Vignette #2: I also remember a Defender-clone of some description (it may even have been Defender) down at the local arcade that we would play a lot. And I mean a lot. When we got bored, sometimes we\’e2\’80\’99d try \’e2\’80\’9cTeam Defender.\’e2\’80\’9d Everybody got one button. Brett got the thruster, Udo got the fire button, I normally got the vertical control, and somebody\’e2\’80\’99s kid brother got hyperspace, which, you\’e2\’80\’99ll all no doubt remember, was almost never used. This almost always led to completely disastrous play, of course. As the aliens closed in, the guy on the reverse direction button would just put us in more or less a permanent spin, bullets spraying in, um, both directions, while the rest of us argued the philosophical merits of going right vs. going left. Fisticuffs frequently broke out. That is, when we weren\’e2\’80\’99t talking little Kenny out of finally pressing his one button (\’e2\’80\’9cPlease, can I hyperspace?\’e2\’80\’9d \’e2\’80\’9cNO!\’e2\’80\’9d)

We didn\’e2\’80\’99t play Team Defender cause it was efficient. I\’e2\’80\’99m not sure we even played cause it was much fun (our precious quarters would have lasted much longer doing almost anything else.) We just played that way cause we were kids, and we liked doing stupid things. But I\’e2\’80\’99ve been thinking of those memories a lot, while I\’e2\’80\’99ve been working on a piece I was writing for a newbie-help website for World War 2 Online. You see, in the handling of its vehicles, WW2O teeters uncomfortably between the Dambusters and Defender extremes.

You all know by now how WW2O aims to marry up the flight sim, tank sim and first-person shooter experience, and the success, or lack thereof that it has had. One big problem that\’e2\’80\’99s come to the fore right away is the dominance of tanks. There are three varieties of tanks in the game: each side has a light and a medium version, and the French also have the hellabig B-1, which players are already calling the \’e2\’80\’9cCharzilla.\’e2\’80\’9d (Char being French for tank.) Watching a screenload of B-1s wade through German armour is kind of like watching when the Terminator breaks into the rebel base in the future\’e2\’80\’a6 both sad and disturbing. The experience has already got a catchy name, actually: Char Wars.

Of course, this just leads to everyone and their hamster \’e2\’80\’9crolling up\’e2\’80\’9d a Charzilla every time they die. This is perfectly normal PvP MMOG behaviour: if you had a character class that can kill everything with impunity if well-handled, why on earth would anyone choose to play the other kinds and be ganked repeatedly? In reality, something WW2O still only occasionally resembles, only 350 B-1s were ever built. But someone knowing nothing about the Defeat of France would assume after playing a little WW2O that it was fought by thousands of these mega-tanks\’e2\’80\’a6 and one lone infantryman named \’e2\’80\’9cIkiljoo\’e2\’80\’9d who hadn\’e2\’80\’99t saved up enough for a good joystick yet.

Obviously, there\’e2\’80\’99s a problem, here. Cornered Rat Software, the game\’e2\’80\’99s developers, are expected in the long-awaited big patch to put numerical restrictions on the B-1s and other equipment, so players are forced to play the lesser beasts, too. Whether that will go so far as forcing people to play infantry is unclear\’e2\’80\’a6 although it\’e2\’80\’99s difficult to imagine the game gaining in popularity with its would-be tankers if it did. Their admirable concern about historical accuracy leaves \’e2\’80\’9cnerfing\’e2\’80\’9d the tanks themselves out of the question, so instead we may see a world whose Everquest equivalent would have people being told that they just can\’e2\’80\’99t BE necros because there already are too many on the server. And no, that\’e2\’80\’99s not going to fly any better than it would in Everquest, either.

The whole thing is, realistically, ludicrous anyway. I could no more easily run a 1940 tank by myself in real life than I could a Dambuster bomber. The reason those things had crews of 3-5 people is because they were needed to run what was state-of-the-art machinery for its day. (Tanks back in the First World War could have up to a dozen crewmembers.) Armies today are looking at tanks with 2 people, or even one person driving it by remote control, but that\’e2\’80\’99s because of the power technology and automation has given us to extend one person\’e2\’80\’99s control.

That same automation, ironically, now allows us to run the same WW2 tank, or its realistic virtual equivalent at least, with just one person. Anyone who\’e2\’80\’99s spent any time playing Mechwarrior 3 can do a Charzilla in their sleep. After spending what must have been months adjusting my key configs for LAN grudge matches in that game, fixing up the default WW2O controls to ergonomic perfection took me a matter of minutes. If you can make a 100-ton walking futuristic virtual robot do everything but dance a jig, getting a tank to gear up and roll forward is not hard.

