Tuesday, February 12, 2013


"Its dangerous to go alone!  Take this."

I play a lot of games, probably more than I ought to.  From old games like Age of Empires II to new online games such as World of Warcraft (WoW), I have plenty of options and take advantage of them.  Its something I can do sitting or lying down which it seems like lately I have to do a lot of.
They are all entertaining, or I wouldn't keep playing them.  Although WoW is getting a bit stale after all these years, its still a great game.  I've been playing a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) lately, and its a lot of fun, but it has its problems as well.  They all do, and I've noticed most of these games share flaws, particularly the Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) like WoW.
Some of the problems are inevitable in a game involving thousands of players at once.  You can't give everyone the same gaming experience without silly things happening, like enemies popping into place ("spawning") suddenly as if teleported in by Star Trek transporters.  People need to have a static, predictable location they can go find people at, so they don't spend lots of time just finding the guy that gave you that last quest.  People need to be able to communicate, even if it makes no sense, across vast distances without any rational means, backpacks that hold 497 bars of ore, mounts that vanish into your pocket, and so on.
But there are other problems, unrelated to the setting, that really drive me nuts some days.
For example, almost no game created on the computer assumes you have any arms.  You're a limbless stump with a weapon jutting out of your chest, effectively.  Oh sure, they'll depict you with arms, you look like you have hands, but all they are for is holding weapons.
In the old side scroller game Prince of Persia, there was for the first time a game where you actually had arms and used them.  You would leap up, grab a ledge, and climb up over it.  It was amazing, the first game that gave you that power.  Prince of Persia came out in 1989 on the Apple II, and was a pretty astounding game for its time.
But then the entire concept of using your hands was lost again.  If you cannot leap the requisite distance over an object, well there's no possible way over it.  Nobody can climb over anything, you simply bump up against it, hopping a short distance again and again in frustration.  The Thief series finally allowed you to climb walls in the 3rd game, but only specific, permitted walls, not just any.  And if there was any impediment, like a ledge in the way, well you bumped your head against it and stopped.
Its really obnoxious in most of these games.  You can see objects like ladders and rough walls, but you can't use them except in specifically allowed circumstances.  Why?  Well, there are two basic reasons.
The first is that they want to restrict where you can go; you can't be channeled into encounters and moving through certain areas like cattle into a boxcar if you can bypass it.  Everquest used to ban people for "avoiding content."  Throw you out of the game.
The second is that they aren't very clever about enemies and AI, so if you get to some locations and shoot, they can't shoot back and you are "exploiting" by gaining an intelligent tactical advantage.  Essentially, game designers are finding the simplest and least creative way to force you to get beat up while trying to achieve goals. 
Many of these games have no method of flying whatsoever, so you cannot get to many areas without passing through clumps of enemies.  Even Star Wars, with hovering cars and space ships, you can't actually move over impediments, you have to go around them.  Here as a side note I have a particular peeve with the Star Wars game: your speeder explodes if anything attacks you, even something the size of a house cat.  You're knocked to the ground and stunned a moment when that happens.  No bypassing threats, cheater!
Another particularly annoying thing in these games is that every object in the world seems to be covered with hooks.  Here's what I mean.  You see that nice lamp post, round and shiny?  If you walk too close to it, you bump into it and cannot brush past.  Sometimes you get so stuck against an object you have to back up the way you came, and move around it. 
Why?  Because they aren't actually the size and shape you see.  They're a square block that is not visible with the object "rendered" on it, like a block of transparent plastic holding the lamp post in the middle.  So what you thought was a few inches across is actually a foot or two and square.
Now I do understand that this saves significant space, loading time, and lag for the game.  If you gave every object the polygons (surfaces) that it appears to have, it would be much larger and slower.  See, computers can't actually give you smooth round objects, they are made up of many smaller objects, like a geodesic dome made of very tiny hexagons. 
