implementing styles that might, with a little bit of lovin' and elbow-grease, be very good looking... But while I run through my mental list of possible appearances of the thing I'm not going to give any eyesores like the screenshots below any more time than is absolutely necessary to get an idea.

Pixel Vomit (Possible Terrain Rendering Effects).

Yeah. I have a ways to go.

Games of 2006
In case anyone was wondering, I will not be continuing the Games of the Year series that I did last year. The cop-out answer that I could give is that I just won't have time to write the ten articles necessary to actually compose such a list... But, really, the answer is just that I haven't played nearly the same number and breadth of games this year that I did last year. I have yet to play a great number of the titles that are widely considered this year's blockbusters and, for that reason, I'm just going to list my top three games of this year without much elaboration. #1: Company of Heroes -- I wrote about this title pretty extensively in the final part of my RTS series and my ravings of the title still stand. It is, without question, an amazing real-time strategy game and a spectacular all-around PC title. And, after a couple of months of sporadic playtime, I finally got around to beating the single-player campaign a couple of days ago. It was a blast of a game to play.
#2: Titan Quest -- Titan Quest is an admittedly flawed game. It's a title that does its best to imitate the addictive and the, for many, everlasting qualities of Diablo 2 and, according to some, fails to do that with the same success... For me, though, this was the greatest Action/RPG game that I've played in years. The amount of items and class combinations was a component of the genre that I found sorely lacking in recent hack-and-slash games. Titan Quest got a rough start with its bug-ridden release -- which was so bad for me that I could not actually play the game for more than five minutes at a time until the first patch came out -- but when the patches game, they turned this already-great game into a great playable game. Had Titan Quest received the same free post-release support that games likes Sacred received it would have had the potential to be one of the best titles in the genre... But I guess there's always that forthcoming expansion pack. Sigh.
#3: Wii Sports -- It may be unfair to really list this game as one of the best of the year given how recently it came out (and given that I played it in an optimal environment), but seeing how this title has fared amongst all of the people I know and seeing how a group of people get such a joy out of playing this game in a crowded college living room it's hard to deny Wii Sports a place in my top three. I was pretty outspoken in my circle of more tech- and nerd-inclined friends against the Nintendo Wii and even seeing some people playing Wii Sports and Twilight Princess wasn't enough to change my mind. As soon as I picked up that little motion-sensitive remote to play a round of Wii Golf, though, I quickly changed my viewpoint. The experience of playing a round of bowling, baseball, golf, or tennis with or against a room full of people is one that I find immense difficulty in actually describing, but it is definitely a lot of unexpected fun as far as I'm concerned.
Honorable Mentions (In no particular order): The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Gears of War, Battlefield 2142, Guitar Hero 2, and Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords.

Parting Sentiments
That seems pretty good for an entry in old school rambly fashion. Currently, I'm working on adding a non-photorealistic sketch effect to the game so if that works out particularly well (or particularly bad), I'll post shots of it to the devshot gallery. So. Yeah. Awesome.

i can see a lot of life in you




A Glimpse into Modern Real-Time Strategy (Part 4)

Jump to: The Introduction :: Company of Heroes :: Supreme Commander :: The Conclusion

The Introduction (Or "Why Delays Are the New Thing")
Let's pretend that this article is getting published in a special part of a unique dimension somewhere in the vast reaches of time, space, and the Intarweb that wouldn't place it nearly two months after the last installment of this -- my four-part series dedicated solely to the fruitful kind of happyhappyjoyjoy feelings that the Real-Time Strategy genre can impart upon its gamers (and the other two parts: part one and part two). So, yeah, here's the much-delayed fourth part of my babyseries. It's not going to be as structurally deft and detailed as the last few parts, due to the simple fact that not a lot of new material can fit into the admittedly limited scope of a supposedly "conclusive" article... But the general gist of this bad boy is that I'm going to cover a couple of upcoming hot and sexy super-games and then, after these pair of titles, I'm just going to launch into a long personal tirade that will most likely just be scattered thoughts about what's cool and hip and what's uncool and... Unhip. That tirade is a kind of hybrid brainchild of rant and conclusion, so... Yeah. That'll do it for the series.

Company of Heroes
When Relic released its first media and information about Company of Heroes I, like so many other gamers, sighed. It wasn't just a sigh either. It was a sigh. A lengthy, exaggerated-for-effect, loud, and blatant sigh that shook the Earth by the power of some imaginary Braingod of mine. Yet another World War II title to add to the stack of games that all draw from the same eight-word pool of words that function as titles -- "Company of Heroes," "Medal of Honor," "Brothers in Arms," "Battlefield 1942," "Soldiers: Heroes of World War II," "Call of Duty," etc.. Whoop-dee-fricking-doo. I've personally never had a problem with so many games drawing from the same era, but the fact is that most of these games all draw from the same perspective of the war: the Airborne infantry (as chronicled in Band of Brothers, D-Day, and other such famous battles. These are all truly aspects of the war well worth learning about and trivializing in modern games, but at some point there needs to be a line drawn in the sand that dictates when enough really is enough.

And upon the release of the game's single-player demo (I wasn't too enthralled with the multiplayer beta) I had every single preconceived idea about the game turned upside-down. I'm sure there have been moments in my gaming career where I've been so surprised by a game that it'd be absolutely impossible for another game to be more surprising, but off hand I'd say that Company of Heroes surprised me (a lot of build-up for such a mild ending statement, I know; "that's what she sa--"nevermind). The second I started the tutorial missions and saw the gameplay in action first-hand (and not in a multiplayer match) I instantly knew that Relic had something special on their hands with the game. I couldn't really place that feeling that was rising in my tummy while I made short work of the tutorial missions, but something about the game just felt good. I also played and loved the incredibly well-presented first mission (Operation Overlord!) in both its introductory cinematic and the very cool way in which the cinematic morphs into real-time graphics. I stopped playing the single-player demo after this, since I heard that the next mission in the demo was actually the fourth or fifth in the final game, and I like to preserve as much of the game as possible for the retail release.

Unfortunately, my drive to hold off on the game until the day of its release was absolutely crushed when Relic released a demo that had a skirmish mode coded into it. I jumped on that demo like a rabbit on to a carrot from Mr. McGregor's garden. And it was good. Oh, was it good. As a rough estimate, I believe I played that single, two-versus-two skirmish demo map approximately... Thirty times. Give or take [Give] ten. The way that the game was able to harness the kind of fast-paced, chaotic atmosphere I've only seen equaled in the best-of-the-best World War II shooters on the PC (Call of Duty if you were wondering). I had matches against the computer that placed me within a mere fifty or so points, out of an original three-hundred, from being eliminated and mocked by the "Easy" difficulty (what a misnomer that is) but, after more than an hour of struggling from point-to-point, securing choke points throughout the confines of the small map, I was able to pull out in the end due entirely to smart, strategic allocation of units and defenses.

Company of Heroes.

At least one of the rounds, maybe two, of the game I played against the AI in the demo map lasted more than an hour and a half. That may not seem like much but it's worth re-noting that this particular map isn't really all that big. It's, actually, just big enough for a two-versus-two game and not a whole lot more. The reason that these games tend to go on for so long is that Relic has these maps designed for combat along very specific locations on each map -- usually directly corresponding to "Critical Locations" or, in the case of the demo map, one of three control points which help to reduce/stabilize point loss for the player and his opponent (first to zero loses). The most fiercely contested spots on any given game map tend to occur around these locations (resource points too, but these aren't usually quite as intense), and Relic has done a masterful job in designing each map to support this sort of "bottleneck combat" that never allows any map to really be an easy victory for either the Axis or Allied team.

Company of Heroes' map design would be all for nothing if it didn't have the most frantic, visceral combat that I've ever played in a real-time strategy game before -- a praise which I've given, and hereby retract, to Relic's own Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Instead of relying on a large variety of units alongside a high population cap, the game allows every single unit on the battlefield to play a very important part while still putting an emphasis on a more "big picture" gameplay scheme. Similar to Dawn of War, Company of Heroes utilizes a squad-based infantry system that makes the player treat a squad as a single unit, while larger or more significant units such as tanks or snipers are treated on their own accord. I wasn't a really big fan of this system when it was present in Dawn of War, despite slowing growing accustomed to it over time, but in Company of Heroes it works like I believe Relic always intended it to function -- a byproduct of the game being far more militaristic in feeling than Dawn of War. And this organizational control scheme made me, as a player, made me take a step back after getting continually annihilated by opponents and take a second look at how I played the game. After a few trials, I learned how to adjust my control strategy: instead of grouping a logically-assigned mass of my units into a single hotkey and always moving and attacking the, say, three squads of infantry as "one," I gave each of my units a kind of mental hotkey. I split my five or six infantry squads into two separate hotkeys -- purely for reasons of their eventual distant location on the map, and that's it. For actual orders, I tabbed through the squad control (as you can control them individually within the hotkey group) and manipulated each and every squad separately. I never gave my tanks or vehicles hotkeys, as I always had them around my infantry to provide moving support as the click of my cursor demanded it. The only additional units I ended up choosing to have hotkeyed were the distant support and artillery squads. As I near the end of the single-player campaign, I find myself playing Company of Heroes unlike I have any other RTS game before it. I spend more than two hours on each of the later missions, I carefully plot out which units I choose to fit in the limited population cap, and I generally carry on two or three separate methods for achieving the same objective in a mission. I order all my units around the map individually, and I ensure that all of my infantry have heavy cover that they can seek before ever assaulting an enemy position as I have a backup rifle squad providing suppressing fire as they advance group scurries to their position. Excessive? Surprisingly, no. Effective? Definitely.

Any game that can force me into writing a single paragraph detailing even the most minute aspects of my militaristic tactics in a heavily combat-oriented real-time strategy game in this day and age is, without question, a game doing something to some degree of perfection. And that's exactly the case with Company of Heroes; the way the game handles combat is done so superbly that it, as I illustrated (or attempted to), manages to completely change the way that players approach and interact with a game that doesn't really deviate all that much from the basic RTS formula -- there's still the traditional base-building, need for resources, unit purchasing, and some form of tech tree advancement... But the way that the units themselves interact with the environment and their enemies puts the game over-the-top of what would, otherwise, be considered a very well-polished, by-the-books strategy game.

Company of Heroes.

All of the previously listed aspects of Company of Heroes are, certainly, the most obvious and crucial changes that the game implements to shake the standard conventions of the genre... But the way it handles some of the more common features that have crept into RTSs over the last few years are also a key to the game's success. And, by this, I'm referring primarily to the portions of Company of Heroes' incredibly sexy aesthetics. Let's face facts, people, the game has it going on in the conventional sense; it looks good, moves good, and has the kind of special effects that would even make Jerry Bruckheimer jot down a thing or two on his pyrotechnic notepad. The graphics are so good that the game is able to utilize the in-game engine to render cutscenes which are more detailed and life-like than most modern First-Person Shooters. And then there are them 'thar fancy-pants fisiks which have the two-fold purpose of throwing debris here, there (and everywhere!) and, also, the completely destructive landscape has huge gameplay ramifications. I mean, I suppose the pretty flying chunks of metal and cement impact the gameplay too but... Yeah, they really don't.

Anyway, the game's pretty bells, whistles, and abundant explosions end up having quite a drastic effect on the gameplay, which to me was a surprise. Sure, the graphics, animations, and physics help to make the entire game far more believable and intensely visceral than it may have been if the units were all stick figures and the tanks were all My Little Ponies... But specific aspects of the game's engine have a huge effect on how a heated battle can turn out; for instance, the game's combat is based heavily around the idea of "cover." An infantry unit is, essentially, screwed beyond words if he's caught in the open field with a tank gunning him down -- the unit is in, essentially, "negative cover" which ends up meaning that it is so exposed that it suffers a sort of sitting duck penalty in combat that usually ends in the unit getting absolutely annihilated by even the weakest of combatants. There are, of course, objects, tank traps, and sandbag mounds (the latter two can be built by the player) that can be used for varying degrees of cover to make early-match moments more even between the aggressors and defenders... But what's interesting is that any large chunks blown into the landscape, blown-out buildings and tank shells, along with chunks of rock blown from some of the larger buildings and objects can be used as cover as they fall to the ground (and persist if large enough). So, for example, let's say that you're in the middle of a heated tank battle and one of the enemy Panzers is annihilated by an M4 Sherman. That was a nice little morale boost, but the rest of your armor is only moments away from annihilate from a big 'ol Tiger tank. As soon as the enemy Panzer is destroyed, you can rush up some infantry troops, have them take cover around the hollowed-out tank shell, and then whip a sticky grenade or two onto the Tiger tank, have the infantry run for cover, and severely cripple (or completely destroy) the tank for your Sherman to finish off seconds later.

This dynamic battlefield restructuring works both ways, though; not only are chunks of objects or tanks usable for cover, but it should only follow that buildings (which can be dynamically inhabited by soldiers which will search for the best windows to attack from) can also be used for cover. And they can. The only problem with the whole idea is that Company of Heroes is a big proponent of its dynamic battlefield feature. At point in a game, I had an M4 Sherman equipped with something called a Calliope Rocket Launcher; I had it in my base in front of a building filled with two machine gun units inside of it to watch over the seemingly endless supply of charging Nazi infantry squads. I had never used this M4 Calliope, so I figured that, like the Howitzer emplacement, that the rockets would just be launched straight up into the air (ie, show the animation of them flying into the air, then wait a few seconds, and have the animation of them landing at the destination). Well, I was wrong. The game actually performs the legitimate rocket trajectory and I fired those Calliope rockets straight into the building housing my machine gun emplacements -- at least one of which was annihilated by the third or fourth (of about ten-twelve) rockets. The interesting thing about this, though, is that one of the rockets eventually broke through the building on both sides and the subsequent four or so rockets flew through the brand new holes in the building and managed to fly unobstructed right to the target that I specified. If that's not awesome, then I... Well, I don't care. It's awesome.

Company of Heroes.

All things considered, Company of Heroes is easily the greatest RTS to be released in the last three-four years. For the most part, players are able to approach the game much like any other genre title without too much confusion about a majority of the game mechanics. That said, the game's ability to completely redefine common expectations of "cinematic combat" in a strategy game without sacrificing the playability of the experience whatsoever is... Impressive (to say the least). Add an amazing campaign to that package and you have yourself a definite winner for RTS of the Year -- and, at least, a contender for overall game of the year. I haven't really been able to get into an RTS' multiplayer component outside of Warcraft III's, but from the limited amount of time I devoted to trying out some co-op against the Company of Heroes AI with some friends, it doesn't seem like too bad a system (but, it's hard to beat Blizzard's RTS multiplayer).

But, yeah, great game.

Supreme Commander
Supreme Commander is, without question, the most eagerly anticipated real-time strategy title to hit the genre in recent history. I realize that is a pretty big blanket statement to make, but having played the game after months upon months of hype, I can safely say that it's one I feel confident in making. The game bears a striking resemblance to Chris Taylor's last RTS, Total Annihilation, to the point where it's clear that, title aside, this is the sequel that the game never had. There are a lot of blatant similarities between the games that lead me to this ever-so-ingenious conclusion, but these are the kinds that can be found in any preview of the game. One of the things I'm really anxious to discuss about Supreme Commander is the game's sense of scale, which is a two-fold discussion: first is the scale as it affects gameplay, and then there's the scale of user interaction.

The sense of the scale of battle in Supreme Commander is something that I picked up on within of just configuring my first match in the game -- a multiplayer match where I was lucky enough to get an opponent who recognized me from Shacknews that was able to guide me through the early parts of a game which is, at first glance, incredibly daunting. When I was selecting a map for this first match, I was looking through options that had map size listed in terms of kilometers. At first, I thought this was some sort of cheap game design doublespeak to merely trick me into thinking that the game was huge. Yeah. I was wrong. Loading up the first match to reveal just how ridiculously tiny my own Supreme Commander (a behemoth, powerhouse of a unit until you hit the third technology tier) was in terms of the entire map was sobering, to say the very least. A few minutes later into the match after I had managed to finally get some unit production centers up, I realized the next important difference from every other RTS on the market right now: you aren't going to be establishing a few hotkeys for all the units under your control. You're going to construct squads of air patrols, land patrols, artillery squads, air bombers, land combatants, hit-and-run squads, infantry to fill up air transports to enact precision damage in the depths of an enemy base, a Supreme Commander unit to walk into an enemy base to self-destruct in a "last resort" game-ending act of nuclear detonation... Well, I could keep going, but I'll hold back just to say that there are a whole lot of possible combinations for military and tactical action that can be taken by a player at any given point in a match.

Supreme Commander.

Remember that time way back in the day when I gave a bit of a tirade about the differences between what makes an RTS game tactical versus what makes it strategic? Well, to the best of my very limited ability to comprehend human thought and interpret the results, it seems that Supreme Commander handles these two gameplay variations incredibly well for a game that doesn't divide up the gameplay (a la the Total War franchise). There is still the necessity of building and assembling a base of operations, along with the resource management, that is becoming more and more typical of the genre with every game -- which isn't a shot at the convention, as I enjoy the practice, but it's always worth noting -- but it's how the game handles the differences between base-management, economy, and military that strikes me as fascinating. Once the very basic resource harvesting is established, the game becomes about trying to gather the two sources (mass and power) faster while continually increasing your max storage capacity for the resources. The problem, then, is maintaining these resource rates while you build more defenses, more factories, and attempt to reach that next tier of technological advancement. This all occurs, of course, while your unit factories should be pumping out unit after unit through a queue entirely of your own choosing at all times.

It's in the way that the game handles the military aspect (well, you know, the aspect) that it becomes a title worth taking more than a few moments of consideration. Supreme Commander isn't a Real-Time Strategy game in the conventional sense. It's a Real-Time War game. As I said in a comment under one of the previous articles, Chris Taylor is quoted as saying that "Strategy is what you do before a battle, and tactics is what you do during it." This seems to be the best way to describe the kind of gameplay found in Taylor's game. All of the player-controlled activities are certainly handled within the scope of a skirmish -- which is to say that there's no pre-battle prep work to be done -- but the game is so large in scope and, hell, general size that a match inherently discourages traditional RTS tactics of striking at an enemy's resources and workers as quick and fast as humanly possible. The presence of a hulking Supreme Commander unit to annihilate the small units also helps to deter from this practice (one which I've always held a certain level of contempt for). So, instead of fearing for your metaphysical life in the early moments of a match, your focus is switched to getting out some squads of various types of military units to begin precision assaults on enemy structures as soon as you can move the however-many-kilometers it takes to get to their position.

Supreme Commander isn't a game about numbers and massive assaults on enemy positions. The reason you'll want to be continually producing units is due to the fact that, for me, my best-played games were ones where I continually produced and refilled squads of units that I, just as often, sent on specific self-defined "missions" to slowly whittle down my opponent over time. I had a couple groups of bombers whose sole goal in their measly, mechanical lives was to fly through anti-air shell-riddled skies in an constant effort to disrupt the enemy's mass harvesting. I had a few groups of fighters who did nothing but patrol the borders of my brilliantly-designed base of operations. I had about four or five pieces of artillery that I guarded with a series of tanks and infantry units at all times in case they were spotted by the enemy. And over the course of this battle, which lasted almost three hours, I continually annihilated my opponents' attempts (most of the people I played, anyway) to rush at me with vastly superior numbers of a seemingly randomly-assorted ragtag force due solely to building smart lines of defense from the obvious land-based entry points. As a point of interest, I lost one of my most well-played games purely due to the fact that I accidentally bombed my Supreme Commander unit in battle and it just so happened that this has the ever-so-dire effect of creating a massive nuclear explosion which, if it occurs in a certain spot, pretty much ends any chance of winning the game (especially if you're playing the game mode that requires the unit to, you know, be alive). This is the kind of massive scale of war we're talking with in regards to Supreme Commander; games are almost certain to be long, potentially arduous endeavors of sortie after sortie, aggressive push after push, nuclear armament after nuclear armament, and so on (if certain settings are in place)... But that's the kind of game I think this genre is in such dire need of at this particular junction in time -- a topic I'll rant about, in length, in the next section of this article.

Supreme Commander.

Another huge feature that the title is bringing to the genre is the manner in which it displays the game information to the gamer. Some people may refer to this as the game's "user interface" and the metric by which a game's user interface is measured is its "user-friendliness." I've played games that have had absolutely funtastic interfaces, yet were incredibly unfriendly for the user (Star Wars Galaxies comes to mind), and vice versa (the Total War games get a nomination from me in this category; I think they function very well overall, but they look so incredibly poorly done). At first glance -- see some of the non-PR screenshots scattered throughout if need be (like this one) -- the game's user-interface, on a purely visual level, is pretty standard fare for a modern genre entry. There are pop-up statistic/option buttons, building and upgrade options, and unit command features lining the bottom bar of the screen. Construction units line the right sidebar for easy-access, and resource generation rate and capacity (along with various other buttons) line the slim top bar. None of these, at first glance, seem too spectacular; they look great, and they function exactly as they should. Oh, and there's a minimap in the lower-left corner of the screen...

