UPDATE: Auralux’s developer, E McNeill, replied to me with his opinions on this piece.
How did you write essays in high school? My process for a 2 page paper involved writing one page’s worth of material and stretching it with needless adjectives and repetitive sentences. Papers on World War II never involved “the Nazis”; the Axis was instead lead by “the evil German Nazis of the Third Reich”. I also felt very strongly to always write “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet”, in order to avoid any confusion with some other Romeo & Juliet story. Good writing was long writing, as my grades reinforced.
Then I read On Writing Well (aka William Zinsser’s On Writing Well) in my junior year English class. That book, coupled with my teacher’s high standards, made me gain some self-respect and treat writing like a craft. The biggest discovery was “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
But simplicity is not just the secret to good writing. The most beautiful truths in physics are the simplest (e.g. E = mc^2, F = ma). Google’s less-cluttered homepage is vastly superior to Yahoo’s. On Writing Well is the most influential book in my life because it showed me the importance of simplicity in all forms.
Right now, I am building a few video game prototypes. I want to make simple games. I want to make games like Auralux.
Auralux, created by E McNeill, is a real-time strategy game stripped to its core elements. You compete in a free-for-all against two AI opponents in a variety of levels. Stars, which can only be built in designated places, pulsate and create your units, dots of stardust. Those units can be used to build and upgrade your stars or attack the opponents’ stars. When two units of a different color collide, both units die. As such, Auralux is about creating numerical advantages to defend and take over spots in space.
Many people would say there is not much to the game. I disagree because A.) I was clearly able to write 1,000 words on this game and B.) this is an RTS almost 100% about actual, real-world strategy and tactics.
Good games should leave you with some new understanding. That knowledge can emotional, like understanding the perseverance of friendship in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or technical, such as the conservation of momentum in Portal. But either way, playing New Super Mario Bros. should not only make me better at playing that single game.
When games fail to do this, your experience can feel like a waste of time. Too frequently you are expending genuine effort for trivial accomplishments like trophies or a better ELO.
The density of valuable information in most RTSs is poor. Warcraft III has many universally valid aspects to its gameplay (such as the importance of economy to wartime efforts), but they are diluted by game-specific details (like the importance of using ensnare against frost wyrms). General MacArthur never needed to know that hippogryphs only attack air units.
This is not to say that Warcraft III is a bad game; it is one of my favorite games of all time. But it’s false to claim that Auralux has very little to say of any importance. A few of the lessons in Auralux include:
1. The difficulty of taking enemy bases Successfully attacking the enemy requires more than a slight advantage. Even if you have more units than he does at the time you order an attack, you still require additional units to:
A. Kill the new enemy units being produced by the star during the attack
B. Destroy the enemy star
C. Build your own star
Thus, quite frequently you need to have triple the number of units as the enemy does at their star in order to attack, while still maintaining your own defensive capabilities. Additionally, accurately determining the size of a force is a challenge when each unit is represented by a few pixels.
Attacking your opponents in Auralux is easily analogous to attacking entrenched soldiers. It is very easy to see why World War I was such a deadly conflict after playing this game.
2. The effects of uneven battlefields While Auralux has several levels that are completely symmetrical, the most interesting matches occur when the number of star sites is not equally divisible between the three sides. The leftover star site(s) quickly becomes the most contested region in order to prevent giving one side a massive advantage.
After all if you always have more stars than your opponents, your victory is virtually guaranteed. Your resources and battlefield positions win you this game, just like in actual war. One soldier is not going to turn the tide of battle no matter what Call of Duty tells you.
3. The fluidity of alliances Most RTSs tell you who your allies are and prevent you from attacking their units and buildings. Auralux never needs to be so explicit; you learn to team up with red to do damage against green (For example, each of you attack a different green star simultaneously). Of course soon enough, you and green will do the same to red. Other times, you remain neutral and let your enemies fight by themselves. This fluidity can also work against you, especially in the harder levels. Frequently you will be stuck between green and red. The two share no love but will still gang up on you first.
Within a single match of Auralux, alliances are forged repeatedly and betrayals occur over and over again, all driven by each side’s self-interest. International politics has never been so well encapsulated.
All of these lessons are incredibly easy to pick up on because there is little else there to obfuscate them. In large part this is because of the game’s slow pace. When you destroy a enemy star, it’s not because you outmaneuvered him in battle, but because you exploited a weakness. Tactics rule over execution, clarifying the game’s message.
Auralux feels almost like a turn-based game as there’s no real element of surprise, and this makes the game incredibly relaxing. On the other hand, the endgame when victory is assured can drag on even longer than in most RTSs, but the slow pace is still the right choice for both aesthetics and design.
Unfortunately, this game isn’t only about basic, universal tactics because the AI does have some glaring holes that would never occur against human enemies. The AI seems only interested in what is occurring at each star site. Therefore, you can move a massive group of units behind an enemy star and the enemy will do nothing to prepare or deal with the threat. To some extent, Auralux is about seeing through the AI algorithms, and that is the game’s biggest weakness.
However, there is a much larger criticism possible: Why is an understanding of elementary tactics important in the first place? Most gamers aren’t going to command armies. There are several answers like historical context, business applications, and pure curiosity.
But if you ask that question, then ask yourself one more: Why play any RTS? Either they’re meaningless entertainment or most of them are doing a much worse job at getting across what Auralux does for 1/12th of the price.