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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Skyrim (Part 2) - The Dovakiin Switcheroo

      In Part 1 I went into an overview of "endless" games and the different ways game work to extend their longevity. This part will jump off from that to focus on the larger question of player satisfaction and how to avoid design dissonance. Along the way I will also explore some of the ideas brought up in the comments of my last post as they relate to this topic.

A Tale of Two Skyrims
      In the beginning, Skyrim was great. Despite not being a huge fan of open-world games, I was an instant convert. I realized right away why people loved these games - the feeling of immersion as you traverse vast landscapes and slay monsters is unlike anything I had experienced before. I was able to overlook most of its tiny flaws - its combat, for instance, was a bit simplistic for me. It didn't matter, since the overall experience of the game so great. For 98 hours I was having a great time, then the experience changed dramatically.
What in Oblivion is that?

      It was around the time I hit level 35 that the game started to lose its charm for me. I had learned most of the spells, gotten through most of the story quests, explored numerous side quests, and got some pretty awesome equipment. The problem was that I was at the point where the rewards for exploring were getting less and less interesting, and I had less and less need to level up or get better stuff.

      It was around this same time that I began to lose interest aimlessly exploring the world as I had done before. For every one area that had some genuinely interesting subplot to it, there were dozens of caves, ruins, and bandit camps purely there to guard loot. Short of going on a wiki or hunting those areas down on GameFAQs, how am I to know which areas are kickass adventuring areas and which are just filler dungeon crawls? Never mind a more casual player that hardly ever uses such resources.

      This presents an interesting design problem. Essentially the core of the game experience was not clearly conveyed to me as the player. The mechanics suggested the game was about accumulating loot and getting more powerful, fighting monsters, and completing quests. But in the grand scheme of things, the game is more about adventure and discovering what the world has to offer. The mechanics the player is exposed to early on does not set the correct expectations for the rest of the game, nor does it provide compelling incentives for exploration beyond a certain point.

What does your game say to your player?
      These days, players expect to learn how to play a game from jumping in and playing it. Often this includes a tutorial, but not necessarily. Thus the primary way for a player to understand how to play the game and what their goals should be is through the mechanics. The mechanics, particularly those the player are exposed to at the beginning of the game, teach a player what the game is about, and they can be thought of as a "language" by which the designer speaks to the player.

     Mechanics condition a player to approach a game a certain way. Whether you are a die-hard gamer, who expects to have a similar experience to similar games you've played in the past, or a new player with no expectations at all, the mechanics tell you how to play. The players level of game literacy makes no difference. They will invariably draw conclusions about the game from the mechanics that are most obviously presented to them, and herein lies the problem with Skyrim.

     Much like how action games condition players to get through the game as fast as possible, so too does Skryim put an emphasis on getting more "stuff," be it new spells, new equipment, etc. Which is hardly surprising, as it has become a staple of the genre for many years now.
Thanks, Diablo! >:(

      The problem is that once you have effectively accumulated all of the best stuff the game has to give you, Skyrim becomes a completely different game. It goes from being a stuff-oriented dungeon crawler to what is essentially an open-world adventure game, with a few combat speedbumps here and there. It's not unlike what happened with the controversial game Manhunt, which devoted the first half of the game to stealth and melee combat, then turned into a frenetic shooter later in the game.

      This kind of dissonance creates a situation where players have to choose to either fundamentally change their playstyle completely from what they were used to and had enjoyed, or walk away from the game and not bother with the remaining content of the game (which could be in the ballpark of 75% of what the game has to offer!).

      This is bad design on many levels. First, it means a good chunk of players will not bother experiencing most of your content, making it a waste of the dev's time and money. Second, it means your mechanics are basically tricking the player into thinking the game is about something it isn't. Finally, you are making an experience that ends in a fizzle rather than a bang, with players losing interest long before seeing the finish line.

Switching Gears while Keeping People On Board
      Now you could argue that there are plenty of games that switch things up on their players. If you really wanted to get nitpicky, you could say your basic RPG is like two different games: one where you are in town, and one where you are out fighting monsters. Could this not also be seen as a conflict? Not if done correctly.