And it's that minimap where the first example of the pure and utter genius of Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games comes into play: that map is completely customizable in its viewpoint. If you want to check out a quick location on the map while you're in the middle of a heated battle, but don't want to switch your attention, you just take the pointer, hover over where you want to zoom in to, and run the middle-mouse button up until you get to an acceptable level. I was floored when I realized I could do this. I didn't see much of a practical use for it, but the option was nice. The time that this feature for abnormally detailed zoom really begins to come in handy is in the main screen. Whenever I start up my first match of a game (any RTS game, anyway), I always like to test out the zoom levels by first starting out with the closest and then heading in reverse to test the camera ceiling. I didn't go into Supreme Commander blind, so I had an idea of what kind of game I was expecting, but seeing the game zoom incredibly smoothly out to... Well, this. There aren't just four or five pre-defined "zoom steps" that the camera takes (Rise of Nations being an example of very blatant camera zoom steps), it just smoothly transitions from the closest view to a very large, iconic view of the entire map and its contents. You can order units around this way, coordinate patrols, check on the discoveries of radars, and so on and so forth -- a process made incredibly simple due to the game's genius queuing (and management of said queues) system.

Supreme Commander.

I could continue about how the interface is completely customizable through scripting, or the dual-monitor support the game offers, or even the multiple-viewpoint option for a single monitor, or how the game in its beta stage offers some of the greatest RTS gameplay that I've seen in the genre for some time. The way the game handles all of the traditional strategy game components is done in such a new, fresh way -- even from the viewpoint of a Total Annihilation fan -- definitely seems like it's going to do a whole lot for the genre as a whole. If nothing else, though, the massive scale of the game's militaristic aspects is enough to make any PC strategy gamer happy for a long while whenever the game hits retail. I, personally, enjoyed the game's multiplayer beta to such an extent that, after playing a lot for about four to five days, I uninstalled it from my computer so that, come its final release, I could enjoy the game in its purest, most fully-featured form.

Though I realize abstaining from playing the game when I could be doesn't seem like as much of a praise as I'd like it to.

The Conclusion. For Real.
When I started this series out, it was intended to be nothing more than a two-part series inspired by an RTS article done by PC Gamer in August or September; I was going to cover very specific features that have crept into RTS titles over the last five-six years, and then take a look at specific games which had a big impact on the genre. This was, at most, intended to be a week-long project. I quickly got absorbed in a world of my research of the history of the genre (which was intended to be nothing more than a page or two of text) and, a day of work later, I wound up with an eight-page article that did nothing other than analyze games released from 1983 to 1995 and a brief expositional segment about my motivations for writing the series. At that point, the series was just going to be three articles long... And then I played Company of Heroes. As soon as I played the demo for the game, I knew that I was going to have to devote an article solely to upcoming hits that I was sure would do nothing less than revolutionize the genre in its current state -- this is a dream that was severely downgraded when I realized that, of the games I'm currently aware of, only two upcoming titles (as Company of Heroes wasn't released at that time) really had that ginormous potential. There are, of course, other games coming out in 2007 that have the potential to be big such as Command and Conquer 3 and War Front: Turning Point... But, while I'm looking forward to both of these titles as a gamer, as a supremely talented industry analyst (insert chortle here) I'm of the mindset that they're going to do little else than be fun preservations of genre norms.

The fact that Real-Time Strategy games haven't really changed a whole hell of a lot is a tough point to really contest. Developers have done a lot with the genre (I mean, try playing Dune II right after a years upon years of games like Dawn of War, Warcraft III, and Company of Heroes), but the most successful features that make it into the games are usually the least revolutionary ones. Warcraft III's use of heroes has been adopted by so many other games in the time since its release that gamers rarely need to adapt a whole lot to the concept -- they're larger-than-life units that, if utilized correctly, can hold an entire game on their shoulders. And, yet, in the grand scheme of the RTS this feature is really not a major change; the fundamental mechanics of the games are still relatively the same as they've always been. A player starts out with a main base, meager resources, and builder units. Resources are then gathered in the doldrums of the match as players build their first units, make necessary changes based on their strategy of choice for that particular match, then the game escalates into the "meat" of the match, and it continues back-and-forth within that meat until someone wins. It's all a very tried-and-true formula that, while antiquated in some gamer's minds, is essentially what an RTS is. I, personally, never really grew all that attached to fixed-unit strategy games, nor the Total War franchise due to the fact that I've always enjoyed the more action-oriented nature of games like Warcraft, Command and Conquer, and Age of Empires. When a new strategy title is released that tries to break completely free of the generic constraints (I think Perimeter is a great, recent example) it's a fun little diversion from the standard for a week or two, but for real RTS entertainment I always end up resorting to the more conventional genre entries. To me (and I'd like to emphasize the personal aspect of the following statement), "Real-Time Strategy" doesn't just mean that I'm playing a game centered around strategy in a real-time environment, but rather that I'm playing a game that sticks to a formulaic style of gameplay. What a game does within these conventions is a huge, huge part of the whole deal, but on a basic level, it's about conforming to the expectations I hold for an RTS game.

The idea of fragmentation within a kind of genre namespace is by no means relegated solely to Real-Time Strategy. The First-Person Shooter genre is filled with so many sub-genres that it's almost mind-boggling; there are action-oriented FPSs (F.E.A.R., Quake, Unreal), multiplayer FPSs (Battlefield, Counter-Strike), tactical FPSs (Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon), simulation FPSs (Operation Flashpoint, Armed Assault), RPG/FPSs (Dark Messiah, Deus Ex), and so on into eternity. The longer a genre is around, the more the experience of each individual game is going to be confined to a specific "play style." I'm sure there's always the possibility that any one of these days we're going to see a turn-based, 4X First-Person Shooter where you play as a marine stranded in space who is also inflicted with Midgetry (it's a space disease) that can only be cured by using a stylus on a touchpad in the upper-right corner of your computer LCD while moving your feet on a dance pad to control your ship's lasers as you fight off the Flood in a battle for the safety of a dainty princess.

I'm not entirely sure where I was going with this, but I know where I meant to go. Every now and again I hear people talking about how PC games (well, games in general) really will never have the same innovative qualities as they did back in the garage-development days. More to the point, I hear people say how every RTS is really just Command and Conquer or Starcraft with different graphics and, on the most basic level, this is probably true. That said, I spent at least nine pages in this article alone extensively detailing just how ridiculously fresh and cool two new RTSs (Supreme Commander only being out in a very rough beta form, of course) are even amidst the sea of absolutely amazing strategy games released every year. Sure, there are a lot of titles that will scream "Carbon Copy!" in the sense that, while playing it, you're overcome with some bizarre feeling of deja vu that you've played this game before when "it was called ." That's going to happen; the biggest the game industry gets, the more developers and publishers (especially publishers) will tend to keep their cards close to their chest without sticking their neck too far out over the table. Rest assured, though, that there are always going to be developers like Gas Powered Games, Relic, Blizzard, Big Huge Games, and Westwood Studios that will be around to slap the publishers in the face with a game that goes that extra mile in terms of renovation of the genre and ends up with a massively money-making RTS (see what I did there?) that will inspire years of change for games to follow. The RTS genre isn't the quickest to evolve, but the innovations do eventually come, and when they come they're a joy to behold and play.

... Yup. I think that was the kind of grand, overarching, optimistic concluding paragraph that this series should end with.

Update: One of the reasons this part was so far delayed from the other three is that I wanted to get some developer feedback. Eventually, though, I just got impatient and went to press with the article without the extra material. Well, post-publishing, Chris Taylor answered some of my questions about Supreme Commander, and although I'm entirely too lazy to go through the segment and re-write everything with the intent of smoothly integrating his answers into the text (which was the original goal) I'm not going to let these answers go to waste! The small interview can be found in the comments section of this article.




A Glimpse into Modern Real-Time Strategy (Part 3)

Jump to: The Introduction :: Total Annihilation :: Starcraft :: Homeworld :: Warcraft III :: Rise of Nations :: The Conclusion

The Introduction Rerevisited
When I look back upon the last two segments of this series -- here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 for the unenlightened -- I realize just how much of an overly verbose writer I can be at times. For the ADD/ADHD crowd out there who really wishes I was more concise, I do apologize; the unnecessarily lengthy written form has been and will most likely continue to be my shtick. For the most part, though, I've been told that the series thus far has been well received and, despite the daunting length, a surprisingly quick and easy read. I do my best to avoid complex thoughts and complicated wording to the best of my ability which an especially simple task since my capacity for any sort of abstract thought is limited to paltry observations along the lines of "Oh, perty!" or "Yay, shiny!" But, that is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of this article other than to serve as a nice icebreaker for the rest of the third segment of my series on Real-Time Strategy games and, occasionally, their half-blooded ilk.

As in the last part, I feel a burning desire to thank all of the people who have commented in some public, private, or super-private (wink wink) form to me about the series thus far. I've received some truly fantastic comments and, on the whole, it seems that people are getting some decent information from this thing. Of special interest to me was one of the longer comments I received on an offsite publication of the article over at JoeUser; which is a blogging site started by some of the fine folk at Stardock (Galactic Civilizations 2 being a huge title in the realm of turn-based strategy games).

Galactic Civilizations 2.

For this segment of the series I am going to be taking a look at a handful of some of the most genre-critical games released that I haven't yet covered at all or to any worthy extent in either of the past two articles. My choices for the games to be mentioned may draw some relatively harsh feelings of the your-favorite-game-wasn't-mentioned variety, but that is to be expected in this kind of situation. I would encourage anyone in this camp to post a comment (preferably with some sort of explanation) to this article, though. The RTS and first-person shooter genres are two of the richest categories of gaming that I can think of and, honestly, books could be written about games from even a single developer (and have been), so while I'm picking these games carefully -- dare I say strategically -- there will always be stragglers worthy of mention. I encourage you to shout these titles from rooftops around the globe utilizing some form of barbaric yawp.

Total Annihilation
Total Annihilation was mentioned due to its immense modability in part 2 of the series and, this time, it's getting mentioned due to its supreme whole package of gaming goodness in the form of a revolutionary real-time strategy game that is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of the genre. TA was first released back on in the third-quarter of 1997 by Cavedog Entertainment and designed, primarily, by industry visionary Chris Taylor. Total Annihilation was a huge RTS game for a number of reasons that I won't be able to do proper justice to within the scope of a mere part of an article of a part of an entire series... But, here's the gist of the things it brought to the table upon its release: Prettiness -- Three-Dee Graphics and a surprisingly well-done physics implementation for unit movement, projectiles, and debris asplostions.
Infinite Resources -- Resources (Energy and Metal) in the game were infinite in supply, so instead of trying to make the best use of the limited resources a cache can provide you, the focus is instead on producing them as quickly as possible and increasingly upgrading the maximum storage for each research.
Terrain -- The terrain in the game isn't actually rendered in 3D, but each point on the terrain is given a certain value for height from a map-specific set of data. So while the terrain is rendered two-dimensionally, the height data is utilized by the entities in the game in order to make them react to the ground as if it actually possessed that component of depth. The height of certain spots on the terrain is also utilized by the projects launched from units; artillery, for instance, cannot fire through a mountain or hill in the land -- this means that these very long-range units may not be able to demolish a base from afar if the base is designed to use the protection offered by whatever landmasses surround it.
Units -- The default maximum for units is 500 and Total Annihilation, I would venture to say, was the first game to really utilize battles waging across land, water, and air well. I always felt that Warcraft II was a great starting platform for multi-medium combat, but TA took it to the extreme with great success. TA also shipped with roughly 150 stock units; a number which now totals into the thousands between user-created units, expansion packs, etc..
Interface -- A left/right sidebar menu was popular during the time of the early RTS titles and Total Annihilation didn't change this... What it did change, however, was the masterful implementation of unit-manipulation into a number of possible hotkeys that could instantly group together units which fit into certain constraints (all non-commander units, everything on screen, all aircraft, etc.) to minimize the difficulties of army management. The game also had an endless-queue implementation that allowed you to give successive orders to units/buildings all at once which it could operate while you focused your attention elsewhere.

Total Annihilation.

What all of these features of Total Annihilation taken into account, you have a real-time strategy game that really shook up the generic constraints that the RTS junkies at the time would have otherwise expected. The typical pace of the real-time strategy game at the time was (well, much like it is today) not especially fast-paced, with units that are typically as inversely fast as they are strong. Units, also, typically didn't have an attack range that was really anything to write home about -- the convention being that most units could not attack anything that they could not see or, more commonly, could not be seen within the range of the screen around the unit. In TA, there were an abundance of units of all power, speed, and range that you pumped out as fast as your factories and resources permitted until the point you reached the unit cap or, more likely, the enemy comes and absolutely crushes your puny forces.

Basically, Total Annihilation reminded other RTS titles that they had no concept at what annihilation really meant. Units were capable of wrecking mass mayhem upon bases and structures to the point that players were encouraged to employ a fairly spread-out base pattern that didn't have too many big, expensive buildings in too close a vicinity. As if the bombers, tanks, and artillery units weren't enough to send TA over the top in terms of pure firepower, the game also made prolific use of one of the greatest things -- nay, the greatest thing -- in the strategy gamer's arsenal: the nuclear bomb. And any game that employs, promotes even, the use of nuclear armaments against the opposition scores so many points in my view that, really, it's almost unfair to the competition.

The striking aspect of Total Annihilation in the grand scheme of things, though, is just how successfully it was able to pull off so many of its namesake features. The pure havoc wrecked in each battle amongst the dozens upon dozens of units gotten through the clever utilization of numerous factories funded by an infinite well of resources across land, sea, and air is something that has lived on in the eyes of modern gamers with unparalleled competition. And, despite the number of features that have been pulled from the title over the years, the most interesting thing is that there really hasn't been much of an active attempt to mimic the game's incredibly successful (in terms of critical acclaim, if not in sales) formula since its original release. There was an attempt to cash in on the franchise name with Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, but that was a lost cause on almost all fronts. The first real glimmer of hope for fans of what is widely regarded as one of the best RTSs ever made is coming in 2007 with Chris Taylor's spiritual successor to TA: Supreme Commander (which will be covered in further detail in part four of this series).

Total Annihilation.

The bottom line, though, is that Total Annihilation was an incredible game which was far ahead of its time when it was released. The combination of revolutionary features (many of which have been plucked by other games over time), a great engine, and an extensive set of modification possibilities have made this game one of the most memorable titles to ever hit the genre.

Ah, Starcraft. Where can one really begin to discuss a game which a majority of gamers consider to be the greatest real-time strategy title to ever hit shelves? Oh, oh! I know! I'll start by saying that I'm not one of those people. I do believe that Starcraft (a follow-up to Warcraft II) is an absolutely fantastic title. It is a game worthy of a majority of the praise which is thrown in its direction. It is a living(ish) testament to the virtually unrivaled sense of dedication, production, and polish that Blizzard imbues into its titles. Starcraft is a game which many people, especially Koreans, believe has yet to be surpassed by any title preceding or even following its release in 1998.


At its release, Starcraft hooked players by having one of the most entertaining and well-done single-player campaigns at the time of its release. The missions were spread across a three-act storyline which started off with the futuristic Human race known as the Terran. The following segment of the campaign then put the player in charge of the Zerg race (building upon events which occurred throughout the Terran portion, of course) who are, quite simply, one of the most entertaining factions available in any strategy game. The single-player story then concludes with the technologically-adept Protoss and, oh, does it ever conclude with a bang. If you have yet to play through Starcraft's Splendiferous Single-Player, then I'd suggest you go find your copy (or go buy one, you sinner) and get to it. It's truly one of the high points of my gaming history and I feel tinges of pain just thinking about various readers not knowing what kind of experience they're missing out on.

It's not unusual for a Blizzard game to pull out all of the stops in regards to the content offered to those gamers without friends and a gateway portal into the jumble of Internet tubes, but if that's all you got out of the game, then you sorely missed one of the few legitimately revolutionary aspects of the title: the multiplayer. In part two of this here epic series I mentioned the importance of Battle.net to the genre, and Starcraft is really where the service started to shine. Suddenly, gamers no longer had to rely on third-party solutions for multiplayer matchmaking (they didn't for Blizzard's previous game, Diablo either, but that's a different genre and therefore I'm allowed to omit it from generalities at my discretion), but instead a service built into and customized for the game itself. The details of this are discussed in more detail in the last segment of this series, but basically the gist of the thing is this: Battle.net made online matches of Starcraft incredibly easy to get into and, as an added benefit, players had stats/ranks associated with their account (which seems simple, but goes a long way to making competition even more important for players).

Aside from the multiplayer, which I'd consider to be the most important element of Starcraft, the various factions themselves are an integral portion of the game. Blizzard did something near-miraculous with the three races which warrants a mention: they're incredibly well-balanced. The Zerg and Protoss are both deep and complex races which the upper-tier of players can utilize a seemingly infinite number of strategies with. Me? I always just liked to mass carriers and terrorize my enemies with endless amounts of interceptors (launched from the carriers). This is, admittedly, a strategy with more holes than a Swiss-cheese Gatling gun cover, but it sure was fun. The one problem with this supreme unit-balancing is that I only mentioned the Zerg and Protoss in this discussion. What about the Terran? Well... Good question. Oh well. 66% batting average for Blizzard.

As incredible as the game is, Starcraft was very close to not making the cut for the handful of games that I picked out for this segment of the series. There is a very legitimate reason for this choice aside from the fact that I value my life and have no desire to be hunted down by rabid Blizzfans. Starcraft, as far as its gameplay is concerned, really did very little to further the genre. Blizzard stuck closely to the success it experienced with Warcraft 2 and just took it into space, adding a third race, and applying their trademark level of polish and presentation to the mix. It paid off in a singular sense; Starcraft is, as I've said, widely considered to be one of the greatest RTSs ever released even by modern standards. It's a great game, and if we're looking at it from a purely enjoyable perspective, then it's a winner... But we're not. Starcraft completely eclipsed Total Annihilation when it was released and, far and away, became the "game to beat" without breaking even a sweat. And, for gamers, that's great. For developers, though, I would have much rather seen Total Annihilation succeed wildly even after the release of Starcraft. TA took more chances with its gameplay, it introduced far more innovative features, and was easily one of the most original RTSs of its time.


That didn't happen, though. Blizzard hit another winner out of the ballpark with Starcraft, and proved a theory that has been validated from time-to-time by various blockbuster games: so long as all of the game's elements come together perfectly, innovation and revolution can take a back seat. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in a sweeping sense, either. A lot of great games have come from refining flawed, but highly enjoyable, concepts in past titles (something the First-Person Shooter genre is infamous for), but it's a topic which I think warrants a bit of discussion.

The first game from one of the central threads which make up the United States' sex blanket, Vancouver-based Relic Entertainment, also happened to be an incredibly well-done real-time strategy title which, as far as I'm concerned, had a profound effect on the genre the likes of which were not to be seen for nearly four to five years after its release. Homeworld was one of the first (if not the first) strategy game to fully utilize the third dimension in a new generation of games, and I don't simply mean as a neat visual eye sex. Homeworld actually made full use of the three-hundred and sixty degrees of freedom that space allows (sorry if this spoils the Mercury program for you) for both its limitless camera system and the ability to move your ships left, right, up, down, and all around the starry map. The player simply needs to use the movement action, hold-down shift, and the ship can be moved higher or lower on the tactical map as it thrusts all the way to its target location. This feature of the game doesn't really have a direct impact on the actual gameplay mechanics of Homeworld, but it does make for a level of immersion which a majority of RTSs had yet to achieve by that point in time. And, without saying too much on the subject, being able to zoom in as close as the camera allows (which is far more up-close and personal than you'd ever need for any practical purposes) and rotate around your units while your units duke it out in visceral, fast-paced space combat is one of the greatest feelings I've ever experienced in a strategy game. This feeling was later amplified with Relic's later-released Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. This later feeling was then uberamplified in Relic's even laterer-released Company of Heroes. More on Relic, as a developer, in part four of the series, but here's a quick teaser: they're doing for the modern RTS was Blizzard did for the genre in its infancy.


Homeworld's user-interface is worth mentioning as well; it is, without question, one of the most unobtrusive and intuitive interfaces that I've ever had the pleasure of interacting with in a game. It's difficult to actually explain in writing (the words! zey do nothing!!!), but essentially the interaction with units is handled through small on-screen cues, a movement plane (with depth of movement controllable on an as-needed basis), and then everything else can be handled by using the small menu which pops-up at the bottom of the screen (seen here) whenever you need to execute more complex operations, such as research or unit-building. There is also a large-scale tactical map which puts the entirety of the battlefield at the click of a mouse.

And, really, Homeworld's interface brings one of the game's greatest strengths (and greatest gifts to the genre as a whole) into plain sight. Or discussion. Plain something. Anyway, the greatest feature of the game is its ability to maintain the same real-time strategic and tactical gameplay while completely immersing the player in its world. The graphics engine allows for complete viewpoint freedom and frantic firefights in the depths of space which the player can choose to view without, really, any interface obstruction whatsoever. The gameplay and player interaction are weaved so well into the tapestry of features which define Homeworld that it's fairly evident why the game garnered such an abundance of awards and critical praise. The amount of detail present in the model animations -- because, uh, mechanical ships are sure jittery little fellers...? -- interactions with each other is telling of the kind of tenderness and love which Relic put into the game. When ships need to be repaired, they'll actually fly into the docking bay of the Mothership (and this is back in 1999; you know, them 'thar computer monitors had just recently learned what color was. Or something). When a carrier ship is hauling some of your smaller units to and fro, the ships it is carrying will dock on the sides of the carrier and then launch as they're needed. This may all seem to be standard fare in this day and age, but back when I first saw Homeworld in motion, it felt like time and space may have, in fact, bent to allow me to see visions of what video games would be like in decades. It did not seem like this was a game that I was actually playing, controlling, and viewing on my very own system.


