After about 75 hours of RimWorld, I decided to download mods to “fix” the base game.
As mentioned a few times around here, RimWorld is still currently in an Early Access state. Version 1.0 is on the horizon, but we do not yet have a complete feature list or an itemized accounting of what is going to change. This was frustrating me quite a bit in my current playthrough, due to an outcome I cannot help but question whether it was intended.
The basic gist is this: a group of mechanical enemies attacked my base, and Wolle got shot and was bleeding out. I rescued him and patched him back up… but he would not leave the medical bed. Prognosis: shattered spine. Vanilla RimWorld actually has bionic arms, bionic legs, and bionic eyes as core features. You can’t craft them, but you can buy them from traders occasionally, and clearly have the medical technology to install them. Additionally, there are nanite serums in-game that can automatically boost your skills, which by the description function specifically by moving from the orbit of the eye, into the skull, and then transmuting into the necessary brain tissue.
Plus, there is something called Luciferium, which are medical nanites that can fix permanent scarring – including in the brain – for the low, low cost of permanent addiction. If you miss a dose every 5-6 days, and you will go on a berserk rage until death. A “devil’s bargain” indeed.
Trouble is, nothing cures a shattered spine in the core game. Was this an oversight? If Luciferium can cure stab scars in the brain, surely it could repair a spine too? Well, it doesn’t. So that led me to question whether it was intentional. There is nothing that cures shattered ribs either, for example – they just permanently reduce the amount of torso damage a colonist can take before collapsing/dying.
So, perhaps the designers were wanting to force the player to confront a scenario in which they have a permanently disabled colonist. Do you maintain them as dead weight, perhaps even taking them with you somehow if/when you escape the planet? Do you simply euthanize them and turn them into a hat? I can see how the emergent moral dilemmas come about. On the other hand, it’s hard to draw a line at spines and ribs when nanite magic is already out of the bottle.
Despite this, it wasn’t until I wasted an in-game month unsuccessfully trying to find uranium to start building a ship that I broke down and modded the game. I added a mod that augments the ground-penetrating radar to actually tell me the resources that are located underneath. And then I added Expanded Prosthetics and Organ Engineering (EPOE).
With EPOP installed, I did the relevant research and built the required workstation and finally crafted a fresh new bionic spine for Wolle. After a successful surgery, I took a look at his Health page… and realized that he wasn’t just fixed, he was better. Specifically, something like 20% better. So now I’m in a scenario in which I could craft 11 more bionic spines and implant them into my colonists to maximize the amount and quality of their work. Then I could get to work on about a dozen other bionic implants too.
Like I said before, bionic eyes, arms, and legs are already in the base game. In fact, I have some spares hanging around for emergencies, but bionics are better than standard-issue meat in every way already. While you cannot craft your own, you can generally pick up extras without too much trouble. So it’s not quite too far a bridge, right? Right?
Yeah, yeah, I know. I do think shattered spines are a hole in the vanilla game’s original design, hopefully to be filled in a more balanced way upon release. But then again, sometimes it is precisely the gaps in satisfaction that moves us out of our comfort zone.
I restarted once or twice since my initial post, but now the colony of Pine View is well on its way to getting off this blasted rock. Or die trying. Maybe the latter.
It’s entirely possible that I am ruining RimWorld for myself in the process, however. I ended up choosing a lower difficulty, and have the ability to reload my Save files. My thought process is that enough of the game systems are obtuse and opaque to a ridiculous degree, so I wanted the ability to take them for a test drive. Trying something and failing though, is often the heart and soul of the repeatability of rougelikes (of which RimWorld is one… sorta). Making it all the way to researching a space ship and reloading my first encounter with death bots – who behave very strangely compared to all the other enemies – will make it significantly easier to plan around in future games.
Having said that, the game is seriously addicting in a Civ-esque “one more turn” kind of way. Usually, I leave the game speed on maximum, as what I want to accomplish takes place over several days. Crops take time to grow and harvest, research is usually slow, and wounds take time to heal.
One thing that I have quickly become inured to is the game’s meme aspect. In other words, I no longer have any idea how interesting a given story can even be anymore.
For example, a common occurrence is having your base attacked by raiders. After the battle, you will very quickly have a dead body problem. If you leave a dead body out, your colonists will get a morale penalty each time they look at it. So, one solution is dig a grave and dump the body inside.
