The Art of “Good”… Also Subspace/Trenchwars


Generally speaking!

My friend Eric IMed me not too long ago. Eric is a very skilled guitar player, but seems to have some hangups when composing music. He certainly can compose, but he his hindered by this feeling that he needs to make “Music for Muscians”.

He asked me a generic question that touched on this. “Just because a certain artistic thing is hard to do, does that make it better than another artistic thing that is a little simpler?”

Well yes, I’d say it does. When something is easy to do, appreciation diminishes because such works are easier to find. That said, what constitutes hard is very subjective. So I brought up Death Metal. Eric likes Death Metal and many of the guitarists are extraordinarily talented. We could agree that playing like that is hard. But what about Queen? Queen is great, highly regarded and well, pretty excellent! Their music is rather simple (or, more accurately, minimalistic). Their songs are certainly easy to play compared to many other songs. But how hard would it be to be Queen?

Pretty damn hard.

Complexity is different from difficulty. Execution of an idea, even if it is simple, can be extremely difficult. Conceptualizing an idea and making it enjoyable and well received is hard. Finding the perfect blend between ‘minimal’ and ‘complex’ to make an idea shine is difficult. So we continue talking about this in musical terms for some bit and then he tells me why he asked.

He was comparing the roleplaying systems of Bunnies and Burrows to Mage: The Ascension. To be honest, I certainly ‘lol’ed.

It somewhat surprised me how the language to describe what made music good, when treated very generally, easily described what made other things very good. Cohesion, pacing, execution, technical merit and emotional enjoyment all apply to almost any medium. How one actually creates a creative work is based on the medium, but the general considerations are all the same. I find it interesting that even though I have no musical talent, I can talk to Eric about these things using this ‘common language’ of creation. It sort of helps view whatever you’re doing from a distance, and really look at what you’re doing or what you’re trying to accomplish.


Slightly related, I’ve been playing a game that I get into periodically. I’ve been playing Trenchwars (A modded Subspace Server [which is now called ‘Continuum’]) for maybe…. 10 years? I haven’t played it as much as that number implies, but every year or so I pick it up and play for a few days, a week, a month. However long my attention lasts.

Anyways, I can’t talk about the actual game, because I never actually spent much time with it. From what I understand you fly around in space with Astroids-like Physics (this part is consistent with Trenchwars) and you have ships that pick up green boxes to power themselves up and fire a tons of rockets and bullets, while you fight to control several flags. Ships are relatively tough and if you’re powered up, you can survive for quite awhile!

Trenchwars on the other hand has a fixed armament for each ship(well, mostly, but for the sake of this post, it’s fixed). It explores asymmetrical game to a further level than the default game. The game also has one flag that is in a base that leads to ‘king of the hill like gameplay. The game also is very high damage, with many things killing in one hit. In both the normal game and this one, shooting lowers your energy, as does getting hit. Your energy also recovers over time. The amount shooting lowers your energy though is much less then in the standard game. I’ll get into the importance of that soon. I’ll go over the ships real quick.

Warbird: Nice, agile ship, that shoots a relatively high velocity shot that kills in one hit. The shot takes almost all of the Warbirds energy, giving it only a little bit of energy. This lowers the warbirds options. It can only fire one shot every so often (…3 to 4 seconds?) and after firing, it only has a little extra power to ‘boost’ around (which gives you extra speed). This is the standard ship for playing in the public zones and is the most respected in the pubcs.

Javalin: The other ‘skill’ ship in the publics eyes. It has two attacks, a rocket (that one hit kills and can kill with splash damage) that will bounce once off walls. It also has a gun that shoots three shots out of it’s tail at a low velocity. These shots take relatively little energy and do only a little bit of damage. Where they are useful is in attacking enemies that are low on energy — say, a warbird that just shot and missed you. They’re slow so they can also be used to dissuade people from chasing you. The bounce rocket is considered a very high skill weapon. Good players bounce them through little holes and attack very specific area reliably, where other units can’t easily reach. They act like siege breakers in game.

