Thursday, January 13, 2011


I posted a very dismissive comment on Skyrim, and I've gotten a fair number of people telling me not to be so dismissive. So, I'm going to talk about it a bit. By "talk", I mean "rant". (Edit: I really mean rant. This is a way over-the-top rant. I only clarify this because now there's some outside links leading here. This is not a measured discussion of merit. It is a rant.)

First, I'm sure Skyrim is going to be an extremely popular game with very high ratings. It'll certainly get game of the year. What I'm saying is that you will enjoy Skyrim if you're even vaguely the sort of person who likes things like Oblivion or Fallout 3. Hell, even I might enjoy it, maybe. It's not a gamble, it's not a mystery, there's not even any need to see gameplay videos. It's a well-funded game from an experienced studio that has put out many of the most successful games in this genre.

But let me tell you why I don't like it.

There's a stench crawling up from below, and I smell it in every press release and article. The stench of... streamlining.

Let me start with the most obvious example: they've taken out the the "restrictive class system" and allow you to gain points in skills just as you use them. Of course, the earlier games had a class system... and still improved your skills as you use them. So we can ignore the "improve your skills as you use them" chaff. All they're doing is explicitly removing classes.

At first glance, you shrug and say "why not? Sounds fine. A lot of successful games like Fallout 3 don't have classes. They're an outdated design philosophy."

So, let me ask a simple question: what was your favorite part of Oblivion and Morrowind?

So far, most of the people I've asked have said either "the first ten hours" or "character customization". Which are basically the same answer.

I played Oblivion for at least two hundred hours. The vast majority of those hours were the first ten hours over and over. This was possible for several reasons. One: character design is fun and has ramifications. So you can simply change your design and be playing a different game, right from the start. Two: you can easily strike off into the world in any way you like, so you're not stapled to the same starting narrative. We'll leave that bit alone for now, except to say that you'll probably be stapled to a starting narrative in Skyrim.

Character design - choosing not just your visual look but also your stats - is a core part of RPG gameplay. The "class" was simply an extension of this, allowing you to radically alter your growth curve and quickly develop different ways to play the game. If I want to play a warrior, I walk out the door as a warrior and do warrior things right away. If I want to play as a thief-mage, I roll it up and run with it.

On the other hand, in Skyrim that's not what you do. At least according to the press releases, you start with potential in everything. Like Fable, perhaps.

It is still possible to become a warrior, or a mage, or whatever. But not until you're ten hours into the game. The first ten hours are almost always nearly identical. You can't skip them: you need to grind character skills during them.

Oh, yes, those restrictive straightjacket classes. Oh how I hated the way they let me play the game any way I wanted. I really hated being allowed to be competent right from the starting gate. It's much better to ditch replay value in favor of locking characters into a sluggish, long-term path that you won't know whether you like or not until ten hours in.


I guess that might seem a bit overstating it, but it's not. That's the purpose classes serve, and the damage done by ditching them.

There are a million things I react poorly to. For example, they say that there are X spells - a specific number, something like thirty.


Um, why? Where did spell creation go? I really hated being able to create my own fun custom spells! I especially hated being able to enchant stuff, I hope that's gone, too.

They mention there is a focus on blunting and preventing exploits.

Um, why? A single player game doesn't have to be balanced. The exploits are a big part of why all the other Elder Scrolls games were fun. The only reason I can think of to aggressively balance the game is that there will be some kind of ranked multiplayer situation where game balance suddenly matters. I actually hope that they just did it out of a random brain fart instead.

They mention they dropped mysticism. Because who needs a school of magic about magic? Well, obviously, not our avatar. Since he can't roll his own spells or anything.

Three fewer skills? Stinks the same way. Let's guess: is alchemy one of these missing skills, or is it just blunted to the point where you might as well just buy healing potions from the shop?

