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Crafting is Required

Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) has a terrible crafting system.

At first, I felt like this was okay. Crafting in the original game was often a bit overpowered, such that most of the time you were better off crafting upgrades than you were trying to loot them. This was a problem in Skyrim too, which I talked about back in 2012:

Short of the sandbox-esque nuclear option of destroying gear and/or permanent durability loss, I do not see a worthy payout for the costs of strong player crafting. I just completed a long questline to reconstruct a 1,000+ year old amulet whose power started a war and led to it being split into three parts and sealed away; the names of amulet keepers were to be forgotten under the pain of death. After finally reforging it, I held it in my hands and… oh, +30 to Health/Mana/Stamina? I created an amulet with +67 to Health and +40% extra Bow damage nearly 50 hours ago.

/vendor

I am not sure any game has gotten the craft vs loot tension correct. If the best items come from looting, players are incentivized to kill things for loot and ignore crafting. If the best items are crafted, players craft them and don’t care about killing stuff. Sometimes you can make hard enemies drop exclusive crafting material instead of loot, but that’s just loot with extra steps.

The problem is when game designers decide to have a weak crafting system, then seed their game with thousands of random pieces of debris. There is shit everywhere in DOS2: flowers, mushrooms, plates, cups, parchment, individual keys that exist forever for some reason, nails, hammers, and so on and so forth. Well over 90% of it is completely useless, despite it being integral to some crafting recipe or another. The existence of these items and your ability to interact with them is an invitation to their collection. Which, ultimately, just serves to pad game time and make inventory management a chore. It’s all a designer trap, outside maybe 2-3 arrow/scroll recipes.

So why not just get rid of crafting, if it’s going to be nigh-useless? Well… what are they going to do with all these cups and silverware so meticulously seeded on every table? Seems as though if you want interactable widgets, you need a crafting system of some kind to justify it. We’re well past the Metal Gear Solid 2 days when breaking single wine bottles or watching ice melt was an innovation.

Just because it’s an RPG doesn’t mean you have to be able to pick up all the things. But you damn well better have a useful reason to pick stuff up, if you allow it. Which makes crafting required.

Impressions: The Elder Scrolls Online

Over the past few days, I played around 10-15 hours of The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) and the experience has been… odd. I say “odd” because while in general I found the experience pleasant, the more I played the game, the more I wanted to be playing something else entirely.

I'm pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

I’m pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

There is a lot of interesting things going on in TESO. For example, while there is an option for a more traditional 3rd-person perspective, I stayed in first-person the entire time for its sheer novelty. I also appreciated the dedication to the traditional Elder Scrolls trappings, up to and including the ability to literally steal all the things. Want some Grand Soul Gems as a level 3 character? Just crouch behind the merchant’s cart and pocket (?) them. Finding a random armor rack with a full suit of wearable armor that you could just take and equip was rather delightful.

The progression/leveling system in TESO is interesting as well. There are four classes, each with three class specializations. Beyond that, every class has access to the same dozen or so general specialization lines: Light Armor, Two-handed Weapons, Destruction Staves, and so on. Most of these specialization lines have ~6 active abilities and a number of passives. Your character has a total of five hotbar buttons and one ultimate, and it is up to you to mix and match. Additionally, individual abilities level up with use in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, but once an active ability hits rank 4, it can be “morphed” into one of two mutually exclusive options, which typically adds bonus effects.

While all of the above systems felt satisfyingly crunchy, it reminded me heavily of Guild War 2’s system – limited ability slots, choosing abilities from a wide list, earning Skill Points from exploration (every three Skyshards found in TESO grants 1 Skill Point), and even “leveling up” skills in a sense. In fact, that was my exact problem: the more I played TESO, the more I felt like I’d be having more fun playing GW2. Especially when I started thinking about PvP and three-way battles.

Hell, I’m resisting the almost overpowering urge to redownload GW2 right now.

Not pictured: any combat.

Not pictured: any combat.

Strictly viewing TESO as a sort of pseudo-Skyrim did not assist in keeping my interest level high enough to justify more play time. As tends to be the case, the existence of other players ruins the MMO experience. Apparently mobs drop individual loot so there isn’t any kill stealing, but objects in the world (chests, etc) absolutely disappear if someone loots them. I did not stick around a particular place long enough to see if they respawned, but the bottom line is that there was never a point in time that I was thankful to see another human playing “my” game.

