Ender’s Game: Still Heartbreaking After All These Years

I bought Ender’s Game again – my well-thumbed paperback was negligently left gathering dust at “home” with my parents – and devoured it in a night on my tablet.

I picked it up because I caught the movie on HBO. The movie has flaws, but that’s not what I’m here to discuss.

The subject matter – space battles, diplomacy, military life – might seem remote, but to me this is a deeply personal story.

The first time I read it, I was little older than Ender – it was sixth grade and I had started my first year at St Mark’s, a private school for gifted boys, my own little Battle School full of cruel, pubescent geniuses. And I was every bit as isolated and bullied as Ender.

Like Ender, I was told from an early age that I was special. Gifted. A genius. And I believed them, but I was timid and scared and uninspired. And whereas Ender had laser like focus and absolute objectivity, I was a bundle of nerves and ADD, retreating to a fantasy world not unlike Ender’s own Mind Game. A world where I impressed everyone with my brilliance and grew up to be Someone Important – a general, a politician, a movie director, a novelist. I never got there – Most of those fantasies have been eliminated one by one – but still I strive for some measure of achievement.

Gifted children have a special kind of arrogance. We believe that all we need to do is show up and others will reward us with the authority we believe we deserve by right of IQ and sheer processing power. In adulthood, though, I discovered that we need experience and maturity, and even then achievement in life is determined not by brainpower, but through resumes and drudgework and persistence. Ender’s Game sounded so perfect to me – a world where adults sought out the gifted and gave them that opportunity to excel with their peers. It wasn’t until later rereadings that I understood how twisted characters like Colonel Graff were, destroying children to make them into Caesars and Napoleons.

I am thankful we had no Colonel Graffs. Among my many teachers, I had a few who understood me – Ploegstra and Adams, Barta and Owens, Seay and Mank, Rummel and Brandenburg, Blaydes. I owe them, and the other teachers at St Mark’s, a debt I can only repay with a life well lived.

That little boy reading Ender’s Game in study hall, the scared little launchy at Middle School (a Battle School if there ever was one), was hemmed in by bullying and disdain. Even among the gifted, I was an outcast. I didn’t like the right music and books, I was terrible at sports and didn’t understand them, and I was smaller than the others. I was not a classmate; I was a target. I remember bullying and mockery and tears more than I remember any other lessons from Middle School. Not all was terrible – I had my circle of friends, my own jeesh – Brian and Luke and Thomas and others.

Ender didn’t cower and cry. Ender wreaked terrible vengeance. He beat his bullies, then kicked them while they were down. Massive retaliation. Two of them, we learn later in the book, never woke up again. I was too timid and kindhearted a boy to ever be a fighter, but I did have that rage bottled up.

Only once did it come out. There was another boy, a year ahead of me, who was smaller. We called him “The Evil Gnome.” He could be cruel, but I think it was only his way of defending himself from others who would push him around. One day, in the aisle of lockers behind the gymnasium, all my rage came out. I don’t remember why – I don’t think I even knew at the time – but I boiled over and fought back. Started pushing The Gnome around, wrestling with him – more like flailing. My friends broke us up. I don’t remember if I apologized, but I remember the horror when I realized what I had done. I’d done him no lasting hurt, but for a moment I became what I hated most. I became a bully, a Peter, and lashed out at the one person I might be able to hurt. And I told myself never again.

I was in High School when the wave of school shootings, kicked off at Colombine. My chief tormentors taunted me, asking if I was going to “Pull a Columbine.” I laughed along with them, putting up a sneering bravado, and played along with the joke. It became unfunny very fast. They never tried that taunt again.

Thank God they never told anyone.

Luckily for everyone, by then I had graduated from my directionless anger. I was no longer Ender in the shower, kicking Bonzo’s brains in. I was Ender after the War, swearing off violence, learning to love my enemy even if I still hated myself.

I can say these things now, because I am a different person. Through years of work and focus, I have changed. I no longer hate others and I’ve learned to love myself. At my ten year reunion last year, I reacquainted myself with old, beloved friends, and made peace with those who had dished out petty cruelty. Scars from childhood may remain, but they heal over until they are only distinguishable if you go looking for them.

One criticism leveled at Ender’s Game is that the children don’t sound like children. They don’t act like we expect them to. Bugger that, I’ve been there, and that is exactly how gifted children act and think of themselves. My classmates and I had all the delusions of grandeur and all the cruelty of the Battle School cadets, and if you don’t believe me, it’s been too long since you’ve known (or been) a middle school boy.

There’s one last ironic parallel between my life and Ender’s Game. My hobby, and a small part of my income, come from working on the internet and computer games that Card so vividly imagined the year after my birth. Ender’s Game itself has at its core The Game, the obsession of all the boys at Battle School. And just as Ender and his classmates used military games to prepare themselves for war, I play military games – action games like World of Tanks, strategy games like Unity of Command. On a field of ones and zeros, I have cut down Pickett’s Charge; on the plane of a hard drive I have lead the Blitzkrieg through the Soviet Union. My earliest memory is playing a simple coloring game on my parents boxy PC before I could read. And now, in adulthood, I’m trying to bootstrap a gaming social media and PR company, tentatively titled “Hyperactive Gaming.” Irony within ironies.

 

This has all been a very rambling way of saying – when I tear up when I finish Ender’s Game, here is why. Because I was Ender and Peter and Bean, and this is my story, too.

