Hexing my life with Wargames

Disclaimer:
This post was initially posted on Gamasutra

I’m a game developer by choice. I think I’m one of those gamedev or die guys. Gaming is my whole life – just after my family. I love to play games, I love to read about games, and I love to talk about the games. Let’s not forget that I love to make games.

I started pretty late. I was already 26, when I decided that modding is not enough. Takes too much time, costs too much efforts, and the results are often very miserable, due to some limitations put on the game by somebody else.

As I always preferred strategy games I knew I’m going to get into that part of the gamedev. The decision was simple, but it completely changed my life. Absolutely.

Let’s skip the part with starting the adventure and already move to the point where I’m at the moment. Maybe one day there will be occasion to write about the beginnings, that changes my life completely, but were worth every drop of the sweat.

Wastelands Interactive is a development studio specialized in strategy games. This is the core of this business and this is what we are doing for living. What is strategy game? For me it is a game where you are managing something (usually military units and possibly economy that allows to upkeep them) to achieve some goal (which in most cases is eliminating or beating the competition or enemy). Games where the victory is dependable on the number of clicks per minute are not strategy games in my opinion, even if the abbreviation for them is RTS. If you can take a deep breath, analyze, plan, execute and adapt to the situation then it’s a strategy game. Of course you don’t have to agree with me. But for the purpose of this entry, let’s stick with my definition. There are a number of strategy games, and those can be really different. From Civilization to Panzer General. I assume that even if you didn’t played those game, you have at least heard of them.

I think that currently our best known game is Worlds of Magic – a 4x fantasy strategy, still in development. Except this one we have made and are working on a completely different series of games. Let’s call them wargames. Common thread is that all of them are about World War 2, but even if they wouldn’t be about WW2, then most probably they would be about some other well-known conflict. All of them were so far made on the same (but every time upgraded) engine, so basically every next game has got more features than the previous one.

Another common aspect of games made by Wastelands (except Worlds of Magic) is that all of them are on hexes, also known as hexagons. This means that when moving from one hex to another adjacent one, you can move in one of the six directions. This awesome invention makes sure that there is always the same distance from the center of one hex to the center of every adjacent hex. So you don’t have to worry about the Action Points used by your units when moving diagonally. This saves a lot of design time, as another thing you don’t have to be bother about is diagonal attack. All the calculations are much simpler, and you can make system very clear and easy to understand for everybody.

However there is also a very dark side of using hexes. It’s not sexy, it’s not trendy, it’s not fun. For most of the people hexes are equal with complicated, boring, nerdish. For many of the reviewers hexes are equal with hardcore. And yes, you are right. This word in a review means that average gamer won’t try this game. Never ever. Please, don’t use that word when reviewing our games. Write complex, demanding, unforgiving, (or even bad looking), but please don’t write that the game is hardcore.

Now when you know why the hexes are so cool and that I don’t like the word “hardcore”, I can tell you a little bit about hexing the world. Basically like in every other game, you need to start with an idea what you want to do. This is pretty simple in our case, because we are presenting the real conflict that already happened, so we can save some money on writing the scenario, but this is also what makes our job so hard.

So imagine that we are making a game about whole European Theatre (and indeed we have already did one), and would like to give you as much freedom in your actions as possible, and on the other side we have got historical flow of events, player’s wisdom, AI cleverness and settings limitations.

Our games allow players to easily choose the countries they will take under control. Usually they decided to play as major participant or even controlling whole alliances, as this allows to better use resources, better coordinates attacks, and don’t bother to see what your AI ally will do. For example when playing Time of Fury – WW 2 European theatre – as Germany, player knows whom and when to attack to catch historical achievements, and even beat some of them. What we need to do is to encourage player to play more- less according to the history otherwise he will screw the game. Let’s imagine that in 1939 Germany after quick conquest on Poland, are moving south, declaring war to all the Balkan countries one after another, conquering them and then attacking Sweden early 1940. Yes, this is possible, yes, this will probably be fun, but most probably will cause the player to miss most of the plot.

Fortunately most of the people are trying to recreate history till mid-1941, and only after that date they try to do better. Now we should (to make the game enjoyable) allow German player to easily walk deep into the heart of the Soviet Union, so the AI withdraws. And at this moment we are receiving first negative feedback. Some of the players are reporting that the game is too easy as the Germans are doing as good as historically. But as soon as you tune the AI a little bit, to defense better, you will start to receive the feedback that the game is too hard, because in real life Soviets were only running away for the first months of the war.

