Monday, December 10, 2007

SUWT #15

Darren's Shut Up, We're Talking #15 podcast is up. Here's my ridiculously long response.

I won't predict success or failure, but here's some stuff I would consider if I was making a Star Trek MMO.

John mentioned the "depth" of the Star Trek IP. Star Trek was entertaining, but it was also a particularly intellectual TV show; especially the original series. Nearly every episode explored a serious philosophical question. Any faithful Star Trek game would also include serious philosophical inquiries. I agree that Bioware might be a good match for Star Trek, because I think they would take that philosophical aspect seriously and ensure character choices are the heart of gameplay.

Star Trek is also about diplomacy and competing empires. Humans, Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, and all the rest might be allies from time to time, but they all represent nations trying to balance international community with self-interests. A game should include a depthful study of complex politics.

Non-lethal combat was also an important aspect of the TV series, though there was certainly plenty of lethal combat as well. I would avoid the traditional die-and-respawn mechanic that MMOs normally use. A "WoW in space" would be utterly disrespectful to the IP.

Human frailty is pivotal in Star Trek. It's ok for the player's character to ridiculously lucky and skillful, but even the strongest, smartest, and most resourceful characters in the TV series got captured and defeated time and time again. They all genuinely feared for their lives and the lives of others. They all feared pain. A game should ensure that player-characters are not demi-gods compared to NPCs. It should ensure that players are always under the command of someone and disobeying that command matters (Kirk might have been a rebel, but he was punished for it more than once). It should ensure that players experience defeat in more ways than having to respawn. The game doesn' thave to be hard, but the world should feel more realistic than most MMO worlds.

Nobody likes the grind. Nobody.

Grinding isn't just a series of repetitive actions or redundant scenarios. A series of actions only becomes a grind when it's boring -- when the player would rather skip content than experience it, but can't skip it.

Darren said he's happy "as long as I can see my next goal", but that's settling for weak content. No gamer should have to sludge past boring content to reach the fun. Because of different playstyles and personal interests, most games have at least some content that any given gamer would prefer to skip. But if most gamers are only focusing on the goal most of the time, that game is more about Pavlovian manipulation than fun.

The gameplay in Tetris is repetitive, but it's still fun. Halo is repetitive, but still fun. Repetition isn't the problem.

I won't apologize! ;)

I haven't been able to put much more time into the game yet, but I have been considering why I've been so much more critical of Mass Effect than anybody else. Honestly, it bothers me that nobody has agreed with my early impression of the game more than partially, so I'm trying to understand what might be at the root of that disagreement. These are the possible reasons I've come up with so far:

I haven't been tackling the main questline.
I've been focusing on exploring the side missions and planets. Most folks who have greatly enjoyed Mass Effect seem to have focused on the main storyline. They also seem more willing to accept it for what it is, rather than what it was hyped to be -- meaning that it seems to be a far more linear game than advertised. It seems to be about the story and little else. I keep saying "seems to be" because I'm still basing all of this on the first four or five hours of gameplay (which, as I always say, matter immensely for any game).

Only one planet in each solar system (plus the occasional ship) is open to exploration; the rest are just textual references. And on each of those exploreable planets is only one or two depthful encounters. There might be five blips on the map, but four of them just represent resource nodes or cut-and-paste wreckage that act as 5-second mini-games (hit 'X' when it tells you to, 'Y' when it tells you to, etc. -- hardly the sort of thing I'd expect in a Bioware game, and certainly not engaging). Exploration isn't rewarded with quality content, but with cookie-cutter garbage.

Some other reviewer verified my (early) experience that every planet is basically just the same mountains and plains with a different texture, different gravity, and different weather. Perhaps that's more realistic, but it certainly isn't fun.

I'm an action-oriented gamer
I fully expected Mass Effect, being a Bioware game, to focus on a linear main-narrative. That's no surprise. What is a surprise is how little else there is to the game. Neverwinter Nights is among my favorite games of all time, and I've played KOTOR and Baldur's Gate as well. The stories were not the only engaging aspects of those games; the action was fun, too.

