Category Archives: Philosophy
A few days ago Tobold made what seemed to be a reasonable argument that F2P games are just like cell phone plans – some plans work better than others depending on how much you use the phone. That seems fine, until you realize that phone carriers typically give you a choice between subscriptions and buying minutes, even for the same phone model. But more than that, what I want to talk about is how/why I feel that F2P is always bad for me as a player.
I’m one of those people that derive pleasure from “optimizing the fun out of games.” Of course, I don’t actually see it as fun reduction at all; if anything, I get the most entertainment possible when I can lever the whole of my mind in opposition to the game designer. It is not that I want to discover the ultimate ability/gear combo to make the game trivial (most games have cheat codes, Save file hacks, etc), it is that I want the game to be difficult or deep enough to drive me to discover it using the tools the designer gave me. The optimization part is simply the nominal destination of a thoroughly engaging and fun journey getting there.
This brings me (back) to the topic of F2P. One of the common defenses of F2P is that it evens the playing field between the time-rich and the people with limited time. Frankly, I feel that is bullshit right off the bat. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars. If killing that many boars takes 15 hours, then yes, someone who can spent 15 hours a day playing the game will have an “advantage” over someone who can only play two hours.¹ Then again, a particularly skillful player might be able to figure out how to kill the required number of boars in only 10 hours, perhaps by optimizing his/her equipment, farming strategy, and/or ability rotation. The “time-rich” player might still have the “advantage,” but their brute-force approach is inefficient.
The typical F2P experience is thus the worst of all possible worlds for players like myself. I am both time and money “rich” (i.e. I have disposable income), which already presents uncomfortable gaming decisions on a daily basis. If you have no money or no time, the solution to any F2P problem is pretty obvious: grind it out or pay to skip the grind. Conversely, those of us who can do both are stuck rationalizing every possible decision all the time. “Do I grind for another 2 hours, or do I just spend the $5?” Maybe the default should be pay-to-skip in that scenario, but what about all the other games you could be purchasing with that same $5? Is “saving” two hours in one game worth purchasing a different game that could last you 20 hours by itself?
The real kicker though is the fact that F2P more or less invalidates any real sense of optimization. All of us already know that the most efficient move in a F2P game is to load up on XP potions, convert cash into in-game currency to clean out the AH, and open lockboxes all day until we have everything of any value. There is no possible way to beat that. “Just figure out the most efficient path without spending money.” Playing with an artificial handicap is simply not as engaging to me. You can technically increase the difficulty of a FPS by decreasing your mouse sensitivity, but that will never feel as satisfying as having more intelligent opponents.
Where I agree with Tobold is that F2P is here to stay. Outside of the CoDs and Battlefields and Counter-Strikes of the world, I’m not sure many multiplayer games could exist on their own in sustainable numbers. Astute readers will also know that I have been playing PlanetSide 2 for 230+ hours now and that’s a F2P game. Then again, I also spent over $100 in Ps2 thus far, including being “subscribed” for the last six consecutive months (efficiency, yo). Not to mention how I bought helmets and camo for my characters almost entirely because of the extremely slight advantage that they bring (arguably P2W).
I am not against F2P games on principal, it’s just that they quite literally cannot be as fun to me as they could be. I play these games to submerge myself in their fiction. Being constantly reminded that for the low, low price of $4.99 I could have X, Y, and Z not only breaks the immersion and puts a price tag on my hitherto priceless time, it also serves as a reminder that the solution to every problem is just a credit card away.
¹ Advantage is in scare-quotes because I don’t recognize an advantage as being “playing the same game more.”
(This is followup to my In Defense of Used Games post.)
I believe that eventually we will see the resell of game licenses. Given how our present trajectory is clearly in favor of restrictive limited licenses, games-as-services, and exclusive accounts everywhere, from whence does this optimism spring? Basically, it springs from what I imagine to be an inevitable reconciliation between what is legal and what consumers see as reasonable and/or how they play games in the real world.
I am going to divide this model into roughly two parts: the Practical and the Legal.
The Practical Disconnect
There is an incredible disconnect between what companies write in their ToS/EULAs and how people actually use the products in question. In fact, even the question of what amounts to game piracy is not as clear-cut as you might think. If you download the Tomb Raider reboot off of Pirate Bay, that is clearly piracy, sure. But suppose you let your little brother play the copy that you legally purchased. Is that piracy? Instead of it being a family member, suppose you let a friend come over and play it. Is that (still) piracy? What if you let a complete stranger play your copy of the game?
