Monday, September 29, 2008

I am Just Good Enough for PixelJunk Monsters

I've been trying to enjoy real-time strategy games for much of my life, despite my ethnic handicap. I spent a lot of quality time with the genre back in '97, shepherding orcs around on my 486, and since then I've picked up a RTS once every few years-- Age of Mythology, Rise of Nations and the like-- to see whether I still had some chops. The answer to this question is no.

Anytime I venture within 30 feet of a network connection I can hear my laptop composing a concession speech. My RTS strategy (such as it is) is too parasitic on my substandard Civ game: I spend most of the game growing my economy and amassing a huge stack of units, and then I hurtle them en masse into the nearest enemy compound when the time seems right. This never succeeds against human opponents, and when it comes to the campaign missions or in-game skirmishes I am useless against all but the most doggedly cretinous AI settings.

My most recent defeat came at the hands of Company of Heroes. I had high hopes for this game, because I had heard Shawn Elliott enthuse over it on countless GFW Radio podcasts and because I hoped its deliberately small-bore scale would meet my incapacity for unit-micromanagement halfway. Unfortunately, whenever the game asked me to keep track of more than three squads at a time I would end up losing a unit somewhere, and by the time I hunted him down one of my other units would end up pinned down by Wehrmacht machine-gun fire. Even though I could muddle through the campaign I just never felt like I was in control of what was going on. I realize that this is basically willful impotence on my part: the game's designers have given me these things called hotkeys for the purpose of the macro-level army management these games require. But I just couldn't ever get the hang of them.

The thing is, I get the appeal. I've heard people describe what it is like to become proficient enough with the game's systems to employ tactics, and it's even interesting to hear people talk about it. I get this sense that there is a level of remove in their brains of which I am incapable. Like, where I see a confusing welter of unit types and buildings strewn around a headquarters, they see a strategic position, the larger pattern implicit in the details. They work with armies instead of units, economies rather than villagers. And there's this sense of empowerment that must come with the ability to manage a complex tactical situation against another human intelligence-- knowing what unit types to use in different situations, being able to respond on the fly to battles on different fronts. While this kind of strategic competence is beyond my ken, its promise has kept me coming back over the years.

Pixeljunk Monsters, Q games' downloadable title for the PS3, found the magic equation that makes the charms of an RTS game accessible to a managerial troglodyte like myself. They are as follows:

1) Make the player's units stationary.

2) Keep everything on one screen.

Simple, no? Pixeljunk Monsters follows in the path of the excellent (and free) flash game Desktop Tower Defense, which stripped away the genre's complex economic and unit-management aspects and reduced it to a simple formula: the game sends waves of enemies marching across the screen. You build different varieties of defensive towers in their path to kill them, which nets you money to buy more towers and upgrade your current stock. You win if you prevent these enemies from reaching the other end. That's it.

I think that Q games made a few simple design tweaks to this template that invested this style of gameplay with added layers of strategic depth and variety. First, they put the player in control of a specific character-- instead of dropping in towers from an omniscient perspective, you scuttle your masked turtle around the screen-spanning forest in order to erect defenses on various trees. Aside from giving the player a constant focus of attention, which is helpful, the insertion of a discrete character into the equation also changes the economics of the game. There are just three resources in Pixeljunk Monsters: gold, gems, and time. Waves of enemies make conflicting demands on your time-management: your turtle-man has to run around collect gold and gems from slain foes, but you also need him to stand by your towers in order to upgrade them. Putting you in control of a character also makes the cooperative mode really interesting-- it doubles your pool of time by giving you two turtle-men, but forces you to hold your gems in common. If you and your significant other would like to have a presentiment of what it would be like to have a joint checking account, look no further than Pixeljunk Monsters. Playing the game with my girlfriend quickly exposed our different economic philosophies (I'm an impulse buyer, and she is not), generating stretches of enjoyable frisson punctuated by mutual triumph.

Its second change to the tower-defense scenario is the creation of distinct maps on each level; unlike Desktop Tower Defense, where you could arrange your towers however you wish, each level of Pixeljunk Monsters has a different layout of trees which restricts your tower-placement options. This makes each stage unique; the levels vary the enemy types and layout, and these different configurations force the player to make a series of interesting decisions about how to balance her time and resources most effectively in each case. The level-variety creates this a trial-and-error aspect to each level that really got me hooked. Every time I failed, I wanted to try it just one more time in order to experiment with a new approach to the problem. (I must have played the infamous “bridge” level over twenty times before I cracked it) By making well-calculated design decisions like these, Pixeljunk Monsters wrings a lot of depth out of an uncomplicated set of mechanics.

People have been trying to translate PC real-time strategy games to consoles for years, and usually this effort has centered on shoehorning the complex controls of their PC counterparts into the limited real estate of the Xbox controller. Maybe there are ways to do this elegantly. But to my mind Monsters does a better job of translating some of the core satisfactions of the genre onto consoles. There's no denying that the version of real-time strategy that Pixeljunk Monsters serves up robs the genre of many of its native excellences. You lose the fluid back-and-forth between you and your enemies that you get from controlling mobile armies, and the contest of wits that comes with online competitive play. But by keeping it simple Pixeljunk Monsters preserves the things that appeal to me-- coming up with a good build order, managing resources, and problem-solving. If we could only get some breathless commentary into the mix, we'd really be on to something.


Charles said...

Great review! I really love PixelJunk Monsters and I think you've captured what's really appealing about the game.

You're dead on though that the addition of an avatar is what makes the time management element working so well. It also ensures that every playthrough will be slightly different. I'll have to give it a try in two player mode sometime, though, it sounds really interesting.

Just one correction, though. Paths have been in TD games since they first started as Warcraft III mods, Desktop Tower Defense is actually an anomaly in the fact that it doesn't have paths. The lack of paths is also what makes DTD really easy to break.

Julian said...

Because of the completely fixed nature of the waves of enemies and the long amount of time required to get strategies up and running, PJM feels more like a puzzle game than an RTS to me. You almost need to have the entire stage planned down to individual tower placement before you start to be successful. That, in conjunction with the trial-and-error aspect makes me feel like I'm solving the stages, not succeeding through strategy and tactics.

Have the difficulty levels gone in yet? Maybe a less unforgiving challenge could give you some room to be more responsive and bring back some of the quick-thinking that could make it feel like an RTS to me.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the game (especially co-op) and I agree about the benefits of the design decisions. I just don't feel it works well as a translation of strategy games.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@charles: Thanks for the correction. I actually knew that the tower defense genre began as a WCIII mod, but I kinda gave the impression here that DTD came up with the idea. do you know if the Warcraft version had fixed options for turret positions too?

@julian: I think you have a good point. Because each level of PJM requires so much advance planning, each level feels more like a puzzle than a fast-developing strategic situation. I actually liked this side of the game, but you're right that this aspect is nothing at all like an RTS. Like you, I hope someone finds a way to inject more of the nimble on-the-fly strategic thinking into the gameplay while retaining accessibility. I personally think the genre's going to take off, there's that DS tower defense/RPG game out now.

Ramshot Croton said...

I had a thought today while approaching the grocery store: the turtle guy is compensating for the lack of a mouse, with its precision coverage of the entire screen, in console games. You're a pretty clever game designer when your attempt to cope with limitations of handheld tiny joysticks becomes a novel, interesting game-play mechanism.

Also, my two cents are that time management has always been a part of real time strategy games, including tower defense games: upgrade times, prioritizing between air defense and heavy artillery right now, though time is a more explicit element in Monsters. Plus, turtle-time is a bit more leisurely than mouse-holding-gamer time and thus the game is less frantic and more pleasant to play.

Charles said...

Hmm, I don't think so. You mean how in PJM you can only build towers on trees? I think that was something that they came up with. I could be wrong though. I only played those old mods a couple of times and they may have started to do some more interesting things after I moved on.

Once again though, great review of an under-appreciated game.

what is yacon said...

We don't even think so. An individual suggest the way with PJM you can merely build towers upon bushes? I'm sure that had been an issue that they what is yacon created. I possibly could become incorrect although. We merely played those people outdated mods maybe once or twice and they may have began to carry out a lot more intriguing things when i managed to move on.

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