 

Our world has no Speakers for the Dead to tell the truth of our lives, so I’ll be my own and Speak my own life, as best I can.

Strategy Games For My Girlfriend

First off, no, I’m not being sexist, I am literally looking for strategy games that my girlfriend, specifically, would enjoy. I don’t assume that all girls are like my girlfriend or vice versa, I’m trying to just deal with her preferences and way of thinking on her own terms.

A little background – Amy and I have been together a long time and we’re trying some different things to strengthen our relationship. One idea that she brought up was “role reversal night” (get your head out of the gutter, you), where once a week “like, you could go work out and I could play videogames.”  I’ve latched onto this idea – I hate exercising, but this could be a great opportunity to show Amy my passion for gaming and why I spend so much darn time in front of a computer monitor.

Specifically I want her to try out strategy games, as that’s the genre I’m most passionate about and that could, potentially, work out the best for her. She’s not a violent person and expressed visible distaste watching me play Left 4 Dead 2, so maybe sprites and hexes are more her style. She’s already shown some promise in the area, having taught me a thing or two about Plants Vs Zombies, so I think it’s worth exploring.

So, let’s blow the dust off my back catalogue of games and see if I can find anything that fits.

RTS’s are all out for various reasons, either because of a sci-fi setting that she doesn’t care for (Starcraft, Command and Conquer) or being ridiculous clickfests.

The first proper strategy/wargame I ever played was the Close Combat series, but that won’t do because of all the blood and gore. Combat Mission is great, but it’s a little too technical for a newbie – fiddling with LOS and reading armor penetration tables doesn’t really sound like a gentle introduction.

The Panzer General series and Panzer Corps are renowned for being simple, “beer and pretzels” wargames, but they run into a couple problems. First, they ask you to learn and remember the difference between, say, a Pz-38(t) and a Pz-III ausf J. Second and more importantly, both series more or less assume you’ll play as the Nazis, and that’s uncomfortable for her.

Anything by AGEOD is right the hell out. I could barely untangle their American Civil War game, and I wrote my senior thesis on that conflict, so . . . yeah.

Unity of Command boasts a simple, transparent interface, great artwork, and no need to memorize unit stats. It’s more of a game of chess against a canny opponent than a stats-and-tables wargame, so it has a lot to recommend it. But, again, Nazis.

Sid Meier’s Gettysburg is delightful, has simple mechanics, and a great tutorial, but good luck getting it to run on a modern OS.

Speaking of Firaxis, the Civilization series would probably be a safe bet – familiar subject matter, a great tutorial, and a superb interface. Her laptop is elderly, though, so we may have to do one of the earlier versions, maybe III or IV. Ooh, or there’s Alpha Centauri, if she can get over her aversion to Sci Fi.

Crusader Kings II is an incredible good time and I think the potential for storytelling would appeal to Amy, but I can just imagine having to explain the differences between cognatic-agnatic gavelkind vs cognatic primogeniture.

Tower defense is another promising avenue. Some grognards turn up their nose at tower defense as not being proper strategy, but it’s got the basic elements – resource management, timing, and balancing priorities. As I mentioned, she was charmed by Plants Vs Zombies. I enjoyed the heck out of Defense Grid, which has a lot of personality and even a sense of humor, so maybe that might work for her.

In thinking about this topic, it brings me back to a common sore spot within the strategy and wargaming community – the barrier to entry. In wargaming especially, developers seek to make their games ever more complicated with heftier manuals to appeal to an ever-tinier niche market – and don’t get me started on the prices. These developers would be more successful and our hobby would prosper if they stopped more often and thought about how they could better appeal to completely new players who haven’t read Armchair General since birth – people like their wives and girlfriends.

What suggestions do you have? What would be a great strategy game to get a new player started on who doesn’t have a background in the hobby?

TOGII*: It’s Big, It’s Heavy, It’s Wood – RPS Sample Piece

Just for giggles, here’s the sample piece I submitted to Rock Paper Shotgun. Now with images!

The mighty TOG II is the most fun you’ll ever have in a deathtrap. Created by “The Old Gang” who invented the original tanks of World War I and designed to cross the trenches and mud of Passchendaele at 8 mph; the TOG would have fit into a Blitzkrieg about as well as a tortoise in the Kentucky Derby.

33 feet and 80 tons of paper armor, the TOG could not bounce a shell to save its life. The TOG can only work in an arcade game like World of Tanks. In a more realistic tank game, like War Thunder, the TOG would always brew up on the first hit. But in WoT, I laugh maniacally as my massive health pool swallows 122mm shells like peanuts.
The real reason to buy a TOG isn’t performance, but hilarity. When I show up in my TOG, everyone takes a break from typing racial slurs to tell TOG jokes. “I have a great TOG joke . . . but it’s too long” is a classic. I’ve had half a dozen other tanks spontaneously form a train behind my TOG, killing everything we saw in a hundred-foot-long conga line of death.

The TOG’s a premium tank, which means it costs real money, because “free to play” (F2P) really means “Pay to not tear your hair out in frustration at the broken economic model” (P2NTYHOIFATBEM). Every time I spend real money to buy fake tanks, I imagine my dad getting more disappointed in my life choices. But dad is just going to have to suffer, because I need to be at the helm of an eighty ton mutant boat tank, leading a train of crazies across the map at a brisk jog, cackling like a madman.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Tanks – World of Tanks – TOG II* Part I

Welcome to “These Are a Few of My Favorite Tanks,” what will hopefully be a semi-regular series of posts about my favorite tanks in World of Tanks and War Thunder, summing up why I like these tanks and how to play them. Today, let’s talk about the mighty TOG.