Opposite to the AI, player knows the history, knows what mistakes were done, knows which plans were good and which were bad (player’s wisdom), but also player expects that the enemy countries and units, fronts will behave in very similar way to the real life events (historical flow of events), so we need to overwrite standard AI behaviors to act stupidly sometimes (AI cleverness). Even when German player is doing very well and already has beaten Soviet Union and even Great Britain, he is still expecting US forces in North Africa in 1943 and some huge amphibious operations in France in 1944. Should we really allow US AI does so stupid things?

About our latest game – Fall Weiss – I very often hear opinions that the Polish AI is stupid and the only thing it does is withdrawing. OK, welcome in the wargaming world. Polish Army in real world as well as in the game was much weaker than Wehrmacht. Average Polish unit is 50-80% strength of the German unit. Also German units were much more mobile. Large percentage of the army was armored or motorized, and that gave advantage of better relocation of forces. In Fall Weiss Germans are stronger, faster and have better opening positions, so it is extremely hard for Poles to work local advantage without opening huge part of the front. This was about settings limitations.

It is literally impossible to make historical wargame that will satisfy everybody. There are always sacrifices or limitations, here or there. I have decided that easy way to make the community happier is to give them as many modding opportunities as possible. People love to adapt the game to their needs. Then they feel that the title belong a little bit to them.

Hope you enjoy the brief summary of the wargame’s development. If there are some specific fields you would like to read about just post them in comments.

How to get every game on STEAM for free

Disclaimer:
This entry was initially posted on Gamasutra

I am a game developer, the head of Wastelands Interactive. One of the two projects we’re currently working on is a 4X strategy game entitled Worlds of Magic. This all started on September 4th, when we announced that we were releasing our game on Early Access. It was quite a crazy time for the team of over 15, working long and hard on an enormous game. The decision to release it on EA was a tough one to make, but we felt that for the good of the project it would be better to remain independent. We believed is was wiser to open ourselves up to wider community rather than sign with a publisher.

So, our rather awesome Marketing Team Memeber sent out a press release. We announced that Worlds of Magic would be available on the 11th of September as an Early Access title on Steam. In the press release we encouraged journalists, editors, and youtubers to request  a preview copy of the game, which we hoped would help us spread the word.

On September 5th we uploaded Steam keys for our Kickstarter backers to our website and posted an update with all the information they needed. Unfortunately, some of the generous folks that backed us over a year ago were unable to automatically redeem their keys, and I decided I would help them manually. During the next 10 days or so I sent about 1000 emails with Steam keys or with requests to confirm our previous emails. That was on top of my normal 40-80 emails a day, and an additional 50 due to the upcoming release. Needless to say, it was a hectic time.

Among all those requests from backers, I began to receive emails from youtubers. Some of them were pretty long, some rather short. Some were sent directly to me, some were sent via the contact form on our website. Some of them came from youtubers with an audience as small as 300 people and some of them from folks with more than 1 million. But they kept on flowing. We felt certain the game was going to be a success, so I was more than happy to send each one a key (or two or three).

Before the release date I  had been approached by roughly 15 youtubers. We replied to all of them, sending the number of keys they requested, finding that sometimes they  wanted more than one as a kind of “Thank You”.

During the release weekend we received another 10 or so key requests from various sites. The weekend was crazy and a flood of emails were being sent back and forth. Our forums exploded, and we were working like mad to fix a number of rather painful bugs. I happily answered all those youtube guys, sending them a Steam key, not even giving myself the time to look at the channels they ran, just being happy they were willing to help us spread the word around.

I expect I would have lived in ignorance for a long time if it hadn’t been for one thread that appeared on the Steam forums. Some folks reported that Worlds of Magic was available for purchase for about 15$ at G2A.com. I was sure that something wasn’t right as the price has been set up everywhere to be exactly the same. There might have been a buck or two of difference due to the currency exchange rate, but it was hard to imagine that someone was willing to sell the game for such a low price. I had no choice but to take a look.

I went to the store and bought a key using my credit card. Then I discovered that the key was one of those sent out to youtubers. Initially I thought that the guy had taken three keys, kept one for himself and sold two of them (the account on G2A was from Bulgaria), but after I checked it was clear that the guy had received only one key. It took me a while before I realized what is going on. You will find the explanation below.

