Monday, February 23, 2015

WarStrike: Something Not So Awful?

Over the last week, I've noticed that we've gotten a crap-load of hits from the forums (paywalled) over at So being a curious monkey, I snuck over to see what the discussion was all about.

Nothing I saw there surprised me all that much. But I realized that it's been so long since the project started, that people who come here for the first time don't understand some of the basic design decisions that we made back then (or what's happened to other competing projects since). So I'll take this opportunity to shed some light on why we're approaching the design of the game in the way that we are, and shed a little more light on where we're planning on going.

JerryLee posted:
"Looked over the Warstrike site and the fluff is already leaving me cold. Not that it's terrible fluff for a game, far from it. But it's some sort of homebrew post-singularity dystopia universe rather than being 40k's universe with the numbers filed off, which is what I want in a totally-not-40k game."
I feel ya Jerry, I really do!

But there's a very good reason that we can't shanghai the 40K universe... because it's not ours! Legally and ethically, that universe (which I'll agree is the best thing going for 40K) belongs to Games Workshop, and the likelihood of them selling us a license to it (even if we had the money to buy it) is pretty close to "Fuck Off!".

By the same token, if we stuck to GW's hobbiest terms for works based on their fluff, we could never make any money from our game. Which means that the project would die of starvation pretty soon after release. Because at some point this thing has to start paying, or I'll have to go out and get a real job somewhere doing boring stuff.

If we were to follow GW's hobbiest terms, there would also be nothing stopping them from simply shutting us down the moment we became too popular to ignore (see what happened to Turn Signals On A Land Raider).  So to remain independent of their whims, we have to roll our own fluff.

Since I also have to remain motivated to work on this project, that means constructing interesting fluff that's not just a thin obvious retread of what GW has already done. Hopefully something even better, but still broadly compatible with players' model collections.

So it'll be dark, it'll be dystopian, and it will have surprises/mysteries surrounding the creation of humanity. You'll even have the same basic 'races' that we're used to seeing in a sci-fantasy universe. It just won't be 40K. Instead it will incorporate more contemporary sci-fi (and social) concepts into its grimdark fold.

I know all that you have is the barest outlines of that universe right now (and some pretty rushed artwork), because the game itself is (and has to be) the first priority for our limited dev time. But rest assured that it will be interesting and fantastical, with no 'East India Company' mega-corporations (Warpath), or hard sci-fi space politics (Antares) to bore you to death with.

(skipping the WTF John Galt speech...)

LeperFlesh (cool name) posted:
"The only way to build alternate rules for 40k (or Fantasy for that matter) is to completely abandon any idea of creating an alternative "fluff" for the game. Just set it aside. You are never, ever, ever going to build a fluff that appeals to 40k players more than the literally only reason they're 40k players to begin with, so much that they're willing to ignore or suffer the terrible fucking awful rules they're already dealing with."
Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time in High School, I was a die-hard Battletech player. Then they came out with the clan rules that doubled the complexity of the game, and made it very not-fun to play. So my friends and I played it less and less (sound familiar?). I loved the fluff of the Clans, ComStar and the Inner Sphere. But the game itself had become almost unplayable. Games with 12 mechs, and 12 infantry/tanks per side would literally take days to play, even before the Clan books came out.

One day my best friend brought home a copy of GW's Adeptus Titanicus. The fluff was... different... but at least interesting. The art was... just OK. But the rules were fun and simple. So we played it... over and over. Because the games only lasted 30-60 minutes. Even when Space Marine came out and added vehicles/infantry, you could get a game done in an afternoon or evening.

So we switched to playing GW games. I still loved the Battletech fluff, and I bought their novels for years afterward. But play their poorly designed game? No way.

But to completely capture me, GW had to have a universe that inspired my imagination. Even though back then it was just a silly re-tread of Frank Herbert's Dune with a bit of Star Wars and Warhammer Fantasy (itself a Tolkien retread) thrown in, they improved it over time.
"I mean, I don't know the 40k rules, if I was gonna do new rules I'd do them for Fantasy, but the same thing applies. Inventory the models available, make the ruleset flexible enough to incorporate new models as they come out, allow armies enough flexibility that most existing players can field a good/interesting/entertaining force using their existing models, and do nothing else to maintain fidelity with the original rules.
Now step out of GW's box and think about all of the other manufacturers' models that are out there, and how they could fit into a 40K-style game. Mantic has options GW doesn't, and Dust makes much nicer vehicles/walkers than GW does.