The campaign portion of Homeworld was always the selling point for me, personally. I loved the story and the way that the game allowed players to continually build upon their fleet of ships from mission-to-mission (Big "Hooray!" for persistent forces!). The game's scale is also worth mentioning; as you work through the campaign you will, similar to every other RTS campaign, gain access to increasingly powerful units. The first time I saw my destroyer completely annihilate the enemy opposition as swarms upon swarms of small fighter ships flew through the air (erm, vacuum?) to attack the Mothership I just about cried myself into a joyous coma. Homeworld didn't have a whole lot of longevity in the sense that I didn't play it very much compared to some of the other titles on this list, but it is an experience which the ubernerd gamer part of me (it's a big part) will remember forevar.

Warcraft III
I'm going to go ahead and just point something out to start this very one-sided discussion. As a kind of prelude. An entry point. No, a prelude to the topic at hand. I can say, with a stratum of certainty generally unattainable by me in everyday interactions, that Warcraft III (and its expansion pack) is my favorite real-time strategy game of all time. I'll detail the reasons in a mere matter of moments, but let me follow-up this bold statement with an equally daring remark: it is not a game which I would classify as being the best RTS. There's a huge distinction between the two which I will cover towards the end of this section of the article but, in short, the reason I love Warcraft 3 is because it's a very well-made strategy game that is incredibly easy to play on a great many levels.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.

The vanilla edition of Warcraft III came out on July 3, 2002; this is a day I remember exceedingly well. Not really for any reason which I'd actually directly relate to the game, but because a friend and I were at a wedding and raved about the game to each other endlessly for about a solid hour at the reception the day before Warcraft 3 was to be released. I also decided to splurge on a GeForce 4800 the day I bought the game -- and, oh, how difficult it was to find the game without having preordered it -- and, in short, it was a day for the books. A glorious nerd day the likes of which I had not experienced for an extended duration of time as I wandered the digital wasteland of gaming (a land devoid of entertaining and unique title) which had preceded the release of Blizzard's new opus.

Warcraft 3 is a bit odd in that it, really, doesn't share a whole lot in common with its predecessors. Sure, it's an RTS set in the same universe and it continues the same basic stories/lore as Warcraft 1 and 2, but its gameplay mechanics are really quite different than the relatively similar styles present in its forefathers. Instead of focusing on land, sea, and air like Warcraft 2, WC3 simplifies its mediums of combat to land and air. It also reduces the number of units which a player can have at any time by, roughly, half. So instead of the massive armies which spanned all forms of weaponry from mere knights and archers to battleships and dragons, Warcraft 3 put more of a focus on making the player control small squads of units with intensity (ie, more of a focus on micromanagement). In the early portions of any competitive game, an Orc player would be at a severe disadvantage if they lost a single one of the first grunts which he/she produces. And while this focus on individual units decreases as you get further and further into the game (and the tech tree), the central idea remains relatively unchanged: each unit plays a huge part in the battles. Each "squad" assigned to a hotkey has a maximum of twelve units possible, and I generally don't use more than four hotkeys with my units spread out into something like: base melee, ranged/casters, air units, and artillery. Warcraft 3 is far from being a real-time tactical game (though it has entirely too many fixed-force campaign missions); there is a definite focus on tech-tree research, base-building, and so on and so forth.

Warcraft 3 is still played very often by a number of RTS players, despite the fact that a huge number of triple-A RTS games have been unleashed upon hard drives and retail shelves everywhere in the four years since the game was first released. xFire, a chat client designed with gamers in mind, even has Warcraft 3's expansion pack within the list of the ten most-played games every day -- I have yet to see (or, at the very least, remember) a day go by where it has not been listed in the "Today's Top Game" column whatsoever. And, just think, this tally of play doesn't even include the amount of time which gamers spend playing the original Warcraft 3, just its expansion. When I first decided to include WC3 in this segment of the series, three single features of the game stood out to me as being the most obvious and important reasons for the game's success amongst the more strategically-oriented gamers of the world.

Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.

One of Warcraft 3's most important features is the role which "heroes" play in the game; essentially, these are units which start out relatively powerful in any match, but as they level up and learn increasingly powerful abilities they become a huge aspect of a player's army. Whenever someone begins playing WC3 for the first time, one of the things I always stress is that the heroes are the most critical aspect of the game; a mediocre army with a couple of high-level heroes will always topple a larger army with a single average hero. In my opinion, all of the Warcraft 3 heroes are incredibly powerful, but the choice of which ones to utilize simply depends on a player's style of play. Each of the game's four races has a selection of four heroes: one strength, one agility, one intelligence, and then the fourth hero (introduced in the expansion pack) is generally a reflection of a race's strengths. If a player has a very aggressive playing style, a strength hero is generally a good choice. I personally like to have a fairly varied selection of units, so my heroes generally play a big support/buff role, so while my army may consist of expensive, strong melee units, I'll usually rely on an intelligence-based hero who can heal and tie up enemy units. This aspect of the game is a reflection on the versatility of the game's races; each one has a depth of strategies that can be utilized depending wholly on the way a player likes to play. There is no "best" army for any race, and even if you rely on the same army composition game after game, simply changing the heroes you use may completely change the way in which you play a match. I doubt that Warcraft 3 really pioneered this feature, but Blizzard definitely executed it perfectly and it's a feature which has been endlessly copied by dozens of games since the release of WC3 (albeit with, normally, less success).

The other two highlight features of the game go hand-in-hand; first, Warcraft 3 is one of the most well-paced strategy titles that I've ever played. It is, for the most part, a fast-paced game, but there are spots in most skirmishes where a player needs to research tech, build necessary buildings to begin the construction of his army, and all the while use his first few low-powered units to assist his hero in killing "creep" (neutral, aggressive monsters of varying power) in order to level it up before any battles begin with the opposing forces. After about five minutes of preparation, scouting, and early hero leveling, though, the game kicks into high gear and the rest of the match is a struggle for resources and units to continually thwart enemy advances and, eventually, take the battle into the enemy's base for an eventual strike of ultimate destruction that wins the match for the player. It is this fast-paced nature of the game which, in my mind, is directly correlated with the third critical aspect of the game: the multiplayer component. If it started with Diablo, and great improved with Starcraft, then Battle.net was essentially perfected with Warcraft 3 and the subsequent expansion. In the four years since the games release, I have yet to see any game even begin to compete with the multiplayer match-making excellence in WC3. Not only is it easy to play a game (with anywhere up to eight players for team games, and up to twelve players for some custom games), but the stats which the Battle.net servers record and maintain are incredibly detailed. I could ramble on and on about the system but, really, I've said all I need to say. The Warcraft 3 multiplayer really is that great.

No matter how many RTSs I find to play which are incredibly fun, Warcraft 3 is the only title that I consistently come back to playing primarily because its multiplayer component is, as far as I'm concerned, so completely far ahead of those of its competitors. As much as I've enjoyed various RTS games in the past -- Dawn of War, Rise of Legends, and Company of Heroes to name a few -- WC3 is always the one I come back to whenever I want a nice multiplayer RTS to play (Counter-Strike: Source is my equivalent game in the FPS arena). If I had to find something faulty in the game, it would be that actually getting into the multiplayer realm for a new player is... Daunting. A player simply needs to go into a Battle.net match expecting to lose his first dozen or so games; the players who play the game online are just incredibly good at the game. Just being a persistent player and trying to learn from mistakes will quickly help a player through the early phases of multiplayer 'crafting, though, and when that happens it's fairly easy to see why Warcraft 3 gets the praise it so rightly deserves.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.

Rise of Nations
In a genre occupied by heathens and harlots, in a dirty, grimy, despicable part of the digital town there are gamers who play games which fall under the title of turn-based strategy games. I know, right? It's almost unthinkable that a logical person would enjoy such a trite, uncivilized form of games. Actually, no, it makes good sense, but since I'm playing up the RTS angle at the moment I figure I should push the limits of genre slander. Anyhoo, in that genre, there is a widely-known series of games which go by the name of Civilization; a series pioneered by Sid Meier. Now, on some of these projects, Meier doesn't always take the helm, and this was the case with one of greatest turn-based games ever created: Alpha Centauri. This game was partially created and designed by Brian Reynolds. And good 'ol Bryan one day saw the light -- a completely fictitious story made up at this very moment involves something like an angel of God, all nine muses of myth, and Jim Henson dressed as a crocodile -- and decided to go off on his own and form a developer named Big Huge Games. And create big, huge games they did. Their first title made an absolutely huge splashy-splash in the metaphorical water of the industry and, as far as I'm concerned, is truly one of the greats of my gaming career. Ladies, gents, and kittens, I introduce to you: Rise of Nations.

Rise of Nations.

I won't go on and on about this title, because this article is already running far longer than I had originally anticipated, but there are some things about this game that need to be said. Rise of Nations is, essentially, a real-time strategy game that bridges the gap between the turn-based Civilization games and the more fast-paced, conventional real-time strategy games. A typical game starts out at the very earliest of architectural and agricultural civilization and then, by the end of the game, you have seals, tanks, nukes, and stealth bombers flying all over the enormous battlefield that spans land, sea, and air. Yes. That's right. The game has nukes and they absolute devastate an entire village (a bit more than a full screen of damage at 1280x1024) with their nuketastic goodness. To use an earlier grammatical style: if Age of Empires started the idea of a real-time strategy game progressing through "ages" of advancement through specific eras of civilization and Empire Earth was the first game to successfully stretch out the idea of "ages" throughout the entire spectrum of civilization... Then Rise of Nations took the best from both aspects of both of these games, combined with some of the tricks Reynolds was sure to have picked up from Side Meier and the Civilization games he was a part of, and whipped out one hell of an RTS.

The other thing I really found spectacular about Rise of Nations was its very cool take on single-player entertainment with its "Conquer the World" campaign system. Instead of having the "my friends hate the games I like" version of play revolve around a single, linear story which may only provide fun and excitement for one, maybe two play-throughs, Big Huge Games went with a far more varied, dynamic, and open-ended RISK-like take on world conquest. The player can take control of one civilization, choose which territories to really put structure upgrades into, and take that civilization through several "turns;" every turn, a player can attack other territories in an attempt to claim new land (and a random scenario is occasionally chosen to spice things up a bit), or defend his land from enemies possessed with the green-eyed abomination of jealousy and greed. Throughout an entire CTW campaign a player can make or break alliances, increase the base structures in his territories, and accumulate cards which grant the player certain benefits in battles in which they are played. It was a feature in Rise of Nations which I never took advantage of until last spring and, upon finally trying it out, played obsessively for a solid two weeks before I realized just how near my Finals had suddenly become.

Rise of Nations.

In short, Rise of Nations is totally fantastic.

A Concise Conclusion
Shortly before the Rise of Nations portion of this article I realized just how incredibly long-winded and overly-verbose this article had gotten, so I apologize for those of you who really wanted to hear more about that last title. This article was a whole lot of fun for me to write and, in doing the research and writing about so many fantastic RTSs, I do believe that once I finish up this final segment of this series (which will, most likely, cover a mere two games and then a bunch of my closing thoughts for the series) I will actually start designing and developing a small concept RTS of my own which will, most likely, take me about two months to get in a playable state. So, yeah, it's a contagious bug this whole strategic business.

I'm not sure exactly when I'll have part four completed -- I'm actually trying to gather some quotes from various developers, so there's the potential I'll hold off until I have those before I go ahead and publish anything. There's also the chance that this article will also be updated with said quotes as well, but I'll be sure to make a big hairy fuss about that if it happens just so that I can be absolutely, positively sure that everyone is all in the know and such.

Anyway, keep up the great article comments that I'm seeing around the vast reaches of the Intarweb. Thanks for everyone that's talked to me in some form so far. I can't wait to hear/read/see more!




A Glimpse into Modern Real-Time Strategy (Part 2)

Jump to: The Introduction :: Real-Time Tactical :: Modability :: Battle.net :: Graphics and Physics :: Conclusion, etc.

The Introduction -- House Mix
I'm always amazed at the kind of great feedback some of you folks give to these articles; so, for those of you who read the first part and commented in some form (in-site/e-mail) and showed the think to your friends, I do thank you. I enjoy writing these kinds of things, and hearing all you folk get some form of digitally strategic education or just plain interest is icing on my metaphorical journalistic cake.

From left: LOTR: The Battle for Middle-Earth 2, Act of War, and WH40k: Dawn of War.

Anyway, in this part of the series, I'm going to focus on general innovations that have either changed or heavily impacted the real-time strategy genre in some way, shape, or form since 1994 where my genre timeline finished off. You'll see specific examples of what I consider to be a kind of "breakthrough" in a moment, but for the most part, I'm talking fairly overarching changes that have obviously shaken things up a bit. My original intent for this article was to focus on some specific gameplay features which really changed the way that the games released afterwards were received or changed to match the growing desire of gamers (this is sometimes called feature bloat or creep)... But once I started, I realized that I had a far better opportunity to do that kind of thing in part of the series where I was already planning to take a look at specific games which have already been released on a case-by-case basis. So now this article is devoted to a handful of what I consider to be the greatest changes (or, in one case, a change in the RTS formula which evolved into a genre of its very own) that have occurred over the last twelve years.

One last note, before I lose you to my endless preface notes: this particular part of the series isn't focusing on particular games so much as it is the ideas which have really powered and imbued the genre with additional life throughout the years. The next part in the series will focus on more specific examples from the current generation of RTS titles to an extent that will make you wish I hadn't.

The Real-Time Tactical Evolution
The largest change that was experienced in the RTS genre was the eventual sub-genre that was seemingly established that completely removed one of the very foundations for real-time strategy titles: base-building. Real-time tactical games do away with the generic starting point for nearly every RTS game: a worker and the primary structural center point for whatever faction the player is using. Instead of starting from the bare minimum of units, a base, and the minimum advances up a game's tech tree, real-time tactical games instead provide the player with a central force of units (which may or may not be bolstered as the player advances through a mission/skirmish) that he is required to utilize efficiently to the best of his abilities because that's it -- no reinforcements may be coming, you can't pump out more units from the barracks in your main base, or anything else of the sort. Whatever you have to work with is what you have to focus your entire strategy around. So, essentially, the player must micromanage his forces well or else he's digital toast.

Now, before I go further here, let's make sure we understand the idea here. Utilizing a more micromanagement-focused gameplay design isn't something distinct to real-time tactical games whatsoever; a lot of more traditional real-time strategy games give the player a meager max unit count and, instead of large armies, intend to focus on small squads of units which the player needs to use very closely on a near per-unit level in order to succeed. The opposite of micromanagement in a gaming sense is, as you may guess, macromanagement. In games where macromanagement is the primary gameplay mechanism, it is the player's goal to create his squads of numerous units and, instead of controlling each and every soldier/unit, he uses his squads to execute a well laid-out grand strategy in order to achieve victory. As far as this most basic of discussions is concerned, the difference between micro/macromanagement is simple: in micromanagement, you have little to work with, so you need to make sure that every single unit you have does its job and does it well; you may be able to win a few meager fights due to numbers alone, but even a single casualty or two could ruin you. In a more macromanagement sort of way, a game may not really reward intensely-focused per-unit strategy so much as it would some decent unit variety and a high number of units.

The difference between these two designs (micro- and macromanagement) is generally very flexible; a lot of games reward decent macro as well as decent micro, and don't often focus on either school more specifically. Real-time tactical games, though, are all about the micromanagement. If you have a large mass of units and simply walk through a few fights paying no mind to decent tactics, it's going to catch up to you fast. In a more traditional RTS setting (unless you're playing against any opponent at a decent skill level), you could ride the numbers to victory and, if you have a bad battle, just stall until the reinforcements come.

I'd wager that Bungie's (yes, the Halo developers) Myth was really the leading force in this department. Despite the fact that Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat and Sid Meier's Gettysberg! came out first (the former just being horrible and the latter preceding Myth by a whole month), Myth was really the title that I believe made the fixed-unit strategy movement a big Go!. It's also had an immense community following since the day of its release that has really made the game one of the most memorable titles of its time. The RTT game has seen a huge surge of activity over the last few years, particularly for games set in the World War II era. Such WWII titles are: Codename: Panzers, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II (my personal favorite of the bunch), and Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps. Outside of the realm of World War II, though, I'd say that two of the greatest RTT games I've played have been Mechcommander and Ground Control.

Myth: The Fallen Lords, Ground Control 2, and Codename: Panzers (Phase 1).

The Real-Time Tactical is sometimes considered a subgenre of the Real-Time Strategy genre. Now, despite my calling it that throughout this segment, I'd like to say that I honestly do not consider it to be any such thing. The fact is that a lot of RTT games are labeled as RTS titles, but are not really anything of the sort. They certainly are an "evolution" of the traditional real-time strategy design, but other than the fact that they generally share some gameplay mechanisms and UI/perspective similarities, the two genres don't have much else in common. Some RTT games often (especially in the case of Soldiers: HoWWII) even include a feature to "pause" the action in order to plot out the next move of your units. So, in essence, we're talking about Real-Time (Except On Command) Strategy titles here that lack the resource management, base-building, and tech trees that are really some of the most recognizable foundations of RTS titles.

The shooter realm is generally what first comes to mind whenever the topic of modability (henceforth known as: modding) due to its ridiculously large impact on the first-person shooter world along with the fact that id Software really catalyzed the user-created content craze with DOOM. Blizzard took id's "so simple it's genius" move to facilitate game modability to the RTS realm with the sequel to their first immense hit: Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness.

At first, the tools included with the original version of Warcraft 2 were fairly meager; a minimalistic map and scenario editor. Soon after the release of the game a clever (or devious) gamer reverse-engineered the PUD map file specifications which he later published, despite never releasing the source code that he used to create the game's first unofficial map editor, War2xEd (still downloadable), which extended the included editor's abilities. According to some of my sources (aside from the Wikipedia entry, thank you very much), Lamberg's editor was eventually used by Blizzard itself. This is very apparent if you've ever taken a look at the incredibly well-done editor included with Blizzard's next RTS title, Starcraft. The Starcraft editor was so easy that even a younger, and far cuter, version of myself who had only a meager understanding of the workings of BASIC was able to complete a fantastic one mission mini-campaign where the player attempts to save an Archon from mobs upon mobs of assassin Dark Archons. It was a riveting mission that could have changed the very world as we know it had I released my opus upon the masses.

Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness.

Jumping back to a bit under a year before Starcraft was released, though, we reach a game developed by industry legend Chris Taylor, then of Cavedog Entertainment, and now of Gas Powered Games (who are currently working on Supreme Commander; which I rave about constantly to anyone with ears/eyes). Total Annihilation, while perhaps not considered to be the greatest real-time strategy game ever created, was a game which was so far ahead of its time that it seems unfair to consider it anything but brilliant. Total Annihilation brought an abundance of new ideas and designs to the table, but was quickly eclipsed by the far less original (albeit far more polished, balanced, and came with a killer multiplayer system) Starcraft seven months after its release.

Total Annihilation.

You'd be hard pressed to come up with a game which came more ready for user-created content than Total Annihilation. If you want to add something to the game (new weapons, improved AI, units, entire races, maps, the kitchen sink, etc.) all you had to do was create/modify an appropriate data file, throw it in the game directory, and you'd be good to go. I don't really consider Wikipedia to be anything but a decent "starting point" for information, and its gaming entries can be relatively weak at times, but one look at its list of Total Annihilation mods and the gambit of variety in which they run is just a single testament to both the game's modability and the new bar which it set for games supporting modding. One of the most impressive mods, though, is that a 3D engine was being developed as an open-source project for the game which gets the entirety of its non-graphical information from data files taken straight from the game itself.

And there are even more examples of projects of this caliber occurring for a wide variety of games. Some of the best examples I can think of are ongoing projects for Blizzard's Warcraft 3: The Reign of Chaos and its expansion pack. One "mod," which uses all in-game assets with an incredibly detailed multiplayer map scenario is called The Defense of the Ancients; players take control of one of the game's hero units (discussed further in a separate section in this article) and upgrade that hero through a multiplayer match supporting up to ten people. This map scenario has gotten so popular that there are even competitive leagues that are organized solely around it. On the separate end of the spectrum is a total conversion mod for Warcraft 3 which utilizes some of Starcraft's own assets to create an unbelievable well-done 3D version of Starcraft called Project Revolution.

In short, as has been proven over time with shooters, strategy, and other titles is that whenever developers go that extra mile to aid their customers with tools and/or game design that facilitates user customization -- and what I'm about to say hurts me to actually type out despite the truth of it -- the players are the real winners. Yeah. Ouch.