I took a deep breath and began to thoroughly check all the emails that had been sent to me. Most of them were gmail accounts and had a single letter or number difference between the email name and the youtube channel name. Sometimes it was some popular regional mailing domain (for eastern Europe mostly). So double check it as many of people I know are really using the Gmail, so before judging please double check just to be sure.

We had to make a very difficult decision.  In future, every youtuber that applied for a STEAM key would have to send us a message using their YouTube channel.

The first and second did so, as well as the third. So, I began to think that maybe I had exaggerated. Alas, that was not the case.

From about 20 additional requests, I received only two youtube channel confirmations.

So, as it turned out, roughly 70% of the keys we had given out were taken under false pretenses, or to use a more direct term, stolen. It left us asking ourselves: Were we really so blind and naive?

As it turned out, the answer was “Yes”, but  we’re not alone.

The very next day I thought it might be worth looking into the scale of the scam, personally. I took one of the messages I had received from the fake youtubers and edited it a bit. It took me all of about 3 minutes. Then I created a Gmail account, which might have taken another 3 minutes. After that I launched the STEAM client and began checking out New releases and coming soon.

I sent out 46 emails, which took me about two hours in total. In reply, I got 16 keys for 15 games (worth more than 400 USD).

Allow me  to underline this: I spent 3 hours sending out emails to almost 50 developers simply asking them for a Steam key, claiming that I was a youtuber with 50k subscribers. In return, I received Steam keys worth over 400 USD. This means I could have theoretically made close to 150 bucks an hour.

Imagine what I could accomplish if I were working on it 8 hours a day. Then multiply that by imagining that I sent out 10 fake emails to each developer. Just go to the auctions and see how many of your games are being traded.

The worst part is that only 7 of the devs I wrote actually spotted something wrong or asked for direct contact via the youtube message system. It may be a rather clunky and unfriendly tool, but at the same time it’s the most efficient way to make sure somebody isn’t ripping you off.

Of course, we have to consider if it’s really a loss to give keys to people like that. After all, they wouldn’t buy the game anyway.  However, in my opinion, the real story is that developers often end up giving them more than just one key.  They may end up with two or three STEAM keys in a single email. And they’ll keep requesting keys masquerading as different youtubers. In the end,  they may sell 10 or 20 copies of your game at half price. Something like that can make your customers very angry and lead to complaints about pricing policy.

I feel that a  game developer’s job is as hard as any other, and I’m absolutely sure that nobody has the right to steal from us. It doesn’t matter how naive we are,  we shouldn’t be taken advantage of.  And it really seems that the only way to prevent that is by asking youtubers to confirm their identity. Fortunately,  they need to do it only once. As you release more games, you can keep in contact with each other (without bothering with confirmations).

I also found that, generally, companies with a dedicated PR person or  those who make use of a PR/Marketing company/agent do much better. They keep track of who has received keys already, who should receive them, and who actually made contact through Youtube. It seems that most of these people know their jobs.

It’s true that 30 companies didn’t answer me, however, I tried only once. I just wanted to see how easy it was, how much I could get just by sending out a single email.

If I had spent some more time on making my identity feel credible, or just sent more messages, I feel confident that this ratio would have been higher. However, with just one message, 25% of the developers had been robbed.

I allowed a handful of scumbags to rip us off. And, what’s worse, I did so with a smile on my face. The whole purpose of sending out all those requests for steam keys, my fellow developers, was to find out on just how large a scale we were being scammed and robbed.

What’s my advice? Use Youtube’s built-in message system. It may not be great, but it will do the trick. It’s as simple as that.

Also, if this matters to you, please share this article with a #StealKeyRequest hashtag. This won’t hurt anyone and could help a lot of small time developers.

Addendum:

I did not register any of the keys I received from other developers. They all were e-mailed back already. So far, I’ve been contacted with few of the developers. It seems they felt that keys were often taken under false pretenses. I proved that his suspicions were valid.

If you would like to know if you are on my “naive” list, just email me.

I was planning to include a list of the channels those scumbags are using, but on second thoughts I felt that it might harm the real youtubers behind those channels. If you are running a YouTube channel and believe that somebody might be using your good name to steal keys, just send me a message on our YouTube channel. And ask your friends to as well. On a second thought I will try to contact all the youtubers and check did they really write to me.

Among other games we have received the STEAM keys for, are:

Line of Defense
NaissanceE
World of Diving
From the depths
Starpoint Gemini 2