Monthly Archives: February 2012

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.

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“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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The Elder Scrolls: Arena on Google Plus

I’ve done a series of Google+ posts about my experiences playing the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena. You can find them here using the G+ hashtag #craigplaysarena.  They’re kind of why I started a blog in the first place; I’ve been using Google+ as a pseudo-blog, but there’s no titling, linking’s a bit of a hassle, and you can only do one image per post. I’m sure that they’ll start stripping that stuff away as they realize that Google+ isn’t going to be a Facebook replacement and start embracing what it really is.  In the meantime, though…here we are.

It’s been really interesting. I’ve enjoyed Arena far more than I thought I would, and I’ve been a big fan of a lot of the dungeon designs. Sure, it looks dated, the opening dungeon is viciously difficult, and there isn’t even the faintest whiff of balance between classes. Get past that, though, and you find out why the series ended up becoming as huge as it did. Nearly twenty years later, it’s still a compelling game.

Eventually I’m going to try to transplant the G+ posts here. Haven’t decided whether it’ll be one monster post or a series of smaller ones. I’ll be following it up with stuff on Daggerfall, but I’m also going to start Skyrim at the same time. I figure doing a Daggerfall/Skyrim comparison thing might be really fun.  They’ll probably be done simultaneously, but I’ll try to add a bit more content here. I’d LOVE to do videos, but that’s probably a ways off. But, hey, you never know.

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Should Games Be Skippable?

I feel like this sort of thing should go without saying, but I’m not exactly a great fan of this idea that you can skip whole sections or who mechanics of games. The whole thing comes from a misinterpretation of what one Bioware writer, Jennifer Hepler, said, but it looks like people are taking up the torch. From Nightmare Mode:

It’s the same with conversations. We can skip those. When we can’t skip conversations it’s worth a point’s demerit on a standard ten point scale, almost invariably, more if the reviewer has to replay sections. It’s hard to imagine taking a game where you can’t skip conversations seriously.

So why can’t we skip combat? Why, because that’s the fun part of the game, Hepler haters say! Except just like how Doom‘s control scheme made some players queasy with rage, for some people the combat isn’t the fun part. Just like I’m sure there’s someone out there who can play Doom without getting motion sickness, someone out there wants to enjoy the story of Mass Effect without having to scream at their allies about how to flank a giant mech. Game developers have tried appeasing this demographic by adding in easy difficulty settings, but even those can be a strain on people. Guards kill me in Deus Ex: Human Revolution on easy all the time (warning: worst stealth player ever here). Game developers write complicated treatises on how to make people not quit playing a game instead of looking that answer in the eye: if people want to keep playing, and are being stuck behind barriers, then you give them the option to remove the barriers.

Nintendo’s already done this with its Super Guide feature, and it hasn’t ruined Mario. You can go play New Super Mario Bros Wii right now and completely ignore the fact that the game can play itself. Rayman Origins has exactly the same feature, and no one’s going to damn it because it lets a less skilled player beat a level. What these features, like Mass Effect 3’s “Story” mode, do is they remove barriers. They let people play video games the way they want to while letting you play your game in a way you want to.

Here’s the thing: I don’t actually like this idea that people should be able to skip any and all plot bits in a game. (Which is usually what people are talking about when they’re talking about “conversations”). Those parts are there to set up the context and motivation for play. And, yes, context and motivation for play matter; part of the reason why people are such huge fans of Valve’s games is because they do a really good job of setting up context. Portals 1 and 2, Half Life 1 and 2…all of those have bits that you can’t “skip”, but they’re bits that everybody remembers and everybody loves.

Sure, you can’t skip the Tram Ride at the beginning of Half Life. So what? You shouldn’t. And they aren’t alone in that. Modern Warfare starts off with an unskippable “cutscene” (albeit a first-person one) where a middle-eastern president is being carried to his execution. It’s not a test of skill in any way. It’s just plot and context, like a cutscene. And yet Infinity Ward made it so that you can’t skip it. Again, so what? It drives home a point that sets up the context of the rest of the game.

