Saturday, September 11, 2010

Consoles != Dumbing Down

There was a time back in the days of the PS2 and the original XBox that I might have accepted the argument that consoles weren't played by "real gamers". But not any more. The technical increases in the power of consoles and the popularity of console gaming means that PC gamers can no longer get on their high horse of superiority and declare that console gamers are "kids" or don't want games with any depth.

I can't provide a definitive reason for the rise in popularity in console gaming compared to PC gaming, as there are many factors that have potentially contributed to this: PC piracy, gaming becoming "mainstream", affordability of consoles, and many more besides. Regardless of the reason, consoles have truly become a proper gaming system in their own right, and the superiority espoused by PC gamers needs to come to an end. For me personally, there are some games I'll get on PC, but others I'll buy on console. Console gamers are not necessarily after a "simpler" gaming experience.

It doesn't have to be one or the other

But don't take my word for it... compare the recent statistics that have been gathered on Mass Effect 2 playthroughs on both PC and XBox360. Now, I could write a whole post on how these results are interesting and the insights that these could provide for design issues, but that's been discussed elsewhere. This is a massive trove of information on player choice and preference (more people play soldier than all the other classes combined and 80% of Shepards are male?!?), but I was interested in the differences between console and PC gamers.

Across millions of playthrough, PC gamers spent about an hour longer to finish the game (not much considering the average playtime was around 30 hours), whereas XBox players did about 10% more loyalty missions on average (which pretty much amounts to 1 more). However, most PC players did Miranda's (touchy-feely plot) quest, whereas console players tended not to, but console players favoured the combat-focused mission for Grunt's loyalty.

It's hard to draw conclusions based on a simple loyalty mission choice. Do console players like Miranda's character less and Grunt's character more? Or was it the emotionally charged story of finding Miranda's sister that they didn't care for?  Perhaps PC players didn't particularly like Grunt's personality or maybe thought an unstable Krogan might be more dangerous for their enemies? Maybe less PC players didn't even let him out of his tank?  There are plenty of reasons why either of these decisions could have been made, so I'm not sure it would be responsible to try and draw conclusion on the rationale behind the differences in these choices.

Grunt: Krogan extraordinaire and console gamer favourite

While these differences are interesting, there's no clear difference in choice that indicates a "bored" audience on the console market. Some gamers who decry ME2 as "not being an RPG" would probably argue that is because the game is already "dumbed down" to suit the console audience, but I'd argue that these statistics but a bullet right to the head of that argument. Mass Effect 2 still has a lot of dialogue in it, and only 15% of that dialogue was skipped by players (unfortunately there's no PC/console breakdown of that statistic). It appears from this information that console players are every bit as dedicated to experiencing a good story as the PC gamers.

In short, if you ever feel the urge to insult a proponent of your non-favoured system, please reconsider. There are advantages and disadvantages of both platforms, and people should recognise that. There's no reason that there has to be an "us" and "them" mentality among gamers playing a multi-platform game on different systems. After all, we're all gamers, right? The games themselves should be the important thing, and not the choice of hardware on which we play them.


  1. If consoles aren't dumbed down, then Dragon Age Origins is sure looking like a black sheep now.

    Not to mention the only people I know who play consoles also don't know how to operate their own laptops.

  2. I never skipped conversations on XBOX ME2. On the other hand, I haven't listened to a skippable conversation yet on PC (which I finally connected to the server. Oops.) Not that my reasons matter to the feedback data...

    I play both, by the way. PC and Console. You insult one, you insult me. That makes me unhappy.

    You don't want me unhappy.

  3. I believe consoles are termed dumbed down due to the lack of options for playing certain type of games. For action and racing games, I think consoles do great (I personally have a PS3) but for strategy games, they do fall considerably short.
    Dragon Age, in spite of all that is advertised, and Mass Effect 2 are tactical RPGs and manage to do pretty well on consoles. Take a proper strategy game like Dominions 3 or Starcraft 2 and I doubt you'll be able to play them on consoles - unless you hook up a keyboard.

