On the Radar: Children of a Dead Earth

Children of a Dead Earth is the most promising science fiction computer game I have seen since Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It tries to do for the genre what I attempt to do with my forays into science fiction: to create a compelling vision of tomorrow based on real-world science.

Storywise, the game is fairly unremarkable (at least from what the developer has released so far). In the not-too-distant future, humans have colonised the Solar System. Two or more factions come to blows. The player, representing one of these factions, commands a constellation of warships to defeat the enemy across the breadth of inhabited space. While CDE is basically a Real Time Strategy game IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE, where the game truly shines is its dedication to realism.

The developer, Q Switched Productions, boasts that Children of a Dead Earth is the most scientifically accurate computer game ever made — and lives up to the claim. Unlike other space games, the game uses an actual N-body simulator, allowing precise modelling of orbital phenomena. On the developer blog, the developer explores the science behind the game. Everything from propulsion to nuclear power to weapons to ammunition to radiators is described and discussed in painstaking detail without losing the reader in an avalanche of technical jargon. That alone is worth the time to read through the archives.

Every ship, every component and every weapon is fully customizable based on scientific principles. You can do everything from deciding the armature material for coilguns to optimizing the operating temperature of a nuclear reactor to the type of armour your ship is made of — but you must have a solid understanding of physics to do it properly. You can, for instance, design and mount a 100 MW violet laser, but you must be prepared to shed the ferocious amount of heat it would generate, figure out how to power the rest of your ship, and mount secondary weapons to complement the laser. As the developer points out, even a laser as powerful as that isn’t a doomsday weapon, merely a long-range weapon with a specific tactical niche. If you have mass or cost constraints, you have to compromise somewhere.

Delta-v and orbital mechanics play a critical role in the game. The cunning space captain will employ maneuvering burns that will place his squadron in a superior position, force the enemy to expend his delta-v reserves, and minimise his own propellant expenditure. Ploughing through swarms of drones and clouds of missiles, then charging straight into the guns of the enemy ships in a death-or-glory attack is a surefire recipe for disaster. Better to trick the enemy into wasting his long-range weapons, knock out critical components from a distance, then close in for the kill. Or, even better, force the enemy to expend all his propellant, leaving him dead in space, without even firing a shot.

This dedication to realism means that a game like this will never be published by any of the big game companies. Take a look at these gameplay videos.

 

 

The game won’t hold the player’s hand. It won’t dumb anything down. The graphics look like they came from the late 90s or early 2000s, but they are adequate for gameplay — and truthfully, there is something hypnotic about watching streams of tracers trace an arc around a planet to strike a faraway target. Instead of focusing on flashy visuals, slick presentation, shiny doodads or impossible-but-cool special effects, the developer concentrated on realism and natural outgrowth from scientific principles.

CDE does not appeal to the lowest common denominator. It demands the player to live up to it. At the same time, it can teach the player a thing or two about science — made abundantly clear in the developer blog. It’s not an AAA game, nor is it meant to be; it’s for the hardcore geeks who’ve been waiting for a realistic space war sim.

In this sense, CDE is very much like Kerbal Space Program. They aren’t the prettiest games around, but they are intellectually rigorous and grounded in physics. These games aren’t just entertainment; they will inspire the next generation of scientists and sci fi creators.

In all honesty, If I had stumbled across the developer blog before writing FLASHPOINT: TITAN, the story would have been written much differently. I can see the developer blog joining Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto as the go-to resource for hard scence fiction spaceships.

You can find the game’s Steam page here. The community has greenlit the game and it’s expected for a 2016 release. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it. After all, for most people, this is entertainment — but for me, it’s for research.

 

Why Polygon is DOOMed

On the 12th of May, gaming review website Polygon released a 30-minute gameplay video of DOOM. To call it horrible is an understatement.

The player’s performance is embarrassingly abysmal, quite literally on par with someone who has never played a first person shooter on a console before. It’s as though the concept of aiming, moving and shooting are alien to the player, as is reading environmental cues, processing enemy movements and attacks, and in-game navigation.

It’s not wrong to be bad at games. Every gamer has to start from somewhere. But this is Polygon, one of the world’s largest gaming websites. One would expect, and demand, a reasonable degree of skill from someone tapped to showcase the first 30 minutes of an eagerly-anticipated AAA title  — itself the spiritual successor of a title that defined the game industry.