Now suppose this copy of Tomb Raider in question was purchased on Steam. Does that change anything at the family/friend/stranger level? It does:
“When you complete Steam’s registration process, you create a Steam account (“Account”). Your Account may also include billing information you provide to Valve for the purchase of Subscriptions. You are solely responsible for all activity on your Account and for the security of your computer system. You may not reveal, share or otherwise allow others to use your password or Account. You agree that you are personally responsible for the use of your password and Account and for all of the communication and activity on Steam that results from use of your login name and password. You may not sell or charge others for the right to use your Account, or otherwise transfer your Account, nor may you sell, charge others for the right to use, or transfer any Subscriptions other than if and as expressly permitted by this Agreement (including any Subscription Terms or Rules of Use).”
In our all-digital future, everything is tied to accounts. Ostensively, account-sharing is a bannable offense. In fact, if Valve suspects you shared or sold a given Steam account, it will ban all accounts in your possession, even if nothing untoward was happening in the others. And yet the problem with account-sharing is that it shouldn’t actually be any company’s business who is sitting in the chair, behind the keyboard/controller. I mean, it is technically their business – because they say it is – but it shouldn’t be.
I am not playing WoW right now, despite having multiple level-capped characters and a large sum of gold doing no good to anyone. If I resubscribed and started playing again, Blizzard would be happy. If I resubscribed and let a friend play my character, Blizzard would still be happy… up until the moment they realized what I was doing. But provided we did not alternate log-ins from multiple IP addresses or whatever, there is really no way for Blizzard to tell the difference between us. And yet that is “illegal.” Why? Because presumably the threat of account closure is supposed to induce the friend to purchase their own account/expansions/etc and work their way from scratch.
If letting friends and family members play your games does not count as piracy, neither should letting them log onto your account(s). Indeed, the only way the company would be able to ascertain a difference between users is with intrusive biometric privacy measures like… an always-on IR camera powerful enough to measure your heart rate via body heat to ensure only the True Owner ™ utilizes the account. Otherwise, these measures simply fail unless you attempt to log in from two places simultaneously. These companies are writing rules and contractual terms they have no means of enforcing outside the most heinous of nightmare scenarios. Or, I guess the Honor System.
Perhaps you do believe that your little brother playing your copy of Tomb Raider counts as piracy. In which case I have two questions: 1) why haven’t you turned yourself in, and 2) how far does that really go? Is it piracy for him to watch you play? Or is the crime committed only when he touches the controller? What if it is a strategy game in which he tells you what moves to make, and you simply act as his inputs? Still probably worth a $150,000 fine, wouldn’t you agree?
If companies could go this far, they would. That is the copyright endgame: the limitation of the experience to a single, paying mind. Thankfully, they lack the ability to dictate what happens in the privacy of our homes. Except, you know, for all the times that they can.
The Legal Aspect
“Notably, the ReDigi case turned in large part on the same phrase at issue in Kirtsaeng—whether the copies at issue were “lawfully made” under [the Copyright Act]. In ReDigi, the court held they were not. “The first sale doctrine does not protect ReDigi’s distribution of Capitol’s copyrighted works,” Sullivan held, because the files at issue are “unlawful reproductions” and therefore not “lawfully made.” And, also like Kirtsaeng, the court said the proper venue to decide the core issue—whether buyers of digital products can resell them—is Congress.
“ReDigi effectively requests that the Court amend the [the Copyright Act] to achieve ReDigi’s broader policy goals—goals that happen to advance ReDigi’s economic interests,” Sullivan observed, adding that “amendment of the Copyright Act in line with ReDigi’s proposal is a legislative prerogative that courts are unauthorized and ill-suited to attempt.”
The hinge of the case was that even though ReDigi’s process involved removing the music file from the original computer, technically ReDigi was still “creating” a copy on their own servers by virtue of the transfer process. That was the entire hang-up, or more accurately, the technicality. Even Google tried to get involved in the case by coming to the defense of ReDigi, arguing a judgment against ReDigi “would put the entire cloud computing industry, worth an estimated 41 billion dollars, at risk.”
Incidentally, as pointed out in the concluding paragraphs of the same article:
To make his point, Sullivan stressed that the first sale doctrine does still protect the ability to resell digital music—you can still sell your “computer hard disk, iPod, or other memory device” onto which the file was originally downloaded, he wrote. While conceding that practice might prove to be “onerous,” he suggested there may also be reasons why such “physical limitations” are desirable. “It is left to Congress, and not this Court,” he concluded “to deem them outmoded.”
