Sunday, September 2, 2012

The first two hours, part 2; or how I learned to stop worrying and just not play games with too many features.

Even small worlds should start big

[Expect some degree of spoilers for Lost Odyssey, The Witcher 2, and Skyrim.]

So, as per the last post here, we are playing the first two hours of Lost Odyssey and the first two hours of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings; and then here we are, wondering why we’ve only ever played the first two hours of the former, while playing multiple times through the latter. Both games are epic fantasy RPGs, but the player experience is designed from two nearly antithetical standpoints. I started off by taking a look at the way the world and story are introduced in each case, since epic fantasy RPGs generally make the exposition of a grandiose narrative central to the game; this time, however, I’d like to get a feel for how the introduction of mechanics in a complex system affects the player.

The thing is, big worlds tend to have big, complex systems that players use to interact with them. If that’s to be the case, then the challenge of the first part of the game is essentially doubled: the designer has to hook us not only the idea of exploring the world, but on the way we’ll actually be undertaking that task. There are some games with great stories that never get played, because the system and controls are horrible; there are others with shit stories which people still play, because the system is effective and gameplay is fun. (There are notably more games of the second type than the first, because most games persist in having generally shit stories.) Or, on the other hand, there are plenty of mechanically fun games that people will put down because they’re just boring.

This issue is central to both Lost Odyssey and The Witcher 2. LO takes place in a huge world mishmashed from magical and mechanical elements, with apparent social and political structures in place maintaining and overseeing that complicated system; meanwhile, it has a conventional turn-based RPG interface system, attacking, defending, using special abilities, and using items. TW2 is a more conventional world, drawn very deliberately from late medieval and early modern source material in eastern Europe; to balance that out, though, we have a fairly unique action RPG interface, which demands some complex balancing of potions, items, spells, and swordplay, both in and out of combat. In a certain sense, TW2 has a more complicated mechanical system than LO – at least, it has one with which most gamers will be less familiar (if only for the single craziest reason that potions cannot be used during combat). And yet, because of some dubious design decisions early on, my roommate and I found TW2’s system easier to navigate, even though both of us are used to LO’s Final Fantasy-style mechanics.

Two points demand consideration: one, the streamlining of tutorials, and two, the availability of actions early on.

Both games have player tutorials, although it’s notable that TW2’s tutorial was retroactively added only after players had complained. We were playing the Xbox port, the Enhanced Edition, which included this little extra bit to ease us into the game. Without passing judgment on the issue of hardcore gamers, hardcore games, and how balls-crushingly difficult a game should be right from the get-go, I do want to give CD Projekt Red some credit for making one design decision (no tutorial, dropping a player into combat early on) due to some principles and beliefs about their players, and then amending that decision when given the chance (added a tutorial as DLC, or including it automatically in the Enhanced Edition available on the Xbox). That’s ballsy in and of itself: getting feedback from players, especially about a touchy subject like difficulty of what’s billed as a kind of “game for gamers,” and then incorporating that feedback, goes a long way towards making a good game experience better. So points for you! But we should also note that they didn’t give ground willy-nilly, like Rosecrans at the battle of Chickamauga; they added a tutorial, and it’s an optional one, which takes the form of a discrete episode chronologically separate from the main quest.

It seems stupid to make such a big deal of it – the game asks, would you like to play the tutorial? Yes or no – but since this post is about observing the differences between two games who take different approaches to these things, it really struck me how vast of an experiential difference arose from the option to play the tutorial, or to skip it, and to have the tutorial as a single wholesale unit. My basic take-away from the fact: tutorials should be discrete episodes, and they should be optional.
Who likes tutorials? It’s very rare that a player will remark, “Oh yeah, man, that tutorial rocked my socks.” More often than not, it’s, “Man, that tutorial was just annoying and awkward and still confusing and fuck that tutorial.” Does TW2 avoid that? Does it make a tutorial that’s enjoyable and informative?

Kind of, not really. It does achieve something pretty upfront and basic which seems necessary insofar as having an attitude about tutorials, as a designer. Let’s all agree on something. Tutorials break the fourth wall. Period. They have to contend with the problem of interface, not only in navigating menus but in many cases literally teaching the player which buttons to push, where, when, and how. That’s never going to be a unique, beautiful, streamlined system. It’s always going to be kind of shitty. Since that’s the case, why don’t we more often go for broke the way that TW2 does? During the game, sure, I want to be really into the game experience, but right at the get-go, fine. Ask me outright if I want a tutorial, and make that tutorial as blatant as possible. TW2 clothes its tutorial in the pleasant skirt of a totally meaningless story: your boat has sunk in a little marsh, and you need to walk to the arena to compete for some prize money. No biggie. It doesn’t have any pretensions about being a training sequence, as though Geralt and I are learning the same skills at the same time; it doesn’t have any pretensions about being well-written or incredibly fun. But amazingly enough, I damn well appreciate that. What the tutorial from TW2 tells me is, quite literally, Geralt knows what the fuck is going on, and the game is going to be more fun if you don’t make him look like a floundering douchecanoe. That’s what I love about it: it has a clear goal, gets to that goal as efficiently as possible, and then takes its hands off your shoulders to let you ride (and maybe tip over) on your own.

