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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.