Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Rebuttal to Advance Wars by Web

At my own request, The Player's Guide to AWDS (formerly "The Idiot's Guide to AWDS") was reviewed and pulled apart by players whose playing experience comes primarily from Advance Wars by Web (AWBW). I did this to see what underlying problems and misconceptions still need to be addressed in the Advance Wars community, and would now like to take this opportunity to explain why AWBW game theory needs to die.

#1: AWBW Game Theory is lazy.
This is the tier list I'm often confronted with to "rebut" the Player's Guide. Note that the tiers are numbered opposite my own system.
Broken Tier
Kanbei, Colin, Sensei, Grit, Hachi, Javier2T+
Luck Tier
Nell, Flak, Jugger
Tier 1 (Top Tier)
Sturm, Von Bolt, Javier1T, Sasha, Hawke
Tier 2 (High Tier)
Eagle, Olaf, Max
Tier 3 (Mid Tier)
Andy, Drake, Kindle, Lash, Sami
Tier 4 (Low Tier)
Rachel, Grimm, Adder
Tier 5 (Bottom Tier)
Jake, Jess, Sonja, Javier0T, Koal
If you have ever played a strategy game in your life, you should already know from first glance that this list is fishy. Even excluding the Javier variants, 28% of all playable factions are in un-ranked "do not use" tiers. That would be suspicious at even half this number, because game balance simply does not work that way. The rankings themselves are also quite suspicious.

I do not play AWBW often enough to re-organize that community's list, but there are multiple inconsistencies that they have always refused to address. Let's take the example of Grit: he can be beaten by Grimm, and reliably brought to a standstill by Max and Jess. This is just what I've played myself, and there could be more examples I am not aware of. Why have none of these COs ever had their rankings changed in light of this? In any other gaming community, this would have caused a fundamental shift in how the tiers are structured, but in AWBW it's always been passed off as "an anomaly."

This same thinking contributed to one of my favorite absurdities in the AWDS community, in which all Tags are considered broken without ever bothering to test them. Even after GipFace and I independently proved that Tags can not only be ranked but even be inferior to single COs, I meet folks who still think of them as "broken and unusable." Never mind that a 10% broken ratio would be suspect, this pushed it above 90%. It's indicative of the elitist mentality that has overtaken the Advance Wars community and holds back AWBW to this day.

When I say "elitist," I am not speaking of individuals; rather, the game theory itself is considered "elite" over what anyone else comes up with. You see at some point, the community agreed that the game's balance was "solved," and after this happened anyone questioning that balance could expect to be pounced on by a hoard of people who think they know everything about the game because they read a couple guides. The guides on AWBW are essentially sacred writ to that community, to the point where individuals painstakingly endeavored to recover them after the old forum crashed and re-post them, even attributing the original author. Nevermind that it's accepted game theory, and that theoretically anyone should just be able to make a new guide from memory: these particular guides had to be recovered, without which all was lost.

Folks, I guarantee that if you regard guides like this, you are not an expert. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you have never attempted to challenge community guides with original research, you don't know jack shit about that game. There are still new strategies being innovated in games as old as Chess, and yet this community is content to think that it has "solved" a much more complicated game. This mentality that anything falling outside a guide's layout is a mere anomaly is not a demonstration of knowledge, it is laziness. This is why I basically ignore anything the AWBW community has to say about balance, even on their own game.

#2: AWBW and AWDS have fundamentally different mechanics.
I cannot overstate this: AWBW and AWDS are not the same game. They have often been thought of as the same game, even been used interchangeably for game theory purposes, but in practical terms you might as well be comparing Age of Empires 2 with Age of Mythology. AWBW works on AW2 mechanics with a hodgepodge of DS units and COs thrown in. In the former games, you often can't get a cheap (S)COP until day 12 or 14. Your strategy largely relies on what you can accomplish day-to-day, as such.

In AWDS, even expensive SCOPs will be fielded by day 10 at most (often earlier), and continue to make appearances every 2 or 3 turns. It's to the point where COPs are largely unusable, because a much stronger SCOP is right around the corner to hit you during post-power weakness.

