Monday, February 04, 2008

Where are RPGs Going?

So, I've been playing Mass Effect for... A LONG TIME NOW... and I have noticed something.

Ever since the beginning, RPGs have had a few weird little details about them that give them a strong sense of personality. Like many other genres - the FPS tends to do things a specific way, the platformer does things a specific way, and the RPG, yes, does things a specific way.

But as time has gone on, these details have gotten more and more exaggerated. I guess it's true in every genre: does it really make any sense for a man to carry ten guns, be healed by walking across a box labeled with a red cross, and for every building to be full of exploding barrels and crates?

But RPGs are what I'm noticing now. And the reason I'm noticing them is because Mass Effect takes all those little details and punches them up to levels of ridiculosity I've rarely seen.

Now, Mass Effect certainly isn't a bad game. And most people didn't even appear to notice these bits. But let me discuss them with you.

Adventure-Centric World Design

First and most obviously: why is every container full of guns? Search the trash compactor, it's full of sniper rifles. The bin full of slime has pistols inside. The med-bay has lockers full of shotguns. Every long-range space probe is, for some reason, full of assault rifles.

Anything that isn't full of weapons is full of armor or mil-spec mods. Is that any better? Does that make any more sense?

I remember Bard's Tale made fun of this right off the bat: kill a wolf and out comes fountains of gold coins and magic equipment. But Bard's Tale was making fun of you, Mass Effect. Even though you didn't exist yet.

Why does a hermit studying the writings of Space-Elf Boobaloo Matriarch Delarno have four sniper rifles, two sets of armor belonging to different species, and fifty thousand dollars?

One hermit? Yeah, I can see that, there's a plot point there. Every hermit in the game?

There's also the fun fact that if you kill someone, you get gold and stuff off them even if you shoot them with a sniper rifle from a thousand meters away with ammo that makes them disintegrate. BLAM, foom! Bing - $10,000 and a health kit!

This flaw, which I'll name "adventure-centric world design", is a big one for me. I really don't like it, especially when everything levels at the same rate I do. The hermit I discovered at level 3 has four really crappy sniper rifles, the hermit I discover at level 50 has four really shiny sniper rifles. Because the universe is only inhabited by people of my level.

I find that games with a universe that feels a bit more lived-in are more to my taste. In some games, this means you very rarely stumble across objects, but instead find a lot of color. In other games, this means you stumble across a lot of really useless objects.

Another aspect of this is the "HOW DO THEY LIVE HERE?" problem. For example, most people who live on hostile worlds live in little one-room shacks. The front door is not an airlock and just vwooshes open whenever anyone goes in. I suppose sufficiently advanced technology could keep the 10,000 degree heat outside, but there's no bathroom. I guess we evolved past that.

This is a problem in every location. Your ship has no place for marines to sleep. You have a bedroom, though, which makes me curious as to sleeping arrangements... similarly, there's no place to get food, no lounge.

Theoretically, it could all be hidden off somewhere - maybe the slow freaking elevator goes to other floors. But this assumption - that every NPC in the game exists only to talk or die - I don't like it much. Even though it's common.

Choice-Free Choices

"Dost thou love me? But thou must! Dost thou love me?"

These days it's becoming very popular to give the player choice as to his disposition. A dialog tree is no longer simply a source of information, it's also a way to define your character's personality.

But, classically, dialog trees are for letting the player mine for pre-scripted information. This means that expanding them to include personality simply means the player now mines for pre-scripted personality. It's not a particularly good way to do things.

What makes it worse is that, especially in Bioware games, the player is given a choice that literally does not matter, but is presented as if it did.

For example, I'm given the option of helping someone snarkily or kindly. It doesn't matter! It has no game effect other than giving you a point of snark or wuss.

It's just a modern version of the "Will you help? Yes/No - No. But you must! Will you help? Yes/No..."

These "pointless choices" are a relic, and a really poor smoke-and-mirror trick that I wish would go out of style. Especially since the way they implement "personality" is to... always, universally, every time... let you decide between being a total pussy or a murdering psychotic.

I especially like in Mass Effect that regardless of how paragonny you are (paragon: the Path of the Pussy) you still end up committing treason against both your governments, conspiracy to commit treason against both your governments, and stealing the most advanced ship in the fleet to invade another government in an act of war. Yeah, after you spend the whole game saying things like "calm down, we can work this out". (Because the alternative is "kill the bastard".)

This particular trick ("pointless choices") is bad not only because it is transparent, but because it builds up an expectation that the writers universally fail to fulfill. It's like shooting yourself in the foot.

Step by Step, Row by Row, Time to Make this Warrior Grow...

