Friday, August 10, 2012

Badminton in the Olympics

My first article that's not about gaming still has a theme that is very important to a wide gaming audience: competition. The Olympics are a competition, just as many multiplayer games are a competition.

Olympic Badminton isn't a competition, apparently. It's a sham. Whoever the organizers are for that tournament should be embarrassed for themselves and for their sport.

To recap what happened: The tournament was designed in such a way that it was not only possible, but likely that a team would find itself in a situation where losing was more advantageous than winning. Four separate teams found themselves in that position (essentially, losing this match would grant them an easier opponent in the next round), they all attempted to lose on purpose, and they were all disqualified from the tournament. The blame in this case lays entirely on the tournament organizers, and not at all on the players.

Real competition, at its core, is about winning. There is a very real division between casual competition and real competition, where something is at stake. Let's take a fighting video game as an example of what that line is.

If I invite a friend over and we're playing Soul Calibur together, we are in a casual competition. We each want to win while we're playing, but having fun is more important overall in this setting than winning. If I find an attack or sequence of attacks that my friend can't block no matter what he tries, I could easily win every match by just continually executing the same actions. That's not fun for either of us. I wouldn't continue to do such a thing. For the sake of having fun, I would use different moves even though they are not optimal or pick a different character that is more evenly matched.

On the other hand, a real competition would be something like a tournament setting. If my friend and I enter the same Soul Calibur tournament, and wind up matched against each other, I would be stupid to not pick that character and use that move over and over for an easy match win. It's not poor sportsmanship. It's not being an asshole. I am doing everything in my power, within the rules, to win the tournament. If I do anything less than that, I don't deserve to win.

Professional game designer David Sirlin has written an entire book on this concept, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it.

In the fighting game tournament example above, if I were disqualified outside the written rules of the tournament for playing in a specific way, the blame would lay entirely on the organizers of the tournament for not understanding how to run a tournament, not on me as a player.

The rules of badminton in this case are important to know. The outcome, whether it be beneficial or detrimental, of any action in a tournament should be defined in the rules before the tournament beings. Let's look at the relevant rules for badminton in the Olympics.
A player shall not:
16.6.1 deliberately cause delay in, or suspension of, play;
16.6.2 deliberately modify or damage the shuttle in order to change its speed or its flight;
16.6.3 behave in an offensive manner; or
16.6.4 be guilty of misconduct not otherwise covered by the Laws of Badminton. 
Administration of breach
The umpire shall administer any breach of Law 16.4.1, 16.5.2 or 16.6 by: issuing a warning to the offending side; faulting the offending side, if previously warned. Two such faults by a side shall be considered to be a persistent offence; or in cases of flagrant offence, persistent offences or breach of Law 16.2 the umpire shall fault the offending side and report the offending side immediately to the Referee, who shall have the power to disqualify the offending side from the match.
Relevant sections are in bold. Rule 16.6.4 is a travesty. "be guilty of misconduct" is about as vague as it gets, and has no place in any kind of official documentation. What is misconduct to one person may be completely acceptable to another. Let's say attempting to lose intentionally is somehow caught under this hood, however, and move on to The rule states that they will be disqualified from the match. Not the tournament, but the match. That is exactly what the team intended to have happen. The team is using the rules of the tournament to its advantage.

That is exactly what you're supposed to do in a tournament setting. Do everything in your power, within the rules of the tournament, to win the tournament. If losing a match aids you in winning the tournament, it would be stupid not to do it.

Some people claim that there is some kind of ethical standard to the Olympics. The players shouldn't merely be playing to win the tournament, but to win each individual match to prove their dominance. They should be an unrelenting force that sweeps through the competition without fatigue or remorse, obliterating all in their path. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement, but the general idea is that everyone should be giving it their all throughout the entire competition. You shouldn't let up for even a moment in your quest for gold.

Why don't you tell that to the runners? In most running events, there are multiple heats where the top few competitors will advance to the next round. For example, in the sprinting competition, there are groups of 8 competitors. Within each group, the 3 fastest times will advance to the next round. It is completely normal for someone who is about to finish in second place during a preliminary heat to ease up and take second place without a struggle. He stops giving it his all and accepts his advancement to the next round. He doesn't expend extra energy attempting to finish first in a preliminary heat.

