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Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.


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Opinion – The problems of Mass Effect: Andromeda

I didn’t finish this game and, god willing, I’ll never have to.

Don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  If you loved the earlier entries in the series, really don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  ME:A is a dizzying collection of technical problems, terrible writing, mystifying design choices, and concentrated disappointment.  As an enormous fan of the ME series, I can honestly say that ME:A manages to, not just fail as a Mass Effect game, but also as a use of anyone’s time.

But don’t blame animations.  Yes, the wooden facial immobility and odd lip protrusions are jarring, but I ultimately got used to them.  They are merely the appetizer to a buffet line of minor technical problems that constantly overwhelm the player’s immersion.  We’ve got texture pop in, idiotic AI, teleporting team members (also with idiotic AI), conflicting dialogue that sounds at the same time, NPCs just randomly walking in place, interactions that have to be accessed at specific angles, and I’ve even heard of bugs that lock the player into dialogue.  I could look past any one of these problems, but the sheer number of them ensure that I’m dealing with at least one at any given moment.  It’s hard to lose yourself in a world when the game goes out of its way to remind you that it’s fake.  Hold on to your butts folks, because that’s the least of Andromeda’s problems.

Andromeda’s design is an undiscipled mess.  The founding template is Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The player follows a broader narrative through a series of smaller, open world levels choc full of characters to meet, enemies to kill, and side quests to explore.  Beyond the functional combat, Andromeda fails at all of these.  Let’s make a list of the horror.

  • Side quests – There are hundreds of these little guys and they’re mostly ripped from the blandest MMO handbook you can find. Kill 15 enemies, find X object, go on a wild goose chase, etc.  It’s all mindless busy work that feels like mindless busy work.  Every quest is a transparent sheath between the player and resource acquisition.  If there are meaningful side quests, they’re hidden by the shear amount of crap.
  • Side quests 2 – The side quests are so miserable that they deserve a second entry. In addition to having no real purpose, they also waste time.  Side quests inevitably separate objectives for no discernable reason.  The unnecessary traveling only adds to the feeling of pointlessness that pervades the entire game.
  • NPCs – The ME series historically seeded its world with interesting characters whose paths briefly crosses the player’s. Andromeda instead reserves its meager character development for the main team and a few major characters while everyone else is a quest dispensary.  What’s the point of talking to people if they’re just going to tell you to mine ore?
  • Unskippable cutscenes – We solved this one in the Playstation 2 era yet ME:A leaves no flaw behind. Whenever the player’s ship takes off, lands, or moves, you have to watch it.  Oh, and elevators are back.  ME1 was roundly criticized for using elevator scenes as a cover for loading screens and now Andromeda shoved them right back in.  Good job!
  • No quick save – Yup. You read that right.  Every PC game on the planet has quick saves but ME:A doesn’t.  It’ll even block the player from saving during main missions.  “But the checkpoints!” you cry, “surely they make up for it?”  Don’t worry, dear reader, developer Bioware is so committed to mediocrity that even the checkpoints are poorly placed.
  • Scanning – Here’s another mechanic that was decried in earlier entries and reintroduced here. Not only does the player scan planets for small outlays of resources, but now they scan parts of the open world.  Scanning is incredibly dull and only serves to ensure OCD gamers will see the world purely through a grainy, orange haze.
  • Research and development – Why add scanning? So you can get research points! Researching blueprints allows the player to then expend resources on developing weapons.  This might have been fun, but Bioware flooded the research queue with tons of indistinguishable items.  The queue has piles of dreck with no clear marker for is actually worth pursuing.  As an added bonus, the fun new weapon you just developed must be equipped at the opposite end of your ship.  Enjoy the jog.
  • UI – The Mass Effect games have always had poor user interfaces, but Andromeda makes it look like that was the goal. The menus are the Windows Explorer with a blue tinge and everything buried folders deep.  Even comparing gear requires an awkward, one way cycling through all of the player’s weapons.  Come on guys, Diablo 2 figured this out in the 90s.
  • Limited character design – Character design options are shockingly limited and of poor quality. What’s worse is that this could have been copy-pasted from Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Seriously, just go talk to the people down the hall.  There’s no need to reinvent a crappier version.

So that was a needlessly long list, but even terrible game design doesn’t win the “Biggest problem in ME:A crown.”  That honor goes to every component of the amateurish narrative.  From the writing, to the plot, to the voice acting, every aspect of Andromeda’s narrative begs for an experience editor with a lot of free time.  The first steps on the game’s hub, the Nexus, neatly sums up the flaws.  In this scene, the main hero Ryder talks with the leaders of the Nexus about the apparent failure of their mission and the steps ahead.  This ought to have been a moment to establish important characters and frame future challenges.  Instead, it almost made me quit the game.