The first thing you need to know is – I like weird tanks. I find well-rounded, jack of all trades tanks like the T-34 or Sherman to be kind of boring. I prefer tanks that are tricky to use, if not outright frustrating. I want my rides to have weird quirks that have to be worked around. I don’t mind ugly tanks either.

It should be no surprise, then, that I’m particularly fond of the island of misfit toys that is the British tree in World of Tanks. And above all of them, my favorite is the mighty, misunderstood TOG II.

The thing about the TOG is, most people misunderstand its appeal. When I first floated the idea of buying one past people on the SomethingAwful forums, they talked down about the TOG. Oh, it’s not good at making money, they said.It’s just an XP pinata, they said. You can’t carry a bad team in it, they said. These points are all more or less true, but they’re completely missing the point.

 

The TOG is, in the delightful words of The Mighty Jingles, “the party tank.” It’s the tank I drive when I want a good laugh. 

First, some history! The acronym TOG stands for “The Old Gang,” an acronym for the veteran tank designers of the First World War “Landships Committee” who all came back together during World War II for one last hurrah. And the TOG II is very obviously a WWI design – created to cross the muddy trenches and no man’s land of The Great War, the TOG is absurdly long. I mean, just look at it! There’s a reason one of the most popular jokes I hear in chat when I load up my TOG is “I know a good TOG joke . . . but it’s too long.”

Speaking of jokes, in pretty much every random battle, someone cracks a joke. Even if someone trolls me by telling me how much the TOG sucks it’s still funny. The mood in a TOG game just . . . lightens up a bit. People get a little less serious about their internet tanks and even crack a smile.

I’ve seen people driven to do bizarre hilarious things around my TOG. In one game, the other players on my team literally formed a train behind me and we rolled across the map, killing everything we saw. It was GLORIOUS.

 

All hail the TOG!

Scrapes and Skirmishes in STALKER – Part 2

I think maybe the last post deserves a bit of explanation. I wanted to include this post with the original, but it was getting too long already.

What made that encounter with the bandits compelling was its unscripted, random nature. STALKER is a shooter designed around the open world of the Zone. For most of the game, you’re wandering about a living, breathing world, crisscrossed by enemies, NPCs, and animals going about their business. There are few scripted encounters. It is the anti-Call of Duty.

The group of bandits above were probably on their way to either attack a group of friendly stalkers or repopulate one of the bandit outposts I had cleared out earlier that day. Their presence was independent of mine and the fight between us had nothing to do with advancing the plot. I could have left them alone, been about my mission, and it wouldn’t have mattered to the overall game. But as my impulsive attack got underway, I loved how intense and variable the combat was. I had to play through a few times to get it right (grenades are tricky) and each time it played out in a significantly different way – the bandits scattered in different directions, I missed a throw, or maybe a lucky burst caught me. And in STALKER, there’s little margin for error.

Another encounter I had not long after does a great job of showing how much freedom STALKER gives the player. When you first come to the Agroprom Institute, you get a distress call from the STALKERs holed up inside, who are under attack from the army. My first instinct, which had worked for me on my first playthrough on normal difficulty, was to rush through the front gate and take the soldiers head on. It worked fine before, but on hard I got slapped around a few times. STALKER is not known as a forgiving game – you can take a couple shots, but that’s it. Early in the game, when your armor is paper thin and your weapons are half-empty rubbish, you really have to think your way through fights.

So on my third try, I decided to exercise the freedom the wide open map afforded me. I went left before the gate and worked my way around the walled Institute, eventually finding a way through the fence on the back side. After offing an unwary sentry, I was in scott free. So I went up – scaled a couple ladders to the roof of the compound and worked my way back towards the gate. By then they had finished off most of the friendly STALKERs, but I had the drop on them from above. The fight was a mad scramble from rooftop to rooftop, using hit and run tactics, but the soldiers acquitted themselves well before I took them down. They had full length rifles against my shortened Kalashnikov, so they didn’t let me off easy.

In most games, this battle would have been a scripted set-piece with a single ‘correct’ solution. But here it became a brilliant piece of emergent behavior as the AI tried to adapt to my unusual angle of attack. How many other games would let you take such an unorthodox path?

The best parts of the game are definitely the unscripted pell-mell fights like the ones I’ve described. Rob Zacny inspired these posts with his excellent piece about some similar STALKER fights – and I agree that STALKER gets weaker when it forces the player into a bottleneck. I stopped playing Shadow of Chernobyl the first time when I got to Pripyat, the finale near the end, because it just wasn’t what I came for. I came to wander the wastes, scraping together money and gear so I could take on the next pack of bandits.

This sort of gameplay also makes me sad that all of the big budgets (and profits, let’s be honest) in gaming these days is focused on highly directed and polished, movie-like experiences, instead of creating a dynamic system that can throw up surprises. I’d trade a dozen Call of Duty flashy action movies for a single game like STALKER that creates a world, then trusts the player to make their own game.

Interview – The Future of Unity of Command

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Tomislav Uzelac, lead designer of the hit Unity of Command and owner of 2×2 Games, and ask him some followup questions via email about the lessons learned from his latest release, Black Turn, and the future of the series.

