eceived with mixed reviews and Western indifference to Japanese penchants for mecha, Chromehounds has proven itself a niche game through its enduring, if small, online community. After playing off and on for the last eighteen months, editor Jeremy Steeves and I have been playing the mech-battle simulator regularly for several weeks. Once focused on what Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins called "a rustling box of LEGO," the two of us instead concentrated on tactics and consistent teamwork. Engaged only in player-versus-player matches, we've won about half of the games entered, often defeating teams of Hounds larger than ours — even enjoying the lessons of our defeats. Except, that is, when we have run into "el cheapo builds."
The Chromehounds power law.The state of the game has players in two virtual leagues. Matches between low-ranking players typically involve Hounds of greatly varying design, many of which correspond to the six envisioned "role-types." High-ranking players, however, usually compete with a handful of designs — all of which are intended to gain every conceivable advantage in gameplay.
Now, it takes a little brilliance to arithmetically determine the shortest distance between game mechanics and assured victory. But when that éclat is imitated for purposes of winning at any cost, the game is reduced in variety and scope. There are terms for this, most of them pejorative. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, these opportunists are known as "Minmaxers," and in BattleTech, "Munchkins." The phenomenon is explained by theories that I myself confess to handle gingerly.
What some members of Chromehounds' online community call "evolution" is a social example of emergence — a group of individuals coordinating complex behaviors that culminate in an unforeseen collective. In Chromehounds, a few months of design experimentation resulted in a combination superior to most others. It was witnessed by others, examined and copied, and improved. A power law arose. Players who selected one of several high-performing designs won more matches — and could easily attain top ranking — than those who stuck with one of thousands of other, less powerful builds. Winning was vital. Case in point: an early paramount, the ungainly Double-Double, quickly disappeared when a patch qualified its power. Why? Because hardly anybody ran it for fun.
Survival, but of the fittest?
Curious designs you will never,
ever, ever, ever see.Developer From Software and publisher Sega have got to be impressed with the invention. But Chromehounds was promoted to allow players to "build a customized Hound," and "assemble the ultimate multiplayer team" of six roles. From and Sega didn't intend a game dominated by nearly identical units. Nor do gamers now purchasing the bargain-bin title expect competition that encourages them to forgo Chromehounds' "millions of options" and run the month's prevailing design. Picture seven-card stud with two winning hands, or a hockey team with nothing but forwards. The two leagues play well without interference from one another, yes, and an adjustment to the game seems as unlikely as a sequel. But a patch containing four significant changes to gameplay would spare many the need to draw up gentleman's agreements.
ZIP, ZILCH, NAQA
The Kingdom of Sal Kar, one of three contending belligerents in the alternate-reality Balkans, proffers expensive but lightweight and efficient military technology. Soon players discovered that its spindly, legged chassis were markedly more difficult to hit, yet weren't much less durable or sturdy than other, more massive parts. Naqas, inverse legs resembling snapped toothpicks, were judged as the most effective — and so highly competitive players started to use them, and only them. Since the Naqas are so elusive to fire, area-effect weapons were preferred as long as they were practical to equip and easy to use. What about bipedal, treaded, hover, wheeled and quad-legged chassis? Or the half-dozen other inverse sets? Rejected for Hounds that look like bomb-throwing fleas, ubiquitous in higher-ranking matches. There is one plain solution: reduce the Naqa's load capacity or its armor, or both.
HOWITZER DID IT COME TO THIS?
The Double-Double design exploited both a local and general loophole: the wiry, nimble Naqa legs are inversed; and inverse-legged chassis can fire howitzers and large cannons about as stably as ponderous quad-legs. From's weakening of large cannons drove the Double-Double out of fashion. Unfortunately, the continuing allowance for players to hitch heavy artillery to fast-moving Hounds renders an entire chassis class quaint while it violates Chromehounds' implication that with speed, one sacrifices power, and vice-versa. Players who run quads are thought to be a) endearing if new to the game, b) eccentric if well-acquainted, and either way c) a very, very easy target. Increasing the recoil of big gun and the stability of quads can redeem the quad-legged Hound as the only unit able to effectively fire a howitzer or large cannon.
I have learned two lessons from Japanese players. The first was how effectively smokescreen can be laid at close range. The second was a build meant to be sharply instructive, designed after I hit a Japanese player with those overpowered, downloadable grenades. My Hound carried only two launchers; I added them to remain competitive after losing to an absurd-looking design known as a Shino Kart. The grenades did their work — in a single volley I had set the player's tank on fire and destroyed most of its hardware. The Japanese fellow and I played a match immediately after: he was a little longer in the garage because of the time necessary to affix eight grenade launchers. I was obliterated. After that, he sent a coy taunt, inviting me to another match lobby. My humble response was one of two apropos phrases I've learned, Osewa ni narimashita. The grenade launcher download, I was taught, is a wretched device for the craven, lazy and legally blind. From Software and Sega would earn more from brand equity were they to discontinue it.
BETRAYED THREE TIMES BEFORE THE COCKPIT BLOWS
Canopies, cabins and cockpits are accepted as vehicular weak points. But to spend all that time tinkering, preparing for a slugfest, only to be dropped with a single shot? Just a few months of online matches went by before the term "open c-pit" denoted liability, which is to say, suicide. Players began allocating weight to protective armor plates; then learned to recess cockpits; before a few devised ways to place the cockpit at a Hound's rear, as if it were the barb on a tail. Shrewd? Yes. In the spirit of the game? Not at all. Why not require of cockpits the same unblocked line-of-sight as weapons, and add compensatory armor points for the protection that would have been there? Let players spend time experimenting, not keeping up with the Joneses.
And that is the moral, here: creativity, less boosterism. Chromehounds two years on is still a strong game. It would be stronger were ruthless pragmatism restricted to where it would actually be virtuous, such as a video-war against electronic aggressors in a real-life occurrence of TRON. Or, for those in need of an alternative, industrial design.