The first jarring moment is the exposition dump right out of the gate.  Militia leader Kendros meets the player and throws down a history lesson as they walk through the halls.  The moment had all the subtly of a jackhammer.  Still, the scene didn’t really offend until Director Tann and Superintendent Kesh spoke.  They combined Andromeda’s penchant for including every accent in the world with a strangely detached delivery.  In particular, Kesh felt like the voice actor delivered her lines next to me while I watched the character model’s mouth moving on the screening.  It wasn’t convincing.  It didn’t help that the lines were poorly written.  Every word was stilted and without emotion.  The dialogue conveyed naked functionality.  These weren’t characters exasperated by their ordeal or excited about the arrival of a new hope; they were NPCs who needed to relay specific information.

The information they conveyed was the broad outline of the early plot.  The first problem with the plot was that Kendros, Tann, Kesh, and the human Addison delivered it.  The four major races of the ME universe were front and center.  The plot too often draws from the old ME game and doesn’t take advantage of the new situation.  The writers keep shouting “Look!  Mass Effect lore!  Isn’t that cool?!” rather than develop anything new.  That’s probably for the best because the writers had no idea what they were doing. The Nexus leaders immediately identify the main character as the solution to their plight.  Small problem: there’s no reason to believe the main character can help.  The main character received their role after the death of their father and has zero experience exploring planets, much less resolving all the problems now sitting on their shoulders.  This is how Andromeda sets up its plot.  It creates a scenario and quickly contrives a reason for the main character to fix it.  It’s the chosen one shtick we’ve seen since the 80s.

The disaster that is Mass Effect: Andromeda is truly heartbreaking.  This storied franchise deserved better than a shoddy, visonless mess.  Perhaps even more troubling is that there isn’t a way to fix this.  Bioware will probably sort out the bugs, but they can’t solve the miserable design or terrible narrative.  To fix Mass Effect: Andromeda is to create an entirely new game.  As much as I hate to say this: don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  It’s just a pale reflection of a once great series.

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Opinion – The Eternal Quest to Find Meaning In Video Games

Red Pill?  Blue Pill?  Asprin?

I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition recently and the game presented me with a choice.  The game played the choice up as a major event and wanted me to know just how important this choice was, but, in the end, it had no effect on the universe outside of the game.  No one died, nothing was destroyed, and the Earth continued its persistent orbit around the Sun.  The choice didn’t seem to matter at all.  So, when it comes to video game choices, who cares?

…Well, we do.  Gamers, that is.  We agonize over decisions, curse life when something doesn’t go as planned, and reload our saves until we get the optimal result.  What hasn’t been answered is why we care and how games are able to turn a totally innocuous environment without meat world impact and create scenarios that will leave us emotionally drained.  For that, we should look at why we care about games and investigate the very real consequences of a bad choice.

Games don’t just run lines of code, they build worlds.  Whether it is a highly scripted world of a linear RPG or a more open canvas like a 4X turn based strategy, a good game will give the player an evolving sense of history around whatever is happening on screen.   As the player plays, they build a narrative that has meaning for them, even if that narrative has little effect outside of their computer.  The narrative is a collection of scripted game events (Bill died!  WHY?!) and player choices (Which city should I pillage?   Hmmmm…).  When a game asks the player to make a choice, it is asking the player’s input on a story they care about with an outcome that is likely uncertain and whose results are now on the player.  The responsibility for the narrative and, in some small way, the characters in the story are in the player’s hands.  Players may not feel like they’re saving the galaxy or establishing a mighty empire, but they do want to see their story unfold well as a result of their actions.  Choices matter because players want their story to turn out well.

The above reasoning looks at the conceptual results of game choice, but there is also a real world cost.  Video games take time.  Going through the entire narrative arch of the Mass Effect series takes about 90 hours.  Getting through one of these games is an achievement and a testament to the devotion of the player who often has other priorities they need to get to.  Making the “wrong” choice can result in the player having to make another choice:  a) to continue on without a character/at a massive disadvantage/having cause total calamity, or b) to start again and getting it right.  Neither choice is desirable.  Continuing to play through a 90 hour epic having lost a key character in hour 30 is painful.  It’s a loss that is felt every time that character would have been present and in the stories shared with friends who kept them around.  In some games, that poor choice can be the end of a game run leaving the player with the knowledge that they could have kept going if they had gone a different way.  Of course, the player could start again from either the beginning or a saved game, but that comes with its own costs.  Starting from the beginning means replaying old content while already knowing what the result will be.  It’s dull, repetitive, and no fun.  A replay can also take a long time depending on how long the last playthrough went.  Starting from an earlier save still means playing old content, just less of it.  More importantly, it robs the tension of a difficult choice.  It’s hard for a player to be sucked into the story of a game when they are constantly restarting whenever things don’t go their way.

