Making Crow’s Nest (part 4 of 4): “Sons of Sol” & “Crow’s Nest”

 I'm still looking for an artist. Can you tell?
I’m still looking for an artist. Can you tell?

Hi! This is Part 3 of me offering some insight into the development of my game, Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest.

In Part 1 I explained my pitch “Asteroids meets Total War”.
In Part 2 I talked about the games that are influencing the design of Crow’s Nest.
In Part 3 I discussed a design challenge that the game faces.

Now we’ve reached the final post of this ‘Making Crow’s Nest’ series. You may recall from Part 1 that these four posts were written together and scheduled to post while I was on some down time. Next week I’ll be back to blogging on more mainstream game topics.

Today I’m talking about what Sons of Sol and Crow’s Nest actually are. This will be a more autobiographical post than normal, so you have been warned. This tale will interweave a little bit with my previous blog on how I got into game development, which I was uneasy about writing but which people seemed to respond very positively to. This won’t be as much of downer, though, promise!

Together, “Sons of Sol” and “Crow’s Nest” are the working title for the game that I’m working on, which is my (and RetroNeo Games’) first game ever. Hopefully there’ll be no need to change those names, but these things happen sometimes in development. Better names come along or products with similar names get released before yours.

An Evil Empire

Sons of Sol actually began in 2012 not long after Disney bought Star Wars from George Lucas. I was a life-long Star Wars fan. The films, games, and especially the books. My brother bought me one of the Expanded Universe (EU) novels in 1997 for my 10th birthday; a Han Solo trilogy one. From then and for the next 15 years, 4 out of every 5 books that I read were probably Star Wars books. I loved how the stories interconnected. I loved that a character could be introduced in one book, and survive fifteen fictional years, then be killed off when you least expect it.

There were a lot of bad books in the Expanded Universe, but far more good ones. I loved how you were rewarded for your time by seeing threads of stories affect each other decades apart. The rebels eventually take Coruscant, Han and Leia have three kids, these kids get dozens of their own books and become their own proper characters, grow to adulthood and war with each other, for example. There’s a book for more than every year of their lives. You can observe their whole character arcs from birth to… well.. if you put the time in. The EU was all internally consistent, and all canon. It all worked together.

There are a few early exceptions and a few game stories that don’t fit, but otherwise the EU really rewarded fans for their time. In 2012 I finished reading to the end of the Star Wars chronology. That’s 40 years of story after Return of the Jedi, not to mention the Clone Wars books and books set between and during the movies. I didn’t read all the books, but read most from the timeline of Episode 1-6 and beyond. None of the Old Republic stuff, though.

Anyway, I felt I’d achieved a monumental reading goal that I set myself in 2007 (before that I’d read the books a little randomly). Five years of reading little but Star Wars, and the stories I got out of it were great. No other franchise could achieve this (well, maybe Star Trek).

Then Disney bought Star Wars, and soon announced that there would be a new trilogy, but that they’d be throwing away all of that canon. The EU didn’t count any more. Timothy Zahn started with Heir To The Empire in 1994. 18 years of work and some great stories now didn’t count because Disney felt there was more money in movies and merchandise.

I’m not naive. I know there is. I know entertainment is a business, but I’m just trying to convey my disappointment at the news. They could have set new movies inside the EU, easily. Instead they threw it away for.. well, we don’t know yet. This blog is posting 1 month before the release of JJ Abrams’ Episode 7. We’ve no idea if the new movies will be good or if the stories will be better than the ones discarded. I’m still totally reserved at the time of writing this.

I also know that I now have two timelines. More Star Wars! Yay! Well, that’s just not how I feel about it. I’m allowed to feel disappointed, particularly after the loyalty I showed the franchise.

A Great Journey

Anyway, also around this time, I moved back to Ireland after unsuccessfully attempting to get a permanent visa in Australia. So I was back in Ireland and unemployed with no decent chances of starting a career any time soon. I decided to start writing science fiction to fill the Star-Wars-shaped hole in my soul (okay, I’m being overly dramatic. I’ll watch it. Sorry).

I was going to write a universe of my own that I would promise to keep consistent with itself. I didn’t believe that this would become a big thing, or even necessarily that I would get a single book published, but it occupied the time.

Building a Galaxy

I started watching tonnes of science fiction movies and documentaries and designing my universe. This took a long time. You have to design whole new physical rules for your world. You have to say “you can do this, but not this” and consider if that statement even makes sense. If you have one technology available, like artificial gravity without rotation, then you have to consider what else you can have. With that, for example, you’re kind of saying that the theory of ‘gravitons’ existing is correct, and that we’ve managed to develop technology to manipulate them. Well, keeping someone fixed to the deck in a spaceship (as seen in almost every sci fi movie and show ever) means that you can cause attraction towards a point. In that case, you can probably cause repulsion in the opposite direction. This would make hover technology a reality. Did I want hover cars and hover crates in my sci-fi? Because if not then I have to solve the artificial gravity problem in another way.

How long does it take to travel from one star system to another? That’s going to have a major impact on stories later on. Armies can’t reinforce one another in the middle of a battle if it takes two weeks to travel to the nearest star.

In the end, I came up with rules I was happy with. It’s a lot like Battlestar Galactica with some Mass Effect and Starship Troopers thrown in. A cold-hard-metal feel to things but with certain sci-fi tropes like artificial gravity. Warp speed is accomplished assuming that Alcubierre’s (real) theories are correct and realisable. There’s no light swords, weapons fire hard projectiles, and there are no shield technologies. Armour and photo-chromatic materials are all that you’ve got in battle. There’s also ABSOLUTELY NO TIME-TRAVEL OR ALTERNATE DIMENSIONS, EVER!!

Next I was writing broad story arcs and setting up so that the universe could grow wide, and so that you could have human factions appear in all parts of the galaxy. After all, it’s easier to dress the actors as humans than aliens. You’ve got to think forward! 😉 Look at Stargate!

I sketched out a 3 part story that told the tale of Earth’s first expansion beyond our solar system, our first contact with aliens, and our introduction to the wider galaxy. I designed alien races called the Cestral and the Skulaari, the latter being the villains, themed on terrifying sea creatures like giant squid and crustaceans. I even wrote a little language for these factions.

I Need a Name

This all took several months, and I got a job for a few months which led me to drop the writing project for a while. Then I lost the job and took the writing back up again. I started writing the real story, finally, and decided to call the story at large “Sons of Sol”, after conducting extensive web searches for similarly named things.

At the time, I found none. I bought the .com address and set up a wiki to lay some sort of claim to the name. I’ve since found some similarly named games, a Korean TV show called “Sons of Sol Pharmacy” and a hoody company with the very same name. Apparently, I’m still fine to be using the name, so for now I’ll keep it unless I can think of a name I like more.

In early 2013 I started studying tax in Ireland, believing this would be my route to eventual (permanent) employment. I worked hard at it, but I was unemployed and it was a part time course, so I still had some time to give to writing and designing the world. I also had been writing down game ideas as they came to me and designing them out in .txt files for fun. I never expected to make a game, though, as I didn’t want to study another degree course just to go into a risky profession.

A Flirtation with Games

One day I was very sick of studying this boring topic and posted on the forum to see if any game developers needed somebody with “great ideas” (I know, right?! haha) but who could also record audio, compose music, write, and manage the business/marketing side (okay, that’s a little better).

A guy called Rob Reinhardt in Dublin got back to me and he was actually interested in doing some collaborating. We struck up a friendship and met a few times, talking about games and what we might make together. I was only going to be involved part time as I was studying and hopefully going to get a normal job, but I’d help with the writing and other stuff as much as I could. I wasn’t looking for pay or anything.

Eventually, we decided to use Sons of Sol’s universe as a setting for a game. It would be a prequel for the book I was writing. The book focussed on the people of Earth (at first), but the game would focus on a lost human civilization called the Kolrir and how they came (secretly) to Earth, setting up the events of the book I was writing.

