THE ART OF TECH WAR
Has the anti-Tringo finally arrived? Ben Linden announced the winners in the Arcadia Game Developer's competition* last week, and the decisive victor was Tech Warfare, an RTS that earned over L$600,000 (about $2400) during the contest's seven week run. It's like Total Annihilation, where you create different species of autonomous battle 'bots and then send them against your opponent's robots. But unlike TA, Tech War is team vs. team, and you're actually in the game space. So instead of hovering over the action as a disembodied mouse-clicking commander, you're frantically running across the map, trying to instantiate machine gun turrets and factories and buzz saw tanks in the right place, while enemy 'bots come after you, if you get close enough. (Lose all your hit points, and you're out of the game-- though you can still wander the playing field when you're dead.)
A cleverly-designed HUD gives you icon-driven command of the robots you create, while keeping track of the your hit points and energy level (the more you have, the better 'bots you can build.) Meantime, a special chat channel lets you communicate with your teammates (and only your teammates), so you can plan tactics and logistics. (Playing a few rounds, I could already see how it'd help to have a team captain away from the action, calling out which bots to build and where.) So really we're talking about a team-based, first-person, real-time strategy game-- not something you see everyday, not in SL, not anywhere. It's a genuinely cool game that's easy to jump into (anyone can immediately button-mash robots into existence) but has enough deep gameplay to develop a gamer's subculture around. (An internal betting system that lets teams wager on the outcome doesn't hurt, either.)
About a year ago, Tringo swept Second Life, and among the games out there, it's still the world's master. While the mini-MMORPG Dark Life has its fans (and rightly so), almost every attempt at creating a hardcore game phenomenon to rival Tringo in popularity have not fared anywhere near as well. But for many reasons, Tech War may be the one to do that.
Creating a Culture
Though Tech Warfare is primarily the creation of Eckhart Dillon, the developer credits his friend Calix Metropolitan for coaxing him to enter the game into the contest, and then relentlessly promoting it, once it was. "Calix was here constantly," Eckhart tells me. "Prissielou, Addison White, and mostly Calix. He put in tons of work to get people playing. "I was blown away. People were always here, usually 24 hours a day." By the end of the contest, 15,000 players had paid for the game at least once. ("Players" often paying to play multiple times.)
It wasn't just a matter of Calix announcing matches, however, but helping create teams, events, even bringing in live DJs spinning music to accompany the combat. In under two months, three groups devoted to the game had sprung up--Tech Warfare, Million$ Tech Warfare Gamers, Benavente Pointe Tech War-- totalling more than 300 total players. Like Tringo, a community of players who made an SL game part of their affiliation network had emerged.
Following the Script
The bane of every SL developer is dealing with lag on the system that any script call creates, and getting Tech War with its dozens of fighting 'bots to run smoothly was an agonizing labor for Eckhart Dillon.
"I had to redo the code about four times to get it optimal," he says. "The scoreboard script was so big it was almost out of memory. I had to make very tight effective code for it. I also had to make it hard to cheat. I encrypted some things and made everything non-physical. I reduced its prim usage down by 35%, which was not easy. Most of my little bots are less than seven prims. Since there were like hundreds of little robots that need to run at the same time, it had to be lean as hell."
That applied to the AI of each robot, which fights on its own, once you create it. "I made each 'bot have their own channel to take damage messages," Dillon tells me. "They used minimal sensor ranges and whispered damage messages. They would compare distance to enemy base in X and Y coordinates. Say, if X was longer, they would head down X first. If something was in the way, they would use the Y direction. And if something was still in the way, they would choose the opposite Y. I did at first have a more complicated system... [but] they would just pile up while thinking. I cannot tell you how much code I scraped that worked but was not fast enough."
He made the final tweaks in "a 24 hour script rampage" before Arcadia's launch.
"Opening was almost a disaster for me," he explains. "There was no limit on how many factory units you could make. So it's all people would make. So we had hundred of tiny robots laggin' the sim to death. I had to limit them after that."
When he'd finished the code, CEO Philip Linden was the first one there waiting to play him, one on one. "I think he won," Eckhart admits, laughing.
Building a Life
Besides the earnings from the contest (most of which he plowed back into the game, to serve as prize money) Eckhart Dillon also sold ten copies of Tech Warfare for L$12,500 (about $50), suggesting the beginning of a franchise distribution system similar to what made Tringo so pervasive. (Buy a copy, and you immediately have an incentive to hold matches on your own land, to earn your money back.)
Upgrades to TW are in the works. "Right now," he says, in a rush of text, "I am working on my Power Shield upgrade and Fireworks Factory. I am going to continue to sell and add units to the game. It needs an air-to-land attacker."
Though he's taken a couple courses, Eckhart Dillon isn't a programmer in real life, but for now, still works in low level tech support, repairing laptops, configuring printers, and so on. It's not his ideal situation. "I was very depressed," he says. "I need to call my own shots, have a choice on when I get up, eat, and sleep." He learned how to code in SL, and saw a better way.
"It's not paying as much as tech support was," says Dillon, "but I think I could double my income if I focus. I know exactly what I want to do. If I am not creating I am not happy."
*Also winning were the casual wagering game Danger Zone, a somewhat close second, followed far behind by the Boggle-style word game Boogie Board and the card-based RPG The Collective. Final scores here. Full dislosure: I helped develop the Arcadia contest while still at Linden Lab; some thoughts behind the rules here.