It’s worth noting that I made it to level 10 without seeing even one “kill 10 whatever” quests. In fact, many of the (non-side) quests I encountered were fairly lengthy and involved. Not quite Secret World-level involved, but more than the industry standard. That being said, I found myself actually missing those kill quests, as the opportunity to kill anything was rather muted.

Sometimes I like pushing buttons, you know?

In any case, those are my impressions of TESO. I deleted the 44gb installation yesterday and don’t particularly see myself downloading it again. It wasn’t bad – at least the little slice of the beginning I played – but my New Years resolution is to not play “just OK” games to completion as if I don’t have a backlog of potentially amazing games to play through.

On Mods

As you may as heard, Valve’s grand experiment with paid Skyrim mods debuted and shut down in three business days. At one point the untouchable darlings reddit, both Gabe and Skyrim itself has taken a huge beating in the eyes of the horde; Skyrim went from a 98% positive feedback rating on Steam down to 86%. Gabe confirmed that the number of emails his staff received will cost them literally $1 million to comb through.¹

From my seat up in the peanut gallery, the entire issue of paid mods seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Was there some crisis in the modding community preventing mods from being developed? Were popular mods being abandoned? What, exactly, was the issue with the status quo?

To be clear, I’m not against people getting paid for their work, in the same way I’m not against, say, religious liberty. At the same time, I don’t think the concept in of itself justifies every means of expressing it. The modding scene was already a healthy ecosystem built upon passion, collaboration, and natural curation. SynCaine points out there are some mods out there more elaborate and fun than the game they’re built upon. Just imagine how many more, better mods would be generated if said people were paid for their work?

Well… err, maybe eventually.

The Skyrim paid mod section was not active for long, but the future cesspit of theft and profiteering was clear to see. Who looked at Steam Greenlight or Early Access and thought, hey, let’s introduce that to the modding community? Under a paid mod paradigm, you literally can’t give your mod away for free, because someone else can and will turn around and try to sell it for cash.

During Gabe’s AMA on reddit, the creator of the Nexus website point-blank asked what Valve was planning on doing in terms of, you know, not single-handedly monopolizing the modding market. Gabe had no real answer. Which is a problem considering paid Steam mods would give even ambivalent modders every economic incentive to pull their mods from Nexus and any other site to exclusively use Steam Workshop. I mean, what, is Nexus and all the other sites supposed to suddenly create their own mod marketplaces?

With the paid mods plan on ice (for the moment), there has been some further crying about how “freeloaders” and “trolls” have won the day. Out of the entire fiasco, that sentiment bothers me the most. Erecting pay-walls around hitherto free content is an erosion of Consumer Surplus, full stop; it doesn’t matter whether modders “should” have been getting paid this entire time. Splintering the modding community into factions with negative incentive to cooperate is an erosion of Consumer Surplus. Maybe we get really well-done, professional mods out of the paid system eventually. But considering you are paying extra for that value, the Consumer Surplus gains may be a wash. In which case you are no better off than before, minus a thriving modding community.

Nevermind about all the bizarre arguments surrounding mods like DotA and Counter-Strike. Would those mods have achieved their meteoric status had they been priced “fairly” at the start? I don’t think anyone believes that that would be the case.

Do modders deserve to be paid for their work? Probably. Do I deserve to be paid for writing posts for the last four years? Feel free to Paypal me as much money you want. But as a consumer/reader, you are under no obligation, moral or ethical, to pay for something someone is giving away for free. And as a consumer/reader, you have every right to complain when your net Consumer Surplus is being reduced in any way. “Freeloaders” and “entitlement” are specious non-arguments, and especially absurd given how we’ll all talking about people who already bought a videogame.

If you want to pay modders, there is nothing stopping you. As in, right now. Go for it. I’m sure their contact information is listed somewhere on the mod page. Just don’t pretend this change was anything less than a fundamental redesign of the entire concept of modding. Or that this particular implementation was at all going to work, logistically or conceptually. In fact, I doubt that it ever does, even when Valve comes back to “iterate” the process later on. And by “work,” I mean generate more value in the aggregate for gamers and (free) modders alike.

¹ As opposed to Support tickets, which no human ever reads.

Falling Behind the Curve

As you may have noticed in the sidebar and/or prior post, I have picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have not played it as much as I should have been however, because it is the first PC game in which I’ve ran into a hardware wall.