My complaints could go on basically forever. I have loads of more tenuous concerns. For example, this being a cross-platform RPG, it will almost certainly have "the Console Blight". This is a disease where custom content is verboten, and PC installs come with a gig of malware to keep you from accidentally having any fun. Sure the earlier games didn't have it so bad, but that was then. There's a universal trend towards the console blight, I hardly expect this game to ignore it.

The menu system is mentioned as being more "in game". Like with Fable III and its hilariously, game-breakingly bad "in game" menus? They mention the "horrible" menus from Oblivion. Which menus were those? The ones that let me see the things I needed to see within two clicks using distinct icons? The ones that didn't make my character seem like he was having a psychotic hallucination? The ones that didn't take a second to scroll between submenus? The ones that actually allowed for complex gameplay?


So, yes, Skyrim. Game of the year, guaranteed. You'll love it. Maybe I'll even like it. But it throws away a lot of good stuff in the name of "streamlining".

Because players are retards! We hate designing our characters, having fun with exploits, and playing with complexity. I mean, sure, those'r universally considered the best parts of your earlier games, but those people were all deluded.

... it's been a while since I've done quite so much ranting on this blog. I'm probably the only person on the internet who dislikes what I see about this game. 50% marketing speak and 50% lowest-common-denominator game design. Ugh.


Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think you make some good points. Original, too. It does't effect me because personally, my favorite part of Oblivion and Morrowind was not the first 10 hours, but the evolving nature of the game.

I'm not one to "grind" or level up for the sake of leveling up. I RP them to death. I go out and explore, do quests, and mess around. What I use I become good at as a matter of course, but also my avatar becomes better as well, so I feel that my training is more for real.

I like the story experience, the epic saga. To me, having a class system was not something I worried about because I was my own story. Playing only the first 10-20 hours would drive me insane.

Customizing my character as I actually use them sounds perfectly ideal to me. I like creating my RP experience from the ground up. Any given player, for me, clocks in at least 125+ hours over the years, so I don't mind a long beginning.

Also, reducing the redundancy in the skills and spells isn't taking out complexity, it's removing frustration. They are not removing game play time or value, just the efficiency of it.

The menu is horrible, to me. I just don't like how its organized. If they think they can make it better, by all means, that's OK with me.

We shall see, I suppose.

Craig Perko said...

I have no problem with people liking the slow customization of a more generic character. Character growth is also a major part of every RPG.

However, every game on the market these days uses that same method: you start with a weak, fairly generic character and specialize them slowly into what you want.

The one game series which didn't do that, the one series which did it the way I liked it, has decided to go with the Market Standard Way. Which involves a fifteen-hour mandatory tutorial game that kills any potential replayability.

I also disagree with you on some of your points. For example, reducing the redundancy of skills and spells is definitely reducing complexity. I never found them frustratingly complex, but even if I had, there are a thousand other RPGs with simplistic "streamlined" skill systems. Comparing my experiences, I prefer to have the complex skill and spell set that gives me freedom to express myself, instead of being "helped" into a "smooth experience".

Basically, the Elder Scrolls franchise was the last vestige of complicated RPGs. When Dragon Age came out, people kept saying "oh, if you want a complicated RPG, you should check out Dragon Age!"

Well, Dragon Age is a simplistic RPG, almost to the point of being a rails adventure game. There's no real complexity, just a lot of chaff. And that's what people consider complex? That's what people consider to have dense play?

So I see Skyrim making the same "optimizations". Well, thanks. The last worthwhile franchise, down the shitter.

The worst part is I know everyone will love it. "Oh, it's such a great action game i mean RPG! I love the ramification-free play i mean adaptive quests!"

I'm pretty bitter, but I'm not aiming it at you. I just can't stand this trend towards "smooth" design. I like my games chunky, I like my games to have some surprises.

Which is why I limit myself almost entirely to indie games these days. I miss good graphics, but its so nice to be treated like I have a brain.

Kevin said...

One of my favorite things about Dragonage was that they said screw class ballance. Wizards are more powerful. Deal with it.