    Also, in spite of all the technological advancements being made, the basic PS3 and Xbox360 hasn't changed all that much inside since release. Compare that to PCs 3 years back and what will be capable in 2 more years (which is when the next iteration of Xbox will come out, according to MS) and you can see why gamers feel robbed when things are changed/removed to enable them to run better on consoles.

    As an example, even in Dragon Age, exterior levels above 256 x 256 (those that are populated and have a sizeable playing area, not vast expanses of blank chunks like Lothering) are not recommended since there is a possibility that those levels might not run well on consoles.

  4. I hate the whole "console gamers are stupid" thing, it's very annoying.

    However, I will say that it often worries me when some of my most looked forward to games get announced for consoles and PC. Why?
    Because consoles have very different strengths than PC, and yet the PC version is often treated as a "console port". Moreover, the PC and its controls are set-up so that a large wealth of information on screen and complexities (take the Civilization series for example) can be pretty easy to handle. This is very tough to do on consoles.

    So when games that I've liked for their gameplay depth and such on the PC gets sequels that are also for consoles, I worry. Because there is a big chance that the games will be "stripped" of a lot of things that I have enjoyed previously, because there is such a big audience on the consoles. So the game gets designed more for use on the consoles.

    Some of my all-time favorite games are console games. Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, A Link to the Past, Mega Man 2... The list goes on and on. But I severely dislike that the PC often gets viewed as secondary nowadays, and that multi-platform games often get no "PC treatment" whatsoever, just a sloppy port. Ideally, developers would recognize the various strengths of the platforms.

  5. "Because there is a big chance that the games will be "stripped" of a lot of things that I have enjoyed previously, because there is such a big audience on the consoles. ''

    In other words, dumbed down?

    Consoles aren't even what they used to be. So many extra costs and upgrades to do, they've completely lost the appeal of paying once and not having to upgrade they once held. Call me old fashioned, but I don't think I need to be spoiled enough that I need more than 1 source of gaming system. The PC is enough.

  6. Technical competency of owners has nothing to do with this conversation - I know plenty of PC gamers that have no technical knowledge. That kind of comment is the exact elitism that needs to be expunged from these discussions, because it has nothing to do with games or gaming tastes.

    I agree that there are some games that simply don't translate well to consoles. I'd hate to try and play an RTS on a console, I just don't see it working.

    I do get concerned about the potential "PC port" problem for multi-platform titles. For me, Thief: Deadly Shadows demonstrated the *wrong* way to do things, as it split up levels because of the technical limitations of the original Xbox. Now, having load screens/area transitions in the middle of a level wasn't a huge drawback, but it was unnecessary for the PC.

    I don't think that Dragon Age has suffered from being a multi-platform game, nor do I feel it's had things stripped out because of consoles. Levels may be slightly smaller, but they're still plenty large enough to pack a significant amount of content into an area without a transition. Besides, after playing around with the level editor for a while, I've noticed that there numerous props that don't have a huge draw distance and hence can't be used for huge sweeping vistas.

    Yes, PCs have more power. But that's always been the case. On the PC we get improved graphical quality through things like increased texture resolution, better draw distance and anti-aliasing, and if we keep our PC up to date, better performance.

    However, any price argument puts PC on the losing side - you'll almost certainly have to upgrade your PC before you have to buy a new console to keep up with the latest releases. And what "upgrades" have you purchased for your console? My XBox360 does everything I want, and I've not bought anything apart from the initial box it came in.

    So my closing question for now: can anyone list features that have been "stripped" from big titles because of a multi-platform release?

  7. Caller_In_Darkness seems to be having issues posting a comment for some reason.
    Quoting from him:

    In my opinion, every RPG-like game that is multiplatform will suffer immensely, the term dumbing down is a bit harsh, but not without a bit of honesty. Consoles are best for action and arcade-like titles, handling big dialogue sequences that are necessary for a good RPG, is not a strong discipline of consoles.

    Looking at the recent development that RPGs are undergoing, it is easy to see, that there are more and more action-RPG titles (Dragon Age, Mass Effect) and no real RPG-titles any more. This is a matter created by the urge of the gaming industry to go multiplatform in order to reach a bigger audience with their products. This makes it mandatory for them to adapt to the typical focus of action-related titles.

