Sunday, March 4, 2012

Why Games Are Boring (RPG Edition)

My last article had us looking at the slow descent of First Person Shooters into a boring, sluggish contest to see who can camp most effectively. Whereas consoles were the main reason for the departure from fast paced gameplay seen in Quake and Tribes, Role Playing Games have a much more storied history. The unfortunate truth is that RPG innovation died along time ago.

This goes hand in hand with the much maligned "Story Mode" difficulty level coming out with Mass Effect 3, but the issue goes back much farther than that. The fact of the matter is that RPG gameplay is bland, uninteresting, and uninspired. It doesn't really matter what you're playing. Whether it is the number crunching click fest of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the poor excuse for an first person shooter that is Fallout 3, and even Skyrim and Oblivion's mind numbing excuse for 'combat', it doesn't matter.

It's beginning to sound like I have a problem with enjoying games in general, and while that may be true, I still have a point. Go into any critically acclaimed RPG and strip out the leveling system, the stats, the story, the setting, the lore. Take out everything except the core gameplay mechanics, the 'you against an enemy' combat, and tell me that shit doesn't stink.

Let's use the best example first: Star Wars: The Old Republic. While this MMORPG has a lot of very interesting things wrong with it (the main one being that you can spend 4 years and $250 million and get something as unfinished and poorly thought out as what the final product was), the real issue here is that it isn't fun to play. Again, look at SW:TOR's gameplay at it's core. You attack an enemy by clicking one of your attacks, wait for it to finish its 'cool down' (set time before you can use it again) and they attack you back while they wait for their cool down to finish.. You have a lot of abilities, all of which do damage, heal allies, stun enemies, or buff/nerf opponents. You can play smarter, by having certain rotations (using a set sequence of abilities to get the most efficient damage possible) and that's it. That's the game. Everything else comes down to whether or not you are well enough equipped (giving you better base statistics) an opponent. Player Versus Player, Player Versus Environment, it doesn't matter. There's no skill, there's no challenge, it's just a numbers game.

great game asshole

How do you become more well equipped than your opponent? You are supposed to grind. You are supposed to work. You are supposed to invest more in-game hours than they do. Again, no skill required, no challenge set, just do this monotonous activity for longer than they do. 

PVE is the best possible example. When playing SW:TOR, I noticed myself trying to avoid any and all AI creatures as much as I possibly could. I wanted to minimize the encounters I had with the enemy creatures. Why? Because it was mind numbingly boring. I knew I would always be able to beat them, I knew that there were no 'tricks' that I had to watch out for. Any time I got into combat it just came down to me pressing one button over and over and waiting for them all to be dead. It wasn't just me either, everyone else I played with were conspicuously hugging walls, staying out of the 'aggro radius' (the set distance upon which an enemy will begin to attack you) and generally doing all they could to not engage in the core gameplay of the game.

challenge = low. at best it could be relaxation, at worst i'm uninstalling this pile of shit

I'm aware that these aren't new criticisms. People said the same thing about World Of Warcraft. And Diablo. And almost every RPG that has ever allowed online interactions. But does this not seem like a problem to anyone else? Am I going fucking crazy here?

Okay, let's look at Fallout 3. The core gameplay is an FPS-lite. You aim anywhere in the vicinity of an opponent, and even though you had the skill to center your crosshair dead on the enemy's skull, the game engine is the one that ultimately calculates whether or not certain skills were high enough with respect to enemy distance, level, etc, that your bullet actually hit. It's another fucking numbers game. I'd say that I was noticing a trend here, but I'd be saying in the same way that I've noticed a trend in all water being wet.

Number crunchers. It rolls off your tongue in the same way that excel spreadsheets and Office Depot do. I've discussed before what a game is, and number crunchers are not it. Skill. Challenge. Goals. It certainly has goals, I suppose, if you're goal is to have the highest possible number. But the only 'challenge' is how much time you're willing to invest before you get bored. The only 'skill' is convincing yourself that what you are actually doing is a worthwhile investment of your time. Stories of people taping down mouse and controller buttons, leaving their computer or console on overnight just emphasize my point. People want the higher numbers, but they recognize that game mechanic put in place to allow them to achieve the higher numbers is complete and utter bullshit.

stop right there criminal scum. nobody puts boring shit in games on my watch

Skyrim almost gets it right. I actually liked Skyrim quite a bit. It was one of those games that I filed away in the "if they just fixed this, this, and this, it would have been the greatest game ever" along with Far Cry 2 and the Total War series. I liked the approach to the players base stats. I was always a believer that you should level by doing. That if you are going to attach a number to your Stealth skill or your Sword skill, that you should improve those skills by actually using them. It obviously isn't perfect, and if the leveling system is designed half-heartedly the end result is people repeatedly jumping off of cliffs to increase their Acrobat skill in Oblivion, or smithing a million Steel Daggers in Skyrim to increase their smithing.

