Nuclear war game First Strike a dose of fun (and bleakness)

Blindflug Studios is looking to exploit the fast-paced, real-time strategy gap in the mobile market, with the launch of First Strike next month.
Mobile, specifically tablet devices, appear to be the perfect platform for fast-paced, bite-sized, real-time strategy extravaganzas -- yet these sorts of games are few and far between on iOS and Android. Newly-formed Blindflug Studios is looking to exploit that gap in the market. The Zurich, Switzerland-based game studio, part of creative agency Feinheit, will launch its first strike on the video game industry in March, aptly titled First Strike. It's a real-time strategy game based around nuclear war scenarios on Earth, with games that last around 10 minutes each. You control one of 11 nuclear superpowers, and aim to strategically conquer as many nations as possible through research, defense, and a whole lot of bombs. But besides the fast-paced entertainment, Blindflug has an underlying agenda with First Strike -- an educational, political stance that it hopes will sees the game teaching players about the threat of nuclear combat. "When we started brainstorming about a world-spanning strategy game for tablets, we quickly realized that a full on war, nowadays, would still result in a global nuclear escalation," says Blindflug's Jeremy Spillmann.

"Making people aware that the nuclear overkill is still possible and a viable threat nowadays is a touchy subject, especially if you want to make a game out of it," he adds. Indeed, when Blindflug was in the early stages of describing the game to outside investors, the company received a lot of negative feedback for pursuing this goal. But, says Spillmann, "I feel like therein lies the true power: Letting people experiment in an inconsequential setting lets you experience a dilemma to a certain degree, and who says you can’t have blast at it? Papers, Please does this excellently, borrowing a setting where dilemma lies therein without being too judgmental. We hope to have achieved something similar here. A lot of fun, and challenging to play, but kind of sad when you think about it." Of course, that's not to say that First Strike contains the answers to the world's problems. Rather, the idea is to make players think more about the scenarios that could potentially arise from nuclear war -- and like the computer in the movie War Games, the player is left to replay the same starting scenarios over and over again, and find the solutions with the least and most destructive effects.

"I wanted the earth to be something precious, our little blue planet, floating in space. We felt like the emotional impact is much higher when you can see what you are actually doing to the planet."

Many of the game's other design decisions also focus on this idea of giving players food for thought after the bombs have come down. For example, while all of the tactical interfaces in the game take inspiration from the likes of Defcon and the aforementioned War Games, the Earth itself has been hand-painted. "I wanted the Earth to be something precious, our little blue planet, floating in space. We felt like the emotional impact is much higher when you can see what you are actually doing to the planet," Spillmann says. "From that, we decided to work our way back, adding science fiction elements as interfaces and information." And the game's 10 minute sessions work to strip back the real-time strategy genre to its bare bones, removing resources and save states, and instead forcing the player to focus more on observation. "I felt, by speeding the game up, your pressure to strike at the right opportunity gets much higher," says the dev. "One false action or big gamble could make you lose your current game. Of course, this would be a strain in a 30 minute session, but for 10 minutes its just on the border of becoming exhausting." first strike 1.jpgThe AI in First Strike is particularly interesting. Blindflug has utilized "particle swarm optimization" to lead the computer-controlled nations -- essentially, this method allows the game to iteratively seek out solutions to a problem over and over again, until it is sure that it has the best quality solution to throw at the player. "It allowed us to easily implement it into our framework and have the AI run a few hundred games against each other to develop different starting tactics for the superpowers," Spillmann notes. "It also opens up a large field of expansion, by assigning different personas and realtime adjustments in the future. When you are playing North Korea, your desired tactic has to be considerably different than the USA's - this solution allowed us to get those 'AI-needs' quickly." First Strike is due to launch for iPad, Android and (likely) Windows App Store tablets on March 12. The studio will show off the game at GDC Play next month.

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