Thursday, June 4, 2015

1990 Loose End #2: Operation: Overkill (Final Rating)

And...that's a wrap.
    
Operation: Overkill
Independently developed, published, and offered on bulletin board services
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 25 April 2015
Date Ended: 25 May 2015
Total Hours: 10
Reload Count: No "reloads," but I died and resurrected 4 times
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at Time of Posting: 149/223 (67%)
      
This post is a recognition of an uncomfortable but unavoidable fact: I simply can't go on like this.

I can't force myself to finish every game, no matter how long it takes, no matter how unvarying the gameplay. Trust me, it's a tough pill to swallow. It's been since December of 2013, with Legend of Faerghail, that I had to enter a "no" in the "won" column--and that was because the game was bugged. It's been since August of 2012, with Bloodwych, that I did it deliberately--and that was the only time that year. Although I quit games quite liberally in my first 18 months of blogging, since 2011, it's been something that I've strongly resisted; in fact, after prematurely quitting them, I later went back and finished Wizardry II and III and the early version of NetHack.

But continuing on this course is just insanity, especially when I can't figure out how to cheat and shortcut myself to the end.

Somewhere, someone must have once won Operation: Overkill, but wow, it must have taken a long time. As a BBS door game, players were limited as to how much time they could play. Dialing in for an hour or less a day, fighting a few combats, making maddeningly slow progress to the next level before getting kicked out...it's hard to believe the experience was worth it. It's not a bad game, I hasten to add--just not one (to me) worth that kind of effort in a year that offered Ultima VI and...and....

Well, you know, it may have been worth that kind of effort in 1990.

Every game has a fanbase, and I found a FAQ created by Overkill's admirers back in the 1990s. The FAQ indicates that to kill the evil alien leader, Overkill, you have to first summon his ship to Earth using an "alien device." The device, in turn, must be assembled out of parts that you find on Levels 3-5 of the game. (Since the game takes place outdoors, it's never clear what the different "levels" are supposed to be.)

Progress is slowed by a need to resurrect.
      
I wasn't able to get off Level 2. Every time I started to make progress, something would set me back, usually death. You can resurrect after dying, but it costs a hard-won experience level, associated attributes, and some equipment. Oh, and you have to wait a while. I couldn't figure out how to tweak this setting. Every time I died, I had to take a couple days off from playing the game. On the one hand, I wouldn't mind if modern games implemented such a dynamic. Not days, but maybe 15 minutes or so. It would give weight to deaths and force you to take a break from playing to do a couple chores or something. On the other hand, it feels so damned undignified to have to sit out a few rounds for a game that exists only on my computer.

There were other setbacks. I'd start to save up money to permanently build a base (which costs 100,000 crystals) only to have my vaccinations expire, requiring me to spend another 10,000. Ultimately, the game puts you between a rock and a hard place. There's no way to win without grinding on each level for a while, but there's too much randomness in combat to ensure that grinding will actually pay off. I guess I could have been more judicious and fled from more creatures.

Nothing like logging in after a week to find that you're vulnerable to all diseases again!
     
The combat system, though original, is deeply flawed for anything supposing to be an RPG. Bereft of tactics, action-oriented in the weirdest possible way, every fight becomes repetitive and tedious. Yet you can't switch to the statistical combat because it's much, much deadlier.

In my last session, I was playing on an airplane after getting up at 03:30 to catch the flight. Watching the letters go by...

....AAAAA.......BBBBB......CCCCC.....AAAAA.....

....was almost hypnotic. I found myself dozing off in the middle of combat. Of course, you can't do that in this game, because you need to press the SPACE bar at just the right time to land your attack. When my character died, I knew that was a sign.

Waiting for my chance in combat. I do like the taunts offered by your enemies.
           