      Switching gears like this can actually be a helpful tool if you consider its effect on the pacing of the game. In an RPG, for example, having the player go back to town or visit a new town helps establish a good curve of tension-to-rest, which facilitates a more enjoyable experience overall. Not only does it help create a bigger contrast between the game's highs and lows, it also gives players a chance to process the action they have experienced, and through NPC interactions understand the context of what they are doing.

      At the same time, it is important to delineate which modes of play (such as combat or visiting town) constitute the core game experience, and which play a secondary role of enhancing the core experience. For an RPG you can generally see the connection between the town and combat fairly easily - the town allows you to stock up on equipment and weapons to help you fight monsters better, and provide quests and lore to help enhance the sense of purpose behind those actions.

      Occasionally the core play experience is a matter of debate, as was the case with Guild Wars. The original concept of the game was to build it around a competitive experience, where the single player experience (PvE) acting as a prelude to competitive PvP, which the designers assumed players would graduate to once they tired of the single player experience. But that wasn't what happened.

      The playerbase instead was divided between players that loved PvP and those that loved PvE. Sure, you had people that loved both, but the vocal players were the ones at either end of the spectrum. PvP players were frustrated they had to play through the single player campaign in order to unlock the abilities and equipment they wanted, and wanted to have everything unlocked without any grind. PvE players, on the other hand, felt that would be unfair, as it would belittle the hard work they had to go through to unlock those same items from questing. So a compromise was reached where they introduced "Faction" points you could earn from PvP to spend on unlocking more stuff.
WoW developed its own suspiciously similar Arena mode some time later.

When an Object says more than a Character
      Planescape had a similar issue of dissonance. Like Skryim, it had a large number of weapons and spells you could get, as well as various items to boost your combat effectiveness, yet was ultimately about exploration and discovery. The designers cleverly used the games inanimate objects and loot to help reinforce, rather than override, the player's desire to explore the game world.

      In place of generic swords and healing potions are various blood charms, enchanted teeth, magical tattoos, talking books, detachable eyeballs, bugs that crawl in your brain to make you smarter, and many more. Every item tied itself inextricably to the lore of the game world, and functioned like a puzzle piece that fit into the larger tapestry of the game's vast and imaginative lore. Every object was imbued with a sense of purpose and mystery, reflecting the tone of the game and enticing the player to learn more about the Planescape universe.

      There is only one item in Skyrim that reminded me of what Planescape did - The Wooden Mask. The player stumbles across this mask in an ancient ruin, along with a note talking about how a man put the mask on and vanished into thin air. If the player puts on the mask, they themselves are transported into a magical room, with a series of busts resembling figures wearing similar masks. No further explanation is given, but the player over time realizes the purpose of this room. Finding that mask was by far the most enjoyable thing I did in the game.

      Items aren't the only way to make a stronger connection between the narrative and gameplay. Games like Bioshock did a brilliant job of making abilities and the environment itself tell a story, and support the "proper" narrative told by the various NPCs. Dead Space likewise took an interesting approach with its weapons, with each one being a repurposed mining tool. All of these are great examples of using objects in the game to reinforce the narrative, and perhaps even entice players to learn more about the game world.

      In short, design choices should be considered carefully as to make them all fit into place to form a cohesive whole, rather than compete against eachother and create a fragmented experience.

What am I Doing With My Life?
      Bigger still is the idea of making games feel more meaningful and worthwhile for players. This can only be accomplished by considering what the designer wants the player to get out of the game, beyond of the confines of the game itself.

      The most memorable games I have played are games where I got something meaningful out of playing them. Final Fantay VII's strong musical score added deep emotional resonance to the experience. Planescape challenged the player's preconceptions of reality and philosophy, making one think more deeply. Beating a match in Starcraft 2 gives players a great boost in confidence, and killing demons in Devil May Cry 3 to its awesome soundtrack gives you a feeling of thrilling empowerment.

