The State of Computer Games
Why all the Excitement?

Mike Clifford, Ted Kelly and I were recently chewing the fat on the subject of computer games in terms of where they are, what they offer and where they are going. I think Mike may well put in his comments elsewhere this issue, but I thought it worth jotting down a few thoughts of my own.

The crux of our discussion was that for all the hundreds of strategy games released over the years, there are arguably only a dozen or so that can be considered worthy of the name. Inevitably, we differed slightly on which games they are and had to concede that, in addition, there have been a number of excellent adventure, sport and flight simulation games. Overall though, as a percentage, there have been far more ordinary games and turkeys in this field than in either the boardgames or RPG hobbies. I would therefore argue it has the lowest hit rate by far but with a seemingly satisfied audience. The latter puzzles me and I wonder firstly about being over-critical and secondly about the bottomless pockets of the 'market'.

But what is a good strategy game? The criteria as far as I am concerned is almost intuitive ('I like this' or 'Mmm, so-so' or 'This is crap') but I suspect it comes down to a mix of original ideas, landmark systems, impressive and functional graphics and, most importantly, striking gameplay. Unfortunately that also describes Kick Off, that well known marriage buster which is of course an arcade game, so we must add leisurely pace of play, no call for joystick waggling and a requirement for intelligent problem solving to the list. How many games deliver all this? Not many. Some have good elements, some have one dominant attractor and others fail on all the required counts.

The consensus view seemed to be that no current computer game can match the equivalent boardgame. A few can match the game play, but I think to be fair this is comparing two different beasts and computer games score well in the solitaire field. They certainly can't compete on aesthetic grounds - despite the occasionally impressive graphics, the screen is always a poor relation to a board and they offer no 'nice bits' or heft factor. Neither, controversially, can they compete on value for money. As a rule of thumb, computer games start in price where boardgames leave off, and this ignores the sunk, rarely recoverable funds for the hardware.

OK, a lot of time and skill goes into software but are the games really worth £25 to £50? I would say not and, quickly leaping onto my hobbyhorse of cheaper software means less piracy, I am sure the impressive sales of recent bestsellers on budget labels at £10 or less must bear this out. Even more indicative was the furore over magazines giving away 'full price' games on their covers, that is, a £25 game for £2.50 or £3 with a 'free' magazine. I suspect the truth is they never sold so many issues as in that period but the old cartel had to get together and put a stop to it due to 'falling sales'. My heart bleeds and I rest my case.

Time for a case study - Railroad Tycoon. Ted has claimed many times to be addicted to the game to an extent that forces him to get up early to play it. Speaking as an indisputable pm person, the man is clearly deranged. Either way, I took delivery of the Amiga version recently and dutifully cancelled all my commitments in preparation for the predicted gaming experience of a lifetime. Sadly, it didn't happen. Yes, it is a good game underneath all that chrome. I played it for a couple of hours and needed the manual for once in my life but, and it has all but put me off the game, the graphics are poor (the resource maps and turning trains are sub-Spectrum), the game is too slow on the Amiga (but not on a 386 PC) and the downtime in the early stages is considerable. It is one of those 'realistic' games where you have to start steadily to avoid bankruptcy, but playing steadily isn't where it's at after a hard day at the office. I want those A4 Gresleys running as soon as physically possible. Above all this though, RR Tycoon has that something to make you want to try more and when I have the time I will investigate it further. It is also an impressive use of the computer to run a game system that would take many hours by hand.

This latter skill is really where the computer scores at present, though I'm sure many designers don't appreciate it. The other area is in providing a ready opponent for the solitaire player. I say this advisedly as playing alone aginst or 'with' a computer doesn't have the same feel as sitting alone with a solitaire boardgame. It may be inanimate and severely lacking in conversation skills, but the computer is most definitely a step up from playing World in Flames on your own. It may be a daft observation, but there is no doubt that in the right situation, the computer can have a 'presence' in the room. Even if it is the draw of the software, the computer 'on' is a lot different to being off. I really must change these pills. At the very worst, the computer can offer hidden movement and limited intelligence effects of the first order.

