Monday, May 4, 2015

Mind of the Beholder
Part 4

Something about simplicity
This is no mere ponder.

There once was a plumber. A simple, practical man, his overalls a second skin which come in handy whenever he needs to get down to business. Ready to collect his due anytime, anywhere - even if he needs to knock a few heads. Never does it tarnish his sunny demeanor. He's not just some plumber, he's the royal plumber. He cleans out all the pipes, in all the castles, in all the lands. He'll never stop, even if his employer gets kidnapped by a capricious giant turtle dragon that shoots fireballs. He scoffs mushrooms to bulk up, gets high on psychedelic flowers, dons a cape to fly like Superman, wears the corpse of a raccoon to use its tail as a flail. He stomps all the wildlife in his way for coin, because there's no such thing as a free lunch and his favorite shrooms are expensive. He's out to slay the dragon and save the princess like Saint George. You know of whom I speak, it's-a-Mario from Nintendo.

The man, the legend. Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.

The universe Mario inhabits is related to our reality in the same way an acid trip is and even though it may not make sense, it makes perfect sense as a game where rules rule. They've barely changed: navigate this spacial maze, run and jump, collect coins, splat enemies, defeat the dragon and save the princess. Easy to understand, the crazy world Mario inhabits doesn't get in the way of game logic.

There once was a hero of no repute and no description. He filled in the blanks and did not worry, he worked things out as he went along. He wanted to swing a sword. He'd swing it until he'd become the best Sword Swinger in the whole world. Then he realized the sword swinging was rather ethereal and couldn't deal very well with the realistically fleeing A.I. of the world's inhabitants so he made a career switch to swinging a bow and arrow. A resounding success! When our hero discovered he could perch atop a boulder and snipe giants with impunity he used realism to break the rules governing this universe. He also discovered that the world more or less dictated the way one was to behave and that it didn't make any qualms about breaking its own rules. Rules such as a prison having keys for all but one cell door, ironically this happened to be the only occupied cell. The hero's mission was to bail out the occupant with coin, which he did, but then the guard joked that he'd let him go 'eventually', little did any of us know the key must have been destroyed and this was an obvious bail-out racket. Or else all of this makes little sense.

The man, the legend. Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.

We are all sentient machines that explain. The highly interactive world I thought a game like Skyrim would portray is a pipe-dream. Bethesda had to ship the game at some point and I think they did right with Skyrim, even though some elements drove me up the wall. I'm all for an interactive world. I'm all for far-reaching consequences. It stands to reason that if you poison a town's water supply, anyone who drinks from the well gets ill. Yes, this has been done before, but I've yet to see it as mere possibility. Not as part of a task where the game supplies a button to click to apply poison to the water. Entirely different still if the game mandates through a quest text, that the well needs to be poisoned and all that's required is that:

  1. The player get the necessary 10 ingredients from slaying glowing rotworms
  2. Synthesize the poison by clicking the Synthesize action button supplied with the quest
  3. Apply the poison by clicking the well

This final example is usually found in a game that is built for questing and not for interactivity. It's also as exciting to play as flipping switches. On the other hand, having to feed my companions in Ultima 7 was, while funny at times, a chore. I could lead to interesting situations in a highly interactive world, but if feeding is abstracted to the following isolated actions it becomes annoying:

  1. Either collect ingredients for food or earn currency to afford it
  2. Spend either to obtain food
  3. Put the food into the player character

While realistic, it's not fun to play unless it ties into other meaningful game mechanics. In this case, if the food is there to prevent a debuff, and I assume this applies to NPCs and not just the player's party, why can't I poison the well so that I can prevent the removal of the debuff? A game not only has to simplify reality, it has to do something interesting with the result.

Because of their time investment, their associated cost, their hidden complexity, their demanding nature, it seems apparent that MMORPGs may be getting pushed (back) into a niche unless they can solve one or more of the listed issues.

The checklist quest I mentioned before is typical for MMOs. They have a reputation for supposedly being easy. But I feel as though I've made a grave error when I mentioned this before: MMO's are more complex than they let on. Especially at the highest level, where every feature comes into play. I recently continued my stint in Star Wars: The Old Republic and was momentarily lost in its complexity even though I had played it for months before. MMO's demand hundreds of hours which in turn lets players nestle themselves into its web of mechanics and mini games. By which I really mean that the MMO player interested in endgame content isn't casual, but very hardcore. Complex is a way to describe how a raid boss fight is conducted. There's little to sneeze at because this is essentially the multiplayer equivalent of a Metroid boss fight.

Wildstar Boss fights are usually impressive Wildstar's boss fights are some of the best in class.

Because of their time investment, their associated cost, their hidden complexity, their demanding nature, it seems apparent that MMORPGs may be getting pushed (back) into a niche unless they can solve one or more of the listed issues. Wildstar's entire success hinges on its ability to appeal to the most hardcore MMO player base. How the genre is to succeed while having to rely on a shrinking audience is worth a guess. But sure, having a MOBA styled PvP map seems like a worthwhile effort.

