Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Case for Boring Games...

I've been thinking about RPGs.

Everyone who plays them can point to an RPG and say, "That's one of my favorites". Whether you point to Planescape: Torment, FFVI, or something that's a bit of a stretch like System Shock II or FFVII, you don't have any problem pointing.

I've been thinking about the stuff I like in an RPG, and I've come to the conclusion that I like the boring stuff.

The primary gameplay of an RPG - killing monsters, exploring dungeons, leveling up - doesn't interest me much. I actually find those parts of the game very boring.

On the other hand, the boring parts of the game... I love. I love wandering around the village talking to everyone, I love mixing potions and enchanting weapons, I love building a character, I love flying around in my airship.

But I hate the same things in non-RPGs. I can't stand Animal Crossing or The Sims, even though they feature my favorite stuff.


As far as I can tell, the big reason is that the parts of the RPG that I like are set within a much larger framework. The point of the game isn't to enchant weapons or talk to peasants: it's to kill shit, explore, and level up. This means that when I spend time enchanting or chatting, I can measure it against an overall world, see it doing something.

Talking to peasants isn't the point of the game, but talking to peasants allows me to explore the world in more detail. Building a new spell isn't the point of the game, but doing so allows me to interact with the world (usually, kill shit) in a more personalized way.

In things like The Sims and Animal Crossing, these activities feel completely pointless. Sure, I can talk to everyone in town... but why bother? The world is a tiny, shallow place and exploring it is awfully pointless. Sure, I can build a classy house, but what does it matter? My sims are equally pleased by two rooms with a lot of corners. Having a nice house is actually bad, since it takes the sims twenty minutes to walk ten feet.

On the other side of the spectrum, I don't like these activities in MMORPGs, because they do not allow you to approach the world in more detail or from new perspectives. Exploring the world of the World of Warcraft is largely futile, because it's pretty well explored already. It's like "exploring" your local strip mall. There are no surprises, unless you count a 10% off sale on stuff you don't need.

Similarly, crafting weapons or potions is pointless because they have been carefully crippled down to a level of non-uniqueness that a fast food restaurant would be embarrassed about.

These all have the same problem: the creation doesn't let you interact with the world in a meaningful, seemingly unique way. Making potions doesn't give you any real new way of exploring the game, and building a house doesn't matter when there's really no world to explore with it.

Compare these to the examples I do like.

Evil Genius is about creating a house of a sort. I know a lot of people played The Sims like it was Evil Genius...

Evil Genius' house creation system was a lot weaker than The Sims, but to me it was a lot juicier. Every kind of room had a real purpose, every piece of furniture meant something. The layout wasn't just for kicks or to minimize travel time: it was continually tested by hapless tourists and not-so-hapless secret agents.

So, while Evil Genius didn't allow for many of the advanced options that The Sims allowed, it had a strong backbone that actually rewarded you for doing well.

Similarly, in Oblivion potion-making was generally quite rewarding. You could make potions of healing, sure. But it wasn't a matter of combining a rabbit foot and green herb: there were a lot of different ingredients you could use, a lot of side effects you needed to manage, and your skill played a huge part - not in simple pass/fail terms, but in what you could wring out of the ingredients.

Of course, potion making in Oblivion is well known for being one of the most broken systems on the face of the planet... that's something you have to manage, I suppose.

Evil Genius wasn't a spectacularly good game, but it's a great game to learn from. It was certainly the case that some players would be better at building bases than other players! It was definitely a long learning experience, each base slightly better as you learn the basics.

But it never came off as "unbalanced". (Actually, the unbalanced part of the game was personnel, not base construction.) The more successful you were, the more attention you drew.

This kind of adaptive feedback is the only thing I can think of that I predict will be in a lot more games. It allows you to play fast and loose with balance, favoring depth over fairness. And that's what I like.


A lot of people love The Sims, and I'm not saying it's bad. Instead, what I think is that these people impose their own world - their own value - onto the people and houses they create. Instead of having a feedback system like Oblivion's potions or Evil Genius' secret bases, the players substitute their own imagination and judgment. It seems to work well, but that's not something I need a game for.

On the other hand, the shallow 1+1=potion of MMORPGs is basically unforgivably bad...

What do you think? Do you like the "boring" parts? Can you think of a game design where crafting combines with massively multiplayer without being infuriating?


Anonymous said...

With Eve's player-created world, I never fired a shot at another player. I only ever traded goods, invested in the stock market, started up a moon harvesting firm. Those things would not have been fun if those other people weren't fighting each other out there in space, where I never went.

Olick said...

The power of world-exploration is very strong indeed. Take BioWare's big games. The joy is not in micromanaging combat, but in exploring and seeing the worlds. This is enhanced if you already like the star wars world, as in KOTOR. I am currently playing through Mass Effect, and I gotta say, I am just getting into the meat of the game, but most of it is exploration and discovery.

Or take another game I've been playing recently: Aquaria. I explore the entirety of that game, simply because I enjoy that (dying and re exploring is less fun). That isn't saying I don't enjoy the combat sections, and the great control scheme, and the bosses, because I do. And without those I might not have the patience for the exploration sections.

So in conclusion: A Roundabout Way of Agreeing With You, Possibly Reinforcing Your Point in Intangible Ways. But I do think that a game should be able to stand on all of its parts, and not be expected to excel in the exploration category by sacrificing battle or competitive elements.

I think that this post really fits in with previous points you've made about interesting social content, and gameplay/movement that is interesting or fun to use at its most basic level.

Craig Perko said...

Anon: Exactly!

Olick: I was talking to my friends about Assassin's Creed, which is a game that has sacrificed every element of the game for every other element of the game. It exceeds at nothing, but nothing is badly done.

I don't actually like it like that, although I appear to be the exception. I prefer an exceptional system that interacts with several other systems, regardless as to whether those other systems are exceptional or poor. They serve as direction...

And, yeah, this post fits in smoothly. I'm working towards something, although I'm not quite sure what just yet.

Patrick said...

I definetly agree with you on Assasin's Creed. I somewhat touched on this in a recent review of Aquaria on Play This Thing.