Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Linearized Play

Today I saw some interesting posts that kind of gelled my thinking on a specific subject.

Trends in games are easy to spot. For example, you can clearly see the spread of wargamers, followed by the spread of dungeoncrawl RPGs (D&D and ilk), and so forth. On the computery side, you can see the spread and demise of adventure games, the spread of the first person shooter, the spread of the FPS RPG... sometimes, these fashions are caused by a cool new technology, sometimes they aren't, but they always follow more or less the same arcs.

Right now theres a hideous fashion spreading through the game design world, the bell-bottoms of game design. I hate it like I hate hearing rap when I want to listen to, you know, MUSIC music. It's horrible.

This fad I'm talking about is the linearization of gameplay.

I'm sure you're all familiar with the concept of linear gameplay. At first blush, it's largely just about how the levels proceed, right? If you have to go from level to level in a specific fashion and never get to change the plot, that's linear play.

Well, no, it's just a taste of linear play.

Because a lot more things can be linear.

Back in the good old days of yore, mighty RPGs were released to the computer. Like Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday. Like Eye of the Beholder. These featured "open worlds" to at least some extent, and although the plot was linear, you could do a lot of other things between and around the plot.

These RPGs had parties that were widely customizable - and each character often had dozens of skills, a dozen stats, and a sack full of special powers. The characters were not "balanced" - half of the gameplay was to work with the character system to try to get what you wanted out of them.

These games had "3D" like chickens can play the piano. Some had a bad fake of 3D ("90-degree-jump 3D"), but most didn't even bother going that far. This was so far before the era of polygons that it was almost before the era of the mouse.

Compare and contrast to today's RPGs.

Today's RPGs are... maybe 1/10 as free? The worlds are rarely very open, there's plenty of safety rails to keep you from ever getting in over your head EVER ANYWHERE, the enemies are carefully leveled to your level, and your character is carefully balanced so that no matter how you build him or her, they will be able to face leveled challenges at a specific difficulty.

No, seriously, today's games are actually less open and have less agency than those old computer games. Essentially, all the branches have been cut off and everything smoothed into one linear path. Even if there are multiple paths, they are carefully parallel and each is perfectly straight.

As far as I can tell, this is a result of the rise of consoles. By which I mean the NES and Atari, not the Wii and 360.

These consoles had much more restricted interfaces than their computer counterparts, but were very popular and able to display on your TV, a must for the time. Their restricted capabilities meant that instead of focusing on "spreadsheet play", they focused on "action play".

For some reason, this fad has continued and grown even until today. You can see it in MMORPGs, where early MMORPGs feel more like those oldschool RPGs and the current WoWified flock feel like Frogger the MMORPG.

See, WoW is a linearized game. All the branches and edges have been rubbed off, and players are carefully guided onto their paths. While it is technically open world, the fact is that no matter where you go in the world, you will not gain a significant advantage or disadvantage (although, obviously, you can just waste your time). No matter what equipment you get, it will be within the specific limits of their proscribed power curve, and no combinations of equipments or skills will give you a significant advantage above that curve. That's an ideal, of course: sometimes, people do break the power curve, but the team almost immediately "nerfs" them back down onto it.

This is not to say that the game is "dumb". It isn't dumb, it's simply linear. It's built so that you cannot spreadsheet your way to glory: being a spreadsheet whore will only get you a few extra points here and there, enough for a small advantage but not enough to change how you play the game.

There are nonlinear elements, such as guilds and socializing, but these are not part of the gameplay. Some of the plots are nonlinear, but it is just aesthetic: they don't actually change your long-term experience or power level in any kind of significant way. Everything happens incrementally, along a carefully designed curve.

I can understand that. MMORPG, lots of players, gotta keep it balanced. I don't LIKE it, but I can understand it as a drawback of the MMO as it exists today.

But it's spreading.

Single-player RPGs are gravitating towards this same linearized path. Tabletop RPGs, most notably D&D 4th ed, are also heading this direction. But there is no reason to do so. These sorts of games do not have to be linear and, in fact, that is their great strength. It is what sets them apart.

I hope this fad dies a horrible death ASAP. Now would be a good time. Because I'm pissed that every RPG and tactical RPG I find has been dumbed down to this linear system. I might as well be watching a movie: there's certainly nothing particularly creative I can do with this kind of on-the-rails gameplay.

Give me something juicy! Let me screw up! Let me do exceedingly well! Why do I always have to do precisely as the game designer imagined it? Give me a little freedom, you egocentric jerk!

