Sid Meier’s Starships was a letdown. But it may yet hold the secret for saving gaming from itself... - Games Weekly

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sid Meier’s Starships was a letdown. But it may yet hold the secret for saving gaming from itself...

Luc Besson recently released a motion picture with a far-fetched, yet eerily plausible premise: that Scarlett Johansson only uses 10% of her brain. Should the full power of her latent mind-flesh be unleashed, what might she accomplish? Would we even recognise her as human? Would her new ability to show emotions render her typecast, forcing Marvel Studios to cast a new Black Widow? These dank, dark questions still hung in the air as GDC rolled around this year, when Ashes of the Singularity showed off the potential of DirectX 12. The PR line went a little something like this: today’s unwitting gamers are only using 10% of their computers raw power, and those who upgrade to Windows 10 will bear witness to battling cyber-armies on a scale that will make Total Annihilation look like Noughts and Crosses. 


Moore’s Law is still on the books, and unlikely to be revoked this side of 2020, but it would be a tragic waste of resources if this mega-spurt of new CPU power was squandered on merely making our games prettier. The great Sid Meier defines a game as “a series of interesting choices,” and one imagines that it will be difficult to choose a salient option when your armies of hover-ships and mega-tanks are so granulated and numerous that it’s difficult to perceive them as anything other than a violent, metallic gas.

Meier himself made an interesting choice recently when he nerfed the graphics options on his ripping new 4x/tactical hybrid Sid Meier’s Starships. This in turn presented potential players with some perplexing meta-choices before they even bought the game. What platform should I buy it on to ensure maximal legibility of the teeny tiny text? Should I buy now, or gamble that 2K will get around to fixing the crash-to-desktop bug in the next few months? Does my old 3.5 inch floppy of SSG’s Reach For The Stars still work? Sid Meier’s new foray into meta-gaming has captured the imaginations of strategy wonks worldwide, and we applaud his efforts.

He’s demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that graphical fidelity alone is not the final frontier for gaming innovation. So what is? For a possible answer we should recall the motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation: ‘Share and Enjoy.’ Only a selfish bitlord would hog all that computing power for himself far better to donate it to The Greater Good.
If these cyber-chokos are a little too easy to kill, where’s the harm? 
Distributed processing has already been put to good use with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which anyone with clock cycles to spare can contribute to via SETI@home. Likewise, Folding@home is fighting the good fight against neurodegenerative disorders and cancer. NASA recently released the Asteroid Data Hunter; volunteers can now join forces to detect ELE doom rocks and line up juicy nuggets for asteroid miners.

But why stop there? Distributed processing could conceivably be tapped to solve the two biggest problems plaguing otherwise halfway decent online games. The first is poor monetisation. Developers not big enough to hire in-house economists have made many a well-meaning, ham-fisted business decision that has cratered their finances. But what if players agreed to lend all their spare computing power to mining Bitcoins? Or Dogecoins, or whatever the crypto-currency du jour is by the time this column sees print. If the graphical load of such a game was on a par with, say, Sid Meier’s Starships, then this could well be a viable business model.

The second seemingly insoluble problem: a lack of warm bodies. Every new release, re-release, and re-master divides the market, and if there isn’t a critical mass of players then even a world-beating game like World of Tanks can get bogged down when launching a new game mode. Historical Battles seemed like a good idea at the time, but once the novelty wore off even the most dedicated war nerds lost hope as the match-maker failed to wrangle enough players for a game, timing out again and
again. The solution: bots.

Robots have a bad reputation in games, but they perform so many vital duties in the wider world. They drop bombs on our enemies, assemble our cars, and host our TV programs. They buoy the bubble economies of Facebook and Twitter, and with declining education standards worldwide it’s only a matter of time before a new generation of AI serfs outmatches the bottom-percentile scrublords.

Just think of a bot as a cybernetic choko. That horrid vegetable is disgusting by itself,
but as a secret ingredient it can pad out any apple pie. And if these cyber-chokos are a little too easy to kill, where’s the harm? Why not let gamers feel good about themselves for a change? There’s already a multiverse of methods for inducing depression like reading the Steam user reviews of Sid Meier’s Starships...

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