Brain Games

Not everything I have to say is new. (In fact, I imagine that just about everything I’ve written is going to seem old to somebody.) However, a lot of what I write here are significant things in the realm of gaming. Today, I want to talk about an independently-made game I stumbled across awhile ago, an eight-year-old work-in-progress by the name of Cortex Command.

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Cortex Command is made by an independent gaming organization known as Data Realms. This is pretty much one guy, Daniel “Data” Tabar. Sometimes we like to talk about getting our asses in gear and learning how to program something significant, but guy this lives it. He works with a guy named Promster for some of the art assets. The game engine also features easy mod support, so it’s hard to say how many hands are in the cooking pot overall.

Cortex Command’s story is simple but awesome. (And I’m not just saying that because I came up with something similar.) “In the future, people will be able to remove their brains and use them to remotely control bodies.” Hence: Cortex Command. Much havoc ensues as the fight for intergalactic resources gets underway. Hey, I said the story was simple, didn’t I?

The actual game is a very physics-heavy side-shooter. Your goal? Find and destroy the enemy brain while keeping your own meat in tact. To achieve this goal, you’re able to order new bodies and weapons to be dropped by dropships. You can order these bodies to perform simple tasks on their own or directly control them. Digging for gold is the main way to earn money to drop more bodies. Prior to the start of the match, you can build a base to house your own brain in.

Picture caption: Cortex Command in action – an animated picture is worth a thousand words. By the way, the rocket is on the same team as the troops.

What actually unfolds is an exercise in controlled chaos. The physics are very realistically modeled in this 2D world, and that leads to many… unfortunate things happening. Shrapnel wedges into places you never expected, neatly tearing the legs off deployed sentries. Your dropships may accidentally burn the head off a newly dropped body as they attempt to thrust their way back into orbit. Dropships collide in mid air with other dropships, spin out of control, and take out a half dozen troops. Before long, the entire map is literally buried in dropship debris, shell casings, and the meat of hundreds of shattered bodies.

You would think that such chaos would really annoy the player. On the contrary, the events cannot help but amuse, in a “Oh dear [insert divine being name here]. I can’t believe that just happened” sort of way.

Cortex Command is still an unfinished game. According to the wiki, it began development in the year 2000 and has been getting steadily worked in since. The most notable thing missing is an actual campaign. Having a bunch of maps with pre-built bases and patrolling sentries to fight through would really help with completion. Also, the AI also needs improvement. For example a “harvest” mode that actually finds gold instead of sitting there waving an active digger in the air. It’s hard to say how long it’ll be until the vaulted version 1.0 is ready for release, but these are the two major things I see that need doing.

Right now, you can pay for an unfinished game, and this unlocks the time limit on the sandbox mode as well as allows you to use mods. Many people have done this because, even with all its rough faults, Cortex Command is probably better than most anything else you’ll ever play. That’s probably why I felt it was significant enough to get its own Blog entry.

Sins of a Simplified Empire Game

For the most part, I’m enjoying Sins of a Solar Empire, but I can’t help but notice that there’s not all that much to it.

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Your typical 4X Genre game is usually a game of establishing a powerful economic base, then racing your way to the top of the technology tree while investing the minimal amount into your military necessary to assure that the barbarians battering at the gates can’t take over your planets.

Sins of the Solar Empire is no exception, but it has a greatly shortened tech tree. If you can lay claim to enough planets to build the neccessary eight technology structures, you can get maximum technology relatively easily. In the end, in any game that has lasted about four hours, any empire with enough planets should pretty much have everything researched.

The entire TEC military tech tree. Imagine a very similar screen for the civilian tech, and that’s all the technology you get in this 4X game.

At the point where everybody’s finished their research, it’s all about using what you have. The main tools that assert your offensive and defensive dominance are the ships themselves. As it turns out, each empire only has six kinds of frigates and four kinds of cruisers. There’s no ship customization, so you have the same ten ship designs from start to finish.

Of these ten ship designs, only three are really vital for combat. One frigate is your basic attacker, and it is replaced by a more durable and deadly cruiser once the technology to produce it becomes available. The third is a cruiser that is instrumental in improving the survivability of your fleet by repairing or reinforcing armor or shield points (depending on which race you are playing).

The other seven ships are a scout ship, a colony ship, a planet sieger, a lighter but longer range attacker, an anti-fighter/bomber flak ship, a fighter/bomber carrier, and a race-unique utility ship. They’re all pretty useless in a toe-to-toe fight, with the possible exception of the utility ship, but then there’s the question if it’s really worth sacrificing the firepower to take it instead. Forget these guys and put together a big fleet of half attackers and half repairers, and you’ll have a hard time finding a more efficient use of your fleet points.