If you get those "polygons" small enough, they can appear very smooth, but they aren't.  And the computer has to understand and draw every one of those separately and in the right place, sometimes in motion, to make the object look right.  And while modern computers are very, very fast, they still bog down if you have a large area filled with those, some at least in motion.
So its a shortcut to make the polygons fewer and paint them with what you want to give the appearance of shape.  Which means you get stuck on invisible cubes, and annoyed in the process.
Something that is wearying for me is the challenge level. I don't mean that things are too hard, I mean they are unreasonably hard.  Here's an example; in Star Wars the Old Republic there is an encounter which requires you to fight one big tough guy and deal with regularly appearing bad guys who are generated by two objects on either side of a huge cavern.  If you destroy the objects, the bad guys stop showing up, like monster generators in the old game Gauntlet.
Except the game doesn't tell you and there's no indication of any such thing.  You just get overwhelmed with an endless series of bad guys until you die several times finding out what's going on, or read about it on the internet ahead of time.
Now, in this life, you only get to die once.  There's no reload, no resurrect, no internet to check whether the room has a bomb in it ahead of time.  What these games are doing is in the name of challenge totally destroying any sense of immersion and suspension of disbelief.  They require you to have advance knowledge of something you cannot possibly  have known about in order to survive.
I admit this is an easy and effective way to create a challenge, but it makes no sense in the setting.  As a GM I know that I should never throw a challenge at the players which will certainly kill them unless they have prior knowledge that they cannot possibly have attained.  But MMOG's do this routinely, especially in "dungeons" or similar settings.  It makes them more difficult but in the end, its just absurd.
Something also done in the name of challenge is to force players out of their abilities.  World of Warcraft in the last three expansions - especially the latest - has gone nuts with this.  There's two kinds of these encounters.
The first is the "vehicle" type of encounter, where the character you've been building and playing all this time suddenly loses all their abilities and is given a new set to use which is tailored for the encounter.  This started in the Wrath of the Lich King, and the designers apparently looovved it.  Players?  Not so much.  Its kind of fun, as a side show sort of thing but in the middle of a dungeon, against a bad guy?  Forced into it?  Why did I work so hard to gain all this equipment and all these abilities just to hurl them aside when I fight King Gazdookie or whatever?
The second is the "cutscene" or ambush type.  This is where you see the bad guy, are ready to deal with the bad guy, and move up to fight him but either they are impossible to target and attack until after you've talked to them, or you have to go through a pre-scripted scene showing you some dialog (even interactive dialog, as in SWTOR). 
So if you are, say, a stealthy character who survives and deals with threats by sneaking up on them and attacking from surprise - well not any longer!  If you are a character who survives and deals with threats by staying back at range - well not any longer!  If you are a character who survives and deals with threats by controlling some of the enemies through traps or similar abilities - well not any longer!  You have to start out a fight face to face lacking any of your character's advantages.
This is otherwise known as "if you aren't playing the right kind of character, prepare to die."  It means you aren't using your character's abilities, you're yanked out of that and forced to deal with them in methods you are poor at.  Again, this is a cheap, easy way to create a challenge, but it is incredibly frustrating and often irrational.
Too often in these games, you're offered a reward that is greatly disproportionate either to the risk or what you actually end up with.  Over and over in SWTOR I am told by some mission giver that he'll bankrupt his company to pay me, or that they'll make millions and share it with me, or that they have some unique, one of a kind items to share.  And so you do the mission, come back and get... enough money to buy a candy bar, or some random item that might be slightly useful but isn't unique or special at all.
Balancing the risk of a given quest or task and the reward for that effort is difficult, I admit freely.  The problem is since these games are made by a lot of different people working together, the threshold of risk vs reward varies greatly.  one designer thinks its this much, another has a different viewpoint, and apparently there's nobody in charge of unifying or smoothing this out.  So two similar encounters can end up with greatly different rewards, which is frustrating and confusing.
Games like EverQuest (EQ) thought giving a dime for risking your life over and over was some kind of luxury; they despised giving any rewards for any amount of risk.  Others, like WoW seem to be going overboard the other direction with magic items raining out of the sky so badly that you end up selling or "disenchanting" most of them.