I am still strategically turning settings down, but I’m talking about Medium settings and getting maybe 40 FPS on a good day. Yesterday, my gaming session was cut short by the game randomly diving down to a literal 4 FPS level every 30 seconds. I “solved” that issue by spending a long time on Youtube weeding through arcane practices, many of which sounded suspiciously similar to “blow on the dice to make them roll high” from D&D players. One of the suggestions was to turn off FRAPS and other FPS counters; I was, of course, unable to ascertain whether it actually worked or if things ran better because I was unable to actually tell how bad it was running.

In any of these sort of situations, I come back to my experience with Skyrim. Basically, if your game doesn’t look as good as Skyrim on my machine, that’s your fault. Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to have that as a benchmark – I do notice a lot more NPCs milling about in Inquisition – but I still end up questioning whether my rig is truly outdated or if the designers got lazy with the PC optimization.

Regardless, my Inquisition FPS woes motivated me to start looking at weak points in my gaming rig:

  • i5-2500K Processor (4x 3.30GHz/6MB L3 Cache)
  • 8 GB [4 GB X2] DDR3-1600
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti – 1GB – EVGA Superclocked – Core: 900MHz

Now, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about getting GTX 970 cards recently, so I figured that my ole 560ti might finally have been gotten to its obsolescence phase. On the other hand, I am not about to spend $300+ on a new graphics card either. What I want slash need is a way of determining the price points of various GTX cards in terms that I can understand.

For example, while I like this chart, it doesn’t really tell me much:

Again with the numbers.

Again with the numbers.

Actually, the chart did tell me quite a bit, as I was very seriously considering the GTX 750ti because bigger numbers equals better, right? I would have been quite pissed at that $100+ purchase for the tiniest of gains, let me tell you. But off-hand, I have no idea what 20,000 more… units translates into FPS terms. Eyeballing PCPartPicker.com shows that a 760 costs $170, the 770 is $260, and the 780 sits at $283. Which is a little weird considering the performance increase on the chart, and the fact that the rest of the 780s on the list are north of $400, above even the the 970s.

What ended up further confusing me is the fact that YouTube videos like this one exist. For the click averse, the title is “Battlefield Hardline ULTRA SETTINGS – NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560TI 1GB DDR5 @ AMD A-10 6800k 4.30Ghz.” And it looks like it runs okay, although there is no framerate counter in the corner. So… what gives? I’m pretty sure I wasn’t playing BF4 on Ultra on my rig. I think the person might have been playing at a lower resolution than 1920×1080, but would that make that big of a difference? I’m pretty used to 1080p at this point though, and am not sure I want to give it up even if it magically fixed all my problems.

From my research on the processor side of things, I have heard that the i5-2500K is still pretty pimp as far as things go. I did verify the speed at 3.3ghz, which means it has not been overclocked. I basically know nothing about overclocking other than what I have read on the internet, so I’m not sure whether that is an avenue worth exploring versus the risk of my machine bursting into flame. Then again, it is liquid cooled, so… yeah.

What this post boils down to is this: I’m open to any suggestions. It could be Inquisition settings, GTX card comparisons (I’m sticking with Nvidia), overclocking guides if that would actually help, and so on. As it stands, it’s still early enough in Inquisition that I likely won’t miss much by turning down settings before I get too invested in my characters actually looking good, but I’d prefer that they do. I mean, come on, Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider and Titanfall looked fucking fantastic. Why can’t Inquisition? Bah.

[Fake Edit]: I did end up finding this site that compared Inquisition FPS on Ultra settings across multiple cards. The short version is that the 760 gets 30, 770 has 39, and the 780 hits 45. The 750ti is the closest equivalent to my own card, and it eked out 22 FPS. Which, let me tell you, is not indicative of in-game FPS at all at Ultra settings. Still, at least I have some sense of scale now. Will I spend hundreds of dollars on a new card to get 8 more frames per second? Well, I don’t actually need Ultra settings, so hopefully that 8 multiplies out a bit on, you know, High settings or whatever.

