I am basically done with Subterrain. There is plenty of “game” left, but my completion of it is a forgone conclusion made evident by the full accounting of its remaining systems. In other words, it has become formulaic, and that formula has been solved – there are no possible surprises left. Much like many Civilization endgames, it is simply a matter of going through the remaining motions.
And ain’t nobody got time for that.
The whole situation got me thinking about the design of formulaic systems in gaming, and why designers lean on them so heavily. The only explanations I can come up with is either laziness or fear. There is probably a more legit reason out there, but I can’t imagine it, because it almost always makes the underlying game weaker, and why would you do that intentionally?
Let’s use the most common formula as an example: the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I have no particular idea why these elements exist in 99% of RPGs (and even non-RPGs) when the designers ensure that elements bring nothing to the table. Yes, some monsters are stronger against some elements and weaker to others. Congratulations, you have just optimized combat against the entire game’s monster lineup after playing a Nintendo game 20+ years ago. In practice, those elements are really just different colored numbers – they have no gameplay impact beyond exploiting arbitrary weaknesses.
Compare that with the way, say, Divinity: Original Sin plays out. There are still elements, and still strengths/weaknesses based on them, but those elements actually have secondary consequences. Having fire spells create a Damage over Time effects and Lightning stun people is pretty cliche, but there was a tertiary concern with interactions between the elements themselves, e.g. poison clouds exploding with fire, electricity stunning everyone standing in water, etc.
That is good, interesting design.
As I said before, I can only imagine that designers are either lazy or scared when they lean so hard on formulas. “Scared” in this context means potentially introducing an unbalanced aspect to the combat system. For example, Ice damage slowing the target is pretty cliche, but many designers don’t even go to that level because it’s possible that players could cheese certain encounters by slowing and kiting the boss around the room. But imagine a designer who looks at that possibility and then crafts a boss in which that strategy is basically required in order to succeed. That would be great… until you realize that all the other players might not have learned that spell/chosen that class/etc.
I’m not trying to imply that game design is easy, but… c’mon devs. Surprise us once in a while. Maybe don’t have a Fire/Water/Air/Earth Temple unlock mechanisms. Make the spells be something more than different colored damage numbers. Embrace asymmetry when it makes sense. Switch up the formula… until switching it up itself become formulaic. Then do something, anything else.
Sometimes it takes a game to start doing something mundane before you appreciate how every other game doesn’t bother you with that crap. Case in point: Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t automatically remove anything from your inventory.
In pretty much any other RPG ever made, introducing lock to key causes the key itself to disappear. It is not as though the key will work on any other lock, so why keep it around? “Why not?” muses the D:OS designers. “Because it’s dumb,” says I. My inventory is filled with keys (which you can’t sell), books that no longer serve a quest or skill gain purpose, and other kitchen drawer debris. There isn’t any special glowing inventory effects either, so sometimes it gets difficult to realize that you actually have picked up something worth clicking on.
Can I manually go through my whole inventory? Of course. But why exactly do I need to? What is the underlying gameplay purpose? As far as I can tell… well, I can’t. I don’t actually know if this is a “old-school” throwback, as I don’t remember if Baldur’s Gate had anything similar. Probably not.
In any case, I’m glad most modern games have moved on. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.
I have been play a bit of Divinity: Original Sin and continue to enjoy it. Mostly.
One thing that I strongly dislike in games though, are fuzzy rules. By “fuzzy” I mean that the parameters of the rules are either not consistent or not entirely clear within the game itself. Divinity has tons of them that were at first amusing, but now are a bit grating.
For example, sometimes when you attack a target, they bleed on the ground. Fine, right? Well… environment effects are super important in Divinity. There is a talent that actually heals you when standing in blood, for example. Blood puddles also apparently conduct electricity, as I discovered when two of my melee team members got stunned after a third one shot a Lightning Bolt.
