Category Archives: Uncategorized

Don’t listen to “Austrians” about hyperinflation in Diablo 3. Please.

Sooo…looks like the other shoe dropped on Diablo 3’s economy.

I’d written a while back about deflated prices in Diablo 3; about how the auction house reduces everything to money, and about the volume of items meant that there was rampant deflation of the value of goods. Things just weren’t worth much. There was always a flip side to that, though; as the playerbase dropped, as money from play multiplied, and as the players became savvy about which gear was good, there would be bidding wars on said useful gear that devalued gold vs. the cost of goods. Looks like that happened.

But please, PLEASE, Critical Distance readers: before you go running off to read the Mises institute’s analysis of Diablo 3’s economy, keep three things in mind:

1) These guys rant about how hyperinflation is coming thanks to “fiat currency” Real Soon Now all the time. They call Diablo 3 a Virtual Weimar because EVERYTHING is Weimar; either a Weimar that’s happening or a Weimar that’s soon to come. They’ve been predicting post-crisis American hyperinflation for so long now, and been so consistently wrong, that it’s become a bit of a joke. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

2) Austrians really have no place in modern economics. They’re seen as cranks due to their resistance of economic modelling and quantitative analysis, and this is coming from someone who used MARXIAN stuff. Pay absolutely no attention when they start pretending that they’re representative of modern economic thought. Their “laws of economics” are nothing of the sort, which the piece tacitly admits in avoiding discussion of any economic school outside their own.

3) In-game economies tell us almost nothing about real-world economies, because you don’t have “money sinks” and “faucets” and the rules of ownership of goods are completely, completely different. The extent to which the Mises guys try to pretend that “fiat” (read: floating) currencies are akin to an in-game economy just shows how screwy the whole enterprise is.

Sure, it can work the OTHER way, which is why I wrote the Diablonomics piece in the first place. But if you want to do economic analysis based on in-game economies, then you want to look at something like EVE Online, not Diablo 3.

Sure, by all means, check it out as a bit of a fun curiosity. But for heaven’s sake, don’t attach any authority to it.  Anything that includes the line “virtual gold had gone the way of all flesh and fiat currencies” really, really doesn’t warrant it. “Fiat currencies” are doing just fine, thanks.

Edit: Hah. When I wrote that, I hadn’t really plumbed that gabble at the end of the piece about “free markets” and the evils of “central planners” and the like. Folks, these guys have been going on about that sort of nonsense ever since Obama dared to try to rescue the “free market” from itself by doing a bit of stimulus spending back in 2008. Nobody with any sense believes that regulated markets are some sort of Evil Thing. The only smart ones who advocate that these days are the ones who stand to profit from deregulation.

Even if real-world economies behaved that way, games aren’t supposed to be completely free and open in the first place. Games are systems of rules and restrictions. The economies of games are about those rules and restrictions and the enjoyment that the player gets from operating within that space. The whole reason why Diablo 3’s economy was a miserable failure, and why the PS3/PS4 version of the game won’t have an auction house at all, is because Blizzard forgot that. The game’s enjoyment and engagement economy clashed with its gold-denominated faux-economy, and was destroyed in the conflict.

Blizzard’s success with World of Warcraft has everything to do with that game’s careful balance of time and skill vs. reward and chance. And, yes, that’s an economy, since it skillfully and carefully balances scarce resources against each other. It’s just not the sort of economy that these Mises guys understand in the slightest.

If they understood game economies at all, this article wouldn’t have devolved into reciting doctrinaire cant at the end.

Edit: There’s a far better analysis of what the AH did to Diablo 3 here at Joystiq. Yes, it mirrors my own, but it’s still from someone who understands how games work, instead of reciting Austrian Scripture, zombie-like, at the invocation of the word “economy”.

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Game violence redux (or: you are part of the problem. Yes, you.)

(This is adapted from a longer response piece to an article that, honestly, didn’t warrant it.)

I’m beyond tired of this damned violence discussion.

I’m not tired of the discussion per se. It’s important. And this has nothing to do with any specific author, since so many seem to be prey to it. (If not in their official work, then in their bandwagon-tastic Twitter and Tumblr feeds.)