In other words, you can resell your digital music, as long as you originally downloaded them onto, I dunno, say a $6 MicroSD card. Or a $2-$5 USB stick (which are 1gb in size… Jesus, time flies). Preferably we could cut the bullshit and just print the CD/DVDs ourselves, but I imagine there is no direct-to-CD argument that can be made, else they would have made it.
The salient point here is that the current system is, at best, untenable. As more and more aspects of our lives migrate more fully into the digital realm, Congress will revisit this subject again. Honestly, they really should not have to – it would be better for everyone involved if companies came to this voluntarily. Hell, I have been shitting on the Xbox One pretty often, but Microsoft is apparently putting in a “used digital game” framework, in some murky form or another. It would be the height of irony if Microsoft ended up starting a revolution in the same way that Steam made digital games mainstream. Both Apple and Amazon have patented second-hand digital marketplaces, by the way, but have yet to actually do anything with them.
Some people get the impression that I am anti-IP, or that I am antagonistic to copyright. That is not really the case, although I do believe “life of author + 70 years” is absurd welfare for corporate rent-seekers rather than to the actual benefit of society, e.g. the entire original purpose of copyright. I mean, are there really artists out there that would look at something like Life + 5 years and go “fuck it, I’m not going to bother”? Give me a break.
Anyway, what I desire is for the designers to partner with consumers, for all of us to cooperate for the common good. I don’t like GameStop any more than game designers do – they really are just parasitic middleman – but only one of those two parties actually make efforts to improve consumer surplus, even if it’s just by accident. And if there was any enduring message that came out of the wild internet heyday, it is that you Can’t Stop the Signal. Revenue models are going to have to change, whether you like it or not. If game designers want a piece of the the new paradigm, they have every opportunity to get aboard the train.
Before I start, there is one fundamental truth that needs to be acknowledged: a used game sale is a new game sale at a lower price-point. No one is seeking out used games because they are used, they are sought because they are less expensive. Incidentally, this same principal applies if someone is able to re-sell a game they bought, as the ability to recoup part of the cost means the original purchase becomes less expensive.
Without further ado, let me examine each of TB’s arguments against used games:
1) Used Game Sales support shady/pushy retailers
Or, the GAME (in UK) and GameStop Are Bad argument.
It is absolutely true that retailers who specialize in used game sales push used games sales over new ones; the original sale is a recouping of an investment for the store, whereas each additional resell is nearly pure profit. I am not interested in defending the practices of GameStop (etc) though, primarily because it is irrelevant and red herring besides. No matter how much you swing the “games as licenses” argument, the fact remains that used game sales are legal in the United States and presumably elsewhere – GAME and GameStop would have been sued into the ground otherwise. The shadiness of any organization does not reflect on the product they provide. You can picket Wal-mart for all sorts of legitimate reasons, but that does not make cheap groceries immoral.
I have gone into a GameStop all of twice in my life, whereas I frequented a mom-and-pop used game shop next to the local theater for the better part of a decade. I went there because their used games were cheaper, and you received more store credit (or cash) than GameStop provided, all in a no-pressure sale environment. Ergo, any argument that uses the removal of used games as a vehicle to attack a retailer you don’t like is simply ridiculous. GameStop’s practices have nothing to do with the “question” of used games, as there are alternative stores which do not behave in similar fashion.
2) Used games do not depreciate
This honestly reminds me of the “you wouldn’t download a car” PSA. Even if we take this claim on face value… so what? Is the argument supposed to be that used game sales would have been fine if the AI started glitching out on its own five years from now?
To be charitable, I am going to assume instead that people are referring to how physical depreciation of goods naturally differentiates two otherwise identical products, potentially justifying the premium on the unused version. In which case, I’d argue that something similar already occurs even in purely digital products.
Videogames are not released in a vacuum – they are always a product of their times. While the actual data bits do not decay, the value and meaning of them in the mind of a player certainly can. There are whole classes of videogames that I literally cannot bring myself to play anymore, because the graphics are too primitive, or the resolution too low, and so on. Innovation in mechanics or design can render older titles feeling stilted or slow, even though nothing in the original game itself has changed. Some games hold up better than others, of course, and many older games are arguably better than new titles. But on a certain base level, videogames do depreciate, if not literally then culturally.