But it gets worse when people start talking about skipping combat. I’m no great fan of the fact that games are primarily about combat. It shows that the medium has a long way to go. I really enjoy it when games move away from that. It’s one of the reasons I’m into adventure games: they usually aren’t about combat.

In the case of a game like Mass Effect 3, though, combat’s pretty much the core gameplay element. Every meaningful decision in the game that doesn’t tie into the dialogue trees feeds back into combat. Levels? Make you more powerful in combat. Stats? Combat. Powers? Combat again. Squadmates? Generally, combat. Weapons and armor? Yep, combat again.

Excising combat from the game doesn’t mean you’re just taking out one part of the game. It means you’re taking out the vast majority of the player’s role in the game. All you’re leaving behind is dialogue trees.

That may be acceptable…but since you can skip those too, it just raises the question: what kind of game is Mass Effect 3, exactly? What are its core mechanics? Is it just a realtime CG spectacle with optional game bits?

That doesn’t mean the game should be brutally difficult. There should be difficulty levels, and the game’s difficulty curve should be gentle enough not to punish players for not knowing things that the game hasn’t taught them yet. A newbie to the genre, or even to gaming, should be able to beat the game on the easiest setting, and feel that all-important sense of mastery for having done so.

Just giving them a fast-forward button is no answer, though. It just feels like an excuse for lazy, terrible design.

(Edit: By the by, I’m not planning on using this blog to get into big ol’ arguments with people about games and whatnot. I want to be a wee bit more proactive instead of reactive here, since it’s so easy to just end up treating a blog like your own comments thread for other peoples’ writing. This was just something that I wanted to get off my chest.)

(Besides, getting into big honkin’ arguments is what Google Plus is for!)

Welcome to Leveling Criticism

I’m Craig. I’m into games, politics, policy, and the analysis thereof. And this is my new site, which will mostly be about gaming. Name, tag, URL and theme are still subject to change.

To start off, a thing I did as a reaction to the free weekend of Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer play on Steam. It was compelling, but not for the reason I expected.

Modern Warfare 3: Leveling Like Fiends

So. Modern Warfare 3.

(So this is the WordPress site. And this is the new entry.)

I was really impressed when Steam made the offer for people to try the multiplayer bit of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for free this weekend. I hadn’t bought the game, nor was I really interested in doing so. I’d always sorta thought that I should play it, though, if only to know what the big deal is. I’ve had much the same reaction to Skyrim, and the fact that I really didn’t understand the Elder Scrolls enough was one of the big reasons why I decided to play through them, and why I’m doing the #CraigPlaysArena thing. I’ll probably be starting Skyrim as soon as I finish Arena, and play through Daggerfall at the same time as I’m playing Skyrim.

(Might actually do some comparisons there, come to think of it; Oblivion and Skyrim are an easy comparison, but Daggerfall and Skyrim? Now that’s interesting.)

Besides, jokes about modern multiplayer military manshoots aside, I don’t actually have anything against military FPSes. I enjoyed the first Modern Warfare’s single-player campaign enough, and the Battlefield 3 demo was pretty compelling. So why not try Modern Warfare 3 out? It was free, and it seems like people find it pretty compelling. And they’re right. It is compelling, but not for the reasons you might think. (More on this later.)

You’ve almost certainly already read all the reviews, and picked up on the basic setup. They’re basically accurate. You’ve got a bunch of people running around, generally in teams, shooting guns at each other, getting points when they shoot someone and respawning when they get shot. Unlike older shooters or more abstracted games like Team Fortress 2, guns tend to be extremely lethal in MW3. You just can’t soak that much damage. If anybody gets the drop on you for more than a second or so, you’re probably done.