    I hate console gamers that are oh so offended by this truth. If you bought a console, you didn’t buy it because of extensive dialogue and good RPG-games, but because of great action and/or sports titles. And this IS NOT A BAD THING! Playing the whole action-RPG stuff is fine as well. But to react like a crying schoolgirl as soon as some of the deviously evil and malignant “PC elitists” dares to say that console adaptions are taking down the real RPG genre for good is just a perfect display of the intellectual capabilities that rightfully earned many (NOT all) console gamers the “console kid” tag.

    The problem I have is that the action-RPG is swallowing the real RPG. Mass Effect 2 was a great game, don’t get me wrong, but it was hardly an RPG in the classical sense. Alone the dialogue system is insultingly primitive and a pure abomination. The next step will be dialog choices like “Me good”, “Dunno”, and “Me evil”.

    Certainly, people will point out Diablo as a classical PC game and the FF series as console games, where the dialogue and story award is clearly going to the console, but I don’t consider even one of them as an RPG. Diablo is a pure Hack n’ Slay Action game (obvious), Final Fantasy is more like an action adventure (no real choices, no ability to “play” a character).

    A list of stripped features? I'll give it a try with two of the most important things:

    - Good dialogue system (as seen on ME, ME2, AP the dialogue was obviously designed and optimized for consoles and it sucks)
    > Simple/fast dialogue wins vs. good dialogue

    - Atmosphere (gets canned in favor of extensive and very boring and repetitive combat in ME, ME2, DA [yey, the next horde of 30 Deep Stalkers, how interesting!])
    > Action wins vs. atmosphere

    Certainly the pro-console people will say I can't prove this is true and I can't prove that these points only came to existence because of multiplatforming. Fact is, you can't prove the contrary as well.


  8. If consoles dumb down RPGs and are killing them, how do you explain KotOR? I've seen people argue it is their favourite RPG of all time... and it came out first on XBox. We've also got Jade Empire, Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Dragon Age indicating that it's possible to have "real RPGs" on a console. Yes, I'm playing devil's advocate here to a degree, because I still absolutely love playing games on my PC. But my point is that there is nothing that prevents consoles from having "real RPGs" or anything about consoles that makes them poorly suited to providing a meaningful gaming experience.

    How about this question: What defines a "real RPG"? Can you name some and indicate why they can't be played on a console?

    I loved Alpha Protocol's dialogue system, and I don't think it's a dumbing down at all, because it actually forces you to roleplay rather than over-analyse every dialogue choice. I love swathes of dialogue, but I cannot buy the argument that AP's dialogue system doesn't allow roleplaying.

    Atmosphere... like what? Killing endless bandits or being "waylaid by enemies and must defend yourself" in BG? Atmosphere in IWD/IWD2 where you fought never-ending streams of enemies?

  9. I think when a game is planned from the get go as a console/pc there are some compromises made. You yourself list one when you say that "I've noticed that there numerous props that don't have a huge draw distance and hence can't be used for huge sweeping vistas." The reason why that is so is almost assuredly because of the ram limitations of the consoles. DAO modding suffers from these limitations, since you can't push the engine to what it's capable of on pc hardware.

    Now a good console game (and we're mostly talking Bioware games here) is planned around these limitations. So the "console = dumbed down" is less obvious than with less talented developers.

    But here are some compromises I see:

    Simplified skill/spell trees to allow them to be easily accessed via controller. Unified ammo (cough Deus Ex 2 cough).

    Limited conversations. Sometimes a great story needs more than 60 characters for the player's option. That limit is a sop to the tv and console. Just look at all the text in your last blog, on Torment.

    Loading.... loading.... loading.... (common complaint in ME1 were the never-ending elevators that hid the loading). The tech is obviously there to avoid that, just see Oblivion. Less ram means more loading, and smaller areas less detailed than they might be otherwise.