If you do not find this counter-argument particularly compelling, that’s fine, but allow me to make two final observations. First, no one expects a game to remain $59.99 two, three, four years after release. If games do not depreciate in value, why do you think we see the companies themselves reduce the price? Second, how much do you think your unopened City of Heroes or Battlefield 2 box will go for these days?
3) Music and Film industries are less harmed by secondary sales
TB’s point here is a roundabout justification for how videogames are a special case when it comes to secondary sales, despite music and movies also being digital goods without depreciation. Buying used movies is less harmful to studios, he argues, because a particular film can make the bulk of its money in the theater, followed by Pay-Per-View, DVD sales, rentals, and finally syndication on TV networks. Similarly, music artists get the bulk of their profits from concert tickets, in addition to (small) payments from streaming services and finally the default CD sales. In other words, music and movies have multiple revenue streams whereas videogames have just the one.
To which I must ask: whose fault is that?
As a consumer, you are not responsible for a company’s business model. It is perfectly fine to want the developers to be paid for their work, or to wish the company continued success. But presuming some sort of moral imperative on the part of the consumer is not only impossible, it’s also intellectually dishonest. You and I have no control over how a game company is run, how much they pay their staff, what business terms they ink, or how they run their company. Nobody asked EA to spend $300+ million on SWTOR. Nobody told Curt Schilling to run 38 Studios into the ground. Literally nobody wanted THQ to make the tablet that bankrupted the studio.
What is worse though is the implicit moral superiority that is derived for buying “legit.” If game companies and their designers deserve to be paid, and we have some moral obligation to do so, doesn’t that mean they deserve ALL the money? I cannot even begin to imagine the mental gymnastics Total Biscuit had to perform when he denigrated used games and celebrated Steam sales in the same breath. When you buy a game for 75% off, that is you robbing the game company of 75% of the money they deserve. Not even deserve, really, considering by many metrics they are entitled to much, much more than the purchase price given the total amount of enjoyment derived.
That sounds absurd, and it is, but that is my point; you cannot make the moral imperative argument and only go halfway. A company either deserves $59.99 or they don’t. Alternatively, you are not responsible for their business models at all, and are fully justified in maximizing your consumer surplus, e.g. by waiting for sales, buying used, etc. It is noble to wish these designers success, at least when such nobility is followed-up with busting out your checkbook. Otherwise, it is so many empty words.
4) Once used games are removed, games will be cheaper
No, seriously, Total Biscuit actually said this, presumably with a straight face.
Why in god’s name would anyone rationally assume that the removal of competition (in the form of secondary sales) would force or even encourage game prices to decrease? Everyone keeps pointing to Steam with its effects on PC gaming, as if Steam weren’t the exception that proved the rule. Everyone acknowledges that used games on the PC haven’t existed for quite some time, but no one seems to follow-up that thought with what should have been an obvious question to ask: were there big discounts on PC games back before Steam?
Good lord, no! You were at the complete mercy of retailers who almost never marked anything down from MSRP. And why would they? You literally could not buy these games anywhere else. If you found a good deal, it was likely because nobody was buying that game and the store wanted to liquidate their stock. Outside of fire sales, there was/is always going to be resistance from retailers over discounting a game’s price because there is a minimum cost involved with pressing a DVD, shipping it across the country, unloading it in the back, and paying people to sort and shelve it.
Incidentally, this is another reason why I don’t think future console games will be cheaper: there will still be hard copies sold. Do you think retailers would let Microsoft sell Halo 6 for $40 online and $59.99 in stores? Of course, there is a pseudo-analog that exists right now between PC vs digital download games, with things wildly alternating for no apparent reason. For example, it’s somehow $20 cheaper Amazon to ship me DVD of Bioshock Infinite than it is to download a copy of it. Or maybe that does make sense, insofar as what I explained earlier about retailers trying to liquidate stock.
If you legitimately believe Xbox One games are going to be cheaper, let me ask you two things. First, what kind of deals have you seen on XBLA titles? Similar in size, scope, and frequency to Steam sales? Microsoft has already dabbled in digital games for which no secondary sales exist, so their pricing behavior now may reflect any potential behavior in the future. Second, what kind of deals have you seen on Origin in the last, I dunno, two years? There have been a few recently, but very rarely more than 50%, and they are not nearly on a scale as Steam. That is a publisher who has as near a 100% profit margin on every digital sale as possible, and even they are not willing to compete on price with retailers who sell game codes on EA’s own platform!