My favorite example of poor design is Skyrim's armor statistics. You increase your skill in Armor by getting hit. That's right. The game rewards you for being bad at the game. This leads to ridiculous situations such as finding some low level creature, taping down the Block button, and leaving your console on overnight so you can level blocking.

My problem with Skyrim's core gameplay is that it isn't very intelligent or challenging. When engaging in combat, you don't have anything stimulating to do. You can click on an enemy until they die. Sometimes they'll try attacking you, but they're so fucking stupid that they rarely hit you, that they can't block anything, and that they really don't do anything except telegraph their attacks in stupidly obvious ways.

Never once do you see something remotely resembling intelligent AI. They don't try to lead you into traps, or ambushes, or flank you, or really do anything other than funnel at you one by one to begin their attack animation. It's boring.

let me tell you a story

Story has to be addressed next. I don't have an issue with story being included in role playing games, although I never felt it should be a necessity (to me, role playing games were about making your own story within the world and rules defined for you). My issue is that story has become the reward, the carrot, if you will, for the slog that has becoming RPG gameplay. It has come to a point where people specifically play role playing games for the story, to the level that they are willing to forgo gameplay completely and just watch the story unfold before them.


i play games for story, and to choose how to influence that story

When they do this, they are no longer playing a game. And as a result, game designers are getting their priorities mixed up. I've said before that I love a good story. But there is a time and a place for everything. Designers like Bioware need to realize that perhaps their future isn't in gaming. That they need to pursue a different medium instead, like visual novels or movies. The problem here is that they are focusing too much on the story, and not enough on the game. Games are an interactive medium, and the thing that defines it as a game, the gameplay, shouldn't be an afterthought. Something to be covered up and hidden behind the smoke and mirrors of storytelling and narrative.

The Story Mode difficulty level in Mass Effect 3 offends me so deeply because they are admitting that the gameplay, in their game, is not worth playing.

Imagine a chef delivers you a meal. It consists of steak, potatoes, and asparagus. Before you can eat, he provides you with the option of removing either the steak or potatoes.

guess which one is steak, which one is potatoes, and which one is asparagus

This should be ringing alarm bells in everyone's mind. You immediately think that there must be something wrong with either one of the ingrediants, individually, such that you wouldn't want them both on the plate.

Or you wonder about the effect that taking away one of the ingrediants would have. Would the meal still be complete?

Sure you'd think that, well some people don't like steak. And some people don't like potatoes. But then you have to wonder why the hell they ordered a meal with steak and potatoes on the goddamn plate.

The thing is, Bioware and other RPG developers should be offended, or at least concerned that there are a large number of people out there asking for a "Story Only" option. That they find playing the game tedious and boring enough that they'd want to just skip it. It should light a fire under their ass, to make them go back to the drawing board and rethink how they implemented their gameplay mechanics, and why they are so boring that people just want to skip them.

But they won't. And that's why games will still bore me.

5 comments:

  1. My dad fell asleep playing an MMORPG once and his performance did not noticeably deteriorate.

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  2. Your analogy is flawed. What game companies like Bioware are doing are not asking you to remove the "steak or the asparagus". They are allowing you to not eat the steak or the asparagus if you don't like them, which, you know, if kinda accurate and nothing to be upset about.

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    1. Then why did you order something with Steak and Potatoes to begin with? If you just want to play a game with good cover shooter mechanics, there are far superior venues for that. And if you just wanted the Mass Effect 3 story, youtube and a mass-effect wiki would more than suffice.

      You miss the point though. It's not about likes or dislikes. It's about how allowing one portion of the whole sum to be removed effects the other portions. Bioware has to develop a Game that can stand on its own two feet without the actual gameplay, meaning that the gameplay has to be a non-critical element to the game, which is never a good thing.

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    2. It's distinctly and easily possible to get better story OR better action than Mass Effect has. If either of those things is the only reason you're playing, then you should be playing a different game that does those things better.

      For $30 you can get a really good steak, or really really good potatoes, or a mediocre steak and potatoes. You're choosing the last option, and then disregarding half of it, which begs the question of Why Didn't You Order The Better Stuff Instead.

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  3. Damn I didn't realize how bad the Mass Effect games were, I haven't really played a bioware game since SWKOTR... which I liked in spite of its flaws.

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