No, I’m tired of this shape of the discussion. The medium is changing, positively changing, more quickly and drastically than it has at any point in its entire history, and is doing so while other media like film are demonstrating more resistance to change and experimentation than ever. The winner of the last VGA game-of-the-year award was THE WALKING DEAD, for Heaven’s sake: an adventure game (adventure game!) that people are lauding for its intelligent and tragic attitude towards death.

There are challenges, especially the treatment of women in the industry, but those are things to celebrate.

Yet the grotesque inferiority complex–the barely submerged and all-encompassing self-loathing of both gamers and game critics–is so pervasive and so all-encompassing that any positive development is ignored, while any stupid negative step or mis-informed promotional screwup or unenlightened developer soundbyte is hoisted up and carried around  as proof that things are just as bad as they’ve ever been. Whatever that was supposed to be. 

Bullshit.

Games aren’t making kids into killers.  They aren’t getting more violent, absent the ongoing changes in graphical fidelity. They aren’t getting dumber. They aren’t all just mindless shoot-em-ups. And Call of Duty’s fading seizure of the increasingly-marginally console space aside, there are a TON of important games making doing very well that either feature cartoony representations of mild violence, like Skylanders and Jetpack Joyride, or are completely and utterly nonviolent, like Super HexagonWhere’s My Water, Just Dance and FarmVille 2.

By perpetuating this…by moaning about how Everything Is Terrible Forever And It’s All Our Fault For Being Horrible Gamers Oh God Why Couldn’t I Be Into Whittling Instead…you’re nothing more than a Useful Idiot. You are playing into the hands of everybody that wants to avoid real solutions, and you’re doing it by blaming a medium that’s actually improving by leaps and bounds. You are helping ensure that any movement towards useful things like reasonable gun legislation gets sucked into the endlessly swirling vortex of Game Violence Discussion.

You are not being “reasonable”. You are not being “rational”. You are not being “mature”. You’re just discouraging the people who are actually working to change things by devaluing that work.

YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

Cut it out.

Gamasutra: “3DS piracy is a problem – because publishers say so”

I wish I were making that up. I’m not.

No, according to Epic Mickey developer Peter Ong, apparently the very fact that publishers believe that there might be piracy on a platform will drive them away from it. It’ll mean that publishers will force developers to put out naught but casual-focused games, since casuals don’t pirate, and avoid regions (read: Eastern Europe) that are more piracy-heavy.

You may ask “um…PC? Hasn’t Steam meant that Gabe Newell is swimming in money despite PC piracy being omnipresent? He’s even put Steam in Eastern Europe!” You’d have a good point. Gabe’s building his third money bin, last I checked. The indie scene on PC is also so healthy that it’s become cliched to mention it.

It wasn’t addressed.

You may also ask “wait…casuals don’t pirate? Haven’t I seen a flood of people ‘jailbreak’ their iPhones who aren’t exactly the nerdly type?” You’d have a good point there, too. Breaking DRM on cell phones is so common that people stopped referring to it as “piracy” because the association was kinda inconvenient. (Also, Android.) It’s a cottage industry that the Library of Congress made exceptions for even while DS piracy chips have been made nearly universally illegal.

It wasn’t addressed.

You may also ask “who the hell cares? The real threat to the 3DS isn’t the marginal number of people who pirate but the vast hordes that have smartphones and don’t see the point of a separate handheld game device! Or the fact that 3DS games are tenfold more costly than iOS/Android stuff!” Good point! You’re pretty smart!

It wasn’t addressed.

You may finish by saying:

“desperate publishers and their financial backers are looking for any lame excuse to chase after mythical mobile riches, and ‘piracy’ is as good an excuse as any. Developers always have the option of going independent, though, and taking a bit of a swim in Gabe’s money bin, unless and until Nintendo makes it viable to do independent digital distro on the 3DS. You’d be better placed to jump on the mobile train than they are anyway, if it comes to that.”

You’d be right!

It wasn’t addressed.

No, none of the enormous problems with this argument were addressed. The interviewer, Mike Rose, didn’t follow up on any of these things at all. The comments thread on Gamasutra is an absolute riot of people calling “BS” on Ong’s reasoning. So why didn’t Rose? I checked to see if maybe he was just reporting on someone else’s story, but that didn’t seem to be the case. It seems like he interviewed Ong personally (or at least by email.) So where was the follow-up here?