Let's follow a simple equation for a second. If you're not new to the genre of Real-Time Strategy, you've heard of Blizzard. If you've heard of Blizzard, the chances are that you've played at least one of their games. If you've played one of their games released anytime after Warcraft 2 and its expansion and you haven't heard of Battle.net, you're doing something wrong. Stop reading this now and go back to any game which satisfies the previously listed requirements -- go to Diablo if need be, just give it a go. Just, you know, make sure you're not playing a single-player game and instead are giving Blizzard's proprietary multiplayer solution a go in its place.

Battle.net is, by and large, one of the most crucial features ever to be introduced to the realm of the RTS... Which, if you think about it, is kind of sad; the feature was first introduced in a genre outsider; fear not, though, my budding digital strategist. While the service was first introduced in the hack-n-slash world of the computer action/RPG arena (which is, kind-of-but-not-really coincidentally, my third favorite genre), it was flawed in the most unsexy sort of way: there was really no way to prevent cheating in the game as, at the time, all BNet really did was provide a medium for gamers to get together and beat the devil into an evil, evil pulp. All BNet stored at the time was user account data -- what happened to that data, as far as I understand it, was dealt with on a "what happens in the party stays in the party" fashion. That is, it stayed there until the player quit out and the account data was saved on exiting. No in-game data was analyzed or monitored through Battle.net. This, my ever-so-honest readers who would never even dream about how this could be abused, is bad. Players could simply cheat to their hearts content in parties of random Warriors, Rogues, and Sorcerers who simply wanted to enjoy the game as it was intended.


Now, the first link I gave you to Battle.net was pretty useless. I wanted to point out that it exists. I'm not making this up as I go. I actually want to draw attention to the Wikipedia link for Battle.net. I know I usually just link every important thing to Wikipedia or some other site where you can go for further information, but I found this entry particularly enlightening if solely for the reason that the mere evolution of the look of Battle.net. The look gets continually cleaner the further we move to the current look of the system which shipped with Warcraft 3's expansion pack (which included fairly mild differences from the original interface when Warcraft 3 was released).

With the release of Starcraft, Battle.net became huge -- and it grew even more with the release of Starcraft's expansion pack. There were a few possible reasons for the surge in its popularity: the interface was cleaner, Starcraft was the next "generation" of the most influential and popular real-time franchise at the time (possibly even of all time, but I won't go that far without great hesitation), or that the marvel known as the Intarweb had become even more commonplace in homes of the average gamer in more rural areas along with continual expansion in the urbs of the nation. All of these are great and perfectly plausible possibilities for the influx of games into Blizzard's sophomore attempt at the service, but I have a theory that surpasses all of the previous: player stats.


All of the sudden when gamers give the multiplayer a try, they're greeted by a user-friendly interface for playing their favoritist game in the whole wide world with other eager-beaver gamers. That's the first step to increase popularity. The next, and far more difficult part of the process is keeping these same Starcrafters interested in playing online. I mean, let's face it, I love the genre, but playing RTSs online is damn hard. Every player has their horror stories of how badly they were annihilated in their first ten, twenty, two-thousand and forty five games online with their favorite strategy title. It's simply not an easy type of game to really compete against others with until you fine-tune your understanding of the mechanics of the game, learn some simple strategies to get your beatings in on the same inept gamers that you're attempt to depart from, and then continue up the ladder to the supreme ruler of the Battle.net Starcraft galaxy. And, yup, there it is: competition. With Starcraft, Blizzard introduced players to a system which did a decent job to keep the dishonest cheaters at bay (kind of) and allowed the players to increase their victory ratio and climb up into the nosebleed heights of the digital ladder -- thus forming their own unique Battle.net legacy of their own.

Interestingly enough, Starcraft was also Blizzard's first title to use copy-protection; prohibiting players from using a pirated copy of the game to play on Battle.net. This was a change from the days of Diablo, where a copy of the game that wasn't so much "on the level" as it was "stolen" really carried the same benefits of a legitimately purchased version of it. Huh.

The specifics as to the success of Battle.net don't really matter in the grand scheme of thing. What really does matter is that other developers took notice of Blizzard's increasingly reliable, constantly growing, and highly praised multiplayer service. The notice may not have occurred immediately -- and, if it did, not a lot of other developers came anywhere close to pulling off a BNet clone whatsoever -- but it did occur. Over the last four-five years, in particular, I've seen a number of real-time strategy games ship with multiplayer services which offer a lot of features and benefits strikingly similar to the real RTS matchmaker from heaven. Off the top of my head (or a list compiled in a notebook near my computer), some of the best recent attempts have been featured in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Age of Empires 3, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, and Command and Conquer: Generals. So, a lot of developers and publishers are quickly (kind of) learning how best to combat Blizzard's formidable Battle.net system, even if they're not met with the best of luck. And while I'm sure you'll hear stories about how some gamers have had their absolute best RTS games via a LAN game back in days of the games which started the franchises I've just referenced, keep in mind that as great as those particular games may have been, they weren't able to happen with the same frequency. That and they required interaction with actual people before, during, and after matches.

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends.

I mean, seriously. People are so twentieth century.

Graphics and Physics -- Pretties and Bouncies
Sure, it sounds shallow and fairly unimportant as far as the actual gameplay of all of these supertastic strategy titles are concerned, but I'll say it and stand by it: appearances matter. They matter a whole lot.

Though I should probably clarify that I mean, while graphics are nice and everything, it's really the increased emphasis on a realistic modeling of physics that are going to, and in a sense already have become a huge part of real-time strategy games. I don't mean really useless things like parts of buildings now falling to the ground and bouncing around realistically. That kind of presentational flare makes for great trailer fodder and "oohs" and "aahs" of the gamer for a few minutes and then the gamer's occasional captive audience. No, what I mean here is when physics modeling actually begins to affect the actual gameplay of the games we play. The denizens of the first-person shooter arena were treated to such a treat in the incredibly overrated Half-Life 2 when physics became less of a gimmick and more of an overused puzzle prop with the game's gravity gun.

Half-Life 2.

And now, the more enlightened gamers of the RTS variety are beginning to see the light of the real world mechanical movement (see what I did there?) with two of my favorite RTSs around right now: Age of Empires 3 and the upcoming Company of Heroes (you can grab the skirmish-enabled, completely fantastic demo over at Fileshack). Another game to really utilize a decent physics implementation was Rise of Legends, though it used physics for modeling the movement of some of its larger units realistically and other pieces of graphical fluff. The specific implementations of these kinds of genre-changing features will be discussed in far more detail in parts three and four of this series; so, for now, I'll stick some generalities and theories.

Thus far, physics in strategy games have been primarily cosmetic. The first real useful implementation of a physics solution which has actually had an effect on gameplay was in Age of Empires 3. I'm sure there have been attempts to make something physically crucial in games previous to this, but as far as I'm concerned, AoE3 was the first game which appeared to actually utilize a dynamic solution that wasn't just a useless fluff effect for the back of a game box or a press release. And it's really not even that complicated of a feature: modeling the momentum/trajectory of a fired cannonball and, depending on the momentum of the massive lead ball at the time of impact, bowling over a squad of infantry if they were grouped closely together. The cannonball even seems to react fairly decently to the amount of units it hits; if one measly musketeer is bowled over, the thing continues at a decent speed, but if three or four guys in a line are nailed, the ball will lose momentum quickly (almost instantaneously), fall to the ground, and roll a bit before coming to a stop. The effect is made even cooler if you blow some units into the sea, watch the ragdolls fly through the air and into the water, and then watch the bowl roll off a cliff into the sea to join its victims -- though this part is purely just for a "Wow" factor, obviously.

Age of Empires 3.

Now, almost a year after Age of Empires 3 is released (AoE3 coming out on October 18, 2005), a new World War II RTS developed by Relic Entertainment will hit the retail shelves on September 14, 2006. By this point, I'm actually calling Relic the "Quasi-Blizzard" after their virtually flawless real-time strategy pedigree -- Homeworld, Homeworld 2, and WH40k: Dawn of War (and its expansion) -- are releasing their latest strategic opus: Company of Heroes. Here's a game where, after a single mission of the fifteen-mission campaign and fifteen or so skirmishes on the same small map in the span of two days, I'm already prepared to admit it into my on-the-spot Top Five List of Real-Time Strategy Games. This game is introducing so many fantastic things that I feel it's almost a crime to unleash the thing upon the gaming masses without some kind of real-life Gaming Coach to ease them into the shoes of Able Company in the game. Sorry, I'm gushing.

Company of Heroes.

The game looks great, sure, but the most interesting aspect of the game is how it handles the battlefield during a match; nothing is sacred. Heavily shelled terrain can create mild cover for squads to use as they creep into a key position. Nearly every building can be occupied by a number of units... That is, until a tank, artillery, or mortar barrage tears the thing apart piece-by-piece (revealing the units inside) and bring it to the ground -- where it becomes even more cover for infantry squads. Demolished tanks can either be salvaged or used as -- you guessed it -- more cover (you'll need it, believe me). The location of thrown grenades or timed bomb packs make a tremendous difference in how much damage is dealt to the tank/building/unit they are aimed at. And all of this is as unscripted and dynamic as I have ever seen in game of this scale; I've seen it attempted and pulled off fairly well in other games, but never to this degree of success. For instance: X-Com is impressive, especially for its time, but as proven by a few of its remakes it doesn't make the transition to the third dimension very well whatsoever. Soldiers: Heroes of World War II is probably the most successful attempt I've seen, but the landscape is far more volatile and useless for anything but fantastic demolition material unless you're up against an opponent with a pea shooter. And Silent Storm falls under a similar category, except you just have to pretend that it's not "really" a real-time game as it creeps along at a rate of about fifteen to twenty frames per second (it's also turn-based).

X-COM: UFO Defense, Silent Storm, and Soldiers: Heroes of World War II.

What Relic has accomplished with Company of Heroes is, really, nothing short of amazing -- and something which I'll go into greater detail and hopefully a bit more objective analysis and less fanboy raving in part four. Almost more important than that is that it raises the bar for real-time strategy titles in a way that hasn't been done since Warcraft 3 was released in 2002 (I'm not just talking about the technical achievements). The increased emphasis that Relic took in making CoH play as realistic, chaotic, and unpredictable as some of the more intensely fought battles of World War II should open some doors that other developers may have been wary to take for either design or technical reasons. Dynamic environments, when handled correctly, are a major step to ensuring that the battles fought in real-time strategy games no longer are purely dependent on force size and power as much as they are about the player's ability to plan his units organization and variety while adapting to constantly changing situations. Instead of holing up in your main base while you tech to tier three nuclear silos that can annihilate your opponent, a game like Company of Heroes will make you susceptible to long-range attacks by artillery and mortars that will make such short work of your base that you'll end up weeping in the corner crying like a boy scout. As a CoH player, you'll quickly learn that the most important thing isn't the size of your force, but rather how well you can adapt to the fact that your defenses won't last long; instead of fighting for a single point, utilize the enemy's insistence on a large point to your advantage -- steal a few of the lesser points around their target location, surround them, and then push inward after a particularly strong offensive burst of long-range attacks.

I'm getting all hot and bothered just thinking about the last skirmish I played in the Company of Heroes demo in which I did just that to pull out a victory in a point-control game where, by all means, I should have lost.

Conclusion and Temptation
Sorry folks; I once again went completely overboard on the amount of writing I did for this part. I had to cut a lot of great innovations that have occurred over the last twelve years that, by all means, deserved my coverage. Unfortunately, once I reached a certain point, I just had to cut my losses and focus on some of the most important, most critical evolutions and features which have influenced the real-time strategy; I mean, RTSs spawned an incredibly popular "sub-genre" of the real-time tactical game and the introduction a multiplayer matchmaking solution with Battle.net which so many other developers have since measured their own similar systems to.

Some of the other high-scale topics I really wanted to cover were: genre assimilation, macromanagement and micromanagement designs, in-game army/unit customization, and a few more. These are things that I'm definitely going to work on including, if only slightly, in part three of the series where I plan to take a look at nice chunk of the most crucial games released in the genre since 1994 on a one-by-one basis. Instead of making generalities and theories like in this article, I'm going to take a look at some of the more specific features which these games have included that have either been adopted by other titles or are simply too fantastic for many games to ever even bother cloning.

I'm also currently in the process of getting some special, original content from people of a much higher and more influential place in the gaming industry than I could ever even hope to be for part four. So that's all to look forward to for the next two parts for the series which, and I'm putting out this warning now, may take a bit longer than the first two installations to complete. I'll continually be making comments to this article as time goes with information about the progress I'm making and the projected release date for the next part like I did with the first one, though.

So, your homework for next time is to devote a nice chunk of time to at least one RTS title which has been released in the last year and a half and see how it compares to some of the older classics. And if anyone actually does this, I'd love to hear some e-mails or in-site comments about your thoughts and experiences.

For now, I'm going to try and wash the nerd off while pretending that I didn't just write an article this ginormous about a single genre of games.




A Glimpse into Modern Real-Time Strategy (Part 1)

Jump to: The Introduction :: RTS101 :: A Brief History :: Trent + RTS = :: Conclusion and Preview

Back in the day, when I was a strapping young lad on the brink of finally convincing the parents that the household needed a computer as much as it needed gas and electricity, there were two games that I was introduced to through two third-parties that I loved like no man should love software: Wolfenstein 3D and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Wolf3D was considered far too gruesome and controversial for a conservative family like mine, but Warcraft, to the untrained eye, looked much like a puzzle game to the unknowing guardians-that-be; that stayed in the house, and I can safely say that I'm a better gamer -- nay, person -- for it. This game was the catalyst for one of the most consistent gaming loves of my childhood, teenhood, young adulthood, and so on: the pure exciting, energetic, exuberance experienced in the enjoyment of the Real-Time Strategy genre. This article is the first part of what will, most likely, end up being a four-part series in celebrating and analyzing (mostly the latter) the modern RTS. Coincidentally, it may also completely remove whatever sex appeal I had left in favor of boosting my nerdiness, but that's neither here nor there.

From Left: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, Starcraft, and Age of Empires 3.

The Introduction
In this introductory article, my goal is to, basically, attempt to summarize what I personally consider to qualify as a real-time strategy game. After that, and what will compromise a large majority of the length of this article (I got a bit carried away), I'll look at the history of the genre up to the point where I'll begin detailing more specific aspects of today's modern RTSs. So, if you're really not a big fan of reading a lot, feel free to skim through the history segment; a lot of it isn't absolutely critical to the rest of the series, but I personally found it to be really interesting stuff. After that, I'll go into a little spiel about why I personally consider RTS games to be amongst the most enjoyable and long-lasting games around.

Subsequent articles in the series will take a look at ideas and games which are far more applicable to the here and the now. In the second article I'll go through an in-depth look at a lot of the prime mechanics and innovations that have been introduced over the course of the last seven-eight years (with a focus on the last three-four, in particular) that lead us into the current "generation" of RTS games. In the third article, I'll then take a close look at what I, and many of the people I talk to, consider to be the current big-name entries in the genre in order to give a more current and practical spin to the ideas discussed in the second article. In the fourth, and most likely final, article I'll take a look at the blockbuster titles coming in the next six-nine months which should really inject a whole lot of innovation and life into a genre which is constantly adapting to the increasingly complex desires of PC gamers.

And that last point is really the aspect of real-time strategy games that I find most noteworthy: with every big RTS, gamers are introduced into an entirely new level of complexity. With only a handful of exceptions, I think it's arguably one of the few genres left in the realm of PC gaming that hasn't been a victim of the simplification that tends to occur when games are simultaneously developed with both consoles and PCs in mind. The result of this development is that a lot of complexity (especially in the user-interface) is compromised to make things far more manageable for console gamers. PC RTS titles have been ported to consoles in the past (generally much later than the original PC release date), but the amount of map, unit, and base management that needs to be done by the player is incredibly difficult to pull off with a joystick on a gamepad, and without a mouse and the wide variety of possible keyboard hotkeys that PC gamers utilize.

I'm not going to get all super-technical or create some kind of strict definition for what I mean when I refer to a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. Sometimes this label gets overused on a lot of titles that, for the most part, really don't deserve to be labeled as such. For the most part, I'd say that the distinction between a lot of the particular necessities for the genre pretty much just boil down to semantics, but I'm told that reputable writers need to "define their terms" in an effort to look all sorts of professional and informed-like. Anyway, there are a couple of things that really make an RTS as far as I'm concerned.

The first, and most notable, is that the game is played-out in a fashion that the title of the genre implies: real-time. This means that at no point should the real guts of the game allow for the player to pause the game in order to plot his base, give orders to units, or share baking recipes with the opponent. All of the action in a particular match should not be interrupted unless it is a complete interruption of input as well. There are some games which make this benchmark complicated in that they may mix aspects of real-time strategy with turn-based strategy in separate segments of the game. Rome: Total War is a prime example of this; the battles occur in real-time, but a majority of the army, nation, and general army tactics all occur by turns over a map of Europe. This game I would consider to simply be a Strategy game rather than refining the label to real-time strategy.

Rome: Total War.

Secondly, I believe that the focus of the real-time strategy in the universe of the average gamer is that each RTS puts a very heavy focus on the military aspects of the game. Some games which call themselves by the label even put military strategy as their sole focus, but these titles are a case that I will delve into a bit later. For the most part, though, while certainly the major focus of a traditional RTS is on military tactics and strategy, the importance of a player's economy, technology research, a base structure cannot be overlooked unless the player wants to go through a match with continually overpowered, technologically superior units of his enemy.

These things considered, a lot of real-time strategy games released over the last fourteen years (Dune II was released in back in the days of the cavemen, dinosaurs, and stone tablets of 1992) really have yet to pick up on one of the most important aspects of strategy as far as military conflicts are concerned: the actual strategical prowess of a player. A lot of games certainly require a great deal of thought put into a player's particular game strategy (I'm using the word in a general sense here), but rarely does a game actually reward players for actually employing a particularly complex strategy with few units of low power against a far larger force which, by most calculations, should emerge the victor. There are numerous instances in the history of world conflict where a country's forces have entered into a battle completely overpowered, outnumbered, and generally outmatched, but yet have managed to "win" the battle by most counts due to the strategic brilliance of their commander. Most RTS titles, though, don't generally allow for this to happen; an inept player with massed units, in some games, can simply enter a fight with a superior player in command of very few units, and pull out with a total victory. Does this prevalent shortcoming of the genre really change the way we look at games under which it's labeled? I'd say no, but it raises interesting questions which the next generation of real-time strategy games -- Supreme Commander in particular -- are looking to remedy.

Supreme Commander.

A Brief History of (Real)-Time (Strategy)
There are articles across the Intarweb that put a far larger emphasis on the history of the genre than I should even attempt right now, but for the sake of completion, I'll devote a bit of space to give a mere glimpse at the roots and titles which really laid the groundwork for the modern real-time strategy game.

There are various early games that are believed to have contributed to the idea of the real-time strategy game as we think of it today; the first one being Stonkers was released in 1983 (developed and published by Imagine Software). Stonkers was released for a platform that, in all honesty, I never even knew about until I did some preparatory research for the series: the ZX Spectrum (and with the breathtaking graphics of Stonkers that can be seen in the first screenshot below this paragraph, I think I know why). In the game, players controlled various types of units (infantry, artillery, etc.) and focused entirely on the combat aspect of the game; while attempting to eliminate the enemy, though, players had to be mindful of each unit's energy, and attempt to conserve it to ensure that your supply units don't run out of munitions to supply the units before a new shipment of energy arrives.


The next evolutionary leap in the fledging genre (which, as of yet, wasn't considered as such) is Herzog Zwei (roughly: "The Second Baron"), released for the Genesis' Mega Drive back in the winter of 1990 by developer/publisher TechnoSoft. HZ was one step closer to the RTS style that we play now -- though not quite the major catalyst that will be discussed next -- in that it put the player into more of an unseen commander deity that directly manipulated his forces. In Herzog Zwei, the player took control of a robot (either flying or land-based) that was responsible for the deployment and indirect control of his units, which came in one of eight flavors of a land-based variety. Once each unit was deployed, the player had to spend money to activate the unit with one of six possible activity "programs" -- three offensive ("enter the nearest minibase," "attack units at the nearest minibase," and "attack the enemy base") and three defensive tactics (stationary, circle, and aggressive defense) -- which defined how the unit would operate. Each of the two players on a given battlefield had a unit cap of fifty units. And, essentially, the goal is to completely annihilate the opposing player.

Herzog Zwei.

While this trip down memory lane (ha. ha ha.) is all well and good, it's time we got to the game that is widely regarded as the Grandfather of Real-Time Strategy as we know it: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty. This game was released in 1992 by a developer that any strategy aficionados should recognize very well: the late Westwood Studios. That's right. The same guys who brought the far more widely-recognized Command & Conquer franchise to gamers across the globe were the same developer that really made real-time strategy into a genre. Dune II was a very loose sequel to Dune (which has is based off of Frank Herbert's book of the same name).

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty.

