Thursday, July 09, 2009

Quickie Recap and Why Avalanche is Paranoid

It's been a while since I've posted regularly, sorry about that. A week out of town will do that to you. There's been a little gaming here and there, a two-player game of Through the Ages with Alex at Sunriver that's best left unrecounted (I lost rather badly despite having a seven point culture advantage in the early game).

We also played a four-player game of EVE: Conquests the other night with JD, Matt R, Alex, and myself. 'Splainin' took a while, but we were pretty close to finishing up when Matt got lucky with the political display draws towards the end. It was a short game to points, which I think is a big mistake, but my opinion of the game went up. With four there can be a downtime issue (all you ever really spend time on is your logistics phase, the rest are fairly obvious choices), and I look forward to trying it with three, but otherwise everyone felt that the 'Geek complaints, other than the occasional human factors issues, were non-starters. We're looking forward to giving it a full playing at some point in the future with a medium length game.

Finally, as some of you know I own most of the Panzer Grenadier series, a love-hate relationship made more difficult by Avalanche Press' spot-on imitation of a company run by a guy with a PhD in Military History. Which is less imitation than truth, actually. I subscribe to a Yahoo Group that covers it, and there are the usual flare ups over minutiae. It will come as no surprise to those who have followed me from back in the good old Gathering of Engineers days that every once in a while I really put my foot in it and proceed to walk all over the white carpet.

However, this was not one of those times. This was one of those times when someone else took issue with a side comment I made and it's produced about 300 column inches of pixelated type. Here's what happened:

OP posts a message about Origins, saying that he hardly saw any PG being played in the Wargame Room (insert Dr. Strangelove quote here) and wished he had. I suggested that it might be a good idea when a major national con or a smaller con in your area is on, that you post and look for opponents. I also suggested that with their new digs, perhaps Avalanche Press could do what GMT Games does (a silly idea, as they seem hell bent on doing exactly the opposite as often as possible) and host their own in-house con. I also suggested that since they wouldn't allow us to play their games online via VASSAL or any other method, that perhaps they could at least spring for the pop and chips.

That was when the guy who I shall call Nemesis as he always seems to disagree with whatever it is I say on that forum sent back the following -

"You know, these little digs don't go un-noticed by those of us who don't
agree with you, and I have a solution:

Why don't you develop a proprietary PzG-only game client? Then, you
could give it to APL, they could distribute it, and we could all use it.

For free, of course."

As you can imagine, I took the bait, as did a couple of other people. Nemesis apparently is of the opinion that even allowing others to create VASSAL modules for PG would be giving away the IP of APL on a plate. I've been rather vocal about this, as it's been a major impediment to me playing the game on anything approaching a regular basis.

To be fair, his point is not that he doesn't want to see VASSAL modules or any other sanctioned online play, he simply feels that it's unrealistic to expect them to do so, and that it's not a part of the "license" if you will that you get when you buy the game.

My counter point is that Avalanche is foolish to actively dissuade anyone from online play. Although they seem to still be in business. Sort of. I've suggested in the past that APL follow the Days of Wonder model and create a proprietary online play component that you gain access to by purchasing their games. However, it's clear that after the move and the Cassino debacle (have I mentioned that I'm *still* waiting for a hard copy of the scenario book? And two countersheets that don't have offset issues with 20 or more counters on the back side?) that Avalanche isn't going to be doing anything other than picking up the pieces for a while.

So I came up with another suggestion. This one is pretty simple. I'm willing to guess that Eastern Front Deluxe, the expanded version of the original gameset, is pretty close to saturation in the market, or at least close enough for government work. Certainly compared to most of their products. Almost every expansion they make requires pieces or boards from EFD. Putting out a VASSAL module of EFD seems like a no brainer, and you could even leave out the entire Rumanian army just to give the people who haven't bought the game even more reason to buy it.

APL doesn't even have to create the module, just approve it and distribute it through their website. Track the changes in sales, and you have a good data point on whether or not VASSAL modules hurt sales.

Nemesis has yet to comment on this idea, but then again I did suggest that if he got so upset by my posts that perhaps he shouldn't read them. I also asked that if anyone else had a problem with my position that they could let me know. So far I've heard nothing on the subject, but I expect that most people have tuned it out by now.