I thought it curious how hardcore an MMO can get, considering the trend of other big releases. Diablo 3 is a lot simpler than its predecessor. The Elder Scrolls games have lost some of their rules over time. Dragon Age, as seen in the previous post, has been dramatically and ruefully simplified. However, not all of it is bad. Simplification usually happens for good reasons. I buy coffee in its ground-up form rather than as beans. This saves me the hassle of grinding them up myself; I'm not hardcore enough to enjoy grinding.

In general, there's nothing wrong with streamlining. Less is more. But quality of life isn't the only argument for keeping things simple. For instance, Guild Wars is proof that limiting the skill bar in a party based RPG can have great gameplay value. At the time this set it apart from games that would plaster the screen with floating skill bars. With limited options, the player must select the right ones. Synergize skills, build a party with a game plan then test it against the game's challenges.

Guild Wars' hotbar Guild Wars' skill bar, 8 slots is all you have to work with, better make the most of it. This includes an Elite skill, distinguishable by the gold trimming.

This is the reason I was excited to hear that Dragon Age: Inquisition would also feature a limited skill bar. Eight skill slots is all you have to work with. Eight skills to be carefully selected from a wealth of strategic options. Eight representatives of a tactical plan, each character fulfilling a role in a large master plan that will foil the schemes of the arch-villain du jour. Sadly, I later learned that DA:I doesn't have the wealth of strategic options I would have liked. It still has the trinity roles, but each role only has a handful of skills - leaving some out in favor of others doesn't even factor into it. It is possible to combine roles to a fair extent but suffice to say that the game has a very narrow focus.

Dragon Age: Inquisition's hotbar Dragon Age: Inquisition has a limited skill bar but you won't be able to fill it long before the game's finale. The setup in the screen is that of a Knight-Enchanter, its gameplan is to conjure magical armour while it wades into combat wielding a magical sword. That's it. Strategic choices are quite limited.

I think the reason for the eight skill slots has everything to do with controller design, the game's UI is a dead giveaway. A controller has four (face)buttons, each of which is assigned to its own activated skill. Swap this initial set of four with another set of four using a trigger and you end up with the total of eight skills. I can't call this a console compromise because the classes were built from the ground up to function with only a few skills, but it does influence the game design taking it a far away from Origins - this was also its main source of criticism.
Dragon Age: Inquisition thoroughly simplified the character building by removing attribute point management - Dragon Age: Origins still had this - and has chosen to put the attribute growth on the passive abilities in the various skill trees. This ensures that if you go down the skill tree of a tank build where lots of hit points are a concerned, enough attribute points will be added to constitution, which governs the HP pool. This takes away user error, but one could argue it also takes away user choice.

I have slagged on god-character RPGs a lot in these series. But, admittedly, Diablo 3 does it rather well. It's where it slaughters demons by the hundreds. This is a class based game, each with its unique style and limited skill bar. The player is allowed to swap skills on the battlefield. Different problems, different solutions. Sadly, the game doesn't really take advantage of this: the players only need to build an effective damage dealing character so there's a tendency towards cookie-cutter builds. Here the game becomes too simple for its own good. Even if Diablo dictates what happens in the action RPG genre, there's plenty of wiggle room for competitors.

Diablo 3's hotbar Diablo 3 has a limited skill bar, skill selection is mostly governed by personal preference rather than the game's challenges.

It also removed attribute point management, Blizzard did the logical thing by removing a mechanic that just led to Min-maxing. Which is the phenomenon in which players maximize the primary statistic on a character, ignoring less useful stats. Using the game rules and simple maths it's possible to figure out at what stat allocation a character is at peak performance - once known, why deviate from it? In this case you could end up with a warrior with 265 strength, 15 dexterity and 15 intelligence. The requirement on melee weapons and damage output would typically be based on strength, so why add points to anything else? An image comes to mind of a barbarian who can twist open a jar of pickles in one go but can't tie his own bootlaces. I usually feel min-maxing is a bad thing too, because it allows the player to sidestep part of the game design, particularly if it isn't very sophisticated. I think Blizzard did the right thing. Diablo isn't an RPG in the classical sense so it doesn't hurt the game.
Note: During the writing of this text, the Paragon system patch was released in the ramp up to the Reaper Of Souls expansion. This allows max level characters to put paragon points into certain stats to specialize the character even more.

Diablo's story is insanity incarnate. Typically Blizzard, who continue to publish a sort of fantasy anime with a western Warhammer-esque esthetic. Featuring overconfident characters with megalomaniacal vocabularies, wielding words like "misbegotten" as if they were never used in a Blizzard game before. It's really quite funny: Sanctuary is the sort of place that's a one-to-one conversion of real, I use the term loosely, life monotheistic beliefs and superstitions, in a what if it was all true way. This is the setting's most relevant point. An earth-shattering, eternal conflict between good and evil where mankind is victimized, slain, enslaved and ultimately championed. Both forces of good and evil are heinous - only humanity has the right mix of salt and pepper to rise above the conflict - a sentiment I can appreciate. Vanquish demons and angels alike and so remove the conflict that poisons the world. Encapsulated in this caricature of delusions is the solution to it: stomp it out with extreme prejudice. Should you feel a little down on the whole premise there's the materialism needed to stoke your rage, loot fixes everything.
A bit of a shame, really. The game could be more thrilling if the pace was turned down a bit, and the enemies tougher, smarter and fewer. Anyone would argue this would make the game less 'Diablo', who am I to argue. Maybe there's another game to scratch that itch.

