Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Vampire Hunters Aren't Cool Anymore

Well, not the modern stereotypical vampire hunters, in any case. I didn't even realize there was a stereotype until I saw it on television this morning. We were watching the beginning of some vampire movie (I don't recall the title) and there was a scene of the vampire hunters discussing some upcoming raid, and I realized that I'd seen all this before. Here's the checklist:

  • A bunch of edgy, misfit, gung-ho loners, dressed in t-shirts and tank tops
  • A clandestine meeting location, cluttered with the tools of the trade
  • The "tools of the trade" mostly consist of a mixed collection of firearms and medieval weaponry
  • A prevailing attitude of "the cops/public can't deal with this, so we have to"
  • Bonus points if there's a misunderstood vampire on the team, helping the good guys
And it struck me: why should this be the winning mix of ingredients? If there are enough vampires hidden around the world to give a small pack of vampire hunters a constant stream of work, is the "garage band" model really a model for a successful team?

First problem: if there are that many vampires, and it's possible for a pack of underemployed twenty-somethings to find them on a regular basis, the vampires really can't be that well hidden. Which means that the proper authorities would have found them by now, and that teams with proper government funding would be working the problem. Unless, of course, the government is "in on it" or something.

Second problem: what these DIY vampire hunting teams seem to be involved in is a continuous series of special forces raids against a foe that's highly resistant to conventional weapons. It seems to me that this team would require serious combat training (as opposed to on-the-job training, which would be suicidal). You need to be able to handle weapons and maintain discipline and coordination under the worst possible conditions. You also need to be able to give and receive bloody injuries on a regular basis without losing your sanity, which requires serious mental training. Yes, history has shown that rag-tag teams of rebels can make an effective fighting force. But what kind of losses do these real-life backyard commandos experience? Out of a team of a half-dozen or less individuals who gave up their barista jobs to fight vampires, how many of them would take themselves out of action from fumbling their weapons in the first few months? And how many lost to friendly fire ("Wow, sorry, Joe")?

It seems to me that a more effective team would look like a team of special forces operatives, with iron-clad discipline and chain-of-command, with standardized and well-maintained modern weapons and by-the-book tactics, supported by a substantial team of surveillance agents, doctors, intelligence experts, and so forth.

What I'd really like to see, though, is a return to the Peter Cushing style of vampire hunter. The intellectual hunter with a deep and well-rounded education, who went into a fight with nothing more than a few doctorates, a sharp stick, and impeccable manners. I'd like to see the kind of guy who has the fight won through strategy and preparation before he even steps into the vampire den, and who doesn't need five minutes of slo-mo gun-fu martial-arts action to defeat his foe. Vampires are typically represented as stronger, faster, and more durable than human beings. It seems to me that you want a hero who can out-think the nosferatu. That's the movie I'd like to see.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Playing With a Full Deck

Recently I've become addicted to an online card game called Tyrant. I've been playing it on Kongregate, though I assume all the cool kids are playing it on Facebook instead. In any case, it's a collectible card game (CCG) similar to Magic: the Gathering (MTG), but streamlined for more casual play.

I'm interested by some of the design decisions they've made with Tyrant. First of all, they've removed a lot of the choices a player of MTG might have to make, leaving the player with only the decision of which card to play from his or her hand at the start of the turn. All other game rules are deterministic or randomized. So the strategy is simplified, which I expect makes it easier to write an algorithm to allow for computer-controlled opponents. The algorithm just needs to pick one card out of three to play, on every turn.

Also, they've made some cards measurably more powerful than others. In theory, this is balanced sometimes by increasing the activation time of the more powerful cards (in other words, it takes longer for these cards to become active after they're played). But even when comparing cards with the same activation time, some cards are definitely more powerful than others, which leads to the player eventually retiring some cards as "obsolete" in favor of newer, stronger cards.

I don't know how prevalent this is in MTG, but I would think that this would be undesirable from the point of view of a traditional CCG that's used for competition. After all, the point of a CCG is that the strategy is in deck-building and intelligent play. All cards are supposed to be good in certain circumstances, and some combinations of cards can create a synergy if played at the correct time. So, ideally, each card when taken in isolation should be just as powerful as any other, so that just having card X does not automatically give you an advantage over players who don't have it. Having intrinsically overpowered cards makes the game less about strategy and more about acquiring cards.

This aspect of the game actually works more or less fine in Tyrant, since it's not a tournament game. The idea is to complete single-player missions in order to acquire more powerful cards, and thus improve your deck so that you can beat harder missions. There is a player-vs-player aspect, but in situations where one player has collected more of the advanced cards, that player will have a strong advantage.

You can pay real money to buy cards in the game, but you can also just get new cards by playing the game and beating missions, so you can accomplish quite a lot for free. As a result, I've been on this game every day since I found it, opening booster packs and assembling decks and such. I do have a weak spot for this kind of game; it's a good thing I never really got into Magic, or I'd probably have a much lighter bank account by now.