The point here is that Steam is the exception that proves the rule. I bought Tomb Raider on the PC for $20 a mere three months – three months – after its $49.99 release. Granted, it was via Green Man Gaming, but it activated on Steam. Do you honestly believe that the only difference between our present console MSRP reality and a hypothetical all-digital future is the mere possibility of resell? That companies would be fine with a $30 markdown for a limited time a few months after release? Maybe. Maybe we don’t see similar sales because GameStop (etc) would buy a few pallets of discs at $20/each to sell at $40 after the sale is over. Then again, I could have done that exact same thing via GMG and just sold the activation codes. Actually… that’s not a bad idea…
Simply put, this argument requires a striking amount of faith in game publishers to work. Consumers are being asked to cede an enormous amount of implicit value, not just in resell value, but also in control over how they play these games (tied to accounts, phone home every 24 hours, no borrowing, etc). We are asked to cede these values all in the hopes that companies like Microsoft will not simply keep charging $59.99 out of… well, out of the goodness of their hearts. That is not enough for me. There is certainly every economic incentive to keep things running business-as-usual, after all.
5) Used games cost the companies money in terms of support/servers.
It is true that game companies “must” provide support to even non-paying (i.e. used game) customers in a way that movie and music companies do not. However, there are two things wrong with the argument TB is presenting. First, it sort of assumes that the game was not worth playing for very long in the first place. Total Biscuit’s example was how a company would need to provide support to a gamer for two months, and then a new player who bought the copy from the first guy for another two months, and a third person, and so on. The difference between that scenario and one guy who plays continuously for 6+ months is… what?
Total Biscuit’s second point about non-payers in multiplayer (presumably driving up bandwidth costs or whatever) caused me to facepalm IRL. Maybe he has never heard about why the Free-2-Play model works, or more importantly how it works? Someone playing the latest Call of Duty secondhand is providing content to “legitimate” players in a way that a no-longer-playing gamer by definition is not. I mean, that’s the premise of the argument, right? That the first dude sold his game, and is now an empty seat in a lobby somewhere. You do not even need to have the full F2P development plan set up to appreciate the fact that an extra body is making your multiplayer experience that much more worthwhile when it otherwise could/would have been nobody.
As I pointed out in the beginning, let me point out again: used game sales are new game sales at a lower price point. Nothing is stopping companies from lowering the prices for their games and otherwise being more competitive with used games. You might think that used game prices would simply adjust to compensate, and maybe they would, but that is an argument against selling at anything less than full MSRP, ever. Which is clearly ridiculous.
In any case, time marches on. Even though I see this forceful transition into all-digital games as a net-negative for gamers (and it is), I am obviously not against digital platforms themselves. I am just a bit miffed that the transition is being accelerated by Microsoft (etc) before the question on the transferability of licenses is fully settled, at least in US law. Believe me, the day will come when we shall be able to buy a Steam game (license) and then sell it to someone else after we are done.
At which point I’m sure the suits will pine for the days when it was at least possible for someone to lose their disc.
Edit: Removed incorrect “et tal” usage. Thanks, Tobold.
All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”
The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.
One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.
But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.
I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!
Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.
Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.
Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.
I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?
You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.
The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.
All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.
¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.
² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.
In a game with morality choices, would you choose the Good options if the results were often worse?
Most of the games I can think of that had moral choices ended up rewarding you the most if you chose the Good options. In Bioshock, for example, you could either “harvest” the Little Sisters for extra upgrade currency, or you could Cleanse them for a smaller reward. As it turns out though, if you end up Cleansing the Little Sisters they would start dropping off care packages containing ammo and extra upgrade currency, such that you might even come out ahead by going the Good route. The choice also ends up reflecting the tone of the ending, but it luckily skews towards Evil Ending rather than Bad Ending per se.
In thinking back to Bioshock, I started wondering if I would have been more inclined to harvest the Little Sisters if they did not “sweeten the deal” with the gift baskets later. I would like to say “No,” but I also feel like the “Pick the Good option and get bigger reward later” is such a ingrained gaming trope that I am beginning to question which inclination came first. Would the promise of a “better” ending be incentive enough to make Good choices, even if the game proper was made more difficult thereby?