      These are all games that made me feel something even after I stopped playing the game. They made me feel that my experience was rewarding and well worth the price of admission. After all, what is entertainment if not the trading of money for the chance to experience powerful emotions?

      That's not to say that every game needs to be a Shakespearean drama or a Nietzschean dissertation on the nature of reality. Sometimes some mindless violence or some lighthearted fun is just what players want. But too many games try to be like snacking on Cheetos - a delicious yet unenlightening experience, instead of aspiring to be like a mind-blowing documentary, which could change a player's life forever.

      In the grand scheme of things, every time we choose to do something, we miss out on doing something else. Playing a game is an investment of time and money that could be spent elsewhere, and as such games are competing for people's attention from movies, books, socializing with friends, or dating. Consider your game like a present you are giving to your players. Underneath the shiny wrapper of nice graphics and gameplay, what do you ultimately want the player to walk away with? More confidence? A stronger bond to their friends? A new perspective on life and the world around them?

      All too often developers seem to take the easy route, looking to make a game purely for someone to kill time on, or to stave off boredom. This may be well and good for an iPhone game, but if we hope to make the jump from whimsical diversion to enriching entertainment experience, we as developers need to go deeper and give players something that is comparable, if not better, than other activities.
Clearly an allusion to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

      Board games, for instance, have done a great job of blending a light, fun game experience with social bonding. In fact, some games have taken this a step further, featuring interesting player conflicts that can spark conversation, friendships, and be a vehicle by which other players can get to know each other. A board game like Battlestar Galactica is a great example of this, as it toys with the idea of trust and creates a situation where players really need to analyze each other and discern their motives in order to be successful. It creates an environment where players are asked to express their personality, which gives players a stronger emotional bond with the game and those they play with.

Rewards vs Rewarding Experience
      In discussing why Skyrim isn't as satisfying as it could be on my last post, an interesting idea was brought up. Perhaps the problem with Skyrim, and indeed many games, is that they rely on artificial rewards in place of making the act of playing the game being its own reward. Perhaps the over-reliance on these artificial measures of reward are what's holding these games back.

      I think this is a good point, especially when it comes to games like MMOs. Most MMOs task player with some sort of menial quest, with the promise of some gold and perhaps a new weapon for completing them. Now when you think about it, what kind of game experience is that? You are telling the player to go work on something boring and then get rewarded with what amounts to nothing more than a gold star. Sure, you could use that gold to get better equipment... to do more boring quests... to get more equipment...

      Compare this to the Assasin's Tombs found in Assasin's Creed II. These are areas where the player has a chance to relive the glory days of Prince of Persia, acrobatically climbing and leaping across various platforms in the environment. It makes for a nice diversion from all the neck stabbing, and as a reward gives you a seal you can use to unlock Altair's armor from the first game. This I think is a great example of how this should be done: make the end reward be icing on the cake, not a consolation for forcing your player to put up with your lack of imagination.

      Turning back to Skryim, one could make the case that because Skryim ostensibly makes getting loot and better stuff appealing, that those things detract from the game's more substantive content, and in some cases is even used in place of interesting encounters. This is the wrong way to go, and I think it is time we focus more on the experience of games being their own reward, rather than handing out trophies for putting up with tedious activity.

      "Get your designer hands out of my play experience!"
      "Get Big Designer off our backs!"
      "Let the Free Gamer decide rather than Big Designer picking winners and losers!"

      Like their political counterparts, there are some people out there that don't want to be told what to do. They don't want an authority figure dictating how they should play their games, and desire as much freedom as possible in their play experience. Some even go so far as to say that making games built around expression and freedom are the future of gaming, and there is certainly merit to that argument.

      You could certainly make the argument that giving players more freedom to play games as they please is not only the best way to go, but the ultimate future of the game medium. After all, who is a designer to say how the player should have fun in their game? Some players decide to play Skryim like they were an NPC. Others may play racing games and drive backwards just to see cars crash into each other (like myself). For many designers this kind of behavior is not only welcomed, but encouraged.