Which brings me to another beef: trade skills.  Being able to craft and sell items to other players using trade skills is a common feature in all these games.  Its a pretty nice idea, even if in EQ it started out as a way to pull money out of the game from suckers who thought they'd gain somehow.  I'm serious, the game had an infinite amount of cash pouring into it from quest rewards and monsters, and one of the ways they pulled money out of the economy was with expensive trade skills with poor returns.
The problem I have with trade skills is that they make only a few specific items, and almost none of them are in the world except through trades.  In other words, you can't make the sword that monster dropped, you can only make trade skill specific swords.  Who actually makes all the stuff in the world isn't exactly clear.  They just show up, like dew in the morning, apparently.
Nowhere is this more blatant than in WoW with the Enchanting trade skill.  Enchanting allows someone to place a magical benefit on objects such as weapons and armor.  To do so, you use reagents, magical materials that are created by destroying existing magical items.  And you have to destroy a good 3-4 magical items (or more) to place one enchantment on an item.
Now anyone with any sort of mathematical or economics background can see the inherent flaw in this system.  Its like making a car tire by destroying several other car tires.  Eventually - in very short order - you're going to run out of tires.  But the world is full of magic items, they are quite common.  Stores are full of them.  Monsters have plenty.  You can even find magical stuff just lying around in the latest expansion.  Chests have magic items in them, sitting around to be discovered.
Where do they all come from?  I speculate that its dragon poop, that they fly over like pigeons and drop these enchanted items all over the place.  And it gets worse: you can't enchant items except with a very limited specific range of enchants, and magic items you find in the world have much different kinds of enchantments.  So where on earth is this stuff getting its magic from?
I do understand the headaches that allowing players to make just anything would cause, it would allow people to tailor specific, amazing sets of ultimate items which would give them enormous power.  The Elder Scrolls games suffer from this because of their flexibility (for example, eventually if you work at it, you can make a weapon that drains life from targets and gives it to you.  Once you have such a weapon  you become unkillable and unstoppable).
Its just weird and annoying to be in a game that lets you make some things but almost nothing you see in the world around you.  Where does that Ykesha enchantment come from?  Who makes this powered armor that mission givers hand out?
Everyone remember the original Legend of Zelda?  It was a fun little Nintendo Entertainment System game, you ran around a little 8-bit world throwing your sword at things and picking up hearts.  Remember the beginning of that game?  Its almost infamous now.  You start out on an epic quest to collect the triforce, save the princess, and defeat the evil Gannon.  To face the entire world full of monsters, save the kingdom, and save the princess, you're given...  a wooden sword.  To fight the world and save the kingdom.  And that's too common in these games.
You're told to go do something amazing and seemingly impossible, alone.  You save the empire alone, you stop the enemy army, you slay the dragon, alone.  Missions where its obvious you should have support, you get none.  Support you get is usually incompetent and useless, or worse. This has long been a problem in these games, with combat flight games giving you useless wingmen, WW2 games putting you in combat with a squad that dies off by the droves and doesn't help you in the slightest and so on.  You have to win the war yourself, you have to stop the plague yourself.  Sure, part of that is to make sure you are the hero and do amazing things, but its simply absurd.  In SWTOR I've saved the entire empire or stopped massive problems dozens of times with my level 29 operative alone.  It gets ridiculous after a while.
There are solutions to all this, but they require changing a lot of basic assumptions and patterns used in these games.  Each big, successful new game that comes out addresses problems in the previous ones and brings many new innovations, so in time I expect most of this will be fixed (and new problems arise).  As computers get faster and more powerful, they're able to handle display issues like the "world of hooks" one better and that should be lessened as well.
And don't get me wrong, I really enjoy these games still and despite little things like this I have fun.  Its just frustrating to keep running into this kind of thing, and since I have a platform to yell, I figured I would.


Anonymous JoelAT said...

L2P noob.

1:04 PM, February 12, 2013  

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