Exploding Gracefully in Multiplayer Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly.

While it can be intimidating to play any game online against real people for the first time, real-time strategy (RTS) games have a reputation for being more intimidating than most. This is partly because the difference between victory and defeat in an online RTS match comes down to efficiency. Knowing what to do and when to do it are the keys to victory. There is little margin for error, and mistakes are punished. Despite all of this I decided Friday evening to play my first ever online match of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (DoK). The game’s developers were celebrating its one-year anniversary and broadcast an open invitation for people to come and play the game with them.

If you’re not familiar with it, DoK is a RTS game developed by Blackbird Interactive. It’s a ground-based prequel to 1999’s legendary space-bound Homeworld. The core elements of multiplayer matches are much like that of other RTS games, with a few special twists. Multiplayer consists of you and your army versus your opponent and their army. Each army has a “hero” unit called a carrier. The carrier houses resource processing, production facilities, and research labs. From it you construct new units and run your war campaign. Build an army and annihilate your enemy’s carrier to win the game. One of the fun twists of DoK is that games can also be won by what’s called artifact retrieval. On each map there are three central locations that house artifacts, glowing purple orbs of special significance that appear after a time limit is reached. If either player can retrieve five artifacts and transfer them to a designated extraction zone, that player wins the game. This is easier said than done since there’s only one type of unit, a Baserunner, that can pick up an artifact and carry it to the extraction zone. Baserunners are slow and fragile, and don’t offer any significant offensive or defensive capabilities. It takes skill and cunning to retrieve artifacts, but it can be done. To me, the thing that sets DoK apart from other games is its smaller-scale battles and highly strategic gameplay.

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My home base is at the bottom in blue, my enemy up top in red. The artifacts are the three blue icons in a row across the center of the map. The two extraction zones are the right and left sides of the map.

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how well poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly. Knowing that it’s my first online game ever, my opponent chats to check in on me a few minutes into our match. “Have you expanded yet?,” he asks. Expanded? Expanded what? I respond to confirm my ignorance, fully embracing the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing. Graciously, my opponent relays concise instructions about how to expand my resource gathering operation. More resources means I can build more units, and more units means I may be able to put up a fight. That makes sense. I do what he says. For the next couple of minutes I make a few groups of units and send them around the map to do their thing. None of them return to base. Each of them destroyed by my well-prepared adversary. For each mistake I make, Sinistro shares tips about how to do things better next time. He even lets me steal an artifact and blow up a few of his units so my pride has a chance to recover. But like the helpless mouse being played with by a hungry cat, I know my demise is coming. My expanded resourcing operation radios in a distress call, “Enemy units spotted!” I pan the camera over to it and see three dozen enemy land and air units pop into the edge of my sensor range. Explosions burst from every direction and my resourcing operation is laid to waste. Ninety seconds later my carrier explodes in a flash of white light, transformed into a smoldering pile of rubble. Game over.

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See all of those ships with the red bars above them? Enemies! See the big ship with a giant explosion coming out of it? That’s mine… It’s not in good shape.

So went my introduction to the world of online play in DoK. My first match ever lasted twenty-three minutes and fifty seconds, though my opponent could have easily laid waste to me in half that time. Many thanks for Sinistro to being a class act and showing me the ropes!

My second and third matches of online DoK went much better than the first. I was able to play in team matches with employees from both Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox Software, as well as other gamers in the community. I blew up some enemy units. I recovered some artifacts. I didn’t die instantly. It was a good night. While my experience confirmed to me that the game is a blast to play, the bigger impression was left by the helpful and friendly community. They’re enthusiastic about a great game and very welcoming towards newcomers. Check out the links below if you’d like to check things out for yourself. If you’re looking for a smaller-scale RTS game to play online against some friendly folks, DoK might be the game for you.

NOTE: DoK has an excellent single-player campaign that shouldn’t be missed. I’ll be writing a feature about that sometime in the near future. 

Where to buy:

Steam – $49.99

Community Involvement:

Deserts of Kharak Subreddit

Unofficial Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Discord

Screenshot Mini-Gallery

Sid Meier’s Sim Golf

“[…]Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game.”