The staple strategies of the AWBW community that led to its tier list often can't be used in AWDS because of this fast charging. Infantry and Recons define this game, because they charge 0.4 and 1.0 stars respectively; in short, they provide the best charge for their buck. Infantry are your capturers and your lane-cloggers; Recons are your harassment and your crowd control. Both can be sacrificed to pull off an early CO power. They are simply the most indispensable units in the game. Since they are the most heavily used units, COs that benefit one or both of them will naturally be higher in a tier list. If this overlaps with other units, those units will also see more use in competition. If a CO has an advantage against said units while still benefiting that core duo, they will naturally have a leg up on the competition. Since no CO has thus far shown an ability to overcome the advantages of the Infantry and Recon through the use of other units, the tier list of the Player's Guide is entirely defined by them at this time.

This is why COs like Rachel and Jess can take sizable leaps up AWDS' list compared to AWBW's, while COs like Grit and Sasha take significant nosedives. The game, so far as anyone can tell, just cannot be played the way other Advance Wars games often are.

#3: AWBW map variety sucks.
That may sound subjective, but it will make more sense as I go on.

We can probably all agree that a good map should have the following: equality of opportunity. It doesn't necessarily have to be symmetrical, but a good map should generally cause a stalemate between two bland factions of roughly equal playing skill. Once you plug in COs, however, there should be no equality of outcome: someone has to win. This seems to be where the agreement ends.

In many strategy games, maps have two basic types of expansions: your natural expansion, and your center expansion. There may be more in between, but basically a natural expansion is one close to your starting area and can pretty much only be settled by you, while a center expansion is intended to be fought over and used as a launching point for invading the opponent's stronghold. In Advance Wars, your home area and expansions are generally defined by the presence of production facilities, and particularly bases; they are separated by geographical distance (i.e. one base cannot easily harass another).

Looking at AWBW's A- and S-ranked maps, the AWBW community heavily favors maps without defined centers. Maps with no expansions are common, maps with a single natural expansion will pop up sometimes, and there's even a back-door base from time to time, but after ten minutes of digging I could not find a single map with a center expansion, or multiple expansions of any kind. They seem intended to favor turtling; offensive options are rather limited, for the most part.

You will certainly find some maps like that in my own rotation, but I also use maps with multiple naturals, maps with multiple centers, maps with both, even maps with secondary expansions in between. I tweak production-city ratios, insert/remove comm towers, tweak the funds, tweak the weather, tweak anything that piques my fancy. There's a shit-ton of ways to make a balanced map, so I don't restrict myself. Why should I? In science, you want variety, because you want to try and disprove your theories.

This is a process the AWBW community -and much of the AW community in general- just doesn't engage in, and is another reason I generally don't take their game theory seriously.

Wrapping it up.
I suspect I've rustled some feathers here. Who am I to be questioning the community consensus? But in the words of Portal 2's Cave Johnson, "We don't ask why, we ask why not!" The consensus is there to be challenged. Maybe it will hold up, maybe it won't, but the proper response is to debate the challenge, not give the same damned recitation I've heard a million times. I know the old arguments inside and out. Don't remind me about the old shit, address the new shit. Don't tell me all the ways Grit can counter a slow buildup of Directs, tell me why it still applies when you have one Recon after another making a beeline at you from Day 2 with the sole intent of disrupting your shit. Tell me why Sasha's power-slowing is still useful when the enemy's powers can still recharge that same day, not yet another recitation about "the Sasha bank" or whatever the hell idea they're bandying about these days. I don't want to hear another lecture about Sami's long-ass power bar, I want to know why you think it's so easy for Max to hold out against a force that can instantly capture anything every 3-4 turns starting on Day 8-10.

Most importantly, talk about the same game I'm playing. If I'm talking about how much I love Nydus Worms in Starcraft 2, don't counter with how useless you think Nydus Canals are in Starcraft 1; I'm talking about Starcraft 2, don't change the fucking subject. Similarly, if I'm talking about how much the AWDS charging system makes Grit suck, don't counter by talking about how awesome it makes him in AW2 or AWBW. That's great, it really is, but I'm talking about AWDS: don't change the fucking subject.