    General dumbing down, not console specific:

    Skill and item systems designed to encourage spamming the most powerful spells/abilities. In Diablo, who cares if you drain all your mana in five seconds, just pound some of the hundred or so mana potions you carry around. There's no strategy involved more complicated than pressing the potion and damaging skill buttons. This is dumbing down of strategy. It can certainly be fun in it's own way of course. This works well on console, because it goes back to the limitations of the controller buttons, this type of system means many fewer buttons to press: eg: fireball/mana pot repeat until enemy is dead.

    Finally and most specific to a modder, without the pc there's going to be no major modding for any game. You pretty much need a pc to do things like create new monsters or add skilltrees/spells.

  10. "If consoles dumb down RPGs and are killing them, how do you explain KotOR? I've seen people argue it is their favourite RPG of all time..."

    "How smart do you think the average person is? Well, half the population is dumber than that." :-)

  11. "If you bought a console, you didn’t buy it because of extensive dialogue and good RPG-games, but because of great action and/or sports titles."

    You may be suffering under a misconception that Final Fantasy is the only breed of JRPG (though I'd certainly argue that on the battle system front FFXIII runs rings around our beloved Bioware titles). You might want to check out the Persona series.

    The interesting questions here are about interface design and a fixed spec population vs a varying spec population. I don't think mouse vs analogue stick is particularly relevant for choosing dialogue options.

  12. Consoles heavily dumb down the technical aspect of current games, which in turn impacts game play and design decisions.

    No DX11 (esp. DirectCompute), no advanced physic engines(PhysX via CUDA comes to mind), not much progress on AI-improvements, limited buttons on the controller compared to kb+mouse input and memory limitations are just some points.

    If those things would get pushed we would see more games with dynamic fluid simulations or detailed Terra-forming, more games would integrate those and physics engines in general in their core game play instead of abusing them as rag-doll and gravity providers, the bottom line of smartness of AI opponents would rise significantly (many current games still can't offer more than "spot player->run into direction and attack"-behaviour), more complex games would be developed that offer a wide range of commands instead of limiting themselves to the few buttons on current gen controllers (and using those dreaded radial menus as a crutch to get around it), instead of having tube-like levels (after pattern A->B->C->D->backtracking YAY!) game areas could open up and offer a more varied experience in how you tackle the games and offer real hubs instead of a poorly representation on a map.

    Btw. a more recent example of console centric development:
    Oh, and don't get me started on the UI of FF XIV for PC... .

  13. Another quote from Caller_In_Darkness:

    First of all, sorry because of the posting-trouble. I am not certain what is happening, after typing in the security captcha there is an 404 Error page not found.

    What I wanted to express was not conosle kills RPG. What I wanted to say was: Multiplatforming will turn RPG into action titles step by step, until nearly no RPG elements are left, leaving good games, but without RPG.

    Yes, consoles CAN have proper RPGs, never said they couldn't. I said that companies are more likely to do action-RPGs rather than proper RPGs because that means more sales for them. This was in no way intended to imply any shortcoming of the console as such, or the user of it. It is just stating that the market is shifting and it is not doing so in favor of roleplaying.

    This should also answer your question about RPGs that can't be played on a console. They can! I never said the contrary.

    Also I didn't say AP dialogue doesn't allow roleplaying. It does. But the system is garbage (I'm not talking about the time restriction here, which was weird, but ok). Having one word choices leaving you to hope that the outcome will vaguely express what you wanted to say is a bad system. Feels like: "Oh, they don’t care nevertheless what they are talking, so let’s just throw some single words an upon selection present loosely connected output."

    Atmosphere like...the smoldering corpse bar in PS:T, the Athkatla market in BG2, the Ocean Bay Hotel in Bloodlines, arrival at the Weeping Willow Inn and the Intro/Tutorial level in NWN2, even the frozen wastes and endless ice theme of IWD1/2 was more atmospheric than the jadda-dadda fantasy setting of DA. As soon as the newer RPGs slowly starting to build up atmosphere (be it with visuals, music or plot), they immediately destroy it, because you are swarmed with enemies at every corner.