A gameplay preview is supposed to showcase the best of the game: the mechanics, the controls, the story, the enemies, the objectives. Viewers want to know what to expect if they buy the game. Instead, this video showcases the worst gameplay ever recorded on YouTube — it says more about the player and the company than the game itself. If a gaming ‘journalist’ cannot even play a game he is assigned to cover without making himself look like a noob, how did his content even pass the editor’s desk? If a gaming journalism site can’t assign a competent player to play one of the most eagerly-anticipated games of the year, what kind of gaming journalism site is it?

The icing on the cake, though, is what Polygon did after the video was posted.

Or rather, didn’t.

Polygon disabled comments on the video, and took away visibility of the like/dislike bar. On the main website, Polygon said nothing about the fiasco, never mind that parody videosTweets and critique posts are floating about the Internet. Instead of addressing the issue, it seems Polygon is intent on sweeping the disaster right under the carpet, never mind that the Internet is forever. In doing so, Polygon has doomed its credibility.

During the GamerGate saga, Polygon spread the usual social justice drivel about harassment, showing that they were against ethics in gaming journalism. Polygon banned users for disagreeing with a review and with Anita Sarkeesian. Polygon cried racism when reviewing The Witcher 3, a game set in a universe based on Slavic mythology, for not featuring non-white characters (because Azer Javed doesn’t count), and misogyny, when the most powerful beings in the game series are all women. Now Polygon can’t even hire staff that can play a game, and won’t make amends to the gamers it has disappointed over the years. Polygon has been fully converged by Social Justice Warriors, and now it can’t or won’t even uphold standards of competency.

Polygon is doomed. It just doesn’t know it yet.

A Tale of Two Devs

The recent furore over Blizzard’s Overwatch and Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear illustrates two very different approaches to game design and response to criticism.

Blizzard’s Overwatch is an upcoming multiplayer first person shooter. The original controversy began when people complained about a victory pose employed by the game’s first revealed character, Tracer, claiming that it turns her into a sex object. Blizzard quickly apologised for the so-called ‘butt pose‘, and replaced it with another victory pose…itself based on a pin-up.

I think the original complaint was overblown to begin with. Overwatch is Blizzard’s intellectual property, and they are free to design characters as they please. A bunch of pixels on a two-dimensional screen is hardly worth getting riled up about, but it’s what Social Justice Warriors do all the time.

Blizzard’s response is one for the textbooks. I don’t know enough about the game to decide whether the original pose suited the character in question. But I don’t see any wrongdoing there, and there’s nothing for Blizzard to apologise for. On the other hand, the new pose took the perspective off Tracer’s rear, defusing the original complaint, while retaining the aesthetics of the game and character, and gave anti-SJWs something to smile at. Blizzard turned a potential crisis on its head, showed its respect for its target audience, and even generated good PR for itself.

Dragonspear, on the other hand, was a mess. It was set in the Baldur’s Gate universe, in between the original and its sequel. The franchise has an existing canon, an established universe, an entrenched culture — and Beamdog inserted social justice memes into the series.

While designers are free to design what they wish, Beamdog interfered with the creative vision of another team of developers — and not in a way that built up the canon. Instead, they subverted the game universe to push their ideology, practically shoving it down gamers’ throats. For example, there is a transgender character named Mizhena. She says:

“When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me; it is the truest reflection of who I am.”

The mindset revealed in this explanation points to a modern Western progressive mindset, one that is concerned about tolerance, gender fluidity, and casual linguistic appropriation. Most tellingly, the player character can only react in three ways: express approval, move on to another subject, or end the dialogue.

This is something you might expect to see in San Francisco, circa 2016. But tolerance, gender fluidity and casual linguistic appropriation have not been established as part of the in-game culture and memes of the original Baldur’s Gate. This is clearly a naked attempt to subvert an existing IP to shove politics down gamer’s throats.

When called out on it, Beamdog’s CEO doubled down, claiming that he will stand behind his staff. Beamdog proceeded to crack down on ‘harassment’ and ‘abuse’ on its online forums, banning users for thoughtcrime. The company also called for people to post positive reviews of the game online — which is a naked attempt to manipulate rating systems.

