The Computer Gaming Wasteland

September, 2020

About two weeks ago I discovered and installed on my smartphone a game called “Star Trek Fleet Command.” As it happens, I’d just started re-watching “ST: Voyager” on Netflix, and I thought it’d be nice to spend time with a game set in the Star Trek universe.

This essay is not actually about Fleet Command as much as it’s about the current state of computer game design in general, but if you’re looking for a review of the game, I’ll get right to the point: I expect to be deleting the game off my phone in a few days. Fleet Command is a huge disappointment. I actually feel angry and betrayed by this game, and honestly cannot recommend it to any of my friends.

Scopely’s web site (they’re the publisher) proudly lists all the great reviews and high ratings the game has earned. If I “wrote a review” for the App Store and gave it one star, I’m sure I’d be an anomaly, out of step with most players. After all, who am I to say the Emperor has no clothes? I’m not a famous game designer; I’m hardly a game designer at all. I don’t have a Twitter account, I’ve never worked at EA or PopCap or Valve, and if you put all my friends, acquaintances, and “followers” together in one room, they would probably fit easily into Benaroya Hall (seat. cap. 2,500). If I can’t even pack CenturyLink Stadium (seat. cap. 68,740), who cares?

It would be nice to think that people might care because they find value in the contents of the essay itself; that people would appreciate and share this article because of the value of the ideas presented. However, the current state of affairs in both politics and computer gaming would suggest quite the opposite. An amusing irony that I’m writing an essay that in part will demonstrate the futility of writing the essay. Such is life. Onward!

My first impression of Star Trek Fleet Command (STFC) was optimistic confusion. It’s very pretty. No expense was spared creating lots of elaborate eye candy, which I would expect with a licensed game. The confusion came from the fact that (again, like many games these days) they were squarely in the “click where we point” school of teaching a game. “First, you need to build a parsteel generator. Click here to build one. Click here to finish building it. Now you need a drydock for your ship. Click here to build it. Now click here to collect your reward!”

When I run classes about teaching other people to play board games, one of the first thing I tell my students is “Start at the end. The first thing you should tell players is how to win the game. Until they know what their goal is, the rules you’ll be covering will seem confusing and arbitrary, because they won’t know why they care about gathering wood, or how to shift gears, or whatever.” After maybe 30 or 40 hours of playing STFC, I still have no idea what goal the designers intended for me to be working toward.

There are some hints, or at least things that look like hints, and there are definitely pointers to what the goal isn’t. It is definitely not “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” There are routes on the map marked with icons that tell me I need a “Rogue Transwarp Cell,” or that I must “complete the mission Autopilot: Yarda.” How do I obtain that cell or complete that mission? No idea. Guess I just have to keep playing until I trip across them. There are other locations which look accessible, except when I try to go there, I’m told I need Level 14 Warp Engines to go there, and I only have Level 12 engines. Mind you, my ship is sitting just one jump away from the star system in question.

Of course, in the end, the actual goal of the game is “get players to pay money for upgrades.” STFC is, like many games today, free to play, and unlike many games, doesn’t run in-game advertising. There are opportunities to purchase “chests” of upgrades. As far as I can tell, the cash upgrades are for items a player might also be able to get by just playing the game a lot. There’s a whole ‘nother essay on the potential pitfalls of tying dollars to in-game advancement, but as it happens, I don’t think STFC has that problem, at least not at the level I’m at. It’s also often a problem because a game may be deliberately compromised in order to encourage a player to spend money. I don’t generally blame a game designer, much, for intentionally crippling the design of their game and then asking me to pay money to remove the design flaw, but neither am I likely to pay, since I resent having to deal with a deliberately badly-designed game.

But I don’t think the flaws in STFC are there to make me spend money. I think they’re there just because the people who designed this game, like (as far as I can tell) everybody else in the computer gaming industry, just don’t have a freakin’ clue what they’re doing. They just copy design elements from other games that made money without understanding which elements were good ones and which ones were bad.

