Archive for the ‘ Bethesda ’ Category

Freedom: On the Authority of the Character

Hey guys. This post is older than it looks, so it might not look as if it were intended to be part of a series. I don’t think it needs editing, though. Previous posts are here and here.

I’ve been playing Skyrim a bit in my free time. Also, I’ve been thinking about character interactions in Bioware games, as news about Mass Effect 3 reaches fever pitch. In addition, I was reading a thread a few weeks ago about graphics, so Uncharted 3 is getting mentioned (mostly by two or three people with Uncharted/Sony-exclusive-title avatars), as is The Witcher 2. I was also in a discussion a month or so ago about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a (not the winter one, an earlier one) Steam sale allowed me to purchase the DLC at $7.49.

These things all have something in common: Freedom. The other day, I read an article about 2011 being the year of the sandbox title (often associated with freedom), and, of course, I just wrote about the idea of total freedom a few posts ago. There’s a reason for this, but I’ll write about it at a later date. For now, let’s just talk about a hypothetical game and hypothetical freedom.

Game Q, as we’ll call it, generally offers you a lot of freedom. There are a few points, however, when it takes that freedom away. It’s not a mechanical breakdown, though. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution taught you to expect freedom and build your character as you saw fit, then turned everything on its head in a fit of stupidity, Game Q takes the freedom away when the plot demands it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve pissed off Evil Mister X. You’re playing a mission, sneaking around Factory Z in order to find evidence pointing to the location of The MacGuffin (though you could just as easily have gone in guns blazing, or maybe stealthily executed everyone in your path; whatever you wanted), when, suddenly, Evil Mister X calls you out on the PA system, locks the doors to the room you’re in, and fills it with sleeping gas. You wake up, tied to a chair, bright lights shining on you, with Evil Mister X’s favorite interrogator preparing to stab you with a few exotic-looking needles or something.

You’ve just lost the freedom to play the way you wanted.

Let’s back the story up a bit. Earlier in the game, you did a favor for Evil Mister X. Turning him down puts you in the first situation. He doesn’t hate you this time around, however, so when doing the mission, suddenly the alarms go off, soldiers pop out of nowhere, aggressively looking for the intruder. It turns out that Evil Mister X sent his favorite assassin in to help you out, but, being Evil Mister X, he wanted it done with some style, so the assassin went in guns blazing, ruining your stealthy plans.

Isn’t that a better game than one where you have total freedom to do whatever you want?

See, Evil Mister X is a pretty big bad guy. He doesn’t take kindly to doing things someone else’s way. He does them the way he wants. For him to be a valid character, he needs to appear as if he’s making choices, even if those choices conflict with the outcomes you had in mind. If everyone just listens to you and does whatever you want no matter what, they start to feel less fully realized. There’s something wrong with a game that gives you plenty of freedom, but bends over backwards keeping everyone else in check so they only ever do what you want.

Let’s look at Infamous 2 for a moment.

Nyx, the fire-wielding hot-head (a cliche that annoys me, but whatever) conduit, offers, a few times, to do things that sound totally batshit crazy, like crashing a trolley car into an enemy base to take out all the bad guys with relative ease (but it’ll kill lots of cops). If you choose not to do it, she gets pissed, but that’s about it. So far, she won’t do anything to contradict you (I haven’t beaten the story yet), and that actually kind of bothers me. It’d be nice if I planned to do something my way, and Nyx went ahead with her plan and made a mess of things anyways.

The one obvious problem is that you essentially have the same outcome, no matter what. If you do Nyx’s plan, other people will be mad at you and cops will be dead. If you don’t do Nyx’s plan, she’ll be mad at you… and the cops will be dead. All that really changes is whether or not you wanted it to happen, and then players run the risk of feeling like their choices have no consequence, which, as I’ve previously discussed, is a bad thing. There’s no point in having a choice if the outcome is always the same, after all.

Uncharted is a pretty great example of doing the opposite. It never lets you make a choice, and as a results, its characters can feel more like real people. Never mind that Infamous 2’s characters are way better than anything Uncharted has to offer–they’re held back by having to remain secondary to your choices. Uncharted’s aren’t. They can do whatever the writer wants them to do.

It’s a prickly problem: do you want freedom or do you want real characters?

…why not have both?

If Evil Mister X doesn’t know you’re going on this mission, maybe neither things will occur.

I’ve been running with the idea that, like Deus Ex, Game Q is an immersive sim. The idea behind immersive sims is that the AI often uses non-scripted behavior to make the world feel more alive. Wolves will hunt bunnies because it’s in their nature, not because the game designer said “okay, as you round this corner, those wolves will chase that bunny.” It’s a genre that more effectively creates game worlds which feel alive, and being able to transport us to worlds by making them feel alive is something that games really ought to be doing more often. After all, if they try to tell us a story and allow us to participate in it, then nothing should break that illusion, right? (Oh, man, that’s going to have to be another post for another day. Too long.)

See, scripting can be good–just look at the original Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time, for proof of that. At the same time, it can be bad when used in excess (see Uncharted, which is so much worse than Call of Duty when it comes to scripting and level design reducing freedom that it isn’t even funny–yet another post for another day). I think Game Q should operate with some level of scripting, but it should only do so in a way that enhances the story or the characters. Evil Mister X shouldn’t do a thing because the game designer wanted him to–Evil Mister X should be ready and able to do a lot of things dependent on the player’s behavior in the game, because that’s who he is.

Ultimately, those scripted behaviors throughout Game Q mean that the player feels like they need to interact in a specific way with any NPC they meet.