Things get real dumb though when you fight zombies. See, zombies are healed by poison effects. Guess what zombies bleed? Poison. So… yeah, hit zombies enough and they will bleed poison on the ground, which then heals them. I can kinda sorta maybe see the logic, if the designers were using this self-regeneration mechanic as an explanation for zombie resilience. But it’s far more likely that this is just sloppy game mechanics. Especially when you set zombies on fire, then the fire makes the poison explode, which ends up dealing fire and poison damage simultaneously, which sometimes cancels out the fire damage entirely.
Are there benefits to fuzzy rules? Sometimes. The real world is full of strange situations, so carrying over some of that uncertainty can make virtual worlds more realistic. Plus, fuzzy rules are a de facto increase in difficulty – if you’re not certain something is going to work, you have to be more cautious. Weird situations also make for good stories.
That said, I don’t like unclear rules very much. It’s tough to determine whether vague interactions are intentionally designed, or just designer incompetence. And when you end up failing because of said interactions, it’s difficult to know what you should have done differently. Did you lose to a dice roll? Strategic blunder? Not leveling up enough?
Growth requires not just knowing what went wrong, but what can be done to avoid it in the future. If the answer is “nothing,” there really isn’t any growth at all.
Divinity: Original Sin
My early impressions of Divinity: Original Sin (D:OS) is that this is the funnest tactical game I’ve played in years… in those few moments the game allows me to play. And I don’t mean that the game is crashing or anything – it’s just a few battles interspersed with long periods of fetch quests/running around town. Which is a real shame, because the combat is amazing.
Right from the start, I knew the D:OS battle system was for me, as it seemed to blend a whole bunch of mechanics from my favorite games. First, it’s character turn-based with a prominent display of upcoming turns, which reminded me of Final Fantasy Tactics or even FFX. Second, it uses Action Points just like with the old-school Fallout games. Third, speaking of Fallout, the movement system is non-grid based, as with Fallout Tactics. Finally, unused AP from the end of your turn is carried over to the next, providing additional tactical considerations.
What really takes the cake though, are the relatively novel innovations. For example, right from character creation I was able to learn the Teleport ability. Now, this is an offensive teleport whereby you drop someone (or something) from 20 ft in the air, but the sheer number of uses is extraordinary. In the beginning town, there was a joke about how a rope was preventing my character from reaching a treasure chest. Teleport it over to my area. Spellcaster hiding behind melee? Teleport him in front of your own. Considering how a main component of D:OS are environmental combos – shooting a lightning bolt into the water to electrify everyone standing inside – it is extremely convenient to be able to place people where you want them.
The other thing I appreciate? Spells have cooldowns. This prevents spellcasting from being too OP in combat itself (e.g. Teleport), while still giving you amusing out-of-combat options – aforementioned Teleport, casting a Rain spell on a boat on fire, etc. While this does affect game balance quite a bit in the sense that healing spells are effectively infinite, the sort of D&D/Baldur’s Gate style of resource management just means you can’t do fun things.
While I am enjoying my time thus far, D:OS does have some annoying design decisions. Inventory management is a righteous pain in the ass. The designers were very generous in the inventory slot department, for example, but they also went the Skyrim route of having nearly everything lootable, e.g. dishes, soap, individual gold pieces, etc. That’s on top of the baffling decision to make it so that inventory isn’t combined when selling things. Start a trade and realize you dumped the expensive goods on your mule partner? Can’t switch characters during a trade. Ooooookay… let me just manually shuffle items around and get right back into the dialog later.
As I mentioned, the pacing is weird too. There is a tutorial of sorts with enemies and traps and treasure. And then you are just kinda dumped into a city to investigate a homicide. The Witcher series has this exactly same issue, actually, but Witcher’s combat was awful so I enjoyed not having to slot through the nonsense. With D:OS, I’m hoping for fights.
In any case, this is fairly early on in the game, so I’m hopeful that things improve from here.
Posted by Azuriel
In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.
Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.
The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.
Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.
MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.
I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.
This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?
Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.
And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.
The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.
In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.
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Tags: Divinity: Original Sin, Game Design, Inflection Point, Optimization, Overpowered