      From my perspective, however, I don't think this is a one-size-fits-all approach, as there are some games there giving the player more "freedom" can actually hurt the experience. It is not unlike the dichotomy positive and negative freedom in political theory. The former is meant to ensure freedom of one's choices in life through protective safety nets, while the other subscribes to the notion that people are most free when left alone by authority figures.

      In terms of games, one could likewise see how more designer-authored games are designed around inspiring players by introducing something new into the mind of the player, enabling engagement, yet potentially feeling overly constricting. Conversely, player-authored design revolves around a more hands-off approach where players can express themselves and create the experience they want to have themselves, yet can also feel less compelling from a lack of focus.

      Giving players the ability to determine the direction and even playstyle they want to engage in certainly has its advantages. On a purely business side, it means the difference between making 5 games targeting different audiences and making one game that can appeal to them all. Likewise it also means that if a player gets bored of one type of playstyle or just wants an extra challenge, they can try it out without having to pop in another game.

      Deus Ex: Human Revolution worked because you could approach the game through stealth, combat, social interaction, hacking, or any combination of those and the game still felt like a cohesive experience. By contrast, if you were to be a real adventurer and wander around Skyrim, you would have to go against the grain of accumulating more stuff in order to enjoy yourself.

      Perhaps the key is to create an ever-illusive game that both allows for freedom of expression yet feels directed enough to produce an interesting experience.

The Next Frontier
      As games shift more toward player-authored experiences, I believe it is important not to forget the strengths of designer-authored games. These two paradigms need not be in opposition to each other, but can be used together to great effect. Consider The Witcher 2, which divided its game world into chapters (or levels, if you will) which acted as a hybrid between an open-world play experience and a tightly directed narrative experience.

      Consider also how every mechanic works together, and what those mechanics communicate to the player. If Skyrim had, for example, added more interesting ways to navigate and interact with the vast environment as a game like Journey does, perhaps it would feel like a more coherent experience. When all of the game's elements are reinforcing each other, rather than fighting each other, then you have a much more enjoyable game experience.

     I will be taking a brief hiatus from posting for about a week or so to focus on other projects. Stay tuned for future posts!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Skyrim - This is Going to Take a While

Battling for the Fate of Skyrim... until it gets Old
      I've never really been into open-ended sandboxy games. For me I just felt like they have far too much content for me to care about. Sure, they might have an interesting main storyline to follow along with, but I just feel like these games always seem to outstay their welcome for me. When I put a game like Skryim down, the experience doesn't end on a high note, but a low one. The game just fizzles out into obscurity to gather dust in my gaming library.

      I had played Fallout 3 a few years ago, and was initially intrigued by the exploration and the immersive nature of the game. That is, until I reached the level cap, and felt so powerful that the game really lost any sense of challenge or tension. I had barely explored a quarter of the map and I was already bored with the game. I had plenty of powerful weapons, with little need for better ones, and the story just wasn't interesting enough for me to want to see more of it.
Bah! This is just Fallout 3 with Elves!

      When Skyrim first came out, I looked at it with similar suspicion. Sure, it was the fifth entry in the popular Elder Scrolls series, and I had heard many people rave about how much they love it. But I was still skeptical... until I saw it on a Steam sale on Christmas for $40. A $20 savings within a month of release for a major game! I had never seen such a thing, so I thought "screw it, why not?".
On a side note, if you ever see Alpha Protocol for $5, go for it. Best $5 I've spent in a long time.

      Granted, I clocked in 98 hours into the game, which is nothing to sneeze at. I genuinely got pulled into the thrill of exploring the game world like I never had before, and I was eager to discover what was around the next corner as I explored its vast landscape. But around the time I achieved 80 points in Destruction magic and about 60+ in Conjuration, I could easily summon Dremora Lords and hurl Incineration spells practically at will. Combat suddenly became boring and mindless. Sure, there were stronger enemies, but they were more damage sponges that a major threat, and fighting tougher foes like Dragon Priests came down to more luck than skill, as they could easily one-shot me if I wasn't careful.