And then there's the wild west that's coming with 3D printing and all the garage studios that will enable. Why not take stock of ALL the miniature options and fill the conceptual/tactical holes in GW's game with whatever model best fits? Why be constrained by GW's model choices, whose inclusion in the game is based solely on how they look, and not any specific or needed tactical role?
Hell, while we're talking about it, you could actually make each faction better represent their actual Games Workshop fluff than Games Workshop's own rules do. You could actually make your Shoulderpad Dudes elite soldiers who survive hundreds of battles, instead of actually being only slightly more survivable than a half-naked ork armed with an axe. You could make Eldar actually be really flexible and have lots of foresight, retreating as soon as they start to take significant casualties. Etc."
That's one of our goals. :)
"If you guys are gonna spend time doing this, avoid the mistake all the fan-mods out there always make, of doing all of their thinking inside the constraints of GW's shitty box, just tweaking points values and individual model stats and maybe dickering with the game's phases."
Oh, we're WAY beyond that level of thinking already.

First, we've trimmed our model statlines down to just 7 characteristics. We're also talking about a new way of having those stats interact with ranged and melee weapons that you might find interesting, and I hope to get your (and others') input on that. Whether you think it's awesome, or that it sucks, the project needs your feedback!

Those black dice are tracking each unit's Initiative.
Second, after testing many other alternatives, our turns are combined. Both players move in the movement phase, and shoot in the shooting phase, and fight in the melee phase. The order of which is determined by each unit's Initiative. Far from being static, a unit's Initiative actually changes during the game, based on how they move and how much fire they take, which means that the order of unit activation is different in every single turn. The attacker starts out moving everything first, but as the turns go on, things mix up until the defender starts getting the advantage. It's really neat and fun to play.

Note that these charts are actually identical.
Third, we've got a D10 based system where rolling to hit is a comparative test between the WS of the shooter and the Evasion characteristic of the target (plus cover modifiers). That plus a similar armor save test means that unless the target is in hard cover or especially tough, there's only two rolls per attack. One to hit and another to save.

Fourth, Leadership rolls work differently. Roll 2D10 and pick the lowest to try and roll under your Ld. That means that instead of GW's 2D6 Bell Curve of results (making anything less than a 7 useless, and anything over a 9 inconsequential, we have a completely positive result curve. Where even Ld values as low as 3 can be useful. Giving us a much wider range of possible characteristic values.

Fifth, your forces won't be fighting down to the last man very often, because once you lose more than half your units, the army itself will begin taking Ld checks. Better hope your leaders aren't all dead...

So there's five (of many) big differences between our game and 40K which go beyond a few stat tweaks and really change up how the game itself is played. This really is a ground-up re-write that still, in many ways, feels like 40K. Even though it definitely isn't. WarStrike is especially not a retread of 2nd Edition, except in the general scale of the battles. :)

The "Why Not Just Modify" Question

Captain Rufus brings up a point that caused many arguments at the start of our project:
"Tweaking existing 40K is honestly the easiest and safest bet. Things already sort of built for you and pointed out. Just need to tweak shit based on what failings there are and what rules changes might cause to the game in general."
This was something that we argued about so vehemently that we lost a couple of early team members over it. I've already discussed the need for WarStrike to remain independent of GW's IP and the chains it would put on us if we didn't forge our own path, but let's discuss the other issues involved.

Recent History

First, there have been at least 2 decently well-known modification projects (that I know of) that began at about the same time as ours with much fanfare, and a more recent one launched by Stelek over at YTTH. All of them folded within 2-3 months due to a lack of leadership, focus, and bickering over specific changes.

I didn't expect that all of those projects would fold, and I would rather have more direct competition, but they did and we're still here.

There have been at least 3-4 other 're-write' rules projects that have popped up since we started. None of them are (IMO) all that great as games, but each has a small, loyal following all the same.

Take away: If you make something just a little bit different than what players know, then they'll all be disappointed in some way by what you do. But if you make something new, then they don't bring the same kind of expectations to your game that they would otherwise. As Drgnvale noted.

The Nature Of 40K's Game System

Once you get into analyzing the 40K game at all (as I did while playing it competitively), it quickly becomes apparent that the thing can't be balanced, because there is no logical consistency to it. The system itself has so much randomness, and so many exceptions built into it that balancing it without a complete rewrite is nigh on impossible. All you can hope to do is guess better than GW on what something should cost.

Orks, for instance (and certain Necron units), are particularly unbalanceable. Nothing about them is consistent, and you have units where you roll dice to see how many more dice you can roll. Or where successful attacks will spawn more and more attacks. How can you possibly balance that?

I've written computer programs to determine the average results of 40K shooting attacks, and it required 100,000+ simulated attack runs to come up with a consistent average that varied less than 1%. But as soon as you start rolling for your number of attacks (Lootas), it took almost 400,000 simulated runs to come up with an average.

Will you ever play that many games in your life? Does the entire 40K community play that many games in a month, or even six? Hell no!