Revisiting Single-Player MMOs

Keen has a post up entitled “MMORPGs are not Single-player Games,” which laments the direction MMOs are heading as evidenced by The Elder Scrolls Online having a 100% solo “main story.” I am not particularly interested in talking about TESO, but rather this paragraph (emphasis mine):

If it’s so important to your game that the player be the hero in the story, why are you making a MMO?  MMO’s suck at being single-player games.  Did you skip SWTOR?  What makes MMO’s any good at all are the multiplayer elements.  Take those away and what are you left with? A game worse than the one you could have made if you actually made a single-player  RPG.

Well… do MMOs suck at being single-player games?

It may be easy to answer in the affirmative, and in some respects I would agree. Undoubtedly there are concessions made in an MMO that are irrelevant in a single-player RPG. Daily quests, for example, exist as “content” to get people to log on at regular intervals and maintain social ties. The related notion of paced content (i.e. weekly resets) is also an MMO staple that makes no particular single-player sense. Even normal quests are likely more generic (and numerous) than they would have to be.

But in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG. There are two main reasons why.

1) The gameplay is often more satisfying, for longer.

The example I used in Keen’s comment section was The Witcher. Here is a 3rd-person action-RPG game with hotbars and talents and exploration and quests and so on. Basically, a mini-MMO, if you will. As I detailed in my review, The Witcher’s combat system is terrible. Way worse than even Warhammer Online’s janky PvE gameplay. While I considered the storyline/setting to be somewhat of a redeeming factor, it could very well be that something like The Secret World or World of Darkness (assuming that is still a thing) or some other MMO eclipses it even within its own specific niche.

I would never agree with someone who would suggest that stories in RPGs are irrelevant, but let us be honest here: most of your RPG hours are spent in combat. RPGs don’t necessarily need gameplay deep enough to last 1000 hours because the story runs out in 40-100 hours, of course. But there is nothing worse than getting stranded 2/3rds of the way through an otherwise good story with gameplay that has ran out of steam. MMO combat systems, even the ones that feel “off,” convey a depth far beyond the average RPG. They have to.

Keen responded with “length isn’t related to quality,” which is true enough in a general sense. After a while though, one must admit that voluntarily playing the same game for 1000+ hours is perhaps indicative that fun is being had. I would not trade Xenogears’ 80 hours for WoW’s 7800 hours, or for the rest of my Top 10 RPGs for that matter. But for the Top #11-#120?

Absolutely.

2) Show & Tell enhances the single-player experience.

I truly believe that Show & Tell is the future of single-player gaming. If you are not familiar with the concept as I use it, this quote (from a year ago) sums it up:

In this light, I do not particularly think the trend of companion AI or whatever is necessarily bad. Having played Minecraft for a while now, I have reached that plateau where you want nothing more than to show off the cool biodome tower you built or the Pit of Doom you dug or the cross-Atlantic powered railroad to someone, anyone else capable of appreciating the amount of effort/vision it took to do so. Of course, the thought of trying to do what I have done on a multiplayer server where anyone could wreck my house and steal my materials at any time is mortifying. I want a Show & Tell, not a group assignment. I want a single-player MMO.

And also:

Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. […]

But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.

Show & Tell can be (and has been) implemented in bad ways. I am not a huge fan of arbitrary Achievements, for example, and I think focusing on the latest gear rewards is a bit crass. Transmog and costume options, on the other hand, are much better. Being able to invite you in to see my living room skull pit in Skyrim?

166 Human skulls. All legitimately obtained, I might add.

Would have been epic. The mere possibility of being able to eventually post the above screenshot, and having someone able to appreciate it on some level somewhere, generated dozens of hours of additional gameplay. In a single-player game. MMOs generate gameplay in this fashion all the time, of course, and I am here to confirm that it works for single-player games too. And, by extension, MMOs that are played as single-player games.

______

So getting back to the question at the top, I say: MMOs can (and often do) make excellent single-player games.

Keen openly wondered why this “mystery demographic” is getting catered to by MMO developers at the expense of “MMO identity.” I would say: where is the mystery? The vast majority of MMO players today are single-player MMO, erm, players. Less than 20% of WoW players raid; what are the other 80% doing? How many EVE players never make it out of high-sec space or never engage in consensual PvP? When you look at graphs like this:

This technically qualifies as a Rorschach test in six states and the District of Columbia.

…what do you see? Did 5+ million social MMO players crawl out of the woodwork in a single year? I don’t think so. Rather, Blizzard tapped into the latent single-player market by letting said players solo at their own pace all the way to the level cap. That was Blizzard’s biggest innovation.