Nothing came of the game ultimately, but we’d designed a lot on paper for Sons of Sol: Exodus (that name would have to change if we’d done it because Sol: Exodus came out from somebody else).

An Earth-shattering Kaboom!

2014 rolled around. I got a job in tax.. for 6 weeks, then lost that one too. Rob and others had told me that Unity was easy to pick up and start using, so with game design now on the brain and no tax to work at or study, I started at Unity and learned how to do some basic programming through their tutorials. It was only a couple of months before I had a very early version of a space game up and running. I later returned to this very first game for Crow’s Nest.

I started going to gaming events in Dublin and meeting the great community here, as well as improving my own skills and looked into starting a company through the unemployment enterprise scheme.

The game that Rob and I had designed was still well beyond my skills still (probably his too. We weren’t good at ‘scope’) but the space game currently on my screen could work inside the Sons of Sol universe too. After all, I’d designed it very openly. I can plug in new civilizations wherever I like and the story still all holds together. I’d put a lot of time into the ‘Exodus’ story (with Rob) and thought it was solid, so I wanted to keep it in tact. I decided to write a prequel to the prequel and tell the story of the characters that you would meet in Exodus and call it “Crow’s Nest”.

My very own Game

The game would be ostensibly about a private military company from Kolrir protecting their territories from pirates. The ‘Crows Nest’, the lookout spot on a sail ship (like a pirate boat) sounded suitably pirate-y for a name. In space, though, particularly in another non-Earth culture, the crow’s nest wouldn’t really be a term in use, both because you can’t sit outside a spaceship, and the Kolrir culture may never have had sailing ships as far as we know. So in this case, the “Nest” would refer to a pirate base hidden inside a large asteroid, and “Crow” would be the pirate villain in question who owned that base.

I’ll fully admit that I didn’t finish a book, didn’t finish a game, and am now starting another game, but bear in mind that I saw writing the book as just killing time while unemployed. The first game was killing time in between studying. With the current game, I’ve formed RetroNeo Games as a company. This is now my job, and that’s a hell of a difference. I also now have the skills to make a game (or at least prototype it) by myself, without just being in a position where I’m giving ideas to other people. I have the time, ability, and drive to deliver Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest.

The Future of Sons of Sol

I plan to release in early 2017. This will then be the first Sons of Sol product to exist, almost five years after I first created the universe. I hope people will like it!

I could take the same game and abandon the Sons of Sol name. It’ll make no difference to the players. They don’t know what Sons of Sol is! But I’ve a whole universe worth of stories to tell and why shouldn’t I make the game a Sons of Sol title? It fits. It works. But what if it’s bad and I wreck the name before I even begin?

Well, then I released a bad game, I guess. That’s the risk with any creative work. And it’s still better than releasing no game at all and Sons of Sol never getting its chance in the public domain. But I’ve worked too hard for years for no reward to approach this half-assed. Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest is going to be my absolute best effort, and nobody can ask fairer than that. I’ll be a very proud daddy the day I finally release the game. And who knows, maybe I’ll get to those other story lines some day, either through game sequels, or finishing the novel. The novel was only a couple of chapters in, though, when I last left it. If that were to be finished now I’d be better off having a different writer do it while I make a game. And I could only do that if a Sons of Sol game were wildly successful and there was the interest in a book. 

That’s extremely unlikely, I know, but it doesn’t bother me either way. I feel that if I can release one Sons of Sol title at this stage, I’ll be happy and it will all have been worth the effort.

Is he done yet?!

If you read this far, well done, and thanks very sincerely for your interest! Especially if you read all 4 parts. Sorry for the lack of images today, also. I’ve really got no pictures of this topic, though. Next week we’re back to non-Crow’s Nest gaming topics for the blog.

Until next time..

Making Crow’s Nest (part 3 of 4): A design challenge

 Okay, not game-related but I can't resist a caption.. From left to right: Manager, Supervisor, new Job Bridge Intern, old Job Bridge Intern they're about to claim they can't afford to hire.

Hi! This is Part 3 of me offering some insight into the development of my game, Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest.

In Part 1 I explained my pitch “Asteroids meets Total War”.
Last week in Part 2 I talked about the games that are influencing the design of Crow’s Nest.
This week I want to talk about one particular design challenge I’m facing: Meaningful Character Death.

Crow’s Nest is a space combat game meets a strategy game. You fly missions like Wing Commander or X-Wing missions (but in 2D) and then go back to a strategy map like XCOM or Total War. I spoke last week about how I’m very fond of the attachment to your soldiers that XCOM can create for the player. It adds a real tension and a greater range of emotions for the player when a soldier dies or barely escapes.


The Problem

I decided very early on that I wanted meaningful character death in my game. So I thought “fine, I’ll have you play as one character, and you have wingmen. Those characters can live or die or get captured by the enemy. After that they could stay captured or you could rescue them”.

That sounds reasonable enough, but there was something that I didn’t take into account. In my game’s battles, you control one character directly. You can give orders to your other wingmen but you have very little control over what they do beyond that. In XCOM, you’re the commander. You’re not on the field. You control every one of your soldiers individually, one at a time. You are responsible for everything that they do. Therefore, the consequences are yours alone to deal with. You can’t blame the game or the AI for making your beloved soldier do something stupid (usually) and getting themselves killed.

I only realised the full importance of this distinction when I watched the following interview. In it, Adam Sessler brings together Jake Solomon (lead designer on 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown and 2016’s XCOM 2) and Julian Gollop, the designer of the original XCOM from 1994. The whole interview is very interesting, but if you don’t want to watch it all, skip to 12:32 and watch for about two minutes.

Jake Solomon made the point that without turn-based gameplay you can’t have meaningful character death. I saw this and I thought “oh crap! He’s completely right”! If the player isn’t directly accountable for the decision that led to a soldier dying, then they won’t feel survivor’s guilt, or the guilt of having ordered somebody to their death. They’ll probably feel nothing, or worse, they’ll blame the game for the consequence. If that happens, the system may as well not be in the game. As I said, I think it’s a very powerful feature of XCOM that I want to try and emulate insofar as possible, so I have a problem.

Now, I haven’t built the system into the game yet, so it hasn’t been play-tested, but I am at the design stage for it, and I’m left considering what I can do for the best results.

Poking a hole in that theory

If I’m to bother implementing meaningful character death into Crow’s Nest (a real-time game), I need Solomon and Gollop to be (at least somewhat) incorrect. They’re far better game designers than me, so maybe it’s not possible, but if I could poke a breathing hole in the design-bag they’ve placed over my head, then I might be okay.

My starting point for designing around the problem is this: We know that we can develop strong emotional ties to fictional characters. This is why we can cry when Bambi’s mother dies or celebrate when Luke blows up the Death Star. Empathy is real, even if the character isn’t. Game of Thrones in particular proves that the unpredictability of death can have a great impact on fans and really raise the tension.

Real-life battles happen in real time (obviously, hence the word “real”), and while the commander’s soldiers will have been trained, they operate of their own volition. A commander doesn’t control them with their mind, or decide whether they run left around a barrel instead of right. But the tension they feel at ordering their troops into danger is no less real for the lack of direct control.

Perhaps, then, you don’t need total control over your units in a game in order to feel something for them. They are your team mates, after all, whether they’re AI or not. Maybe it’s possible to bring the emotions of XCOM to a real-time game, then. Maybe meaningful character death for Crow’s Nest is possible.


XCOM lets you make an awful lot of decisions, and it gives you the time to make them so that you’ll feel (if it goes wrong) that you didn’t think the problem through well-enough. You’ll feel that it was your fault!

If XCOM shows us a formula for meaningful character death, then, it might look like this:

Quantity of player decisions + Time to make them = Meaningful Character Death

Time to make them

Let’s look at this part first. A real-time game doesn’t really offer you time, typically. But it can! Many RPGs will let you paused the action to give orders and then resume it to see them play out in real time. There’s an option! The problem with this is that is interrupts the action, and in Crow’s Nest, if you spend too long paused, you might forget that you were literally a half a second away from smashing into an asteroid before you paused.

