Remember what it used to be like in the days of the big publishers who forced developers to release games before they were ready? They did this because they didn’t care about games, about fans, about the industry as a whole, about me, about you. They only cared about profits. They took breaks from counting their money to hold meetings in conference rooms where they showed charts that explained how much money they would make if a game came out on a certain date, usually just before a fiscal quarter ended or in time for the holiday shopping seasons. The people in the meetings didn’t actually play games because they were too busy counting money, plus they were above such frivolity. They might as well have been selling shoes or plumbing fixtures or alt rock albums they didn’t even listen to. And then crowdfunding came along and game developers who loved videogames got to do what was best for the games, for the fans, for the industry as a whole, for me, for you. And we all lived happily ever after.
After the jump, I ruin the fairy tale.
Planetary Annihilation, an arguably incomplete and poorly made game, is a worst case scenario for crowdfunding. What kind of publisher would stake its reputation on a mess like this that didn’t come out just in time for Black Friday or at the last day before a fiscal quarter ended? What kind of publisher would so unabashedly foist off onto unsuspecting gamers something so obviously not ready for release without some sort of scheduling motive? What kind of publisher could have so little regard for the game a developer worked so hard to make?
In this case, there is no publisher. There is only Uber Entertainment, a company capable of making polished and complete games like Monday Night Combat. And now they’ve built and self-published Planetary Annihilation thanks in part to an enormously successful crowdfunding campaign that got them out from under the boot of cruel publishers, where they demonstrate that maybe publishers weren’t always such a bad idea. This is a game that never got whipped into shape the way a good publisher can whip a game into shape.
Some of the problems with Planetary Annihilation exist at the design level. For instance, why make this game when you could instead just play Supreme Commander, which plays like a more convenient and more fleshed out version of Planetary Annihilation? Or, to put it another way, why would Uber go to all the trouble of making a version of Supreme Commander with so many features stripped out, ranging from content, to functionality, to tuning, to gameplay? Why such a direct nod without a better understanding of what makes the source material work?
For instance, one of the hallmarks of Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation before it was the way you could zoom out for an unprecedented comprehensive overview of the battlefield. So why base Planetary Annihilation on the idea of a 3D globe where you can never see more than half of the map at any given time? You gain nothing and you lose half of everything. And why furthermore spread the game across multiple globes with no provision for minimaps or a useful alert system? “Unit under fire,” the female voice says. Great. Thanks for the heads-up. Where? Which of my three planets? My thumb drums reflexively on the space bar to no avail. The design of Planetary Annihilation, and the lack of an interface that can wrap itself around the design, guarantees the player can only ever see a fraction of the map.
So why all the planets? Why a battlefield that consists of several globes, with you only gazing down at any given globe one at a time, like Saint-Exupery’s Petit Prince pondering his patches of scrub and his tiny teakettle volcano? I suspect there are a couple of reasons for this. The first is the rather precious conceit of Planetary Annihilation playing out on an intricate orrery, where moons spin around planets, and planets spin around a sun. As you’re playing, on the horizon behind whatever base you’re building or battle you’re shepherding, you might see a moonrise, a sunrise, a planetrise, with the stars wheeling silently in the background. It’s quite lovely when you first notice this and perhaps a few times thereafter. But then you’re zoomed in and zoned in on the personality-free armies and resource management and you can no longer be bothered to notice the tiny wonder. At that point, you’re just annoyed that you have no easy way of gauging the distance from one moon to another planet’s moon because the path your ships travel is a “realistically” circuitous set of gravity slingshots, as if calculated by an unmoored spirograph. Okay, Planetary Annihilation, you look suitably like a physics driven clockwork solar system. But do you mind? I’m trying to play an RTS here.
On the upper upside, the planets create new layers of gameplay. I like the idea of new kinds of layers, of new terrain concepts, and the orbital stuff is probably the best gameplay system Uber wrings from their little clockwork star systems. The actual concept isn’t new, since we’ve seen air cover in plenty of RTSs. Since Herzog Zwei and Dune II, RTSs have been letting aircraft drop bombs on helpless armies. But Planetary Annihilation does that one level higher with its orbital layer. This is a shell around each planet where satellites can provide radar coverage, where geosynchronous turrets can defend certain areas, and where death lasers can pummel the ground below. There’s also a single unit that can fly around and fight up here. But that layer extends much farther out, which is where Planetary Annihilation earns its names. Moons can be fitted with expensive engines that will fly them into other planets, either destroying the target completely or knocking off huge chunks. A planet can get blasted into a half-planet. And on any map with a metal world, expensive structures can be built at the metal world’s north pole to unlock a planet-killing superweapon. One of the things that will almost never happen in Planetary Annihilation is a stalemate. You simply cannot turtle in Planetary Annihilation. You have to slip the surly bonds of your starting planet. If you don’t play the orbital layer and beyond, if you don’t fuss and hassle with satellites and orbital facilities and the goddamnable ridiculous “why-are-games-still-making-me-do-this-ten-years-after-Rise-of-Nations?” loading of the transports, and waiting for the transports to get where they’re going, and then unloading of the transports, you will concede the game. If you hate naval maps in RTSs, you will hate every single map in Planetary Annihilation that has more than one planet.