The whole thing reads less like an argument against piracy and more like an argument against publishers. It implies that we have a choice: either quake in fear at every dumb thing that a publisher may or may not do, or just ditch the whole “publisher” thing as a bad hangover from the days when distribution was an actual problem and sort out alternative solutions for financing and promotion. I’m pretty sure I know which option the market will pick.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that publishers can play a useful role. I think they do play a useful role. But it isn’t 1993, it’s 2013. Times have changed, and they have to accept that they need us far more than we need them.  Writers like Rose should recognize it, too, and for the love of God follow up a bit on such dubious answers.

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Candidate Plays World of Warcraft: Film at Eleven

Okay, need I even say that it should be absolutely no big deal that a candidate for office plays a computer game on a regular basis? Particularly if the candidate is playing the most popular computer game in the world?

Okay, look. Everybody makes a big deal about American farmers, right? Backbone of the country, get lavish recognition, tend to feature prominently in campaign ads, issues are front-and-centre in debates, etc. Granted, farming is important. It still remains the fact, though, that there are more people in America playing Worcraft these days than there are farmers. Really.

Yes, okay, she’s a Democrat and they’re the GOP. It’s part of the game. Still, this is unfortunate:

“For nearly a year, my time and priorities have been focused on two things: getting out and meeting the people in my district and working as a social worker with Maine kids and families,” Lachowicz said. “In the last ten months, I’ve spent no more than forty five minutes play WoW. I also knit socks—and that too has taken a back seat to my work and my campaign.

“My comments were and continue to be taken out of context,” she added. “In the context of the game it’s no different than words like ‘throwing a bomb’ are used in football. It’s unfortunate that the Maine GOP is continuing to distract from the real issues impacting Maine families–and the record of the last two years while they’ve been running Augusta.

I understand why she’s minimizing a bit, but I honestly believe that there’s no reason for it. They aren’t going to back off on the point. They look like they’re changing their tack a bit, but

I completely agree with her point about the context of the comments, though. Sure, that “stabbing” thing sounds bad out of context. It’s still important. Backing off on that point just means you’re conceding a point that no game-player has any business conceding: that there’s a big black line between the fiction-worlds in gaming and people’s real worlds. It’s been a long hard struggle for all artists across every medium to make that distinction clear. An actor isn’t “stabbing” anyone, a writer isn’t “stabbing” anyone, a role-player isn’t “stabbing” anyone, and neither game designers nor game players (since gaming is ultimately collaborative art) isn’t “stabbing” anyone either. She seems to be sticking to her guns on that.

Still, maybe she’s not minimizing all that much.

Lachowicz has received emails and phone calls from people across the country offering their support, many of them thanking her for “being a woman in gaming” and not backing away from her hobby in the face of the campaign. She has also received emails from other Republican politicians who believe the Maine GOP’s campaign is acceptable.

“As a woman I have to say that people have this misconception it’s a teenage boy playing in his parents’ basement, and that’s so not true!” Lachowicz said. “And maybe it’s a good thing that [the GOP] will finally have learned that.”

It’ll be interesting to see if this blows up in their faces, considering this is exactly the sort of thing that interests low-interest voters, and considering gaming is a popular pastime among precisely the male white demo that the Republicans badly depend on. Anti-gamer comments by GOP flacks may not cause those guys to vote Democratic, but they sure as hell aren’t going to be enthusiastic about pulling that Republican lever.

Anyway, my favorite comment on this has to have been this one on Tobold’s blog:

Maybe the republicans checked out her linked character http://us.battle.net/wow/en/character/garrosh/Santiaga/advanced.

Look at this horrible thing! She has 345 ilvl, but she didn’t stop playing 2 years ago, but spent time idiot fishing achievements and holiday nonsense.

She is indeed living in a fantasy world if she thinks she is a WoW players. She is an awful noob! Don’t vote for noobs, especially socialist ones!

Forget Democrats and Republicans. Forget conservatives and liberals. The REAL ideological divide is, was, and always will be between poopsocking raiders and n00b casuals.  I can already see the attack ads about how she uses green gems in her dungeon blues.