Although Dune II seemed to be a sort of natural evolution from Herzog Zwei, in an RTS history by Gamespot, Brett Sperry (considered Westwood's "visionary" behind Dune II) considers the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game The Eye of the Beholder to be a far more critical influence in the design of Dune II. He said, roughly, that Dune II is the result of trying to envision a game set in a real-time environment (like Eye of the Beholder) that "could be combined with resource management and a dynamic, flat interface." This vision is what, eventually, led to Dune II. A game where, while similar to Herzog Zwei in its militaristic intent, allowed resource gathering, free-form base building across the map, and an intertwined dependence on technology and structure development in order to progress across some form of what is now referred to as a "tech tree." Dune II also introduced the idea that there could be different playable sides (races) that could have different forms of operation, different weapons/units, and so forth -- an idea that is easily comparable to almost every RTS on the modern market.

But, of course, it isn't always the first game in a genre that really makes the largest impact -- for instance, in the early years of the first-person shooter games weren't called Wolfenstein 3D clones, they were called DOOM clones -- and such is the case with real-time strategy games. The developer Silicon & Synapse, probably best known for their puzzle/platformer involving a trio of Vikings was developing a game that would, for the most part, revolutionize the then-sparse genre with a game involved around what seems like an eternal militaristic struggle between green men and barbarians. Of course, Silicon & Synapse had an identity crisis in 1994 and changed their name to Chaos Studios; though the developers were dismayed to find that another company had already laid claim to a similar name. The team eventually decided on the name Blizzard Entertainment and shortly thereafter released their first major hit: Warcraft: Orcs and Humans -- a game which evolved Westwood's Dune II formula to, pretty much, a form incredibly similar to the modern RTS. The resources involved were gold and lumber (a tradition carried on throughout every game in the RTS titles in the franchise), and involved an epic war between the Orcs and the Humans. Unlike later titles, every unit of the same race shared the same voice (all of which were done by Bill Roper), and the Orcs were solely composed of Orcs (Warcraft 2 evolved this into Orcs, Trolls, and Ogres) and the Humans solely contained Humans (WC2 changed this to Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Gnomes). The units for one side, save for some spells, also had identical counterparts on the opposing side as well.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.

Westwood eventually responded with their widely-known Command & Conquer series in 1995, and the genre continually expanded and evolved from there. A number of these evolutions are things which I plan to delve into in more detail in the subsequent parts of this series. For further history on the genre which goes into more detail (especially where I left off), I'd highly recommend both the Wikipedia listing (for "Real-Time Strategy") and Gamespot's 1989-1998 history.

Why Trent + RTS =
My personal motivation for writing this series of articles is something I felt deserved a bit of attention, even if it's just for the sake of completion. Back when I finally had access to my first PC in my own household back in 1994, the real-time strategy genre was really one of the first things that I was introduced to which I legitimately enjoyed. My parents were fairly strict about the kinds of games I played, and unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Warcraft could easily be concealed as nothing more than a base-building and resource management simulation as opposed to a mildly violent war game if the eyes of the guardians were amongst me.

That may be the reason for which my extended exposure to the genre originated, but it's an interest of mine which has never really decreased over the years. Alongside my real-time strategy fascination, I have a true love for first-person shooters as well; however, as any gamer should be ready to admit, a first-person shooter is generally a far more short-lived, flashy, blockbuster game which, until multiplayer gaming became huge, really didn't have much of a lifespan (at least for me). Throughout the years, I've always been able to count on RTS titles to continually evolve into more complex (though, interestingly, more user-friendly) beasts that continue to be amongst the greatest challenges for a gamer. I believe that the average game's difficulty has decreased significantly since the days of games like Ghost'n Goblins. When I played through Monolith's big-budget shooter F.E.A.R. for the first time last year, I played the game on its Hard difficulty and, for the most part, it was just a cakewalk in terms of its difficulty level. The game's Extremely Hard difficulty setting, also, didn't provide much more in terms of additional hardship for me to play through -- something I find fairly unsatisfying and unrewarding. But when I recently played through Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos to its finish (I had always managed to lose my progress due to freak accidents somewhere in the middle of the game in the past) on Hard, it was actually a difficult experience. Had I not spent so much time playing the game in multiplayer against incredibly talented opponents on Battle.net over the last four years, I can't even imagine the kind of frustration levels it would have induced in me.

Warcraft III: The Reign of Chaos.

Most of all that interests me, though, is that every RTS game feels so completely fresh compared to one another. I can get sick and tired of Warcraft 3 or Rise of Legends (these are, of course, titles I will actually talk about in detail later), I can simply pop in Age of Empires 3 for a completely different playing experience. Every developer has such a drastic separation in what they envision their take on the typical real-time strategy formula that, when all is said and done, most entries in the genre arguably bear little resemblance to one another.

Conclusion and Preview
I can't even believe that all of this was merely the first part in the series. I expected this introductory article to be a fairly quick run-through of the goals I wanted to accomplish in writing the series and, now, I have a large six-page expedition through genre that should make for a great entry into the rest of the series. Once I reached the end of what you now see as the end of the history segment of this article was the point where I finally realized that I couldn't just delve into the huge story that could be told about the genre's formation. See? This is my attempt to exercise my pathetically weak amount of journalistic restraint.

Now, as I briefly laid out earlier in the article, the second part of this series will take a look at several of the major innovations that have occurred in the genre since the point where stopped in the history earlier. This will entail everything from the introduction of major unit micromanagement to a slight focus on adding more RPG-like elements to RTS games in the form of "larger than life" hero units to the importance of realistic physics in a strategy game. That's all in store for the next segment, and I hope you've enjoyed the series thus far. Until next time: rawr.




A Modest Editorial on Game Bugginess

Jump to: A Prologue (Battlefield 2) :: Battlefield 2142 :: The New Standard? :: A Pessimistic Conclusion

Alright this editorial is a sizeable one (Surprise!) which I can easily divide into two halves for the readers who are interested. The first two sections cover Battlefield 2 and its bastard child-spawn Battlefield 2142. These two games serve as a specific platform for me to launch into a lengthy discussion on a "State of the Industry" variety where I'll delve into the recent plague of games which are thrown into stores for public consumption when, in all actuality, they should still be lying on the couch with their parents waiting for another batch of antibiotics -- which is to say that they're a flawed, buggy mess of entertainment software. Anyway, this whole article is designed to progress from a look back at last year's biggest game, to a case study for the future, to the real point of my spiel, so it's probably bestest to read it that way. If the idea of Battlefield 2 makes your soul weep, though, I'd suggest instantly jumping here.

Let's rock.

A Prologue (Battlefield 2)
Once upon a time -- which, for the sake of argument, I'll postulate happened about a year ago -- I wrote an editorial about this little game called Battlefield 2. A few weeks later, after a fairly large amount of comments (for this site, anyway), a hate-mail or two, and no patch to speak of was released by DICE, I was very near giving up on the game. Here was a AAA game title with more than a few trenches filled with nothing but solid tons of hype that was released in a buggier state than an Elder Scrolls game ( oh, no he didn't) even after a pre-released demo was unleashed to the rabid Battlefield fans three weeks before the final game hit retail shelves all over our great nation. I did my part as a loyal customer, though, and just tried to overlook the game's problems; I mean, the gameplay itself is definitely spectacular. The final nail in my Battlefield 2 Gaming Coffin, though, came when the first mini-patch was released which did very little to address a number of the issues of the game in the first place... And this 'patch' was so buggy that DICE required a rollback on all ranked game servers. And, let me tell you, that was it.

I gave the game another try a few months down the line after a new map, Wake Island 2007, was released in one of the patches (v1.2, I think). I actually had a really good time with the game, but my friends got me started back on World of Warcraft and shortly after that I went home for a while (56k... for the win?) and by the time I got back I was fairly addicted to WoW again. This is all to say that the lack of really getting into the game at the time had nothing to do with the title itself.

It's the recent install which really got me back into the game with great vengeance. The patches that have been released for the game have done a whole lot in terms of overall game balance, fixed a lot of the stability issues with the game, and generally improved it for the better. The red label bug is still in the game (albeit to a lesser extent), which is... Odd, to say the least, but overall the game seems to be in good shape. The menu is still a tragedy akin to a train wreck of adorable, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed kittens, but the fact that it hasn't received a major overhaul is simply a testament to a developer who has presumably decided that the game garnered so many awards and sales that it isn't worth the effort.

Battlefield 2142
When Battlefield 2142 was first announced, I laughed. This wasn't a mere snicker, mind you, but a full-body eruption of haughty laughter. I looked at the PC Gamer -- yes, I subscribe to it, shut up -- in my hands and scoffed at the cover exclaiming the announcement of DICE's "new" shooter. Before reading about the game itself and without knowing its release date, premise, or absolutely anything about this drastic, bold, innovative original idea (*cough*) all I could think of was the bastard child of the brilliant Battlefield 1942: Battlefield: Vietnam. In what is a brilliant business move, DICE released a game that was little more than a full-priced mod for their critically acclaimed first game. I bought and played the game a couple weeks after its release and, honestly, that's exactly what the game was: a mod to milk the cash-cow that is DICE's namesake. And, from the looks of it, it appears to be deja vu all over again.

In a recent news story a senior producer on Battlefield 2142 said that the game would be "A lot less buggy than Battlefield 2." Apparently DICE has listened to fan criticisms about BF2 and now aims to achieve a very high-level of quality with the sequel. I read in PC Gamer when they were doing the initial coverage of the game that special attention would be paid to designing and programming the new menu interface for the game after the flurry of critical feedback about the positively abysmal menus that were on display in Battlefield 2. I'm far from being an expert on quality user-interface design (some may be surprised that UI design is a fairly large field of study/research), but I'm fairly certain that I could get a blind toddler drunk and have him find bugs and qualms during his testing of the BF2 UI.

The New Standard
The main thing I want to ponder is this new 'trend' that seems to becoming increasingly prevalent with retail games. Battlefield 2 isn't some low-budget, indie developer effort. It's a big-budget, triple-A sophomore effort (I believe Battlefield: Vietnam was done by a separate division of DICE) from a developer whose first game took in Game of the Year awards or some similar accolades from the gaming press. A while before Battlefield 2 was released, Electronic Arts even bought DICE, which should mean that the level of quality assurance, pre-release testing, and customer support from one of the largest publishers in the country would result in at least some level of polish to such a blockbuster title like BF2.

This is just one of many examples of a recent downgrade in release quality that the gaming industry has seen over the period of the last couple of years. A certain deluge of bugs has always been expected in a few titles: The Elder Scrolls series, the Bioware games, and most MMORPGs... Though if there are any prevalent bugs in the latter, then you open the floodgates to thousands upon thousands of customers screaming "But we pay more than your average gamer! We demand complete satisfaction! Quit giving Shaman access to keyboards!," but I digress. The point is that gamers seem to be relatively okay with large, epic games having their fair share of bugs.

A conversation with a developer friend of mine led to him making the statement that the more complex a game is, the more bug it should be 'allowed' upon the day of its release. It's a very simplistic approach to the topic, but just think about it: a game like Battlefield 2 is a first-person online shooter with only the most meager of single-player offerings. Over the course of the game's development DICE, most likely, spent the early period designing and programming the engine and toolset which they could eventually craft the game from. Once that aspect of development was over, the work on the actual game could begin... And the thing that gets me about Battlefield 2, is that it had no tabula rasa to call its own; DICE started with a very well-defined, and tried-and-tested gameplay base which they were building the sequel off of.

Anyhoo, the game gets to a workable state, goes through testing and balancing, features get added and removed, and the process is repeated until the day the game is released. This is the general kind of development schedule that most games go through (which is to say all but some of the rarities which have special stories to tell in a post-mortem). Therefore, with that in mind, why should a multiplayer-centric game like Battlefield 2 be allowed such a release-day mess when it's being done by a time proven developer and a massive publisher like EA when some other developers can craft a bug-free, polished, complex single-player game along with a significant multiplayer offering all for the same title. To stay with the FPS example, Monolith did an excellent job on both the single- and multiplayer fronts of F.E.A.R.. Firaxis did the same with the incredibly complex Civilization 4 (though, in all fairness, the single/multiplayer in the game is fairly similar...); the only release-day problems as far as I'm concerned were all to do with the game's copy protection.

Currently I'm playing Titan Quest which is an action/RPG in the same vein as Diablo 2 which has had a decent amount of hype built around it. It's the first title from a developer with a great pedigree. And, currently, I'm never sure whether I'll be able to play the game for two minutes or two hours before it 'randomly' crashes to the desktop. Iron Lore has a patch coming on July 5th for the game, which is fairly speedy considering the amount of things the fix is planned to include, but there really is no excuse I can think of to have a game in this state on release. Using the complexity/bug correlation, this title really has no right to have as many problems as it does. While all RPGs are definitely difficult things to develop, Titan Quest isn't even in the same realm of complex action/RPG title like Neverwinter Nights. A game of a similar caliber to Titan Quest would be last summer's Dungeon Siege 2 which was released with polish (even if it wasn't the prettiest girl at the hack-and-slash prom) and very few bugs to speak of.

Complexity aside, I can't say that every game I've played lately suffers from a lengthy list of problems. They don't; however, the list is in the minority of games with near game-breaking release day problems. In my good graces are: Galactic Civilizations 2, Rise of Legends (though I hear the multiplayer has a lot of issues), and Red Orchestra. So let's have a big round of applause for releasing... Working software.

A Pessimistic Conclusion
I guess the reason that I wrote this was a combination of my instinctual need to follow my traditional bitching pattern with summer editorials. There is a decent amount of truth in the verbose writings above, but that doesn't really amount to much in the grand scheme of the game industry. The truth of the matter is that as games become increasingly more popular they also become increasingly more costly and complex the amount of things that need to be considered as developers and their publishers approach release day is, in a word, overwhelming.

The real question I have, though, is whether the true quality of a game-gone-gold rests with the developers, the publishers, or a combination of both. It's difficult to pin the blame on either in particular due to the fact that not all publishers are solely responsible for testing and not all developers can be faulted if the publisher is expected to give the game extensive testing and does a poor job... But I think there's definitely a relationship to be found in the state certain publishers release their games in. As an example, Microsoft Game Studio (Age of Empires 3, Dungeon Siege 2, and Rise of Legends for a few examples) consistently released high-quality games for both consoles and PCs that I can very rarely find any fault with. The same can be said of Blizzard, who I believe does a majority of their extensive game testing in-house. And, for a developer/publisher who I'm personally endeared towards, Stardock has some of the greatest game support of the industry. Meanwhile, titles published by EA Games can either by fantastically polished with spectacular production value or, you know, not so much. And then you have the fuzzy area of a studio like Valve whose games are incredibly well-produced, but whose games also have a tendency to be a complete mess for the first week or two after release.

All in all, this is a matter which will probably grow worse with time. The most important thing I can think of, though, is that the developers who still feel the urge to release well-polished, well-tested games are the ones that really deserve to have their names shouting from the rooftops in the best barbaric yawp that gamers can muster. The English major in me had to find some outlet; all apologies.




A Treatise on Episodic Gameplay, Part Two

Yesterday I ranted on and on about the downside of the new, overhyped concept of games as "episodes" in a larger series rather than self-contained games which receive expansion packs based on both feedback and popularity. Throughout that article I put a blatant focus on Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and SiN: Emergence; in other words, I dealt solely with the first-person shooter genre of episodic gameplay. I believe the principles presented there would apply to any kind of action/adventure game, so for this article there's going to be a switching of gears to a genre which is far removed from the fast-paced, frantic nature of shooters: the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.

The Unnecessary Preface
The fact that MMORPGs have completely oversaturated the retail shelves with clone-after-clone of the same game with a slightly different color palette is something that has no real place in this article. Pretty charts simply serve no role in this entry. I understand the necessity for all of these carbon copy pieces of role-playing crack, though. I do. We really need to find that one game to bring the genre to the mainstream. Don't despair, gamers, though. I have a good feeling that RF Online will be the title which the world has been craving for in this time of persistent world depravity.

The MMORPG Example
The massively-multiplayer demographic must be more varied than an auditorium at the United Nations given just how many titles exist in the genre. Covering them all would be a task of epic proportions, so I'm going to focus on four particular titles: World of Warcraft, City of Heroes/Villains, and Guild Wars (Original and Factions) Each of these titles, as would be expected, has added on content throughout the life of the game starting either immediately after launch or further down the line, it's happened. Each of these games, save Guild Wars, charges some sort of subscription fee on top of the purchase of the base game package. For instance, when I bought World of Warcraft on the first day of its release, I paid $49.99 for it (which included the first thirty days of gameplay). If you pay on a per-month basis after that, you're looking at about $14/month -- though the value decreases if you pay in greater month intervals at a time. Some games vary on the monthly subscription fee, but other than Guild Wars, they all require these fees in order to actually play. Given this kind of monthly fee, it's essentially required by the player-base of these titles that the developers go above and beyond the necessary balancing, bug-fixing, and server maintenance to provide that something extra to the game.

Before I begin what will likely be an incredibly long, incredibly verbose, and incredibly poorly-organized tirade on the topic at hand, let me restate something I added into a later version of Part One: when you add 'episodic' content to an online-only game, the debate takes an unfair turn. The examples I used in Part 1 were of the single-player variety (SiN: Emergence and Half-Life 2: Episode 1) and then a short contrast to an FPS of a far more multiplayer-focused variety (Battlefield 2). A multiplayer game needs to do three things well: Ensure that every player has the same opportunity to have fun -- ie, kick every other player's ass.
Ensure that any content just continually extends the life of the game.
Make additions to the base game that do not require every player to purchase it... But just enough to keep the incentive to purchase alive. An episode focused on single-player experiences has a far more difficult job, as I detailed in Part One. That said, a vast majority of the ideas I presented before still hold truth here, and it's not like multiplayer content developers have it easier. Single-player episodes do actually have the luxury that the developers don't need to try and appeal to a "base case" gamer who doesn't purchase an episode like, say, an MMORPG needs to. So, it's a give-and-take relationship in both cases.

That said; let's get to the case study which proves I have too much time on my hands.

The Warcraft Behemoth
Since it's, without a doubt, the most popular MMORPG by a landslide, let's open the discussion with World of Warcraft. To this day, Blizzard still has login queues for some servers and numerous server issues (whether it's with login/authentication or general server lag)... But in the grand scheme of things, the game is pretty damn good. Upon release, it was the most enjoyable MMORPG that I've ever played. I started an Undead Mage when it came out (roughly the same character I played in the beta), got that bad boy up to level 28, and then realized I was really tired of playing not only a mage in general but what was, at the time, the most uninteresting and weakest class in the game. I then switched to a Tauren Shaman and, lo and behold, it's like a whole new game was set in front of me. I played this game for about a month and a half (maybe two months) before I finally called it quits. This makes my time with WoW more than triple the time I have spent with any other MMORPG at the time.

The reason I relay this long and, up until now, unnecessary history is because I want people to understand the kind of game that I found when I returned to WoW one year after my initial time with it. When I came back in November of 2005, what I found was a far more balanced game, with several new features which may have seemed incredibly small at their induction but make for a far more accessible game on the whole. I also found a very well-done player-vs.-player "battleground" system in place which had previously been nothing more than rumors which traveled on the wings of ghosts. A whole bunch of new items were in-place, namely some spectacular-looking epic sets, as were some new talents and skills. And, most importantly, Blizzard added and improved all these aspects of their game without requiring the player to pay anything aside from the monthly subscription. And maybe a marriage or a job or a house or something.

World of Warcraft has one of them legitimate expansion packs coming out at the end of this year which, although not specified, will probably cost somewhere in the realm of thirty to forty bucks. This may seem like a hefty price to ask players to pay for atop of their normal fees and such, but the pure scope of this expansion needs to be taken into account. First, there are two completely new races (one for each side, Horde and Alliance) with their own unique starting areas, abilities, and quests and the like. Then there are the huge bulk of items, armors, areas, dungeons, instances, quests, and so on and so forth that will be added. There are the new flying mounts which, for the uninitiated, mean that players will have new animaltastic mountable creatures which, get this, fly -- like, in the air. And I'm sure there's more, but also of note is that the official level cap in the game will be raised from level sixty to seventy. This time necessary to take a level sixty character to seventy will, as noted by Blizzard at some obscure corner of the Intarweb, take players almost as long as it took them to get a new character to sixty.

The Tale of Two Cities
I still can't believe it myself, but City of Heroes ended up being a damn fun MMORPG. When I read the first preview about what I felt was essentially an online superhero, pay-to-play, RPG I was... Well, I scoffed and laughed and wondered where NCSoft was pulling some kind of massive prank on the game's developers. Eventually, though, I bought the game online, downloaded it, and was playing my very first superhero RPG within an hour (NCSoft is a company that truly knows how to leverage the power of digital distribution -- quick, painless, and no overhead). To my surprise, City of Heroes was actually a damn fun game. The game was well-polished, was a lot of fun to play, and, if nothing else, the character creation allowed my imagination to create whatever humanoid superhero I could dream. I mean, I could've done with some kind of option to play as a kitten that could turn into a giant, robotic death ray within a single keystroke... But hey, if wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak.

I don't have quite the same experience with City of Heroes as I do World of Warcraft, but what I do know is that Cryptic did a whole hell of a lot of work on the game throughout its expansion-less life. They released bug-fixes and general balancing patches on an as-needed basis, sure. More importantly (well, maybe not, but definitely more enjoyably) they released huge "content drops" in what they called issues. A list of these issues can be found through the drop-box here, but even on a quick glance, it can be seen the extent to which Cryptic has worked to provide content for all of its players. In some issues, entirely new zones are added. In others, new player classes ("epic archetypes"), in others there are new spell sets entirely. In another there is the entire player-vs.-player section of the game is unveiled (The Colosseum).

