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Value-Subtracted Anti-Features

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Before I start my rant, I want to acknowledge that many people don’t agree with me, and (get this!) they’re not wrong.

For example, I think MMORPGs are boring and bereft of gameplay. If a lot of people didn’t disagree, developers wouldn’t bother making them, never mind making ungodly amounts of money from them. So kudos to them for finding a market for whatever it is they’re selling. ;^) The point is, it’s understood that you probably disagree. I’m just writing to see if there’s anyone who doesn’t.
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I once played a real-time tactics game which had probably the most entertaining cut-scenes I can remember. The gameplay was alright, but the cut-scene following each scenario is what really made them worth playing. Unfortunately the design contained (what was, in my opinion) a fatal flaw.

The player was given various “units” (that is, groups of same-type combatants, such as archers, cavalry, etc.) for each scenario. If a given unit had any surviving members at the end of a battle, the player could replenish that unit and carry them on to the next scenario. Obviously this was intended as incentive and reward for performing well. It adds a bit of variety and fun to the game, right? Well...

What inevitably ends up happening is that you run up against a scenario that you fail to beat several times running. And you start to wonder if perhaps, you hadn’t lost that one mortar unit, several scenarios ago, you might be able to succeed here. You can’t know for sure, but it’s possible you’ve actually hit a dead end due to under-performing earlier in the game. Practically speaking, this feature is actually a brutal punishment for not performing perfectly.

Do you really want to go back and replay the last two difficult, grueling scenarios, until you’ve beaten them “better” than you already beat them, to see if you could then get through this one? Ultimately this incidental feature, which was just supposed to feel like it was adding rewarding depth to the game, ends up robbing you of incentive to continue playing it at all.

Thinking about it, I’ve realized that I have similar feelings about lots of other “incidental, value-added” features.

Oooh, I get to choose whether I want my character to be able to develop these sorts of spells, or those sorts. That would be fine for a short PvP strategy scenario, but I have to lock myself out of the vast majority of character abilities in a long single player campaign? When I can’t possibly have enough information to make a truly informed decision? That’s just cruel. Oh but it’s called “re-play value” right? Great. I have to completely start over to see whether or not I would have liked a different choice better. It would take a hundred re-starts to actually find out what choices I prefer? Not. Gunna. Happen.

And it seems like these sort of choices and "rewards" are bad news for designers too. When you’re putting together a scenario, do you have to take into account, “What if he hasn’t earned the super shield, or found the jump-jet boots, or opted for the ice-ball spell, or, or, or” How well tuned can your scenario really be when it has to work with every one of a million different possible character configurations?

Couldn’t you arrive at something much more fun and focused if the state of the character was actually known at design time? The player might still earn upgrades that are fun and interesting, add texture to the game-play, and feel rewarding. They just don't need to be faced with meaningless dichotomies, abandon to dead ends, left to regret uninformed decisions, or punished for not being victorious enough.

Specifically, I'm talking about features that are added as an addition to a basic game-play mechanic, like adding ability trees on top of a hack 'n slash, or unit rewards to a real-time tactics game. It seems to me like many of these features are created for the appearance of adding depth to game-play, under the mistaken assumption that at least they can’t hurt. But in practice, they really do.

Edited by vreality

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Yes there is a downside to broad customization, supposedly for the designer and preferably not for the player. What I mean by that is the designer is meant to create a game where such dead ends don't exist, whatever combination a player goes they will be able to complete the game. Skyrim for instance was/is meant to change in difficulty if say you choose a bow over a sword as your main weapon. Enemies react differently, have fewer hitpoints etc. That allows a player to choose any weapon they wish, when in previous games it would have been foolhardy. If done well there will be none of the downsides you mentioned, if done poorly then those issues will appear. That is pretty much the same for any gameplay element though.

Do designers not realise the downsides of such a system? If there good then they will notice them and implement the system for the right reasons. A poor designer won't and most probably will put it in solely for the wrong reasons.

It is like you alluded to at the start. Some designers, and a reasonably large number of players, enjoy this sort of system in a game. You may not see a point in it but others certainly do. The same goes for the strategy game you used as an example. In fact when I was younger (and had access to only a few games at any one time) I did find myself enjoying a game where you needed to occasionally backtrack to then be able to complete a level. I wouldn't enjoy such a feature now, in fact I hardly ever play through a game more than once, but there are people who would still find satisfaction in playing in such a way.