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A (Somewhat Lengthy) Aside on Negativity and MMORPGs

Am I the only one who isn’t riddled with angst or frustration or FIREY RAEG about MMOs?

Pictured: Absolutely Everybody Else who writes about MMOs.

As you may know, I just did a thing on Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft’s new “Mists of Pandaria” expansion over on Nightmare Mode, comparing how they both approach storytelling and whatnot during the early levels.  I did note that Blizzard’s approach and Bioware’s approach reflected their conservatism, but I did also take pains to note that I actually enjoyed the experience.

So, why, upon reading two pieces linked on Rock Paper Shotgun, do I feel like I’m the only one who has? One of them is a whole long harangue on Gamespy by Leif Johnson about how the genre’s broken because you aren’t dumped, lost and bewildered, into a world and system you can’t at all comprehend anymore. He seems angry that he can’t seem to recapture what he had back when he was doing early WoW raiding.

The other is a newbie to MMORPGs, Stuart Young, who’s game to give it a try, but who seems to be vaguely put off by the abstraction of it all. (And who, ironically, seems lost and a bit bewildered, though perhaps mostly by the patching process.) He’s not happy that opponents respawn, or that there are button bars, or that there’s big pillars of light indicating drops—which is actually a concession to the difficulty of finding things back in Leif’s day.

I respect what both people are trying to say, but there are a lot of issues here.

Stuart seems partially to be stuck in an empty server on the weakest starting planet of the lot of ‘em. That’s unfortunate, but it’s fixable: reroll on a better server, and a better planet. I’d suggest Hutta. The Imperial Agent plotline is grand fun, and Hutta’s a fun environment to see it in.

Hhis other complaints seem to be unsolvable, however, because his issue isn’t with MMOs, it’s with RPGs. RPGs are about abstraction. That’s almost entirely the point of it all. The reason why you have those button bars in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft or a single-player RPG like Dragon’s Age is because they’re representations of activities that your character is doing instead of you yourself. That’s the case with pen-and-paper, too. Same deal.

Sure, you could replace abstracted abilities with some sort of direct action. Some MMOs do that: Everybody is going on about TERA right now, but DC Universe Online also jumps out as a good example of a game with direct attacks that are only supplemented by “button-bar” stuff. But the button bars exist for a reason: because the alternative is taking away almost everything your character can do and replacing it with “attack”. That’s how it worked in Everquest, and people HATED that.

He also pointed to the simplicity of combat at that early stage, but there’s a reason for that: he’s not the only newbie, and a lot of them need time to get used to things. It’s going to be pretty simple around level five. It gets harder.Though I have to admit to being a bit baffled by someone who’s never used the right mouse button to move the camera in a game before. Does he just play shooters?

As for Leif Johnson, well…I do understand where he’s coming from, but I think he’s dreaming in technicolor.  This guy was in Risen, which was one of the top-tier guilds of the time.  Risen were the first American guild to take down the final opponent of the original World of Warcraft. That was an incredibly, almost impossibly difficult achievement.

(The people whinging about how World of Warcraft is too “easy” have never actually tried the hard stuff. I still maintain that top-level hard-mode raiding is the most challenging co-op content in the industry. Yes, still. The hard-mode version of Cataclysm’s “Ragnaros” fight is no joke.)

C’mon, Leif. Of course your guild is going to have camaraderie. Of course you’re going to be playing around and experimenting. Of course you’re going to have that fun “flying by the seat of your pants” feel. YOU WERE ONE OF THE BEST IN THE WORLD. You were ahead of everybody else. You were fighting things that the rest of us have never seen. Despite what you may think, there were guides and videos and strategies and whatnot. We all lived on Thottbot and Allakhazam. It’s just that you were so far ahead of the rest of us that you never saw what the rest of us were doing.

It’s “the rest of us” that are the issue here. World of Warcraft‘s singular initial advancement over the rest of the genre was its accessibility. Everquest was a struggle, and it was a struggle that comparatively few people were willing to put up with. When raiding in WoW became its major focus, though, the same thing happened there: people like Leif were seeing things that the rest of us could never see, because we didn’t have the time to do it or the luck to find a group skilled and committed enough to do it with us.  Something like one in a hundred top-level players even saw that boss that Leif downed. Probably not one in a thousand beat him. The rest of us were mired in early raids, if we were even able to raid at all

Leif, the reason why the game appealed to you so much is because the game catered to you as a hardcore raider. The rest of us were out in the cold.