So how about a compromise? The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (2013) was a real-time cover-based third-person shooter that tried to implement meaningful character death. It utterly failed because it was so story-driven that the main character (you) couldn’t die. If you did, you just went back to a checkpoint. Your squad mates could die, permanently, but if they did you could just get yourself killed, reload the checkpoint to before they were hit, and everybody’s happy again. That’s what they did wrong.

What they did right was their ‘pause’ system. Like the RPG system I mentioned, you could pause the action and issue orders, but it wasn’t really paused. Time was still moving, albeit very slowly. You had more time to make decisions, but the tension remained as you saw an enemy moving (very slowly) to flank your sniper and you tried to decide whether to order your him to move back or to take a headshot on the enemy before it was too late! That’s one way I could buy the player the “time” part of the formula.

I could just acknowledge that in real time you have to make quick decisions and just live with that, however, this will then allow the player to make far less decisions in the same amount of (game) time and so the formula is less healthy looking.

Quantity of Player Decisions

There’s a lot that I could do to give the player more decisions. In the combat demo I have currently available (see video above) there’s a lot that will be changed. In this demo you have infinite fuel, infinite (bullet) ammo, and recharging health. The enemies also come in equal waves each time. 

First off, I intend that when you encounter the first enemies of a battle, they’ll call reinforcements, who’ll take a certain amount of time to get there, but who will be stronger that the first group. Think of it as a wave system, but where you don’t have to beat one to spawn the next one. It’s a truer reinforcement system. You want to deal with one problem before the next arrives.

Of course, different mission types could have different rules and spies might disable enemy communications, etc, but imagine that some missions as they go on get harder and harder, to the point that waves will spawn that you couldn’t possibly beat. This is one option that opens a lot of doors.

This set up would force you to chose to flee at some point. That choice alone means that if you or your allies die, you know you stayed one wave too long.

If I then make ammo, fuel, and health limited, then you have to choose if you and each of your wingmen have enough of those three resources left to take on the next set of reinforcements, or just run whenever you get the chance. That’s at least three choices that you make for each of three (or more) craft, every couple of minutes. That’s a lot of opportunity for the player to start blaming themselves if something goes wrong.

Other decisions would have been made before the battle. Do you take the more experienced pilots or train up rookies? Do you arm missiles, or save the weight to make the craft more agile? Did you invest in an armour upgrade last month or did that money go to set up a spy drone in an asteroid field where you suspect the enemy to be?

I could go on, but you can see that quantity of decisions shouldn’t be a problem, even in a real-time game.

The Real Trick; AI

 Can I make you care about these guys?
Can I make you care about these guys?

Assuming we can get the formula balanced correctly, the whole thing hinges on whether or not the player will accept that, if a wing mate dies, the fault lay with their decisions. According to Gollop and Solomon, the player would blame the AI. I think that the more you stack decisions and input from the player, within an interface that allows them to make decisions in good time, the greater the chance you have of the player accepting the consequences of those decisions and arriving at our goal of meaningful character death.

Balancing the AI is the key ingredient, and this is where so many games have failed in the past. I may well fail here, too, but I don’t plan to make meaningful character death my game’s only selling point, so it wouldn’t be a fatal failure.

Your wing mates have to be good enough that they can survive on their own for a while against reasonable odds, but they can’t be so good that you can just let them beat the whole mission for you.

In the demo at the moment, because the Arrow Fighters are harder to hit, turn faster, and have recharging health, they’re actually capable of taking all of the kills if you do nothing. There aren’t enough enemies on the map at once to stop them, usually. This is an unbalanced demo, however.

The AI will run if they’re damaged, usually saving their lives. They’ll call to you for help, and if you don’t give it, the enemy might just catch up and kill your ally. This is already more intelligent behaviour than many games would bother giving to computer-controlled characters, and it’s essential to meaningful character death in a real-time game, but it’s not nearly enough.

 Alien Isolation is known for its brilliant AI. 
Alien Isolation is known for its brilliant AI. 

To be honest, I haven’t figured out the balance yet, and it will require a lot of play testing. 

I’d like to caveat that all of the above is assuming that you actually do things to give those wing mates a personality. They have to have a face, a voice, a backstory that you are spoon fed during quieter moments, as well as skills, abilities, a record of confirmed kills, and a rank that progresses as they gain experience. They have to taunt the enemy when they get a kill. They have to call you for help. They even have to react to incoming enemies believably; either with confidence, or the realisation that they’re truly outmatched.

Some of those latter points are observable in the demo already, but most have yet to be implemented, and I only have one voice pack so far.

What say you?

This is an open problem, not a post-mortem. Moreso than with any other blog that I’ve posted, I’d really appreciate your opinions in the comments below. What do you think of my problem? What do you think of my proposed solutions? Have you anything you might recommend as other player decisions or wing mate behaviours? What pitfalls should I avoid? Are there games I should be looking at to see how they handled this problem? Thank you in advance.

Next week is the last of these posts focussing on Crow’s Nest (for now). I’ll be talking about what Sons of Sol and Crow’s Nest actually are (fictionally speaking) and how they came to be.

Until next time..

Making Crow’s Nest (part 2 of 4): Influences

Hi! This is part 2 of me offering some insight into the creation of Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest. In Part 1 I talked about my “Asteroids meets Total War” pitch and what, exactly, the hell that meant.

This week I’ll be basically talking about some of the games that are having a big influence on the development of Crow’s Nest. If you’re a space and/or strategy game fan, this may be of interest to you. Fair warning; there’s going to be a lot of Star Wars games in here!

These aren’t “games that are similar to my game”, but instead they make up more of a history of the games that I have personally played that influence Crow’s Nest in some way.

First up..

Asteroids (1979)

Last week I talked a bit about this and Total War as influences so I’ll be brief. Here is one of the very original space shooters, and a classic game. There’s the three-life formula with a single hit and you’re dead. There’s extra lives, speed, intensity, high scores, and great use of limited technology to deliver imaginative graphics. The key ingredient to itss addictiveness is the quick restart. You can instantly hop back in for another round to try and beat your previous high score. It’s a simple, but proven method of keeping players pumping in quarters (or nowadays, playing and seeing advertising).

The computer room in my school when I was a kid had this on some machines so I’d race through our typing lessons so that I could play. In years since I see it every now and again as a web link and I always click in for a few rounds. The thrill of dodging through asteroids at high speeds and evading incoming laser shots never gets old, and it’s a mechanic that I’m endeavouring to capture in Crow’s Nest.

Total War series

 Shogun: Total War (2000)
Shogun: Total War (2000)

Again, I talked about Shogun specifically last week, but to reiterate, I loved the two-sided approach to a strategy game. Until Shogun, I’d only played strategy games like Command & Conquer (C&C) where you fight one battle at a time and it never influenced the next battle. It didn’t matter how many losses you took in exchange for victory, and if you lost you would just restart the level. In Total War, you finally could say “we may have lost this battle, but we’ll win the war” and it would mean something.

At the time, I was unaware that XCOM had been doing this since 1994, and there were probably several other games too, but this was my first and the experience of playing Shogun for the first time shaped how I would view games forever more. Now, as a designer, the strategic depth of Total War and games like it is something I want to incorporate into my games whenever possible.

I also liked how special units could affect the war. Diplomacy and assassinations could drastically change the course of the war. I’ve always kept in mind the influence that special units could and (I think) should have on a strategy game.

X-COM series

 X-COM: Ufo Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown) (1994)
X-COM: Ufo Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown) (1994)

There were a whole bunch of XCOM games starting with 1994’s original, but the series wasn’t well managed, wasn’t always in the hands of the original creators, and really took a dive until the 2012 remake by Firaxis and 2K, ‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’. When the latter was announced, it was the first time I really noticed the series. I’d never played it. I picked up the original before the release of the remake, and played both games in 2012. My world changed!