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I definitely agree on this particular concept. I remember playing a RPG-Stratagy game with a similar function can't remember the name at the moment. Where you would get 0-2 new units per-mission depending on what missions it was, and if they died in battle you lost them forever. so It had had same problem, you might make some poor decisions or end up on the bad end of a roll of the dice and end up getting thought the battle by the skin of your teeth, and thus lose nearly all your units, and then when you get to the next battle you end up with three people for a 16 person mission. so you just have to restart the game, and reload before the previous mission, or if you made the mistake of saving over your old game, toss the game out the window wish you had your 5 hours back.

In my opinion, this ruins the difficulty. I love to try higher level difficulties where you almost lose the battles, its that kind of battle that keeps you gripped to the end, when you finally make that winning move that lets you take out the enemies last two units before he takes out your last two units. After all whats the fun in killing everything in the same 6 moves, where very battle ends up the same way with the easy win. One of the reasons I also dislike the current MMO-formula, kinda feels like 'Wash-Rinse-Repeat' to me.

I find that you really need a mechanic that can let you recover from this type of thing, where you can say buy new units to recover your fighting strength, and possibly make money with a limited number of units, that way you don't end up between a rock and a hardplace where you can't make money because you can't win a fight, and you can't buy units. ( welcome to the wheel of despair )

this is without a doubt one of the features you see in many games touted as a "Feature" which is terribly unbalanced and forces players to either stop playing, or restart at a lower difficulty than desired, of course I think this all goes back to the reality vs fun design standpoint. Sure when you kill people or units forever its more realistic, but is it more fun?

Just my 4 and a half cents I guess.

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On 11/7/2011 at 5:46 PM, Bigdeadbug said:

Skyrim for instance was/is meant to change in difficulty if say you choose a bow over a sword as your main weapon. Enemies react differently, have fewer hitpoints etc. That allows a player to choose any weapon they wish, when in previous games it would have been foolhardy.

It sounds like you're describing a situation in which they've worked out two basic game-play mechanics. If the player can switch style at will, then it's completely unlike the choices I was describing. If not, they're essentially making two games, and getting a ton of re-use out of their assets. The cost being that it's tougher for the designer to make the same scenarios play well with either mechanic than if they could have made custom scenarios for each. I suppose they make their own decision on which approach saves them more work. Although I might speculate that the player would get more value out of two separate campaigns than one which he's unlikely to play through twice.

But I was talking about designs that try to add something unrelated on top of the core mechanic to give the illusion of depth. Most have to do with rewarding points, spending currency, etc. Unfortunately I'm not familiar enough with your example to come up with the best way to destroy it with a cool new feature. ;^)

Edited by vreality

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There are more variations in the game. The bow/sword analogy was just one that was used when someone was explaining it. Although the player can swap items, if it is anything like their previous games, they are only proficient with the weapons they have used a lot, efficiently limiting what they can use after the first few levels. It may turn into two or more different games in one depending on what choices a player makes but that line is somewhat blurred. You could say a game that allows both melee and ranged combat has two games in it although most people wouldn't view it that way. What they seem to be doing is making the NPCs adapt somewhat to the weapon they face and thus allow the player to play however they want within the confines of the choices given to them.

A situation of having 2 campaigns, one being focused one melee and one focused on range, wouldn't work nearly as well in an open world scenario like Skyrim or in a lot of the games that provide this sort of "style" choice to the player. In this case it is this sort of choice that adds to the "depth" that the player looks for in such a game. In my specific case I don't look at this sort of choice as a way to get me to play it through more than once. Instead it just allows me to play the game however I want during the first run through in a semi organic way.

But I was talking about designs that try to add something unrelated on top of the core mechanic to give the illusion of depth. Most have to do with rewarding points, spending currency, etc.[/quote]

It is true that designers have a tendency to put in mechanics that don't mesh well with a game. Your first example doesn't strike me as an example of this. Instead it is simply a game play feature that the design put in because it appeals to them/their target audience. In this case yes most people won't enjoy it but there are those who will. It doesn't necessarily make it a bad game.

Your later examples are simply a case of bad game design that would in fact add a nice element to the game if done correctly. Look at Trine and the options it gives the player, in a bad game they would be seen an example of an "illusion of depth", but the superb level design shows that it is possible to integrate such a system properly in a game that classically doesn't "need" it. Sure it added more work to the developer and it certainly paid off in this case.

The issue of this topic seems to be more about games that simply suffer from bad design more than anything. Sure a game that does it poorly, implementing a system on top of a core mechanic to give depth to the game, could have avoided the issue if they hadn't implemented the system in the first place. The thing to remember is that there are plenty of games that do it well, the problem being that if done well you won't notice that the mechanics was ever "unrelated".

