Things That Used to Work, Vol. 2

…but don’t anymore.

As with Vol. 1, these listings reflect a personal (d)evolution of sensibilities based on some recent titles I completed.

Stats Games with Invisible Stats/Debuffs

Why It Used to Work: No one knew what they were doing, technical limitations.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: I am much more conscious of questionable game design.

As I mentioned before, many of these categories stemmed from a recent completion of The Witcher, but there have been other games like Dragon Age: Origins that fit into this category. [Edit: for clarification purposes, a “stats game” is one which determines outcomes via visible or invisible dice rolls. God of War and Devil May Cry are not stats games, even if they technically have stats like HP and upgraded items and such. Even Counter-Strike has HP and damage modifiers to weapons (headshots are 3x damage for example), but it is also not a stats game. A headshot in a stats game would deal 3d6+10 damage with a Fortitude save DC 20 for half, assuming you overcame the 7% miss modifier.]

The underlying issue at hand is twofold. The first is when you have a stats game built around stats you cannot see or measure. In The Witcher, the talent trees as filled with “straight-forward” items like Damage +20% in Tier 2, followed by Damage +25% in Tier 3. Are these bonuses additive? Multiplicative? Do they simply replace each other? What is my baseline amount of damage anyway? There is no formal character sheet, so there is no real way to know. Bonus damage is attractive to me as a player, but without the number-crunching followup, it is more cock tease than substance.

The other issue is when a game pretends – or, worse, implements! – debuffs (that) actually matter without giving you a very effective way of understanding them in-game. The Witcher contains debuffs like Pain, Poison, Bleeding, Blinding, Incineration, and the like along with talents that raise your resistance against said debuffs and increasing your chances of inflicting them. Good luck figuring out when they are actually applied though, as the game designers felt that character animations alone should clue you in. Something which is pretty bizarre considering a fair number of talents increase your damage while the enemy is afflicted with a certain debuff. Spending resources debuffing an enemy so as to deal more damage overall than simply bludgeoning them over and over is the first road on the way to strategic depth; the road less traveled, unfortunately enough.

A topical side note comes from scrusi from Procrastination Amplification, who talks about how hiding the numbers can lead to excitement coming from the other direction. I absolutely agree. The point I am making here though is that a game designer cannot have it both ways. By all means, hide the numbers to build excitement… just don’t sneak in Damage +20% and other numbers to get nerd senses tingling without the follow-through.

Amnesia

Why It Used to Work: Built a sense of mystery, allowed naratives to start in medias res instead of always beginning in small villages, gives options for players to reprogram established characters.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: It is almost always nothing more than a meta-narrative crutch.

Amnesia is so cliche a plot element that merely saying it is cliche is itself a cliche. I get why game designers do it, I really do. As mentioned, not having to start every story with a main character at age 17 in a small village is a big draw; not every game can pull off a Fallout 3-style beginning. Amnesia also lets you bypass a large portion of potentially boring but still slightly relevant backstory.

The thing is: none of that has anything to do with actually including amnesia into the narrative itself. Did Geralt having amnesia within the game affect the game in any real way? Not at all. The designers justified it – coming back from the dead! – but it served no other purpose than letting the player choose things Geralt as a historical character with an established narrative might not have done. And that is just damn lazy.

Obviously The Witcher is not alone in this. When I think back to FF7 with Cloud’s amnesia, all I realize is how much that particular plot-point is ostensibly designed to surprise the player, rather than make any real sense. Yes, it is justified in-game – Mako! PTSD! Experiments! – but in almost every single case I can imagine the story being so much more poignant with Cloud knowing the entire time. ¹ And that is what rubs me the wrong way about taking the easy way out via amnesia: all the missed opportunity for legitimate angst.

Nevermind how the amnesia itself rarely becomes more than a sub-plot. I was more okay with the amnesia of Planescape: Torment, for example, because it was not just a plot device, it was the entire plot.

Waiting for Groups

Why It Used to Work: You had to, It Builds Character.™

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: Looking For Dungeon, indie games, Steam.

Way back in February, in a post about LFD and difficulty, I just sort of asserted that the WoW LFD genie is out of the bottle and never going back in. I do not think that anyone actually disagrees with that assertion, even those that actively wish LFD was rolled back or limited to specific servers. The thing is, in a real way, I believe the very concept of waiting for groups at all has been irrevocably spoiled for me.

And… I think I’m fine with that.

I played World of Warcraft for ~7700 hours over the course of four years. I started in TBC, not Wrath, nevermind how LFD did not exist until patch 3.3, i.e. Icecrown. In the course of debating Nils on the issue of LFD’s effects on WoW’s social fabric, I keep finding myself examining why it is that so many people say that they went from sociable Friends List-using fellows to asocial LFD dwellers “overnight.” Battlegrounds had this functionality years before you even could form groups for competitive PvP (outside of world PvP of course). Surely battlegrounds are being utilized by more people than heroics are, yes? What made 5m dungeons so pivotal to the community aspect of the MMO?

While thinking on that question, I tried to imagine myself back in a time when what I could do was dictated entirely on the whims of strangers. And I thought: why bother with that? Loaded up on my Steam account right now is Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Audiosurf, Frozen Synapse, Machinarium, Metro 2033, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, Shining in the Darkness, the two Shadowgrounds games, SpaceChem, VVVVVV, and Dawn of War 2: Retribution. Those are simply the ones installed at the moment², not the 16 unplayed games like Mass Effect 1&2, The Witcher 2, and so on.

It sort of boggles my mind now that I would literally sit in Shattrath for hours trying to fill up a group for heroic Magister’s Terrace, back in the day.

Perhaps LFD did ruin things. Perhaps more people do run heroics than BGs. Perhaps the PvE community’s social fabric was hanging by a thread that was ultimately (and ironically) cut on December 8th, 2009. Academic retrospectives aside, I do not feel there is any going back for me, to blithely waiting for groups in any game ever again. I sat through some 40+ minute DPS queues right up towards the end of my Cataclysm run, either Alt-Tabbed or completing dailies, sure. But the way I look at things now, the content at the other end of those forty minutes of waiting better be damn impressive to justify not simply playing something else.

So if nothing else, the one thing LFD did do is disabuse me of the notion that waiting is required. In a world of $5 indie games and Steam deals, it really isn’t anymore.

¹ Keep in mind that I say this as someone who considers FF7 to be his #2 favorite game of all time.

² And I’m only really playing Shadowgrounds and AC: Brotherhood at the moment. The others are simply there for convenience’s sake.

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Posted on October 19, 2011, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. This series is an interesting read. But the one thing I say to myself repeatedly while reading this is: Azuriel is a very experienced player. Most consumers are not.

    Many of these things don’t work with you anymore? Ok. But most players don’t spend so many thoughts on games, and for some who do (like me), many of these things actually still work, because we want them to work on us.

    For example, when faced with some annoying choice, you can just as well accept it as the way it is. So your avatar can choose between a house and a better weapon? Now that may be bad game design, but then, just accept it, man! Because once you accept that this is the way the story goes, you can have fun again. Life isn’t fair, the game world isn’t fair. Suck it and have fun, instead of complaining.
    Like you love to tell me: “It’s not the game, it is you.” And this time this argument is valid, because most players aren’t experienced players who did lots of thinking on good quest design or stuff like that.

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    • Choosing between Shani and Triss didn’t take me out of the game, although I realized that the dialog for one or the other might make for a better experience. I made that decision “in-character” rather quickly: Triss was the only one who could truly understand and relate to Geralt in my mind. The vampire book/hut/wreath choice not only figuratively took me out of the game (how could I possibly make an in-character choice with zero information? The reward may as well have been random!), it literally took me out of the game and into The Witcher Wiki page to look up what each did (after leaning towards the wreath for metagame reasons).

      Just like your WoW ice-skating stealth animation concerns, all of us have peeves that pop the immersion bubble before we can even think about it. :P

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  2. You’ll find that the amnesia bit from The Witcher continues in through The Witcher 2, and some questions finally get answered. It’s taken them a long time to get there, but fundamentally it makes sense, and it works for me.

    Would I want every game to include amnesia? Obviously no. But given enough of a legitimate plot-driven reason for it? OK.

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  3. Glad I haven’t bought Witcher 2. I didn’t care for Witcher 1 and the examples you’re making of the game don’t paint a good picture :)

    On all 3 of the other points, I’m not so convinced by your arguments that these won’t/can’t work in the future. The truth is, there’s very excellent games out right now which use these mechanics successfully. The amnesia narrative, while old, doesn’t really “get old” in that sense. A great current example is the game Bastion. Now they don’t bother with the Amnesia plot. It’s “worse” (if that’s the right term) for Bastion; you just start flying through the air with the ground raining from outer-space as you run a path. Why does this happen? The game hardly even bothers to explain this in any way during the beginning. On principle, it plays like the movie Momento. You don’t know why you’re doing this until the end. While this isn’t amnesia per say both plot mechanics work in the same way: you’re a hero who’s discovering his story as you play and it allows designers to make previous events irrelevant.

    Stats aren’t needed in games, let alone needing to be exposed in games. Great examples of this can be found throughout FPS and adventure games. While you may need to know how many bullets you have, your own errors and successes will tell you whether you’ll run out before you’ve vanquished the enemy. God of War never tells you how much damage you do; you know strictly by your tactics how much death you can deal out in any given period of time. Do stats matter in a game like GoW? Absolutely. They just don’t come in the form of raw numbers. They are known by the kinds of weapons you find, artifacts you acquire, and secrets you unlock. Having any one of these things represents an increase in your power, which is the sole thing number stats convey. Stats are hardly on their way in or out. I suspect more games will continue to find ways to show meaningful information to players without compelling said player to theorycraft with spreadsheets.

    And that’s another fine point. Fighting games like Capcom/Marvel, Street Fighter, et al have vapid, salivating communities of players who theorycraft. They have no reliable stats from those games to do so in the same way, say World of Warcraft, allows. Yet the elements and mechanics relevant to the game don’t require them to. That’s what matters in the end; not the metagames players can participate in because of a game, but the game itself which rewards player participation *during* gameplay.

    Exposed stats work best in strategy games, like Civilization, Starcraft, and TCGs …for obvious reasons.

    As to the LFD, I made an article several months ago relevant to argument that follows.
    http://blogs.raiders-guild.org/2011/05/why-the-dungeon-finder-sucks/

    Waiting for groups is not a problem at all in current MMOs. It’s the design of the game which is the problem, because you have developers plopping completely alien or otherwise inappropriate tools into environments where they don’t belong. It’s implementation and design that’s the problem. Players generally don’t mind waiting for others to play with, because they do that any way in most games they play, including single-player ones.

    There are MMOs out there which have excellent group finding tools. WoW just isn’t one of them. These tools will make or destroy communities depending solely on their deisgn and implementation. In other words, there’s ways to develop a group tool which is corrosive or destructive to the social fabric of communities and there’s way to develop on which enhances the social fabric of communities. Players will be waiting regardless and the reasons they will or won’t mind will be based on the fact that the grouping experience was: a) something they had some choice in and b) was successful. Waiting is neither here nor there.

    Group tools are *not* new or recent convention in MMOs. It’s just that they’ve never sucked so much as they do now, and that’s a shame. I stand by my argument that a good group tool doesn’t take choices away from the player and doesn’t dictate who the player groups with.

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    • It’s funny you mention Bastion, since I liked it a lot. I don’t think they ever mentioned amnesia at all. Indeed, what I remember from the intro is… well, nevermind, here’s the Youtube. Simply not explaining anything, having mysteries, starting a game in medias res, etc, are all 100% perfectly fun and enjoyable ways of presenting a plot. Thing is, way too many games fall back on amnesia to justify those things because it’s easier to do so. Bastion didn’t use amnesia even though it could have, and the narrative is stronger for it.

      As for the stats, I might have been unclear as to what I was referring to (I have since updated the post). Games can have visible stats or “under the hood stats,” and either one is perfectly viable. My issue is with games that have “under the hood stats” but also make you care about stats. God of War and Devil May Cry are good examples of “under the hood” games; as far as I can recall, none of the upgrade options you have access to give “meta-data” like +20% damage. In all practical effects upgrading a weapon might improve DPS by 20% or whatever, but I’m mainly referring to action-ish RPGs like Witcher and Dragon Age to an extent that try to hybridize the process and instead dilute it. The Witcher would have been a stronger game if it dropped the stats-lite gameplay and went full GoW/DMC or went full-stats Diablo-style (if they still wanted an action RPG), is what I’m saying.

      Re: waiting… ehh, I don’t think I would wait in a 40-minute DPS queue with even my best friend IRL. More likely, we would simply play some other game co-op like Portal 2, or Magicka, or Team Fortress 2, or whatever. Contrast that with my TBC pug experiences where I’d wait 2 hours to fill a group, and another 2 slogging through heroic SLabs and that was somehow fine back in the day. It isn’t anymore, at least for me.

      If SWTOR or GW2 don’t ship with a cross-realm LFD functionality, I think they’ll be in trouble.

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  4. You say that the LFD cannot be removed because you don’t want to stand around in Shattrath waiting to form a group for Magisters’ Terrace.

    But you did stop playing WoW and prefer to play $5 indie games then to wait for the LFD queue?

    Keeping the LFD in the game doesn’t sound like a real solution, too.

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    • Specifically, I mentioned 40+ minute DPS queues. There is no rational way LFD is going away after having been introduced, because no matter how long the queue gets, you are at least guaranteed a group – sitting around in Shattrath, you could be there all night and still never fill it up. It is sort of like how many people agree that JP/VP getting you all the tier pieces is grindy/less fun, but no one really wants it to be completely random either. In one of those methods, you can plan around accomplishing something.

      My other, more subtle point of mentioning how I’d rather play indie games than sit in LFD queues is how the “goal,” a heroic dungeon run, is not enough anymore. The heroic isn’t fun in of itself, it is the completion of a tier set, or getting some upgrades to make tomorrow’s raid more likely to succeed by X amount. My tolerance for doing unfun things now to have fun tomorrow is at an all-time low. Why wait? I can boot up nearly any other game and have fun now instead.

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      • > The heroic isn’t fun in of itself

        True. But maybe the added fun wasn’t the completion of the tier set but to “socialice” with “likeminded player”?

        I can go to a friday night magic in town and play some M:TG or I could use the online client and play some draft online. The same game and one is much easier. But I would definitely prefer the FNM. Traveling to town and back for a FNM takes me more than 40 minutes.

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  5. @Kring

    True. But maybe the added fun wasn’t the completion of the tier set but to “socialice” with “likeminded player”?

    Towards the end, I ran LFD with a friend even though we weren’t going to be raiding anymore (the raid team, and by extension the guild as a whole, was broken). After a few times, we stopped doing even that. After all, if we wanted to socialize with likeminded people, we could do that in another game. Like Portal 2, or TF2, or co-op 40k, etc etc.

    As it turns out though, a lot of my friends in WoW only had WoW in common as far as other games go. One officer moved onto Xbox and board games; another stayed in WoW and Popcap games on Steam; two guys went to TF2 and L4D2; and so on. It was magical how a single MMO could entertain such a disparate group of people… up until it couldn’t anymore. Now I only really talk with one guy, and since we beat the Portal 2 co-op, our interactions is basically Steam texts and maybe a Vent conversation once a month.

    Re: FNM and M:tG in general, I absolutely would not do FNM if I didn’t already know the people who showed up. I was hardcore in M:tG and eventually M:O until I realized I just spent $37 playing in two booster drafts that lasted less than an hour. After that, subscription games didn’t seem like too much of a burden. :P

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    • It doesn’t always have to be a friendship for live. It might still be fun to “hang around” with like minded people.

      At a FNM I will be able to talk about Magic, something I can’t do with my friends as they don’t play Magic. And I think the same was an important part of the pre-LFD dungeons.

      And yes, M:TG is too expensive. I’ve stopped playing M:TG because it was way to expensive. And I’ve stopped playing WoW because it wasn’t fun anymore. (And even after 6 years of continous subscription to WoW, WoC got a lot more money out of me then Blizzard. :)

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