Another solution is to butcher the body into piles of meat and human leather. Aside from cannibals, no one likes human meat, but you can create Kibble for your creatures out of it – much better to use that instead of animal meat, since the latter can be used to create better regular meals. Meanwhile, human leather can be fashioned into clothing and cowboy hats, and is apparently very fashionable.
There are downsides, of course. The entire colony gets a morale debuff that lasts several days when a human body is butchered, and the actual butcher gets another debuff on top of that. In these situations, it’s helpful to have a Psychopath butcher, as they tend to be immune to these sort of penalties. Alternatively, you can simply increase the leisure hours of your colonists, and likely mitigate that sort of thing. Recreational drug use helps too.
Oh, and when you capture raiders alive, you can convert them into joining your colony. Or you can harvest their organs for later use and/or cash. And then turn their bodies into hats.
At some point though, the ridiculousness becomes rote. Sure, part of this is likely because of the difficulty level I chose, and the possibility of save scumming. But even in a complex emergent system, how many truly compelling narratives occur? It’s amusing the first time a colonist dies while trying to tame an Alpaca, but thereafter does angering a turkey hold the same amount of charm? It’s hard to tell anymore. And there can only be so many human hat stories.
In any case, I’m going to start over soon on a higher difficulty and see what happens. I will also try and investigate a few mods too, because there are some elements of the base game that are unfathomably dumb. The Research tab having zero useful information, for example, or the fact that I cannot mass-select my animals and designate them to a different Allowed Zone. There are workarounds the latter issue, as for many others, but it still feels kinda dumb.
Despite not being initially impressed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI), I continued playing. And now I’m very impressed with the rather clever gameplay flow that Klei has touched upon.
Like I mentioned before, every game of ONI starts with three Duplicants appearing in the middle of an asteroid. While you have enough supplies for a few days, there is always a bit of a frenzy of activity hollowing out some living space for your Duplicants. Amusingly, toilets end up being actually a higher priority than even water. By the end of the second day or so, I’ve got a water pump set up, some toilets, a bunch of resource compactors (e.g. storage), some beds, a Microbe Musher, and perhaps a manual electricity generator hooked up to an Algae Deoxydizer.
This is where the subtle genius of the game design kicks in.
Ostensibly, your base seems self-sufficient. The Algae Deoxydizer is converting algae into oxygen, the Microbe Musher is turning dirt and water into Mush Bars (e.g. calories). And you presumably have a nice supply of water handy. For now, everything seems fine. Emphasis on the “for now.”
The whole time your Duplicants have been running around, they have been exhaling CO2. This pools in the lower reaches of your base, turning certain sections into unbreathable rooms. Even if you dig out a trench beneath your base for the express purpose of giving CO2 somewhere to go, it never actually goes away – it will eventually become dense enough to spill into upper rooms. So, you’re going to need to research technology to try and filter that CO2. Something like the Carbon Skimmer sounds great… but using that requires turning drinkable water into polluted water. Where is that polluted water going to live? Hmm, perhaps you need to research methods by which you can filter polluted water back into drinkable water…
And round and round we go.
While this seems like Game Design 101, I do appreciate the flow ONI has set up here. At times, things can seem incredibly frustrating insofar as a fundamental flaw in your base design reveals itself far too late for you to realistically do anything about it. But most of the time, I just get a bit more excited to start back over with a fresh world and learn from my mistakes.
And somehow, these sort of things feel like my mistakes, rather than the game being cruel. “CO2 is heavier than Oxygen, so of course I shouldn’t have built my beds on the bottom floor.” “Oh, damn, I accepted one too many Duplicants, and now my food generation isn’t enough.” “Shit, I have been relying on six different machines that consume algae, and now I’m running out!”
Oxygen Not Included is still in Alpha, so there are a lot of things that can change. While I’m having more fun with it than I was originally, in the back of my mind, I also sort of recognize that the game is “solved.” As in, there are optimal base configurations that maximize output and minimize waste. While the same could sorta be said for other survival games, the issue is that ONI is all about managing a finite amount of resources. With something like Don’t Starve, I could always just strike off and head into the wilderness and take a chance.