I'm sorry I didn't get to see the end, particularly since no one online has posted any endgame screens. If someone else wants to try to win the game and write about their experience, I'll post it here. For now, we reluctantly move on to the GIMLET:

  • 4 points for the game world. It's original, occurring in the aftermath of a nuclear war and an alien attack, but it's also pretty silly, and the world's "levels" don't make a lot of contextual sense.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation and development are almost all about tweaking the balance between your three attributes. Although you do get measurably more powerful, there's not much to the process, and you have no role-playing options with characters.

Always amusing to hear someone refer to experience points in-game.
        
  • 1 point for limited interaction with a couple of NPCs who help out with hints.

I happen to know from personal experience that the Oracle is wrong.
         
  • 3 points for a unique slate of foes who nonetheless generally act the same. I didn't encounter any other puzzles or special encounters.
  • 2 points for a highly original but bad combat system by which you have to hit a button as letters go by. There just aren't enough tactics in combat, and the whole thing gets boring fast.
  • 6 points for equipment. The equipment system is quite well done, with a list of original weapons (melee and missile) and armor plus utility items that help in various situations. The relative value of items is made clear, and even better, every item is well-described in the game world by simply asking about it in shops. Few games so far in my playlist have featured detailed item descriptions.

A fun description of an originally-named item.
           
  • 6 points for the economy, another very strong category. You can spend your hard-earned crystals on equipment, training, vaccinations, healing, and building your own bases in the middle of the wasteland so you can rest safely and store items. Apparently, in one of the airforce bases, there's a doctor who gives you implants to increase your statistics for crazy amounts of money. The point is, money never loses its value.

The value of crystals means that situations like this really suck.
           
  • 3 points for a main quest and some "side areas" (Air Force bases) that aren't really side "quests."
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I recognize the effort that went into the text graphics and varied opening screens, even though I don't think they look very good. Neither is the sound anything special, but the keyboard-based interface works fine and is easy to master.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Although not too hard, the unvarying nature of gameplay inevitably makes it too boring and too long. 

The final score of 33 isn't horrible. I won plenty of games around that level in 1990. Six months ago, I might have continued to the end, but now that we've skipped into 1991, it doesn't seem worth it.

One of about half a dozen interesting opening screens.

With a comparatively low rating, I've probably angered an oddly devoted fanbase. There's an entire domain for the game, with a series of forums (mostly inactive in the last few years). You can still play it on an active BBS. But when I read the entries in the forums and comments on the site, I feel like I've slipped into a weird alternate universe in which the people only have BBS games and aren't aware of regular CRPGs. It feels like the community that would like Operation: Overkill is not usual CRPG players but BBS enthusiasts.

I also have a slight pang about quitting because I did have a brief correspondence with creator Dustin Nuff, and he might be along to offer some comments. He did provide the answer to one key question: the name of the game. Inspired by the Mad Max films, the original name was Dark Wastelands. After he got the prototype working, Nuff renamed it to Operation: Overkill and offered it to a local community of BBS enthusiasts in Dallas, Texas. A year later, Nuff's computer crashed and wiped out the files and source code. Nuff re-created the game from scratch and added a II to the title; he says he later regretted giving it a title that made it sound like a sequel instead of "version 2.0" of the same game.
   
Ironically, given that he started with a game with almost no sound, Nulf went on to a career in audio programming, with credits on games like Vietnam: Black Ops, Mission: Impossible - Operation Surma, and Terminator 3: The Redemption. We won't be seeing (or, rather, hearing) his work, since all his later games are action or strategy titles.

From this one experience, I'm not sure I quite "get" BBS door RPGs, but it's a pretty small sub-genre, and I don't know how much I should worry about it. I'll probably try harder to pick up its most famous exemplar, Legend of the Red Dragon, when I pass through 1989 again.

For now, my week of travel is over and my "backup" posts are exhausted. Back to Eye of the Beholder!





32 comments:

  1. Your experience sounds a little like a proto-version of a typical MMO experience. Resurrecting instead of reloading. Combat as a monotonous sequence of hitting buttons. Strong economy and equipment, weak NPCs. I guess it was ok to play it to have some experience with this kind of game, but I wouldn't worry about not finishing it.