One reviewer labeled STFC a 4X MMORPG. This is accurate, or accurate-ish, but both labels are so broad as to make the categories fairly useless. MMORPG is, of course, a “Massively Multi-player Online Role-playing Game.” First, you have to understand that what the computer gaming industry calls a “role-playing game,” almost always isn’t. Whether you’re a thief, barbarian, or wizard, your “role” is to slay the monsters, collect the treasure, and level up. (The only ‘role’ to play in STFC, by the way, is ‘bully,’ but I’ll get to that in a bit.)

It’s definitely “Massively Multi-player,” and this seemed like a particularly good feature of STFC. Shortly after I started playing, the game told me “You have to join an alliance. Pick one!” and it showed me a long list of names. I think it might have also showed me how many members were in each one, but I don’t recall for sure. I only remember being really annoyed at being forced to choose with practically no information whatsoever to use in making that choice. Each alliance had a name and a stock-market-like abbreviation code. “Titans United” was TTN. The “Bambam” alliance has OUCH. “Picard’s Fleet” was PIC. I decided to join the “Newtothis” alliance because their code was NICE.

Alliances, as I discovered later, are limited in size to around 50 players. A Level 3 alliance is capped at 34. NICE is Level 12, and we have 50 of a maximum of 54 members. Picard’s Fleet is Level 15, and has 60 of 60 members. How does an alliance go up in levels? Well, there’s a screen where members can spend goods to earn “alliance points,” and I think that page was telling me that once enough members had spent enough stuff to buy enough points, the alliance would level up. Is there some kind of important benefit to being able to have 57 members instead of 54? Beats me. I really can’t decide if the designers think that making me figure out why I should give a rat’s ass about so much of this game is because they think I’ll have fun figuring it out, or because they don’t understand why I would need to know.

I have “alliances” in Candy Crush and Eggs, Inc (two other games I play) as well, but they’re just names on a list. I don’t know who they are, I can’t communicate with them; they might as well be robots for all I care. But in STFC, when I start a “build” or “research” task, I can “ask for help” from my alliance. There’s also a button to show me pending requests for help from other members. To help them, I just tap the “help them” button. Easy! When they help me, a little message appears on my screen and the timer for the task they helped with advances about a minute. The time it takes to complete one of these tasks ranges from 10 minutes to 6 hours, so getting help is a small but not trivial boost. Since it also tells me which alliance member helped me, it wasn’t long before I could see which members were pretty active, and giving me a lot of help.

There’s also an alliance-specific chat room to go with the game-wide (or server-wide, since apparently I was assigned to a specific server when I launched the game, and each server hosts a separate instantiation of the universe. I think?) chat room. I’ve had some actual conversations with people, offered some advice, been given some, and generally been able to interact with fellow allies in a way that was positive and fun. This is also the mechanism that helped me discover that I probably want to bail out of this game in the near future.

You see, last week I triggered an ominous warning in the game. I hit some milestone for leveling up, but when I went to do so, the game cautioned me that if I chose to step over that line, other players would be allowed to attack my ships. Excuse me?

I need to go back now and pick up that “4X” label. This designation was first coined for the computer game “Masters of Orion” (and I can totally see elements of that game from 1993 in STFC), but by far the most well-known archetypical example of this genre is Civilization. 4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. As with MMORPG, the term has been applied so broadly that I think it’s almost useless. For one thing, in both Masters of Orion (MOO) and Civilization, the “exterminate” component is optional. You can win MOO by either wiping all the other races from the map, or by bonding them together in an alliance and being elected Supreme Leader. Civilization lets you win by either extermination or by being the first society to fly to Alpha Centauri.