I’d always avoided turn-based strategy games. I just had never liked the few examples I’d played. I thought they were too unrealistic because you wind up with two soldier just looking at each other instead of fighting. What I didn’t appreciate was that in the moments between the action, when you’re making your decisions like in a chess match (ironically, I loved chess), you’re getting a whole different type of gameplay. Instead of trying to simply react quickly like in an RTS, you’re really trying to solve a problem in the most efficient way possible (like a puzzle game) but with the added element of random chance getting in the way of your best laid plans. RTS games have this plus speed, but turn based games forego the speed in favour of really making you think about the consequences of your actions.

I’ll be talking next week about a design challenge that this posed to my game. The turn-based element buys you gravitas insofar as the player has made every move and so they have nobody to blame for the consequences. In any real-time game where you have allies, they’ll likely by controlled by the AI, and if they die you may be inclined to blame the designer or the AI, and not your own command skills.

 Chances are they're not all coming back!
Chances are they’re not all coming back!

What I love about XCOM is the same thing that I love about Total War: persistence! The game allows you to fail and recover, not just restart. What XCOM does that Total War doesn’t really do is make you care about individual soldiers. In dealing with small squads over dozens of missions (and especially if you choose to name and customise them yourself) you get to form relationships with individual soldiers. Sending your best veteran sniper into a risky situation to try and rescue your best medic is a weighty decision that C&C or Total War can’t really deliver. The tension is immense because the consequences are permanent. That means that success is vastly more rewarding here than in normal games. You’re always glad to see troops come home alive. The range of emotions you can evoke in the player is what earns the XCOM series such devoted fans.

I also loved the base management, particularly in the original game (or the fan-made Xenonauts (2014)). Having to actually buy replacement rockets, bullets, grenades, and med packs may have been too heavy on the micromanagement side, but then again, a shortage of finances really affected your tactical options when you went into battle. You might fire a rocket to keep your troops safe from an ambush, but you wince as you see thousands of credits go up in smoke! Also in those games I loved that your home base could be attacked, but may not be. 2012’s XCOM and its expansion Enemy Within didn’t have this. EW had one mandatory base attack mission. In the other games you could attack enemy bases or leave them be, and they could do the same to you. Each side could have more than one base, but they were expensive to run. The decision was up to you!

I haven’t decided how many of these design influences will appear in the strategy layer of Crow’s Nest, but some of them definitely will.

Star Wars: X-Wing series (1993-1999)

Now we get to the combat influences! I’ve said before on this blog that 1993’s X-Wing was my first ever game. I played the hell out of it! Its sequels TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance were also hugely influential for me.

I must acknowledge that, like many of the Star Wars games, these were cashing in on the popularity of other games. Wing Commander (1990) paved the way for X-Wing. Lucasarts said “we could do that, but with iconic Star Wars ships, music, and sound. People will go insane for it!” So my influence’s influence was really Wing Commander, but I never actually played any of them until I backed Star Citizen and started looking up Chris Roberts’ older games.

Tragically, X-Wing Alliance (1999) remains the last game in this series, but it’s one of my favourite games of all time. The series centred around dogfighting in the Star Wars ships, exclusively in space. Alliance was the first one where you could fly bigger ships like the Millennium Falcon, jump sectors in hyperspace during a mission, or dock with craft to rearm or “board” them (you just sat in the turret while other people on your ship supposedly did the boarding, but it was still cool).

 X-Wing Alliance (1999). Fly the  Millennium Falcon  against the second  Death Star !
X-Wing Alliance (1999). Fly the Millennium Falcon  against the second Death Star !

It had over 50 missions and (what I thought) was a great story set alongside the events of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, culminating in you (changing characters to Lando) flying the Millennium Falcon in the Battle of Endor, all the way inside the second Death Star!

Wing mates would take your orders, get chatty with you, call for help, and taunt the enemy! That’s not unique to this game, or anything, but it adds greatly to the atmosphere and it’s in Crow’s Nest too!

The briefings, the mission types, the dramatic set-pieces, the in-game reinforcements and dramatic turnings of the tide of battle are all fresh in my memory and are heavily influencing the way I’m designing the combat missions of Crow’s Nest. While Alliance was a linear game, and mine is more dynamic, I feel I can still deliver a lot of the same drama, action and intensity but with the added benefits of the tension gained from the possibility of loss.

The one major thing I wanted to change is that in 3D space you see very little of the battle. When an enemy goes past you you lose sight of them. When a big ship explodes spectacularly, you may not be looking in the right direction at the right time to see it. I wanted to take 3D space combat games and put them in 2D so you have greater situational awareness and can see more of the action! That’s my big departure, but otherwise, the combat in Crow’s Nest is heavily influenced by the X-Wing games; far more so than it is by your average top-down space shooter.

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998)

The original was out on the N64, and later the PC. Two sequels came out on the Gamecube too. These were also 3D Star Wars ship combat games, but now mostly focussed on planetary combat, against TIE Fighters & ground units, instead of TIE Fighters & Star Destroyers.

If you played these games and the current Crow’s Nest demo, my big take-away from Rogue Squadron should be obvious: The orders system.

You have two wing mates with you most of the time and they can largely take care of themselves, but you can give them a few orders on the D-pad. D-up is to “Form Up” and they increase your overall fire power by flying on your wing and shooting when you shoot. I’ve used this order directly (it’s not stealing if you declare the influence, right?) as well as the ability to keep your wing mates safe by telling them to retreat. Beyond that, the orders system starts to differ, but feeling like you’re not alone is important to a game where you play a fighter squadron, and Rogue Squadron handled it well!

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014)

Can anyone have played this game and not loved the nemesis system? This Lord of the Rings game has you play a human Ranger & elven ghost (sharing the same body) and travel around Mordor… eh, doing things.. revenge, mostly. It played a bit like the Batman Arkham games in the fighting systems and like many open world games otherwise, but the nemesis system stood it apart, and it even won a few Game Of The Year Awards.

In the picture above, you can see one of dozens of enemy commanders. These exist in a ranking hierarchy. You can “ally” with some of them and assist their rise to power in order to get rid of certain other nemeses in the game.

Each nemesis (as long as they’re alive, anyway) will remember having met and fought you, and they’ll comment on the result of that battle. As seen above, they all have different strengths and weaknesses. At first, these are unknown to you but you can interrogate underlings and rivals (forgive me if I’m not exactly right, there) to learn these traits. For example, a nemesis might have beaten you down the first three times you tried to fight him, then you learn he’s afraid of a ‘caragor’, so you show up riding on the back of one and he’ll flee with his tail between his legs! Another nemesis might hate caragors, and so this same tactic would only enrage him, boosting his stats!

This latter part of the system is something I’m interested in implementing into Crow’s Nest. You will benefit from spying on enemies by learning things about their movements, or what types of ships they favour using. You could just approach the battles blind, but intel gathering will pay off.

I don’t necessarily plan to have you ally with factions or control pirate groups, but I’m at least taking inspiration from the nemesis system insofar as learning about your enemy and having them remember you goes.

Honorable Mentions

Star Wars: Empire At War (2006)

This is one of my favourite strategy games ever, especially the two player competitive campaign, but there’s not so much I’m taking from it that I didn’t already credit Total War for.

Your armies persist across a galaxy map, space map, AND individual planetary maps. It’s very unlike Empire at War, though, because you control fewer units. The loss of the only Star Destroyer you may have in your fleet really hurts, even if you win the battle. You can steamroll the enemy for a while, but you’re taking losses as you go and will run out of steam, thus having less units left to defend your new territories from counter-attack.

The land maps also host buildings like Ion Cannons or Hypervelocity Guns which can be used by the defending team in the space battle above that planet. If you are wise, you might raid the planet with a small force (small raid forces can bypass the space battle) with the sole aim of destroying that one building before launching your space battle. If you hold the space above the planet, you can hit the land battle with bombing runs and orbital strikes. This interplay of systems is another great example of what multi-layered games can achieve.