Matt: In your interview with Charlie Hall for Polygon, you implied that Black Turn will be the last DLC for now. Where is the series going next? To the Western Front? To the Mediterranean? How must the game change to fit those theaters? What additional dynamics do you need to add?

 

Tomislav: The game system is currently being expanded so that it can reasonably represent all fighting in Europe on this scale. Much more weight will be placed on air and naval components, and a further emphasis will be placed on proper use of combined arms.

We will do incremental work on the AI and tuning the combat equations. If you look at the “Taifun” scenario from Black Turn, this is about our current limit in terms of scenario size and number of turns. We want to try and push this a little further. So, in really big scenarios, combat attrition needs to come out just right; otherwise, over many turns, errors will accumulate. Also, the AI should have some idea of the strategy, whether it should go for attrition, trade space for time, etc.

No decision has been made on content yet (which campaigns), but it’s safe to assume that whatever works best with the revised system will be pushed to the front. Don’t rule out re-visiting the Eastern Front either.

 

Matt: What lessons have you learned from Black Turn? What surprised you?

 

Tomislav: There were no great surprises. There’s a certain style of play required for the German side, which many players find more satisfying than the methodical way of the Soviets. That played into our hands, and then also, historically, the Barbarossa campaign naturally progresses from easier to harder.

We did try to push the limits with Taifun, and also be more aggressive with the AI in the what-if scenarios. I think both experiments turned out well, and we want to explore further along these axes in the future.

 

Matt: What do you think other game designers can learn from Unity of Command‘s success?

Tomislav: That it’s possible to reach a mainstream audience with a game like this! You do need a good user interface, which is the critical bit in my opinion. Graphical presentation only needs to be reasonable though, and likely nothing more. I get the impression that flashy, expensive art is not needed at all.

 

Matt: If you could go back and change one thing about the Unity of Command series, be it a mechanic or a scenario, what would it be and why?

 

Tomislav: I’m quite satisfied with the game as it is, actually. Improvements can be made, and we’re working on them for the next game, but none is of the simple “flip a switch” variety. Eventually, when we’re done testing and tweaking, the new game will be its own, new thing.

 

Matt: Unity of Command has a lively and growing community of players using the scenario editor. What are a few of your favorite fan-made scenarios so far?

 

Tomislav: Without question, my favorite scenario is Zitadelle/Kutuzov by Daniel Mellbin. There are other great scenarios by this designer, perhaps the ones for Winter War (Talvisota) and Continuation War (Jatkosota) stand out. If you’re a fan of the game, I recommend you check them out.

[Ed. Note: I’ve played all three. Talvisota and Jatkosota are both solid and cleverly designed. I can’t give a proper review of Zitadelle/Kutuzov because it keeps kicking my butt in the true Unity of Command tradition.]

 

Matt: How do you guys feel about porting Unity of Command (or something similar) to tablets? It feels like it would make a fairly easy transition to a touch interface and there seems to be a critical lack of serious war and strategy games available. The success of Shenandoah Studio’s Battle of the Bulge shows that there is a market for these games. So, are you considering a mobile version or are you ruling it out?

 

Tomislav: There are considerable technical difficulties with porting UoC to tablets. We are now working on the new game, which will be relatively easy to port to tablets, so it’s more likely you’ll see that on tablets right after we release it on PC.

 

Thank you, Tomislav, for your time and the opportunity to catch up.

 

Some helpful and finely crafted links:

My previous interview with Tomislav.

My interview with Ante Turudić, lead AI developer for 2×2, for Armchair General.

My reviews of Red Turn and Black Turn, also for ACG.com.

Is the Crimea the Next Sudetenland?

You’ll pardon me if I digress from gaming for a bit, but this is the only avenue I have to express long form opinions, and I’ve needed to get this one off my chest for a few days.
Invoking the memory of Munich and Czechoslovakia to stir up indignation is a cliché on the American Right, but the more I read about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea, the more worrying the parallels get.

  1. Both involve Great Powers bullying a smaller, newly independent nation once considered part of its sphere of influence.
  2. Both crises were nominally on behalf of an ethnic minority outside of the Great Powers borders.
  3. The “plight” of the minority was heavily played up and, in some cases, provoked by the intelligence services and propaganda arms of the Great Power.
  4. Both contested regions are crucial for the security of the smaller nation. The mountains of the Sudetenland contained Czechoslovakia’s primary artificial and natural defenses. Likewise, the Crimea contains Ukraine’s main naval base and, under Russian control, could harass any shipping between Ukraine and the outside world.
  5. Hitler felt free to bully Czechoslovakia largely because earlier provocations – the reoccupation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria – were permitted by the West. In the past few years, Putin has gotten away with mass repression of his own people, the invasion of Georgia, and the propping up of the murderous Syrian regime.
  6. NATO and the US, like France and the UK of the 1930s, are uncertain of how to respond and reluctant to use force.

This article by Richard Ganske is somewhat breathless in tone, but he does identify the larger stakes here – a successful, unilateral takeover of the Crimea would embolden Russia to take other aggressive actions far beyond a small peninsula on the Black Sea. Immediately, the question is open as to what will happen to eastern and southern parts of mainland Ukraine, populated by a large number of ethnic Russians.
So, how do we respond? This is a delicate question, as Ukraine itself is still unstable and no one wants to go to war against a nuclear power lightly. A lot will depend not only on what the US says and does, but on the choices to be made by the fledgling Ukrainian government and regional powers, such as Turkey, Poland, and other former Soviet satellites. Unfortunately, the Crimea is geographically easy to isolate – it would be trivially easy for Russia to block the narrow isthmus between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. And if the new Ukrainian government wants to reassert control over Crimea, they would likely have to shoot their way in – which may not even be an option, given the divided and uncertain loyalties of their army.

I’m no expert in foreign policy, but I’m fairly certain there’s still room for a diplomatic solution, but that window of opportunity is passing quickly. Once Russia entrenches in the Crimea, the way they have in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and presents the world with a fait accompli, the situation may be irredeemable. It’s possible that, if the West and the Ukrainian government take a strong stand, Russia may be persuaded to agree to something like a withdrawal of their troops in exchange for a referendum on Crimea’s future. But as long as Putin is confident that the West and NATO will sit idly by, he will have no incentive to agree to such a deal. So now, I hope the US and NATO will walk a very fine line, making it clear that aggression will not stand, but not charging blindly into a war that could quickly spiral out of control. But I’m afraid that sitting idly by and allowing Russia to takeover Crimea unopposed will bring terrible consequences.

Site Launch

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Interview with Tomislav Uzelac of 2×2 Games

Back in May, I had the privilege to interview Tomislav Uzelac, lead developer of 2×2 Games and creator of Unity of Command about how he became a game developer, the ideas behind Unity of Command, and how he brought the team at 2×2 together.

Tomislav: Hi Matt:, I’m ready when you’re ready.

Matt: Hello!

Tomislav: Hi.

Matt: OK, first off, thank you for joining me.

Tomislav: No problem.

Matt: Unity of Command was one of my favorite games of the past couple years, so it’s a real privilege to be able to pick your brain.

Tomislav: Thanks for the kudos.

Matt: Let’s start by talking about your background. When did you start playing games? What was the first computer or video game you remember playing?

Tomislav: Oh, it must have been the ZX Spectrum; my granddad brought one from London in the early eighties and we played… I think it was called “Through the Wall.”
It was a game that came with the computer basically.

Matt: A quick side question, if you don’t mind – how old are you?

Tomislav: 39
Took a moment to calculate that. :-)

Matt: What kind of game was Through the Wall?

Tomislav: I think you can google and get pics, just a moment.

http://youtu.be/INK7Y9iLbeI

Matt: Oh OK, I’ve seen variations of that game.

Tomislav: So that was the first one, for sure.

Matt: What was the first game that really got its hooks into you?

Tomislav: Well, it was crazy from the start with this one.
I don’t know, how old are you?

Matt: 28

Tomislav: not sure if you remember the moment when “computers” first appeared as such. It was magic :-)
There was nothing like that before. You had… typewriters.
I mean, I knew that big computers existed, mainframes and such.
A computer was this awesome, amazing thing… I mean we still had a rotary dial telephone at the time
I’m not sure I’m getting across how big a leap that was. :-D

Matt: To shift topic a little, how did you get into the games industry? What was your education and background?

Tomislav: I studied Electrical Engineering; I have a degree in electronics.

Matt: Did you set down that path intending to make games, or did you have something else in mind?

Tomislav: The games thing is almost completely accidental. Even switching to computer programming (as opposed to electronics) was accidental.

Matt: What work did you do after you finished school?

Tomislav: I was working as a programmer, mostly related to audio (MP3 and stuff).
I played a small role in the early days of MP3: http://inventors.about.com/od/mstartinventions/a/MPThree.htm

Matt: Neat!
How did you get from that line of work to making games?

Tomislav: I was going through some difficult times, personally, in the mid ’00s and I was looking for a project that would… reboot myself, for lack of a better word. So I went back to the times when I almost flunked a year in college for playing Panzer General during the exam season and I made a prototype for PG-like game… the prototype became UoC [Unity of Command] eventually.

Matt: Was the goal to make this a professional, sellable game from the start, or was it just a hobby?

Tomislav: Hard to say. It was probably more of a hobby at the time.

Matt: When did you realize “Hey, I really have something here?” and decide to start a company?

Tomislav: That comes later, after I’ve started working with Nenad, because the prototype graphics were… let me send you.

Matt: OK, so tell me how you brought the team together.

Tomislav: I’m sending you a screenshot of that early prototype, so that you know what I’m talking about.

Matt: Wow, that’s quite a difference.

Tomislav: No shit :-)

Matt: It definitely looks like Panzer General II.

Tomislav: It’s actually PG 1 graphics; I just ripped them for my own needs.

Matt: I should have known that. I will hang my head in shame.

Tomislav: :-)
So yeah, I knew Nenad Jalšovec from college.

Tomislav: Nenad did two years of EE (where I met him), and then switched to graphical design. He’s interesting in the sense that he combines technical knowledge with his graphical flair – not something you find too often. And he’s also a game designer in his own right: http://www.16×16.org/

Matt: Nenad already had a game portfolio at this point?

Tomislav: Yeah.

Matt: What year was it when Nenad was brought into the project?

Tomislav: We talked about it during ’08, but I believe he started working on it only in ’09. Sometime during ’09 or early ’10 we realized that we had “found something” that works. That’s when, I’m 100% certain, it became a serious, to be released game project.

Matt: Can you identify that Eureka moment?

Tomislav: There was no single moment, but I remember on many occasions we would say “this is starting to look like something.” That became a catch phrase of sorts.
Anyway, during ’10 we brought on Ante Turudić to do the AI which was an epic win, obviously. :-D

Matt: How/where did you find him? I’m half convinced he’s a wizard.

Tomislav: I knew him from high school.

Matt: What was your original vision for the game? What were you trying to do that made it different from PG and the PG-derived games that came before?
Was it the concept of front lines that you mentioned in your interview with Rob Zacny and Three Moves Ahead? Or something else?

Tomislav: That.
I was thinking: as long as we’re playing a game with pieces that look like military units, why not make them behave as military units.
And then, when I read up about the war, the operations etc. it turned out PG was, er… light on that. So, I thought, it must be possible to make a game that’s easy and fun to play like PG, but that bears a little bit more resemblance to the actual history.

Matt: I see.
Encirclement and supply lines have been around a long time in games on the macro scale, but they’re not very accessible, so you wanted to take those mechanics and make them intuitive and accessible, am I right?

Tomislav: Best I can describe it is “feeling your way” around the subject. You try this and that, and then you find things that work.
I wanted supply to be more meaningful (like in SSG games, for example), but I didn’t set out from the start to make it a centerpiece of the game or anything – it sort of turned out to be really useful to my keeping-the-frontlines agenda. So the “supply mechanic” does multiple things in the game; I like to be economical like that.

Matt: I see. So, neat front lines were an outgrowth of the need to protect supply lines, which I suppose isn’t that different from why things were done that way historically.

Tomislav: Partially, but not entirely I think. Now, I’m not an expert on this or anything, but I believe it also had to do with the units facing in a certain way. That’s how they work best, obviously. And then they line the neighboring unit next to it to protect their flank.
In reality there are other reasons to keep a front like they did, but we don’t even have a “directional” mechanic in the game, all directions are equal, so supply does all the work there, which I’m fine with.
If you look at a piece, say the 2nd Pz Division, it doesn’t matter if you hit them on the front, or in the back in the game.

Matt: There’s no inherent flanking or facing mechanic.

Tomislav: I thought about it, but it would be a major pain, interface-wise.

Matt: I can see that.
Shall we move on to the next question, or do you have anything else you want to add about the supply system or the idea behind UoC?

Tomislav: I’m just having this thought.
If you restrict yourself to use only the intuitive, sweet mechanics (supply) and forego the complicated (unit facing) and tedious (having too many modifiers, e.g. unit morale), you’re making things harder on yourself, not easier.
I mean, if you still want the gameplay to emerge as something resembling reality, of course.
This is why some of the “more complex” games out there are not necessary more complex, especially to design. :-)

Matt: “Less is more,” basically, when it comes to game mechanics?

Tomislav: I tried to do that. For example, suppression is used for a bunch of things and the player only needs to learn the concept of “suppression” once.

Matt: So, in this case, you’re using one mechanic, suppression, to simulate several other real-world factors, like fatigue and disorganization and morale and just handling those parts of it “behind the curtain”, as it were?

Tomislav: Yes.

Matt: So the player only needs to learn one mechanic – how to suppress enemy units.

Tomislav: Yeah, but not just that.
A unit goes out of supply – steps suppressed.
A unit is attacked – steps suppressed.
A unit overruns an enemy – steps suppressed (simulates dissipation of strength involved in overrunning many enemy units).
A new step is added – it’s added suppressed (simulated time needed to reach the unit and integrate its command structure).

Matt: I see, so one mechanic covers a whole lot of bases in terms of what’s happening in “real life.”

Tomislav: the important thing is there only a single mechanic to learn. The player knows the consequences of suppressions once they first learn it – suppressed step is not used in combat, it will recover over time if in supply, etc.
When you introduce a new mechanic like “adding steps” you only say they are added suppressed, and the player understands.

Matt: Clever!
To switch topics again, why did you choose the Eastern Front of WWII? Why, for the base game, the Stalingrad/Caucasus campaign?

Tomislav: It was very closely fought, it was a very dynamic campaign, with lots of maneuver, it’s not covered to death like the fighting in the west, and I wanted to learn more about it personally.

Matt: Were any other time periods or theaters seriously considered?

Tomislav: Yeah, I had a map of Africa, but I decided on this one relatively early on.
The Africa map was kept around in the source tree for a long time, but only as a test case, technically. In the end, I just removed it. There were never any scenarios in Africa or anything, but now that I think about it, the map was there so I must have thought about it at the time.

Matt: Is there any chance we could see Unity of Command: Afrika Korps? :-)

Tomislav: Yes and no. Yes, I think eventually we will get around to it, but not with the current engine – it’s very much tailored to the Eastern Front.

Matt: You mentioned in the 3MA interview that the scale wouldn’t be right for the engine, is that what you mean?

Tomislav: Well, Rommel had 2 panzer divisions or so; compare that with the Stalingrad campaign. It would be a few small scenarios and that’s it.

Matt: That’s too bad. I loved Panzer Corps: Afrika Korps, but I kept getting frustrated because I couldn’t do a “proper” encirclement like in UoC.
If the scenario editor had allowed it, I totally would have toyed with making some North African scenarios.

Tomislav: What is the unit scale in PC:AK?

Matt: The unit scale is . . . vague.
Units vary anywhere from battalions to divisions. In AK in particular, you have named infantry battalions next to named panzer divisions, so it’s a mix.

Tomislav: If I did a zoomed-in game like that (battalions or regiments) then it would probably have different mechanics – does an infantry battalion in a desert really exert a “Zone of Control”?

Matt: In two scenarios in PC:Afrika Korps, you literally go from fighting over half of Tunisia to a portion of the defensive line around Tobruk. It’s kind of jarring . . . but neither here nor there.

Tomislav: Well, it’s that style of a game. I still love to play those, but I try to be one step closer to reality.

Matt: Me too, but I’ll admit Unity of Command spoiled me a bit when I went back to PC and PGII.

Tomislav: You mean the UI?

Matt: The UI and the presence of meaningful supply mechanics.
It’s odd, I used to think that supply would be the most boring part of a wargame, but in UoC it drives all these fun mechanics like encirclement.
And, yes, the intuitive UI really helps keep it from being a chore.
Meanwhile, in Panzer Corps, you’re just grinding unit sprites against each other, with no flow or sense of space.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun, it’s just different.

Tomislav: Yeah, I also think it’s fun, all its problems notwithstanding, which is why I keep playing it; I’m curious as to what it is exactly that they’re doing right. :-)

Matt: You get to smash T-34s with Panzers, what’s not to love?
OK, in all seriousness.
This next question might be touchy or a total flop, so please bear with me.
You and your team are in Croatia, and Croatia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia suffered from a terrible war much more recently than the rest of Europe, in the early ’90s.
Did that conflict have any influence on your work or your interest in military history?

Tomislav: It’s hard to say.
Well, no, I don’t see a big connection there. It was a terrible time, as you rightly say, but it was a different war.

Matt: OK, I was just curious.
I’d noted how Unity of Command is a very sanitized, almost kid-friendly depiction of war – some people have even referred to the “bobble head” artwork as “cute.”
I was curious if that depiction was a reaction to anything, or if you were just focusing on the intellectual side of things – the challenge of command and so on.

Tomislav: It’s difficult to read too much into the graphics, as Nenad had a lot of liberty there, but, to your original point, the WWII as we know it, is from the books and movies, the same as you.
We simply weren’t trying to make a point there. Like, take into account the budgetary constraints too…

Matt: And I suppose the strategy games that do show blood and gore and unpleasantness – Close Combat, Company of Heroes, etc, tend to be on a smaller scale.

Tomislav: War in the East isn’t all that emphatic either.

Matt: Again, that’s a matter of the scale being so incredibly zoomed out.
OK, I was just curious and wanted to see where that might lead us.

There’s been a lot of hay made online about games as art – as a gamer I tend to come down on the side of saying yes, they are art.
Do you think of yourself and your team as creating art? Are there certain emotions you want to evoke from the player?

Tomislav: I think games are “a work of art” by themselves. You don’t need to prove anything.
Our game is about learning, curiosity about history, exploration of it, etc.
I don’t see that we need to fish for specific emotions in order to prove that we make “art.” I don’t give a ** frankly.

Matt: That’s a perfectly valid response.

Tomislav: it’s bordering on a rant /o\

Matt: I’d like to add I did experience a lot of emotions while playing – curiosity, triumph, frustration, and that Eureka moment where you get how you can turn a well ordered defense into chaos.

Tomislav: right, a game needn’t “make you cry” in order to prove anything

Matt: Exactly, and I didn’t expect it to.

Tomislav: And also, our AI does actually make you cry. ;-)

Matt: And it can make you scream at your computer. :-D
I did find the German campaign in the original had a definite dramatic arc – triumph, hubris, frustration, and overreach.

Tomislav: Historically, that year on the Eastern Front was so dramatic – it’s unbelievable, and the scale is mindboggling. If just a handful of people reflected on that, it’s a win.

Matt: One example from the game that springs to mind is the map for Bagration in the Red Turn DLC.
The first time I loaded up that scenario, I went “Woah, I’m supposed to conquer all of that?!”
And I failed miserably on my first attempt. :-D

Tomislav: Bagration’s really curious; people don’t realize the Soviets had so few tanks there, because all the tanks were massed against southern Poland.

Matt: Oh? I didn’t know that.

Tomislav: It’s in another scenario, Lvov I think. That’s just 3 weeks later.

Matt: We touched on the future of the series earlier – what’s next for 2×2 and Unity of Command?
In the interview with 3MA you dropped a hint about a Barbarossa DLC . . .

Tomislav: I have played 8 scenarios of that so far
so I would say we’re about halfway there.

Matt: Wow, I hadn’t realized it was that far along.

Tomislav: I always want it to go faster, but there you go.
These days, Pieter is doing the scenarios and I consult with him, basically we play through each one as he puts them on the board.

Matt: Are you having to adapt or create any new mechanics for that DLC?

Tomislav: Not this time
Technically, the engine is becoming a bit of a mess, so I’m restraining myself, although we had some ideas for ski units, etc. All of that will have to wait for the next iteration of the engine.

Matt: Is there any prospect of a project outside of the Unity of Command engine, something different? Or are you sticking with UoC and the same genre for now?

Tomislav: We’re sticking with the same; I feel there’s unfinished business there.

Matt: I know I’d be happy for you and your team to bring the same approach to different theaters.

Tomislav: Yeah, that’s the idea, but we need to think about making it work for other theaters.

Matt: That makes sense – I imagine paratroopers and amphibious landings would be a pain.

Tomislav: The Stalingrad Campaign was low hanging fruit in that respect.
Yeah, tons of stuff – the Allies in France had huge air superiority for example, etc etc.

Matt: PS If you work Operation Marita/the Greek and Yugoslav theater into the Barbarossa DLC, I will be a happy boy. Just saying.

Tomislav: Sorry mate, not gonna happen.

Matt: My hopes: dashed.

Tomislav: We’ll eventually it will happen.

Matt: Do you have anything else you’d like to add before I let you go?

Tomislav: Not really, thanks for having me.

Matt: Thank you again for taking the time.
I really appreciate it. I learned a lot, and I’m sure my readers and the Armchair General readers will too.
It’s been a pleasure.

Tomislav: Same here.
Best of luck with your writing.
Cheers.

Matt: Thanks and have a good night.

The Women of Metro: Last Light

Metro 2033 is one of my favorite FPS’s of all time, because the post-apocalyptic world of the Moscow metro is fleshed out, detailed, and features a compellingly bleak portrayal of human nature. Metro: Last Light continues in the same fine tradition, but it bungles its portrayal of half of humanity – women. This would be easy to forgive if women weren’t so prominent in the game, but with a larger female cast (of sorts) and a terrible female lead, it’s hard to avoid the problem.

[Warning – some NSFW pictures]

The first Metro, like the novel it was based on, was definitely a boys-only club. 90% of the humans you encountered were enemy soldiers or bandits and all of them were men. You only ran into women in the relatively tranquil stations, and there they were all wives or widows or whores, there to provide atmospheric dialogue. The most prominent female character was a prostitute who steals all your money. So, not exactly progressive, but for the most part I could ignore the issues because women were in the background.

Last Light ironically suffers from the opposite problem – there are too many women, including a main character, so their one-dimensional nature is unavoidable. It’s in your face, constantly, like a pair of jiggling boobs.

Oh, I mentioned boobs. Well, you have to get used to them in this game, because they’re everywhere. I encountered scantily clad or naked women at least four times that I can remember. There’s a can-can show, then you wander through a dressing room full of half-dressed dancers, then go into a brothel where you can pay for a lapdance (complete with jiggle physics), then finally the world’s most uncomfortable sex scene. I’m not a prude and this is very much a game for adults – but the implementation seems kind of juvenile and gratuitous. It doesn’t help that, whereas the male characters look weathered and realistic, for some reason the female characters all fall smack into the uncanny valley. Their skin has a weird, waxy sheen and their mascara shrouds dead-looking eyes. It makes every encounter uncomfortable.

 

Most of this wouldn’t have been a serious problem for me, except that Last Light, unlike 2033, includes a romance subplot. As Artyom, the object of your affections is Anna, daughter of the Ranger’s leader, Miller, and their best sniper. There’s nothing wrong with an “action girl” in a game, but she’s completely unsympathetic and kind of scary. On your first mission, Anna is sent to accompany you to help kill the last of the mutant Dark Ones, but also to make sure you finish your mission – Or Else. When someone threatens to murder you and an orphan child in your first scene together, romance ain’t exactly in the air.

 

You aren’t reunited with Anna until a brief scene halfway through the game. She’s gained some grudging respect for you, but she still comes off cold and reptilian. Then she’s kidnapped by the bad guys, because of course she is, and you have to chase after her. The transition to damsel in distress is not only out of character, but didn’t really do anything to endear her to me.

Then after you rescue her and you’re both recovering, out of left field comes the most problematic scene in the game. You two are in a hospital room, because you both had caught a mild version of the McGuffin super virus. Anna gets all wistful and talks about fearing death and her dad and wait a minute is that a nipple? Then she says she wants to be touched and lies back on the bed and stares at you with her dead fish eyes and . . . yup. I put my head in my hands and went “Dangit, Artyom, don’t do it.” But I guess death threats and personality disorders are aphrodisiacs for her hero, because he does.

Anna doesn’t show up again for the rest of the game, until the ending cinematic, where she shows up with Artyom’s baby. But there are two endings, depending on the choices you make in the game, and she and the kid only show up in the “Bad” ending. I’ll leave you to puzzle out the implications of that one, because I don’t have the space.

I felt the writers missed a lot of opportunities with Anna. An action girl sidekick can be really fun and sympathetic – look at Half-Life 2‘s Alyx Vance. Alyx could take care of herself, but she was funny and warm and I cared about her. Not only did I not care about Anna, I actively wanted to get away from her because she creeped me out. It’s fine that she’s uncertain about Artyom’s loyalties at the start – but give her some lightness. If they had given her a sense of humor, she would have made a great foil to Miller, her dour father. In the first scenes, it seems like she would cackle with glee if she had the opportunity to kill the hero.

To really get the scope of how badly the developers missed the boat with Anna, you have to look at another of their characters – Pavel. You meet Pavel in a Reich prison, he helps you escape, he cracks some jokes, you learn to respect each other – it’s a great arc. He’s funny and clever and quirky and is proof that the game maker’s know how to write a good character. A thought experiment – what if Anna and Pavel flipped genders? OK, having a grizzled male Ranger threaten Artyom in the beginning is conventional, but it would have fit easily into our expectations.

Now, think about those scenes with a female Pavel – how interesting would it have been if your escape from Reich and budding friendship had romantic overtones? I could totally see the player, through Artyom, falling in love with FemPavel. It would make Pavel’s betrayal even more of a knife to the chest than it was originally. Then you’d have to fight FemPavel and decide if she lives or dies – yeah, now that’s a subplot.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed Last Light. The action and gameplay are much improved from the original and the world is every bit as compelling. I just wish they hadn’t fumbled the female characters so badly. It could have elevated the game from a tour of a crumbling world into a compelling, character-driven drama.