Should he be disqualified from the Olympics?

I am saddened by the reaction to this badminton ordeal. The scorn that is rampant for these players is an atrocity against the spirit of competition.

Do I think playing to lose is good for the sport of badminton, or any sport in general? No, of course I don't. When people are playing to lose, it's going to destroy credibility in the sport that they are playing and the tournament they're in. But do I blame the players for doing it? Not at all. I feel sorry that the players had to resort to such a tactic. The tournament should never have been constructed in a way that rewards losing.

In a tournament, losing should always be bad. Any tournament organizer should strive to use a format that penalizes losing in every single case. Doing anything else is just asking for trouble.

If I were in the position of these Olympic badminton players, I would have done exactly the same thing, even knowing I would get unfairly disqualified. It shines a light on the tournament that was sorely needed. Hopefully the Badminton tournament in 2016 will be structured competently.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Scary Games: F.E.A.R. vs. Dead Space

I bought a lot of games during this most recent Steam Sale, and many of them were in genres I never thought I liked or just never got into. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has re-affirmed that I indeed still do not like stealth mechanics, but that's a topic for another article. Instead, I'll talk about horror shooters. Specifically, F.E.A.R. and Dead Space.

I finished F.E.A.R. a few weeks ago and I'm about a third of the way into Dead Space. Clearly, I am not a veteran of either franchise, but it was a genre that interested me. Now, I can see that grouping these two games together under the same "genre" only really works as far as "shooter". The two have a similar goal in mind: scare the player. They go about it completely differently, and with varying degrees of success.

The Plan

It's important to separate what it seems that each game was intending to do from what each game actually successfully accomplished, because they are not the same. Each has its own individual downsides.

F.E.A.R. went for a subtle creepy approach, in a sense. There's a creepy little girl who is clearly supernatural right from the early stages of the game. She generally appears when you are in a compromised position and can't react properly, such as when you're crouching through a tight space, descending a ladder, jumping down off a balcony, etc. It's a good idea, and it caught me off guard a few times and gave me the jitters.

Dead Space is a much more blatant in your face approach. There are horrific zombie/aliens that come in various shapes and sizes and jump out from behind corners and generally appear behind you when you're just starting to feel safe. They want you to always be on the edge of your seat, expecting a horrific alien appendage to begin brutalizing you from any direction at any time.

The Result

In F.E.A.R., the thing that they really overlooked in these creepy segments is that they are never really dangerous. The little girl appears, or you're briefly warped to a bloody hospital hallway, or a shadow realm, or whatever. They are intended to be scary, but they have the opposite effect after a while. There are a few minor exceptions (and one notable one), but really these sequences are the part of the game that started making me feel the most safe. "Oh, the little girl is around, that means there aren't any real enemies." I was free to explore at my leisure, with no real fear of anything bad happening to me.

Dead Space almost has the opposite problem. Nothing is sacred. There is no safe zone. I must be constantly vigilant because supplies are limited, and healing is expensive. I can't afford to take any damage or else I'm probably going to be screwed in the next area. It requires so much constant focus and concentration that I simply can't play for a long time at once. Every time a new type of enemy has been introduced, it has completely altered how I have to approach combat. Not in an Anomaly: Warzone Earth way where it just undermined all your previous efforts, but in a way that builds on what you know. It's great game design. It's just also intimidating given the rest of the atmosphere of the game, and it makes me put the game down and stop playing for a while.

Do I even Like the Genre?

Honestly, I don't know. I finished F.E.A.R., but I kind of blitzed through the end because I was getting bored. The gameplay wavered between the borderline silly "creepy" segments and the borderline brutal "combat" segments in a way that really had no intelligible flow. The overall experience was forgettable, and hopefully something that is remedied in the sequels (although hearsay reports that I should keep my expectations low).

I haven't finished Dead Space, but I don't know if I have the willpower to do it. The controls for PC are atrocious (the worst I've experienced in any game in my entire history of gaming), which makes it difficult to go back and play when I have smoother alternatives like Deus Ex: Human Revolution beckoning. I feel like each of these games has good ideas, but there needs to be some balance struck between the two.

And for the love of sanity, Dead Space, why would you not allow saving at any time in a modern game? I thought we were past this. Another article for another day, though. I should really make a list of these somewhere.