      I ended up just setting the game down to easy mode to fight Alduin and beat the main story quest... then I was just done with the game. I hadn't seen the Stormcloak/Empire conflict to its conclusion, nor killed all of the Dragon Priests, or learned all the Dragon shouts, but I didn't really care. The game just got stale for me and I ended up moving on to other games.
And by moving on I mean going back to playing Starcraft 2.

      When it comes to games, I prefer my games tighter and more focused, with just the right amount of content and good direction to create a game that comes together into a satisfying whole, where completing it gives me a feeling of triumph and enrichment. "Endless" games just don't seem to do it for me.

A Tale of the Bearded Muse
      I recently read a blog post of a friend of mine, who went into a personal story of his own shifting taste in games. He talks about how his interest has shifted from wanting to beat games as soon as possible, to savoring the experience of games and taking his time through them. Further, he dreads seeing the games he's enjoy come to an end, and has thus become more interested in games that essentially never end, like MMOs.
Craig during Freshmen year.

      His tastes sound like the complete opposite to what I thought made games fun. This intrigued me, and inspired me to delve into the core appeal of what one might call "endless" games.

A Little History
      Old-school games back in the Atari and Arcade days largely fell into two camps. The first were games that presented the completion of the game as the ultimate goal and challenge. These games were marked with a constant, forward momentum, minimal exposition, and were largely about the thrill of conquering the challenge the game had to offer. From Golden Axe to Metal Slug, these games were typically your light brawlers, shoot-em-ups, or fighting games that drove the player ever forward toward a final, climactic confrontation.

      The second were games that a player could never win, only hold out until they inevitably lose. Games like Asteroids or Centipede are good examples of this, where the player's main driving motivation was to get the highest score for bragging rights and the sense of accomplishment.
It was a simpler time.

      As games moved out of the arcades to the home, new approaches developed to increase the longevity of games. This included such things as having multiple endings, hidden content, optional challenges, multiplayer, or even tools to allow for player-authored content.

      While not every game offers a massive breadth of content, there are plenty of games looking to give players the ability to enjoy their games for as long as possible.

The Neverending Story
      A number of different trends have emerged over the years geared toward making games last longer and keeping players hooked. These trends fall roughly into a few catagories:
  • True Endless Experiences
          These are games that do not have an end state. Games like Farmville are great examples of this. Rather than setting out an ultimate goal for the player to complete, they instead give players a set of tools by which they may define and work toward their own goals. Such games lack any true terminal goals, which end the game experience upon completing, but do often use incremental goals to give players a sense of forward momentum and achievement.
    Clearly looking to go into the Pro League

          As far as actual objectives are concerned, however, these are externalized from the game itself and put into the hands of the players themselves, so they can decide for themselves what they want to achieve. Often such games also lack a definite loss state, removing an element of games that could potentially turn off players from playing further.

          Games like Farmville in particular have the appeal of being about management and control. For people that with busy, chaotic lives, these games provide a little "island" of their very own which they have full control over. By the same token, however, they can just as easily be seen as boring, as your progress does not lead you to any goal outside of what you define for yourself.
  • Faux Endless Experience
          These are games that feel like they go on forever, but in reality have a finite amount of content. Sandbox games like the Grand Theft Auto series or MMOs like World of Warcraft are some of the most famous examples of this. They provide a large amount of missions and objectives directed within the game, and that content is distributed such that players may take on different tasks at their own pace and in the order of their choosing. This gives players a greater sense of agency in the narrative of the game, as well as making their experience unique in comparison to their friends.
    Oh my, how did this get here?

          MMOs and Sandbox games diverge a bit, however, in their core appeal. For MMOs, it is the social element that keeps many players coming back, even years after the game has gone out of style. People build friendships around their guilds, trade things at auction houses, and enjoy major raids and other group content. These kinds of games leverage the sense of camaraderie among players, and in some cases can allow for rather compelling emergent social drama to emerge, energizing the playerbase by showing just what can be done in the game's possibility space.

         Sandbox games go for more of a hard-coded system of emergence, based on different permutations of the games' many interacting systems. From the behavior of civilians to physics systems, they create a space where the player can enjoy causing mayhem and delight in watching how the world will react. Perhaps the funniest thing I have heard happening comes from a story a friend of mine told me years ago about Fallout 2. He was in a city (New Reno, I believe) talking to this mafia boss type guy at a bar. He ends up pissing him off, so the Mafia guy starts shooting him.

          Now, the interesting thing about early Fallout games is that if someone is firing a ranged weapon and it misses, it has a chance of hitting someone else in the line of fire. In this case, it hit a prostitute on the other side of the bar, who immediately became hostile, pulling out a knife and attacking the mafia guy. The mafia guy kills her, which aggros the rest of the prostitutes in the city, which proceed to attack him, which aggros the rest of the mafia guys. In other words, one stray bullet started a full-on mafia vs prostitute war.

          In essence, these types of games are most often about exploration and taking in the game over the course of a long time. Often they are the ones that have the largest amount of substantive content for people to sink their teeth into. Yet such games can have their own problems, where the grind of trivial side quests and objectives can become boring, especially after main story objectives are complete.
  • Session-Based Play
          Many games today either include a multiplayer mode or are based entirely around the multiplayer experience. These games, while often having far less content than massive, sprawling games, often enjoy longevity equaling or even exceeding the playtime of even the largest sandbox games. Most of these experiences are competitive, like League of Legends, though some like Left4Dead hold the promise of having more co-op focused games in the future (though Left4Dead does have a competitive mode as well). In either case, they rely heavily on an energized player base and community to keep them active and in the spotlight for players (not unlike with MMOs).
    Tired of me bringing up how awesome League of Legends is every other post? Me neither!

         Such games overwhelmingly provide a virtually unlimited play experience, though the narrative possibilities have not been explored nearly as much. Perhaps the closest to that trend is in the upcoming game Diablo III, which will feature randomized quests, in addition to its traditional randomized loot and dungeons. Until we have more sophisticated systems of dynamic narrative, I believe our best bet at an unlimited narrative experience comes from the players themselves.

          These types of games are perhaps the most like their old arcade counterparts, with each session being a competition to reach some ultimate goal. Yet even after the goal is achieved, the game isn't over. Far from it, as the game encourages you to experience the struggle to reach that goal over and over again, with the thrill and unpredictability of human allies and adversaries providing an emergent narrative of sorts for the player to enjoy.

          As I alluded to, the biggest pitfall of session-based games is that for the most part they are competitive, or otherwise focused around overcoming a challenge, which can limit its appeal among inexperienced and casual players.
  • Community-Driven Content Creation
          With the advent of level editors and authoring tools, it has become easier than ever for players to not only play with one another, but share a piece of their creativity with the communities of their favorite games. Starting with Starcraft (if I'm not mistaken), excellent content development tools were made and, perhaps more importantly, integrated into the main game such that players could easily stumble upon mods and custom maps.

          Further, there have been games like Minecraft designed entirely around user-generated content and mods and sharing it with others (thanks to Minecraft's multiplayer mode). This kind of initiative goes beyond just providing more content for players, but actually makes that content feel more meaningful, as it is made by friends and fellow gamers that the player can relate to, perhaps motivating them to get in on the action.

          Games that feature this create a much more intimate relationship between the player and their game, as it allows them to be a part of the game they love and through it create their own mini-game experience of their very own. Of course, getting people to want to do this requires players that are interested enough in the game in the first place to take the time to make such mods, not to mention the extra development time required to make such tools, so it isn't always the best option for all games.

The Story Continues
      There is yet one other point I touched upon I have yet to cover - the idea of player satisfaction - the feeling of triumph and the validation that the time spent with a game was worth it. Alas, that is another story entirely, and rather than shoehorn it into this discussion, I will leave it for my next post. Stay tuned!