Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Lost Art of Keeping a Journal

In a vague continuation of my comparison of old RPGs versus newer RPGs, I'd like to bring up the point of the humble journal. This vital component of the RPG genre of gaming is the means by which players receive an inordinate amount of information.

Take the journal from the BG series, which documented the player's journey from a 1st person perspective, detailing quests and events in substantial detail, even including some emotional flavour. Or perhaps the Morrowind journal, as much I detested its complete lack of organisation, provided a rich description of the player's experiences.

If we now compare to more recent big name titles, say Oblivion, Fallout 3, Dragon Age or Mass Effect 1/2, the journal (and I'll include codex entries for DA:O and ME1/2), the difference is notable.
  • Oblivion: A short blurb for the current state of each quest.
  • Fallout 3: all you get from your journal is dot points of your objectives, and a handful of audio recordings from NPCs from various quests.
  • Dragon Age: Short prose in second person directing the player of their objective, along with matter of fact codex entries.
  • Mass Effect: Dot point objectives for quests and a brief outline of a quest, and matter-of-fact codex entries.
Of all these, Oblivion is probably the closest to the older style, but it still falls a bit short in comparison. Which raises the question, why the change? Why do we no longer have the wonderful prose describing everything in detail?

For one, with the increased detail and opportunity for choice, ascribing a particular emotion from a 1st person perspective is difficult, and may not match with the player's own roleplaying of their character. We no longer gain insight into the game world through the subjective eyes of our character, the almost stale encyclopedia-like entries that exist in the codex for Dragon Age and Mass Effect 1/2 fall short in comparison. Sure, we're still getting a comprehensive and detailed look into the well-developed universe that we're playing in, but we're being given a guidebook of facts rather than a meaningful first-hand account from a real person. That's why I believe the best codex entries in Dragon Age are those that are accounts from characters within the world, coloured with their own opinions.

The real problem seems to be that gamers are more demanding these days and are less liable to explore and wander freely. I'm going to suggest World of Warcraft as the culprit in getting everyone used to the mechanic of plot assist markers in the form of exclamation marks (or question marks) above their head. So players expect to be told exactly where to go.

For my Dragon Age mod Alley of Murders, one of the quests demanded the players interact with a particular placeable in order to advance a quest. I did not give the player a specific instruction to interact do this aside from a journal entry telling the player to search an area. There were quite a number of players that could not figure out how to move the quest forward and asked for help. I subsequently released an updated version with a plot assist marker placed above the placeable to eliminate this problem. But I wonder if these markers are crippling the curiosity of players.

Do players now expect to be told where to go and hence do not explore areas like they used to? Do players not want to read through semi-lengthy journal entries in order to determine what they need to do? Do players now want to be explicitly told exactly how and where to resolve a quest?

In essence, are we trading away a stronger narrative influence on our game through its journal for increased ability to find and resolve quests? Is the increased usability worth it, or are we losing too much immersion and depth as a result of this change? Or better yet, can we have the best of both worlds? Perhaps the ideal option would be give the player the option to show narrative and/or explicit quest details, allowing for that rich narrative to still exist, while at the same time catering to the desire for increased usability.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nostalgia Reviewing

One trend I've noticed among reviews, particularly reviews of RPGs, is the tendency to view older games with heavy rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. It's even more prominent amongst players than "professional" game reviewers. It typically leads to the standard argument of "I like your old stuff better than your new stuff", and decrying current titles in favour of old "classics."

Frequently these veteran RPG players wheel out the old gold box series games or BG1/BG2. Now, not to ruin the parade for what were great games of their time, they simply don't hold a candle to current RPG offerings despite what the most staunch critic might say. For argument's sake, let's look at the simple concept of player choice.

What choices were you given in gold box games? You perhaps got to pick your character's name, alignment, class. But in game choices that actually affected the plot? I can't think of any. I loved the Krynn games, but I never got any real choices that mattered: I never got to save Durfey, spare Lord Soth, or even make a small decision like side quests in Dragon Age or Mass Effect.

So jump forward to the Baldur's Gate series. I loved these games too, but let's not get carried away in saying they're way better than current RPGs. Again, the simple factor of choice proves the increased depth of current RPGs, as sure, you got to pick good and evil in BG, but you didn't have the same number of small impacts on the gameworld, and have people reference those actions and react differently to you because of them. This is, of course, in addition to the obvious aspects of eye candy and comprehensive voice acting and other such benefits we get from modern day games.

The real issue is that the reason people remember those games so fondly, and declare them to be so superior to current games is because of what they didn't show. The lack of detail allowed people to 'fill in the blanks' as it were, and create extra depth and character that simply doesn't happen now because the players are being given more. What do I mean?