Yes, that’s changed. WoW’s different. Raiding is more accessible now: LFR means that almost everybody gets the rush of large-scale co-op that he enjoyed so much. Dungeons are more accessible now: Blizzard’s taking time to make sure that Mists of Pandaria’s dungeons are accessible to the masses and challenging for the experts.  Leveling is far more accessible now, and a simply better experience than it was in his time, with a wider variety of gameplay verbs and actual honest-to-goodness stories. The interface is MUCH better now, in ways you only appreciate once you’ve played for a little while.  World of Warcraft is a better game. Set aside the nostalgia.

The genre is more accessible now. Leif blithely dismisses the free-to-play revolution, saying it “only masks the deficiencies of the aging gameplay and lackluster player interaction”. He’s wrong. The free to play games are actually doing quite well, as companies like Perfect World and Nexon are making quite clear.  That they ARE doing so contradicts his assertion that “I can’t see younger players ever latching on to single MMORPGs as we did”. The whole free-to-play model depends on social effects to work:  people don’t buy pretty outfits for their avatar if they don’t give a damn about who sees it.

The most frustrating thing, though, is reading something like this:

 To recapture something of that spirit of cooperation, what once passed for endgame gameplay needs to be integrated into the actual leveling experience somehow. The whole world needs to remain alive; zones that we passed through at level 10 should feel as satisfying at level 60. It can be accessible, but we need reasons to care about our fellow players.

This is exactly what everybody’s trying to do—Blizzard included.  Okay, they aren’t doing the “make level 10 zones satisfying at level 60″ thing. There’s good reason to keep max-level players away from the newbies, because PvP servers would be absolute bloodbaths.

But everybody’s working to bring that sense of collective action to the leveling game experience. Cataclysm featured a whole host of quests where you were in the middle of huge war zones of NPCs and PCs, and deliberately moved away from “kill [x] of [y]”. Mists of Pandaria specifically focuses on getting players “out into the world” instead of huddling in cities, in using “scenarios” to bring players together outside of the dungeon/raid structure, and in using Blizzard’s phasing tech to create a living, changing world instead of a static one. Even SWTOR, whose gameplay is largely derived from Burning Crusade-era World of Warcraft, gives every player an NPC partner who has their own story, and adds those little instanced zones whose entire POINT was to have areas that actually changed in response to your decisions and actions.

Trion’s also working hard to make Rift more accessible to and more “alive”, too. That’s the whole point of their next expansion.

So, yeah. Things are changing. They’re even improving. Perhaps not as fast as some would like, and there are always going to be concessions to things like latency. Both articles seem to vastly overestimate the quality of people’s Internet connections, but that’s not a new thing. Both also are informed by really, really dated versions of MMO gameplay: Stuart’s view is understandable because he’s playing a new game with old mechanics, but Leif seems unwilling to even admit that World of Warcraft isn’t the same game it used to be. It’s not an uncommon problem. Game journos seem unwilling to acknowledge that MMOs are living, evolving services instead of static products. It’s still disappointing.

What’s maddening, though, is that the genre that is truly stuck in the past, First-Person Shooters, seems to get a bye about this sort of thing even as MMOs get hammered. I’m not fully sure why. My guess is that it has to do with the real reason why people get mad at MMORPGs: the Internet and our lost ability to focus.

But I’ll, um, get to that later. This was supposed to be an aside.

Oh, and a PS: Can people kindly stop arguing that Rift failed? Its subscription numbers dropped, true, but it clearly wasn’t ever intended to do WoW numbers. Trion’s done an amazing job of improving the game, and by all accounts it’s got some of the most loyal and devoted players in the genre. Trion’s hailed as magicians for the speed and quality of their game improvements. If the game had failed, it would have shut down or gone free-to-play by now.

(Starting picture’s from Blizzard.)

(Edited a slight bit for clarity.)

