Friday, October 24, 2008

Aggro Considered Harmful

I find all the various debates about "aggro" and "tanking" and "taunting" very strange, regardless of whether they're related to PvE or PvP.

From my perspective, aggro was a relatively simple/quick coding hack invented back in the days of slow computers to avoid having to spend precious CPU cycles doing collision testing. Tanking and taunting showed up soon thereafter as natural extensions of the aggro concept. So why in the world does anyone talk today about aggro and tanking and taunting as though they're a permanent and even desirable design goal in and of themselves, rather than artifacts of an arbitrary solution to a temporary problem?

I love the idea of competitive encounters (combat and otherwise) being opportunities to intelligently select and skillfully execute offensive and defensive actions from a rich assortment of tactical options. But if that's an appropriate goal, is "aggro control" really the only possible way to get there? Why should gamers be satisfied with (much less demand) that "combat" be defined in terms of "managing" an abstract value like "aggro"? How are pulling and taunting adequate substitutes for stealth and formation and maneuver and cover and camouflage and ambuscade and overlapping fields of fire and occupying the high ground and shock/surprise and all the other well-known forms of tactical action?

I truly don't mind if some people enjoy playing the aggro game. People are free to like what they like. And it's true that even aggro and its attendant functions (tanking, taunting) can be made complex enough to support tactical decision-making.

What bugs me is the notion that some gamers, because they've never seen and can't imagine anything different, now actually resist suggestions that other rules for combat in online games might even be more fun than aggro management and are worth trying. I'm not saying, "all games must immediately cease and desist using aggro rules"; I'm saying, "hey, can't we have just a few games that, instead of cloning some other game's aggro rules, try something that's possibly even more tactically interesting?"

So my intention here is not to try to kill aggro as the starting point of a model for combat content. As the title of this piece indicates, I don't think much of it as a basis for combat rules in MMOGs today, but if some people really like it, I support their having games that provide it. All I want to do here is express the view that, in addition to there being games where the combat rules are wrapped around the notion of aggro management, I'd like to see some games that define combat content using different rules. I'd hope they're as diverse and interesting as the examples of tactical action I gave earlier, but just "different" would be worth trying at this point.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Third-Person, No-Save, and Consolitis 3

In addition to Bethesda, I'm happy to note that there's another developer/publisher who "gets it": Stardock.

From another story at Gamasutra today:

One thing the company doesn't plan on doing? Moving to other personal computing platforms. Stardock "does not, nor does it plan to, support the Mac or Linux markets," the report states. "Our focus is to help make the Windows platform as successful as possible. Stardock’s entertainment group may eventually make console games as well, but when it comes to application software, Windows is the platform."
Hallelujah! Apparently there are still some development houses where the Reality Distortion Field effect has not yet won the day.

Interestingly, Stardock also released its latest "Gamer's Bill of Rights." I usually think such efforts, while well-meaning, are a bit silly as they fail my test of a "right" being something which is inherent to a person and as such cannot be granted, but can only be recognized.

That said, Stardock's list of (what I would characterize as) "corporate intentions" is absolutely brilliant. It directly and specifically addresses the concerns in my "Consolitis" blog posts, and its provisions deserve to be highlighted:

1. Gamers shall have the right to return games that are incompatible or do not function at a reasonable level of performance for a full refund within a reasonable amount of time.
2. Gamers shall have the right that games they purchase shall function as designed without defects that would materially affect the player experience.
3. Gamers shall have the right that games will receive updates that address minor defects as well as improves gameplay based on player feedback within reason.
4. Gamers shall have the right to have their games not require a third-party download manager installed in order for the game to function.
5. Gamers shall have the right to have their games perform adequately if their hardware meets the posted recommended requirements.
6. Gamers shall have the right not to have any of their games install hidden drivers.
7. Gamers shall have the right to re-download the latest version of the games they purchase.
8. Gamers whose computers meet the posted minimum requirements shall have the right to use their games without being materially inconvenienced due to copy protection or digital rights management.
9. Gamers shall have the right to play single player games without having to have an Internet connection.
10. Gamers shall have the right to sell or transfer the ownership of a physical copy of a game they own to another person.
I didn't care much for Sins of a Solar Empire. (As an RTS game it's not "strategic," and even if it were the real-time aspect would kill any hope for any strategic thinking.)

