Friday, November 14, 2008

Great Stories, The Tides of Warfare and the Unappealing Single Player Experience of Battlefront’s Combat Mission Shock Force

On its June 5 2008 issue, the science journal Nature published news about a "script-reading software designed to help writers create blockbusters rather than flops". Although the script-reading software cannot guarantee a particular script will be a huge success or not, it can actually identify patterns in scripts of movies that have been very successful, like Casablanca. Apparently, great movies build tension in short waves, which are then resolved in a conclusion. Maybe the secret of appealing story-telling is a wavy pattern of ups and downs, eventually leading to a conclusion where everything stabilizes?

Wavy patterns are ubiquitous in competitive environments. Predator and prey populations go up and down over time. When a new species appears on an ecosystem it will initially thrive until it finds a lack of resources or a new species as competition. It’s all ups and downs since life has been around in this planet. Maybe we are hardwired to deal with environments that show these type of wavy patterns, sort of a survival software. Maybe we are also hardwired to enjoy these patterns in environments where survival is not an issue, sharpening our coping abilities through play and story-telling. We are competitive creatures and we enjoy competition.

Among human activities, warfare is the most extreme forms of competition and is no exception to the patterns of ups and downs. A particular force attacking will eventually have to pause to protect its flanks, refit, re-arm, rest, etc. This gives the defender an opportunity to counter-attack. The relative military power of the attacking force will then have a wavy pattern: going up during the attack and going down when the flanks are extended or the force is refitting. The cycle will repeat until one of the forces cannot stop the other from gaining more and more advantages. This wavy pattern has been described by Clausewitz in his On War classic (see the On War's section about the opposing principles of continuity and culminating point). If some of the things I proposed in the previous paragraph are true, this patterns of up and downs during wars could explain in part why we find war stories and games so appealing.

Let’s talk about war games then, specifically Combat Mission Shock Force (CMSF) from Battlefront. As opposed to previous Combat Mission iterations, CMSF never got a single decent review score anywhere. The majority of old guard of Combat Mission 1, 2 and 3 players have moved in droves into something else. In other words, I don’t see the furious enthusiasm I saw with Combat Mission 1, 2 and 3.


This question has been discussed to exhaustion elsewhere and everybody has a take on the question, takes that I respect a lot. However, I will spare you a recount of the many views about this issue, as this blog entry is just my tiny, personal point of view on the seriously lacking single player experience in CMSF.

It all boils down to this: interesting/appealing competition only happens against an adaptive opponent. If you extend your flanks, your opponent should notice it and act on that. Otherwise the relative power of your forces would always go up, never to come down, making the competition .. Well .. There is not much of a competition in such cases. For Combat Mission Shock Force, Battlefront created a scripted computer opponent that knows nothing else but moving around, target, fire its weapons and evade enemy fire. Decisions on when or where to attack or defend are completely left to the scenario designer, who must guess beforehand what the player will do, where and when. When you come to think about it, you realize that no-matter how smart the scenario designer is, he will always overlook something the player can do that will make his computer opponent look beyond silly. Every time I play a single player battle in Combat Mission Shock Force is like I’m playing against an opponent who is fighting another battle, not the one I’m presenting him with. The computer opponent in Combat Mission Shock Force is a non-adaptive one and there is no way around it, no matter how good the scenario designer is. If one of the parties in a competition has no clue on how to adapt to the opponent’s actions, that whole thing is just dull.

That’s my story (pun intended), and I’m sticking to it.

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