In the hands of post players though, they serve to TK their team mates on accident. They has have this item that they can use that is a big afterburner that takes no energy but can only be used once. The jav can ram straight at things and fire a rocket when it’s a sure hit. A very cool and well designed ship!

Spider: I love the spider! The spider has a machinegun of weak shots that shoot at a lower velocity then warbird shots, but still pretty fast! Spiders are the workhorse of competitive play. They can lay down suppression and can lock down enemies by chasing them while shooting. A spider can’t fire forever (maybe 5 or 6 shots before you’re out of energy), but if you space out your shots well and hit the enemy occasionally, you can prevent them from attacking (well, in the case of the Jav and Warbird, who’s main weapons are high energy). You can also one-shot a warbird that just fired. Theres a lot of strategy in picking low energy targets, controlling space, supporting team makes and stuff like that with the spider. Despite this, people whine about the spider in public zones an tell people to ‘get skill’ for ‘spamming red(weak) shots’. I see this as a hilarious disconnect within the community (The community for this game sucks by the way, but I’ll get into that later).

Anyways this ship is a cool inversion of the warbird.

Terrier: This ship gives the game a lot of flavor. It is the most important ship in the game. The core concept of the Terrier is that you can connect to it from anywhere in game, teleporting to it’s location. Then you can disconnect and go about your business. Originally in Subspace I think the idea was that you’d connect to other ships and supplement their firepower. In Trenchwars, while you can still do that, the main idea is to use it to get to the flag as soon as possible. Practically speaking, if your team has a terrier in the flagroom, you will receive reinforcements. The terr acts as a teleporter, basically. It is also insanely maneuverable, to great excess of the other ships. It fires 2 to 4 shots like the Jav (only infront of it and at even lower velocities), it has a teleporter that it can set up to teleport it’s self to an exact location once (used as an emergency escape), and has a ‘burst’ attack that it can use once that sends bouncing balls all over the place.

Writing this now, the terr seems like the best ship in the game. It isn’t. It’s very difficult to fight with, one on one. What it is good at though, is surviving and keeping reinforcements coming. It’s a wonderfully interesting ship that I think is well designed! Well, besides for the fact that the next ship can connect to it.

Leviathan: I hate this thing. It seems to be kept only due to tradition. So you’re flying in base, defending against some dudes. Then a blue rocket comes flying out of no where, hits the side of your base and half your team dies. To make matters worse, this guy might not even be on the enemy team. He’s probably on a private team! And he just wants to ruin your little basing game.

In theory the Lev is cool. It is slow as ass, turns as slow as ass, has an interesting armament, and a totally devastating rocket. Where the javalin is like a mortar tube, the Lev is like full artillary. It also has a shot thats more powerful then the Spider shot, but less then the Warbirds shot, can teleport like the terrier, and boost like the Jav. All this is required for the Lev to stay alive. It also has a ‘repel’, that pushes everything (such as you, rockets and bullets) away from it. I think it can use that twice.

A lot of players hate the Lev because they think it is lame and gets easy kills. I disagree. It’s hard to be consistent with the Lev. It’s slow and easily picked off if you’re not careful. While the Terrier is ridiculously fast, the Lev is that much more ridiculously slow. The thing that IS dumb is it has a really crazed risk/reward ratio and, when it gets it’s reward, it ruins things for everyone else. Random lev shots are frustrating. You rarely can see them coming and when you do, you can rarely get out of the way. They are massively disruptive to the game. But it gets worse.

Levs, thankfully, just can’t attach to terrs. They have to pick up a certain amount of ‘green boxes’ or kill a certain amount of enemies before they can do that. But once they do that, they can attack to a terrier and STAY attached. Then you basically have the fastest ship in the game, firing the most powerful shot in the game. To make it EVEN WORSE, often the terrier will have SEVERAL levs attached to it, while also being on a private team! So you and the opposing team are having a heated battle? Guess what, everyone is dead. These ‘Levterrs’ are the number one things that get between me and fun. Thank god Levs are banned in some of the zones to promote base play.