It’s must be a difficult thing to design a game about managing a golf course. Most people who play video games are probably more interested in a virtual experience that simulates the act of playing golf. It has to be challenging to try and translate golf course management into video game form, especially since their development doesn’t naturally lend itself to simulation gameplay. Take city building games, for example. There you have a natural progression and series of events in each city. Start off with a bare patch of land, place a few roads, utilities, and buildings, and watch your city grow. As the city gets larger, new districts are added, infrastructure is upgraded, and so on. While video games take liberties with that progression, it’s a sequence that fits gaming well. Golf courses are an entirely different beast. Each course is meticulously designed and then built to completion before a single golfer sets foot on the turf. Once the course is open for business the superintendent’s responsibility shifts to managing day-to-day operations to keep the course running smoothly. The short of it is, basing a game off how golf courses operate in the real world probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun.

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Thankfully Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game. Play begins by giving you a sum of money and a choice of parcels of land to purchase. Each parcel of land is a different size and fits within a certain environment style such as tropical, alpine, grassland, desert, or others. Every location comes with an already-built clubhouse and potentially other buildings unique to the scenario. After selecting a starting location it’s your job to design and build a profitable golf course. Each hole must be built one at a time. Construction options include all the components of individual golf holes; tee boxes, fairways, and greens. Also present are hazards like various types of rough, rocks and trees, and a few other obstacles that are unique to each locale. The game will allow you to open a hole for play with nothing more than a tee box and one square of green, but the embellishments are what make each creation special. Constructing paths that connect your course aren’t essential to its operation but they do increase the rate of play, which means more money for you. Eventually, you will gain access to specialized buildings that provide some kind of statistical or financial bonus to your course. A golf cart garage gives your customers motorized carts which, further increases the rate of play and drives up your income. Driving ranges and putting greens improve the skill set of your patrons, meaning they are able to play more challenging holes without getting frustrated. Other buildings like tennis courts, spas, and snack bars play a part in providing a boost to people’s happiness stats.

Building things costs money, but golfers bring in income. How much money you make depends on how much your customers like your golf course. In a departure from reality, your patrons will pay for each hole of golf played rather than a per-round greens fee. The more fun they have on each hole, the more money they pay out. If you stick with the most simplistic of course layouts, your patrons won’t have as much fun and they’ll simply spend pocket change on each hole. Create a challenging and fun layout and customers will happily drop wads of cash. And herein lies the great hook of SimGolf: your job is to design a golf course that makes your players feel like they’re good at the game. Each hole is given three ratings that coincide with skill ratings of your golfers: length, accuracy, and imagination. How players of different skill sets react to each hole determine its fun rating. If it has a low rating, only golfers with certain skills can play it well. There’s a handy ‘shot analysis’ tool that shows how people of differing skill sets might play through each hole. This tool is essential to designing holes that will be challenging and fun for golfers of all types.

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See those two shots above the fairway that land in the dirt? The shot analysis tool is telling me that golfers with no length skill will have a lot of problem with this hole.

It’s also necessary to pay attention to what golfers are saying as they play through the course. They aren’t afraid to voice their opinions of your course, which is usually a reflection of how well, or not, the course is tailored to their skill set. One of my courses is set in a hilly alpine environment. Things were going pretty well and I was making plenty of money, but about a quarter of my patrons would quit in rage on the third hole. After paying attention to what was happening, I saw that a certain stretch of fairway was sloped so that short tee shots, even though they landed on the fairway, would roll out of bounds. Players with more length skill didn’t have any issues. Golf rules being what they are, the player would have to take another shot off the tee, leading to a nine strokes played without making any headway on the hole itself. At that point, distance-challenged golfers throw a temper tantrum, toss down their clubs in disgust, and storm off the course. Raising the terrain on one side of the fairway solved the problem and all my patrons were happy again.

Of course, if you’re feeling sadistic it’s entirely possible to abuse the course design to give your patrons an objectively miserable experience. On one such occasion I watched a golfer named Solomon, a divorced Psychiatrist, drive a tee shot right into a cactus. After he expressed displeasure with the cactus I retaliated by placing another half dozen prickly obstructions surrounding his position. Solomon’s next five shots hit various cacti and his happiness indicator plummeted. Growing ever more frustrated, his comments glowed in flashing red text. As his patience comes to an end he yells, “I HATE MY CLUBS I HATE THIS GAME I HATE MY LIFE!!!” Other nearby golfers react to his tantrum and I click a button to have him escorted off the course. For a brief moment I wonder if I’m a bad person, then remember that it’s just a game and Solomon was probably a jerk anyway.

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Poor Solomon. It only gets worse from here, bud.