The tutorial works by giving you a series of small tasks and text prompts in rapid succession. As a general rule, I’d say avoiding text is preferable, but the decision to give you written on-screen directions and reminders is actually fine here, because again, the tutorial is set apart from the game experience itself. If, eight hours into a game, I had to read a bunch of written directions overlaying my screen, I’d feel pretty unhappy about it, because I was really getting into the world and enjoying it. Even relatively early into a game – if I start it, get the basic controls down, and then immediately find myself deluged with new directions – I’ll be quite resistant to text direction. But if your tutorial is totally up-front with itself, and tells you, “Hey; this isn’t the game, this is just a way for us to teach you how to play the game,” then I’m totally fine with it breaking a few “game design principles” for the sake of efficiency. By leading in with the option of the tutorial, the game weeds out people who don’t want a tutorial, and as a result, the people who do want one get a pretty good one. It seems so simple, but I don’t know that it ever occurred to me so directly before this. If your players have chosen to play the tutorial, rather than having it foisted upon them will or nil, then they won’t complain about it if it’s not a majestic wonderland of edutainment.

It’s not often that intensive, story-driven fantasy RPGs can take cues from fighting games, but I will say this much: the best tutorial I have ever played was from the Xbox Arcade game Skullgirls, a cartoony fighting game with a lot of style. Although fighting games as a genre do tend to have tutorial modes, the tutorial system for Skullgirls involves an intensive, multi-chapter mode for learning everything from basic movement skills to advanced combat techniques. It’s so totally set apart from the game that it feels like a mini-game, or series of micro-games, unto itself. It’s so blatant about its tutoriality that you don’t mind it. And amazingly, it very effectively teaches you the astoundingly complex combat system of Skullgirls. The experience served as a devastating litmus test for what I once thought was appropriate for games. If people can learn to be good at Skullgirls, then whatever infinite crystalline snowflake of a game you’ve created can definitely be taught just as well. It may not be seem great, but giving your players a whole bunch of information all at the once could be the best way for them to actually retain that information.

Maybe it has something to do with the brain goes into crisis mode, but TW2 basically just told me, “Get out of your boat, collect some ingredients, and make that dude a potion,” and I DID. Granted, I figured out more of the system as I played through the game, but the basics of every part of the game – potions, combat, menus, gear – I had right from the beginning.

Lost Odyssey, on the other hand, takes the opposite route – one which is much more frequently employed, in my experience. It was clear, from the scope of the menus and buttons, that the game had a lot to offer with its fighting system. At the beginning though, we could only attack or defend. We were dropped into a battle, we hacked our way through, and then, when we found a ring, we discovered – calloo, callay! – we could equip rings for special abilities, the first of these being a timed-attack reflex system. The menu told us so by interrupting our game to point out to us precisely how to equip a piece of loot, select its abilities, and employ those abilities in combat. It was, frankly, annoying, and worse was seeing the other menu buttons which were grayed out, unselectable, or had no entries yet, because I knew I had more moo-interrupting-cow tutorial moments ahead each time the game decided I needed to know something new.

I told you in my last post that I had trouble getting into LO’s whole world, characters, etc. What doesn’t help is the game stopping that experience constantly, to tell me it’s a game, before leaving me to go back to playing. There’s a bit of a representational problem in this design. You’re breaking the fourth wall a lot in most turn-based combat RPGs, since seeing time bars and menus of actions during combat is obviously not “realistic;” but that system still adequately suggests how a person might actually fight, by taking time to prepare oneself, to wait briefly, to choose one’s next move carefully but quickly, and then to act. There is no representational analogue to the magical omniscient narrator fairy who pops in to tell you how to put a ring on your finger and know how to do a thing. If it had better results, I’d let it slide, but the fact really bugs me that an inefficient, and un-fun, and ineffective system persists in being employed by plenty of designers out there.