Diablo 2 didn't have class flexibility (skill trees, no respec) and an even more limited selection of active skills. Hotbars weren't yet current and the game forced the player to only use the two mouse buttons. Skills could be hot swapped by using the F-keys, it was clunky and hard to use. Its sequel fully incorporated modern interface design and made the game much more approachable. Diablo 3's gameplay received a similar treatment. Something as simple automatic gold pickup removes the tedium of having to... "aim and click" the cursor on a few coins then wait for the character to complete the move and pickup routine. Much more satisfying to watch the coins fly into your pockets, like a reverse gold fireworks, and it all happens without forcing you miss to a beat of the action. And let's also be honest: in a game where any sort of grind is involved wasting time is anathema.

Diablo 3's health orbs Health orbs, shown as red spheres, keep the pace of the game up.

Another noticeable evolution in the Diablo formula is the use of health and mana potions. The first two games had the, presumably unintended, phenomenon of potion chugging, meaning you could 'cheat' your way out of tough spots by using health pots which would restore hit points over a very short time. Chugging one after the other would make the player character near-invincible until they were all spent. In Diablo 3 this was corrected by putting a long cooldown on the use of potions. To compensate, slain baddies now drop health orbs which, like gold, are magnetically absorbed and replenish some health. Notice there's an added bonus for gameplay here, bosses are able to spawn additional baddies that drop health orbs too, making the fight less punishing and potentially more interesting as the developer can count on the fact that health replenishment is available during the fight. Which they cannot if the player has a limited and uncertain amount of potions. Not forcing a restart once health runs out relieves some of the stress while learning the fight too. This kind of regenerative health also makes it almost impossible for a player to get hard locked into a situation where he has neither potions and money, in which he has to restart the game, rerun the level, or grind more mobs for more - all of which are generally a bad experience. Taking a page out of the Zelda and God Of War playbook, health orbs fit rather nicely with the absurd premise of this game and its action gameplay. It's also easier to suspend your disbelief when an abstract idea like 'health orbs' are involved then it is to accept that a character instantly consumed a vial of liquid or in the case of Skyrim: an entire roast pig. Solving this is easy enough: take away the basis in reality is to remove the illusion-breaking issues that clash with said reality.

Many games use the eat-to-heal mechanic. Think of the Bethesda games. Worse yet, think of early World Of Warcraft, where the player character would always have to sit down, eat and drink in between fights to heal up. It coupled the unrealistic idea that food heals wounds with the realistic idea that eating takes a long time. Inanely absurd! It was one of the early signs that this game was not for me - it encouraged me to pull out hair, nails and eyes while waiting for the animation to finish.
An example of a game where I can get on board with the concept of food and cooking is Guild Wars 2 where it is one of the available, and optional, disciplines. The food it yields provides a temporary stat buff. This game's professions even provides a real sense of experimentation as the player is allowed to match ingredients to discover new recipes. It feels more playful than tedious.
When it comes to healing, GW2 adheres to the modern idea of rapid health regeneration, or even resuscitation with a severe stat penalty, once combat has ended. Numerous games use this to bypass the manual healing a player would usually have to do by casting a healing spell, then wait for it to come off cooldown, then to recast it till the character is back at full health. Needless to say, this bogs down pacing and creates tedium.

Guild Wars 2 is full of good ideas, but lacks some of the ones that made the original such a unique design.

Like its predecessor compared to its contemporaries before it, Guild Wars 2 is special and may as well have "Detox MMO" for a subtitle. The reluctance to waste the player's time with grind and nonsense is part of the developer's design philosophy. It doesn't have any signpost quests but area based, timed missions the player just wanders into while exploring. Participating is optional and the rewards are according to player performance. It has flexible classes. It doesn't have a library of skills, its skills are tied to weapon types which in turn also dictate playstyles. Toggle between two weapon sets for adaptability and combos.

Guild Wars 2's hotbar For comparison's sake and symptomatic of how this game is played: Guild Wars 2's skill bar, 3 slots for the main hand, 2 for the off-hand, a healing skill, 3 class skills and 1 ultimate.

It has a personalized story that defines your character as a personality and not just as a player avatar. It uses a handful well-defined hero characters as anchors to the world instead of endless anonymous quest givers. It doesn't have separate PvP and PvE gear tracks. It doesn't have a sub fee. Sadly though, it takes a step away from being a Role Playing Game and towards being an open playground theme park. It doesn't have the 'poison the well' interactivity, but it does have spontaneous events that make the world appear more alive than the competition's. However, it also doesn't have the trinity and its mechanics, it doesn't have its predecessor's companion system and its open ended party building. These last two points have a pretty big impact. What makes having a party so valuable? Well, I really should make a separate post on the topic.

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