Eventually, somebody at NCSoft or Cryptic decided that an expansion to the underrated MMORPG was necessary, though. And out of this came what seems like the most obvious of choices for an expansion to a game about superheroes: City of Villains. The immediate downside is that this is a full-priced retail game, which means about forty or fifty dollars for the package. The nice thing, though, is that this is also a completely separate game from City of Heroes. As I understand it, player A can be a superhero with City of Heroes, player B can be the Lex Luthor to A's Superman in City of Villains, and the two could go at it on the streets of a quasi-Metropolis without ever having to actually own the same game. There are different classes, different spells/abilities, different zones, and so on and so forth between the two games.

A splendiferous idea if I do say so myself. And I do.

The War. Of Guilds.
Hey, screw you, ArenaNet didn't give me a whole lot of material with their MMORPG Guild Wars... Though, in all honesty, it's more of a Diet MMORPG. A quasi-MMORPG. Players can buy their own copies of the game and play with all of their buddies under persistent online characters... But there really is no persistent world to speak of in the game. Every town, mission, and outdoor area is instanced for you (and/or your party of other characters or AI NPCs). Why would someone choose this over, say, an entirely persistent and shared world like in the last two examples? The answer is simple: no monthly fee. You buy Guild Wars, and you can play the game to your heart's content without so much as another dime being thrown in ArenaNet's general direction.

One of the great parts about this whole ordeal is that ArenaNet still actively updates the game with new features and areas frequently. The fact that every area of the game is instanced really frees up a lot of server memory and processing from the entirely-persistent game worlds of World of Warcraft or your other standard MMORPG (this is hypothetical; I have yet to get a confirmation from the ArenaNet employee tied to a post in my basement). So while ArenaNet still has to fund servers for players to play the game, I would think that it would be to a far lesser degree than Blizzard does.

In order to fund the costs of development and the servers that they do have to keep and maintain like a sea of mechanized pets, ArenaNet takes an approach similar to Cryptic's treatment of City of Heroes/Villains: full-priced "expansions." With the original Guild Wars, ArenaNet had six character classes, with a world filled with quests and campaign missions. With the 'expansion," Guild Wars: Factions, there are eight classes in an entirely new world filled with quests and campaign missions. I'm not entirely sure on the legitimacy of my following claims, but as I understand it, players between the two games can coexist only in a select few realms of the game (primarily for player-vs.-player segments, which are the heart of Guild Wars in the first place). Other than that, both Guild Wars Original and Factions are almost two entirely different games that neither require nor demand the purchase of their counterpart. It's an interesting business model to say the least, but I'm still not quite sold on the whole concept (though I'm a big fan of the general model that was started with the original game).

The Conclusion, Part Two
Above are three examples of the ways in which three of the more popular MMORPGs handle episodic content. Each of these three games -- World of Warcraft, City of Heroes/Villains, and Guild Wars -- handle things completely differently... And although World of Warcraft certainly has the largest player base, I wouldn't go nearly as far to say that any of these methods are wrong by any stretch of the imagination. For an example of a method which I feel is simply horrible, take a look at Everquest 2. EQ2 charges for both the retail game (though this may not be true anymore), the monthly subscription, and an expansion pack. Sure the expansion isn't necessary, but if Sony Online Entertainment keeps things up, EQ2 is going to be one damn expensive hobby for all its "need all the content" players (which, given the size of the game's player base... Won't be many).

I don't really have any grand conclusions for this two-part series. It was really started on a whim as I realized that more and more games seem to be relying on the idea of the "episode" as a way to add on to the base game package. From a single-player aspect, I think that episodic gaming has a long way to travel before it becomes an economically or even practically viable alternative to the traditional "expansion pack." For multiplayer gaming, though, episodic content has always been a standard way to extend the life of a title. Given the three titles I looked at in this article, I think that if developers continue to try and veer away from the necessity of a traditional expansion pack, the future of the ever-so-crowded online arena is a bright one.




# A Treatise on Episodic Gameplay, Part One

The gaming industry has this thing where it goes through what are commonly referred to as trends. These trends vary year to year, of course, but in the time that can best be described as their own respective hayday they receive some kind of shout out within a game's press release, back cover of a retail box, or an overzealous PR guy that shouts a particular trend from his podium/marketing soapbox. Back in the day, the big trends were all graphical spiffstuffs like the lens flare, bloom/HDR, and other such graphical flairs (pun completely intended). The last couple big trends switched gears towards physics; first with ragdolls, the limbs of the recently-deceased flailing through the air after a rocket or some such, and then with more general physical simulations, most notably through third-party solutions like Havok. This year, though, I'd have to say the winner for the trend with new titles is definitely the idea of episodic content.

That's right. Now you don't have to leave the idea of divided storytelling to your movie trilogies and television series, you can also enjoy it in a wide variety of games from franchises new and old! Did you ever finish a game with a cliffhanger ending and think "Wow! I really hope more games leave unresolved questions for the sequels!"? Well, through the joys of advancements in digital distribution (think: Steam), you too can quit playing that nice self-contained twelve to twenty hour blockbuster first-person shooter, and start playing the same game in three to five hour installments delivered over a year or more! Sound good? Read on for more about this great innovation!

The First-Person Shooter Example
Currently, the buzz about this stuff surrounds the gaming equivalent of the summer, action blockbuster movie: the summer, action first-person shooter games. So, when I mention the idea of episodic gameplay in this context, two games should come to mind: Half-Life 2 and SiN. For the former, the first of the planned trilogy of episodes comes after the critically acclaimed best game of 2004 (even if I had something to say about that). For the latter, it's a long-coming follow-up on one of the classic FPSs of yore -- which was, ironically, completely overshadowed by the original Half-Life... But that's neither here nor there. Both of these games released the first episodes of their planned series in the last month and a half and I have, indeed, played through both of these titles. I'm not trying to review the games for this article, though, so I'll leave any opinion on that out. What I will comment on is the presentation, flow, and plot of both of these episodes.

Though, as a mild digression, let me say that I've been disappointed on the whole with the way the blockbuster FPSs have handled plots in the last few years. I'm not sure when, but it's like it became cool to give players questions and then end the game with a cliffhanger that does nothing to address them (*cough*). The reason I bring this is up is because Half-Life 2 is standing right there on the throne for this offense alongside Halo 2. Apparently when a game gets popular, expansions and sequels are so expected that no real attention needs to be paid to any real contained plot. Some fantastic shooters are great without resorting to such cheesy "hook" techniques, though.

So, at least with the first episode of the Half-Life 2 expansions (I've got a problem just typing that), the story of the episode is a fairly big subject for me when I play it. The ending to Half-Life 2 resolved nothing, other than providing a fairly anticlimactic final "fight" that ended in a neat effect, that ended in the predictable appearance by a particular character in the series -- which is to say that when I beat the game, I felt the need to go throw a small pebble at Valve's office building as a symbolic act of spite. So, when I played HL2: Episode 1, the first thing I went in looking for was at least some semblance that Valve wasn't following the LOST story-telling methodology of throwing plot points against a well and performing voodoo rituals around a hatch at night with the hope that a logical conclusion arises from the flames. I didn't get that. Instead I got four-five hours of the exact same gameplay I remember from Half-Life 2. Except this time I experienced it with the highly-touted HDR upgrade to the Source engine. I'm sure there's a kid in Guam shouting, jumping, and dancing for joy at this idea. That child is not me. I'm the kid who's annoyed that he paid twenty bucks for the shorter, less enjoyable, and less complete experience of Episode 1... The same amount of money he paid for the first expansion pack for the original Half-Life. Which could have been given a full-price retail tag and I'd still be glad I made the investment.

For SiN: Episode 1, however, I'm a bit more forgiving of the situation. Ritual did an entirely decent job with the game's first outing in seven-eight years. The introduction is dull and confusing, there are only three weapons, and the game's performance is far worse while still not looking as good as Half-Life 2... But the gameplay mechanics it introduces, along with the pure action-packed goodness that it delivers after the first half-hour or so make me interested to see where the game goes. Now, that said, there really isn't much to the game on its own terms. The plot is thin overall, there is no multiplayer (though this is said to be coming later for anyone who bought this initial installment), and it's very obviously a game not intended to be enjoyed by people who just want twenty bucks of good fun with no overhang.

The necessity for a hook to keep players paying for more and more episodes in these series is obviously there. There needs to be a reason to force the consumer to the store (or the eStore, if that's your thing) for more, but both of these games handle this in the wrong way in my idealistic view of the industry. For these episodes, I'd like the hook to be that the gamers want to continue playing in these polished, well-paced short episodes just to experience new things, new weapons, and generally more of the same great gameplay they experiences in the previous episode(s). Instead, what I'm seeing with HL2: Episode 1 is little more than a map pack for the original game. With SiN: Episode 1, the pace is a bit off as is the overall content, but for the price I think it is an acceptable example of the idea of episodic gameplay.

There are some budgetary semantics of these two games which I could get into, such as how people are paying twenty dollars for an incomplete gaming experience which lasts for a mere four-five hours... But I don't believe I'll take the bait on that. Sure, when I paid the retail fifty dollars for F.E.A.R. I got twelve hours of gameplay with an very well-done plot with a clear beginning and ending (even with more than enough of a sequel/expansion hook in the last five seconds of the game). Oh, and F.E.A.R. has that incredibly enjoyable multiplayer mode that was included with it. And I still plan to buy the upcoming expansion pack despite all that just so I can play more even after such a complete experience.


The Shining Child
I never thought I'd say this, but: EA has the right idea with their treatment of Battlefield 2. In a recent entry, I briefly discussed my experiences with the BF2 booster packs. After they released the full Special Forces expansion pack (with the normal thirty-dollar price tag), EA went and released news that the future additions to the game would come in shorter installments for a ten dollar value. These installments, so far at least, each bring three new maps along with some various other additions to weaponry and vehicles. I've purchased both of these packs as well as the expansion, and I think the switch to the shorter, cheaper booster packs were actually a solid idea. They are integrated with the main game very well, the EA Downloader is a very well-working, functional digital distribution client (that doesn't need to be used for anything other than downloading the packages you want), and it's a generally well-polished package. There are a few problems with finding decent servers which support the booster packs, but that's more of a problem of player adoption rather than the execution of the packs themselves.

This method is all well and good in terms of general "episodic content," but it's also in a differently league than SiN and HL2:E1 are. Battlefield 2 is a game meant solely for online play. Sure there's a single-player mode, but it's kind of like playing a few rounds of Twister by yourself. Adding content to an online game doesn't require a lot of the considerations that have to go into single-player episodes. So, while I think that EA is definitely on the right track with this idea, it is also far easier for them to succeed in the online arena (something that I'll cover in Part 2 in greater detail).

The Conclusion, Part 1
There are a couple of other big examples I can think of that follow (or will follow) this episodic methodology, but there's not quite as much for me to say about them. There's Bone, a series of adventure game episodes based on the comics of the same name. There's also news that the new take on Alone in the Dark will also follow an episodic format (because nothing says horror like time-delayed releasing of episodes). The Bone idea I actually enjoy if solely because it pays homage to the idea of the comic books themselves. Not that I think it should be praised for taking one of the comic series' traits into the digital gaming realm, but the games seem to be receiving fairly positive acclaim, so woot. Alone in the Dark in an episodic format, though? Well... Mommy always said that if you didn't have anything to say, you should post it on a site on the great Intarweb for everyone to readnot say anything at all.

Tomorrow, I'm going to look at the idea of episodic delivery under a slightly different circumstance: the MMORPG.




Paradise - Chapter 4

Well, I actually followed through with my own mandate to myself today and finished up the fourth chapter of my beloved Paradise today. I probably started at about 2:00pm and by 5:30pm I had written a solid seven pages of content and brought the lengthy chapter to a close at about fourteen pages (with 1.5 line spacing). Now, by the time I considered the first full draft of the chapter "finished," I think I honestly felt like my brain was just going to be set to "Gone Fishing" status for the rest of the day. Eventually, though, after I fed it some of the healing powers of the almighty beer, a good shower, and a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats it did, in fact, decide to come around and perform its purposes again. So, joy to the world and such.

Now, about this fourth chapter: I think it's one of the better ones thus far. I still introduce a new character and a couple completely new environments, but as I begin to settle into writing the various characters, the story begins to come out more naturally. Up until now, I've have been jumping all over the place in terms of scenes and themes and exploring characters in their own terms, but I think this is really the chapter where the story actually begins to come into its own. The third chapter gave indications of story, but I don't think it really succeeded in its goal (a heavy rewrite is in for it a bit further down the line).

In a general sense, I'm really starting to enjoy the work that's being done on the thing in a general sense. I can't say that I really know what the "main" storyline of the novel is going to be yet, but with each chapter I get an increasingly better idea of the kind of direction that I'm going in; for instance, in Chapter 4, there are a number of opportunities setup that I can use to jump into the "main" plot or just develop some threads into smaller subplots. I mean, to be honest (and I've given this example a number of times), when I started this project I had the goal of making the main killer some psychotic serial killer who was simply housing the described world in the depths of his brain as he enacts violence against people in the real-world or... Something. Either way, this is the kind of dynamic storytelling that should get me a job writing for LOST. Yeah, sorry, that was a low blow.

Anyway, time for a snippet from Chapter 4:

As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of the idea of "snippets," but they're still put into the announcement of every finished chapter due solely to popular demand that they be put into the announcement of every finished chapter.

I figure I'm eventually going to get to a certain point of completion in the novel where I should probably start taking down every chapter and start working on keeping it private until I, say, find a publisher or something. If that's what I end up doing. I probably won't, if solely due to the fact that I'm kind of lame and shy... Yeah. Anyway, for now, I need all the feedback and comments that I can possibly get. Hence the near-unnecessary amount of blogvertising that I do for each chapter.

Anyhoo, thanks to all those who read this and figure out a way to get in contact with me (via e-mail or just via entry comments) to provide some feedback. I figure the fifth chapter will take at least three or so weeks to reach completion... And that's a conservative estimate.

sound the horn, address the city




How To Save A Life

I'm beginning to realize that Michigan's seemingly-schizophrenic weather patterns actually do follow some kind of predictable logic. Not in when things occur, of course, but there are definite "seasons" that begin and end, honestly, whenever the Elder Michiganians Up High designate that the season in question starts and terminates. For instance, summer is just now beginning as of May 27. Would you like to know how I know this? Because the weather forecast for the next week is all eighty degrees or greater with a minimum of 75% humidity. Perhaps you remember this gem from July of last summer? Well, I do. That's a Michigan summer for you. Sure, our temperatures may appear mild compared to somewhere like Phoenix or Houston, but we like to even the gap a bit with humidity.

Well, here's a plot twist. I have air conditioning this year. Take that, nature.

Also, about a week ago I made a deviation from my standard practice and posted a fairly personal entry and, across the gambit of sites that I generally mirror entries on, I actually received some pretty fantastic feedback from a whole crap ton of people. The summary of the last week, as far as that entry is concerned, is that a day or two after it was posted I got to thinking. Actually, I got to thinking during and around the time I was posting it as well. Either way, I did my bestest to try and fix things, coming "clean" about my own insecurities and worries about relationships in general and all that jazz. Long story short, things are going to work out.

Something that I have been negligent about pointing out over the course of the entire month is the fact that I've seen two movies in theaters which are absolutely worth telling my loyal reader-base about: Thank You For Smoking and Mission Impossible III. Just how great the former of the two wasn't really a surprise, to be honest, but it was still a fantastically entertaining and hilarious movie. The surprise of the bunch, though, definitely goes to MI3 with Tom "What Would Xenu Do?" Cruise leading the cast of the second sequel to one of my favoritist movies ever. MI3 ended up being such a surprisingly entertaining movie that my two friends and I, upon seeing the credits, had absolutely on idea that the movie was actually more than two hours long. The action was intense and engrossing, the acting was great, the plot was more like the original movie than the John Woo abomination, and it was simply a hilarious movie. Good 'ol J.J. Abrams may have absolutely no idea how to handle subplots in Lost (there were also some entertaining allusions to that show in MI3 as well), but he sure as hell did a good job with MI3.

And I don't care how batshit crazy Tom Cruise may be in real life. He's still a good enough actor that I love him in movies. Plus, and let's be honest here, the craziest actors are generally amongst the best. I mean, seriously, Sir Anthony Hopkins frickin' eats people when he's not filming movies.

Er, wait. I think something is wrong there. Oh well.

I started playing Heroes of Might and Magic V today and I came to a very important conclusion: I don't like games that make me feel like I'm playing a My Little Pony simulator. I'm sure the game is a fantastic turn-based fantasy game, but... Just, wow. I can't even think about the things that occur in that game without either being repulsed by perty little mini-horses or worried that just witnessing the game makes me level up my nerd passive ability far more than I feel comfortable with. So, for the meantime, I'm just going to go ahead and leave my "game of choice" as Rise of Legends, which is still providing me with a whole buncha real-time strategy goodness even as I trek my way through the familiar ground of the single-player campaign in an effort to get back to the start of the Cuotl campaign (the third of the three offered).

Sounds about good for an entry, I suppose. Tomorrow should involve me writing the finishing pages Chapter Four of the book. It's currently at about seven-eight pages, and it felt good when I wrapped up yesterday's writing session with confidence that it didn't suck. Well, at least, it didn't suck nearly as much as I still feel Chapter Three does. I'm still convinced that the "modern day" thread of that chapter is incredibly weak -- especially compared to the introduction of the "letter format" to the main character's wife. That kind of stuff can be ironed out down the road, though. With this fourth chapter I think I finally am getting an idea of what the main conflict of the book is. If nothing else, I know what the entry plot point into the main conflict of the book is. To be honest, I haven't really had an idea of where I was going with the book since I made the main character switch from a psychotic serial killer to a far more protagonistic kind of guy.

But that's for tomorrow. Unless I don't reach a good point for the chapter to end on, in which case I'll either post a quick update about it or I'll just wait until it's done to put it up.

she knew about those wooden boys, it's an empty love to fill the void




Rise of Legends Review

I figured it was damn near time that I actually wrote about a game and there's really no better title to suit that necessity that the only game I've been playing for about the last two months (I was on the beta): Rise of Legends. This is the second title from developer Big Huge Games, which features Brian Reynolds at its helm (who, if memory serves, was a kind of protege to simulation thinktank Sid Meier. The first game from BHG was the very well-received Rise of Nations which, in my mind, was kind of like an orgasmic middle-ground between Age of Empires and Civilization. With their second outing into a new game, Big Huge Games wasn't just content to make a sequel to one of the bestest RTSs I've ever played, but rather take the gameplay that made Rise of Nations so awesome and apply it to an entirely new IP.

Thus, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends was born with one of the most redundant and unnecessary titles I've ever seen from a game. With this new title, though, came three completely original races: the Vinci, the Alin, and the Cuotl. Each race is so fantastically different in both play style and visual style that it simultaneously serves as RoL's greatest strength and weakness. The plus side is that all of the units are ridiculously neat in terms of their design, realistic animation, and art style as are the architecture of each race's buildings. The downside is that all of these differences make getting into the game a tremendously difficult experience. There really isn't a Starcraft-like quality to the game's races in terms of logical play style. What I mean, for instance, is that you can't just say: the Zerg are quick and rely on numbers, the Protoss rely on ridiculously strong units but with a far higher price tag for each, and the Terran are the defense-oriented median between the other two. In Rise of Legends, each race has a variety of strengths and weaknesses, but there's really no simple classification (at least, not one that I've found in my time with the game)... And this makes the game a lot less accessible than most of the other RTSs I've played. I'd give it the title of "Real-Time Strategy With The Most Deceptively Strong Learning Curve" -- it's a title-in-progress, obviously -- but I've played Earth 2160 and Perimeter, and that would just be unfair to compare RoL to those two... Games?

One very fantastic thing about the game is that Big Huge Games has performed a near miracle in the way that the game's interface has been designed. It's deceptively simple but after I had been playing for a while, I started to realize that there's a decent amount of depth to the whole ordeal that I was able to glance over from the beginning. I was also not a big fan of the lack of builder units in the game -- I mean, I love seeing my little construction workers erect giant buildings in my base -- but the point-and-click to construct a building at any place within your "influence" area is something I've come to appreciate and enjoy as well. I do think that the amount of units on-screen is a bit excessive at times, and can occasionally make battles a bit difficult to manage, but I do like the sense of scale that all the units creates. It's also a blast to see a giant spider-mech thing stomp down on an unsuspecting foot soldier and watching him fly into the air as one of the game's ragdolls. If nothing else, Rise of Legends has a true sense of destruction associated with it that makes a player, for lack of a better phrase, feel all warm and squishy inside.