Or something.

Has anyone else noticed this crap?


Isaac said...

I've certainly noticed. My first RPGs were Dragon Wars and Wasteland. In both, there is a progression in the difficulty of the different cities you visit, but you're not really restricted and can visit them out of order. Dragon Wars in particular had four or five different ways to get out of the starting city, some of which radically affected your next move.
Contrast that to the first Dungeon Siege; I gave up when I realized that the most significant decision I was going to make for the past dozen hours was to choose between two mostly-identical thirteenth level wizards.

Greg Tannahill said...

Regarding your points on computer RPGs:

The examples of the past you're citing, insofar as we're talking mainstream releases, are largely limited to the AD&D Gold Box games, Fallout, Might and Magic, Wizardry and Ultima. And you're probably selectively remembering the good games in those franchises (Death Knights of Krynn, Might and Magic IV & V, Ultima VII, Fallout 1 & 2) and forgetting the bad ones (Hillsfar, Might and Magic 1 through 3, Ultima II and VIII).

All of those games ultimately only had one victory, and one sequence of encounters that led to it (with the exception of some of the early Might and Magic games). It was not so much that you did not have to engage in the encounters, but rather that you were not actively funnelled into them, and had to seek them out, usually finding a lot of sidequests and dead-ends in the process.

Today's gaming still supports the sandbox world; it has, to a large extent, broken genre, being seen in driving games (GTA) and shooters (Far Cry 2), and it lives on in games such as The Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3.

Moreover, I think you're unnecessarily slighting MMOs. While combat and individual power are kept (wisely) to a curve (which the player can take at their own pace), they are specifically NON linear in that, by having no fixed ending, they encourage player-formed goals and alternate paths of gameplay. While traditional gamers focus on the levelling game, you don't have to talk to many players before you start finding people vastly more interested in the economic portions of the game, or socialising and guild politics.

For tabletop RPGS:

D&D saw that in the race to make a storytelling game they were coming dead last, and left that market to the new blood in order to concentrate on making a really excellent killing-and-looting game. There's plenty of non-linear tabletop RPGs out there, including my personal favourite 7th Sea, or (by way of a more recent example) the very excellent Godlike. It's just that, as always, it gets very little press.

Finally, I don't think we should be afraid of linearisation. The fundamental principle behind it is that, when confronted with any choice, there is always an option that makes a better story than the other. There is, objectively speaking, a right choice (narratively) and sometimes stopping players from making the wrong one is in everyone's interest.

Craig Perko said...

I'm going to address this tonight when I get home, but in short, I disagree.

Craig Perko said...

The idea that those old games were linear but masked is very much missing the point. As I was saying, it's not simply a matter of plot, but of play.

Those games, as well as the forgotten bads, and also including the Quest for Glory games as well as games such as Baldur's Gate, Bard's Tale, Daggerfall (and more recent renditions of the same), Betrayal at Krondor, the Breath of Fires (somewhat), Chronotrigger, the Dark Clouds, and that's only going up to "D". All those games had "linear plots" in that the plot was triggered by certain things and couldn't really have different outcomes.

But they are not linear games. They are nonlinear games with linear plots. Within the world, you can express yourself in hugely varied ways. Your characters advance as you see fit, your power level is more a result of your choices rather than being simply a result of the amount of time you spent playing, like in modern games.

Fallout 3 and the modern Elder Scroll games are really the last vestiges of this kind of play, but they are actually linearized. The enemies tend to be leveled to your power, and your capabilities tend to be forced into a very specific channel. In Fallout 3, for example, you're pretty much limited to "gunman vs heavy weapons guy vs thief". All the complexity of the leveling system and character system boils down to that, and your ability to express yourself through play is limited.

Perhaps it's simply a matter of the number of pieces you can tweak. In older games, you generally had a party, and each character was individually as complex as any given modern character. The way they layer adds a whole level of gameplay that simply doesn't exist any more.

On the other hand, MMORPGs are "nonlinear", except for the fact that their nonlinearity has been carefully restricted so as to insure no player can deviate from the standard progression. If you have ten thousand choices and it doesn't matter which one you pick, why are they considered choices?

There is something to be said for the long-term jockying, such as grinding reputation with certain factions or whatever, but those activities are a pale shadow in my mind. They change your capabilities so little and take so much work.

I agree with you about D&D, but STRONGLY disagree with you about linearization, to the point where I'm gonna do another post about it.

Thanks for your comment, it was fun!