If you complain about the ship, an argument starts over whither or not it is ‘skill’ or not, and to ‘get over it, you noob’, and a bunch of other crap, even if an established player complains. This ship just needs to be overhauled.

Shark: The shark is a pretty cool guy! He’s sorta fat and a little pokier then the other ships (just not like the lev). He has 3 repels, like the Lev, can lay up to 4 mines and has a low velocity rocket that does relatively low damage (has to either directly hit or hit VERY close to kill), but causes an EMP effect that prevents you from recharging for like, 1-6 seconds. The shark is the second most important ship, with competitive play using two sharks at a time (league play, for the record is one terr, 2 sharks and 5 of whatever isn’t Terrs or Sharks. Usually 5 spiders, but maybe a jav or a warbird. Or 3 spiders, a jav, and a warbird).

The repels are used to clear enemy Shark mines defending the chokepoint before the flag room, and are also used to ‘push’ their way through all the shots coming from the defenders. The sharks act as big shields for the team to get in. In competitive play, sharks don’t even use mines at the flagroom chokepoint (repelled mines can cause a lot of team kills or be used against you in various ways), and the sharks primary importance is JUST it’s ability to repel attacks and protect the team. I think that is pretty cool!

Lancaster: This ship is sorta meh, but I think it has it’s uses in public play. It fires like a shotgun, firing the same midpowered shot as the lev, at a velocity that I think is SLIGHTLY less then the spiders. It can switch between 2 and 4 shots in it’s burst. With 2 bullets, you can fire twice, and then a third time after a short bit of recharing. With 4 shots, you can one shot, but then can switch back to 2 shot to get a second shot. Both shots do the same damage (if you get hit by one bullet, the entire bullet formation disappears. Though this doesn’t happen if it hits wall sor other obstructions). It takes two of these shots to kill a full powered enemy. Generally the lancaster isn’t as good as a spider or the warbird at what they each do and falls depressingly between them. In public play with a weak team though, I find that the Lancaster provides the support of a spider, with more kill potential. This is important for killing terriers, which is HARD with a single spider. When my team has a few warbirds or spiders, I’ll just go for another spider instead. It’s 4 shot spread is good at controlling space though in the base. Could use a bit of an overhaul.

Also of course players hate this ship and call it the ‘lamecaster’ and say it’s or people who can’t aim.

Weasel: This thing is also annoying. It fires warbird shots (either 1 or 3) at almost no velocity and can totally cloak it’s self (Terrs and lancs have a radar that can be turned on to see them but it drains energy). They have no tactical use (it would be useful to assassinate terrs, if terrs didn’t murder them) and just serves as one of those annoying ‘randomly die’ game elements. Would be neat if it lost the one hit kill and gained some other utility.

So those are the ships. I think the 5 ‘useful’ ships are enough diversity to make for a cool game. Sadly the community sucks. Apparently the admins are all mouthbreathers who will bait people into doing stuff that will get them banned. Pub players will call ships ‘no skill’ even when they are the heart of real basing (the spider). Despite being 10 years old, everyone acts like 14 year olds, spamming ‘ez’ every time they get a kill, and calling each other noobs over every mistake. They won’t change the Lev just because it’s always been that way (even though they make minor tweaks to the game. Years and years ago, the lanc fired slower then the warbird but had instant kill shots and the weasel was much smaller then the other ships and could fit through tiny gaps to sneak places!). The forums contain no useful discussion outside people complaining that the game is dying (though it still gets 300 to 400 players on a good night, playing at the same time, the most out of any subspace server). They tried an experimental map replacement, but seemingly with little concern for how the presented game elements would interact with it…

Besides a handful of players, they’re all whiny ass scrubs! It’s really obnoxious! Also you’re a noob if you haven’t played for more then 5 years. And they wonder why their community doesn’t get new players.

Back to Goodness!