Are social players more valuable to the long-term success of MMOs? Absolutely. Can studios focus exclusively on such players, ala Darkfall etc? Of course. But in so doing they leave literally millions of dollars on the table. And so the reason we see a “dilution” in the MMO identity is precisely because developers are seeking out the most profitable piece of that Venn Diagram – the intersection of single-player and MMO – by trial and error writ large.

The age of single-player MMOs has arrived. And for the majority of gamers, this is good news.

The Problem With Romance

I normally play female characters in videogames despite being a guy in real life. Part of the reason is I find women more aesthetically pleasing. Part of the reason is cold pragmatism – if there is no strict game difference, why not choose the gender that typically gives you ability to seduce NPCs, receive gifts/attention from others (in MMOs), and otherwise get the door held open?

The biggest part though, is that I find female characters inherently more interesting. A man is always expected to prove himself, both in games and real life. A man is supposed to stand up for himself, supposed to be the embodiment of chivalry, supposed to fight and die for what he believes in. Simply put, a man is expected to “be a man.”

Generally speaking, women are not expected to do such things. Oh, they are expected to quite a number of other things, sure. But to fight and kill and die? When I see a female character putting herself on the front lines, I always subconsciously wonder what it was in her life that drove her to that point. A tragic past? Is she striving to be the son her father wanted? Righteous vengeance? Men fight dragons and bandits and each other because it’s required, expected. Women fight those things out of choice. And choice is what makes stories interesting.

The problem I am increasingly running into is not really feeling comfortable with RPG romances, playing as a female toon. For example, my machinations trying to get Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins in the sack as a female dwarf was perhaps the most embarrassing moment in videogaming for me. Partly because Christ, do I have to draw him a picture?, and partly because I expected Chris Hansen to walk out of the bushes in the middle of the cinematic.

"Why don't you have a seat right over there."

And, well, having to help him [highlight to reveal spoiler] marry one chick and get a second one pregnant [/spoiler] wasn’t exactly the most inspiring of endings. Guys can be such assholes.

Simply skipping the romances is not an option: as I established yesterday, missing content of any nature is difficult enough for me. But more than just that, this is a issue for me because I also genuinely enjoy this “optional” content – deep, philosophical ruminations and high school-esque relationship angst hold equal (if not more) appeal. I live a mostly vicarious life; no deeper psychoanalysis required.

So what ends up happening, even in games wherein lesbian romances are possible, I end up playing a dude. In fact, my first character in Skyrim was a level 4 female Redguard before starting over once I realized there was marriage options… even though the “romance” consisted of 3-4 lines of text and one event. Hence, Leonidas.

In any event, I am curious to know how other people handle game romances. Do you ever play the opposite gender and hit up those romance options? Is it totally not a problem? I am also curious as to whether men have more of an issue with this than women. My default assumption is yes, based both on cultural norms and simply the history of gaming wherein most main characters are male and rescuing princess love interests. I could be completely wrong.

Either way, let me know in the comments.

The Interview

I have perhaps the biggest interview of my life tomorrow – the kind of interview you spend $300 flying up to Chicago wearing a suit to attend – so it may be a few days before I get back to armchair game development. In commemoration of my finally “beating” Skyrim at 117 hours /played, please enjoy these Photoshops I threw together in the meantime.

Just another round of dailies in Whiterun.

Introducing Gourmet Chef Leonidas.

I had intended to post Leonidas’ daily adventures when I first started, but that turned out to require spending time writing/’shoping when I could have been playing.

I still may put Leonidas to bed, so to speak, and there will be a formal review, of course. Beyond that though, I want need to wash my hands of Skyrim and move on with my life. Mass Effect 3 is coming, and I want to play ME2 before the spoilers get too ubiquitous.

Skyrim: Horrific Arrow Wounds Edition

Skyrim is a Bad MMO

Skyrim, of course, is not intended to be an MMO.

That said, as I sailed past 100 hours played and started finally running out of the “named quests,” I started thinking back to when a lot of bloggers were musing on a hypothetical Skyrim Online and how great that would be. As it turns out, there is not much imagination necessary: Skyrim really already emulates a lot of the standard sort of MMO tropes. And, perhaps ironically, some of Skyrim’s other qualities sort of demonstrate why such mechanics generally do not really work in MMOs.