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  2. How much of an accurate playthrough is this anyway? When the original was played on BBSes, could players share items? Could it be that when you work together, some of these grinding challenges are simplified in some way?

    That suggests to me that this isn't a "loss" so much as a realization that the game, while playable today as a single-player experience, is not the original game as played in 1990. So we're grateful for your effort, but don't sweat not getting to an end screen. :)

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    1. Yeah, I'm not totally sure on that. I know that if you slept in the wild, other players could stumble over your body and kill you, but I don't know if you could have live interactions. I gather that BBS games weren't exactly like MMORPGs of today because they supported fewer players accessing the system at the same time.

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    2. I never played this in my BBS youth, but I know that in other games (TradeWars was my staple game), there were advantages to team work that were included in the game dynamics. You did not play at the same time, but I remember coordinating with my teammates through proto-email.

      Still awesome to learn as much about this as we did!

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    3. I don't know this particular game, but I'm pretty sure other door games included features like being able to pass items from character to character, though not in real-time. Whether this would have made a major difference in difficulty is another story; it sounds like the difficulty here is more "structural," especially when it comes to the economy.

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  3. Bravo on clearing the deck, but also on moving forward from the "all wins, all the time" approach. I totally get the reasons for that; if nothing else, if I were doing a project like this, I'd be paralyzed with fear that I'd miss some really fantastic (or awful) late-game development that significantly adjusted the score. But really, how likely is that, particularly in the kind of repetitive slog game that leads one to consider bailing out? At most it might shift one or two GIMLET points. I think you can, and do, give a better sense of what it's like to play the game than most bloggers, whether or not they win the game, especially since it's likely that most people who played these games did not win them!

    Put another way, I love this blog for the analysis, not for the play-by-play (though the episodes and anecdotes you choose to illustrate the game are always entertaining and well-chosen).

    As for BBS door games, I suspect you've seen enough of them to make a judgement, and to gain a sense of where they might be situated --- off to one side of the mainline CRPG development. Some other blogger could conceivably make it their project to chart micro-evolutions within that genre, but I doubt the absence of them from your account will lead you to fatally misunderstand some later development in CRPGs. I think staying generally abreast of JRPGs and adventure games where they're close enough to your wheelhouse (as you've done) is probably far more lucrative in terms of thinking about what kinds of things the same developers and playing audiences might have been bringing to the table - in the sense of a Beatles historian needing to at least know what the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys sounded like. Obviously one has to set boundaries somewhere, though ... many of these same people would, by the mid-90s, have been obsessively playing Magic: the Gathering, but if that had an influence on CRPGs, I bet you or your commenters can tease it out without you having to build a deck and hit up some tournaments!

    The only other potentially arguable gap, speaking of precursors to MMOs, would be MUDs. Insofar as they're fundamentally open-ended and cannot be "won," I cannot imagine them qualifying as a CRPG here, but, if you didn't already have a million other things on the to-do list, I could imagine you finding some cross-comparison with the rhythms of satisfaction (leveling up, exploring new areas, etc.) in a good Diku MUD (debuted 1990 if Wiki is correct). Obviously, all of these genres are indebted in various ways to tabletop role-playing and fantasy literature, but I wonder if, for example, the increasing development of NPCs could be understood specifically as an attempt to capture the fun of forming an online party with real humans. Just thinking out loud though.

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    1. The MUD genre is still alive and well, I might add, and I play lots of modern MUDs. Researching the history of the genre could prove to be quite difficult, as the games are all server based and most of the early ones don't exist in their original form (unless they've been running continuously, as a few have). It also wouldn't make any sense to play a MUD with no one else. I've stumbled across some abandoned ones that were still hosted, and it's a very surreal and kind of scary experience—a whole vast world completely devoid of people, teeming with monsters and scary dungeons. *shudder*

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    2. MUD1 (the very first MUD) still has a server, but nobody is playing it. I've written about it here for my All the Adventures project:

      https://bluerenga.wordpress.com/tag/mud1/?order=ASC

      Richard Bartle himself stopped by to comment.