I dunno. The asteroid itself is randomly seeded with biomes each time, so I can see encountering special circumstances that might change a strategy. For example, most people head towards Electrolizers and Hydrogen Generators, because they combo really well in powering your base and providing Oxygen (at the expense of water). I was heading that way too, before I discovered a Natural Gas Geyser – geysers being the only source of renewable resources – within sight of my starting point. All of a sudden, I was rushing to figure out how to exploit burning natural gas. “OK, it dumps out polluted water and a bunch of CO2. The CO2 scrubber deletes CO2 and also produces polluted water, so I should pipe that through a Water Sieve to reclaim the pure water, then send that into an Electrolyzer… but what about the Hydrogen?”
Like I said, there is a lot about Oxygen Not Included that can be compelling.
For now though, I’m going to stop generating new worlds and wait for some more releases to flesh out the rest of the game. The recent “Rancher” update overhauled a lot of the alien critter mechanics, invalidating certain strategies and presumably enabling a few others. I’m hoping that after a few more of those kind of patches, we’ll start to see something resembling a story-mode, and/or a way to make the march to endgame a bit more varied. The Rancher updates does this a little, but I feel we still end up with Hydrogen Generators and abusing Wheezewort (cooling plants) mechanics.
Pete over at Dragonchasers gave a few parting shots concerning the Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot boxes a few weeks ago. Who still cares, right? I do. Not just because I feel someone is wrong on the internet, but because it highlights one’s entire constellation of opinions on gaming, fairness, and life in general. And that sort of thing is interesting to me.
During our back and forth in the comments, the following argument was floated:
Even if [loot boxes = god mode] was true, there’s always going to be someone better than you, whether it is because they supported on-going development of the game, or because they live in their mom’s basement and play 8 hours a day, or just because they’re naturally a better gamer. Online gaming is never going to be an even playing ground. That’s what match making is suppose to solve, though it rarely does.
First, it should go without saying, but the better-skilled player winning a game is basically the axiom of fairness. So there really should be no possible complaints about losing to a “naturally better gamer” aside from the possible lack of fun if one is constantly matched against superior opponents. It is hardly sporting for anyone to have a Chess novice play against a Grandmaster, after all. But if the game is testing skill in some way, it is achieving its purpose if the better-skilled player is winning.
Second, there is no distinction between natural skill and skill derived from time spent. It boggles my mind any time someone tries bringing up the “unfairness” of those who “play 8 hours a day in their mom’s basement.” Are they more skilled than you, yes or no? If yes, they deserve the win. How is it unfair that someone who dedicates more time to something achieves greater results? Is practice itself unfair?
Even in the scenarios in which one can accumulate advantage via time-spent – perhaps by grinding levels or gear – I find it difficult to imagine the unfairness. Is it unfair that those who read more pages in a book are further in the story than we are? There are certainly long-term game design concerns if the game is set up with insurmountable advantages, but the concept itself is fine.
What we’re left with is the “supported on-going development of the game” to get an advantage.
Really, just repeat that sentence to yourself out loud. You became more competitive in a game because you paid money to the people who made the game. The difference between that and bribing referees in traditional sports is… what, exactly? And just like in traditional bribery, its mere existence suddenly makes everything suspect. Was that bad call because you didn’t pay, or was it legit? We just cannot ever know.
All of this sort of presupposes that fairness is possible. Pete certainly doesn’t think so:
If I give you $100,000 so you can quit your job for a year and devote yourself to playing a game full time, how is that not pay to win? Silly example, I know. But time = Money, Money = Time. Paying cash for an advantage or having the luxury to be able to spend significantly more time playing… either way one person has something others don’t. There’s zero difference in my mind. For that matter, on PC the person who can afford the rig to run at the best frame rate and has the fastest internet connection has paid to win over the person who has a modest PC and lives somewhere that broadband is still very slow. There’s dozens of ways one player has an advantage over another.
So, for the first part, that isn’t P2W considering they are practicing to win. That’s legit. Whether they have that time to dedicate to practicing is because they were given $100K or because they’re unemployed or they’re a student or a retiree or whatever, is irrelevant. They put in the time, they put in the effort. If that is unfair, show me your rubric in which fairness as a concept has any meaning.
