Tag Archives: Watch Dogs

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 – Problems with the game factory

I’ve referred to Ubisoft games in the past, but never really explained it.  That ends today.

Ubisoft, the developer behind Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, is known for its open world games.  They often have expansive maps, numerous activities plucked from a limit set of mini games, and collectible items sprinkled over the map.  The success of the above series shows how this approach can be quite appealing, but also has serious downsides.  For all the money of its made, Ubisoft is now seeing the weakness of their model.  It can be fixed, but it means going outside of their development comfort zone.

The Ubisoft model has some good things going for it.  The biggest two are the tons of content and (from the developer’s prospective) the quick turnaround on game development.  The sheer amount of content in an Ubisoft game allows the player to flit between activities ensuring that no one activity wears out its welcome and that the player can pick the parts of the game they enjoy.  Even better, many of these activities grant bonuses that improve the player’s abilities meaning that the content builds on itself as the player plays.  The standardized formula also allows Ubisoft to turn large games out in relatively little time.  With the exception of the new maps, most of the content is relatively easy to design and implement allowing for AAA games with only a year or so of turnaround.  Rather than wait three or four years for the next iteration of a blockbuster title, fans can experience one on a regular basis while the developer enjoys the financial benefits.

That is where the strengths end and much of the blame lies on the quick turnaround.  While the “map + mini games + weak story = success” template allows Ubisoft to churn out games quickly, it restricts what Ubisoft can do with the game elements.  The mini games are a perfect example of this.  The map of an Ubisoft game is littered with icons denoting diversions for the player.  Sadly, most of these games are undeveloped fractions of the larger game.  After playing a few rounds, the value of most side quests is in their rewards, not their gameplay.  At its worst, mini games reach Skinner Box levels of compulsion where the player isn’t having fun, but rather is receiving just enough of a reward to keep playing.   Ubisoft has had years and numerous games to fix this, but can’t due to the shortened development cycle.  Developing genuine side quests with fun characters, new gameplay, and a decent narrative ark takes time and coordination that a limited timeline with set pieces can’t allow.  To fit into the model, mini games must be unobtrusive and require little from the other elements to cut down on the amount of editing it would take to ensure each element fits together.  As a result, most of the diversions are small, repetitive, and self-contained until you get to the reward.

The mini games at least “benefit” from the compulsion to get just a little more.  Storyline, the often neglected aspect of these games, falls almost completely by the wayside.  The heavy investment in a map and gameplay style limit what each story can do.  Most game locations are, by necessity, in the game map because additional locations would take more time.  Stories can only ever happen in a few alternative locations limiting the scope and narrative to just those places.  The repetitive gameplay causes even more damage.  In a perfect world, gameplay would follow from story allowing the developer to create gameplay that reflects the larger narrative.  In reality, the writers get invited to the party too late.  In a game like this, the writers never get a chance to tweak anything.  They almost always write a story that matches the limited gameplay with the knowledge that they can do nothing new or interesting without requiring additional resources they won’t get.  With the locations and gameplay so restricted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most Ubisoft game stories are garbage.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this before.  EA’s Need for Speed series followed a similar trajectory until the customer base grew bored and moved on to greener pastures.  Later developers took EA’s model and built the Burnout series which saw a new round of success.  If Ubisoft is willing to let its series breath, give them more time to develop, and dabble in new ideas, than the next success in the open world genre need not come from the outside.  With a little bravery, Ubisoft can leverage its existing talent to be the developer that takes these games to a new level.

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Opinion – Women as Background Decoration Part 2

Improvement!

Part one of “Women as Background Decoration”, one of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos, had some serious problems, but an important message.  For this video, and its predecessors, the worst I can say of them is that they have value for asking questions that developers and critics have often ignore or poorly address.  The most recent entry, part two of the above mentioned video, is much stronger.  It shares many of the flaws of its predecessors, but targets issues so incredibly widespread that Sarkeesian’s data shy approach doesn’t harm it.  As such, there’s a lot to learn from this recent entry into the series.