The game has a multiplayer option, where you can team up with your buddy to drive a tank, but it\’e2\’80\’99s little used. Frankly, other than as a time waster (like Team Defender), why would you? Those who randomly pick their partners frequently end up as one of those unique stranger vs. stranger encounters some game designers still seem to think we actually enjoy. At least they are almost always amusing for the rest of us listening in online. Whoever is not in the driver\’e2\’80\’99s seat is inevitably carted off over the wrong hill (\’e2\’80\’9cTurn around, you idiot\’e2\’80\’9d is a familiar chat line), or has to spend an hour teaching the newbie driver how to get the thing out of reverse. They make our team Defender sessions look like masterpieces of human factors engineering.

Now, if you know the other guy in there with you, and you\’e2\’80\’99re both very good at what you do, I have no doubt the two of you are probably 50 per cent more efficient than the same tank run solo. (Due to the inherent advantages of two sets of hands, two sets of eyes.) But if each of you instead spawn in your own tank, your team will be 100 per cent better (two tanks, after all), so there\’e2\’80\’99s no percentage in that, either. In-game \’e2\’80\’9csquads\’e2\’80\’9d (the clans of WW2O) have no problem with their members soloing tanks as much as possible, and rightly so: it\’e2\’80\’99s an obvious winning strategy. Hence the Char Wars.

The designers could put an end to the dominance of the big tanks tomorrow, of course, by insisting that all vehicles, by virtue of being so much superior than the single-player infantry they like to run over, have to be multicrewed. But the designers are stuck by the very nature of the game: a combination shooter-flight sim-tank sim can hardly exclude from the tank simming all those people who rightly fear being trapped in a tank with a griefer. But it leads directly to the current bizarre play dynamics (kind of like Mechwarrior 1940), and the aforementioned numbers nerf designed to stop it.

It\’e2\’80\’99s a novel dilemma: but not a unique one. The same problem could potentially arise again any time a PvP multiplayer game decides to rise above the \’e2\’80\’9crock, paper, scissors\’e2\’80\’9d hierarchy of closely matched avatars — and especially when they step into the realm of player vehicles. You can\’e2\’80\’99t realistically recreate much about warfare without \’e2\’80\’9cbig guys\’e2\’80\’9d and \’e2\’80\’9clittle guys\’e2\’80\’9d of some description\’e2\’80\’a6 but without some checks and balances, your players will always select the \’e2\’80\’9cbig guy.\’e2\’80\’9d The potential risk is faced equally by WW2O tanks, drivable vehicles in Planetside, or Imperial Star Destroyers in Star Wars Galaxies. You obviously can\’e2\’80\’99t just say to your customers, \’e2\’80\’9cNo, you can\’e2\’80\’99t go into space if you don\’e2\’80\’99t trust anyone online.\’e2\’80\’9d You don\’e2\’80\’99t want to deny paying customers the ability to solo that Star Destroyer, or force them to endure the bad driver/crappy commander/bad shot in the gun turret if you make them group up. So\’e2\’80\’a6 what\’e2\’80\’99s the answer?

One suggestion here. Instead of forcing multicrew on all vehicles of the type, the one answer the WW2O team has not seemed to have explored, and I can\’e2\’80\’99t for the life of me understand why, is making just some of the vehicles soloable, and some forced-multiplayer. The lighter tanks could be reserved for the solo players, and the Charzillas and their ilk could be only playable when you find a partner. This also could work in [insert future game name here] for starships, hovercars, AT-AT\’e2\’80\’99s, whatever.

The obvious example is the vehicles in Tribes 2. Two people minimum are needed to extract good value from a Thundersword bomber, but the little single-seat Shrike fighter is also available for when your playbuddy\’e2\’80\’99s got to do his laundry, and you still want to take to the skies. By doing so, they\’e2\’80\’99ve made sure flying is equally enjoyable for both soloers and groupers.

Whether WW2O would ever do anything this sensible is an open question. Even though everyone knows the coming numbers nerf is going to piss a lot of people off; even though increasing the crews of the big tanks would actually add to realism (by ending the game\’e2\’80\’99s Dambusters-like experiences); even though it would still allow people who just don\’e2\’80\’99t feel like socializing an out (a lesser tank that doesn\’e2\’80\’99t require putting up with Team Defender-style play); even though it would encourage people to try all the character types in game, not just keep picking the ultra-powerful, the idea of a \’e2\’80\’9crealism-based\’e2\’80\’9d game like WW2O taking lessons from a \’e2\’80\’9cplayability-based\’e2\’80\’9d game like Tribes 2 is slim to none. (Realism fanatics have their own axes to grind, it seems: the ultimate put-down on the game\’e2\’80\’99s official boards these days is \’e2\’80\’9cGo back to playing Quake, loser,\’e2\’80\’9d if you see what I mean.)

It\’e2\’80\’99s too bad. Cause maybe if they had a little less Dambuster, and a little more Team Defender, fewer gamers might be tempted to do a Kenny on WW2O and punch out into hyperspace.