In order to keep the detail up without getting some mind-boggling slowdown in some of the larger conflicts, you're going to need a fairly extensive rig to play the game. I'm currently running on my AMD64 3500+, 2gb DDR400 RAM, and a 256mb GeForce 6800GT, and while I can play the game with fairly high detail levels (though with most extraneous polygonal details, such as trees/shrubs, and a lot of the physics detail turned down or off) major battles really make my computer want to go into a corner somewhere and cry until he's just crying air since its tear ducts have dried up. Sure, I could make the game ugly, but with all of the textures, building/unit details, and shader/effect quality up the game just so damn perty. And it has some of the best fire, smoke, and explosion effects that I've ever seen in a game. Period.

It's a shame that Big Huge Games had to record all of the special effects inside an aluminum can instead of putting more time into getting some really quality sound effects. Currently the game is like watching a supermodel play volleyball and then hearing her occasionally talk and make your ears bleed. Sure, it may not be quite that bad, but the sound effects in the game sound so muted and tame that I've now resorted to just playing some music through Winamp to drown out that aspect of the Rise of Legends experience, if I may.

To be honest with all y'all, I have yet to even attempt to venture into the multiplayer aspect of the game. I suppose the act of reviewing a game isn't really complete without that aspect of it really being tested out, but outside of my beloved Warcraft III I've never bothered to play more than one or two games online with an RTS. I care primarily about the quality of the campaign and the skirmishes than I do that the multiplayer portion. Though, to be honest, I can say this about a vast majority of the games I play. Social experiences are totally overrated. And as far as the single-player experience goes, I'm glad to say that Rise of Legends delivers. The campaign is kind of a neat, though mildly linear (compared to the Conquer The World campaign in Rise of Nations, anyway), Risk-esque map that allows you to pick-and-choose the order with which new territories are conquered. This campaign is split into three parts, and I'm now going through the first part of the campaign, since I had played through the first and second on the beta, in an attempt to get back to where I was so that I can give the third segment a go. The storytelling is a bit wonky (I'm being generous, here), but the overall experience is still one that I'm getting a whole lot of enjoyment out of, so I suppose that's all that matters.

Overall, though, Rise of Legends really meets my seal of approval as the RTS that I'm most likely going to be playing until Supreme Commander or the new expansion for Age of Empires lands. It's not perfect, by any means, but it is still a very fun real-time strategy game that has a mildly overwhelming amount of depth -- depth which may jump out of the bushes and maul you if you aren't prepared. But... I still maintain that the sound effects in the game are best left unheard by any mortal. I'm fairly certain that if you had Hansen playing in the background and heard some of the effects in this game, you'd actually be sent into a homicidal rampage. Or your ears would just sever themselves and run away from your head. Forever.

Great game, though.




Why I Am The Way I Am...?

Prepare for melodrama.

I'm going to go ahead and violate so many of my own site-writing rules at once that, in fact, I may never be able to write again just out of the shame of my own writing infidelities. But, currently, I think this is something that needs to be done. Some people, when bad events occur, hole up in their living room with a bottle of ice cream and watch depressing movies. Some go on murderous rampages. I write a lengthy treatise on why I am the way I am in a romantic sense. Some people juggle geese.

For about the last month and a half, I have been doing my part to attract, woo if I may, a young member of the womanfolk crowd. We met in one of my creative writing classes, and eventually used the good 'ol college-stalking network known as Facebook to accumulate knowledge of each other through ridiculously lengthy e-mails which, by the time they had come to a close, had exceeded a solid 12,000 words. Then the logical advancement to instant-messenging was made, and more talking commenced. Eventually a date for breakfast was set, and things went well. A week later, and the jump into a committed relationship was made. And a bit less than two weeks later, the committed relationship was ended. By none other than me. This seems like the necessary amount of summary for me to delve into the bulk of this post: me. Because I'm my own favorite subject to talk about.

Actually, that's a lie, but that's neither here nor there.

To be totally honest, I've done a fairly good job of staying outside the dating pool throughout my time in college. I knew enough of my own tumultuous high school relationship to know that the best way for me to get into a relationship is to not be in one. So... I haven't. Whether this is for the lack of womenthings that I'd actually want to get into a relationship with or entirely of my own design I don't know. Either way, I simply hadn't even thought about a relationship (dating, yes, but not a relationship) in a long time. Though with this girl, English Girl as she had been so affectionately nicknamed by me and mine, I thought I honestly could get into a long-lasting relationship (which seemed -- and is -- what she wanted) without having to worry about my own skittishness which I had become so familiar with over the course of my life.

Here's generally how it goes: the first week is awesome. If something goes wrong in the first week, then I generally bail without a second's thought, because things shouldn't be that complicated that early on. By the time the second-third weeks occur, though, I become ridden with doubt about what I'm doing in a relationship. It doesn't matter with who, or what's been happening, but whenever I get the glimpse that there might actually be a future in any given situation, I bolt like a frightened bunny at the sight of a lawnmower. Sometimes I can get over this without a problem... Though very rarely. I can't even say I get the skittish way I am. I don't think of myself as an immature person -- well, except when it comes to relationships. If I had to guess, I'd say it's a general inclination to continue my fairly simple, uncomplicated, and fairly hermit-like (I use this very loosely; it's not all that hermit-like, though I don't generally feel the need to fill my day with things to occupy me) daily routine. Add that with the knowledge that I get easily freaked out in relationships which seem to be moving a bit faster than I like (which generally means that they don't lie stagnant in one position for a long length of time).

But, if I have to try and really find the root of this little self-destructive dilemma of mine, I'd say that it's still because I believe in some weird kind of fantastical romance. I'm not a very emotional person, nor a very romantic one, but I do hold on to the thought that the "right" relationship will be one where the first month (or, preferably longer) simply go so well, so smoothly, and are simply so fun that there's not even a need to think about anything too serious. I figure that when I'm in the "right" relationship, that all of my romantic oddities will simply disappear, and I'll be left with only the feeling that everything about the situation is so right that when problems crop up, that I'll actually want so desperately to work through. Whenever I end a relationship, I'm left with the lingering feeling that the whole "romantic idealism" is simply impossible and that I just let the next-best thing pass me by... Though when that little thought pipes up, I generally just crush under my emotional boot and then it remembers not to pipe up about romance ever again.

And then there's also another issue I have. An issue which is probably far more applicable to the current situation; I don't want to toot my own horn or anything, but the problem is that I'm too nice. When I get into a relationship, I should just be selfish and think about my own feelings for the interim period until, like, the two people in the relationship form some kind of shared consciousness together as they bask in the sunlight on a romantic horse ride along the shores of the coastal beaches in the Caribbean. But, instead, I worry just as much about how my own indeterminate actions -- my "defeatist attitude" if I may -- will affect the other person, rather than just focusing on my own feelings. This sounds like a fairly good trait to have, but I'll be honest: it's not. It basically means that my own fears and insecurities are amplified by the lack of certainty with how the other person will feel when (there's no "if" in the thought process) I screw up. It's a fairly vicious cycle.

I mean, I realize that no relationship will ever be a completely perfect fairy-tale caliber kind of thing. Though I do maintain the viewpoint that the beginnings of one -- say the first month at the least -- should be the "high" of a relationship. Things shouldn't be difficult, but rather the interactions between the two people should feel perfectly natural and should be having the time of their lives... Or something.

Anyway, this has been entirely too much of an emo entry, and for that I do apologize. I did serve a bit of its therapeutic purpose, so I guess that's a good thing. I think I'll go drink a big helping of testosterone so I can become one of those guys who hits on the drunk womenfolk at parties/bars, proceeds to have a one-night stand, and then forget about them forever.

But, no joke, I know I'll never be that guy.

i've willed, i've walked, i've read, i've talked, i know i've been here before




Paradise - Chapter 3

Since I got the majority of my work done for my fulltime job of a summer class that they call Intensive Second-Year Spanish, I figured I'd pretty much just go ahead and enjoy the day fully. And oh, let me tell you, it's been an enjoyable day. Between EG and I going to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place which felt the need to not just serve up food but, rather, serve up some food to also going to Border's and picking up a couple of Philip K. Dick books (Flow My Tears... and A Scanner Darkly) along with Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (an author I very recently talked about)... To then finishing up Chapter 3 of The Book. So, all-in-all, a very good day.

Anyhoo, a segment from the fairly short chapter: Not the best segment to choose, to be sure, but it's not a very lengthy chapter and I'm told that an entry without a snippet is just mean, torturous, and barbaric. So, there's that. The full chapter, as usual, can be grabbed in HTML, DOC, or PDF forms over at the writing segment of my lovely little corner of the Intarweb: http://www.polycat.net/fiction.

And now, the greatest thing I've seen all day:

but I won't lose no sleep on that





I'm continually impressed with my own ability to neglect this site (I simply refuse to call it a... blog. Such a silly word). Last time I apologized that I had successfully forsaken the site for about a week, and this time I'll apologize for successfully forsaking the site for, roughly, ten days. To make up for this from the get-go, I present to you two pictures with cuteness levels which have the ability to make all neglectful behavior disappear. Exhibit A and Exhibit B. I do hope that, now, all has been forgiven.

Anyhoo, in short, I'm basically just going to say that things have been going relatively awesome for me lately. Things are good. Very good, indeed. Thanks to a new girlperson in my lifething, I've actually been experiencing certain places in Ann Arbor that I had previously never visited nor, for that matter, ever knew existed. These places include, though are certainly not limited to, Tk Wu (a Chinese place that gives helpings of food which could bury a person alive), and then one bar which is like the classic, dimly-lit, smoke-filled pub-esque thing, and then the one I went to last night which was dark, neat multi-floor setup, live music, and all sorts of good fun. There were also people dancing. I'm sure that those people enjoyed that, but if I attempted to dance, there would be an apocalypse of catastrophic proportions (which I believe the term "apocalypse" would imply, so now I'm just being redundant) that would ruin the future of the Earth for generations to come. Which is to say there won't be any more generations. Ever.

Thoguh, when I point out that things are going very well, I do of course have an implied clause: things are going very well except for the whole Intensive Spanish thing. This class remains the winner of the "least fun course" that I've ever taken; with my Calc 3 class (not necessarily . As of now, though, I'm two weeks through the course (which corresponds to ten weeks of the normal-speed courses taken during the standard semesters) and only have four left to go. If I don't pass this class, there will be an entire choir of pandas lying in wait to cry for my unfortunate situation; thankfully, I think I'd have to go out of my way in order to not pass that class.

On a game-related note, I would like to say that Rise of Legends is a whole buncha fun (though quite different from its forerunner, Rise of Nations). Sin Episodes: Emergence (my screenshots here) reeks of a polished Half-Life 2 mod, with little more going on. I'm also entirely not a fan of the idea of episodic games, either. If I wanted to watch a story developer over a number of short episodes, I'd watch TV, where the acting, writing, and plotlines are generally superior in every way. I play a game to get a nice amount of playtime, not a segmented storytelling attempt. And I'm enjoying Guild Wars: Factions (gallery) quite a decent amount whenever I get the spare time to feel like I could dig my teeth into a quest or two.

As for my novelthing, I just recently finished up work on the third chapter. It's a fairly short chapter thus far, but I think that will change a bit once I get to work on editing it. And, oh, how it needs to be edited. I'm not sure when this hypothetical editing will occur, but I'm assuming that it'll be at least a week. Probably more, though.

I'm also finally getting around to following up on the commonly-received recommendations I get saying that I just must read some of Kurt Vonnegut's work. Currently I'm working my way through Cat's Cradle and I think I see why some of my writing gets compared to the guy. Granted, he's infinitely more intelligent and witty, but I think the brand of humor is similar. But that would be putting myself on a pedestal that I'm not nearly deserving of quite yet.

I think that's about all I've got to say at the moment. Currently, in a typical icky bout of Michigan's schizophrenic weather climate, it's about fifty degrees, dark, windy, and has been raining buckets all day. So, with that said, it's only logical that I'll go for a short run.

so glad to meet you




My Great Day

So, I originally started an entry that was more in line with the standard kind of rambling entry that I normally do. I got about three sentences done, when I realized that this simply wasn't going to cut it. Mostly because I think I've been mildly sleep-deprived for the last few days, but also because I've been really sleep-deprived for the last few days, but mostly just because I'm in a good, rambling, story-telling kind of mood that I feel would work best as a more storylike entry. Rambling is so old-fashioned anyway... Which is to say I'll return to it soon enough.

This morning, I woke up. I use this phrase in only the most basic, simple conceptual meaning it can really ever hope to attain: I opened my eyes and stood up. I'm so used to my morning routine that I could literally sleepwalk through the whole ordeal. I have no doubt that I would succeed in my sleepwalking morning cleansing and eating up to the point where I'm required to equip a razor in my right hand and shave. I think sleepshaving would be an event best left to the professionals. Which I'm not.

I decided to actually wake up in the "Hey, I'm conscious, give me caffeine" sense. My eyes were opened, I felt like I had never actually gotten to sleep, but I knew that wasn't true. I absolutely knew that I had gotten at least forty-five minutes into sleep when my alarm went beep-beep-frickin-beep. This is perfectly acceptable at the time--which I realized was 7:30am (the intended moment of mental lift-off, which is to say waking up)--though, because I honestly have been feeling mighty good lately. Mighty good indeed. I won't say I feel like I'm on top of the world, because I have a quota for cliches that I know I'm going to use up by the end of this entry, because in the culminating scene of this stream-of-consciousness abomination, I'm going to live through my very own movie/television cliche.

How's that for tension?

So I get up out of bed, and I feel like my eyes are burning. Which is a typical feeling after a series of little-to-no sleep nights. It was nothing abnormal. I reach in my kind of pre-caffeine drunken morning state for a little bottle of Visine that has made a comfortable lodging at the base of my monitor. It wasn't there. I looked over to my cat, and he gave me some kind of faux-innocent glare, but that wasn't fooling anyone. I looked through the area near my chair, and sure enough, there it was. I try in vain to squirt a couple drops of this morning brand of Liquid Jesus into my eyes, and miss about five-six times in a row. By this point, it looks like I had just come out of seeing Pay It Forward after a month of incrementally more depressing days. Granted, that wasn't the case at all, but to the unknowing civilian, it looked like I just woke up and bawled my eyes out. I finally managed to hit the bull's eye with my itty-bitty bottle of Visine, and felt some kind of glorious redemptive mood flow over my retina. I think missed about three more times when I moved on to the left eye.

Oh shit, I realized, wiping the Visine tears off my face. I actually am starting a class today. Intensive Second-Year Spanish; putting the Intensive in Spanish since whenever the university decided to have a spring-term (ie, six week) class which covers thirty weeks of material in, just that, six weeks. It's roughly at this point in the story when our protagonist realizes that he's really, really stupid.

Flash forward two hours. It's now 9:30am, an hour into class, and I go into the bathroom due to what I affectionately call "Multiple Diet Cokes in a Short Time Span" syndrome. I get to the mirror and, no joke, it looks almost like my retinas had been possessed by the devil himself for a brief moment, but he had left, and had instead just left his red calling card in the whites of my eyes. I suppose lack of sleep, allergies, and wiping at my eye trying to get a rogue eyelash out of them for ten minutes can really have that effect though.

The next three and a half hours of class (yes, you read this right) are mostly just a blur of scenes mishmashed together into an incomprehensible mess. Something about Spanish and grammar and vocabulary and twenty hours of homework a week, I suppose. There was definitely a moment in the class when the students were asked to shout out stereotypical characteristics of Mexicans, Chinese, and Americans, though, I remember that segment of the day quite well. I especially remember someone yelling out "Le gusta cortar el cespid" as a trait for Mexicans. Which, for the uninformed, means that Mexicans enjoy mowing lawns. Didn't you know? Jeez, get with it.

What? I'm hoping that that entire segment of the day was just some kind of hallucination--an elaborate mind hoax which my brain was just creating to screw with me--but I know, yes know, that it actually happened.

And so I get out of class at 1:00pm. That last hour was killer, no joke. But I get outside, and it's pouring. We're talking cats, dogs, and their entire families just falling like a dove with a ten-ton weight attached to its right claw thing. I vaguely recalled that it had started to rain when I was going in to class. Being that I had been in a building for going on five hours, though, with a steady downpour occurring through the day, the puddles had begun to accumulate into big puddles. Quasi-lakes, if you will.

So, I walk up to a curb. This curb happened to be a necessary stopping point on my way across the street, and I was currently being shown the "Not a Good Time to Cross" signal (sploosh part two. I find myself dripping waiter all over the otherwise soaking wet pavement. My dark blue shirt was not only a darker shade of blue, but always quite a bit heavier and baggier on me in its recently-submerged state of being. And it was at this very moment that I realized something about these ever-so-overused Hollywood occurrence.

It had been a damn good day.

and i would have stayed up with you all night




A Streetlight Shines Through the Shades

Alright, sorry kids. Put down the pitchforks, torches, and hostage kittens. I had been doing so well updating this thing with consistency every 3-4 days, and then I go and so something brash like not updating it in a week. Apologies. Apologies all around.

I came home-home on Monday and, to be quite honest, I do so love coming home. I don't really do anything other than just hang around with my family, watch TV at night, and then retreat to the room that I spent so many hours in while growing up once the rest of the family goes to sleep at an oh-so-early hour. It's just, primarily, the fact that I'm home that's so comforting and super fantastic. I have a bunch of the pictures of the house, something that I never had thought about getting before, on my lovely little digital camera. These shall get uploaded and displayed for all to see when I get back to Ann Arbor on Sunday and get the cord that my camera just begs and pleads to have in order to fulfill its function. I also got to play basketball outside on our little cement slab in front of our garage today and yesterday, which is another thing I've missed being able to do just whenever.

As much as I love being home though, I'm actually kinda looking forward to getting back to Ann Arbor for my summer "vacation." And, by vacation, I mean spring and summer classes which will take all but three or four weeks of my actual summer vacation up. Spring term, in particular, will be quite the little bitch as I'm taking a class which contains the word "Intensive" in its title. Now, spring/summer classes in general are pretty rough in that they have to get an entire curriculum done in half the time that a normal term class has to. In spring, I'm taking Intensive Second-Year Spanish. What this means is that not only am I taking a Spanish class at twice the speed of a normal term of classes, but I'm taking a class that is twice the speed of a normal Spanish class during the regular school semester. So, let's do the math: one class at about four times the speed that it could normally be taken. Honestly, though, the only thing that really irks me about this whole setup isn't the four of class four days a week, but rather than the damn thing starts at 8:30am every day. I haven't had to wake up before 8:00am as a routine since my junior year of High School. This makes me, a person with admittedly trying sleeping issues, a very, very sadpanda. Oh well; it's only six-seven weeks of this thing. I can do it.

Plus, and this is just what I'm hearing from a little birdie who heard it from grape vine, I think this summer is going to be one of the bestest ever. My reasons are super-secret -- and to follow the old cliche: if I told you, I'd have to kill you -- but let's just trust me on this. I think it'll be pretty spectacular.

Oh, and hey, a friend urged me in the direction of GameDev.net's Image of the Day (IOTD) saying that the queue for the future was feeling a bit lonely, so I went ahead and submitted my last known project as a programmer to the thing. Check it out if you feel so inclined.

I started up work on the third chapter for Paradise a couple of days ago, and while I was talking to one of my friends I had the whole chapter appear before my eyes in a startling flash of revelationary light. This chapter is the point in which the real plotline of the book begins to take form. It's also the point in which I inject some romance by finally fleshing out the relationship between the main character and his, presumably, dead wife. The first three page draft I wrote for the chapter's flashback was, at the time, decent... But when I looked back at the thing I was simply revolted by how bad it was. I'm keeping the same general structure of the flashback, but I think the newly rewritten draft is most definitely superior to the bastard first draft. I'm stuck on a very crucial paragraph of said flashback at the moment, but as soon as that's done I think the rest of the sequence will come together very nicely. I'll post snippets and such at the appropriate temporal juncture.

Since I have a tendency to give my one-sentence movie reviews after I've watched a large amount of movies in a fairly short time I might as well make it more of a habit. So here are all the movie-viewing occasions which I have partaken in over the last two-three weeks. There's a lot and in roughly the order in which I watched them. eXistenZ was positively captivating which left my mind reeling by the time its ninety-seven minutes of film had come to a conclusion. Videodrome was, uh, well it was a weird damn movie; I'm not really sure what else to say. Do not watch Spider unless you like watching Ralph Fiennes mumble and stumble for almost one-hundred minutes -- I truly believe that the script for the movie was, at most, four pages long. Silent Hill was bad, long, but very enjoyable for me. Jacob's Ladder is a fantastic movie along the lines of The Sixth Sense, but which remains far more interesting throughout while ending with a bit of a whimper whereas Shyamalan's movie is very slow-developed buildup which ends with a bang. Hostel was less "revolting" than I had been lead to believe, but a far more enjoyable movie at the same time. The Grudge was a very faithful recreating of its Ju-on, which I, overall, enjoyed more than the Japanese original. And, to end this very long paragraph, Love, Actually was the single most fun movie I've seen in a very long time.

Alright, next time I'm just going to do these one-sentence reviews as I see the movies, rather than letting a large-ass list slowly build and build until it nears its breaking point. Unfortunately, I'm now at the end of the very long list of movies that I'd been waiting to see for such a long time. I think Blue Velvet is one of the few remaining titles that I have but have not yet seen. And I don't care how batshit crazy Tom Cruise may be, I'm still looking forward to seeing Mission Impossible III on Friday.