That said, I bought a copy of Sins (and played it), and I'll buy pretty much anything Stardock publishes. Because I so strongly support their positions on being PC-focused, on DRM, on performing as advertised, on being able to play a single-player game without an Internet leash, and on not restricting secondary sales, I'm ready to do my small bit to support not just their individual games but Stardock as a company.

Having those rules doesn't guarantee that every game developed or published by Stardock will be a winner. It just improves the odds.

These days, that's worth supporting.

Third-Person, No-Save, and Consolitis 2

Apparently matters are worse at EA than I thought.

Here are a couple of quotes from an extensive interview given by EA boss John Riccitiello to Gamasutra regarding Mirror's Edge from DICE:

... Riccitiello says that at first, the idea of a first-person game with no shooting seemed risky and made him "a little freaked out" as a concept. In a particular meeting on the title, he was "pushing the bejesus" out of the idea that the game should be a third-person title.

"I was totally convinced that game needed to be third-person and not first-person, because I wanted to see Faith," Riccitiello says. Hence the DICE-developed game’s titular mirrors. "It didn’t have mirrors in it before the meeting -- I got mirrors so you can see her."

And now that he’s seen the end result, Riccitiello admits, “I was really wrong about the third-person thing.”
This raises a bunch of questions. For example, what in the world is the CEO of EA doing pushing any particular creative decision on the people designing a game? If he's so certain that their game design judgement is completely wrong on a matter as fundamental as the game's perspective, why fund their game at all? Did he also insist that Mass Effect be third-person? Did he also insist that Dead Space be third-person? And while he's busy interfering in creative decision-making, what's not getting done at the actual CEO level of business, which is what he's presumably being paid to do?

I respect Riccitiello's willingness to admit error on a creative choice. It's good to see that he's willing to give developers a chance to show him their ideas even when they conflict with his own; it's good that he's able to decide that he was wrong about a design feature and take appropriate action; and it's good that he's ready to acknowledge that error even in a public statement.

But why is he interfering in the creative side of game design in the first place? Yes, of course that sort of thing happens all the time; Riccitiello is not alone in this. And yes, of course when you make a big financial investment you want to exercise some level of control over the product being made with that cash.

The thing is, how far should that level of control extend? Can EA tell a developer what to do? Sure -- it's their money. But "do they have the power" is not the right question -- the right question is "is it wise?" Should John Riccitiello be telling creative leads what to do, especially after recently insisting that EA was backing off from trying to tell third-party developers how to do their jobs? Why, after all that, is EA's CEO still substituting his creative design judgement for that of professional game designers? After giving money to those folks on the basis of their creative capability, is it wise to assume that their judgement is wrong? What message does that send to game designers?

Finally, if Riccitiello was wrong to substitute his creative judgement for that of the developers at DICE, and if in particular he was wrong to insist that they use third-person perspective, does that mean he could be wrong to force that perspective on other games such as Dead Space?

I would hope that this experience would teach John Riccitiello two things: first, that third-person perspective is not right for every game and he should quit pushing it, and second (and more importantly), that he needs to stop interfering with creative decision-making and trust the talented people he's paying to do that stuff.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Third-Person, No-Save, and Consolitis 1

The infection of consolitis is spreading within the population of PC games.

I noticed today that Dead Space, which I had been looking forward to as another take on the wonderful System Shock, is not only third-person-only, but apparently the developers also decided to impose a checkpointing "feature" instead of allowing players to save their game when and where they choose.

So now I'm forced to reconsider buying this game. Now I have to miss out on what otherwise could have been a great game because its developers -- for whatever reason -- chose to impose game design concepts from some cramped console spec onto a PC version of the game that doesn't need them (with Dead Space being the latest example of such a game).

As a gamer, I'm really unhappy about the particular trends toward third-person and no-save designs. I do not find them immersive, which is what I want from a character-based game in a detailed gameworld.

I'm aware that some people claim it feels more "immersive" to them when they can see their character. I want to find these people and say to them, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

To me immersiveness is about suspending disbelief in a high-bandwidth gameworld to the point that I identify with my character and can easily pretend that the gameworld is a plausibly real place. Seeing the gameworld through the eyes of my character helps me to achieve that suspension of belief. That makes my gameplay experience of a very world-y game much more enjoyable.