Now, the second part is a little tricky. As even Raph Koster points out:
Pretty much every physical sport uses pay to win. You buy a better tennis racket, better sneakers, better racecar, better golf clubs, because you think it will get you an advantage. We just don’t like it in videogames because digital in theory frees us of that unfairness. Though of course, we cheerfully buy Alienware computers and Razer gaming keyboards… ahem. Anyway, pay to win is basically one of those things that people are, shall we say, deeply contextual in their disapproval (though they will deny it until the cows come home). There are lines where it’s excessive, but defining them is hard.
If you pay the money for a high-end PC with a 144 Hz monitor and fast internet, you absolutely have an advantage over someone who doesn’t in FPS (etc) games. By strict definition, that is indeed P2W.
The key difference, of course, is that your payment is not contributing to the perversion of the game’s underlying design. When you bought that GTX 1080ti, the developers didn’t transition all of the best-looking gear into the cash shop. That Razor keyboard didn’t pay the bonus of the asshole who turned progression into loot boxes. In other words, there wasn’t any impact to the game itself, its rules, and/or the closed system it represents. Your consumer surplus is not under assault when someone buys a fancy keyboard.
So even if you believe “P2W is P2W regardless of form,” or that natural skill and practice are inherently unfair, you cannot deny how only one form of possible advantage adversely affects the game’s fundamental design. Hint: it’s the one where you are
bribing “supporting” the game designers beyond purchasing the game that they designed.
While on vacation this past week, I had a chance to put in a few rounds of Betrayal at House on the Hill. It is an ostensibly cooperative board game that consists of exploring a haunted house by laying down tiles, rolling some dice, and then attempting to survive once the Haunt starts. Once the Haunt is triggered, usually one of the players becomes a traitor working for the monsters that show up, and thus it quickly becomes 1v3 or worse.
The game was fun for the three rounds we played it, but by the third game, I started seeing the cracks in the design.
Exploring rooms will usually cause an Item, Event, or Omen card to be pulled. Items are pretty much universally good and are a hot commodity. Events are usually bad or otherwise risky – most require you to succeed on a roll to gain stats, or you otherwise lose stats. Omen cards are usually the equivalent of good Items, but once an Omen is pulled, that person has to make a Haunt roll that surpasses the number of active Omens, else the Haunting starts. In the three games we played, the Haunt pretty much consistently occurred after the sixth Omen.
The cracks mostly show once people realize that optimization is the answer. Some of the rooms, for example, allow you to increase a stat (Might, Speed, etc) by +1 if you end your turn there. Now, the rulebook states it only works once per game, but the FAQ (PDF) makes it clear that it happens once per game per player. In other words, the moment one of these rooms open up, the optimum strategy is for everyone to stop what they are doing and go get that stat increase. Free stats are free. Considering that the Haunt can only start when an Omen card is pulled, and no Omen cards can get pulled if no new rooms are being explored, there is zero reason not to perform that strategy.
Another example is the Vault room. A player needs to roll a Knowledge check and get a result of 6+ to open the Vault and snag two Items. Rolling a 6 would be exceedingly unlikely for someone with Knowledge 3, because the dice only have 0, 1, and 2 printed on them. But, again, there is zero danger pre-Haunt as long as no one is actively exploring new rooms. It costs nobody anything let one person roll three dice until a total of six appears. Granted, there are other players with higher starting Knowledge totals who can make the roll faster, but the bottom line is that the preferred result is inevitable.
Once I realized all this, the game become significantly less fun. We didn’t do the “everyone get your +1 Sanity” trick the first two times we played, because we really didn’t know better. The third time we did. And that room might as well said “everyone gets +1 whatever” because we basically cycled through everyone’s turn 2-3 times in ten seconds to make sure people with slower Speed scores could travel there. While we didn’t quite make the Vault an auto-open situation, we could have done that too.
Another example: some rooms force you to make a Might/etc check to leave without taking damage. The FAQ points out that if you fail the roll, you can choose to not leave the room and avoid the damage. Ergo, the optimal strategy is to not leave until you win the roll, and for no one to explore any rooms until you do.
Noticing a pattern yet?