I'd like to relate the story of a player who thought there was a subtle romance between Ajantis and Viconia in BG1. Why? Because Viconia would resist every single spell the player attempted to cast on her... except for healing spells cast by Ajantis. Of course, this was nothing more than simple chance, but the player read so much more into it. Because there was a limited amount of character depth, players created their own extra bits of personality in the characters that were presented.

In BG, all we saw of the NPCs was a small character sprite and a portrait. Compare to Dragon Age, where we get every line voiced, we get to see the character's full appearance, their facial expressions, gestures... there's a lot less left to the imagination, hence players have less attachment because they're not adding those extra details in themselves. In modern games, we're getting a more immersive and cinematic experience at the expense of personal creativity that helps increase a player's emotional investment in the game.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Dragon Age Modding Scene

Coming from NWN2 modding, I was curious to see how the distribution of user made content would be handled for Dragon Age. In response to a question on the issue previous, I'd like to raise a few points on Dragon Age's modding community in terms of its visibility to players.

The first issue is BioWare's social site versus Dragon Age Nexus. As of the time of writing, Alley of Murders has approximately 5100 downloads on Dragon Age Nexus, and the project has around 4400 views on the BioWare social site. That to me is fairly hard evidence that a serious rework of the social site is necessary. To have more downloads on one site than views on another indicates a distinct preference for one site over the other. The number of categories (and their ambiguous naming) and the inability to filter out incomplete projects from released projects are significant problems with the social site at present. These have been brought to BioWare's attention, and they have declared their intent to fix it. However, it is my opinion that unless something is done quickly, they are in serious danger of losing the custom content battle with Dragon Age Nexus.

As for the reception to Alley of Murders, players have generally been positive, and I've found most feedback to be quite useful or constructive. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this, but that's to be expected within any modding community. I feel I've received far fewer complaints than I did in NWN2 and a lot more praise, but that could be attributed to a number of factors: improvement in my own skills, smaller scope of module, adding to existing content and style rather than pushing a different gaming experience, and fewer modules means that people are very happy to have additional content.

The sheer number of "mods" that add a new character/store/hairstyle/body model as opposed to additional quest add-ins is staggering, and it seems extremely difficult for quest modules to get a great deal of notice at the current point in time. Comparing votes and popularity on the relative sites has such mods far outranking the quest mods currently available, but I do not know whether this is a result of the tastes of Dragon Age gamers or simply a reflection of the fact that there are only a couple of quest add-ins available.

One thing that has remained consisted from my other modding efforts in the past is the difficulty in getting mods recognised and publicising their existence. Neither the social site nor Dragon Age nexus have a good means to compare similar types of modules aside from a basic '1 point if you like it' system. While a 1-10 ranking system is typically flawed because a multitude of mods end with ridiculously high rankings, it is better than a 1-up system. Of course, both system rely on players coming back and providing a score/point and a comment, which is not a guarantee either. Many players simply don't bother to score or comment on a mod, and that's entirely their perogative. However, I would strongly urge players to comment (and score, if possible) on mods they download and play/use. Speaking as a modder, I want to know if players have enjoyed my module and what they would like to see improved for future work. Within reason, of course, as modders don't have the resources of a professional game company. But please, if you want modders to keep making mods, let us know that you're playing them!

It's early days in Dragon Age modding, so it will be interesting to see what happens to assist builders and players alike. But at the current stage, the primary difficulty seems to be the PR required to get your module noticed and downloaded.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Add-In/DLC Integration: Part 4

As part of my posts on Add-In DLC (Down-Loadable Content) integration, I'd like to take the opportunity to discuss cohesion as it relates to Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. These two games offer a great comparison of DLC in terms of adding new characters. Both games have DLC that was available from day 1 that introduce a new party member that the player can take along.

Shale's integration into DAO is much more cohesive with the main game than Zaeed's into ME2 for two reasons:
1) Shale has more interjections. This is a pure content thing, but the more a character says, the more it feels like they are part of the story.
2) Zaeed's interactions within the Normandy are different to every other NPC that can join Shepard's crew. You don't get a proper dialog chain with Zaeed - he just spouts dialog at you, which really makes him feel like an afterthought rather than a core part of the game.

That said, Zaeed's sidequest fits in with the atmosphere of the game far better than Shale's sidequest. With Zaeed, you get a good insight into his character and history, and have to make some tough choices, as with many good quests in Mass Effect 2. By comparison, Shale's personal quest feels a little stale, having no real choices to be made, although learning about Shale is a somewhat interesting discovery.

Which is the better DLC? I guess that's up to individual taste. Personally, Shale feels more like a part of the game than Zaeed does, and I would argue that when DLC appears to truly part of the game as a whole, it is well designed DLC, as it maintains the immersion of the game.