Diablo 3 (Very) Quick Impressions

Clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick….

…”goddammit I’m still not in!”

More clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick…

…”goddammit, now it’s not letting me make a character!”

Even more clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick…

…”and now it’s not letting me log in…oh, wait, nevermind, there it goes”.

A TORRENT of clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick…

…”wait, WHAT time is it? GAD!”

Diablo 3 is, from what I can see, a gameplay experience that’s polished to a fine sheen. I’m not sure yet if I like it more than I do Torchlight, since Torchlight has a sort of earnest eagerness to please and indie charm that you just aren’t going to get from the Blizzard monolith. I do like it, though. Diablo’s just as compelling as it ever was. Getting rid of the skill trees was a stroke of brilliance, too, that takes away the stress of worrying about your “build” and lets you get to the part you actually want to play.

That said, there’s one bit that ISN’T polished, and it’s the servers. Folks, having to log into a single-player game is bad enough. Having said single-player game not let you log in because the servers are too busy is just downright perverse. I think I saw the entire Internet start screaming “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME” in unison a few hours ago, and they had every right.

Sure, rocky launches for online-only games are normal enough, but this never needed to be an online-only game. The only reason it is is due to Blizzard’s terror at the idea that the game would be reverse-engineered by people looking to game their real-money auction house. It will be reverse-engineered anyway, of course; but in the meantime, you’ve got people who own a single-player game that they can’t play because the servers are overloaded.

The worst part is that tomorrow’s going to be worse. This was just the die-hards who were willing to stay up all night. In about 14 hours or so, those servers are going to get hammered like a fratboy on St. Patrick’s Day. Unless they take action soon, it’ll be a debacle, and the stench of it will hang over the entire game for a good long time.

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GDC Awards: A Pretty Good List

So the awards from GDC came out. And, hey, it’s A Pretty Good List:

Best Audio:
Portal 2 (Valve)

Best Debut:
Supergiant Games for Bastion

Best Narrative:
Portal 2 (Valve)

Best Visual Arts:
Uncharted 3 (Naughty Dog)

Best Downloadable Game:
Bastion (Supergiant)

Best Game Design
Portal 2 (Valve)

Best Technology
Battlefield 3 (DICE)

Best Mobile Handheld Game
Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery (Superbrothers and Capy)

Innovation Award
Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik)

2012 Pioneer Award
Dave Theurer, creator of Missile Command, Tempest and I, Robot

Game of the Year
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda)

See? Nothing much to quibble with here.

Skyrim’s a fine choice for GOTY: an expansive game that demonstrates the vitality of both single-player games and real RPGs. It’s a monster seller with longevity, too: any game that consistently has more players on Steam than either Modern Warfare 3 or Counterstrike is doing SOMETHING right. It’s probably the first Elder Scrolls game that’s universally lauded, and although it has serious stability issues, especially on PS3, I don’t think that disqualifies it. Terrible console QA just seems to be the rule these days.

(Though it says nothing good about the people that only played the 360 version of a game before writing their “multiplatform” reviews.)

The other choices are fine, too. The indie stuff certainly is. Bastion’s a fine choice for debut, and Superbrothers (which I haven’t yet played) has gotten a lot of good press for its innovative approach to mobile gaming.  Ditto with JSJ.

Does anybody really have a big problem with the other “big” awards, either? Uncharted’s visually stunning, but maybe doesn’t deserve to clear the board on that basis. Battlefield 3 maybe wasn’t the Modern Warfare killer that EA was hoping it was, but really does deserve accolades for the gorgeous Frostbite engine.

And Portal 2 certainly earned its prizes. Even if you can name other games last year that had equally good narrative and design than Portal 2, you’d be hard-pressed to find BETTER. That audio award was justifiably earned by the amazing, amazing voicework in that game. Not even a question.

My only quibble is that it’s maybe a bit too console-focused, especially when you’ve got Cliffy B telling devs to get their asses onto the PC. But, hell, when the alternative is those damned stupid “Spike awards”, I’ll take what i can get.

Skyriggerfall: Freedom vs. Craft

(This is a repost of my latest Elder Scrolls entry on Google+.)