X-COM: Interceptor (1998)

I only played this for the first time in 2015, and development on Crow’s Nest was already well underway. It’s not far off what I’m doing, as it turns out, but nobody thought this game was all that it could be either.

You command a base on a strategy map and manage its resources, as with other XCOM games, but instead of the turn-based battles you have a fighter ship battle. The problem is that these battles were nearly all the same and they got very repetitive.

The only influence I’m taking from this game is in what not to do. I need to ensure missions in Crow’s Nest are varied enough, and that there are real characters and stories playing out during the campaign. To what extent, I don’t yet know, but this is a good example of a game relying 100% on its systems producing all the gameplay.

Star Citizen (20??)

How can I make a space game in 2015 and not be influenced by Star Citizen/Squadron 42? That said, my game is a single-player war game, not a multiplayer space-everything game. I’m very excited for Star Citizen, but even moreso for the single-player side, ‘Squadron 42’. If we get to play S42 early next year I imagine it might influence Crow’s Nest somewhat, but probably not in many ways that X-Wing and Wing Commander haven’t already. If the game takes longer than that to come out, Crow’s Nest may already have been released. Time will tell.


I could also mention FTL for its art style, actually, but the art in Crow’s Nest so far is just my placeholder stuff and I don’t believe that I can draw. I certainly won’t be the final artist, so it’s not worth mentioning visual influences at this stage, really.

I’ve found that when making a game, a lot of people will come and say “oh, you must have been influenced by this” or “have you played that”? There are so many games out there that chances are the answer will be “no, actually. I haven’t heard of that one”. I’ve listed my main influences here, and very few of them are actually 2D space games. 

If there’s anything you think I should check out, either because it’s similar to what I’m doing or just because it rocks, please let me know!

Next week I’ll be focussing on a design challenge posed by trying to do some of what XCOM does in a real-time action game. If that sounds interesting to you, please subscribe to the RetroNeo Games Facebook or Twitter accounts (link icons at the top and bottom of this page).

Until next time..


Making Crow’s Nest (part 1 of 4): My “Asteroids meets Total War” Pitch

 At work in Unity
At work in Unity

I’ll be away over the next few weeks so I’ve decided to do a four-parter and schedule it to post at my normal times so my one-a-week blog goal remains unbroken. I’ve been going now for over 6 months now and wanted to at least see out the end of 2015 with an ‘undefeated streak’.

To that end, I’ll be turning the blog’s focus a little more inward and talking about how my game in development (Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest) came to be, what its influences are, the features of the game and certain design challenges that I’m facing. As it’s still in development and still just me on the team, this is all still in motion, but there should be good insights and new information for anyone who’s interested in reading. It will be interesting to compare these posts with a post-mortem for the game once it’s finally out, too.

So, with that out of the way..

What is Crow’s Nest?

I won’t wax lyrical here, you can check out the game’s page yourself, and either play the demo or watch the gameplay footage. Briefly, Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest is an upcoming tactical space shooter with a strategy layer. I’ve described it as “Asteroids meets Total War”.

You can see some gameplay from the playable PC demo below. It’s early in development and due out in Q1 2017.

How Does Asteroids meet Total War, exactly?

So my pitch for Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest is that it’s “Asteroids meets Total War” and I’ve found that this can get people interested quite effectively. How does a top-down space shooter from the 1970s tie in with one of the largest, most successful strategy game series in the world; one which, until Total War: Warhammer was announced, was set exclusively in historical Earth periods with swords and spears and massive armies?

To be fair I could also describe the game as “Wing Commander meets Xcom”, but a pitch has to be as catchy as possible, n’est pas?

The similarities between Asteroids and Crow’s Nest are pretty plain to see. They both have a small, triangular space fighter flying around an asteroid field, and, quite importantly, the ships are driven by Newtonian physics, meaning if you stop accelerating you will keep drifting. There’s no drag in space so you can turn on the spot and shoot backwards, and to slow down you have to turn around and thrust in the opposite direction.

The similarities really end there, though. In Crow’s Nest the goal is not to kill asteroids for points, the screen isn’t locked in position, and both you and the asteroids can take more than one hit.

Then from here I started building up more of a squadron-based thing, adding wing mates, squad orders, and reasonably intelligent enemies, as well as the ability to communicate with your fleet for reinforcements. Here, I was taking inspiration from Star Wars games like Rogue Squadron and X-Wing. I’ll talk about games that influenced Crow’s Nest in a follow-up part.

The important take-away is that Crow’s Nest has an action/combat layer presented in a classic arcade-like style.

The trailer above is for Shogun, the first Total War game in 2000. I haven’t played them all, but I beat this one so I know it represents some of the ideas I’m going for. You command your chosen family dynasty in feudal Japan during the Sengoku Jidai period of history. It’s a game of two halves. There’s the tactical combat side where you command individual army units in a single battle. This half of the game is represented in Crow’s Nest as the ‘Asteroids’ part.

The other side of the game is the strategy layer, where you have a map of all of Japan and time passes months at a time. You move your armies around the country to reinforce or attack territories (Risk style) and then fight the tactical battles for those areas using only the units you brought with you. No Command & Conquer-style building during a battle! But in addition to this, you could send spies, assassins and emissaries around the world. You could negotiate for peace or assassinate an opposing general the night before a battle, weakening his forces when you face them in the tactical layer. 

You could also bring your own character (the Daimyo) into battle for big morale bonuses, but if you died in battle, you were dead. If you didn’t have an adult male heir, it was game over! If you did, you basically had an ‘extra life’. Similarly, if you won a battle but lost all of your cavalry, they were gone! You no longer had them to move around the strategy layer. This interplay leant real gravitas to every little decision, and to every death. I love these mechanics and knew I wanted them for Crow’s Nest.

 An early prototype for the strategy map in Crow's Nest.
An early prototype for the strategy map in Crow’s Nest.

My original idea was that you would control several fleets (as many as you could build/afford) in Crow’s Nest and defend a territory from pirate marauders. You would also send spies on missions to gather intel and attempt assassinations or to sabotage the enemy. When a tactical battle occurred, the losses and gains would persist back to the strategy layer. This is why I chose “Total War” as a suitable descriptor for my pitch.

As development went on, I decided that it might be better for you to control just a single fleet. This would make your flagship all the more precious to you, and prevent you from using steamroll tactics to the same extent. This way, even in the late game, battles would stay tense for the player. It would also limit the amount of pilots you have to dozens, not hundreds, and make their lives and progression matter more to you. This means that Xcom might be a better descriptor than Total War now, but as the strategy side in Crow’s Nest is still very early in development and prone to change, I haven’t decided whether to change the pitch yet.

Obviously, those four words aren’t my whole pitch, but they’re the short version.

What do you think of the pitch? Have you any experience pitching? Any advice? Would saying “Xcom” be better than “Total War”? Both franchises are currently doing well and get the point across to anyone who knows games.

Next Sunday, I’ll be posting Part 2, where I talk about the other games that have influenced the development of Crow’s Nest in a mini-review sort of way.

Until next time..


Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest page on RetroNeo Games
Development Log
Play the game in web browser (not Chrome)
Download PC version

Sword Fighting in Games

 Image from Chivalry: Medieval Warfare
Image from Chivalry: Medieval Warfare

Sword fighting is a big part of our popular culture. It’s almost as big as the cult of the Gun. TV shows and movies like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Vikings,  or The Three Musketeers romanticise the sword-wielding hero or heroine and the art of melee combat.

Games have always been a great way for us to get in touch with our fantasies and role play the hero (or villain), and while they’ve done a great job of satisfying the gun-wielding hero fantasy, they’ve always (in my eyes, let’s say) fallen short in the domain of melee combat. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very fun games centred around melee combat, but I’m talking more about simulating the real life experience, and giving the player a true virtual taste of what the real thing is like!

