Tuesday, March 24, 2009

We Wait In Vain

Fields of Fire, the game I love to critique, has been out for more than three months now, at least from the POV of those who preordered. The game can be fairly quick to play, with a mission lasting roughly 2-3 hours depending upon the specifics, but I find it takes a good 30 minutes to get set up, even with the requisite markers in counter trays and the pieces separated out ahead of time. 

In other words, this thing is screaming for a VASSAL module. 

One of the things I've been wanting to do since the game came out is to produce a training aid that will use the VASSAL module in addition to screen capture software. Until there's a module, I can't do any of this, and my gumption is slowly being trapped away (double bonus points to whoever gets that particular, if dated, pop culture reference). Trying to do this with a Flip strikes me as an exercise in futility, at least at my level of videography skills. 

Mind you, there *is* a VASSAL module out there, and has been for years. It was used by the playtesters, and all it needs is to have the production artwork added in before release. Which was originally sometime in early January, then early February, and now there's no word from the author at all. Sort of like George R. R. Martin, who will die before A Song of Ice and Fire ends, resulting in a Ditty of Slush and Ashes. 

But I digress. The problem is that we've gotten to a point where we expect a VASSAL module to come out not long after a game is published, and for the most part that's what happens. It's a labor of love of an enthusiast of the game who also happens to have programming chops. Aide de Camp, which is a commercial product, enjoys the benefit of reaping at the very least a small amount of recompense for the programmer, but with VASSAL all you can do is put out the cup and hope that someone felt it was worth some money.

I guess it should come as no surprise that FoF is not following the standard curve, as everything about the team that put it out the door suggests that it was an afterthought on the part of everyone except the designer (who should be only occasionally consulted by the development team once the game is handed off). However, I'm about three weeks away from officially no longer caring about producing these videos if a VASSAL module doesn't come out.

As such, I think that perhaps there needs to be a greater effort on the part of game companies to provide VASSAL modules as part of their roll-out. Make it a part of the overall development process, which you probably would want to do anyway as part of playtesting. Pay the coder some money, either upfront or a piece of the profits (we're talking maybe $500-$1000 for their work, really a stipend but enough so that they feel they're being paid), which would average out to a cost of less than a dollar per unit produced assuming a print run of 1500 or more. Updating the module would be a relatively small amount of work, and I'd hope that the original author would be around to manage that, but if they weren't you could get someone who could act as a utility person to clean up the game if any large changes came more than, say, a year after release.

More importantly, the company would control their product instead of it being an ad hoc system. There would be nothing preventing people from producing their own VASSAL module if they wanted one, although distribution would have the same issues as it would now (Avalanche Press, for example, doesn't allow any electronic representation of their games, with a handful of exceptions). 

As for recompense, you could handle this in a variety of ways. Charge a small subscription price annually, say $10, and you can download whatever modules you want from a company. Pre-order the game, and get access to the module for free as a sweetener. Heck, you could even charge per module if you wanted to, much as Aide de Camp does (and yes, you could say that AdC is already providing "finished" product, but keep in mind it's Windows only and doesn't seem to get much support). The key is to make it effectively free, meaning such a small charge that people won't mind paying it, much like they snap up $0.99 iPhone apps. 

Even those VASSAL modules that come out early tend to have major problems - Unhappy King Charles had a discard pile that you couldn't get cards out of, even if you sent your reusable Core cards to it - I had a game fall apart because of that very reason. A Pursuit of Glory game had to be restarted when a beta version of the module (using a beta version of VASSAL!) was updated and it wouldn't read the previous save file. These things can be caught and fixed during playtesting, doing dual duty and encouraging people to stick with the games rather than give up and move on to the next shiny thing. 

Even more important, you might finally be able to show companies like Avalanche that there's a revenue stream out there for their products to be played online rather than sit in most people's libraries gathering dust. Were I a designer, I'd be much more interested in my games being played than in making money off of them (and for most designers, I think that's true), and this way you would maintain at least some control over your product - include software to require a code for a specific game, one that comes in the boxed version, and you'd have access to the necessary scenarios. 

I'm sure people will poke all sorts of holes in my thinking (not unusual), but the important thing is that many of us play these games *only* if we have access to an online component such as VASSAL, and leaving the production of these modules to volunteer efforts has it's shortcomings.

In the meantime, here's my nine thousandth plea to the author of the FoF VASSAL module - do you think you could either commit to getting the art inserted or hand it over to GMT so that they can find someone who *does* have the time to get this thing done? Because I mean it about the three week thing. At that point, I'll be in full-study mode for WBC West in early May and there's no chance I'll even start working on the videos until mid-July, if ever. I think there's still a need (at least until the rewritten rules come out, and maybe even then), and I'll even send you a ten-spot.


9train said...

I hear you on this one. I actually want VASSAL modules for some old out of print games and my best option, as someone told me, is to learn to do it myself. Which I am. It's given me a new respect for how much work it is for a VASSAL module to get made.

Hopefully it will be worth the wait. Conflict of Heroes has been a long time coming, too. But I know it is in the works and will actually improve game play by letting you actually *hide* counters on the board to set an ambush.

Dug said...

Update: Fields of Fire now has a VASSAL module, but it wasn't done by the guy who did the beta version. Joel Toppen came through and got it done, although just for Normandy. It's a little on the large size (the playing surface doesn't scale for different maps, it's a huge (and busy) background grid). I am happy to see it, and now I'll need to start thinking more carefully about how I'll structure the lessons.

A little annoying seeing as Spartacus's module was out the same time the game was out.

I can hardly wait for CoH's module. Sun-Tzu is hard for me to use as I have to boot into Windows instead of the Mac side, and thus I lose access to mail and a lot of other data, so I prefer VASSAL quite a bit.

As for the hiding mechanism, I recommend you print out the planning maps for ftf play of CoH if you are going to hide units, as the map coordinates are nearly impossible to see (black on dark green in the woods). It's so much easier to just draw an arrow and note the turn they moved there.

I've considered making a VASSAL module at some point, now that MMP is no longer allowing their modules to be distributed for that platform I may try one of those (Bastogne, perhaps) if I can't find them online.