Sort of: In addition to the nine ships mentioned so far, there are also five capital ships. These cost about ten times the fleet points as an attack frigate, but are functionally more than ten ships rolled into one. In addition to their large armor, shield, and weapon values, capital ships also have also have devastating special skills and the ability to “level up.” These are your “hero units,” and have an additional crew requirement besides fleet points to prevent them from becoming unbalanced. It doesn’t work, really, and whoever brings the most capital ships to the fight is usually going to have the advantage.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is this: Once you boil down the tech tree and ship capabilities in Sins of a Solar Empire enough, the units are actually pretty simple. To an extent, this can be a good thing: simple core mechanics mean that you don’t have to wrack your brain for hours trying to figure out what the best unit is to use in this situation because there’s only one specialized unit for the task. However, I suspect the resulting lack of depth is bad for the longevity of the game.

A really well made RTS will go out of its way to create a great tactical import to use units besides your basic attackers and maintenance ships. Supreme Commander has the commander, experimental tier, and the core three tiers of land, sea, and air units – about three dozen unique and viable units. Blizzard’s big RTS (Warcraft 3 and Starcraft) finely balanced the units to have unique roles and applications, resulting in a sort of a rock/paper/scissors approach to combat where there’s a counter to whatever the enemy is bringing (though there were exceptions). Even Dune 2, arguably the birthplace of the modern RTS, gave you more than 9 core units to play with per faction.

It’s looking to me like Sins of a Solar Empire does not have that kind of detail in its balance. Instead, it’s far too much about using up your fleet points optimally. The way the warping works, chances are you’re already engaged in a short ranged fight before your fleet has completely arrived. Considering these factors, you end up bringing your biggest brawlers and slugging it out. Consequently, you don’t even get to use the basic 9 units, it’s really about the first 3.

Maybe I’m mistaken, and perhaps with a bit of noodling with some tactics other than this very reliable “half attacker, half repairer” configuration, I’ll discover there’s something more effective than brute force in this game. For example, I suspect it’s possible to put together a carrier fleet or a raiding fleet. However, given the way your overall units are limited by “fleet points,” such experimentation is costly to my chances of success in the game.

"Grow Games"

I ran across an interesting Internet phenomenon today: “Grow Games.” Before I knew it, 2 1/2 hours of my life were gone.

This solution video would rob you of the challenge if there was one.

The actual game design is simple: You have a number of objects. You use them in a certain order, you win. You use them in the wrong order, you lose. That’s really all there is to the game, but it’s made interesting because the game animates something every time you activate it.

So, how do you determine the right order? It involves keeping track of how many already-placed things “level up” when you place another – the goal is to “max” level everything. However, the few times you play, there’s no real way of knowing this, so you end up just keep screwing around with it. Because of this, I’d argue that these “Grow Games” are no games, under the definition that a player has to be meaningfully challenged to complete them.

That I spent 2 1/2 hours on three of them anyway is actually kind of interesting – I guess I’m a sucker for a cute animation. A full collection of Grow Games can be found at

Virtual Obligation

An interesting tangent on a post I wrote up today lead to writing it into a Blog entry because, after all, truly interesting tangents are something I need more of around here.

Here’s the scenario: You’ve a player on your team who has powers that can benefit you (in MMORPG lingo we call this a “buff”) but he or she isn’t using them regularly. You feel shorted and disappointed this player isn’t granting you those buffs.

Not all related, here’s a nice screenshot of a certain City of Heroes task force to break the monotony. (Avoid clicking if you’re worried about spoilers.)

It’s easy to call blame onto that player, but the reason you feel shorted is you believe that player is obligated to buff you just because they have this power set. That’s an injustice because you’re looking on that player as being the power set, and they’re not, they’re players who have their own will and ability to play.

Basically, working with skilled and diligent players is a privilege, not a right. You’re not paying them, so don’t be upset if they’re not doing their job to your satisfaction. It takes skill and willpower on behalf of the player to do a good job. So, the next time you’re getting healed well or buffed well, try thanking the player, and not the characters they play.

That said, I usually play my characters quite well because playing games is practically all I do sometimes. When I notice there’s players in my party who aren’t using all their given powers as well as I can, that hardly surprises me: Given the amount of time I’ve invested in the game I’m likely a much better player. I’m willing to cut them a little slack, perhaps offer them a few pointers, but I’m not going to cut into their enjoyment and mind getting upset that they’re not very good players.

This is just another way in which an MMORPG can be made less enjoyable through lack of understanding amongst players.

Designing Real Life

Lately, if I give my mind sufficient idle cycles, it may meander over to matters of social commentary in ways that only high gas prices and an upcoming presidential election can.

Considering how hopeless it would be to assume that a humble layman (let alone a computer game addict) such as myself could ever have any chance of understanding the U.S. political landscape, I instead have had fun with this thought instead: “What if we frame designing our societies in real life in much the same way as if were designing a MMORPG?”

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