I’ve both been to the shooting range a couple of times (rare in Ireland) and taken fencing in college (and, of course, played countless games) so I feel a can compare both of the real experiences with the virtual to some worthwhile degree.

With guns, the essential components are that you point and shoot. The physical impact and damage aren’t part of your interaction. Games can simulate this very well. The click of a button or pulling of the Right Trigger on a controller feels analogous to pulling a gun’s trigger. Going further into the realism side, games can also simulate what it’s like to have to move to cover or work with a team in a fire fight. The only parts of gun fighting in games that I think aren’t represented are the kickback (yes I know recoil is often simulated, but it can’t give you the pain and bruising in your shoulder that comes from firing a shotgun) and reloading. Usually we just hit a button and trigger a quick reloading animation. In real life, it’s actually quite difficult to load bullets into a clip  (clip into gun is easier, but I feel Gordon Freeman would have fumbled once or twice in real life), and awkward enough to chamber a round in a bolt-action rifle. The noise of firing a gun can be physically painful too, and forgetting to turn the safety off is a concern, but where’s the fun in simulating that?

Bringing sword fighting into games is an entirely different prospect, though, and it’s miles behind its counterpart. Why is this? There are several reasons.


Well, holding and swinging a sword are easy enough to simulate, but not accurately. Your attack isn’t the twitch of a finger, but a flick of the wrist, or a swing of the arms, or a kick. It doesn’t feel as correct to just click to do this. We tend not to notice this too much however as we’re used to pressing a button in a game and seeing something happen, so this is fine in a way, but it is straight away a large disconnect between what you do in real life and what you can do in a game.

Virtual Reality might have something to contribute here, but it brings its own problems. The Oculus Touch or the HTC Vive’s controllers would allow you to hold and swing somewhat realistically. See the video below for Vive’s controllers being used by a Disney animator to paint in 3D. They can’t simulate the weight of your weapon, though. A claymore (sword, not mine) or broadsword will have a lot more weight and momentum than a katana blade or fencing foil, so the controls will still feel wrong.

The other problem with VR controllers would be the clash. In real life you might swing your arm all the way from upper right to lower left, but in the game your sword hits an opponent’s armour, or blade, or a wall, and it stops! So your real arms are now in a different place to your game arms. You’ve immediately got another big disconnect in the experience. This is why I don’t think VR will improve sword fighting in games at all. With that said, it could offer some neat experiences. A lightsabre or nano-blade can cut through anything supposedly, except for another blade. So if the VR game let you wield a sword like Raiden has in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and never fight somebody with a similar weapon, then the experience would be very fun, but it wouldn’t be a sword fighting experience, just a sword using one.

At 1:43 in the video below these input problems are summed up very well, and humorously. Sadly, even though it passed Kickstarter, Clang was later cancelled. If you watch the video look out for Gabe Newell’s cameo!

So we can’t get around input with currently available technology, but there are several other areas to improve upon to give us better sword fighting in games.


As I mentioned, the clash of blades can’t be simulated in the player’s input device (beyond a little vibration in the controller, maybe) but it’s also quite difficult to truly simulate in the computer. We use physics to bounce objects around the room after an explosion or crash or whatever. Essentially, each frame, the computer checks where an object is and what its velocity is, if it’s in collision this frame it will calculate the new positions and velocities for the colliding objects on the next frame. If not, it will continue on its trajectory (usually adjusted for gravity and air resistance in some form). This happens 50 times per second or so. To be clear, a physics check is checking where something is at a given time. The collision happens if the objects’ “colliders” are touching.

To try to use this system to detect the clash of swords is impractical. To take just one measurement I found online, in an experiment, a sword slash was found to travel 190 cm in 1/4 of a second. So 7.6 metres every second. If the physics check is done sixty times per second that means the sword moved 12.6 cm every frame. That’s a lot! The thickness of a foil is less than 1 cm, so even saying that two foils coming at each other have a combined collision-thickness of 2cm, there’s a high chance that they won’t be in the same place on any frame. One frame they’ll be 6 cm before colliding, and the next frame they’ll be 6 cm after colliding without ever having made the collision. 

So a literal physical simulation is impossible. Can we cheat? Well, yes. We have to. That same physics limitation above is why bullets aren’t physically simulated in games but are instead simulated using “raycasting”. This is shooting a line straight out from somewhere (a gun) at a given time to see what it touches. Most bullets in games work this way but even long range sniper shots have developed to the point where they still use raycasting but can also simulate bullet drop, wind resistance, and travel time. They cheat to deliver a very physically ‘real’ bullet for the player. Computer game design is all about cheating the limitations to fake realistic experiences!

So we have to cheat to make sword virtual sword fighting a “reality”. 

What’s been done before?

Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time (1996)

This was earliest game I ever played that had any degree of simulated sword fighting. I should actually do a retro review of that game but I’d have to get my hands on it again. Go to 7:19 in the video below to see the fencing scene.

There are very few lets plays of the game and the ones that are there just have the player spamming the attack button to win, sadly. Stamina wasn’t represented in this game so this was possible, but if you played it ‘properly’ there was quite a bit in there. You moved your blade around the screen with the mouse and clicked to attack from that direction. If I remember correctly, right clicking would block. The attacker (who didn’t get a chance in this video) would telegraph his moves a little before he made them. This is realistic and seen in games. You can’t just hit somebody. You have to start by swinging your arm, and the position of the arm gives a clue as to whether you’re going to attack overhead, left, right, or forward, for example. Games draw out this telegraphing longer to make it easier for the player. In real life, you try to attack as quickly as you can to not give the opponent time to successfully block. Harder enemies in games often give you less telegraphing time than easy ones.

To be clear, the Titanic game was a point and click adventure/mystery game. Not a combat game, but I saw great promise in its sword combat segment and thought that more realistic sword combat must be on its way soon. How wrong I was. About the “soon” part anyway.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 (1997)

Long name for one game. This one let you wield a lightsabre in first or third person. Sadly, it didn’t have a block move. None of the Dark Forces games in the years since did either. I think this is the greatest failing of these games. You finally got to simulate real lightsabre battles for yourself, but none of them had any of the nuances of a sword fight. To not get hit you just ran out of the way, then started a swing and ran back in. Occasionally you would get in a ‘lock’ (a pushing battle against another blade) and have to click frantically. This mainly happened if you and an enemy were attacking at the same time. It added a token dimension to the combat, but they never tackled a real sword fight simulation and I always found the games to be disappointing on that level. Mostly you just spam the attack button and are shown a few different animations. There’s little skill or decision making involved.
This is how the majority of first person games handle sword fighting and it’s quite disappointing, especially considering how ignored some of the better examples have been. Examples such as..

Thief: The Dark Project (1998)

The first Thief game was a first person stealth game set it medieval times. This is the first game where I ever saw a block move as a useful part of the combat. You weren’t supposed to fight in this game, but if discovered by a guard you could at least defend yourself a little. It was a rudimentary sort of block. If the enemy hit you with a sword it would hurt you, unless you were holding the block button. Satisfactorily, pressing the button made you hold your sword out across your body and if you blocked there was a great sword-clash noise. Importantly, this didn’t reduce damage, as the block seems to do in a lot of games (making it pointless), but it blocked all damage. 
I though “great! We’ve arrived! All sword games should have blocking like this from now on”. They didn’t.

As Time Went On..

 God of War. Great game, but in so way a sword combat simulation
God of War. Great game, but in so way a sword combat simulation

The hack n’ slash genre was where sword games went to grow up it seems. You know these. God of War, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and the newly released Onikira: Demon Killer. Maybe even the Arkham games and Shadow of Mordor have these elements. These are never first person games, and while they sell melee/sword combat and deliver great sounds and visuals and their own unique gameplay, they are far from sword fighting simulations. It’s a well established genre with its own merits and hit games, but it’s a far cry from simulating what it feels like to fight with a sword. As a sweeping generalisation, these games show you sword combat, but you don’t do it. They get away with having you perform combos like A+A+B to do a certain attack, and often press a single block button (sometimes with a direction) to block an attack, no matter what type of attack it is. The animation systems then take over to show you the pretty results, but there’s no real sword combat happening or being simulated in this genre.