Or to go all the way: what if the only reward of a Good choice in a game was the personal satisfaction of having done the right thing? In other words, what if the player was punished in some way for choosing the moral thing to do? An example could be sparing a bad guy, only to have them return and kill an NPC teammate later. Would the average gamer behavior change? Would the moral players feel better about their choices, or worse?
Sometimes I feel like I want to be a game designer just to screw with people.
In a game with optional lockpicking mechanics, designers must include chests and doors and such that contain treasure to justify the investment of (usually) finite skill points in an otherwise non-combat skill. This reward cannot be too generous however, as it otherwise moves lockpicking from being an “interesting choice” into becoming the only reasonable option.
If a player got midway through a game only to discover a plot-specific item or one-of-a-kind upgrade was behind a door they could not open, the player would be understandably upset. At the same time, without such incentives the opportunity cost of taking Lockpicking over other skills is usually pretty high.
In games with Lockpicking or Hacking, I almost always pour points into training these skills because the “what’s in the boooooooox” feeling is too strong, despite my inevitable disappointment that it’s just some ammo and currency of negligible value. But what else could the designers really do? It all seems like an inevitable Lose-Lose scenario the very moment you introduce the choice; I feel bad for leaving unopened containers behind, and am disappointed with what they contain.
As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.
So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?
Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.
Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.
As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.
There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.
The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.
Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.
And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?
It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.
Ghostcrawler tweeted the sort of thing I’m sure sends “real” MMO players into howling fits:
“No,actually,there is not a wrong choice.Wether we(players) buy new items OR upgrade old ones should be our decision,not DEV’s.”
Giving players the ability to make choices with wrong answers doesn’t make players happy overall. (Source)
Choices having bad consequences is the best (only?) way to make a decision matter, as the argument goes. However, this quote got me thinking: do such players actually enjoy being able to make the wrong choice, or is it simply that the bad choice existing (which they did not pick) validates their good decision? Or put another way, who really likes making bad decisions?
I understand that the demonstration of skill necessitates there being wrong choices. Demonstrating skill, or improvement thereof, is fun. At the same time, the Mass Effect series (for example) was fun to play even though there weren’t any “wrong choices” (provided you weren’t specifically looking for X result).
There is only ever one correct answer to the questions of “which does the most DPS” or “what is the most efficient use of resources.” Ergo, is there actually any real decision to be made when one is correct and the other(s) not? I suppose the fun is supposed to be the result of figuring out which one is which, but that sort of clashes with the mockery and disdain frequently attributed to those who don’t look up the correct decision from the Wiki/EJ. Compare that to the question of “which transmog set is the best?”
I do not believe that there has to be a wrong choice in order for choices to be meaningful generally. We make identity choices every day – what type of person do I want to be, what do I believe in? – and I do not think that anyone would suggest that those choices are either irrelevant or have wrong answers (well… no one with any sort of self-reflection). And while I am willing to concede gameplay being under the (broad) umbrella of choice, e.g. one makes a wrong choice by pressing 11342 instead of 11324, I consider there to be a distinction between executing a rotation under pressure versus avoiding falling into a designer trap. One has its place as a legitimate test of skill, and the other is simply you winning via a few mouse clicks several months ago.
Out of the multitudes of derogatory, loaded phrases, “Path of Least Resistance” is perhaps the one I dislike the most (“welfare epics” is another top contender). The phrase, in a bit of cognitive Jujitsu, attempts to style strength as weakness. “Path of Least Resistance.” Is that not… efficiency? Optimization? Are we supposed to be seeking the path of most resistance? How is that different from simply Doing It Wrong?
The phrase and its implied meaning is more than contradictory though, it’s often hypocritical as well. At its base, it means expending the smallest amount of effort for the greatest gain. Ask those players who bemoan their peers taking the Path of Least Resistance how they feel about “Play to Win.” Is it “cheating” or unsportsmanlike to spam an uncounterable move over and over to ensure victory? Playing to Win is (usually) the Path of Least Resistance. Fair fights are more difficult, and thus more risky – something to be avoided if possible to make the wins easier and more assured.
Those using Path of Least Resistance as a negative attempt to levy moral failings upon players not even participating in the same game as them; the only game in which the Path of Least Resistance is a negative is the game inside the accuser’s own head. Efficiency and efficacy are, in fact, virtues. It is fine to critique game design that results in unintended or counter-intuitive behavior, such as RvR merry-go-rounds instead of gritty trench warfare. But the critique must always be of the rules, not the minds or motivations that master them.