The third of the three typical RPG elements that I dislike today is the fact that RPGs are largely spreadsheet gaming. Every level-up, every new weapon is a few points better on a given axis.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, it is rather excessive. To distract you from the story (you know, the ROLE PLAY), they give you ten thousand fights with a hundred thousand different stats. In the best of situations, the way you set up your capabilities will change your options in the story. That's pretty damn rare, though: your role is generally completely unrelated to your play.

I actually found Ico and Shadows of the Colossus to be more role play than any of the so-called "RPG"s out on the market.


Anyhow, those are the three things I notice most when I look at how insular RPGs have gotten these days.

All three have upsides, mostly in terms of efficiently immersing the player in the world. But I sure could do with some innovation.

What are your opinions?


Eric Poulton said...

That first one is the one that got to me the most during the game.

My favourite part of RPG is generally exploration. RPGs tend to have very large worlds full of very interesting things. No matter how cool of a universe the codex described, the portion of the universe you get to explore is boring and lifeless and regardless of where you go you'll never find anything that isn't a gun.

Ryan said...

I couldn't agree with you more. What I find interesting is how I react to it in different CRPGs.

In the more 'gameist' CRPGs like Diablo and its ilk I have no trouble with the unreality of it all. Its a click fest that rewards me with random dungeons and fat loot and every level lets me spend points to improve or gain a new ability/spell.

In the games that try to be more 'realistic' like Oblivion and Mass Effect (which I have yet to play but I'll go off what I've heard) these inconsistancies bug the hell out of me. I particularly despise the level up method of character advancement that developers seem to be unable or unwilling to move away from. I understand that it provides a game mechanic that gives a player incremental goals as well as a feeling of growth and accomplishment that is intrinsic to the CRPG genre, but it seems to me that it is a thoughtless inclusion in the these games aiming for a more involved and 'realistic' experience.

There are a lot of tabletop RPG's out now that don't use the level mechanic (although I suspect that 99% of developers do not play anything but D&D) and yet we do not see these coming through in the CRPG realms. The elder scrolls series takes a stab at it with usage based skill improvement but places this in the framework of the level up mechanic to improve hit points and stats.

What I find amusing is that Richard Garriot designed Ultima Online with no levels and a usage based skill improvement that works and still allows for the player to face increasing levels of challenge as they play.

The thing that bugs me in these things is how when you go up a level you can get better at or learn new skills that you've never used. And anything which is skill based never seems to take into account the fact that people tend to learn the most from their mistakes. Why is there no skill gain system out there in CRPG land that has a greater level of skill advancement if a character fails at doing something?

Craig Perko said...

Eric: I know! Argh!

This was especially bad considering they let you search for various relics - the writings of so-and-so, the medallions of such-and-such. But if you find them all? Nothing! No story, no plot element, no nothing!

Also, I really wish they'd done some more original races. While the background races were pretty interesting, the big four? Humans, elves, gnomes, and dwarves. Except, you know, with funny colors.

Ryan: I don't really know what devs are thinking when they decide to implement another game filled with shitty leveling. "It worked before, let's do it again?"

There are a lot of potentially extremely interesting ways to handle this sort of thing, including some that are very much more role play-ey.

I'm gonna write a post on that someday soon...

Jason O said...

I may get lynched for saying this, but it doesn't sound all that different from Knights of the Old Republic.

Now, before the lynching...and burning...and hanging, I just want to say that I did actually like KOTOR, but it shared all of the same design "features" you just described.

Plus it was ham-fisted romance obviously written by gaming nerds who need to get out more. Then again, it was barely a step above the "romance" in Baldur's Gate II, also done by BioWare.

I noticed way back in Baldur's Gate that there was a weird design flaw. At one point you find a Sword +1, it's like the first magic item you find and it's incredibly valuable to have because there were fights against monsters that could only be hurt by this one sword you had.

Then you find a niftier sword, you get higher level, and suddenly you can find Sword +1's everywhere. They're common. You start using them as currency.

I liked that rarity though.

I hate the false diversity of these games. The same essential races, the same essential weapons except they have different stats and names but look just like the weapons you started with. Have you seen my Glock +3. Hell, what kind of logic is that anyway?

I still plan on getting Mass Effect, it's just the kind of game I like to play, but that doesn't excuse BioWare from doing the same design they've done since their first big hit. I've played Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II, Knights of the Old Republic. Time for something else, please!

Craig Perko said...

Yes, I view this as a clear successor to KotOR. It's KotOR with real-time combat.

But you would not believe how much they amped up these quirks. They're ten times more severe in Mass Effect than in KotOR.

None of my essay is exaggeration. You do literally find guns in trash disposals, medlabs, and deep-space probes.