It is more useful (but less alliterative) to characterize these games as “explore, produce, develop, defeat.” I think they’re clearly related to both Tropico (where you are the ruler of a small banana republic) and StarCraft (where you’re fighting to eliminate an enemy from the surface of a planet). You start with very little information about the territory, and must send out minions to fill in the map. You have some kind of resources that are used to buy more units and/or to unlock improvements to your units. You have a technology tree to advance along. You have some sort of opponent which involves combat.

There’s a huge amount of latitude in how important each of those pieces is to a particular game. The ‘defeat’ element in Tropico is usually very small; if you’re too heavy-handed a ruler, the people start to get restless and may attack various buildings. You need soldiers or policemen to quell them. Most scenarios are about making money, making enough of a particular resource (in other words, making money), or reaching a particular part of the tech tree (build a cathedral and a college, say). In StarCraft, you have to find more crystal beds and gas geysers or you won’t have the money to climb the tech tree and build more warriors, but the economic engine is there to support the combat. StarCraft, by the way, is counted as an RTS (real-time strategy) game, not a 4X game, an arbitrary and misleading distinction.

Back to STFC which has, right there in the title, the words “Star Trek.” You can pick just about any one of the many Star Trek properties, and it won’t be long before you notice just how hard the writers work at avoiding combat, especially warfare-scale combat, and especially especially killing people. Oh, sure, the occasional redshirt gets thrown under the bus to try to convince us that Space is Dangerous and Lives are At Risk, but usually they die from natural causes. Murder is rare indeed. Heck, the biggest battle ever was the Federation vs. The Borg, and even then, the Borg were converting people, not killing them.

So, when STFC warns me I’m about to cross the line into the realm of player-vs-player combat, I’m nonplussed. But, it’s Star Trek! And there’s alliances. Oh, and the Big Three: there are huge chunks of the map marked out for the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans. I am still labeled “Independent,” and many of the missions make a point of having the characters say “You, there! We need an independent to handle this mission for us. You’d be perfect!” I don’t know if at some point I can apply to be a citizen of the Federation, or the Klingon Empire, or if I’ll just be doing some kind of diplomatic dance (to get permission to enter their territory, maybe?), but they’re there, and I’m not allowed to go there yet because my warp engines aren’t big enough. So in the meantime, I figure I’ll just keep exploring and doing these missions to earn stuff.

And there’s lots and lots of “stuff.” StarCraft had just two resources. STFC has more than I can count. There’s parsteel, tritanium, and dilithium that I can make on-station or mine, there’s ore, gas, and crystals that I can mine (in specific star systems), there’s Officer XP to level up my officers, which is different from Officer Shards which are keyed to a specific officer and are needed to promote them. I need 7 more Shards to promote Cadet Uhura from Lieutenant JG II to, um, whatever is above that. I need Ship XP to upgrade my ships, and now I also need Interceptor Parts (made from crystals, I think) to upgrade my Interceptor-class ship. I can ‘buy’ many of the resources I don’t have (like Interceptor Parts) with Latinum. Discovery Mission Keys buy Discovery chests. “USS Discovery” is the theme of the current scenario, with its own special advancement track to earn rewards for completing special missions. There are Blueprint Parts, needed to build a particular class of ship. There are Battle Pass Points; I don’t know what they’re for. There are three or four different categories of Recruit Tokens, which buy chests that have random Officer Shards.

I want to just draw a line underneath that last one. Some missions will reward me with Recruit Tokens when completed. 20 Standard Recruit tokens let me buy one Chest. That Chest will contain three Officer Shards and some Officer XP. I have no control over which officer’s Shards I get, although I see there’s a 3% chance of a Shard being one of the Rare officers. (So, it’s a Booster Pack! Sure, that makes sense.) Eight Helvia Shards will let me promote Ensign Helvia. I need twelve shards for Ensign Gaila. I don’t know why those numbers are different. But good grief! So complicated! Layers and layers of “gamification,” adding ‘rewards’ for doing something something you would probably do anyway.