If Friendly Boss might help you out for sneaking in to Base Y, maybe you should let him know. If the game is able to track your play style (“player completes missions with 30% sneaking, 10% shooting, 60% disguises”), maybe NPCs might recognize that you did a mission if you keep using that play style, so you might want to consider changing things up. Maybe you know that one of Evil Mister X’s spies has infiltrated your organization (it might even be Friendly Boss!), so you decide not to tell anyone and do everything off the grid so nobody learns about your mission until it’s done.

Basically, I think removing player freedom doesn’t necessarily mean the game stops being free. If you lose your freedom as the result of your actions, then… it was your freedom that got you there. If anything,  your freedom is enhanced when it gets taken away. Ghandi once said (more or less) that freedom doesn’t matter unless you have the freedom to screw up. If you choose something that screws you over… well, that’s still freedom, even if it means being tied in a chair and being beaten by it. As long as Game Q doesn’t permanently take that freedom from you, it should be fine.

Somebody else once said that the people who value freedom are the ones who have it taken away. It seems to me that the game would matter more if you were put in situations where you had no freedom (as a direct result of your freedom, as just discussed), and you had to re-earn your freedom through some way.

Game Q should be able to combine the player the freedom and unscripted nature of the immersive sim alongside the scripted nature of more story-focused games, topping both by having characters that appear to make intelligent decisions based on player actions. They’re still reactive characters, like you’ll find in story-focused games like Mass Effect (I never said they had to be good stories, did I?), ultimately doing what they do based on what you do, but at least they’re not either simple AI behaviors or set-in-stone scripted behaviors.

I guess you could think of this implementation of scripting as… really elaborate AI behaviors. Jamie Griesemer and Chris Butcher, in their presentation “The Illusion of Intelligence,” which discusses the implementation of Halo’s AI, mention how part of the illusion of enemy intelligence was by giving Halo’s enemies a wide variety of things to do and letting them be around long enough to use some of those abilities. The scripting is just a really large event that occurs based on the context the characters find themselves in. It makes them seem better.

Complete (not total) freedom gives you a game that doesn’t feel genuine because its characters don’t do anything big. There’s rarely any human X-Factor in there. You just do things the way you want to do them, the end. The world doesn’t change as a result of your actions beyond, of course, “oh, this mission’s sub-objective was not to be detected, so you lost a chance to earn 500 XP and some dialog options changed.” The choices don’t really have consequences, and, as you should know by now, choices are meaningless without consequences. Likewise, a scripted game is going to be the same no matter what, so, once again, your choices have no consequences, because you have no choice. You do what you’re told and nothing ever changes.

A hybrid of these two should offer the strengths of both while eliminating their weaknesses.

That’s the theory, anyways.

Daily Think: It’s Okay To Make Stuff I’ll Never See, You Know

Sup, Game Devs.

Skyrim is upon us and it’s got me thinking: I remember reading a while back about how developers (It might have been about Bioware specifically, but I can’t be sure) were worried people wouldn’t get to see everything in just one playthrough, so they weren’t making as many secrets or allowing as many choices and so on and so forth.

I get that. You spend time on something, you want people to see it. It’s natural.

But might I suggest that doing the opposite might make you more money?

You’re trying to combat used sales, right? Sounds like you hate it as much as piracy, and I don’t blame you. People are basically spending their gaming dollars on things without you profiting, and that kinda sucks. Barring the obvious way to combatting this (psst: look at PC gaming, specifically discs that ship with Steamworks!), it seems that the most obvious solution would be capitalizing on something else. DLC is nice and all, but some people don’t love your game enough to want to spend more money on it. The guys who are looking to save money are the same ones who are the least likely to buy DRM and the most likely to buy used games, after all.

I’m talking about replay value.

Surely you remember it? It’s a metric that a lot of people still mention in reviews, talking about whether or not people will want to keep playing a game or not. If you want to keep people from trading games in, then provide them with enough content to keep them from trading in the game the second they’re done! I’m not talking about useless flags or feathers either (I’m looking at YOU, Assassin’s Creed!). Nah, I’m talking about new areas and quests depending on the choices players make in a game (after all, there is no such thing as a “meaningful choice,” only “meaningful consequence,” and if players make different choices that lead to different consequences, that’s a good reason to want to replay). If that doesn’t suit you, what about NewGame+ (Mass Effect’s awesome NewGame+ mode is one of the reasons I loved replaying it and bought a second copy when it became available on Steam)? Remember unlockables? Those were pretty awesome, you know. Letting people beat the game and then replay it with a new skin was a pretty enjoyable thing once upon a time. I get that you might want to make people spend $7 on the game, but just how much money are you losing with every copy of your game that gets traded back in, huh?

You know what else works?

Lots of content.

The more time I spend playing your game, the less likely I am to want to trade it back in, especially if I feel like there’s more to discover. Ever wonder why Bethesda’s games sell so well? Exploration is a HUGE element of that. If you go “well, we’ll cut exploration since only 15% of our players will see that,” you run the risk of making an inferior game. Look at Dragon Age 2. They made a game without of the content and variety that Dragon Age Origins offered, and as a result, released a game that reviewed and sold worse. When Bioware forced players through one specific story path, limiting a portion of their player base to playing just a few ways, the customers reacted and sales of the game dropped like a stone. Freedom and variety are vital to a good game experience (unless, of course, you’re making a linear shooter or something, where you can do variety a lot of other ways).

You don’t need to be afraid, devs. If I don’t see your stuff the first time through, that’s okay. It means I’ve got an incentive to play through again, and that means I’ve got an incentive not to trade in my game. If you get over yourselves and spend more time on games I’ll spend time on, you’ll make more money.

…assuming your game’s any good, of course.