Choices in video games matter, if only on the individual level.  They effect the story that the player is invested in.  On the other hand, choices that don’t involve aspects of the game the player cares about are generally inconsequential.  For a choice to matter, the player must desire a positive outcome and fear the chance that it might not happen.  When those two conditions come together, video games are a hell of a lot of fun.


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Opinion – What we’re losing

Don’t minimize my pain.

The debate over the inclusivity of gaming continues to rage and the pro-diversity forces seem to be winning.  What once was a medium unapologetically devoted to a white, male, and straight fan base is now apologetically devoted to a white, male, and straight fan base.  These are heady times.  The critical gaming sphere has largely fallen in behind additional game inclusivity and is attempting to convince the broader game community of its importance.  In their attempts to do so, these critics have employed a number of arguments of which one of the most prominent is that gaming’s previous golden children aren’t actually losing anything.  They argue that many of the staples of the past, such as military shooters and other power fantasies, won’t be ignored in the coming games industry.  While they are broadly right, the reality is that the old fan base will lose a great deal.  Dismissing their concerns won’t get them to embrace diversity.

It’s important to recognize that video game development is a zero sum game.  There are a finite amount of developers commanding a finite amount of resources of which one is absolutely time.  When a developer creates a game with audience A in mind, then they are not creating games for audiences B, C, or D.  This doesn’t just apply to whole games.  The time and effort Bioware spent on including a fully voiced female Shepard was time and effort Bioware could have, and used to, spend on developing another game.  If you are one of the elect for whom the games industry used to create exclusively for, then you now see a world that is moving away from catering exclusively to you.  Yes, it’s selfish, but is it any wonder that people got used to having a medium all to themselves?  The justified crusade of others attempting to get their views included doesn’t take away from the fact that the beneficiaries of the old system are losing a world that sought to fulfill their dreams.  It’s important for critics to acknowledge that every opening they push for is taking resources that would have formerly gone elsewhere.

It’s not just the future of games that are effected, but the past too.  The games of yore targeted the male audience without any of the self awareness that we now see today.  Every hero was a muscle bound white guy ripped from an eighties action flick.  Women and minorities were relegated to side roles, if they existed at all, and forget about gender awareness.  These old games acted as if much of the world didn’t matter.  Return to them on a nostalgia trip and they look terrible to modern eyes.  Even when the gameplay and graphics hold up, the politics are often atrocious.  The “save the princess” plot that used to buttress so many of these games seems hopelessly tone deaf in a world where women characters are supposed to be empowered and more than a McGuffin.  The same can be said of more modern games that eschew the evolving cultural context.  If a game plays by the old rules, it stops being fun and just becomes embarrassing.

There was a time when all games were “me” accessible.  When a good game was targeted at me and people like me.  Anytime a good game came out, if it was in a genre I liked, it was also accessible to me.  Those times are passing and we’re seeing a slow move towards a broader range of characters and issues.  I would (and will) argue that this is an overall positive thing, but it eclipses an old world that was made by people like me for people like me.  Gaming can no longer exist in a state of innocence and, for those it benefited, that is a loss.  Critics and boosters of this new vision would do well to recognize that they are destroying something as well as building it. 

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Opinion – The Conflict of Game and Story

Your collectibles are killing my chase scene.

Sheppard is on an asteroid hurtling towards a Mass Effect relay in a desperate bid to slow the Reaper invasion.  The indoctrinated Doctor Kenson is attempting to overload the asteroid’s engines and blow it up before Sheppard can ram it into the relay.  Sheppard must stop Dr. Kenson’s plan and get through the relay and time is short.  Well, shortish.  I mean, yeah, Sheppard probably should stop the core meltdown, but there are resources to collect.  After all, who actually likes that planet scanning minigame?  And look!  Tech!  I’ve got to upgrade my armor.  And why won’t these enemies just die?  It feels like I’ve been fighting them forever.

Wait, what was I doing?  Oh yeah, asteroid.

The situation I described occurred in Mass Effect 2, but is fairly common throughout the video game universe.  Developers consistently introduce new and interesting scenarios only to undermine the tension they’ve created with conflicting gameplay elements.  Consider the situation above.  The story is that Commander Shepard has limited time to save the universe.  The base is detonating, Dr. Kenson is shouting about fulfilling her evil plot, and there’s a giant counter ticking down to collision.  This is a world communicating urgency, but the gameplay isn’t on board.  Rather than encourage the player to quickly make his way through the level, the player is incentivized to take their time.  Look for free resources!  Make sure you check every hallway for secrets!  Don’t forget to have a long shoot out with several packs of enemies.  It’s hard for the player to both buy into the story and the gameplay without one or both suffering.

Collectibles aren’t the only culprit.  Games undermine their stories in a number of ways.  Consider difficulty.  In only a few game narratives does the story include death or failure.  When the player does not succeed at his task, the result is a break and restart from the narrative.  On the most basic level, the death of the player is a contradiction of the idea that the protagonist is in danger.  After all, die enough times and it’s hard to say that any given death had greater meaning than any other.  The player will simply revive at an earlier point and try again.  For some of gaming’s most common narratives and settings, that of the unstoppable hero, the act of death is even more poisonous.  Unstoppable heroes are notable for the distinct lack of death.  Constant failure against the very objects said hero is supposed to surmount suggests that the unstoppable hero is anything but.

On some level, this is unavoidable.  Collectibles are fun to find.  Many players need the threat of failure to enjoy the challenge of a game.  Furthermore, individual players will always push the boundaries of the world through their actions.  There is nothing the developer can do to prevent Solid Snake from dry humping every corpse in the level.  Player skill is also an uncontrollable variable.  A brutal, narrative breaking brawl for some players may be a cakewalk for others.  Creating a feeling across the myriad of players and play styles is quite difficult.

That being said, there are things developers can do.  One of the most obvious is the difficulty setting.  Let skilled players dial up the pain while not so skilled players kick it down to enjoy the story.  Establish a pattern of streamlined gameplay in sections that need to focus on the story and tone.  Incorporate as many gameplay elements as possible into the world of the game.  This reduces the barriers of communication and helps the player enjoy the world as the developer intended.

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Opinion – The future is not now

The future is awesome. Today? Not so much.

Mass Effect 3 received a great deal of praise for its handling of a homosexual relationship and rightfully so. Bioware inserted a gay character named Steve Cortez, made him a romance option, and treated the whole event like it was, perfectly normal. The gay gamer community finally received a relationship not pinned on stereotype or insult, but rather on the shared humanity of everyone. It’s an approach that is thoroughly worthy of emulation, but it ought not be the only approach that video games take to address controversial issues. The future is bright for equal rights for the gay community, but if games only seek to portray the ideal endgame, they will miss out on key steps along the way and the important struggles the world still faces.

The beauty of ME 3’s approach is that it achieves an ideal type. Cortez is a regular crew member who is also gay. In doing so, Bioware models a universe where sexual orientation is not the divisive issue that it represents now. The homosexual population is not a distinct entity, rather it is just a holder of one of many traits in the broader species. This is where we all should be, and ME 3’s approach is immediately refreshing for taking us there. It’s refusal to rely on stereotypes or petty bigotry makes Cortez feel like a full character rather than the jokey/silly characters that developers often use, if they address homosexuality at all.   Unfortunately, it also loses the very real and current struggle to incorporate all genders into mainstream culture.

Though causes like gay marriage have made great strides in the past few years, it’s important to recognize the distance they still have to go. Many states in the US still don’t recognize the validity of gay marriage and sizable contingents of the country hold retrograde beliefs about the treatment of their fellow citizens. Sadly, the US is actually ahead of the curve when other countries criminalize homosexual behavior and even put gays to death. The struggle continues, and, by only showing the end game, gaming would miss out on the very real feelings of the present. This is an area where gaming can do the most good by showing what it means to deal with these issues and the very real pain it causes. Games like Gone Home or Dys4ria display the potential that video games have to create empathy in their players and should be seen as the model.

This is not so say that Mass Effect 3 had it wrong. On the contrary, for a game that was primarily space opera, striking the tone that it did was bold and welcome. Other games not investigating the problems of today would do well to follow in ME 3’s footsteps. However, we should not paper over the continuing struggle with the idealized type. Instead, future games that approach the issue with sensitivity and nuance should do the same with their homosexual characters.

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