Should you want to play though your course firsthand the game allows you do so through your superintendent, Gary Golf. Playing is as simple as drawing a line to where you want the ball to go and then clicking to commit to the swing. The ball will more or less follow the projected flight path, deviating slightly depending on terrain and other statistics. Playing rounds of golf will award you skill points to improve your golfer’s stats, allowing you to record better scores. It can be a fun diversion from the construction and management side of the game, but it’s not going to hold your attention for long. There’s just not much to it. The one thing that keeps golf mode from being a complete throwaway is the golf tournament. Play against other computer-controlled golfers and if you win, you get a large cash payout. The potential trade off is that your course won’t earn any income during tournaments, so it’s possible to lose quite a bit of money before a tournament ends. However, when you level up your skill points enough there’s almost no way to lose.

As fun as it is to build your own course and watch the little virtual people play through it, SimGolf does have a few shortcomings. For one, I have no idea why Sid Meier’s name is attached to it. Even after reading multiple previews and reviews of the game, I’m still not sure why it bears his name. If you’re not familiar with him, Sid Meier is something of a legend when it comes to strategy games. Games branded with his name are known for their depth and complexity, presenting simulations that players can get lost in for hundreds of hours. SimGolf doesn’t possess any of those attributes. Once you’ve figured out the formula for making enjoyable golf courses, all challenge evaporates from the game. If your course is doing well financially after five holes, you won’t have any financial problems as you add more holes and services to it. At this point the game moves from simulation to creative sandbox mode and designing new holes and courses is the only draw. This may not be a bad thing, but the more you play it, the more you notice how simplified everything is. The design constraints of the grid system can only produce a finite number of visually appealing layouts. And even though the terrain tools allow for some substantial terraforming, the game wasn’t really designed for it. Objects and scenery don’t mesh all that well with severe slopes and drop-offs, and golfers complain if there are too many hills. The more you use the editing tools, the more you notice how awkward the interface can be. Everything is shoehorned into the awkward interface layout shared by The Sims and Sim City 4, forcing functions to be grouped according to the visual design of the menu rather than grouping functions logically by what they do. Remember the handy “shot analysis” tool I mentioned earlier? It’s buried in the building and terrain editing panel, which has to be accessed by clicking the a large button with a picture of a house on it. Even after spending ten hours on the game I couldn’t ever find it the first time.

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Window showing play statistics for a hole. Take note of the awkwardly placed bridge at the bottom of the screen; the game just can’t handle significant elevation changes.

This menu awkwardness continues into how the game tracks career progression. It would make sense that when you play through career mode, all of your progress can be accessed through a central hub like the world map. From there you’d be able to see which locations you own and what your progress is with each course. SimGolf doesn’t have a method to view your overall career progress. While you can use the world map to see each plot that you’ve unlocked, you have to load up the course file – if there is one – to view your progress. This is made more complicated by the fact that each save game defaults to the name of the course combined with a time stamp on the end of it. So unless you manually rename your save game every time, it’s possible to wind up with dozens of save files for one course. Since there are no visual previews of the save games, you also have to remember the name of the course you’re working on. Who does that?

None of these are insurmountable problems, but all of these flaws coalesce into what can feel like a giant mess. As far as I can tell there’s no one major goal for players of the game to work towards. The game essentially drops you into a golf course design sandbox and lets you do what you want. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing it takes away any sense of discovery the game could have. After about thirty minutes you will have seen all the game has to offer, and that’s a shame.

The Final Raving – Don’t Bother

This is a game that’s better left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

There’s a lot of fun to be had here if you can tolerate the flaws. However, the fun will only last a few hours and it’s probably just not worth the effort it would take to play the game.

Good:

  • Simple gameplay is easy to dive into
  • For the most part, the graphical elements combine into some pretty courses
  • It’s fun to make your golfers mad

Bad:

  • You can’t legitimately buy or install this on modern systems
  • The interface and game file management is absolutely atrocious

Ugly:

  • The “Sim” visual design of the golfers is ugly enough to make you puke
  • The game is locked at a resolution of 800 x 600, and it can’t be changed or played in windowed mode

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • The game isn’t available for purchase on any digital distribution platforms, and obsolete copy protection means you can’t install a legitimate physical copy on Windows 10

Tips for New Players:

  1. As with any simulation game, start small and get a little bit of profit first.
  2. Play in every tournament that pops up. You can’t lose!
  3. Listen to the golfers who complain a lot. They do make some good points.

Release Date:

  • January 23rd, 2002

Developer: Maxis & Firaxis Games

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Where to buy: eBay, but it won’t do you much good…

Screenshot Gallery

Afterthought

Fifteen years after its time I look at SimGolf and see tons of potential. While flawed, it’d be easy for someone to revisit this concept and turn it into a great game today. Imagine a game that shows a map of a city or a small state. On the map are locations of existing golf courses as well as lots, both empty and occupied, that are prime locations for new courses. As a potential course management tycoon it’s your objective to start out small. Build a mini golf course or maybe a pitch and putt to build up your cash reserves. In time you’ll have the funds available to build a nine-hole municipal course. That, in turn leads to private courses and then prestigious country clubs. When you’ve acquired enough design rep, you start fine tuning select courses for nationally televised tournaments. From time to time you’ll have to compete with rival designers who try to undermine courses in select locations. Sometimes they’ll be honest and simply build a competing course, other times they’ll play dirty and try to sabotage your workforce. Beyond design elements the game also includes management of course employees, maintenance schedules, clubhouse restaurants, and other facilities. In addition to career mode there would also be a set of challenge scenarios wherein the goal is to rescue troubled courses, cater to a specific subset of golfers, or simply generate lots of profit. The game would be built with 3D engine that has simple and intuitive terraforming tools, much like Planet Coaster. Scripts of procedural generation can take some of the legwork out of course design, but there’s potential for players to tweak and design every little detail they want. It seems like a great idea to me, and I suppose I’ll work on a design document sooner or later. Playing around in Planet Coaster gave me just a glimpse of the potential that might exist for a new golf management sim:

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Please forgive my use of the Union Jack to mark the location of the hole; it’s all I could find in the right scale…

 

Backlog of Resolutions

Playing it safe doesn’t capture what I consider is the essence of what it is to be a gamer; which is to discover compelling narratives and exciting experiences firsthand. It’s certainly not in the spirit of RavingLuhn, where one of my goals is to, “sift through the games of PC past and present to pull out which ones are worth experiencing today”. Therefore I present to you the only resolution I’ve made for the year 2017…

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Dustforce. Age of Wonders. Insurgency. Kholat. Teslagrad. Those are five games present in my growing gaming library that I can’t tell you anything about. I can’t even tell you how I came to own them! But there they are. Part of my collection, buried in the ever-growing backlog.

In gaming circles, “backlog” is a term given to the pile of unplayed games anyone possesses. Some people, myself included, even tend to feel a little guilty buying new games when we already own so many unplayed games. But backlog doesn’t necessarily have to be a dirty word. Much like other hobbies, it’s the opportunistic accumulation of goods to be enjoyed at a later date. It’s simply a byproduct of the hobby. To help put all of this in perspective: At the end of 2016, my gaming library contained about 307 different titles. Just for fun I went through and counted every game I had completed on PC since the year 2000. Of those 307 games I’ve completed a total of 70, or about 23% of my library. Going strictly off of basic arithmetic, that means I don’t finish more than 5 games per year. I know my own gaming habits and the time I spend on games, and I should be completing way more than five games per year. What this tells me is that for some reason, I keep going back to the same titles over and over. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Familiar games can have a huge nostalgia factor and are quite comfortable to play. It’s no different than watching reruns of a favorite sitcom. Why spend my hard earned free time on a new game I may not enjoy when I can maximize enjoyment of my leisure time and stick to something I know is fun?

It’s safe and efficient, but there’s also no telling how much I’m missing out on by taking that approach. Playing it safe doesn’t capture what I consider is the essence of gaming; which is to discover new compelling narratives and exciting experiences firsthand. Sticking to what I know certainly is not in the spirit of RavingLuhn, where one of my goals is to, “sift through the games of PC past and present to pull out which ones are worth experiencing today”.

Therefore I present to you the only resolution I’ve made for the year 2017, which contains three parts:

  1. I will not purchase any new PC games until July 1st, 2017 or the end of the Steam Summer Sale, whichever comes first. This forces me to focus on what I have.
  2. I will play twelve games I’ve never played before; at a rate of at least one per month for the entire year. This, hopefully, will drive the discovery of new, fun experiences.
  3. I will write an article about each of these twelve new games as part of RavingLuhn’s content drop in 2017. This allows you, dear reader, to take the journey with me.

Focus on what I have. Enjoy it for what it is. Discover some fun stuff in the process. It should be a good year.