I'd also like to point that, while I still have yet to get a grade for the last of my four classes, I'm currently sitting at a 3.554 GPA for the last semester. I was an absolutely horrible student for my first three semesters here at the University of Michigan, but I'm very slowly starting to come around. This will be the best semester I've had yet with two A-'s and a B+. I'll update this paragraph as soon as I get the last grade to see if I've set a new academic record for my time at U of M.

i know that's a strange way to tell you that I know we belong




End of the Year, Revisited

I'm a big fan of the whole idea of keeping some semblance of structure in terms of the structure of yearly posts. So this is, for most intents and purposes, the 2005-2006 version of the "end of the year" post (done with similar intentions, though mostly likely a completely unique execution) that I did last year. I have yet to officially end this, my junior year at the University of Michigan, but with only a handful of days left before I go home for the week-long separation between winter and spring semester, I figure now is as good a time as any to really celebrate the occasion. Today is, after all, the final day of classes. I do still have one exam left but, for the most part, I'm not particularly worried about it in any way, shape, or form. This is a confidence which I will, most likely, regret a few days from now.

Oh well. Live and learn. Or so I'm told. I always forget one of those in actually practicing that motto.

Anyway, honestly, I can hardly believe that this year has actually been this year. Such a sentence may make absolutely no sense when read, but lemme tell you: when I wrote that, it totally spoke to me. That is to say that this year went by all sorts of quickfast-like. I'm honestly sitting here, in my room, at 3:16am, listening to Tool and thinking: Wow, this year went by all sorts of fast. I'm having difficulties realizing that memories which seem not-so-distant actually took place more than four months ago at the very beginning of this semester. Perhaps this is just what growing old feels like... But, if that's the case, I'm beginning to see why all the old people -- er, now it's more like my temporal colleagues, I suppose -- always say that something felt "just like yesterday." Granted, I'm not quite to the point where things feel like yesterday... But more like things felt like not quite as long as they actually were. I really wish I could think of a snappier way to phrase all this, but this is more of a semi-alcohol-induced rambling entry than any kind of memorable... memoir. So it's, essentially, in the same vein of entry as the last few have been. Enjoyable, to be sure. At least for me.

If nothing else the fact that I was able to get fairly drunk with one of my classes and teacher is reason enough for putting this year up upon a prized pedestal. This is actually one of the classes that I can safely say I will miss not having in the future. I had awesome classmates, fantastic teacher, and just a generally good time despite the fact that the class had a three-hour meeting period -- which is a long time for someone who has a hard time sitting still through even the most entertaining of movies at a theater.

This year also is a first in that it is the first time that I have ever been entrusted with the sole responsibility of taking care of a living, breathing thing. I mean, sure, I've had pets before... But they were co-entrusted to members of my immediate family who were, at times, far more instrumental in their upraising than I was. Either way, I'd like to think that this little guy was raised pretty well thus far. He's still alive... And despite any claims that he may be slightly "off" (I think 'retarded' is generally the word of choice to describe him) and may, in fact, be just as insecure as a kitten as I am as a person, I think he's a pretty awesome little companionthing.

I think this is also the year in which I really realized what I wanted to do with my life. Four years ago, I would've said the whole game programming thing was a sure-fire path. There was nothing, at the time, which could stray me from this goal. Until I actually got to a point where it was a viable option -- then it was simply thrown right out of the contending fields of interest. It took time, though. I eventually decided (mostly on a whim) that I was going to "simply" dual-major in Computer Science and English, a natural combination to be sure. At the midpoint of last semester, though, I decided that Computer Science had really lost its luster in my eyes. So, with that decision, I became set on the idea of becoming a High School teacher. Coincidentally, my projected future income took a huge drop with this choice -- but that's okay. I do plan to continue writing throughout my life. Maybe the novelist in me will eventually make it big, famous, and all sorts of popular and I can start selling out to write made-for-TV movies and the like.

Ah, my aspirations are simply endless.

Alright, that's about it. I feel vindicated in my obligation to be nostalgic. That's good enough, I suppose. Now for the summary:
Best Band(s): Joshua Radin, Sufjan Stevens, or Iron & Wine.
Best Song: Sufjan Stevens - For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.
Best Movie: Serenity.
Best TV Show: Arrested Development.
Best Games: Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, Counter-Strike: Source, Guild Wars

it's my kind of story




A Progress Report on Paradise

I had a nice, mildly lengthy entry dedicated to the "end of the year," which is to say the end of the school year. Which it is for me. But the entry... Well, to be honest, it was pretty horrendous. I actually deleted it after I had posted it because I felt that it didn't live up to the standards which I, myself, have established for entries on this site. And I'm not going to lie to you: the bar is pretty low. So when I say that an entry is bad I mean that it's really bad. I'll give it another go in a few days, though. Maybe when the end of the year has actually been reached; so, say, Monday night.

That all said, I did have a nice, productive night of writing on the little project I call Paradise. I went through the first chapter and made some really minor corrections from the last major version, which is all well and good I suppose. The second chapter had a fairly major update at the beginning of the month, so I wasn't too keen on the idea of revising it further at this point in time. So I didn't. I did, however, completely rewrite the introduction to the book... A process I enjoyed immensely. Since it's not very long, I figure I'll post it all here. Since I love you all and want you all to read my lovechild so very, very much. Enjoy. Or something. As usual, this thing and more can be found here: http://www.polycat.net/fiction.




End of the Year, Revisited

I'm a big fan of the whole idea of keeping some semblance of structure in terms of the structure of yearly posts. So this is, for most intents and purposes, the 2005-2006 version of the "end of the year" post (done with similar intentions, though mostly likely a completely unique execution) that I did last year. I have yet to officially end this, my junior year at the University of Michigan, but with only a handful of days left before I go home for the week-long separation between winter and spring semester, I figure now is as good a time as any to really celebrate the occasion. Today is, after all, the final day of classes. I do still have two exams left but, for the most part, I'm not particularly worried about them in any way, shape, or form. This is a confidence which I will, most likely, regret a few days from now.

Oh well. Live and learn. Or so I'm told. I always forget one of those in actually practicing that motto.

Anyway, honestly, I can hardly believe that this year has actually been this year. Such a sentence may make absolutely no sense when read, but lemme tell you: when I wrote that, it totally spoke to me. That is to say that this year went by all sorts of quickfast-like. I'm honestly sitting here, in my room, at 2:18am, listening to Tool and thinking: Wow, this year went by all sorts of fast. I'm having difficulties realizing that memories which seem not-so-distant actually took place more than four months ago at the very beginning of this semester. Perhaps this is just what growing old feels like... But, if that's the case, I'm beginning to see why all the old people -- er, now it's more like my temporal colleagues, I suppose -- always say that something felt "just like yesterday." Granted, I'm not quite to the point where things feel like yesterday... But more like things felt like not quite as long as they actually were. I really wish I could think of a snappier way to phrase all this, but this is more of a semi-alcohol-induced rambling entry than any kind of memorable... memoir. So it's, essentially, in the same vein of entry as the last few have been. Enjoyable, to be sure. At least for me.

If nothing else, and I say this knowing that there are far more things I could rant about which would create a smile on even the most battle-hardened, Internet savvy, blog-reading dudeman, the fact that I was able to get fairly drunk with one of my classes and teacher is reason enough for putting this year up upon a prized pedestal. This is actually one of the classes that I can safely say I will miss not having in the future. I had awesome classmates, fantastic teacher, and just a generally good time despite the fact that the class had a three-hour meeting period -- which is a long time for someone who has a hard time sitting still through even the most entertaining of movies at a theater.

This year also is a first in that it is the first time that I have ever been entrusted with the sole responsibility of taking care of a living, breathing thing. I mean, sure, I've had pets before... But they were co-entrusted to members of my immediate family who were, at times, far more instrumental in their upraising than I was. Either way, I'd like to think that this little guy was raised pretty well thus far. He's still alive... And despite any claims that he may be slightly "off" (I think 'retarded' is generally the word of choice to describe him) and may, in fact, be just as insecure as a kitten as I am as a person, I think he's a pretty awesome little companionthing.

Alright, that's about it. I feel vindicated my obligation to be nostalgic. That's good enough, I suppose. Now for the summary:
Best Band(s): Joshua Radin, Sufjan Stevens, or Iron & Wine.
Best Song: Sufjan Stevens - For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.
Best Movie: Serenity.
Best TV Show: Arrested Development.
Best Game: Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45

it's my kind of story




... Her?

Sometimes, late at night, I feel this urge to, say, write an entry of some sorts for a site somewhere. Tonight, that happens to be the case. I can't say, specifically, what created this unique feeling in me... But I'm guessing it has something to do with chips and salsa and beer... Yeah, that sounds about right. I don't really have anything to really write about, to be honest. Though let's not kid ourselves here: it's not like I ever do.

The Internet is truly a wonderful place. It is a locale filled with gushing waterfalls, fields of wheat singing hymnals to Mother Nature, unicorn farts and so on. And it all sounds nice, to be sure, but I'm really starting to firmly believe that this Internet of myth is most definitely not the one I'm currently using right now. I say this with the knowledge that I just watched five hundred and sixty five e-mails flood into one of my inboxes and not a single one was actually any sort of important. The fun thing is that there were about 181 e-mails that got considered "junk mail." At some point I realized that Outlook is just a big, big piece of crap. Gmail.

Just as an unrelated side-note: thanks to all the people who expressed concern over a certain insomniac state. I did, in fact, get to sleep immediately after I submitted that entry and jumped in bed. Waking up the next morning and realizing that I was, for lack of a better phrase, waking the hell up. This is most likely an event which can't be relished by a whole ton of people, but for those precious few of us who few sleeping as a task rather than a gift... It's pretty much the greatest thing in the world.

If raising an animal is anything like raising a child then I am officially going to just avoid that little facet of my journey through life. I feel I've done a good job raising little cat (his official name is "Hobbes," but I certainly never call him that -- usually it's "Buddy" or "Cat"). I'm a fairly responsible person, so his feline needs are always met, and he certainly gets an abundance of attention. That all said, I think I went wrong somewhere. For starters, we have the litter naps. Then, of course, there's the inability to distinguish real from not-so-real. There's his affinity for crawling in very unique/uncommon places. To add to this list without the proof of a picture, he has a habit of hating to not be with me in a bathroom. When I take a shower in the morning, he paws and meows loudly at the door. If I, say, don't lock the door (though I shut it) while I'm washing my hands or some such, he'll push the door open and lie down next to my feet. Then again, while still odd, the fact that he tries to pet my face while I pet him is kind of a cute thing. I guess? I'm hoping I'm not necessarily alone in this kind of thing, but as the days progress, and little Cat gets older and older... I find myself becoming increasingly skeptical about that hope.

I'm on a roll with pictures here, so here are two ridiculously cute things: bunny and mousething. I find the whole big, empty black eye thing really neat. Some find it creepy. If you happen to find yourself in that latter category then I highly suggest you also find yourself a soul. Preferably one with taste and emotion.

So, I realize that kind of, you know, turning all of my previous future plans way the hell around a year or so ago was kind of an interesting decision. I am referring to my switch from the Computer Science/Programming stuff to, oh you know, English/Teaching stuff. It's not like I was necessarily all that invested in the programming stuff; I really didn't have all that much backing me up or anything... But I still feel that it's pretty much one of the better decisions I've ever made. Sure it's easy to say that now, you say, it's not like you've actually had to head out into the real world and bring home the metaphorical bacon to your starving children and anorexic puppy. And, yes, that's absolutely true. I'm fairly certain that I'm going to have some difficulty actually getting into a teaching job somewhere after college, but that's all well and planned for at this point. There's also the possibility that I'll write something that will make a famous person want to give me large amounts of money that will help me until I land the high school teaching job of my dreams.

Can't say I'm really counting on that last part.

Honestly, though, getting out of programming has had a fairly tremendous impact on me. I feel like a completely different person than I was two years ago, both mentally and physically. I actually enjoy doing a majority of my homework and going to my classes. I enjoy reading, writing, writing about reading, and reading about writing. And I'm filled with far more excitement than I should be about the mere idea that five years from now I may very well be teaching a classroom about something. Preferably Lord of the Flies and having them enact their favorite scene from the book or something. I think it's safe to say that, in this hypothetical future, I'm going to have to mandate a pre-emptive ban on the whole "Piggy, meet this gigantic boulder" scene.

On that note, I think I'll call it an entry and an evening.

this is where the world drops off




S for Sleeplessness

So, at this point in time I only have roughly two weeks before I can head home and begin my summer vacation. And a week after that I come back to school -- so, yeah, awesome and such. Though, honestly, as much as I don't really want to do it, school during the summer is actually kind of fun. It's a lot more "relaxed" than a normal school year and, at least in my experience, the people that stay for summer tend to be a different variety of student. You know -- the insane, masochistic variety of student. So, yeah, you know... There's that.

Anyone who's anyone knows that, in the past, I have had some mild difficulties with sleeping (to this end, I present exhibits A, B, and C to the audience). Well, these situations tend to surface in spurts and sprees of so many shapes and sizes that it's simply a show of the sporadic style of my subconscious. Which is to say that this shit follows no pattern. For the last week it has taken the form of a new "low" in the amount of sleep my body can sustain for any segment of time. At this current point in time I believe I have been getting about two hours of sleep per night for the five-six days. And while this was a normal occurrence in June of last summer, I was actually getting a substantial nap (four to six hours) in at some point in the day. I have not been similarly blessed recently... So to say that this has taken some kind of hit against my psyche wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Also, I figure anyone with a soul should be able to take joy in the extended Firefly "gag reel"; I'll take whatever I can get with regards to more Firefly/Serenity goodness. I miss the show. Sadpanda.

And while I'm at linking completely unrelated things, here's a cute little bunny rabbit. Seriously, if that picture doesn't make your heart go all warm and fuzzy and melty and gooey then you're pretty much lost.

I'm really running out of ideas for things to continue writing about for this entry, but it's primarily an exercise in staying awake long enough to the point where I can safely lay down and zonk the hell out for a solid eight hours. At which point I'll wake up all refreshed-like and continue ... Well, I'll continue. I was really hoping I could figure out a more dramatic way to finish off that thought, but I just failed. All apologies.

Here's a clicky where you can read Kevin Smith's account of friend/costar Jason Mewes' trials with drugs and the like. This isn't normally my kind of stuff but it's written with so much humor and style (despite being a fairly depressing tale) that it's hard not to enjoy the read. It's currently in an unfinished state (weighing in at seven parts) but Smith seems to be adding to it frequently. Should reach its conclusion any day now.

Now I'm just grasping at straws. I'll quit while I'm ahead.

you only meant well




The Liger Awakes the Smeeping Tigon

It's some sort of given that if you have a week of little sleep, you're going to finish the big project or two or three that you've been working on and then you're going to wake up sick. I mean, sure, you might have been feeling a bit sick before you wake up -- say: just enough to make working on the project as much fun as licking sandpaper -- but it's really going to hit you that moment you think: "Hey, now I can relax!" This isn't exactly a theory or law or anything fancy of the sort, but... Yeah, not sure where I was going with that.

But, yeah, this week was pretty much as hard as it's going to get for this semester. Finals were once a thing to be feared back in the days of taking real classes like Discrete Math (though I never did take that final -- dropping out was way cooler) and Calc I/II/III... But with the English-based finals it's just like "Hey, write an essay about blahblahblah" and sure it helps if you've actually read blahblahblah but it's pretty easy to rant your way into an A on any essay question. The one class I felt handled final essays right was a class I took last spring entitled "What is Literature?" and instead of in-class essay writing we had a variety of topics to handle in our own time. The midterm and final essay compositions ended up being about seventeen-eighteen pages each, but they were actually fairly difficult essays to write. Now, in comparison, the midterm for an English class I'm taking this semester (I only have two classes with tests, Spanish and one of my three English classes) I was able to get an A- having simply shown up to 75% of the lectures and having read one of the numerous books for the class. And, simply as a point of interest, the class with the hefty take-home midterms is still one of the most enjoyable and interesting classes I've taken at the
So, when I posted this last night do know that it was posted purely as a diversion from the task at hand. This particular task was my writing a six-page paper on... poetry. John Keats' poetry; specifically, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale." I didn't actually mind these poems as much as I've minded others, but the fact remains that writing a paper on these is about as fun as being the guy who thought taking a detour through the Sahara would be a good move for the roller-blading excursion he was a part of. Either way, though, I did finish the paper, and I composed a separate piece of my very own which I call "A Memo to John Keats." Heart-warming doesn't even begin to describe it.

And to take this in a completely different direction, I'd just like to say that whenever I go to the gym and lift some absolutely itty-bitty girlie weights, I feel like I would imagine a Sea Monkey feels like in his first trip into the ocean via toilet. I actually used to have some mass to me, but I lost that last summer along with like fifty pounds. Now I still give the illusion of being a big guy -- it's the broad shoulders -- but as soon as I trade in my long-sleeve/t-shirt combo or button-up shirt for just a t-shirt the common revelation is: "Huh." I don't mind being scrawny, it helps the whole running thing a bit, but weight rooms can still be a touch intimidating. There are almost always four or five guys who have forearms with sizes that rival my torso. Thankfully, though, I'm generally in such a psychological shock from enduring lap-upon-lap around a track that I don't notice it anymore. But if you ever happen to enter a gym and see a six-foot tall guy dressed in blue gymwear huddled in a corner whispering something about how "the giants are coming" just kick him. It may not actually be me, but I think that's what makes the whole thing fun.

This makes me sad. I am looking forward to senior-level Creative Writing, though. That'll be a good time.

Speaking of writing, the feedback that I've received from my novelthing so far has been so incredible that I now feel it my duty to follow this project to its end. I'm planning on making some renovations to the first chapter so that the introductory pages don't sound so alien from the eventual style/tone I settled on, which I think will help the people I prod into reading the thing ease into it a lot easier. The first chapter is still quite a mess of chopped together scenes and the like that it really is a unique beast, but it is a beast that I will tame because... I'm... A beast-tamer? I really need to stop with the analogies, I'm just embarrassing myself.

For future reference just ignore the Trents. They're an unpredictable creature.

but i will only conceal just a little more




Paradise - Chapter 2

After spending a couple of fairly long, enjoyable nights editing I think I can consider the second chapter of Paradise in a state of completion limbo -- not "done" by any means, but done well enough to the point where I can not worry about it and move on to the next chapter. Which I think I'll probably start work on at the end of the month.

Chapter 2, though, is fairly different than the first chapter in that there was no longer the need to be incredibly detailed in environment descriptions since, for the most part, there aren't a whole lot of new areas that were visited. In this chapter I decided to focus on the introduction of some important characters and tried flesh out Adam, the main character for those not in the know, a bit more. The overall tone of this chapter also isn't quite as a somber as the first one was. That's not to say that this chapter is uplifting by any means, because... It's not. The best way to describe the tone of this chapter is probably to just call it bipolar and move on.

Here's a little teaser to grab your attention enough to actually go read the thing: This segment is probably the worst indication of what the chapter is like, but it was one of the more enjoyable for me to write, so yeah. And it doesn't really give anything away... Which is either good or bad, I'm not sure yet. Either way, if you're interested in reading it there are a variety of formats: HTML, DOC, and PDF. As a quick WARNING this chapter, like the one before it, has quite a bit of swearing. It is devoid of any sex, violence, gore, or drugs (with the exception of beer) though.

All of this, as usual, is all available on my fiction page and I would highly recommend reading the first chapter (also on the writing page) if you haven't before the second chapter. This is just my damned chronological thinking, though. There's also an "Introduction" on that writing page... But I wouldn't really recommend reading that. It's an entirely different sort of beast that was written before I had given much thought to the actual novel and, now, I don't think it really fits in with the direction I'm taking anymore. It's still there, though, if you want to read something that's all sorts of special.

Any questions, comments, or what-have-you can either be posted as a comment here or e-mailed to me.

gotta wake up and smell the collected coffee





I do very much apologize for going almost five days without so much as the smallest update to this, my Beloved Internet Paradise.

That said, now is not going to be that update. I'm currently working on the second full draft of the second chapter of Paradise -- everyone's favorite dystopian, post-nuclear, romantic, darkly comedic, dramatic psychological thriller of a book. Once this thing is done, along with a couple other requirements for the week, you can expect a nice little rambling post filled with only the most useless combination of words from the lexical abomination that I call a brain.

But, in the meantime, I would like to direct everyone with a soul to the SLiTHER uncut clips (you'll most likely want to actually be over 18; they're fairly gory and vulgar) to watch the "Bitch is Hardcore" clip. I went and saw this movie with a group of my friends on Friday night and even if it didn't gross all that well with its mere $3.7 million (it still beat Basic Instinct 2) it is still one hell of an enjoyable movie. Nathan Fillion proves once again that there's a reason he's my sole mancrush in this world. This movie was, in all honesty, one of the most entertaining movies I've seen in a long time. The credits rolled and when the lights came up in the theater I could be seen wearing some ginormous grin that made me look like a jackass. If anyone wants company, I'll go see it again with them. If you're not in Michigan, though, I do require an all-expense paid trip.

That's it for now. Sorry for this pathetic excuse of an entry.

so what the hell is there to worry about?



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