That’s the first thing I noticed about MW3: getting shot just isn’t a big deal. Unlike games like TF2 or Counterstrike, you respawn almost immediately. You have a bit of time to watch a replay of the other guy taking you down, but you don’t need to do it. You can just push the “f” key and get immediately back into the action. You respawn so quickly that there really doesn’t feel like there’s much of a penalty for dying at all. At first you’re cautious, but you soon shrug it off.

Granted, the old Modern Warfare games had “killstreaks” as incentives to try to protect your sorry hide. The more opponents you dropped without dying, the more neat toys you could play with: missile strikes, gunship attacks, and even tactical nuclear strikes that kill everybody in the level at once. And, yes, that does still exist in MW3. But, as the other reviews have pointed out, you don’t need to worry about that if you don’t want to; you can just pick a different “package” of streaks that don’t reset on death, and you can run merrily into the streams of bullets without a care in the world.

Running back into the fight isn’t a disincentive for playing bullet sponge either. The multiplayer maps in MW3 aretiny. Insanely tiny. It’s hard to convey just how small they really are. The typical TF2 map is gigantic in comparison, and as for Battlefield 3 maps…well, there just isn’t a comparison to be made. BF3 deliberately builds its gameplay around managing players’ time spent travelling to the fight. MW3 doesn’t do any of that. Getting back to the fight and mixing it up again takes, literally, maybe 15 seconds or so.

The only thing that might slow you down is that there are tons of little nooks and crannies and turns in the map that have to be navigated, but even those seem custom-designed to make players constantly encounter each other, often by accident. Since the guns are so lethal, I quickly learned that taking these twisty little corridors without constantly checking corners will likely get me ventilated. I still had to do it at speed, though; unlike the more deliberate pace of a Counterstrike or Battlefield, slowing down in MW3 seemed to be foolhardy at best. The spawn points for players seemed to be constantly moving, too, making it far more likely that a “lane” of conflict was going to change over time, and increasing the number of these near-immediate surprise encounters.

Put all that together, and you have near-constant engagement, without the peaks and valleys of tension and engagement that you normally get with this sort of game. It’s fine, it’s definitely a design choice, but it does mean that long-range weapons just don’t seem to have much of a point. The best weapon setup doesn’t seem to be an assault rifle at all, but a pair of machine pistols. Sure, they’re inaccurate at range, but proper play of MW3 seems to avoid engaging at range. There aren’t even a lot of “ranges” to do it in.

The various game modes do mix it up a bit. There are a lot of them, to MW3’s credit. Most really do boil down to some variation on “hunt opponents and destroy them” or “take and hold territory”, though. I didn’t play all of them, granted, but the ones I played all revolved around that theme, and the focus is clearly on a mix of team deathmatches, “domination” matches (territory-holding) and the new mode “kill confirmed”. Everything else feels like a bit of an afterthought.

It’s this latter mode, Kill Confirmed, that really stands out. The premise is fairly simple: if you shoot someone, they drop a pair of easily-visible dogtags. You don’t score the kill until you “confirm” it by getting the tags. If someone on the other team gets their ally’s tags, they “deny” you your team’s kill and the points that come from it. Whoever is first to collecting about 75 or so of these tags wins. Sounds simple enough.

Thing is, that slight change really does improve the game. You can’t just sit there and shoot people. It doesn’thelp. You have to go in there and take a risk to get the tags, and you can be damned sure that any teammates of the guy you just shot are going to be going for those tags too. You can and do end up with clusters of these tags from BOTH sides, as players rush up and get cut down trying to pick them up.

KC encourages a sort of “cover-and-retrieve” style where players try to cover each other and suppress the other side so that they can get in there and grab the tags. It practically mandates teamwork and staying together, because a “lone wolf” can and will get cut down before he can grab the tags. It discourages fixed standoffs and favors group mobility.