So the randomness needs to be reduced so that you don't have players getting good statistical runs where unit X is awesome and should cost 3X more, while others hate it and think that it should cost 3X less. Who's right? They both are, because the system itself is too random to meaningfully compare to the relatively small number of games that you'll ever play of it.

So you can tweak/comp 40K all you like, but in the end you'll just end up with different imbalances than GW did. You'll also just split the remaining player base amongst the mod/comp versions (as the tournament community is currently doing), while ignoring the legions of players who've already gotten fed up and quit; but who would still like to be able to play a fun, low-cost 28mm Sci-Fi game if one existed.

That's who we're after. The players (esp. competitive ones) who miss 40K, but aren't going back.

The Time It Takes To Play A Game

JcDent posted:
"If I wanted to have requirements for a 40k themed wargame at the same scale as current 40k games, I'd want the two focuses to be on quick resolution and clearly worded rules. It is terrible that a moderate sized 40k game can take over three hours to play 5-6 turns. I'd much rather play two or three games in that time period. It's also terrible how much time is spent trying to figure out exactly what the chucklefucks in Nottingham were trying to say when they wrote their word salad rules."
Our goal is one hour games at 1000 points. Which is something that even players who don't care about 40K's lack of balance LOVE. Because I want tournaments to be able to run enough games for single-elimination scoring without going two days long. I want friends who know the game to be able to play 2 matches in an evening if they want.

As for clear rules wording...

Not the most current version of these rules, but it shows our attention to detail on rules wording.
I think that we stand head and shoulders above anyone else (except maybe Battlefront) in that department. All rules are carefully worded and numbered for easy referencing (and bug reporting). With clear instructions on what to do in the case of conflicts (higher-numbered rules win).

Our Design Methodology

'The Supreme Court' posted (though not specifically about us):
"This is absolutely damn right! Setting out without a concrete design vision that's clearly laid out would be disastrous for any project, never mind one as nebulous and prone to confusion as a large ruleset with lots of independent variables.
Captain Rufus, your post is pretty much a perfect example of why doing detail work before a design document leads to an unworkable mess."
I interviewed at Blizzard Entertainment once (yes, the Diablo guys), and I said something very much like this. They sort of grimaced and showed me the door. Why? Because as I later learned, that's exactly how you make shit games.

I've worked on big Hollywood movies, and I've worked on video games. How smoothly the development/production goes means absolutely NOTHING when it comes to how well a game will sell. Because all that matters is the final product's appeal. Appeal is everything. Everything else is secondary.

Your typical PC/Console game is always scheduled to take about a year and a half to make, and most end up taking most of 2 years. But here's a little secret. The most successful ones, the Half-Lifes, Dooms, Diablos, WoWs, CoDs, etc... They all take 3-4 years to make. Why? Because they regularly throw out 1/2 to 3/4 of everything they make for the game.

Why do they do that? Because if they try something out, and it's not appealing, they trash it and move on. If they figure out a better way to do something, they trash or rework what they have until everything is as appealing as possible. Most of what we saw in Diablo II wasn't made in the first 3 years of development, it was made in the last year. After 3 years of thinking very carefully about every little part of the game, they took the results of that practice and knocked one out of the park.

So all our project started with was a set of design goals, which have barely changed over 3 years. If I had made a 'proper' design document, and planned out everything to the tiniest detail ahead of time, then our game would look much like our first playable iteration. Something of a cross between 40K and Flames of War (itself a 3rd Edition 40K re-think).

But when I took that game out to show it to people and test it, the experience didn't 'pop'. It was fun enough, and fast enough, and there were things the testers really liked about it, but there wasn't a whole lot to differentiate it from Dust or any of the other games that I saw in development at that time. The gameplay just wasn't refined enough, and players had more suggestions than complements after playing it.

So we iterated, iterated, and iterated some more. CaulynDarr really wanted us to have a distinct feature planned out at the beginning that would set us apart. But I said that would happen naturally as we iterated. Well, now (3 years on) we have a distinct feature that I've never seen before in a game, and a whole slew of minor ones that improve upon stuff that's already out there!

What Comes Next

Right now we're slogging our way towards a first alpha release, which (assuming recent changes don't play badly) should happen in 1-2 months' time.

Then we'll have some more refinement releases, and work our way up to 2-3 playable factions. Then we'll look at some funding options for further development, assuming the game builds enough interest amongst players to warrant it.

Ultimately, we want to have web and tablet apps that will allow you to customize your units, vehicles and armies to a far greater extent than you can with 40K, but within a system that ensures that whatever you make is balanced at least one degree of magnitude better than 40K. Because we can automate the balancing math and just let you play with options. Creating anything you like (within certain faction constraints) that fits your model collection or conversion interests.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts