Friday, 30 March 2012

Tribes: Ascend - The Generator Problem

Full disclosure: for a number of reasons I never played any of the previous Tribes games. While obviously this means that I can never be a proski or good at Tribes: Ascend (hereafter T:A), I think this just means that I can view T:A objectively.

There's been a lot of talk on the T:A forums and community sites about the role of the generator in Capture the Flag. Views range from 'the generator is completely useless and anyone who ever goes near it is terrible' to 'whenever we have the generator up we steamroll them; whenever it's down we get steamrolled'. As is often the case in these kinds of arguments, both sides contain part of the truth.

Let's start with the basics. The generator is located inside the base, though in a different place from the flag stand, and powers the base turrets and radar station as well as that team's pack deployables such as light turrets, force fields and jammer packs. It also powers the vehicle station (you can still drive existing vehicles if the generator is down, but not get new ones) and the core inventory stations (ones that have been called in still function without the generator).

All of this makes the generator appear to be pretty important. Without radar, you can only see opponents who are within a certain range and in line-of-sight, which makes spotting incoming flag cappers and other enemies much more difficult. The base turrets can two-shot a light class and most of the time can target enemies actually on the flag stand. Vehicles are cheap and easy to use, and can do a fair amount of damage. Likewise, force fields and light turrets are excellent at defending the flag and  generator, and without the jammer pack the Sentinel can have a really hard time staying undetected, especially if the opposition have their radar up. And for technicians and other defensive classes, inventory stations are extremely useful for replenishing ammo and forcing health regeneration.

The problem is that all these things cease to be true once you and/or your team reach a certain level of ability. If your Sentinel is doing their job and spotting targets (possibly tagging them as well) then you won't be as reliant on radar. Base turrets are too slow to hit a flag capper going at a decent speed, and in any case are easily taken out from the other side of the map with tactical strikes or mortars. Vehicles look like fun, but there is nothing they can do that a player of the right class can't do better (more on that later), with the possible exception of Shrikes - and, of course, they cost credits to use. Deployables are easily destroyed with strikes or shelling, both of which have the advantage of potentially dealing damage to (or indeed killing) defenders. Oh, and if a Sentinel is given away by a downed jammer pack  then they aren't moving around anywhere near as much as they should. Finally, suicide is an excellent substitute for the inventory stations, and can be one of the most useful abilities in the game if used correctly.

At the moment, most of the benefits of the generator being up, such as vehicles, fall under the umbrella of First Order Optimal Strategies, or FOO strategies. Extra Credits, who invented the term, define these as 'gameplay choices or strategies with a low ratio of skill in to power out'. Basically, they're things like the zergling rush or the Protoss deathball in StarCraft II or the noob tube (grenade launcher) in Call of Duty - techniques that are easy to execute but hard to counter. While to an inexperienced player they appear unbalanced, in reality they rarely affect high-level play, because by that point people know how to deal with them and have progressed to more difficult but more effective strategies. An example from T:A would be the motion-detector-turret placement in the generator room of Temple Ruins that I demonstrated in a previous video, which is extremely easy to set up but difficult for new Infiltrators to counter because they're not expecting it. Perhaps a better example is the Beowulf tank. It's extremely good at clearing base turrets and flag defences from a distance (depending on the map), and when one comes out new players are often hesitant to engage, because, well, it's a tank. However, they're not really any better than a Juggernaut at shelling the enemy base, and are much easier to kill because they're slower, bigger, and (this is important), much worse at flying. The difference is that tanks are much easier to use than Juggernauts, and you don't have to spend time upgrading them or learning how to play them. A good player who is not scared of the tank can solo it almost every time, meaning that at higher levels tanks become much less useful. (The exception to this is, of course, parking a tank in the generator room in Sunstar, because that's just hilarious).

That's not to say that these things have no place in the game: FOO strategies are vital for giving new players a sporting chance and giving them something to do other than give free credits to the other side. The problem is that almost everything the generator supplies is used in a FOO strategy, and at high levels can all be replaced by a mixture of the right classes and player skill. At that point, defending and repairing it becomes relatively pointless, and it makes more sense to replace your Technicians (the class most strongly tied to the generator) with Pathfinders or Juggernauts and just play straight-up Capture the Flag.

However, in public games people don't always have the skill level required to counter FOO strategies or replace them, and so the generator is much more important. Of course, what happens then is that one or both sides overcommit to generator play, pulling vital resources away from the flag. You probably never really want more than one, maybe two people attacking it anyway, but there is at least some purpose to it provided that you don't overload on either offence or defence. The problem is that because there's no match-making system, you end up with a huge blend of player abilities, to the point where you can have one Technician holding off five or six people attacking the generator; or alternatively one skilled Infiltrator, Brute or Raider living in the enemy generator room and killing all the Technicians and Doombringers who come to repair it.

This naturally leads to arguments, claims of imbalance, and accusations of bad play: high-level players don't realise the importance of the generator to low-level teams and call them stupid for caring (which they're not); and low-level players don't realise its irrelevance in high-level play and call the high-level players elitist and arrogant (which they can be). The problem is exacerbated by a number of classes (most prominently the Technician, Infiltrator and Doombringer) being balanced to some degree around generator attack or defence. Not only does this imply that the generator is important (I've been given all these tools so presumably I ought to use them), but reducing the generator at high levels to a mere appendix hinting at a depth and complexity that might have been makes large parts of these classes redundant. After all, why would you take a Technician over a Soldier when the latter has more health, more energy and a spinfusor along with hitscan weapons, if the light turrets are always going to be dead and the repair gun is never going to be used?

So, how can this be fixed? From the points above, the obvious plan would be to give the generator some ability that is useful (though not vital), and that cannot be replaced by high-level play. Tribes 2 did this by having the players spawn in the lightest armour and with the default weapons, forcing them to go to an inventory station to pick up their chosen loadout. While this probably can't be carried straight across for a number of reasons (no scavenging and a big spawn-flag distance would mean that losing the generator is basically a game over), it does form the basis for one possible solution, which would be to have players spawn with their chosen class and weapons, but completely un-upgraded. Going to an inventory station, in addition to its current effects, would upgrade the loadout to the level that the player has unlocked. This would actually be more important for high-level players, as they are more likely to have fully upgraded their class, while not impacting those with fewer unlocks to the same degree. It can also be scaled up or down by changing what items are granted by the default spawn (e.g. making the Pathfinder spawn with Thrust rather than Energy Recharge), which allows for more fine-grained control by the developers. There are lots of other solutions, from buffing vehicles to increasing the speed of base turret projectiles, but it's difficult to come up with something that doesn't push the balance inordinately towards the generator or break the game in some other way. Interestingly, a recently released competitive ruleset actually has the players spawning naked. We'll see how it plays out; as has been noted before, Hi Rez's general policy seems to be to implement first and fix later. This is a beta, after all.

Bootnote: This is the generator defence video:

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