Monday, August 27, 2007

The Importance of Attrition

So, like a few other people, I've been complaining about the gameplay of Bioshock. I compare it to System Shock 2 and wonder whether they did any playtesting at all.

But, on the surface, it's almost identical to SS2. Vita chambers and quantum entanglement units are basically the same thing - they resurrect you when you die. Similarly, both games are about door-to-door mayhem with guns and hacking and psychic powers. Actually, if anything, Bioshock should be better because the psychic powers don't suck.

I won't claim that SS2 got the gameplay right on purpose. After all, they didn't get anything else right on purpose. But they got a whole lot right on accident - from level design to storytelling and over to enemy design. Presumably, they accidentally made the gameplay fun, too. Amusingly, these are all the things that Bioshock did not achieve. Even working from SS2's blueprints, they were unable to duplicate SS2's high points, although they did have high points of their own that System Shock did not achieve.

The two games can't be directly compared without taking into account the fact that SS2 is a butt-ugly game with a UI that shows its age. It is almost ten years old, after all. BUT, if we were to imagine SS2 bumped up to Bioshock level graphics, I would not have a hard time choosing a favorite.

The reason the SS2 is so much more fun for me is simple: it's scary. Really scary.

But Bioshock is about as scary as peeling paint.

They have the same gameplay! Why is one scary, the other not?

As you might have guessed, I'm claiming it's because of attrition.

There is an issue commonly called "the Quicksave Dilemma". Basically, PC games are expected to have a quicksave-quickload functionality. But this puts a hell of a lot of pressure on the game designers, because whenever the player does poorly, they simply load the game and go through the same situation with foreknowledge of everything. Rinse and repeat, and you have a player that basically goes through the game "cheating" past your challenges. This reduces the depth of the gameplay by "short circuiting" the parts of the gameplay that are about resource management. Who needs resources when you can re-load until you get through without losing any health?

This is a huge problem in surprise-based games. If a big part of the gameplay is stumbling into an unknown situation and then having to fight your way out, quicksave will destroy the game entirely. These days, surprise-based games largely leave the resource management section of the gameplay to atrophy, boosting the moment-to-moment adrenaline-inducing play to compensate. You see this in Doom III, for example, and in Bioshock.

The vita chambers - and the quantum entanglement units - are basically an automatic quicksave-quickload, with the added bonus that all your enemies stay injured. So it induces all the problems that quicksaving induces.

There are a couple of ways of reducing this quicksave problem, but my favorite (and the best for horror games) is by using attrition.

No given situation will kill you, unless you do something completely silly. No given enemy is likely to even hurt you much, unless they're a big nasty. And not only that, the enemies give themselves away: you know precisely where they are and what they are, because they jabber to themselves. "Babies need ressssst... babies need sleep!"

But as you go from room to room, you'll continually be hurt a little, and that really starts to add up. The same principle applies for ammo or any other resources: they slowly get used up.

This isn't really something you quicksave to beat. It's not a lot of damage, and you can't usually do all that much better by quickloading.

Instead, the game drags your resources down despite the fact that you can quicksave and quickload. This isn't perfect: some people are so addicted that they will quickload every time they are hit. Especially in this day and age, where quicksaving and quickloading are really quick - when I originally played SS2, the "quick"save took about seven seconds. But it is a fairly good solution, especially if your quicksaving has other restrictions.

It is what System Shock did. Virtually every enemy save the wrench zombies was likely to hit you in the amount of time it took you to kill them, and they would all use up precious precious bullets. It was why you always got nervous when you heard the monkeys... the damn monkeys!

Bioshock did the Doom III method. Instead of dragging on your resources, they give you a huge amount of resources and cap your maximum carry. After any given fight, you could go back and scrounge your way to full capacity pretty easily, especially in late game. This means that any given fight has to be a significant threat. Every enemy needs to at least have the capacity to kill you.

This means that every fight is worth quicksaving through. It means that you're going to die a lot, and it's not going to matter. In Bioshock, dying is quickloading.

In Bioshock, there is no attrition. In System Shock, there is.

System Shock is scary. Bioshock isn't.

...