The optimal strategy makes the game less about interesting decisions, and more about whether your friends are willing to play the “right” way. This becomes especially evident once the Haunt actually starts, considering the Traitor/monsters are way more dangerous than most of the other players by default. Since the Traitor/monsters get a turn to try and kill you, suddenly turns become a precious commodity. It’s less about options and more about “we need to win this roll or be turned into a toad.” What ends up being even worse is the fact that the Haunt is pretty much over – win or lose – within like 2-3 full turns. Yeah, sometimes it takes several turns to successfully research X, or tear apart a room for Y, but you either have a strategy/house layout that gives you breathing room or you are dead.
All in all, I found Betrayal at the House on the Hill to be relatively fun for a while. It honestly reminded me of a sort of Arkham Horror-lite, in fact. But having played Arkham before, I immediately recognized how much of a difference it makes to be time-limited. There are still optimal decisions to be made in closing portals or otherwise holding back the eldritch beings, but at least the gambling in Arkham has teeth. Sometimes literally.
Mass Effect: Andromeda was finished over the weekend.
My overall impression? Serviceable. Adequate. My /played time was about 90 hours, so it is a tad difficult to ascertain whether the characters blossomed by the mid-game or if it was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome effect. Well, I can say for sure that I immensely enjoyed Peebee and Drack’s company. Vetra too, perhaps, but she’s no Garrus. Cora can take a hike.
The combat and general environments are easily the best the series has offered. I played the entire game on Hard, which was appropriately named. It has been mentioned before, but a lot has been done to incorporate waist-high barriers into the environment in a logical manner. In fact, a sizable portion of the game have none. Which is real shame given how many enemies have beam laser effects, which effectively melt you outside of cover. Still, Hard is Hard, so it was a welcome challenge (most of the time).
The environments and the Frostbite engine in general were exquisite. I got a little tired of the theme planet trope (Desert planet! Ice planet!), but the terrain overall was varied and the organic vistas were amazing. Indeed, I can see now why such a big deal was made regarding wonky character animations given how outrageously polished the rest of the game looks – it seems so out of place.
What also felt out of place were the poorly-implemented mechanical aspects of the game. Fighting feels great. Switching abilities mid-battle feels less great. Downtime inventory management feels awful. Scanning things give you Research Points, which you then use to buy weapon blueprints, which then take resources collected from driving around to craft, which then take Augments and/or Mods you receive from fighting to improve. I’m sure it sounds like a reasonable way to tie all the player experiences together, at least on a whiteboard. In practice, you end up wasting tons of Research Points because every single gun is available from the start and you don’t know how it feels to shoot till you get one in your hands. By the mid-game though, you’ll have needed to pour all your points into upgrading a specific type of gun (e.g. Black Window) through its various iterations (e.g. III, IV, V, etc) to maintain combat effectiveness. So… either settle on something early, making the multiple pages of menus irrelevant, or try all the things and always wonder whether a specific gun sucks, or if it would have been good at max rank.
I played a little bit of the Andromeda multiplayer, and it was… basically ME3’s multiplayer. ME3’s multiplayer was a hidden gem and significantly extended my playtime of the game well beyond the (original) poor ending. That may have been a time and a place thing though, as I had basically zero drive to continue playing Andromeda’s multiplayer, despite an objectively more refined combat system. For the uninitiated, it is a 4-player Horde game mode where one caps out at level 20, but items/weapons/character options are gated behind lockboxes. Open a Black Widow sniper rifle? Now you can take it with any character. Unlock a second one, and now you have a Black Widow Mk 2 with slightly higher stats. And so on.
So far, most of this has been high praise, so you might be wondering why the game is “serviceable” and “adequate.” It’s relatively simple: Andromeda is not better overall than any of the prior trilogy. Graphics and combat? Better. Characters, plot, themes, cohesive narratives, emotional gravity, witty one-liners? Not better. I find it extraordinarily silly to judge Andromeda “on its own merits” considering it has Mass Effect in the title. Andromeda is better than a whole lot of other single-player RPGs, yes, but better Mass Effects (overall, mind you) exist. If you had to make an exclusive choice between all the titles, I’d recommend one of those other ones instead.
And perhaps that is part of the reason why Andromeda may be the last in the series. At first, I was a bit sad, but it kinda feels like the right move now. The Mass Effect name has a lot of baggage attached and, outside of the various character races, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot tying Andromeda to it. Yes, all these people are from the Milky Way, there are various Easter Eggs and such pointing to Reapers and Shepard, and so on. But there didn’t have to be. The fact that it was tied to the franchise just made the world-building easier – no need to explain five humanoid races tooling around with each other relatively peacefully. Andromeda could have been the story of five human nations from Earth and little would have changed, narratively. Hell, the eponymous “mass effect” was uttered like twice in the whole game, always in reference to shields. Eezo sickness could have been any other miraculous plot disease.
Ultimately… I dunno. Andromeda is certainly better than any random given RPG out there. Andromeda is not better than any given Mass Effect title. It is worth experiencing, but it is not essential to experience right now. Perhaps in another couple of years when we finally get some more concrete idea as to whether Bioware is closing the Mass Effect door for good.
I’m sure that 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a rather niche topic of interest to most people here, much less discussion about experimental Alpha builds of an Early Access titles, but I feel like the things going on with its development are applicable more generally.
When the first Alpha 16 (A16) experimental build arrived, it was transformative. Sleeper zombies seems like a minor change, but it fundamentally changed how you interacted with buildings. Prior to A16, you knew pretty much instantly how many zombies were inside a given structure, and once you killed all of them banging on the doors trying to get out, you were free to loot the place in peace. That is no longer the case – now you must actively sweep each room, and double-tap each body on the floor to ensure it stays where it is. There are still some bugs with these Sleepers suddenly spawning right behind you, but the overall effect is that nowhere is safe until you make it so.
Then came the balance changes.
First, since the Sleeper zombie system necessarily increases the amount of zombies one faces, zombie loot was decreased across the board. This makes sense, as if prior loot rates stayed the same, you might end up getting more loot from the zombies inside a building than the building itself.
In practice though, reducing zombie loot makes fighting zombies considerably less fun, especially on Horde nights. Zombies essentially become resource drains, to be avoided if possible. Which… maybe makes sense. Games like Dying Light featured that model, with zombies that functioned as speed bumps and possible death traps, nothing else. The problem is that Dying Light also featured impenetrable home bases, whereas even a few ignored zombies in 7DTD can bring down the strongest base in time.
Another change? Resource gains were reduced significantly. Up to this point, there was a “last hit” bonus drop of resources when you finally cut down a tree or smashed a boulder. Not only were the bonus resources great, but it was also viscerally satisfying getting that last burst of stuff concurrent with destroying the object you were mining. Apparently it made the early game too easy for the devs’ tastes however, so they got rid of it. Now when you fell a tree, you get the same 2-3 pieces of wood you got from whacking it the first 30 times.
More recently, the devs have also messed around with Stamina gains and losses. Stamina has always been a bit weird in 7DTD. There are a lot of Perks that correspond with Stamina gains – from making Sprinting cost less, to making Stamina recharge faster, and everything inbetween – but none of them really felt necessary. There was even Coffee and Beer items one could craft to recharge Stamina faster, but why bother? You could get into trouble being chased by a bear after cutting down a tree, but Stamina otherwise served the purpose of preventing you from Sprinting across the map 24/7.
Now? Iron/Steel tools will pretty much instantly drain all of your Stamina. Setting aside the more realistic concern of whether a steel shovel would make digging a hole easier than a stone shovel, the change seems rather ham-fisted. Yes, by making it virtually impossible to complete any tasks without Stamina Perks, the devs have made Stamina Perks relevant. But I’m not sure any thought was spared regarding whether Stamina Perks were a good idea to begin with.
Waiting around for Stamina to recharge is boring gameplay. It is literally no gameplay. Even if the idea is for the early game to be more “dangerous” or difficult, even if the goal is to tangibly demonstrate how improved your character gets over time, this is NOT the way to do it. Having Sleeper zombies haunt every house already shoots the difficulty of the early game through the roof. Reduced Wood gain has made crafting your own base impractical for the first few in-game weeks. Making early lucky finds like an Iron Pickaxe practically pointless until well after the point at which you could create one yourself? Mind-bogglingly stupid.
Experimental builds are experimental, and all this could be reverted tomorrow. Still, it remains concerning to me that the devs are placing such a high premium on “older” ideas rather than iterating on what actually feels fun about the game currently. Half a dozen Stamina Perks do not feel fun, nor does funneling skill points into them. They seem committed to keeping them simply because they had them already, in some weird Sunk Cost Fallacy manner.