If people want to make social justice games, they are free to do so. It has never been easier to create, publish, sell and market a computer game in history. But Beamdog subverted an existing IP, disrespected its original creative vision, and alienated its target audience. And the icing on the cake: the game itself is buggy, riddled with glitches, and breaks other mods. Gamers may forgive social justice themes in games; they will not forgive broken games.

Beamdog’s approach is characteristic of social justice warriors: they subvert existing IP to ram their ideology down fans’ throats, they double down when called out on their behaviour, they lie about how good their work is, they project their insecurities and tendencies towards harassment on people who call them out, and if their new IP is fundamentally broken in some way they will redirect attention on the cultural conflict.

Developers should be like Blizzard: either create fresh IPs or build upon existing IPs, respect their target audience without backing down to SJWs, and focus their efforts on the game and the gamer.

Gamers care less about social justice than game mechanics and playability. Gamers do not want to be lectured or preached to; they want to have fun and escape the real world for a while. Developers who fail to recognise that are failures.

A Deeper Silence

On Wednesday my computer broke down without warning. I suspect it’s a hard disk drive failure, but time will tell the true cause. The digital silence that followed gave me the time I needed to coalesce some thoughts that were floating about in my mind, specifically pertaining to silence and speech.

As an introvert, silence comes naturally to me, and in prolonged silence I find the space and concentration necessary for deep thought and creativity. As a professional communicator, silence is a potential harbinger for disaster and long periods of it means you will be ignored and forgotten. I’m coming to understand this fundamental tension between my inclinations and my profession. Now I’m trying to put this into practice, discussing very recent events and making some updates.

Firstly, I’m pleased to report that the third entry of the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, has completed the first round of proofreading and is entering the final stage of edits. I also managed to back up the last round of changes before my computer’s untimely demise. Work is on hold for the moment: I’m working on a loaner at the moment, and I would rather not keep sensitive information on it if I can avoid it. I am, however, planning for publication within the next couple of months, and am doing what preparatory work I can.

Secondly, I have also begun planning my next set of stories. It is not necessarily the fourth installment of the American Heirs series. It is not necessarily the same mishmash of science fiction and military tropes either. In the early days of the creative process I’ve noticed ideas come and go very often. I don’t think it’s prudent to raise expectations by talking about a product that may be dramatically transformed between conceptualization and publication.

Thirdly, I regret to say that my video game project, Odyssey: Remnants of Terra, is on hold indefinitely. The problem was mechanics: Odyssey was originally conceptualised as a shooter, and despite my best efforts I could not find a way to fit it into our chosen game engine, RPG Maker. After some intense discussion we concluded that the only way for Odyssey to work is if we choose another game engine, learn it from the inside out, and maybe expand the team. This takes time, money and contacts. Not to say we have given up on it completely, but we need to line up our ducks in a row before we can execute.

With that in mind, we are still going to create a game. Odyssey was a learning journey, and we came to better understand the ins and outs of the RPG Maker engine. As it transpires, I have an (as-yet) unpublished story that would, with some reworking, fit RPG Maker’s mechanics far better than Odyssey. Time will tell, but with this new pivot I hope we can finally create a product.

Finally, in spite of my quasi-weekly update schedule I noticed that readership has significantly tapered off. Part of this can be attributed to the shift in URL. In hindsight I should simply have maintained the old wordpress site and redirected visitors here, but it’s a bit too late to cry over spilled milk. All I can do is keep on keeping on.

Beyond that, though, sometimes it just feels like there’s nothing to say. That I’m either too busy working or else too preoccupied with other matters to blog. With a personality like mine, I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the need for quiet time, to process and analyze before acting. I don’t like to fill my pages with empty talk, and usually if I only have a few lines or paragraphs to talk about something they go on Facebook instead of my blog.

Content is king, as the saying goes. Now the question is what kind of content goes here, and how much. I have a headful of ideas. Some will stick true to the core Benjamin Cheah brand of deep analysis of politics and other issues. Others will take it into different directions. With a very small readership I’m effectively rebooting my brand. The question is where it will go from here.

That, I think, is something I need to answer first in a deeper silence.