Exploits can add or subtract from gameplay. They usually add an interesting puzzle for me in the immediate sense but take away from long-term gameplay. The trick is finding that ballance, because often it falls into 1 of 2 categories: being irrelevant and not worth your time or breaking the game and trivializing it. I would love to have a complex system that even highly twinked does not make the rest of the game too easy, but it is worth your time to invest in. Games cease being fun once I can follow a formula and win. Disgaea was fun until I discovered how to actually level fast.

I haven't played many of this style RPG since Fable (and none of Oblivion or Morrowind), but I totally agree with you on classes. Fable had the really annoying intro that sucked 10 hours of time with nothing interesting except you learning how each class worked so you could later decide how you wanted to build. That was annoying, and it was enough incentive for me to never make a second character. The game had plenty of replay value, but there was a significant barrier to entry that I was not willing to invest in. If I could choose at the beginning what I wanted to focus in, rather than playing through the tutorial, I would have been much more likely to start up a second game or have 2 running simultaneously. Dragonage did this well, with different intros for each class taking ~1-2 hours, making the tutorial gameplay different for everyone and encouraging multiple playthroughs.

Craig Perko said...

At some point, an exploit becomes a bug. But a lot of exploits become great fun.

For example, stacking paintbrushes into the sky. Or finding just the right potion to allow you to make better versions of that potion.

You need a game which is sturdy enough to be fun, definitely. But if it can be pushed off the rails by a dedicated player, that's actually good! It opens up new vistas of gameplay!

It's not like everything you do will revolve around stacking paintbrushes. You play the game you want to play.

Dragon Age's intro sequence was ...ish...

There were some problems with it. For example, it's common for me to want to play eight different kinds of mages. I would therefore have to play through the same intro eight times.

Worse, after that intro, the game is identical. You have no freedom (at least, none that matters) until way, way later in the game. Even then, the freedom is largely illusory.

Kevin said...

The Illusion of Freedom is something I have been talking with Nyren about recently as I play through Mass Effect. Freedom is something you see in very few games. Making choices matter and actually change the story in a major way is rare. Aside from some old tactics games (FF Tactics, Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre), I can't really think of a good example of the story changing in an important way from a player's choice. Sure, sometimes you will see a different cutscene at a different point, but its fairly rare to see a different progression of the main story.

Craig Perko said...

The only ones that do usually offer two paths instead of actually giving you freedom, and that's not the same thing at all.

Adrian Love said...

Did they say that you're going to start low and build up into what you want to be? I mean you could start with a bunch of skill points to put into whatever you want and say 'Yep, this guy has been fighting for the town for 10 years, he knows how to handle himself in a fight'. and then you go off and progressively turn into more of a badass.

The most fun I had in Morrowind was actually writing stories and injecting them into my friends game worlds when they aren't looking, it would be great if they used a system like you mentioned in your later post that allowed you to share modifications to the game world with your friends.

I think the spell making in Oblivion was frustrating, I made a 1 second light spell for peanuts because I could and I couldn't really manage my spells to get rid of it once I knew it. I guess the problem lies in a system where you can create your own spells and level up off casting spells. exploitation ruins the level reward system.

To be honest if they took oblivion, tidied it up (had a menu system that could go above 1024x768) and made me give a fuck about the story enough to finish the damn game, we might be in business.

Lets hope they don't fuck it up like we all know they will. The moding community will just do their job for them if they do.

Craig Perko said...

Modding community? You, sir, are an optimist! Mods would get in the way of "premium downloadable content".

Adam said...

My big problem with RPG's has always been statting up a character, diving in, and realizing that I have a totally useless, character 20 hours into the 80 hour game. Just because there's always going to be options that are useless, or aren't fun - choosing throwing in fallout to discover that there's nothing to throw in the game. So I don't totally hate letting you choose your character as you play the game.

First time I played Morrowind, though, I threw the main quest letter into a ditch, ran into the ocean and started pearl diving for my money. After watching the first 25 minutes of gameplay it's obvious that's not something I'm ever going to be able to do in Skyrim. And that's a shame.