Questing

Quests range from “Talk to this guy,” to “Collect 20 Nirnroot,” to “Kill the Bandit Leader in a nation with an inexplicable 10,000:1 bandit to honest citizen ratio.” While there are no exclamation points over peoples’ heads, each city is so densely packed with quest-givers that your minimap – if such thing existed – would be lit up like a Christmas tree. And just like with every quest in an MMO, you never get a sense that you are actually solving anything. Give the Blacksmith 10 Fire Salts to reheat his forge? He may greet you a little differently, but his “secret technique” results in no higher quality merchandise, no larger gold cap, no discounts.

Sidequests are sidequests, though, right? Well, to an extent. The problem is when there are more sidequests than main quests, or when the main quest is boring. At some point, you give the player enough freedom to hang themselves… and they do.

See, I have completely lost the Skyrim narrative. “What am I doing? Why do I care?” Helping a dude steal a horse is supposed to enrich the game world’s verisimilitude, I guess? If that is the case, it failed. The quests are so disjointed and arbitrary that I end up feeling like a dyslexic, ADD-addled coke-fiend with Tourettes, sputtering along countryside with an ever-increasing laundry list of chores. The situation really makes me appreciate all those otherwise lame zones in WoW, insofar as the quests actually lead somewhere or enriched the background of the zone.

Crafting

I have heard a lot of people lament the state of player crafting in MMOs, but again, Skyrim is a good case-in-point about where strong player crafting can lead to. Basically, I have not upgraded a single piece of gear in the last 40 hours of gameplay. Considering there is no such thing as quest XP, and I have more gold than I could ever possibly spend, the lack of possible gear upgrades essentially boils questing down to its base narrative components. Some hold up, most do not.

Short of the sandbox-esque nuclear option of destroying gear and/or permanent durability loss, I do not see a worthy payout for the costs of strong player crafting. I just completed a long questline to reconstruct a 1,000+ year old amulet whose power started a war and led to it being split into three parts and sealed away; the names of amulet keepers were to be forgotten under the pain of death. After finally reforging it, I held it in my hands and… oh, +30 to Health/Mana/Stamina? I created an amulet with +67 to Health and +40% extra Bow damage nearly 50 hours ago.

/vendor

While some of this can be mitigated in MMOs by making recipes rare, requiring special crafting materials from higher-level content (which is different than normal loot… how?), and so on, strong player crafting still seems to boil down to reducing or eliminating much of the incentive to quest. Perhaps that is indeed the entire point, eh? Moving away from designer quests and into “Spam Trade chat for an hour” player quests? That is fine to do, with the assumption that the game itself is either going full quest-less, or the quests that do exist are so ridiculously fun and exciting that they are intrinsically worth doing.

Pacing

Although this is not a formal review, if I had to sum up all of my problems with Skyrim in a single word, it would be “pacing.” There simply isn’t any. Even if the game revolves around doing what you want, pacing is important. I am level 51 and I can 2-shot dragons with my bow from stealth – the game is essentially over for me. And yet the main questline is not remotely near complete, nevermind the handful of other quests remaining. Yes, “I did this to myself.” If EVE gave every new player a Titan for completing the tutorial, those players would also be “doing it to themselves” for (ab)using it too.

Point being, it is the designers’ jobs to craft a well-paced game. I don’t care how sandbox your design is, I shouldn’t be allowed to break the game for myself. One of the great strengths of the themepark experience is exactly the derided “on rails” component: it will take you X days of Y quests to get Z gear. The bosses you face tomorrow will be stronger than the ones faced today. There will be a quantifiable reason to collect 10 bear asses.

After 100 hours of gameplay, clearly Skyrim is doing some things right. I have never taken more screenshots in my entire life, for example. Despite my character being completely broken, I still treat the world seriously (sneaking around when I could simply kill things straight-up) because it projects seriousness in most every scenario. But instead of making me pine for Skyrim Online, it does the opposite. I miss the strong narratives of Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I hated having to level through Burning Crusade content in WoW, but I hate tracking down 20 Nirnroots more.

Pacing is something to keep in mind when constructing your hypothetical sandbox or Impossible MMO. More options, more things to do, can actually result in less meaningful gameplay. Skyrim deserves its accolades, but it makes for a pretty bad MMO. And the changes necessary for Skyrim to be ported into the MMO world would, in fact, make it resemble nothing like its present state.