Well, one thing’s jumping right out at me: Daggerfall has the spellmaker that I loved so much in Arena, and Skyrim doesn’t. It’s not even a weakened, lame version. It’s just straight-up not there. Meanwhile, Daggerfall pretty much mandates it, since for some reason the Mage’s Guild doesn’t even sell heal spells.

That’s what I keep noticing about these two games. Daggerfall is tremendously, almost intimidatingly open and random. You really can do almost anything you want. You don’t even need to walk if you don’t want to; the game’s version of levitation isn’t just Arena’s barely-above-the-ground levitation, but actual honest-to-goodness flight. You can craft your own spells, items, potions, and whatever, and are sent by the enormously faceless Guilds to go into dungeons that are these gigantic, randomly-generated monstrosities.

Skyrim, on the other hand, is very much a crafted experience. Sure, you can create and enchant weapons and armor. There’s no spellmaker, though, and the spells that you get feel fairly straightforward. The dungeons are obviously created by real human beings, and are deliberately placed on the map with authored, voiced quests leading into many (most?) of them. Instead of the omnipresent-but-anonymous Guilds of the earlier TES games, you have very specific factions, with a very specific questline for each of them. Other people have pointed out that you don’t even need to be an adept in the skills of the new “guilds” in order to do the quests. You can apparently become an Archmage with very little magical ability at all.

Both have their upsides and downsides. I called Daggerfall “intimidating”, and that’s really what it is; it’s SO gigantic that I find myself with little idea as to what to do beyond heading over to the local Guild branches and seeing what they’ve got to do. There’s a wee bit of content involving the main plot that you need to do right away, but I sorted that out quickly, and now I find myself able to do whatever I please, wherever I please. I can level up whatever faction I please, I can go clean out dungeons, I can follow the main plot, or even travel to some town far away. It’s a heady thing…but TV Tropes’ “quicksandboxed” term doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Skyrim, meanwhile, just comes across as very structured and authored at all times. It’s an excellent game for wandering in, because a wander in any direction (or even in the direction of any of the cities) will come across a multitude of caves, forts, towers, and all manner of other neat places to check out. And once you get there, you generally have a pretty good time; even your generic Fort Whatever situation is satisfying to go into and sort out.

The fortuitous happenstances can be amazing, as I saw when I broke into a random cottage in the middle of nowhere and discovered that it was the entry point for a gigantic underground bandit complex. It’s an excellent experience…but it’s definitely an experience under someone else’s control. Even the “Radiant Questing” AI system is basically the game taking you by the nose and leading you to the fun bits that someone made for you.

(Skyrim doesn’t even allow fast-travel to places you haven’t been yet. You have no choice whatsoever about seeing the province first-hand. It’s a kind of “enforced wandering”. Works really well, but that’s what it is.)

Daggerfall isn’t really like that. You don’t run around and come across random stuff in Daggerfall, really. You don’t even have a local map between the main areas. It’s just these endless procedurally generated seas of low-polygons ground meshes. So while it’s this gigantic area, you’re just fast-travelling everywhere anyway.

Paradoxically, I didn’t feel the immense size of the province at all. Skyrim’s barely a thousandth of the size, yet I’ve felt its size quite a bit more.

So which is “better”? Neither. I’m not really looking at it like that. I’ve been playing a bit more of Skyrim, but I still feel like Daggerfall’s got its hooks into me a bit more. Fast-travel or no, I still want to hit different parts of the province and see what’s going on. I want to rank up with the Guilds, and the Temples, and all the other factions. I want to see more of these randomly-generated dungeons; the mapping system is still abominable, but I’m getting a better handle on it, and I’ve made a few spells that help with getting around. Not that I don’t want to play more Skyrim; both are solid games.

But I’m still really, really interested in how two games in the same series that both promise “openness” and exploration deliver it in such very different ways.

“Domestication”, Bethesda, and the Elder Scrolls

Just to flip things around from that critical link I did to Nightmare Mode earlier, here’s a really good piece by Fernando Cordeiro about how games have become “domesticated”.