Where are the games that took the ideas of Thief and ran with them? They’re few and far between. What could we have had by now if sword fighting in games had been building from 1998’s Thief all this time? It’s hard to say. We could have an entirely unique genre of game today and it’s a minor tragedy that we don’t, I think. Maybe the market was just never there, but I haven’t seen many attempts along the way either.

In Recent Years

We’ve started to see an effort in the last few years to breathe new life into sword fighting in games and evolve the gameplay that Thief hinted to us well over a decade before, but while they’re improvements, and a lot of fun, they are still quite limited.

Mount & Blade: Warband (2010)

Note that the very similar Mount & Blade came out in 2009. I played Warband, not the original, so I can’t speak to sword combat in the first game.

This game is still my favourite example of sword combat. It’s a fantastic game and what sold me on it first was the combat. Swords are far from the only weapons, and each have their own strengths, speeds and weights, but the  basics are similar across all melee weapons. The developers really went out of their way to show off something unique and not enough people know about this game. I never even heard of it until 2014 and a Free Weekend on Steam.

An attacker will telegraph their hit, say by raising their sword over their head if they’re going to attack overhead, or to the left for a slash from your side. The length of time they telegraph for is only ever a split second, but the enemy’s skill level will make this time shorter or longer. You’re not locked onto your opponent. You’re free to look and move in any direction, so after they telegraph, you could just step back out of the way, or you can block in a meaningful way. You hold the right click to block, but that’s not enough, you need to block up, down, left or right (assuming you don’t have a shield, in which case your block covers most directions at once) by moving the mouse correctly up, down, left or right to block the attack. You basically want to look towards the enemy’s weapon to block it. Then you can riposte (fencing term, meaning counter-attack) with an attack of your own in the same four directions. Move your mouse a little to the right while attacking and you’ll slash from the right, and so on.  And when I say riposte, I don’t mean that the game now allows you to attack. You can choose to attack whenever, but getting hit during your swing will stop your attack so you have to use timing wisely. You can even kick to wind your opponent to get a clear opening for a powerful attack, but the kick is short range so it’s hard to hit with. There’s a lot going on here.
One-on-one fights against the computer in this game are the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was fencing in UCD again, without facing a human opponent. In the options menu you can simplify the blocking to just always work, but that destroys this amazing gameplay.

The flaw is that most players, and especially in multiplayer, just spam the attack button and hope to come out on top. Players don’t necessarily engage with the amazing mechanics provided for them. Possibly because they haven’t been trained to in games in general to because this game is so unique.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare (2012)

This came along a little later. While Mount & Blade is a strategy/RPG game, this is focussed purely on single level skirmishes (90% of them in multiplayer, though you can practice against bots). This game went further and added a feint move. For a small stamina cost, you could try to trick a player into blocking. Blocking with a blade works as a single move when you click. You click to block, and block for about a second, then have a second of recovery before you can block again. This makes the feint pretty useful to force a block then attack during the recovery time, but it’s not very realistic as a real opponent could just hold their block.
With a shield you can hold your block indefinitely unless you are kicked, but without the shield you automatically drop the block. 

Nicely, you can also use mouse wheel down to perform an overhead smash, or mouse wheel forward to stab forward. This feels pretty good to use and also does a little to remove some of the button mashing problems, but again, this game suffers in large multiplayer battles from players just charging and clicking, without using any blocking or feints in most cases. 
Also, because you can’t hold a block, if you’re outnumbered you’ve no way to block two attacks at once and will nearly always lose. This encourages swarm tactics as the main gameplay and a lot of the sword fighting nuances are lost. If players are outnumbered, you’ll usually just see them running backwards away and blocking, hoping to find some friendly players. (Perhaps these types of games should make it so if you’re running backwards and hit a low obstacle you fall over).

The part of this game I find the best for sword fighting are the one on one multiplayer duels against a human opponent. Since you can’t get bum rushed by one guy, you can actually focus on them and use feints, kicks, and parries much more effectively.

So those are two good sword games. They do a lot to “cheat” and deliver a lot of the realities and considerations of sword fighting into a virtual space, but they still don’t come close to simulating real sword fighting. Nothing I’ve seen so far has been able to balance the strategy, the mind games, the body language reading, the stamina factors, the shock to your arm of a blade impact, the stances, speed, and reactions of real sword fighting. 

If I could explain it in just one way, I’d sum the problem up thus: In real sword fighting, you could be thinking of striking, but worried that you’re becoming predictable and that your opponent might be ready to parry and riposte while you’re off balance in a lunge. You sacrifice your block for an attack, and it also costs you stamina. Real sword fighting is as much about dozens of tiny choices every moment as it is about delivering well-practised attacks. In games, while stamina is now often taken into account, most players still just attack madly because left clicking isn’t as hard as as a lunge attack. Some fighters I’ve known in real life do attack just wildly, but in real life you can beat them easily with just a little skill whereas in a game, they’ve often just chosen the winning tactic. 

The Future

There is a greater awareness coming back to the mechanics of sword games, and many different titles in the coming years will try to tackle to problem in their own unique ways. I’m excited to play all of them.

For Honor

This game looks like a lot of fun. I can’t wait to try it. I would say that its focus is on delivering large scale sword battles. This is pretty unique. We tend to see the large battle in a cutscene or the background and then just fight a couple of guys in the game. It has a new(ish?) take on sword combat where you attack or defend from one of three zones on your body: up, lower left and lower right.

You read where the opponent is aiming for by their body language, and you try to defend into your corresponding zone by moving the control stick to that area. I see this as being more of a step towards sword combat from a hack and slash game than I see it as a sword fighting simulation, but it’s still great to see. The emphasis seems to be too much on a broader battle and third person action (I think first person is important to simulate any real life action, personally) to convince me that this is the game I was always pining for, but it looks awesome for what it is and I can’t wait to try! I particularly appreciate that you have to read body language and adjust your block to succeed. This is very important.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance

Now these are the guys I think are going to come closest to delivering a good sword fighting experience any time soon. You can see from the video above that they take it very seriously.

I backed them on Kickstarter because of the promise of delivering unique sword fighting. The currently available build is Alpha 0.4, the first version where you can see their sword fighting in action. I played it today (and many of the other games I mentioned) as prep for this article.

Even at the early stages, I can see a lot of promise in the fighting. I was able to slash with the left mouse, stab with the right, or block with Q. All of this from 6 different zones. You are locked onto your opponent, something that serves to simplify your movement and direct your attention. I’m not sure if I like this, though. You only fight one enemy at a time currently, but I wonder what happens when there are multiple enemies.

You can do the normal things like feint, block, attack, but depending on your timing with your block or movement you can also sidestep or dodge a strike and then counter-attack, all through a smooth procedural animation system. It is the smoothest flowing combat I’ve seen and there’s enough going on that there is really room to improve your skills through practice (and the RPG stats level-up system in the game), but I would have preferred a non-locked camera. You need to be able to check your surroundings in a fight, even just quickly. I presume the game will have a disengage kind of command, because most of the game is free roaming anyway, but it wasn’t in what I played today. There was also no kick, though that may appear. What I didn’t love was that I seemed to sometimes be able to just hold block to defend an attack from any direction, and other times I couldn’t, so I’m not sure which way the game is going with this. See a gameplay video from the alpha below.

To wrap up, where are we lacking?

Knowing where to block is probably the single largest gap between real sword fighting and what most games do. In reality, you could hold a block, but there’s nine directions you could get attacked from (assuming the enemy is only in front of you then it’s left, right, or middle times high, low, or middle; 3×3), and then they could ‘disengage’ the attack and stab around your parry anyway (with certain weapons like a foil or epee, look it up) to nullify even that block. Most games just let you press block and you’re fine.