Thank you for reading.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Plans for the Idiot's Guide - Advance Wars and Pokemon

The next tier of Tags has been put on hold pending the release of the next version of Custom Wars: Tactics. In the meantime, I've been given the task of figuring out how to work Skills (or Force Ranks) into The Idiot's Guide for AWDS.

As you may recall, last year I did a post on why ranking Skills is problematic due to the sheer number of combinations. However, while talking with JSR I realized that I don't really need to approach it the way I described. It's the same problem that initially slowed down the Tag guides: approaching every combination like its own unique entity. Yes, you can do this, and if possible you should do this, but once you get above a certain number you just can't do this. Pokemon fans realized this a long time ago, and it's time that I started taking some cues from them. It wouldn't be too hard to re-do the Tags like this, but my test run will be on a Skills guide.

You have 43 Skills in this game, with up to 4 per CO; it's actually quite similar to a Pokemon move set in that sense (hell, the COs even have levels at which they "learn" the Skills). Because there are similarities, it might be more practical to adapt the Pokemon community's own evaluation techniques here. This could be done in two steps. First, "The Idiot's Guide to Skills" would briefly elaborate on general trends, including some campaign-specific Skills which are basically useless in competition. Second, we would return to the original CO articles and go over some effective Skill sets of note. I say "of note," because as stated earlier some Skills are useless, and some are near-universal in application; an easy example would be the Money Skills.

Given what happened during the Battle Reports series of 2011 and 2012, I don't expect that Skill sets will change tier ranking based on "potential" as they do with Pokemon, particularly given that every CO can have the exact same Skills (which would change nothing). We already know from practical use that Skills are only useful as handicaps, and that is how I will approach them for the most part.

If at any time you wonder what the point of this is, remember that Custom Wars: Tactics is not simply a recreation of Advance Wars. We do intend to make balanced version as well, such as my Dual Strike 2.0 proposal. Making the Idiot's Guide as comprehensive as possible will make it easy to see where the design flaws are, and what can potentially be added, improved, and cut. There have already been a lot of ideas bounced around for how to re-do Skills, including a straight Pokemon-like system which keeps Dual Strike's leveling system, a Skill set unique to each CO with the Skills themselves gained at particular levels, and maybe even generic stat boosts upon gaining a level as well. This all has a purpose, even long after Advance Wars itself is no longer actually played.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Anime: Subs vs Dubs

This is an argument that grinds my gears every time I come across it: that asshole who, upon finding out you occasionally prefer dubbed anime, says you're not a "real" otaku. First of all, if being an otaku requires being that much of an arrogant fuckhead, count me out. I'll stick to the "regular sane anime fan" category, thank you very much. Now, to the arguments.

#1: Dubs Lose Meaning

Yes, the classic argument that translation to an English dub removes some of the meaning and cultural context found in the original Japanese. Right. If you can see the flaw in this argument, you're already a step ahead of these dickheads. For those of you who haven't figured it out already, let me make it clear: SUBS ARE WRITTEN IN THE SAME FUCKING LANGUAGE! If anything, subs make things worse because they distract from the action onscreen, causing you to *le gaspe* lose some of its meaning. Great job destroying your own point, idiots.

To be fair, some dubs are heavily altered, and this was particularly common back in the old days. It's not the old days anymore, though, and dubs like this now are limited to shows that already sucked. Because, you know, I really had my heart invested in Highschool of the Dead being exactly 100% true to the original Japanese; not. Moving on.

#2: The Japanese Voice Actors Were Better!

This is usually the point where I rattle off a complement in Japanese, but in the most contemptuous voice possible. Lo and behold, most of the people saying this don't speak a word of Japanese. Maybe they are better, maybe they aren't, but you sure as fuck aren't one to judge! Some people tell me they judge it on tone, which again just betrays ignorance of how language works: leaving aside the fact that Japanese doesn't use tone in quite the same way as English, you cannot judge the quality of voice acting from tone alone. If you could, Steven Segal movies would be masterpieces among foreign audiences: he certainly sounds good enough if you don't understand the exact words!