Now, games are domesticated. Not only have we grown familiar to their bizarre lexicon (cracked walls were meant to be exploded) but we always have the information of what to do and where to go directly at our fingertips, sometimes even before we have any real use for such information.  As a result, games have become to-do lists. The contemporary quintessential videogame is nothing but a laundry list of things to do in order to get the 100% complete rate. What used to be surprises to be found became mere tasks to be fulfilled: “Defeat Riddler”; “Stop the bomb”; “Find 35 pieces of arrows”; “Help the villagers”; “Become the master of fighter’s guild”.

The more domesticated games are even worse. These games not only list what you have to do, but also how you should do it. The block you need to ground pound has the “ground pound” symbol on it. After pounding it, the game camera zooms in on whatever change that last action created so you know exactly where to go next. More “complex” puzzles will merely increase the string of activities you must complete before reaching that treasure chest. In which probably lies the exact thing your goal statement said you needed! Aren’t you lucky? Don’t you feel happy, boy? Now you can beat the level’s boss in a fashion almost exactly like the one we will now explain via this super tutorial sequence! Isn’t that nice, boy? Who’s a good boy? WHOSAGOODBOY?? You are!

We now take this for granted. We expect our games to have mini-maps to pin point exactly where we should be heading next, as if my medieval hero had a smartphone with him. It’s either that of that looming golden arrow that acts like Jack Sparrow’s magical compass on the top of the screen. After getting the treasure, we expect to see our progress rate increase in 1%. That way we can measure exactly where we are and have a notion of how much I need before completing the game.

In the world I’m from, this is called a project management tool.

(Not that the other piece wasn’t good…I just disagreed. Utterly different thing.) 

I absolutely agree with Cordeiro on this change. It’s not something that you need to go back to Mario or Zelda for, though. I’m seeing it right now with my Elder Scrolls playthroughs. Both Arena and Daggerfall are unforgiving right off the bat. Arena’s the older game, but Daggerfall is arguably even worse; that first dungeon is an absolute killer, and there’s little opportunity to level up against easy rats in Daggerfall like there is in Arena. The dungeon design in Daggerfall arguably makes it even worse; levels are big, three-dimensional, and impossible to keep track of with the mapping system provided.

All that’s assuming you can even get past the character creator, though. There’s no guarantee of that. Daggerfall’s character creation process is immensely complex. You aren’t just creating characters; in order to be optimal, you’re creating a class, and class creation in Daggerfall involves blizzards of statistics and floods of abilities. Worse yet, you don’t know which of the abilities are any good; a lot of them are really marginal, and some are outright useless.

If you DO get through all this? If you DO get out of that first dungeon in Daggerfall? Guess what? You’re out in the world! You don’t know what’s going on. You barely know where to go. You’re beyond intimidated by a landmass that’s the size of Great Britain. (No. Really. Daggerfall’s the largest gameworld ever made.) The only thing you know to do is go to Daggerfall. But if you do that, the ghosts haunting its streets will likely straight-up kill you.

Compare that to Skyrim. It starts without any character creation whatsoever, with a cart ride that deliberately obscures your identity and looks in order to ease players in. Character creation happens at a logical place in the game, and basically comes down to aesthetics (with ample presets) and race selection. The stats and skills are whittled down to a few key choices, and you have no way of changing them at character creation. They will change, but only through your actions during the game; it’s about building a class through revealed preferences, instead of making players declare their preferences.

That first part of Skyrim? Instead of a grueling struggle to get out of dungeon, like in Arena or Daggerfall, you’re taken through the sort of roller-coaster ride that you get in pretty much all modern games, where you SEEM like you’re in deadly danger, but you really aren’t. Once you get to the tunnels out of the city, it’s a bit more like Daggerfall, but you aren’t alone, the opponents aren’t difficult, and the caverns’ organization is easy to follow—and once you get out, you’re immediately taken to a nearby village, easing you into the gameworld by giving you a small area to call “home” until you’re ready to venture forth.

Skyrim’s even got those little directional pointers.

So, yeah. Fernando’s right. Things have changed. Wild imagery aside, the Elder Scrolls are domesticated. In the case of Skyrim vs. Daggerfall, I’m not yet convinced that it isn’t a bad thing. Daggerfall’s a hard one to get into, far more intimidating and punishing than Arena was. But there is a part of me that is a little sad that that sense of “oh, God, what do I do now?” is lost.

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