Also, System Shock 2 didn't resort to numbering their spells. "Immolate 2"? "Immolate 3"? "Immolate-aga"? :(

6 comments:

Adrian Lopez said...

Quoting this for truth (mostly):

"Basically, PC games are expected to have a quicksave-quickload functionality. But this puts a hell of a lot of pressure on the game designers, because whenever the player does poorly, they simply load the game and go through the same situation with foreknowledge of everything. Rinse and repeat, and you have a player that basically goes through the game 'cheating' past your challenges."

I'm not sure I agree with the bit about "foreknowledge of everything" (probably because I tend to dislike surprises as challenges), but otherwise I agree. In any case, I think the resource management problem is far more significant:

"This reduces the depth of the gameplay by 'short circuiting' the parts of the gameplay that are about resource management. Who needs resources when you can re-load until you get through without losing any health?"

Anyway, your post is a chance to plug my own blog post on the matter, which I know you've already read, but your readers have probably not. In the end, it all boils down to a single sentence: Uncouple your game's response to player failure from the game's save system.

PS - I've been wondering: Have you forsaken the IGDA forums?

Craig Perko said...

Sure, decoupling the save is a great way to manage this. Me, I'm a big fan of simply not having quicksaves, but that's not popular for some reason. ;)

I really only do forums when I can't find anyone to talk to in person. Now that I'm back in the East and working for a games middleware company, I get my daily recommended dose of game geek.

Jim said...

Re the vita chamber issues, fear, and quicksaving in general, I think there was one factor that played heavily into Bioshock that did not into System Shock 2: they wanted the average player to finish it.

In System Shock 2, if you fuck up, if you use up too much ammo or lose too much health, or if you take a bad upgrade path, you lose. Period. Bioshock is a lot friendlier. They wanted everybody to see all the content -- which makes sense, because the content is the game's strong point by far. The narrative is one of the best I've encountered in video games -- and it's one that requires interactivity to be fully effective. It could've been an adventure game.

I agree that attrition is the form it took, and with quicksaving maybe the only form it could've taken, but I think more generally the fear in System Shock 2 derived from the feeling that you are always about to lose. But they did it the easy way, by making the game so hard that you really are always about to lose. The real trick is for a game to fool you into believing it.

I don't know of any video games that have really pulled that off. But a friend of mine once described the main appeal of Netrunner, an asymmetrical collectible card game, almost exactly that way: no matter who's winning, you always feel like you're losing. He's right. I tried it once and it's stress city.

Craig Perko said...

Jim: I think you're exactly right. But they went too far! Most games want the average person to be able to win - even survival horror games like Resident Evil or Eternal Darkness. They are still fun to play.

But those survival horror games DON'T use quicksaves. In fact, a big part of the gameplay is that your saves are carefully controlled.

Opening up the bag of quicksaves requires a different approach, and the Bioshock boys didn't seem to know that.

I'm not a fan of adaptive difficulty, but if there has ever been a game that needed it...

Andy said...

Hey there. My friend sent me a link to this bioshock post because I was bemoaning the same thing to him as I was playing it.

Just to play a little devils advocate, One thing to take into consideration is that while many people might have played System Shock 2, I'm guessing only a SMALL fraction of them actually finished the game. I cant imagine how frustrating it is for developers to spend so much time and effort on making a solid ending to a game, and not have the players quit before reaching it. It's as if 80% of the people in a movie get up and leave the theater before the big finish. SystemShock 2's ending was one of my favorite parts of the game, with the whole ship being corrupted by the Many's will.

I actually enjoy the fact that the VitaChambers have freed me from my quicksave addiction. WIth that said, I do think that the regeneration process should take something away from you temporarily, like Ammo, and have it trickle back in to your pockets after staying alive for a while (as some side effect of the cloning process).

Anyway, I enjoyed your article, and am glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks that BioShock is a good game, but leans HEAVILY on the Spiritual Successor crutch.

Craig Perko said...

I have to admit that I've only beaten SS2 once "straight" - usually I end up cheating when I enter the biomass, just because it's a pain in the ass.

The idea of a temporary disability might be a good one... I'll have to think about it.