This line of discussion is leading steeply into my second realization: tutorials are streamlined most efficiently by giving the player all (or most) of their relevant abilities in the beginning of the game.
“But wait!” we might cry. “This flies in the face of every experience most of us have ever had! How many of us have turned off a game because we were overwhelmed by information and ability, and how many because we found the game was too slow in giving us more information and ability?” And in a certain sense, that’s true. You won’t necessarily lose gamers on account of making a system that’s very deliberately simple, and only gives them one new piece of data at a time; they may find it tedious, but they will rarely find it unusable. However, that’s hardly an argument for such a system being the best, or even particularly useful. Especially in the context of a story-driven RPG, a tutorial should contribute to your experience of gameplay and story at the same time. When it comes down to it, we’ve had too many games that somehow convince us that a veteran of military service still hasn’t figured out how to parry and counterattack until just now, or that a graduate of a magical academy knows only a few rudimentary spells, just for the sake of forcing upward progression through the game.

It is, admittedly, important for some sort of upward progression to exist; it’s a huge part of why gamers play games. Particularly in the case of MMORPGs, where you want people to play for a long time and keep paying subscriptions, ideally, the deep psychological satisfaction of leveling up or acquiring a new ability can be a deadly weapon. But in certain types of games, and especially in action RPGs, you have fundamental design concerns which conflict with this model: in some games, the acquisition of actual skill as a player, and in some, the vaunted importance of the player’s ability to choose and develop a character and playstyle. As was the point of this comparative project, this is an observation I would only make in directly comparing two games, but I found it much easier to deal with TW2 for the simple reason of knowing what I could do. At the beginning of the LO, you can do nothing but attack and defend. You’re some kind of insane warrior with the ability to leap dozens of feet into the air, destroy huge electro-magical tanks, and mow down trooper after trooper wearing full plate armor, but your martial skill in gameplay is limited to swinging your sword or blocking with it. You can’t do anything else until you’ve learned how to do it, at some arbitrary point defined by the game (oh, immediately after this battle ends, you find a magical combat ring? HOW INTERESTING).

The problem? When you only give your player limited abilities, what you’re literally doing is limiting their playstyle, and forcing them to play the game in the way you want them to play it. You’re reducing player choice, and shunting them down a small number of paths. Players naturally rebel against this impulse. Big arrow point to the right? They want to go left. Character supposed to die? They’ll try to sequence-break. Or, if you give them no options, they’ll a) begrudgingly follow along or b) turn off the game because I’m not a part of your system, man.

What I happily discovered about TW2 was that, even though there was clearly a level-up and advancement system, all the basic assets of that system were already in place. You already know all the spells that Geralt will know right at the beginning, and they all already do what they’re supposed to do; they simply get stronger and more effective over time, as would naturally occur with regular use. This had a particularly interesting effect: it meant that my skill as a player and Geralt’s skills as a character actually advanced along similar arcs. From the start of the game I understood that I could use one spell -  which, for lack of recollection, I will call the Force push – to stun an enemy and then one-shot them. My combat style gravitated towards this system, using a spell to halt enemies and then my sword to quickly dispatch them. As I went through the game, my Force push got stronger, to the point that I could stun four or five enemies at once and one-shot all of them before they recovered (which was awesome). That’s only a smallish example. The availability of playstyle options from the beginning also means that I’d have had no problem changing gameplay paradigms if that system stopped working. Again, it might not be something we think about too much, until it becomes evident from a game that does it right, but frankly, it’s much better to have a playstyle that develops in reaction to the world, and to the player’s abilities, than one that develops in reaction to arbitrary new information and new abilities. Or maybe it’s not, but damn it, it certainly seems like it is to me. Again, we can appreciate the value of unlocking something new, and how it positively affects the player, without building a kind of deus ex machina ability system that drops new stuff for us on a semi-regular basis.

In fact, one of the best examples of balance here, in my mind, is the discovery of shouts in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Some people went through whole chunks of the game using only regular combat skills, stealth and magic to get through their missions, deliberately putting off the main quest. Then they discovered that holy crap Dragonborn I can shoot fire from my mouth, and all of a sudden the balance of the game changes pretty meaningfully (no-mana-cost spells, just a recharge time), as does the player’s combat style in relation to that change. It’s intense, it’s awesome, it’s tied into the story quite intimately – and it happens once. Not a million tiny times, without any storyline justification (you found a magic ring that you can use in combat! Now I’ll teach you how to wear rings because you apparently understand how to weave the fabric of the universe, but not fingers). Once. That’s it; one big change to the game mechanics, everything else you have to get up front. At the very least, we can appreciate that any further big changes need to be…er, small, for one thing, and for another, storyline-derived. More or less any Final Fantasy game gets the picture. Because party-based RPGs introduce new abilities by introducing characters, you always have a certain leeway in giving people more stuff. The problem arises when your cast of characters is waaaay too big, for both story and gameplay purposes, and it just feels like being nitpicked by meaningless people with useless abilities. In a way, this provides a good size test for a project. Could you introduce most, if not all, of your characters and abilities quite near the beginning, and still reasonably expect the player to succeed with them? If not, maybe cut some shit down.

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