    Example: In DA you find out about some hidden dragon cult (urn of sacred ashes quest). This was cool. But then, they force you through an endless tunnel with hundreds of enemies to fight and bore you to death and ruin the great feeling the whole "uncovering of cultist activities"-thing had. The action focus takes precedence over the atmosphere.

    Better concept: Bloodlines ocean bay hotel. You go in there to get an item. You don't know anything about the place. After you arrive there, you witness disturbing things and slowly puzzle together the horrible events that have taken place in the hotel and that have left their mark upon it. You are constantly on the edge, because you are never certain if the apparition of an axe-murderer will flash up in front of you. Finally you make it out of the house, retrieving the item you were send for. Surprise: Not one enemy to fight, but maximum atmosphere.

    Again, this is no criticism on consoles or their users, it is more criticism on the gaming companies for (1) throwing out mediocre products and (2) proclaiming shooters and action games as RPGs.

    I hope posting will work this time.

  14. I wouldn't really say that consoles have "dumbed down" any of the games, but they introduce more hardware limitations that heavily restrict the PC side because of the relatively cheaper consoles. I can really only think of one game that really did "dumb down" the game for the consoles and this is because someone had the bright idea of actually porting an RTS game to the consoles (Supreme Commander 2). Comparing Supreme Commander 1 with 2 and you'll just see how dumbed down it was. It lost everything the first game was famous for and was left with nothing but a boring RTS game with oversimplified controls. It provided nothing new to the market and failed as a result.

    What I see more often than not with multi-platform games is the laziness of developers in keymapping and making slight alterations to make the change actually work well. Just Cause 2 for the PC had by far the worst controls I've ever seen in my life. Thankfully, I could rekey most of them to what I wanted, but there were a few that still were just plain odd.

    You can argue that there are no "true" RPGs on the consoles all you want, but it wouldn't be true. You're playing a role in a game. No where in its name does it state you can actually make a choice. You're playing through the eyes of a character in the developer's world. That is its basic definition.

    Its a well-known fact that giving players a choice in the matter complicates the game by a great deal. A lot of the developers simply do not have the time or money for it. From a financial standpoint, a linear plot is far less expensive over one that has lots of replayability due to its choices. The developers dont make more money if you decided to replay the game.

    AmstradHero: However, any price argument puts PC on the losing side

    Just to add onto this. Starcraft II has very likely started a new standard for PC games as well, selling their game for the price of console games. I expect everyone else to follow suit now. I find it annoying how the game market works :P Set an arbitrary price and everyone follows suit regardless of the quality of their game.

    Just my two cents.

  15. I'll address some of the points raised:
    60 character line limit: Honestly, I'm not certain this is a bad thing. Brevity is the soul of wit. Planescape was great, but there were times when it did have too much text. Dialogue can be broken up into smaller chunks without too much effort anyway. I honestly don't see that dialogue is harmed in any way by a game being on console.

    DX11: You know how many currently released games use DX11? 7. That's it. The uptake of newer features has always been very slow, even before console were a big market. New technical features take time to incorporate into games, and developers learn to push the limits of existing technologies before jumping onto the new generation. "If those things would get pushed we would see more games with dynamic fluid simulations or detailed Terra-forming, more games would integrate those and physics engines in general in their core game play" - to be honest, I don't really see those as major enhancements to gameplay, at least not in the context of this RPG-focussed discussion. I can see them being of use in niche and innovative puzzle games, but I don't see them being phenomenally useful in lots of genres. However, improved AI is something that I would advocate making use of - but designers have the problem of making the enemies smart enough to hinder the player, but not so smart that the player has no chance of success.

    AP's dialogue system: In general I felt the lines matched the choice I'd made. There were some definite counter-examples... most notably for the "suave" response - I think whomever wrote those lines needs some serious lessons on "how to interact with women."

    Atmosphere: I can pull apart many individual locations or scenarios in most games and identify areas with good or bad atmosphere. For example, in DAO I loved the atmosphere of Orzammar, and of the tail end of Paragon of her kind with the Broodmother and Branka. It was just the several hours of constant combat in-between that I didn't care for.

