Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rowan Riting Roundup

If, for some inexplicable reason, you really want to read the things I write on the internet, here are a few links to where I've been published lately:

At Gamasutra, I did a feature about how grinding works well in Dragon Quest IX, thanks to a gestalt effect of a bunch of smaller design decisions.

At, I made two lists of five genre-benders that changed gaming, and five that should have.

I've started doing book reviews at The A.V. Club, including American Uprising, Triumph of the City, The History of History, and Journal of a UFO Investigator.

I also reviewed Magicka for the A.V. Club.

And finally, my TV Club coverage of the Fox animation bloc, No Ordinary Family, and The Cape continue, in addition to The Middle, which I just started.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who's Your Reader?

A piece in Slate about the influence of Alan Sepinwall, generally considered the father of modern TV criticism, has triggered something of a discussion about the role of the television critic-as-fan. My AV Club comrade Myles McNutt posted a typically in-depth response, which brought up a point that I always think about when I engage with (or write) a review: the audience matters.

It's arguably the biggest issue with reviews. Anything that you write about, you have to pick a target audience. Usually, that target audience is you, or people like you, since obviously that's your position of expertise, but it's not always that way. The essential question, on a continuum, is: "The Audience Knows Nothing About The Subject -> The Audience Knows As Much As They Can About The Subject."

As with most continuums, the far reaches of either side can generally be ignored. Reviewing a video game for people who have never played a game in their life would be an exercise in frustration, and writing a review just for people who know everything possible about something, up to and including possibly making it, is too narrow to be useful. In general, the critic acts as a guide: they know about the subject in some rank between competent and expert, and they use that knowledge to help the reader learn more about the subject, or contextualize it better. A new Wong Kar-Wai film would likely get a review that explains how Wong uses image more than dialogue to create his films, and how they're generally light on plot while heavy on emotion.

Yet there is also a set of people, which includes me, who already know about that, and are interested more in how the new film would fit into Wong Kar-Wai's existing context. Describing his past style is mostly irrelevant to them. They want to know how it compares. At its narrowest point, the question then becomes "Is it better than In the Mood for Love?" If the critic's answer is "Yes," then they're telling everyone who already knows about Wong's film that this is fantastic and worth seeing immediately - but everyone else is out in the cold.

This push-pull with the audience happens across media. Games, based on sequels and existing engines, may have it hardest. Books less so, but nonfiction does often rely on a certain level of knowledge and interest in the subject.

Which brings us to television (and, to a lesser extent, comics). Games, books, and films can still be seen as discrete entities. Regardless about whether you've seen Chungking Express or not, you can still talk about In the Mood for Love. However, television, as a serialized story, is many discrete entities (episodes) coming together to make larger discrete entities (seasons) which in the end comprise the entirety of the show itself. So a critic can write about TV at any of those three levels, or even combinations thereof.

But that combines with the audience question to make it essentially impossible for television to be reviewed in a fashion that will be generally satisfying. Someone may be dropping in on the show for the first time. Someone else has been watching and talking about the show from the beginning. They're going to have wildly diverging expectations from anything written about the show.

Any critic who engages in an episode-by-episode writeup of a show is, by nature, going to appeal to the people who also engage with the show on an episode-by-episode basis. And generally speaking, that's good business - better to have the same few hundred folks click once per week than a thousand who click once per year on a season-long review. But that doesn't help the people who are interested in trying it out, or even those who have just started sampling.

My solution to this issue with games and other similar tends to be to have multiple reviews, with each reviewer's perspective made fairly clear. If a new Dynasty Warriors comes out, I don't need someone to tell me that they find the formula tired - I like the formula! Tell me how it differs in minute detail from other games in the series! However, even that doesn't work so well with television. Yes, if a season (or character, or storyline, or anything that can be separated out from individual episodes) deserves examination, it could be examined, perhaps by multiple people.