First, look at skill-progression. After doing great jobs on Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR, I didn't expect Bioware to fall into a classic mistake of skill design: concentrating on stat-tweaks that are invisible to the player. A 3% bonus to accuracy? That's worth a skill point? Are you kidding me? I don't care what sort of audience a game is aimed at... if the player can't feel the effect of a skill choice, that choice does not matter.

As others have pointed out, the companion A.I. is pretty terrible. Micro-management is an absolute necessity, because my NPC companions are morons who die within seconds. Once, I ordered them to just stay behind and twiddle their thumbs while I kill all the enemies, because they got me killed the first time I tried that encounter.

Stat-based gun combat is tricky to implement. In Hellgate: London, the player witnesses every missile, miss, and contact. Flagship did a far better job with it. In Mass Effect, the primary feedback is the enemy's healthbar, and I feel like I'm firing blanks half the time. The cinematic presentation of combat is definitely great, but the combat itself is mediocre at best.

I'm more critical of hyped stuff
Whenever anything, game or otherwise, is popularly touted as the best invention since sliced bread, I'm skeptical. I have no doubt that I'm being more critical of Mass Effect than I would be of something like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Fight Night: Round 3. I was also exceptionally critical of Bioshock and Halo 3 (I own the latter and like it; I plan on trying the full version of Bioshock soon).

However, I'm also obsessively self-critical and try very hard to be completely honest with myself, so I don't use words like "mediocre" and "alright" about a game everybody and his mother seems to love until I'm certain there's solid logic behind those claims. The stuff I say isn't just nitpicking -- I'm interested in the overall gameplay and want to enjoy the game -- but I'm reluctant to give any game five stars, if you know what I mean.

I'm a dumb Aspie
The obsessive self-honesty is just one symptom of Asperger Syndrome, a condition that describes the strange way my brain developed. Another symptom is extreme difficulty noticing and understanding body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and non-literal speech (like sarcasm; I love using it, but I rarely catch it when others use it).

Much of the hoopla surrounding Mass Effect as an innovative game is its admirable progress with exactly those aspects of language. So, even though I notice and respect what Bioware has done there, it makes perfect sense that it would have less of an effect on my overall gameplay impression than it would have on players within the normal range of non-verbal, social intelligence.

Anyway, another interesting SUWT podcast. =)


  1. Can you explain a bit more why being an aspie would hamper your ability to enjoy Mass Effect? I'm just personally curious, and don't fully understand the relationship between it's symptoms and gaming.

  2. Well, there are a number of ways AS might change the way I experience Mass Effect.

    For one, AS folks like me care more about the literal aspects of language than the social aspects. I had to consciously learn many aspects of language (including cultural aspects) after the age of 20 that most folks pick up in their pre-teens. It's not that I'm entirely oblivious to body language, but it's something I have to think about... whereas people normally process body language and tone of voice subconsciously and automatically. As a result, I don't notice a lot of those social communications because I'm already concentrating on the words themselves, the literal aspect of communication.

    Even an advanced video game like Mass Effect doesn't come close to the complexity of real communication between two human beings. But it might be close enough that I miss some of what's going on while I'm concentrating on the words.

    Another way that AS might influence my gameplay is the odd way in which I experience emotions. For me, emotions are intellectual. They're more the result of conscious choices than automatic responses. That's why AS folks like me tend to not respond to (or we even joke about) tragedies in the news and other stuff with inherent emotional attachments; I'm emotionally disconnected from others until I choose to make a connection. If I don't see a logical purpose to making the connection, I won't do it.

    I'm not positive this affects my gameplay, but it might. In Neverwinter Nights, I killed every NPC who didn't serve a purpose by living -- I actually levelled up before ever leaving town. =) I'm very empathetic when watching movies, but not when playing games.

  3. "A series of actions only becomes a grind when it's boring -- when the player would rather skip content than experience it, but can't skip it."

    That sums up my definition of "grind", as well. Very well put.

    It is a problematic issue from the dev standpoint, tho, because what is "grind" to one is "content" to another (back to accommodating diverse perspectives, again). That's why the "but can't skip it" is such an important modifier (for me, at least)...

  4. Thanks for the comments Aaron...always appreciated.


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