How to get competitively good at things!

So when I came back to play TW recently, I started to try and look at things differently. The last few years of fighting game play has changed how I approach getting good at any game or contest. Much like the above conversation with Eric, getting good at something like this is the same as getting good at a lot of other things! Amusingly I was thinking about this before my conversation with Eric.

So anyways the first step is always learning the ropes. Learning how to aim in trenchwars is the big thing. Leading your shot and making sure you’re even aiming when you think you are. In fighting games it might just be doing your moves, or hitting a combo. In an RTS it might just be as simple as knowing your units or having a basic build order. The problem is most people don’t get past this first part. A lot of times they even complete this step and don’t move on. They get better reaaally slowly.

So when you’re starting out your attention would be to shoot the other guy! You fly at him, aim, hit him or miss him and maybe die. In a fighting game you might go for a crossup a lot to try and hit your combo, or spam a move you just learned (lol Ken fierce Shoryu spam). You might even have reasonably developed tactics — good aim in trenchwars or some FPS, good unit knowledge and build orders in an RTS, good combos and tricks and traps in a fighting game… but yet you are still stuck in the same stage of learning. Why is that?

You are playing to ‘do your thing’. You are playing to ‘shoot the guy’ or ‘do this counter’ or ‘hit your combo’. People often end up approaching games in this way almost like it was a single player game.

So what is the second step? Look for the game that is not obvious. Your goal is to shoot the guy, but getting there and getting there safely is different. You might be able to do your combo in a fighting game, but against a skilled player, how are you going to hit him? Getting a solid hit on a skilled player is harder then you think, let alone in the exact situation you want him to do whatever it is you’re doing.

So I was playing Warbird elim in trenchwars. Elim is a subgame, short for Elimination. You put a bunch of warbirds into a big area and have them kill each other. 10(or less, depending on how the vote goes) deaths means you’re eliminated. I was playing this to try and help my aiming. Due to the nature of the game, a lot of the fighting happens when the other guy isn’t even on your screen. Everyone is afraid to get in close. Since I wasn’t afraid to lose, I checked to score, found the best guy and went after him and watched what he did. I noticed that most of his kills against me where relatively close shots. He’d begin the confrontation far away and then when I missed, he’d get on top of me. Recreating that was harder then it sounded. So I watched him more. This worked in a similar way to a dogfight. There was potential energy and inertia involved. When he approached me he would come at ah angle that would allow him to dodge from side to side (about 45 degrees off of actually coming at me). This allowed him to dodge anything I shot at him. He’d then dodge in the way that would bring him the closest to me. When I started to try and make more distance, he would approach from the angle where I had the least amount of maneuverability currently (due to my ertia. Remember, this is like asteroids!). Then he’d shoot me in the face.

This was all very subtle and people could play for years without actually noticing this. They might even do it, having been ‘trained’ to do so in a Pavolovian way. While I couldn’t come close to this guys success, trying to recreate his tactics made me do instantly better. It’s elements like this in anything competitive that separate who’s okay from who gets great. Fighting games have a concept called “fundamentals’ that most new players act. Simple stuff like reading your opponent, learning their habits, targeting their or their character’s weaknesses. Stuff like footsies, which lets you hit the opponent out of his moves or how to block. Theres a hidden ‘middle’ game that most people don’t get to. They just want to shoot/combo/zergrush the guy. They don’t play the multiplayer game. They don’t force the other player to make decisions they don’t want to make. They don’t know how to truly capitalize on someones mistakes, especially small mistakes. They don’t change their game play as much as they should depending on the game state. They just want to play the game like a single player game.

Playing ‘with’ your opponent thusly is, how I see it, the ‘secret’ to getting better at any game you play. I see that as one of the biggest hurdles anyone who wants to get good at a game has to get over. So if anyone reading this is trying to get good at a game, open your eyes and look at the path that leads up to your goal. Force your opponents hand and use whatever means you can to put your self in the best situation possible to accomplish your goal.

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