But my issue with how this concept plays out goes higher than the tactical fiddling. These orbital layers and interplanetary interplay compromise the game design. An RTS like Starcraft is meticulously built to force players to deal with each other. Player interaction is a cornerstone of Starcraft, from the map design to the unit balance to the resource management. The driving force of Starcraft’s design is making it constantly interactive among the players. That’s just one way to make an RTS, and it’s not necessarily the best. But without some concession to the concept of forced interaction, we might as well each play a city builder and compare scores at the end. A game like Rise of Nations lets players dance around each other with varying systems, thrusting and parrying and feinting, but still interacting. And the more I play Planetary Annihilation and suss out how the systems work, the more I’m convinced it hasn’t given player interaction much thought. In Supreme Commander, the layers of gameplay, the unit interaction, the interplay among technologies, the overlap of detection and stealth and radar, the superweapons and defenses, and the resource distribution were all facets of how players interacted, how they competed. But I don’t get any sense that Planetary Annihilation is tuned to keep me and my opponents from playing a city builder until one of a couple of superweapons slams the game shut. Is that on the players for not being aggressive, or is it on Uber for not giving us much incentive to be aggressive? Even if we share responsibility, Uber hasn’t done the work of tuning their RTS to play like an RTS instead of a multiplayer city builder.
Other problems with Planetary Annihilation exist at the level of execution, and they would put to shame even a solid game design. The state of the release is terrible. The graphics engine takes far too long to load given that it looks pretty basic, even cartoony. Not to mention that you will almost never see it. Like Supreme Commander, this is a game about looking at icons, because that’s all you can see when you’re zoomed out at the level required for any meaningful situational awareness. All that horsepower required for all these tiny icons! I have a decent system that runs any RTS I can throw at it. Except Planetary Annihilation. Before the latest optimization patch, I was joining games up to five minutes after they’d already started because it took so long to load the maps.
This is an always and only online game, which I presume is to prevent piracy, but it makes me wonder if part of the sluggishness is related to how often the game is calling home. There is no way to save single-player games, which might not be so bad if this were one of those short snappy RTSs that you’ll always play in under an hour. It’s not. It’s drawn out and turgid, with the potential for long empty stretches of minimal interaction with other players. You must do it all in one sitting or not at all.
There is no documentation. An overenthusiastic official video tutorial, more appropriate for a used car lot than a tutorial, gives you the basics with bro-tastic panache. I just want to know how to move from one planet to another. Is that information anywhere in the game? Or is Uber content to leave it buried in the row of fan videos that run along the right side of the main screen? I might as well browse YouTube videos. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what that row of videos along the right side of the screen is. One of the advantages of being an online only game is that you don’t have to document your game, because your fans can do it for you. Embed as necessary.
Since I don’t care to watch videos, maybe I could check the official forum on Steam. Ah, a pinned message labeled “helpful information for new players”. The first thing it does is tell me to update my drivers. Okay, I did that a week ago, but thanks for the tip. The next thing it does is tell me that the tutorial in the game is “rather out-of-date”, which explains why it’s telling me to do things that don’t work in the actual game. The next thing it does is send me to some third-party site I’ve never heard of to watch a series of videos, including one by someone named ZaphodX. Remember manuals? Uber doesn’t.
This is one of the biggest pitfalls of crowdfunding. You get a group of guys making a game for another group of guys who have paid upfront and have been playing all along, one group doling out alphas and betas, the other group gobbling them up along with the caveats about them being unfinished, all of them turned in on each other with their backs to a guy like me who totally wants to play their RTS when it’s done. I am the target audience for Planetary Annihilation, except that I didn’t play it before the release. I love real time strategy games and I’m willing to do the work to learn them, so long as the developer is willing to do the work to teach them, and hopefully do some of the work to make them playable. Uber has done none of this, leaving me standing here like a fool, trying to figure out how to get my units from one planet to another with the unit that’s supposed to do just that, according to the scant tooltips. Nope. It does no such thing. It goes up. It goes down. It highlights the units it’s going to load and then ignores them.
I will later figure out how these things work, only after much trial and error. I will later figure out some useful functionality with area commands to automate building, to implement patrols, to transport armies. I will later figure out that there is no adjacency bonus, but only after being repeatedly told this by people who have been told this by other people, because it’s exactly the sort of thing Uber might implement and then fail to document. I might even figure out that the picture-in-picture could, theoretically, be useful for slightly less limited situational awareness. Uber will do nothing to help me figure these things out.
They will, however, try to sell me different commander bots, but they won’t tell me that the bots do absolutely nothing. Yet they must do something, given that Uber is selling some of them for $10 or $15. Do they upgrade? Do they get special bonuses? Do they have different attacks? Why would I want one over the other? Uber isn’t saying. So I have to figure out that these are the equivalent of skins in League of Legends, and not the nod to Supreme Commander’s varied and functional commander bots with their upgrades.
There’s a similar lack of information in the game. You don’t get much information about units, but there are so few of them that it might not matter. For all the pieces in Planetary Annihilation, for all the layers and systems, there is little variety. One game plays out like another, which plays out like another, and maybe in one game in ten, someone will have the audacity to build a navy in the constricted puddle on one of the planets. Imagine that. An actual navy. Uber went to the trouble of adding almost useless puddle navies instead of useful documentation. The lack of variety is just another bad call in a series of bad calls. With only a single faction, with nothing resembling a tech tree or upgrades, with maps having only a single shape (a sphere inside a sphere) that negates terrain, Planetary Annihilation misses many of the elements that make a good RTS a good RTS. It instead is so in love with its concept, which isn’t very good in the first place, that it never gets around to the vital business of being a good game.
Blow up everything, anywhere; dominate with punishing spacecraft, robots, and other futuristic machines of war. Arm asteroids and send them on planet-destroying collision courses. And take over an entire galaxy in a dynamic single-player mode with procedurally generated content. Don't just win, annihilate! Helpful interface and documentation not included.