Sometimes, the Japanese VAs really are better than the English ones. If you were in a position to judge, though, you wouldn't need the subs, thus making the whole debate pointless.

By the way, if you don't believe me on the tone part, listen to any of the male characters yelling in the opening episodes of Attack on Titan and tell me, with a straight face, that there isn't any hilarious overacting going on.

In Conclusion

Subs are not necessarily better than dubs. The two main arguments saying so are, in fact, silly once analyzed to any great extent. So, unless you actually speak Japanese, grow the fuck up and leave the dub listeners alone. In fact, grow the fuck up either way, because no one appreciates you acting like a self-entitled asshole. Or as a pissed off Japanese might say, 死ね。Now get off your high-horses and do something productive with your lives, for once.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fixing Advance Wars?

Having to play-test all the guides for the AWDS-mode of Custom Wars Tactics made me think about what could be done to fix old-style Advance Wars once customization becomes available. Here are a few things I think could be done to make a better AWDS-style game.

#1: Steal a Crap Ton of Stuff from AW4
To make a better AW3, you need most of the concepts from AW4. This means taking the damage formula, the units (which is to say modify the AW3 units to fit as possible), and bumping down the prices of any AW3 units that don't have AW4 equivalents. Also use the AW4 damage table as possible, with some variations I'll outline down below. The sandstorms in this game should also be used in place of AW3's sandstorms. This will stop defense from being ridiculous while still mattering. Also AW4 fog, because it's basically superior in every way.

Most importantly, get that experience system and give it a slight overhaul (4 levels instead of 3, all of them get defense, and the stat increase is always by 5 points). This will give the re-worked AW3 a much needed boost in the defense department without, again, making defense stupid-powerful.

As far as re-working the units, my thinking is just to alter the prices; not necessarily weakening them, though. For example, the Md Tank would come down to the 12k price of its AW4 equivalent, the Neotank would bump down to 16k, and the Megatank would become 22k. The B-Ship would become the AW4 version; it's just plain better, so why the hell not. Do the same with all naval units, keeping only the Black Boat untouched. Air units should come down in price where applicable, but keep their AW3 capabilities; Fighters were to damn weak. Make the Stealth the same price as the other two jets; might be halfway useful that way.

Lastly, use the AW4 terrain, including its comm. towers. Terrain variety is lacking in AW3, and the AW4 towers keep Javier from being ridiculous in the same way as AW3. (Javier would be changed to double the effects of towers; he basically does this in AW3 anyway, so it's not a drastic change.)

#2: Steal a Crap Ton of Stuff from AW2
AW2 did a lot of things right that were undone in AW3 for reasons I cannot fathom. First of all, the charging system. Testing has shown that, in practice, the charging system of AW2 really isn't that much slower than AW3's; the slowdown amounts to 3 days at most. However, it's still slow enough to not be stupid-fast like AW3's, and will give d2d abilities and (hopefully) COPs the emphasis they're really supposed to have.

AW2 is also the last game where rain and snow worked like they should, in my opinion, so that should be brought back. They can't have the tileset-changing effects, obviously, but other gameplay effects should be kept.

Lastly, several COs need to be rolled back to their AW2 stats and powers, partly for variety, partly for balance, and partly to survive the AW4 changes. The COs in question are Lash, Max, Sonja, Olaf, Drake, Eagle, Sami, Kanbei, and Sensei.

#3: Steal a Couple Things from AWBW
AWBW had its lab mechanic and a decent multiplayer version of Sturm, both of which should be snagged.

The End Product
Assuming no further balancing is attempted, the end result of this will leave us with all the playable options of AW3, and the better part of AW4's gameplay variety. It does sacrifice some of the strategy provided by AW4's COZs, but AW4 pretty much explored the extent of gameplay variety you can get from that, so much that one CO, Penny, had an AW3-style d2d. Nearly every unit should be usable with this setup, and SCOP spam shouldn't be quite as insane.