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    3. While there may be no way to "win" a MUD as a whole, many of them are built as a collection of areas which provide a more traditional type of single or multi-player puzzle-solving, monster-slaying RPG experience. The good ones are a lot like modern MMOs, but usually there are only a few dozen players around at a time and the gameplay is only rarely of the "grind monsters until you can kill them all easily and then move on to the next area" variety. The more advanced ones involve both puzzles and fairly advanced combat tactics.

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  4. Saving up money to build a base in the wilderness where you can rest and store items definitely sounds like something that would be easier if multiple people were contributing funds.

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  5. BBS games are largely not conducive to single player. It's more or less that black and white, really. Without the direct competition against others who log onto the system, the drive for an 'end' is somewhat farcical - for instance, Legend of the Red Dragon 'ends' when your PC becomes level 15, kills the Red Dragon and... starts back from level 1. If I recall correctly, LORD2 had something of a single player plot to it, though - but for the majority of well-liked BBS games (Falcon's Eye/Barren Realms Elite, Stardock 2099, Usurper etc) they're really just well hidden grinding, sometimes mixed with minigames, so you can beat other player characters in whatever way you deem to be a winning fashion (more money, more experience, killing them for daring not to sleep in the inn).

    Down here in Australia, there was this magnificent BBBS called 'Delta' whose proprietors had customized some software to have it be a custom made door from the login screen. That place was great in my childhood memories' eye. A shame that it dropped off of the map with the proliferation of the internet.

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  6. "I'll probably try harder to pick up its most famous exemplar, Legend of the Red Dragon, when I pass through 1989 again."

    I was able to beat Legend of the Red Dragon with relatively minimal playtime back in 1995, so I doubt it'll put up anything like the same amount of fight. The seduction-related sidequest (if you can call it that) may require multiple passes through the game -- I don't recall -- but it's not the main goal.

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  7. After inadvertently trolling you by tricking you into including Braminar and the Girlfriend Construction Set on your list, I never imagined that this, a minimal but functional actual RPG, would be the game that would break you!

    BBS door games were more about being played than about being won, about offering some casual drop-in experience that you couldn't have off-line... a possible answer to the question "OK, so we've connected our two computers across a telephone connection; so now what?"

    With an occasional exceptional inheritor of the play-by-snail-mail gaming scene's maxim of "think long and hard before you play your turn, because you might not get another one for a week", these games were just primitive systems offering limited sandboxes. Many of them had win conditions but those were almost beside the point; basically players would jump in there and see what there was to see (not much, generally) over a couple of play sessions, then never return.

    Certain elements to the way the play sessions were doled out were rooted in technical limitations and return with the rise of casual games on mobile devices due to curious psychological effects resulting from hurry-up-and-wait play design. In a sense they were accidental innovators in this way, but otherwise that branch of the RPG tree bears no fruit down the line -- not important to the history or the evolution of the genre, unless you're Zynga circa 2012.

    (And for completists and historians: a curio.)

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  8. I'm with those who say don't get hung up on "winning". It's nice to have that screen shot, but particularly with this kind of game, that may not be a reasonable objective anyway. Not that this project is really reasonable, but hey, you set the rules. I just don't see a lot of other interesting posts coming from a lot more time spent on this.

    Unrelated fact: you've been citing Barton's "Dungeons & Desktops" for years, and I've been nodding along because I knew I had it on my bookshelf since 2008 or 2009. Then I looked at it the other day and realized I've never actually *read* the book. I think I bought it during a splurge on game design books, and I shelved it as being too much history and too little design. Also, at the time I didn't know 20% of the games he was talking about. Now, of course, I recognize them all, at least through the beginnings of the Golden Age. There's a nice resonance between his historical narrative and your down-in-the-trenches playing.