There are “Daily Goals.” If I finish three research projects, I get a Speed-up Token (yet another resource!) and 20 points. There’s a free reward chest every 10 minutes, and another one with more stuff in it every 24 hours. I get 10 points and some Officer XP as a reward for opening my 24-hour chest of free rewards. And, the 30 points I received for doing those two things triggers a Milestone Chest I get to open, which (today at least) contained 12,000 parsteel, 2500 tritanium, and 20 standard Recruit Tokens. Claiming the 25 points I get for opening three of the 4-hour Free Chests was enough to get me another Milestone Chest, with more parsteel and tritanium.

I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it feels to me.

Still, the fact that the game is smothered in layers of gamification is just inconveniently amusing. It’s a lot of busywork clicking and clicking to claim all the extraneous rewards it keeps giving me. No, the real issues started to come in to view after I started mining crystal.

One of the ships I’ve unlocked is a mining ship. Okay, fine. Ah. Once I built the refinery (it sounded useful, so why not?), I discovered the potential existance of Ore, Gas, and Crystals. It took me a fair amount of head-scratching to figure out that apparently I was going to start needing these things if I wanted to keep upgrading my ships. It took me even longer to figure out what it meant by “mining in 2* systems.” Basically I had to stumble across a system that, lo, had the resource I needed to mine. It was six or so jumps from my base, so it took about 4 (real) minutes for my ship to get there, but once I pointed it at one of the many clumps of Crystal, it settled in and started incrementing its cargo counter. All seemed fine until the afternoon I picked up my phone and had a notification: “Your ship has been attacked!”

Battles in STFC are very simple. You click on a ship, your ship swings into action, shots are exchanged, and one of them blows up. There’s no ‘targeting their deflector array,’ there’s no ‘retreat,’ there’s just the click, and three seconds later, somebody blows up. So, as expected, “attacked” meant “destroyed.” Well, clicking on “repair” meant about 3.5 minutes later I had a replacement ship (with the same crew magically included), and could send it back out to start mining again.

And some 45 minutes later, somebody blew that one up.

The third time it happened, I used the chat function to tell them what I thought of this behavior. Rather to my amazement, instead of finding my ship and blowing it up again just to teach me a lesson, they politely explained that they were in compliance with the Rules of Engagement and I shouldn’t be all that surprised. The what? What Rules? Well, it seems that some of the biggest Alliances had had a meeting at some point and agreed on the RoE. Trying to hold my temper, I wondered how I was supposed to have known they even existed. Well, turns out his alliance (at least) had their RoE in the “Public Info” box of the alliance. It took me a lot of clicking and poking to figure out how to actually see this information. Here’s what I found: “RoE: PriorWarning to Onode SurveyShip attacks-opc SurveyShips and WarShips mining, and Ship in OpenSpace, &Bases are ALWAYS Fair Game.Retaliate on Violators.”

Nope, didn’t make much sense to me either. Based on what this player and some others have said, I think it’s saying that I should expect to be warned by an aggressor before they attack my Onode Survey Ships (I haven’t a clue what makes a survey ship an Onode one, but my mining ship has the icon for “survey ship”), but it’s perfectly reasonable for members of this alliance to attack any ship that’s just flying around, any warships (which I think means Interceptors, Battleships, and Explorers?) that are mining, and any mining ships that are mining and have collected material in excess of their Protected Cargo limit. Their what? Yup, the cargo graph has a little line on it. The first 10% of cargo is Protected. The Info pop-up for this group of stats doesn’t include any definition of that term. I’m just guessing that it means if I get blown up, the blower-upper doesn’t get to keep the protected part of my cargo. Thus, the Rules of Engagement say it’s Rude to blow somebody up unless you’ll get to steal some of the material they’ve mined. Stealing somebody else’s stuff is okay, but just blowing them up because they were there is not.