Getting to watch my character's back as I move him or her through some landscape for fifty hours is not immersive -- no one's back (or other body part) is that interesting. All this forced third-person perspective does for me is prevent me from enjoying the more direct, personal, visceral experience of the gameworld that I enjoy.

Being able to save my game whenever I choose to do so also enhances my enjoyment of a detailed gameworld with a branching storyline by allowing me to back up and try different options. As I previously noted, I can cope with a checkpoint system in a game like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare because it's intended (in most parts) to be a very fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping action game, and saving/loading/replaying does slow down the action.

But in a more thoughtful game, such as a narrative-based or puzzle-rich game where thinking about options and exploring alternatives is the primary form of fun, a checkpointing-only system is unnecessary to the point of abusiveness. After promising a game with lots of conversational or interactive possibilities, the game then takes them away from you by not permitting you to save and restore in order to try out alternative approaches. How does that make any sense?

In some checkpoint games, the only way to see more of the game's content is to restart the whole damn level from the last point at which you were generously permitted to save. Maybe that works for the kind of mindless Mario/Kratos cotton candy that constitutes most console games, but it's absolutely wrong for a detailed-world game that takes advantage of a PC's capabilities. Here the developers have gone to so much trouble to make a detailed world full of interesting characters, ripe for exploration... and then they lock down the gameworld with a heavy-handed "we know what's best for you" checkpoint system that marginalizes the urge to explore.

If Dead Space is an example of a trend toward this kind of developer obtuseness, I guess maybe my gaming days are coming to an end.


Of course I know that the days are long gone when good games were made first for PCs and then ported (maybe) in reduced form to consoles. Now they're built pre-crippled for consoles and ported (maybe, or maybe not) to PCs.

That doesn't seem like progress to me. It feels more like "we don't want your filthy PC gamer money."

Too bad.

And why is EA so often the offender here? Madden NFL 2009... console-only. Mass Effect... console-only for months, and third-person-only. Dead Space... third-person-only, no save. Has EA under John Riccitiello really given up its lust to control game designers? Or is EA already back to its old tricks by insisting that all its third-party developers distort their games to meet some corporate "design-for-consoles-first" demand? (Of course it's possible that the developers of games published by EA all happen to be following a consoles-first design choice independently and voluntarily, and EA has nothing to do with it. But what fun would that be?)

Meanwhile, thank you, Todd Howard and Bethesda for resisting this stupid trend. Oblivion demonstrated (and I expect that Fallout 3 will follow suit) that it's possible to design and launch a game for the PC that supports console SKUs as well, and without having to be massively dumbed down in the process with third-person-only and no-save restrictions that degrade the immersiveness of the game.

Maybe there's still a glimmer of hope left for PC gamers....

EDIT 2009/01/23:
There is yet another utterly stupid issue occuring to PC games designed first for consoles: PC gamers using widescreen monitors actually lose big chunks of the gameworld as displayed on the top and bottom of their screens compared to gamers still using 4:3 glass monitors.

Instead of displaying more of the gameworld to the left and right (to fill the greater area available on a widescreen monitor) by increasing the horizontal field of view (FOV), designers who take the console-first approach actually zoom in on the gameworld and clip the top and bottom sections of the screen.

According to the invaluable Widescreen Gaming Forum, the reasons for this seems to be that many console games today are designed for a default display with an aspect ratio of 16:9. When they port their game to the PC, they simply don't bother messing with a FOV setting that would allow PC widescreen users to see the same amount of world vertically and more of the world horizontally as a 4:3 PC user.

This laziness afflicted BioShock until a clever gamer created a solution. (Months later, Take Two finally issued a patch of its own.) It afflicts Far Cry 2. It afflicts STALKER: Clear Sky. It afflicted Spore until the 1.001 patch. Strangely, it does not afflict Assassin's Creed or Dead Space, but those games (especially Dead Space) are so cripped by the other common symptoms of consolitis -- lousy controls, no quicksave/quickload/3rd-person only -- that while they may look good on a widescreen monitor, my experience of trying to play them on a PC was an non-stop exercise in boredom punctuated only by frustration.

So poor widescreen support for PC gamers isn't as common as the other aspects of the dread malady of consolitis. But it's bad enough to warrant a mention here.