Games are supposed to be ‘fun’ (many say, anyway). When I shot clay pigeons in real life, the shooting wasn’t great fun. It hurt (the kickback is enormous)! The fun part was seeing a moving target down range explode into clay fragments. Shooting guns in games is fun because we’ve nailed how they sound and the environmental destruction and death animations.
When I did fencing, I found the most fun part was successfully parrying an attack (giving me the satisfaction of knowing that I was smart enough and quick enough to deflect a real physical attack) and for bonus points, landing the riposte. A bit like how in tennis the most fun part is the back and forth, not the actual scoring of a point.

I think that most people who have designed sword fighting in games must not have done fencing, or if they did then they didn’t remember what was most fun about it. Most of the time the systems seem to be designed around causing damage. I think it should be more about the clash of the blades. The back and forth. You really only need to hit a person once with a sword to end the fight. That should be the result of successfully winning the more fun part of the fight, not the whole focus of the fight, if you ask me. Certainly it would make for a more unique angle to your sword fighting game, and we definitely have the technology to fake these results well, as long as they’re well balanced and play-tested.

Food for thought.. For more, read this great (and shorter) PC Gamer article on the subject.

Until next time..

The Phantom Pain. A thought on Sutherland as Snake

So one of this year’s biggest releases will be Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain due for a PS4 and XB1 release on September 1st, and for the PC on September 15th. There’s been no shortage of drama and spectacle surrounding the game, but I’d just like to focus on the Hayter-Sutherland aspect.

To briefly sum up the aforementioned spectacle first, though, I’ll just do a short summary.

  • Producers Konami have axed director Hideo Kojima as an executive from their company, making him a contract employee until the game is released and presumably ending their working relationship thereafter.
  • There have been huge, dramatic trailers released at each of the last three annual E3 shows, and several more besides.
  • It’s been unpopularly announced that the full-priced game will include micro transactions.
  • The game is reported to be gigantic; one of the biggest and most alive game worlds ever created and definitely the biggest Metal Gear game made so far. Production has been so big and taken so long, in fact, that the prologue to the game, Ground Zeroes, was released separately in March 2014 as a stop-gap game that could be beaten in an hour. A unique move, for sure, and again, not one without its detractors.
  • One could add that Kojima said of most of the last big Metal Gear games that they would be his “last game” and that’s always turned out to be untrue. Well, until now I suppose. He’s not likely to be working with Konami again and they own the franchise despite it being Kojima’s baby.

The game’s earliest controversy though was replacing the lead character Snake’s voice actor from David Hayter, who’s always voiced the Snake character (well, since Snake had a voice, at least), to Kiefer Sutherland, who portrays bad-ass, gruff, violent freedom-protector Jack Bauer in 24. This has been known since 2013 and it hasn’t sat well with fans who see it as a betrayal, particularly since Hayter was never consulted or informed of the change and learned about it at the same time as the general public. Dick move, Kojima.

Hayter has been commendably mature about the move. In a video interview from March this year (linked below) around the 15 minute mark, you can hear him say that he’s glad it took someone like Kiefer Sutherland to replace him in the role. The role obviously meant a lot to him though. Later (around 27:20) in the same interview when asked what he thought of the Phantom Pain in general and whether he’d play it he said that he wouldn’t play it as it would be “too painful”.

There have been no shortage of rumours and theories that Hayter will make an appearance in the game but he and Kojima have denied this several times in no uncertain terms and I think it’s just wishful thinking by the fans. The move has netted far more bad will than good so it seems extremely unlikely that they would continue to hide his involvement, if there were any to hide.

I remember Kojima saying that they wanted someone more dramatic for the role of Snake for this project. Sure, okay. That’s your prerogative as a director but you could have let Hayter down a bit more respectfully. He’s been Snake for 15 years. I had no sympathy, then, for Kojima when hearing earlier this year that Konami were basically firing him. 

But I digress, my point was that I’m coming around to the thinking that a new voice was important for this game. This game is set in the 1980s. The very first Metal Gear game was made in the 80’s and featured Solid Snake (a clone of legendary soldier Big Boss) fighting the villain Big Boss. 

In Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid (MGS), MGS2 (partly), and MGS 4 we play as Solid Snake , the clone and hero in settings from the 1980s onwards. In MGS 3, Portable Ops, Peace Walker and now MGS V we play as the original Snake who becomes Big Boss from the 1960s to the 1980s. In game-world time, Peace Walker is the last part of the story before V (which is itself Ground Zeroes AND the Phantom Pain) where Snake is still the hero, and presumably by the end of The Phantom Pain, our beloved Snake has to become the villain. Therefore, we’re bound to see some very marked changes in Snake’s character. We know from trailers and screenshots that mutilation and injury will have a part to play, but so too could the voice. This is bound to be a dramatic chapter in a dramatic game series and Kojima wants to play to that. 

The MGS games have always tried to be two things. One; cinematic, dramatic stories and two; grotesquely self-aware, exploding the fourth wall at every given opportunity. It’s hard to be both. It never sat perfectly well for me and I think that with Phantom Pain they’re gunning more for the dramatic elements. For me, I somewhat agree that Hayter wouldn’t be a great choice to deliver on the drama. Check out the video below for synopsis of Hayter’s Snake portrayals over the series.

I think he’s a great actor, and it’s a very distinct voice. It’s a classic by now! But for the last few games the voice has struck me as a little over the top, and seeing them lined up together like this highlights that. It’s become less realistic and more exaggerated, verging on silly at times. This likely wouldn’t work well for a villain. We’ve become so accustomed to Snake’s character as the hero with Hayter’s voice. Assuming that he has some difficult choices to make and evil things to do in Phantom Pain to become the villain Big Boss, it could seem too out of character for the Snake we’ve become so familiar with. That voice has also been party to the fourth-wall breaches I mentioned earlier and maybe the association would be too much. The character has to undergo huge changes over the course of this game. Why not the voice too? Would be be able to follow Hayter through those changes?

We already have a good example of the change in Snake’s character. There’s a bajillion trailers for The Phantom Pain but I refer you to “Quiet Trailer” below. In it, we see Snake do a good guy thing by ordering the men not to shoot Quiet, but also the foreshadowing of evil deeds with what he says afterwards. Also, notice the camera works here to show Snake’s “bad side” as he delivers the line. The shrapnel injury in his skull already looks like a devil’s horn.

How about that? Can you imagine David Hayter delivering those lines? I honestly can’t. If you’d like to try you can watch the Ground Zeroes ending with Sutherland’s Snake voice replaced with some old lines of Hayter’s. I know the lines are out of context, but even so I don’t think the tone fits. 

What I’m getting at is, maybe Kojima made the right call. As director it’s totally his decision, but it sure rubbed fans up the wrong way, and he definitely handled the switch like a world class prick, but for the game as art, I’m starting to think it was the right call. I never cared about the change quite as much as hard core MGS fans did. I just kind of cringed at Sutherland doing basically a Jack Bauer in the new MGS game (I’m a big fan of 24 bear in mind, nothing against it or Sutherland in general) seemingly just because he’s a bigger name than Hayter. I saw it more as a marketing decision than an artistic one, which bugged me, but I’m definitely starting to see the artistic merit to the decision.

That said, I still love Hayter’s classic Snake, and feel for him in the situation he’s in. Particularly with idiots constantly bugging him to confess that he’s in the new game somewhere secretly, or even more wildly, that Sutherland’s Snake isn’t the real Snake and we’ll see Hayter in Phantom Pain as the real Snake after some plot twist. Leave the guy alone, like! He can only say ‘no’ so many different ways, and he’s made it clear that, while he acknowledges the merit of directorial discretion, he still feels pained by the loss of the role. Read his statement from 2013 here.

 Where did it all go wrong?
Where did it all go wrong?

That’s all for this week. What do you think of the switch? Has what I suggested occurred to you before and what do you think of it? Do discuss. There’s comment boxes below for a reason. Peace! (walker)