Oh, but it gets “better.” Right now, my starbase is un-targetable, but only until I get to Level 15. At that point, even my base becomes “fair game” under that RoE, and because the game itself will allow players to attack my base. Oh, but by then, I should have developed Shield Technology to protect my base. Assuming (I’m given to understand) that I’m logging in often enough to keep the shields renewed or operating or fed or something like that.

Now, currently, it takes my mining ship about 90 minutes to mine enough stuff to exceed its protected capacity. So, either I only mine when I’m actually playing the game, or I have to pick up my phone every 90 minutes and fly my ship back to my base to empty it out, or expect it to get blown up. And, once I’ve hit Level 15, if I don’t play this game enough, I might as well not play at all, because I’m going to spend some unknown amount of time rebuilding my base, or something.

Maybe the designers just didn’t really understand that their game design was going to strongly encourage strong players to harass and bully weaker ones? Hah. Exhibit B: the missions themselves.

I’ve basically been ignoring missions that start out “We need somebody to hunt down and kill a scurrilous smuggler.” or “These two sides are at war. Bring them to the negotiation table by blowing up some of their ships.” But over and over again, I’d pick a mission that started out “Escort this diplomat to their conference.” or “Retrieve this rare artifact for us.” and have the third part of the mission be “Oh, no, the other side doesn’t want the diplomat to arrive, and they’ve sent a ship to stop you. Kill them!” or “Somebody doesn’t want you to return with the rare artifact, and they’re powering up their weapons!” To complete the mission and get the reward, I have to blow up a ship. Usually a ship quite a bit bigger and more powerful than mine. So I just fly my ship off to a different mission, and that one stays in my mission list, clogging it up until the day my ship is big enough to win the battle.

I am not, by any means, the most peace-loving non-violent person in my circle of friends, but this game quickly blew past my tolerance for violence. I’m totally done with missions that insist I destroy a ship to complete them. This is just violence for violence’s sake. I can’t try to negotiate with the diplomat hunters? I can’t use both my ships and try to pull a bait-and-switch? I can’t bribe or pay off the artifact seekers? Nope. Blow ‘em up.

Really, I guess I’m lucky that some of the players even came up with the Rules of Engagement, because otherwise there might be some players just blowing up anything they could just because it’s fun. The Titan alliance has said if you blow up a Titan mining ship that’s only got protected cargo, then the alliance will send people to hit you back; that hopefully will discourage players from blowing up anybody’s ship that meets those limited criteria. Because the game clearly not only allows it, but it encourages players to pound on each other.

One player said he only mines with his war ships rather than his mining ships because warships are harder to kill, but anybody at Level 14 or above will almost certainly be able to crush my cute little Level 12 warship, and it doesn’t even qualify as ‘off limits’ under the RoE.

So here I am, playing what looked at first like a really sexy and fun Star Trek game, but which is slowly (as I level up) morphing into a game that forces players to clump together into vigilante groups so they can pound on weaker players, and rewards them for doing so. I realize griefing (one player destroying another player’s in-game assets just because they can) is hard to stop in any game that has inter-player interaction, but a Star Trek-themed game ought to at least try. This game is doing the opposite.

Why? Because the designers thought that was the right way to go, or is it because the designers just aren’t good enough, and they think that’s how the game has to be because that’s how other games they’ve played worked. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if somebody at Scopley could point to a survey and tell me that this is what the players like. Of course it is; the players who don’t like it aren’t playing those games! The deep jargon encoding of those Rules of Engagement had “boy’s club” written all over it; a subset of players who like (or at least have become accustomed to) beating up on other players, and quickly flocked to this game to start racing to the top of the hill.

In one review I saw, the reviewer mentioned that he’d spent, oh, maybe $100 on in-game upgrades. If the hard-core players are spending that kind of money on games like this, then it’s no wonder the game’s squarely centered on violent interactions. Of course, if all these games keep chasing the same gamers, then they’re slicing up the same pie, and money from gamers who are looking for a non-violent 4X-ish game aren’t giving their money to anybody.

The last “big” game I seriously played and enjoyed was Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes. It’s a digital version of a trading card game, and, quite honestly, it’s the best TCG I’ve ever played. The only thing they clearly got wrong was their revenue model, which is, of course, the one thing you really can’t afford to get wrong. It’s still playable, but they stopped releasing new expansions for it a couple years ago, and it’s just a matter of time (maybe a lot of time, but ...) before they shut down the servers. I would really really like to have an economic/exploration game to play again, but it looks like I’ll have to go retro to do it. As it happens, while writing this essay I discovered an open-source game modeled after Masters of Orion which looks promising.

Other than that, I’ll have to stick with Tropico V (released 2014, with the original game released 2001), and Railroads! (released 2006.) Railroads is the sequel to Railroad Tycoon 3, and I have my copies of RT2 and 3 around here somewhere. RT2 was released in 1998, and the original Railroad Tycoon in 1990. The fact that I’m playing games now that are only modest variations on original designs that are more than 20 years old is just sad.

Is there somebody to blame? Alas, not really. Is there a way to fix it? I don’t know. We’ve moved away from ‘big’ computers; the device du jour is the smart phone, and having to do all your input by putting your finger on the output, and having the display smaller than a paperback book, is not conducive to big, complex games. Having everybody expect to start playing for free instead of paying $40 for a game in a box can’t be helping. I do believe that if somebody in the computer gaming industry would figure out that they need designers who actually understand the fundamental principles of game design, who can articulate the mechanisms of fun, who can craft a game that is enjoyable by design, rather than by copying some other game that was fun, throwing changes at it, then A/B testing their way into figuring out what works and what doesn’t, then they’d have a better chance at making big elaborate games that weren’t just variations on what’s been done already. Unfortunately, I don’t know for certain if there are any such people. I know two designers that I would be willing to bet on, and I can think of three or four more that I suspect would have a good chance of pulling it off, but it might be that the current socio-economic environment means a big, elaborate computer game just can’t be done.

 

Which seemed like a really good place to end this diatribe, but that would be doing you, my loyal reader, a disservice. Because it’s arguable that I’m doing the equivalent of kvetching about how nobody knows how to make a car like the ’57 Chevy any more (or my 1957 Packard); that no modern manufacturer will make a car with that kind of glorious space available, when gentlemen could wear hats in the car, and you had a perfectly good view of a drive-in movie screen from the back seat. To bemoan the ‘failure’ of today’s automobile is to ignore the Tesla, and the Corvette, and the Miata. Can any of them be a ’57 Chevy? Oh, lord, no. But they are each amazing, fabulous cars in their own way.

So maybe, if I want to ride around in a spectacular massive block of curvy metal, I need to do it in a car that’s older than I am. And if I want to play a sprawling computer game with an economic engine and lots of fiddly bits, I need to play a game that originally came on floppy disks.

And who’s the computer-game-industry equivalent of Tesla? Why, Niantic, of course. Maybe you don’t know that name right off the top of your head (although I think many of you do); if not, here’s a couple words that might ring a bell:

Pokémon GO

 

 

 

A follow-on note: I just found an interesting exchange in the STFC game-wide chat log (each line is a different player):

“So tile hitting is a thing in this game. Good to know.”

“What is tile hitting?”

“Hitting a miner while mining. In other games it’s called tile hitting and it’s usually not allowed.”

...

“This game is basically EVE lite.”

“What is EVE?”

“MMORPG, just a rough one. Great design, just no training wheels, and no one cares if you get ganked for any reason.”

 

A friend of mine played EVE. When he told me about it, it sounded fantastic, and I really wanted to play it, but didn’t feel I had the time available at the time, and by the time I did, it had become clear that EVE was (or had become) a gladiatorial meat-grinder. So, yup. STFC is not my cup of tea. It’s more like a cup of hydrochloric acid. None for me, thanks.