Hopefully, things will change – if not soon, then by the beta.
Syp over at Biobreak recently suggested a bold move: killing the MMO sidequest.
While I can certainly defend main story quests — such as zone/planet-wide chains or a personal story arc that goes through most of the game — side missions lack positive qualities that make them desirable. Let’s call them for what they really are: busy work. Side quests are small tasks that offer no real story, no significant reward, and only serve to pad out your quest log and allow dev teams to be able to boast ridiculously high quest tallies for patches and expansions (“200 new quests! Of which only 15 are memorable in any way!”).
Let’s think about it. If your favorite MMO one day yanked all of its side quests, leaving only factional, zone, dungeon, and overarching story arcs intact, would it really suffer for it? Would you bemoan their loss? Players are forever asking to be able to just play through the main storylines without all of these diversions down rabbit trails, so why not give it to them? Just increase XP for the main quests and work on providing other forms of much more meaningful content that can serve as a focus for players’ time.
Following the post, there were a dozen or so commenters who were in favor of the proposal. Which got me thinking… are they on to something?
Sidequests are vitally important to any MMO, or single-player RPG for that matter. Or, at least, they should be. See, one of the primary purposes of sidequests is pacing. Which is absolutely different from filler. Filler is the pointless busywork that a designer adds to pad the game’s playtime. I am all for the death of filler, which is bad pretty much by definition.
Pacing, meanwhile, is all about enhancing the main story. How do you enhance a story? By fleshing it out. Giving context to its development. Allowing breathing room in which to digest the latest narrative bombshell. Bringing the world in which the story exists to life.
For example, Lord of the Rings is a 1178-page story about [spoiler alert] destroying a magic ring. Frodo’s travails towards and around Mount Doom are the Main Story Quest (MSQ). Hell, I’ll even concede that all that business with Aragorn and Helm’s Deep and the throne of Gondor and all of those pitched battles are a part of that same MSQ, despite them being a literal distraction so that Frodo could complete the only quest that actually mattered.
Having said that, the reason why we care about Frodo destroying the ring in the first place is because of the rest of it. We care about the supporting characters, we care about the Shire, we care about the world in which these people inhabit. MSQs are good at driving action forward, but they are terrible at world-building. That is sort of by design: there is an expectation that details included in a MSQ will be relevant to the future of the MSQ, Chekhov Gun-style. You cannot have the MSQ examine the life of an average farmer toiling under the weight of an oppressive regime without expecting said farmer eventually being executed/liberated in a later chapter.
Sidequests are the mechanism by which imaginary worlds are built. Bad, filler sidequests do not tell you anything about the world other than its inability to kill ten rats. Good sidequests create minor characters and story hooks and introduce you to the world which you are trying to save… even if you are still killing ten rats to do so. The MSQ asks you to save the world, and sidequests tell you why.
Then there are the mechanical, game design aspects of sidequests. In an MMO, there is often considerably more physical world built than strictly necessary to drive the MSQ forward. Indeed, a MSQ that somehow forced you to explore every inch of every zone in sequence would feel forced and arbitrary (see: FF14). Sidequests, meanwhile, provide optional incentives to explore all four corners of the map, to face different enemy types in different areas, and so on. Well, “optional” unless the XP from sidequests are required in order to level up enough to fight in the next zone. However, again, that would be an example of bad sidequests.
About two months ago, I was less bullish on sidequests than this post. At the time, I was playing FF14, which is exceptionally bad in the boring, vapid sidequest department. In fact, FF14 is exceptionally bad in the MSQ department, with nearly everyone stating that the story really starts getting good… once you reach the original endgame. In the meantime, I suppose I’m just expected to endure these pointless, trivial tasks like flying around to the various capitals and deliver letters?
On the other hand, I have also been playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. While not as good as the original trilogy, Andromeda absolutely has engaged me in even the most repetitive of sidequests. Why? Because I like it there. I like the world Bioware has created, I like the characters and the amusing banter they get involved in. I could listen to Peebee and Drack talk about shit all day. In fact, I have, inbetween sidequests to scan minerals and other “busy work.” Work that required me to explore every corner of each planet and have an “excuse” to engage in one of the best iterations of a Mass Effect combat system yet.