At the moment, the computer game can't beat a boardgame's visuals or player interface and has a tough job approaching the gameplay, but it can crank out thousands of calculations per second, take away the drudgery of bookeeping and cash and, even if only primitively, it can move those little trains around the map. While this should be a spur to great ideas and novel concepts, the real trouble is that many of the games are straight lifts from boardgame systems, either intentionally or by accident. The highly regarded Second Front (which I'm sure must be a historical misnomer) is a prime example. When they are aware of it, the designers seem both constrained and inspired by the boardgame legacy and lift the systems almost untouched. Only in a very few cases do they progress to a system that is original, fun to play and uses the unique advantages of the computer. Sim City is the perfect example of how to get it right; Peter Turcan regularly shows how to get it wrong.

I suspect one of the areas that I shouldn't comment on is the extended play value offered by the more complex games. Invariably, I don't play any game for longer than a few hours (however good it may be) and quickly get frustrated if I can't 'get into' a system (Captive is, I'm sure, a fine game but I really can't be bothered). Even Sim City got a pasting initially, but now has been passed on to Paul 'Insomnia' Oakes who seemingly plays these things 24 hours a day. I am actually quite content to hand over to those gamers with the staying power to complete the likes of Portal, Eye of the Beholder or the remarkable Buck Rogers. The latter is being played by a friend at the moment and it seems to have an 'onion-skin' depth of play which may genuinely fill the 2.4Mb of disk space it covers. For me though, once I've seen the systems, the interface and the graphics, there is nothing much keeping me interested. This may mark me as a dilletante or a novelty seeker, but I am certainly different from those who can play a game to distraction. What I wonder is what the difference in make-up involved? What do the (lonely) long-distance gamers get from these games?

As for the future, I am convinced things will improve with time. CD-ROM should play a large and dominant role if handled properly (it should solve cost, access speed and storage problems in one go) and the graphics and sound will, eventually, come up to NICAM TV standards. But where those software houses who claim the ultimate strategy game as their aim must go is toward the best elements of boardgames combined with the peculiar strengths of computers and, vitally, new ideas. I personally believe this means employing the best of the boardgame designers (as Microprose have started doing); the failure of even hybrid talents such as Chris Crawford shows the need for specialist game skills beyond the ability to move a sprite around the screen. Certainly, the thought of a Joe Balkoski or Courtney Allen working with Don Greenwood or the Command team on computer projects warms the very cockles.

So what will these games end up looking like? I should imagine that within five years there should be graphics and sound to make your hair stand on end and systems might have improved to the point where they can run a game or opponent at a passable level. To take Harpoon as an example, which is considered as a pretty good piece of software today, I think you might see it converted to Harpoon III with realistic 3D graphics offering viewpoints from any of the ships, planes or subs and with the computer opponent playing an even tougher role than at present. Role Playing systems should develop to true non-linearity wherein the player can choose which storyline he takes from many options rather than just one of two. What I can't predict is what new ideas and concepts will be in evidence. I sincerely hope that we don't have only the same but better; I would be looking for Sim City style landmarks and original ways of tackling games.

That lot may have been the largest lead-in to a list you'll see this year. The chosen few, according to me, are (in no order):

Wizardry MULE
Eye of the Beholder Harpoon
Silent Service Balance of Power
Railroad Tycoon Fire Brigade
Sim City Empire

Of these, two (Wizardry and MULE) are no longer available in their original formats and some of the rest are starting to show signs of age. As for follow-ups, Harpoon is now being actively supported but was riddled with problems early on. Fire Brigade, I think I am right in saying, was never properly supported or developed but it was going in the right direction of hexless, limited-intelligence wargames. Eye of the Beholder really stands as the state of the art D&D genre system - after about eight years development, they have at last cracked the desired standard that had eluded them and most other companies. It, at last, offers something approaching a GM's role in what until now have been fantasy wargames lacking in party decisions.

Silent Service was not a great graphical game, but it oozed the atmosphere of submarine combat - I await SSII with interest. Balance of Power is Crawford's best yet and is exactly the sort of game that I'm looking for - roll it back to the British Empire and you're in business. Tycoon is mentioned above, but it still has the following and enough zip to mark it out as a special item. Empire is an oddball - very basic graphics and not very sophisticated gameplay, it has a special appeal all its own for some gamers, myself included. Sim City is, I guess, the best ever strategy game to appear on computer. That pretty much sums it up doesn't it? Let's hope there are more like it in the future.

On to The 18xx Series - A Case for Re-Design? or back to the review of Magazines.

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