It’s the best mode in MW3 by such a huge margin that I found myself not wanting to bother with the other ones. Even Domination, a mode that’s quite similar to the sort of attack-and-hold gameplay that I like in competitive multiplayer and TRULY enjoyed in the latter days of the Battlefield demo, just didn’t really feel as alive as Kill Confirmed. If other designers have any sense, they’ll be adopting something like it for their own games. It was compelling enough to want to keep coming back to, even if other modes might give out more experience.

Ah. Yes. Experience. Now we get to the tricky part. What most reviews of MW3 don’t mention is that the game features a LOT of RPG-style leveling. You raise your own “rank” (read: level) which gets you access to more weapons and more game modes. It gets to the point where you hit max level (rank 80), gain a “prestige” point, spend it, and then do it all over again. I’m not making this up. Modern Warfare encourages you to level up over, and over, and over again. I saw people with ten Prestiges. Warcraft players don’t level that much.

You level up all of your weapons, too, which adds various skills and attachments that make the weapons more valuable. DRASTICALLY more valuable, in fact: a lot of weapons start off practically unusable, and become incredibly powerful over time as you improve them. Assault Rifles that start off being usable at best become death lasers with infrared sights. Machine pistols that start out as suboptimal to the point of being frustrating become so enormously lethal that you get the sensation that you broke the game when you level them up and start dual-wielding them. It’s almost disappointing, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I was really getting better at the game; I felt like the game was just MAKING me better.

The “perks” are the worst of this. Yes, they’d been around before, but I’d never really experienced this aspect of Modern Warfare. Get perks, and you can run longer, shoot straighter, shrug off grenades, be invisible on maps, call in more airstrikes, and pretty much everything else you can think of. Most are “utility” abilities and not direct damage boosts, but the game is lethal enough that you don’t need damage boosts. These “utility” abilities are what keep you from getting shot, or get you to shoot more of the other guy. They boost your kills, and boost your scoring, and damned if I didn’t feel like I was cheating when I went up against people who didn’t have as high a rank as I did.

(I hit level 40, by the by.)

You get XP by winning matches, by losing matches and making it close, by completing objectives…but, mostly, you get XP from achievements. All that gamerscore stuff that most people ignore? Well, in Modern Warfare, that all feeds into your rank, and therefore your effectiveness. I found myself quite literally grinding achievements because I wanted to have a high enough level to get a more effective gun. Then I grinded out kills on the gun so that I could get decent attachments for it. (Then I went back to using Akimbo machine pistols because it was more effective anyway.) The careful, careful weapon balance in a game like Team Fortress 2, the kind that ensures that the “vanilla” weapons are just as effective as anything else, the kind that just makes the other weapons fun instead of required….yeah, that ain’t what Modern Warfare 3 is about at all. Later weapons are strictly superior. Later perks are strictly superior. Older players are strictly superior. They’re basically forced to be.

I wanted to know what made Modern Warfare 3 so compelling. I found my answer. It’s the compulsion of rpg-style leveling. It’s getting just a little more XP on that bar. It’s that rush where you get a “ding” for getting a new level and feel like you’ve accomplished something. (In MW3, it’s more of a rock riff, but close enough.) It’s the desire to get just one more level so that you can open up that new gameplay mode, or area, or weapon, or ability. And once you’ve opened them all up, it’s about returning back to the bottom and doing it all over again.

I’m not sure if that counts as an extrinsic or intrinsic motivator, since these things DO feed back into gameplay. I’m also not sure if it really counts as an RPG, since it doesn’t feel like there’s any real element of differentiating between player and character skill; it’s just that players are temporarily crippled until they put in their time. I might return to that idea later.

I had been really compelled by MW3 this weekend. It mystified me. I played a ton of it, and while I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. Once I realized what WAS compelling me, though, it stopped just as mysteriously as it started. Sure, I’ll miss some really fun bits, like playing Kill Confirmed on some of the better-designed maps, and at least now I know what the fuss is about. But the compulsion is gone, and I already have enough RPGs to play.

If I want to grind, I’ll grind something with a story.

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