    So I've been reading the rest of the book this week, in between bouts of laughing at myself for buying a book and forgetting to read it.

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  9. BBS door games remind me of all the F2P games nowadays. You can only play a for a certain amount of time before having to wait the next day, and they're filled with grinding. LORD was fun.

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    1. "Every time I died, I had to take a couple days off from playing the game. On the one hand, I wouldn't mind if modern games implemented such a dynamic. Not days, but maybe 15 minutes or so."

      Hehe, yes modern games do implement this dynamic, and they are mostly free-to-play games with microtransactions. Don't want to wait an hour to resurrect? Pay a dollar! Want to play the game for longer than an hour? Pay another dollar!

      One of the most popular RPGs that uses this model is the mobile game Puzzle & Dragons.

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    2. Hmm, I'm not sure what f2p games you're referring to Steve, but certainly many (most/all?) mmorpgs that are f2p don't limit your time playing. They however limit other things...

      I'm not sure about other games.

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    3. Candy Crush uses a system where a player has a limited amount of "lives," and each failure to clear a board resulted in a loss of one life. Once you're out of the set number you either have to purchase more in a micro transaction or simply wait until a timer counts down and replenishes the lives one by one.

      Presumably other games use the same system.

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    4. @Red_Cardinal, I haven't played F2P MMOs, but most of the mobile F2P games like Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga have timer mechanisms where you can only complete a certain amount of actions before having to wait a certain amount of time...or you can pay money and the timer goes away. The door games have the same mechanism, except you can't pay to remove the timer (In LORD you can only do 15 battles per day, for example).

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    5. Also, many of the F2P games have asynchronous multiplayer, like the door games. Example, in Clash of Clans you can raid another person's base, but you're not fighting against the player directly, they set up the defenses of their base and then you fight against the computer who defends their base. Same in LORD. You could attack people in the Inn, but the computer controls the other player.

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    6. And O:O gives you the ability to build automatons to guard your bases, so there must be some way for players to raid other player's bases in the same manner.

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  10. If someone else wants to try to win the game and write about their experience, I'll post it here.

    Oh, I'm tempted! If I still had my copy of the registered version faking out a win screen would be top priority. But as it is not known if the unregistered version even is winnable, AND as I am expecting my second child's arrival in a week or so, that would be a profoundly irresponsible priority for me to assign the quixotic task. If it's still a hole in the historical record in three or four years' time (here I thought I was PLUGGING that hole by documenting it at Mobygames... turns out I was just exposing a bigger hole), I'll look into taking it on again.

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    1. There's a registration code on the official forum, as the game has been released as freeware.

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  11. Darn you, HunterZ! Darn you to ... heck! Well, I guess this is where the rubber meets the road. Time for me to install it...

    (Maybe I can see about getting its graphical term program documented as well...)

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  12. Something else: the "Watching the letters go by" sequence, i.e.

    ....AAAAA.......BBBBB......CCCCC.....AAAAA.....

    would be faster and more difficult for people with highspeed modems, and slow and easy to press for people stuck with lowspeed modems. Just a balancing feature that you don't experience while in loopback mode.

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    1. If you use SyncTerm (an open source ANSI telnet client), you can set the simulated baud rate and it will bottleneck the connection at the client end. It also has an Operation Overkill II compatibility mode that includes the sound effects and such when playing over telnet.

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    2. HunterZ, are you sure that you aren't secretly actually the one of us who should be documenting the end of OOII? You already seem pretty expert regarding its ins and outs 8)

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    3. lol I've never played very far into the game. I just know a bit about it because I ran it as a door game on my dialup BBS in the mid-to-late '90s and then set it up again recently (initially to help Chester get it working and then later as part of playing with telnet BBS software).

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    4. OK, I have the files. All I need now is the spare time... and better reflexes 8)

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  13. This, certainly, is a strange beast to slay in the realms of CRPG when played as a single-player experience.

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  14. Similar to OO is LoD (Land of Devastation). You also may want to try Lore, which is more roguelike.

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