Skyrim Design Nettles

Skyrim thus far has been as amazing an experience as everyone says. There is something to be said about how the fidelity of an experience engenders instant immersion in ways videogaming might not have achieved even five years ago. I already posted the screenshot of what I saw exiting the tutorial dungeon for the first time, and I was immediately struck by the same awe and infinite possibility I felt leaving the Vault in Fallout 3.

My current desktop background. Well, at +1000 resolution.

What I want to talk about today though, are the Design Nettles in Skyrim. These are the little things that take me out of the experience with their sting, no matter how much I try and ignore them. Every game has its idiosyncrasies, but what elevates these particular annoyances is either how out of place they seem within the context of a fidelitous experience, or how much they are artifacts of a bygone design era.

Imbalanced Skill Gains

Raising one’s Sneak level by auto-running into the wall for an hour has been a staple of Bethesda design since at least Morrowind. Why they choose not to fix that isn’t the problem. The problem is simply the imbalanced skill gains generally.

I gained two entire character levels in the first town from simply pickpocketing; going from level 6 to level 8 within the same house, in fact. Indeed, I gained 5 skill points for pickpocketing ONE ITEM, a magic ring from a sleeping guy. My pickpocketing skill is currently north of 70, I am level 21, and I haven’t even seen a 3rd city or a dragon yet. Meanwhile, I have probably picked 30 locks in the same time period and received ~4 skill ups. Same with Blacksmithing, Alchemy, Enchanting, Sneaking, Archery, and so on and so forth.

This is more of a problem in Skyrim than it was in Oblivion, because gaining any skill points increases one’s level, which in turn increases the level of all enemies in the game world. More insidiously, you can go hours (or specifically 18 hours in my case) before the problem even begins to manifest itself. I ran into some bandits on a bridge who were immune to my normal tactics which had hitherto worked in every encounter, and I only succeeded by “gaming” the system in rather ridiculous ways – playing Ring-Around-the-Cookpot and ladeling myself 16 servings of Apple Cabbage Stew in Matrix-esque bullet-time.

Enemies on Minimap

I can appreciate the design challenge that comes from choosing to have enemies appear on the minimap. Specifically, once you do that, you cede the ability to create tension via unknown enemy placement without resorting to dumb gimmicks. I like to call this the Silent Hill effect – unlike Resident Evil or other survival horror games where monsters can jump out at you at any moment, Silent Hill gives the player a radio that plays static whenever enemies are about. No static, no monsters.

Silent Hill as a series gets around this “limitation” by being fucking scary even when there aren’t enemies around (and by segmenting the game into rooms), but Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas fall into the trap of essentially lying to the player; “You can see enemies, and even raise stats to see them from farther away, unless we need to generate tension in which case your abilities will be useless.”

Skyrim attempts to have it both ways, while simultaneously stepping into one of my biggest pet peeves in “realistic” games.

In Skyrim, enemies that have aggro’d to your presence appear as red dots on the map-bar. You can even track the movement of these enemies through walls and barriers. Other than that, nothing appears on the map-bar other than locations. Which is… fine, right? Resident Evil, Half-Life, etc, don’t have minimaps with enemies on them either. My peeve though, relates to how high-fidelity games play out as if my highly skilled avatar is as clueless as me, the player.

Look. It’s clear the Skyrim designers decided not to put animals/people/etc on the minimap in order to increase realism. If I’m chasing butterflies to eat their delicious wings, it’s fair play that the tiger I wasn’t even looking for gets its turn too. But if I’m specifically hunting that tiger, or I’m sneaking up on the bandit camp, it simply feels dumb to be surprised due to lack of information. I can’t hear the guy in full plate walking around because the designers refused to give me that input; or if they did, they made audio-only to the point where I’d blow out my desktop speakers trying to hear it.

You can’t ask me to put myself in that field, and deny me access to my normal senses. And you can’t pretend that my normal senses are adequately represented in your arbitrary, game design way.

In other words, Christ, I want NPCs on that minimap. It obviously changed my behavior in the Fallout series knowing where people are even through walls and such, but removing it and pretending my character is as careless as I am playing the game is worse. Indoors? Yes, it works well to force people to be careful. Outdoors? Completely ruins any semblance of stealth-ish gameplay. At least, until I “beat the system” by Quick-Saving every 30 seconds and simply reloading if I stumble into a bandit camp without the opportunity to sneak attack someone.