If you're going to pick up one of these games, get Half-Life 2 instead. It mixes all the elements mentioned here in a game that has proper flow. You're not constantly on the edge of your seat, expecting something bad to happen to you at any turn, but you are sometimes. The game successfully mixes puzzle solving segments with action sequences and fast zombies in a way the other two games just couldn't emulate.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learning Curve

Shouldn't I be writing about Diablo III? Maybe some other time. Most of what I have to say about it is covered in various other articles.

Instead, let's cover Anomaly: Warzone Earth, a game I picked up on a whim during the Steam Summer Sale because it was only $2.49 and it had an interesting premise: reverse tower defense. Instead of preventing a bunch of little critters from reaching your castle by building towers all along the path, you are the bunch of little critters and you have to navigate past all the towers along the path. At least, that's what I imagined when I first heard the concept.

I don't know exactly what I expected out of the purchase, but what I got was decidedly not it. For those of you who are not familiar with the game, who I will assume is pretty much everyone, the gameplay is fairly simple. You get one commander unit who represents you. You can move him around the battlefield and deploy various strategic abilities. You can also buy and upgrade and reorder up to 6 units that will travel through the labyrinth in the path you select. Six? That's...awfully few. And if any of them die, it's pretty damning. They are relatively expensive compared to how much you can expect to earn over the course of a map, so it's a lot of money wasted.

Not really the tower defense kind of vibe I was imagining.

Whatever, though. My expectations hardly matter in the long run. All I'll remember is how the game plays. The game introduces units, abilities, and enemy towers to you slowly, over the course of many levels. The first ten levels are fairly straightforward. You get a healing ability, a smoke screen, a decoy, and you learn how to use these effectively against all types of enemy towers.

Then comes level eleven. I can't remember the names of any of the levels, because the plot is a weak excuse to put the gameplay together, but they are conveniently numbered, so at least that's unambiguous.

Level eleven introduces a new enemy tower that spits in the face of everything you've learned so far in your entire experience playing the game.

Towers are tough to take down; even the basic one requires a couple shots from your strongest offensive unit. Because of that, taking down a tower is one of the main satisfying things about the gameplay. The new tower in level eleven expands on the opposites of this feeling in what is in close contention for the worst game mechanic I have ever encountered.

If you use any abilities at all within range of the tower (which is massive), the tower fully restores all other towers within that same range. Every time you have to heal, decoy, or smokescreen (which is generally at least once per encounter with a tower and considerably more if you encounter a cluster of towers like you're greeted with on level eleven), every single tower you've killed in that area comes back and starts killing you again. Take too much damage so you have to heal? Well I guess that's a loss since now you're right in the thick of things with 8 towers shooting you instead of at the edge with only the first 2 in range.

I'm not sure the designer here is familiar with how a learning curve is supposed to work. Games should get progressively more difficult. As the player masters earlier concepts, more difficult ones should be introduced. That is essentially the basis for any good game that has ever been developed. And the first 10 levels of Anomaly: Warzone Earth follow that formula without much issue. A few snags on a few new towers but nothing game-breaking.

Then, in level eleven, these new towers undo everything you learned about tactics in the game. Every single piece of tactical knowledge that you have learned before is rendered worthless. Every action you can possibly take results in completely ruining your strategic positioning. So there's that; an overhanging cliff as you're climbing the difficulty curve, moving you along backwards and forcing you to unlearn things the game has specifically taught you were good things to do.

But there's also a snowball effect. When things start to get grim for your six or fewer attacking units, you have one and only one possibility for recourse: use an ability. Except now, using an ability only makes things even more grim. If things get bad against this new tower, then you have already lost. You need to play flawlessly, even on the easiest difficulty setting. And to be honest, I don't have the patience to figure out what that flawless play is.

I think this is another example of the classic "strategy game turned puzzle game" that turns me off so much. Strategy games are good when you can overcome problems by executing a well-thought-out plan. The plans don't have to all be the same; and it's important also to be able to adapt your plan on the fly. Once you add a mechanic that removes almost every viable option, the game stops being about strategy. It starts being about whether you can think the same way as the designer.

This game was not worth the $2.49 I spent on it. I wouldn't even recommend playing it if it were free.

I bought 16 other games during this Steam Sale. I expect every single one of them to be worlds better than this one.