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For example, I think MMORPGs are boring and bereft of gameplay.
MMORPGs are not supposed to have a good gameplay. It's nice if these have it but it is not required and definitely it is not the most important. People play these games because they want to play with other people. Some even say that non single player games are simply an excuse to hang out with other people :) Some even radically say that such games are simply an addition to the chat feature (and in the past there were games, quite popular, that were barely something more than chat, basicly games designed to do things in the meantime while there are no people to chat). This might be exaggeration, but still it has a lot of truth in it. If you are making a single player game and made a great gameplay you have a great game. But this is not true/enough for multiplayer games (especially massive multiplayer).

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I definitely agree on this particular concept. I remember playing a RPG-Stratagy game with a similar function can't remember the name at the moment. Where you would get 0-2 new units per-mission depending on what missions it was, and if they died in battle you lost them forever. so It had had same problem, you might make some poor decisions or end up on the bad end of a roll of the dice and end up getting thought the battle by the skin of your teeth, and thus lose nearly all your units, and then when you get to the next battle you end up with three people for a 16 person mission. so you just have to restart the game, and reload before the previous mission, or if you made the mistake of saving over your old game, toss the game out the window wish you had your 5 hours back.

In my opinion, this ruins the difficulty. I love to try higher level difficulties where you almost lose the battles, its that kind of battle that keeps you gripped to the end, when you finally make that winning move that lets you take out the enemies last two units before he takes out your last two units. After all whats the fun in killing everything in the same 6 moves, where very battle ends up the same way with the easy win. One of the reasons I also dislike the current MMO-formula, kinda feels like 'Wash-Rinse-Repeat' to me.

I find that you really need a mechanic that can let you recover from this type of thing, where you can say buy new units to recover your fighting strength, and possibly make money with a limited number of units, that way you don't end up between a rock and a hardplace where you can't make money because you can't win a fight, and you can't buy units. ( welcome to the wheel of despair )

this is without a doubt one of the features you see in many games touted as a "Feature" which is terribly unbalanced and forces players to either stop playing, or restart at a lower difficulty than desired, of course I think this all goes back to the reality vs fun design standpoint. Sure when you kill people or units forever its more realistic, but is it more fun?

Just my 4 and a half cents I guess.




This sounds a lot like the Fire Emblem franchise. It had a similar perma-death mechanic for it's TBS. I think they intended players to replay some levels, though, especially at the higher difficulties. Each individual mission was easy if you didn't care about losing characters, the point was to find individual level strategies that would also allow you to beat entire game.

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On 11/10/2011 at 10:42 AM, Liosse said:

I think they intended players to replay some levels, though, especially at the higher difficulties. Each individual mission was easy if you didn't care about losing characters, the point was to find individual level strategies that would also allow you to beat entire game.

Perhaps a better approach might have been to require character survival in order to pass levels.

It seems like telling the player they've succeeded at a certain sub-task, when they really haven't, is a fundamental problem. And worse yet, once they figure out that just "passing" a level is not necessarily success, then progress becomes ambiguous. They never know if they've beaten a given scenario "well enough" not to end up blocked a couple steps down the road. And they never know if they're really blocked because of a previous false success, or if they can still continue forward as-is if they just play well enough now.

This problem becomes fatal, in my opinion, when the game is primarily (at least from a given player's point of view) story driven. The player progresses to the next piece of the story as they pass each level. Being forced to move backwards, or simply being made uncertain as to whether or not you'll have to go back in order to ever move forward, disrupts and derails the work-reward cycle.

Edited by vreality

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[quote name='Liosse de Velishaf' timestamp='1320950539' post='4882685']I think they intended players to replay some levels, though, especially at the higher difficulties. Each individual mission was easy if you didn't care about losing characters, the point was to find individual level strategies that would also allow you to beat entire game.

Perhaps a better approach might have been to require character survival in order to pass levels.

It seems like telling the player they've succeeded at a certain sub-task, when they really haven't, is a fundamental problem. And worse yet, once they figure out that just "passing" a level is not necessarily success, then progress becomes ambiguous. They never know if they've beaten a given scenario "well enough" not to end up blocked a couple steps down the road. And they never know if they're really blocked because of a previous false success, or if they can still continue forward as-is if they just play well enough now.

This problem becomes fatal, in my opinion, when the game is primarily (at least from a given player's point of view) story driven. The player progresses to the next piece of the story as they pass each level. Being forced to move backwards, or simply being made uncertain as to whether or not you'll have to go back in order to ever move forward, disrupts and derails the work-reward cycle.
[/quote]



It is very possible to win the game without all the characters surviving. It's certainly more of a loss early-game because you have fewer characters, but it can be done. Also, the game is very upfront about this mechanic. They tell you death is permanent, and that it might cause some trouble later in the game. There is a replay requirement if you lose your main character.

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