If you do not care about the game world, or do not care for the combat system, then yes, there isn’t much distinguishing legit sidequests from filler. But in a well-crafted game, the sidequests shouldn’t be mandatory to begin with. In which case, there isn’t a reason to kill them; just ignore them and move on with the story.
As I alluded to before, I ended up refunding my purchase of Isaac: Rebirth. Deciding I was still in the mood for a roguelike, I put that $10 into purchasing Darkest Dungeon instead. Now more than dozen hours in, I myself feel like a character succumbing to mania over the experience.
The core gameplay loop of Darkest Dungeon is simply superb. Pick a group of four adventurers, buy them supplies for a dungeon delve, and then crawl through said dungeon killing and looting. Successful completion or not, those four particular adventurers are likely going to need a break to recover from the ordeal, so spend a bunch of your gold on (mentally) healing them. For the rest of the profits, use heirlooms to build up the Hamlet, then spend gold to upgrade the gear of another set of four adventurers… who then will need provisions for their own expedition. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
That might sound boring or perhaps grindy, but there are so many considerations and decisions to be made on a micro level that I find the hours melting away in a Civilization “One more turn” kind of way. For example, you can’t recruit just anyone: you get a small pool of recruits to choose from each “week.” Even if it’s a class that you wanted, out of the 8 possible Skills that class has, they will have 4 random ones. You can spend gold training the specific ones you desire, of course, but that’s 1000g less you have to spend on something else. Other times you have exactly the class and spec you want for your particular dungeon strategy, but they end up accumulating too many Diseases or negative Quirks such that it’s easier/cheaper to just let them go than keep them. Finally, even if you upgrade the Stagecoach such that you get higher-level recruits hand-delivered to you with full upgrades out of the box, they might not have enough positive Quirks to justify the limited roster space.
None of this even gets into the combat and dungeon exploring parts of the game.
At the beginning, I thought the combat system was kinda dumb. Each character has the ability to do one thing each round in a turn-based manner. There are priest-esque classes and others with healing abilities, but they can only perform these actions in combat. Yeah, that’s a particular “gamey” limitation, but the longer I played, the more I realized how the entire point of this game is resource management. A turn spent healing is a turn not spent attacking.
However, considering that HP is only a concern in a dungeon, whereas Stress carries over into town and future dungeons, you have to start considering the relative merits of either. Leaving up the weak spellcaster who “only” inflicts Stress on your team so that you can spend multiple rounds healing your team to full HP might not be worth (literally) the trouble. Then again, if you have to end up Retreating from a battle/quest because everyone is about to die, well, they end up getting penalized with Stress/quirks regardless.
Then you have the boss fights, which possibly toss aside all your carefully laid plans. I defeated an Apprentice Necromancer with barely an issue already. Fighting the Wizened Hag though? I have faced her three times thus far, and retreated each time, nevermind the three other attempts that were aborted before even reaching her chambers.
The Hag has a Cookpot that takes up the first two “positions” on the field, with herself in the last two. Invariably, one of your team members gets thrown in the Cookpot and takes damage each individual turn until released. Thus, not only do you lose the actions of that team member, but your remaining members are usually out of their normal position (most abilities have position limitations), and then you have to consider whether to attempt to free the person or attack the Hag. Freeing the person is fine… but the Hag will throw someone else in the pot almost immediately afterwards.
Which can be the same person. /sigh
Having been defeated by this encounter so many times before, I am now in a holding pattern of leveling up my lower-level people to get a pool of acceptable candidates to try and kamikaze my way through the encounter, or perhaps overwhelm her with higher-level gear. Repeated dungeon clears of the other locations unlock additional bosses though, so perhaps I ignore her for now. And, oh, this other quest offers a pretty good trinket for that one class, so perhaps I grab that first.
Around and round I go… loving every single minute of it.
So, yeah. I’ll be curious to see how I end up towards the endgame; if this gameplay loop still entertains or if I get ground down by the repetition/familiarity. I ended up choosing Radiant difficulty based on the, ahem, horror stories from others who played originally. Indeed, some of the original mechanics sounded outright dumb: the inability to take characters back into the final dungeon more than once, for example. Some of those have been address since the game’s launch, but it’s a bit sobering to read that Radiant was designed to bring down the play-time “from 80 hours to about 40.”
Fake Edit: took down the Hag with this handsome group of characters: