Tue Apr 5 00:06:40 PDT 2011

hawken and starcraft, two great tastes that taste great together

Recently I've been thinking about the game mechanics of two games. I won't be in a position to actually change either of them, so I'll just write about it.

Hawken, a really neat looking mech game based on Unreal Engine 3 has been making the rounds lately. As a person who loved Mechwarrior 2, and owns a Steel Battalion controller, I would dearly like to like this game, but there isn't nearly enough information available at this time to make even a preliminary judgement.

The burning question at hand is if this is a mech shooter, like certain debased Japanese arcade games, or a true mech simulator, like (most) of the Mechwarrior series. Hawken appears to only have two weapons, and a unified health bar, rather than component based damage, which is a bad sign; but there is heat management, which is a good one.

Since I am not actually on Hawken's development team, and actually know damn near nothing about the game, I'm reduced to shouting suggestions from the sidelines.

One of these is: I hope they do something more interesting with heat management than Mechwarrior 2 did.

In Mw2, (Not MW2, lord no) firing weapons caused heat to build up, and if your mech got too hot, it shut down to cool off, and if you overrode the shutdown and kept firing, you blew up. Pretty simple.

But single-constraint systems like this don't make for very interesting gameplay choices, as any World of Warcraft player can tell you. Since there's a hard limit, you're encouraged to stick as close to that limit as possible, and, in practice, tend to spend a lot of time staring at cooldown timers. There's plenty of people who like to "play" spreadsheets like this, as Kotick's billions of dollars suggests, and man, is it ever boring.

What if, the hotter your mech was, the farther away you could be detected by senors? Sure, you can spam your BFG, but then you attract artillery shells from across the map?

Or if your mech acted like a real world heat engine, where overheating means greatly reduced engine power? Or if your guns acted like real world ones, where firing until the barrels are red hot causes the rifling to wear out much faster?

What if you let the player control the pressure release valve on their mech's reactor coolant line? Crack the valve and let some of the superheated coolant boil off, dramatically lowering the temperature, but let too much of it boil, and there won't be any left to move heat to the radiators. And, of course, clouds of coolant vapor are a great sign to whoever you're fighting that perhaps you're having trouble with heat, and probably wouldn't appreciate being hit with a weapon that does very little physical damage, but heats up the target very fast.

Like a flamethrower. Every game can be improved by adding a flamethrower.

Speaking of Blizzard...

I was watching the GSL the other day, when it occurred to be that Blizzard really don't do all that they could with the Creep, and that requiring Battle.net for LAN play was pants on head retarded.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, in a cave, on Mars, with your fingers in your ears for the last decade, in Blizzard's legendary stereotype-'em-up Starcraft, the bad aliens, Zerg, tend to cover everything around them in a sticky organic substance called the Creep, entirely coincidentally like the xenomorphs from the Alien movies, which they do not at all resemble. In the lore, this does all sorts of zany stuff, but in-game, it just gives Zerg units a speed boost, and you have to build Zerg structures on it, you can't just plop them down on the dirt.

Now, Starcraft 2 is already a stunningly asymmetric game. There really is no other RTS with such radically different player factions, that still manages not to be an entirely imbalanced pile of shit. They're so different that Starcraft 2 pro gamers will almost always play just one faction. You play Zerg or Protoss or Terran. You can't play more than one.

But, at their heart, they're still pretty similar. The Marine is a lot like the Hydralisk, which is a lot like the Stalker. They're all infantry units that can attack ground and air.

But I have a fetish for over-complicating games, so I began thinking about Creep. In-universe, Zerg combat units are just regular animals whose genome the Overmind has been tinkering with. What if one of the standard combat enhancements is revving up their metabolism by a thousand times, so as soon as they step off the Creep, they immediately begin starving to death? This implies that they're constant grazing on the Creep, which is a foot-thick layer of cancerous flesh, which could provide some nicely gruesome idle animations.

Heck, if their metabolism is running so fast, why not give them mayfly like life spans? In Starcraft 2, 40 minutes would be a long game, so give Zerg units a seven minute expiration date, and, say, 50 seconds before they starve, when off the creep. That would result in some interesting tactical decision-making. Give units some debilitating status ailments near the end of each timer, (say, -25% movement speed and damage done, and -10% health once per second for ten seconds) and it would get even more deliciously complicated.

Something that even I'm not sure is a good idea: In Starcraft 2 there's a dedicated suicide unit called the Baneling, that explodes and deals great damage. What if you gave every Zerg unit the ability to kamikaze, and they also exploded when killed, like the Baneling? The near-death damage debuff would almost certainly have to apply to end of life explosions, or else I could see them being amazingly annoying.

All these disposable units demand a slightly different production philosophy. Your body doesn't generate new cells on a one by one basis, so why is the Cerebate groveling over individual larva? No, the Zerg should be constantly producing new units. You can tell it what you want more of, but what you can't do is tell it to stop. Hopefully this constant flood of new units will encourage the attack attack attack theme I'm trying to establish here.

Additionally, for gameplay reasons, the Zerg can place new hatcheries on uncreeped ground. What if the hatchery was a dedicated unit that lumbered over to resource points, then planted its fat ass permanently? Or, if you were afraid of making sweeping new gameplay changes for some bizarre reason, you could just require that an Overlord drop Creep on the target area before you could build a hatchery there.

Making Zerg units depend more on the Creep also demands that it too be overcomplicated.

It speeds up Zerg units, so what if it slows down hostile ones? Or constantly damages them while they're on it? Or explodes like a mini-Baneling on contact?

Starcraft 2 also has high and low ground, where crossing from low to high ground requires a terrain ramp. Both the high and the low ground can be covered with creep, but Zerg ground units still have to take the long way around, rather than just running straight up the creep covered cliff. There's also floating islands, and it would be tremendously amusing if Overlords could build Creep rope bridges between them.

Zerg bases tend to be very neat, rectilinear affairs, mostly due to gameplay concerns. Which is lame! These are supposed to be building-sized organs sitting on a square mile of liver tumor. Zerg bases should look like you just cracked open the rib cage on a still living body. I want to see viscera, giant throbbing veins, intestines the approximate width of city busses conveying the half-digested remains of my enemies to reprocessing organs. We've endured a decade of meat levels, yet I'm still not seeing any giant eyeballs! I shouldn't have to tell you this, Blizzard! Where's all the gross shit?

Writing this out, I realize that it makes no sense for somebody to suit up and actually go out to fight the Zerg one-on-one. It's nuts! I can almost believe that the Protoss would do it, since they're religious nutbags (The infantry unit is called the "Zealot") who already do insane shit like charging money to warp combat units to forward bases, rather than teleporting in 50 Carriers as soon as a fleet beacon is constructed, and winning every single fight they get into; but a regular Joe going up against either of these guys, in a tin can and armed with a peashooter? Nah.[1]

In addition, all these manned vehicles and infantry grunts don't jibe terribly well with the last decade of military development. No, it makes a lot more sense that the Terrans would be the race of the UAV and robot tank, drone combat and long range artillery. The only actual humans on the field would be in command centers, (Which opens up interesting new gameplay possibilities of disrupting communications to the combat drones by destroying generators, blowing up radio relays, or simple short range jamming) not actually out in the meat grinder that would be close combat with the Zerg. This is sounding a lot like the FTL game concept I wrote seven years ago, so go read that; and the second half to my Avatar post, which I never actually completed, whoops.

1: There's also some gameplay/story disconnect here. Zerg grow new units, and Protoss teleport them in, but a Terran barracks can spew an unlimited number of marines, like the world's most heavily armed clown car. Where are all these people coming from? Nowhere, of course, and nobody but nitpicking nerds like me care; but there's no such problem with a robot factory.