Still, the upshot of this is that critical examination of media, which is difficult in any other medium, is virtually impossible to do with television in a fashion that will satisfy the bulk of readership. All that critics can do, then, is all they can do.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Video Game History - Total Annihilation

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990s on this blog. Today, Total Annihilation, one of the biggest sleeper hits of the Real-Time Strategy explosion of the 90s.

Microsoft's success at breaking into the top tier of the RTS world may have been unsurprising, but Cavedog Software's wild success with Total Annihilation (1997) was much less predictable. In this case, the game's success has as much to do with its excellent gameplay as with marketing and corporate clout. Yet Total Annihilation is fairly similar to Age of Empires in one key respect: it's epic. Both games bring many more units to bear than previous RTS games, and both have a scope well beyond even the alternate history and fantasy world wars of C&C and Warcraft. Where Age of Empires was an epic covering the scope of early human history, Total Annihilation was a science fiction epic spanning the galaxy. It's clearly inspired by Star Wars, as just a few notes of the bombastic soundtrack make clear.

The premise of Total Annihilation is thin for supporting a story, but wonderful for supporting a setting: a group of supercomputer AI's called “The Core” have mostly taken over the galaxy, whereas some human rebels known as “The Arm” decide to fight them using armies of clones. In practice, this means massive armies of mechanized/robotic units, battling over a wide variety of planets, from beaches and lava to lush forests and cities which span entire planets. Nothing in the premise suggests anything small-scale or light-hearted, and nothing in the game threatens the perception of epic scale.

The key to making that work as a game is having enough units available, both in choices for building and varieties to create. Total Annihilation's claim to fame is its selection of hundreds of different units. The Arm and Core units are generally mirrors of one another in effect, but have significant visual difference. Each has dozens of different units, from light infantry to huge capital ships to speedy aircraft. Some are cannon fodder, others are elite units, built to last. The mass of different kinds of units replaces unit upgrades as well.

Even more impressive than the amount of units available is the fact that you can built them, in the hundreds. Many other RTS games limit population growth as best they can via artificial caps, such as the farms and houses that need to be build in Warcraft and Age of Empires. Total Annihilation, on the other hand, allows you to build as many units as you can, so long as you have the resources to cover it. Interestingly, its resource system is not based as much on what you have at the moment, but rather, what your overall flow of resources in and out is. You can build as many units and buildings as you want at a time, but if you aren't also getting enough energy and metal, your building will stall as they are collected. Most RTS games refuse to let you even start building troops or buildings unless you already have the necessary resources.

Moreover, it's easy and fast to build multiple things at once. Shift-clicking, which sets waypoints for movement in many games, can also be used for collection and building purposes in Total Annihilation. You can tell one of your builders to recycle metal from a handful of destroyed units, build several laser turrets for protection, harvest a few trees for energy, and then build a factory. Worker units can also be automated to collect metal from destroyed units and repair your damaged units and buildings automatically while patrolling from one point to the next. The buildings which gather resources do so on a consistent basis – it is impossible to exhaust Total Annihilation's resources, and therefore matches are theoretically infinite.

Unit-building is likewise sped-up. Total Annihilation helped to popularize another one of the RTS genre's necessary interface improvements: the build queue. Instead of consistently clicking on each new unit when the last was completed, now you can select as many of each that you want to have built in one go. If you want multiple units at once, shift-clicking lets you queue five at a time. In this way, you can set up a near-constant stream of new units.

The net effect of these gameplay choices – huge numbers of units, infinite resources, unit-building queues, and automated harvesting and repairs – is such that Total Annihilation feels built around the tactical and strategic aspect of the gameplay, instead of the economic aspects. In another RTS, sending massive armies of mechanical troops to fight and die for tiny amounts of progress would be a waste of resources, and you'd have to develop your economy better on the next try. In Total Annihilation, that's the point. It is in no way a subtle game – just look at its name – but its intense focus on using Real-Time Strategy methods to play out an galactic war worthy of George Lucas is both remarkable, and remarkably successful.