One other interesting thing that occurred to me in rehashing this beast yet again: I think I know why APL is so paranoid about their IP. To understand, it helps if you've have some exposure to academia and how you get ahead in that field. Basically, you have to publish or perish, and for anyone working in a field that looks backward (such as music history or literature) they are quite seriously running out of topics to cover in your articles and dissertations. My music advisor told me nearly 15 years ago that I had better find an obscure ancient composer that did even passingly interesting stuff and stake my claim as quickly as possible.

How does that tie in? Simple - Mike Benninghoff, the owner, has a PhD in military history. You don't get a PhD without running into the publish or perish paradigm. Throw in one of the early APL boardgames, Survival of the Witless (a terrible game but from my experience a pretty good satire/simulation of academia), and you start to see some traction in this theory. The game included designer's notes (uncredited, btw - whoever designed it didn't want to burn their bridges, although clearly Mike didn't mind as he was the publisher) that tell the story of an associate professor who got two letters in his mailbox at the end of the school year - one saying that he was the most popular teacher in the department, and a second saying that he was not getting tenure and wouldn't be asked back. This is pretty common - tenured professors don't like the new kids getting more attention than them.

So there you have it. A PhD running a game company who ignores every bit of evidence from other companies that online components (which they have the power to control as much or as little as they wish) are not only good for business, but more or less required by most gamers.

PG is a very interesting little gem, once you wade into the 75 scenarios in EFD and find the ones worth playing. I mean, who believes that all of these scenarios were *really* playtested? Not just run once to make sure one side doesn't die in five seconds, but repeatedly played with different strategies? Given that APL tests in-house and doesn't use outside playtesters, that encourages kind of a myopic view of the system.

And there's another problem. APL's games, for the most part, are in-house designs. In other words, Mike lives or dies on a handful of systems. To my knowledge, it's the only wargaming company that does it that way. Everyone else may have their series, but they accept a lot of outside designs. Cassino was unusual in that it was a PG game from an outside designer, and you see how badly they botched it's development. In other words, they're insular and closed and paranoid about their IP. I have to wonder if they ever look at what other game companies are doing and ask themselves if there isn't a better way. Given my almost constant problems when I've ordered directly from them, I guess it's not a surprise.

Cassino really was the last straw for me. I've got 90% of their SWWaS, GWaS, and PG product at this point, and that's more than enough. Of course, many of you will say that I should have stopped at 5%, but let's not quibble. I like the system quite a bit, but APL has a terrible rep in my group, and there are only really two people who are willing to play these games with me, one a 45 minute drive away and the other with more desire than free time. As such, the game rarely comes out and while I like the systems there's no question that they would all become playable and enjoyable in VASSAL (especially the SWWaS and GWaS games, with their plotting tedium, especially when things change).

I'll point out that I did manage to get the entire SWWaS set for less than the price of the Leyte Gulf box thanks to a snafu in their allowing Gold Club members to buy their seasonal specials packages at half price for two days. I notice they shut that element down not long after I got mine. They did honor the price, I'll give them that. They also took a month to get it to me and repeated pinging. So there's something they're doing right.

So there it is, APL. No more money from me until you pull your brilliant brain out of your collective paranoid ass and let me play the damned games I've paid for online. I'm not asking you to spend a dime, I'm simply asking you (and giving you multiple suggestions for how you could do it without giving away the farm) to *allow* me to play online. Because with any module, the only way to play is for both people to have it, and once I give it to someone it's out of my hands.

Perhaps that's the best way to go about this - make my own VASSAL module as described above, and send it to ten people, then let them send it out to ten more. Perhaps they'd go after me for copyright violation (I'd have to create my own artwork to avoid that particular issue), and I suspect that in the end they'd just be more paranoid. Still, I'd get to play the damned game.

One last swipe before I go because it's been a really bad couple of months for me and I'm feeling peckish...

"these little digs don't go un-noticed by those of us who don't agree with you..."

Who's this "us," Kimosabe?

Sometimes it's good to be smarmy.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Well, I gotta say I'm glad I haven't been keeping up on my mailing lists and missed this little dustup.

Then again, it's not all that different from one in their PG forum a couple weeks ago.

They've actually suggested the idea of Vassal modules that didn't include any of the scenarios in the games.

Like that'll work.

And, being that opponent with more desire from time (or the one 45 minutes away - I fit both descriptions) I've started creating a vassal module of Elsenborn Ridge. Of course, it's not finished, and I can't distribute it, but...