    The youtube video: that's less of a fault of the console and more the fault of a bad design. The artist(s) should have made the assets more modular, and the level designer(s) more creative in their placement. But, for most games I've modded, I can through a level and "see" the individual assets used, because I recognise the individual bits. A good designer should stop regular gamers from doing that.

    "If you bought a console, you didn’t buy it because of extensive dialogue and good RPG-games, but because of great action and/or sports titles." Hrm. I bought my original XBox because of Jade Empire, and my 360 because of Mass Effect. On that note, talking about actual RPG "gameplay" (ie combat), I think I had the most consistent fun playing Jade Empire over almost any other RPG even though there were individual fights and combats within other RPGs that definitely eclipsed it. If I had to play an hour of constant combat in any given RPG, I'd probably have to pick Jade Empire as being the most fun.

  16. Regarding the price of Starcraft II - we pay exorbitant prices for games here in Australia and frequently don't see any price difference between a PC game and a console game. I wish I could get a game for $50/60 US or £30/40 GBP.

  17. There are some simpler reasons why certain games dont work on a console that no one has even touched on here:

    -A console game is often enjoyed with an audience, if not a second or more players. Nobody wants to sit through detailed talking when they are there with friends to play.

    -A console is placed on a television 10 feet away. Reading text can be a labour. Your computer is right in front of your face like a book would be. I can play any game on PC I want on my 50 inch plasma, its hard as hell to read even pushing the chair up 6 feet away.

    -Some generes just die out or have "eras" that come and go. For example flight simulators were out the wazoo in the late 90s and my computer was spec for 1993. I couldnt play them. I finally got a good one in 2001 and they stopped making them. Its 2010 and I cant even find a flight sim combat game anywhere. RPG genre definitely looks like its tailing off as the companies that made them are aiming at a wider audience, and a bigger $. I would too, as a game maker.

  18. "You know how many currently released games use DX11? 7."
    Why do you think is that? Because the 360 GPU only features DX9c+a few selected DX10 features and the PS3 GPU is between a GeForce7 7800 and 7900 which in turn is limited to DX9c too. Developers shifting focus to such limited systems is exactly why Availability of DX10 and now DX11 titles(with fall-back modes) on PC fell flat on its face.
    That's why I said "if those things would get pushed", which they weren't - and now it's the reason those features aren't widespread in current PC games. Recent example is the upcoming Arcania: A Gothic Tale, using DX9 again.

    As for the Youtube video:
    Picked a bad example I guess, but my point was that there can't be as many different assets used on one map on a console in comparison to a PC because of memory limitations - which in turn means it's more necessary to repeat an asset when creating a vast world or decrease the size of the world (or worst of all: leave empty spaces in said world).
    Is it plausible that the design of FFXIV could be limited by the PS3 specs and this is the result? Absolutely. But in this case I agree with you, it's probably just lazy design, especially when looking at the maps in FFXIV:

    Not even towns are spared from this travesty:

  19. With DX9c on the PS3 I meant the GPU only supports the SM 3.0, the PS3 itself doesn't use DX but LibGCM and PSGL as graphics APIs.

  20. My point was more that the uptake of new features (even if we're talking Direct X) has been slow on the part of developers even when consoles didn't have such a huge market share of gaming. The uptake of Direct 8 and 9 features was very slow by developers because it takes time to put them in.

    I'd agree that not every technological advance is being implemented in games because of the huge console market and multi-platform releases. However, not taking advantage of the latest and greatest technology does not mean that games are being "dumbed down" and becoming worse than they already are.

    EE: Console games are played with an audience?? Come on, that's not an argument, and you know it. Console gamers like playing alone too, even if their system supports party games in a way that PCs don't.
    Text is made readable on consoles by having a larger font and hence breaking it up into smaller chunks. Or making everything voiced.

    I think your last point is probably the most poignant. Perhaps the "real RPG" won't exist in the future. But, given that I'm increasingly getting the impression is a title that a large number of people think only applies to games made with the Infinity Engine, (and maybe some JRPGs) I don't know whether that's a bad thing.

  21. <- Console Gamer

    Online Multi-Player (non-mmo) Tend to be a bit better on consoles for me. Just because there is much less hacking going on.