Women as Atmosphere

With clips from Hitman: Blood Money, Bioshock 2, and other major games, Sarkeesian shows how violence against women is often used to set the tone.  Vignettes about brutalized or vulnerable women NPCs are used to add edginess to a dark and gritty world.  These women often lack a back story and seem to solely exist to be harmed to convince the player of how nasty this setting is.  The same can be said of their corpses.  If these women die, they often do so in sexualized ways such as wearing revealing clothing or being positioned provocatively.  The inclusion of women, whether it is to establish atmosphere or titillate, uses sexual violence as a prop rather than addressing the very real issues that women face.  Of course, the same could be said of violence in general.  Gang violence, poverty, drug addiction, and other social ills are all trucked out as one note props for most video games.  Sarkeesian’s laser like focus on women prevents her from addressing these issues, but it would be nice for her to acknowledge that this is not a problem that women face alone.  All the same, her argument is strong and game makers need to be aware of how they’re using these very real problems in their games.

That’s Not What Evil Looks Like

Violence against women isn’t only used to set up atmosphere, but also character development.  Attacks on women are often used to establish just how evil a character or organization is.  Want to show that Badguy McDeathFace is evil?  Have him hit a women!  Or a dog.  In this case, the role is interchangeable.  When women fill the role of victim again and again, it establishes a narrative of perpetual victimhood where the (often male) player is the rescuer.  It’s a power fantasy with abused women as props and who rarely as actual agents of their own defense.  It continues the idea that women are weak and in need of protection.  More insidiously, it also establishes abusers of women as easily identified monsters when the reality is far from the truth.  Most abusers don’t walk around with identifying signs (I beat women!) and are often seen as kind or generous in other parts of their lives.  Games that lump violence against women in with burning villages and bending mint condition Magic cards (YOU MONSTER) allow us to believe that abusers are easily identifiable abominations rather than included among our friends and neighbors.

Ignoring the Problem Won’t Make It Go Away

So far, I’ve largely agreed with Sarkeesian, but we differ on how to approach the issue.  Sarkeesian argues that any game that is unwilling to address issues of sexual violence head on ought not to include it.  Even games that attempt to show the realities of such things should not do so unless they are prepared to tackle the problems head on.  She even takes to task Dishonored’s inner monologues of abused prostitutes and Watch Dog’s assigning a back story to a sex slave gallery.  These acts are subversive in a way that Sarkeesian does not acknowledge.  While they do perpetuate the narrative of victimhood, they also lay bare the brutal reality underneath the sugar coated world that gaming presents.  Too many games have included those exact same scenes without a hint of criticism.  By replicating the brothel scene, but showing how abused those women really are, the above mentioned games force gamers to look critically at a scene that they previously accepted as fun.  It’s harder to be titillated by a scantily clad woman when you know she’s been trafficked and sold.

Abuse against women is part of our current reality.  Telling developers to shelve it does nothing to spread awareness of the issue.  Any game that seeks to provide additional depth and detail to a pervasive problem should be encouraged to do so.  Some will certainly feed aspects of the problem, but any gains of an intelligent, if incidental, treatment will certainly be more beneficial than pretending like the problem doesn’t exist.  Games where the inclusion of sexual violence makes sense in the context (which is far fewer than those that include it) need not base major parts of their vision on it as long as the time they do spend is quality.

Conclusion

My agreement should not be taken as a sign that the most recent video is without flaws.  Though she avoided some of the more obscure titles mentioned in part one, Sarkeesian still has not come up with a comprehensive reason why certain games are chosen.  She also remains prone to cherry picking cutscenes which makes it harder to believe her when I don’t know the game well.  Sarkeesian would do well to shy away from the most salacious videos in favor of the most representative ones.  Finally, she has a tendency to pretend that women are alone in their plight, when developer’s insensitivity extends beyond that.  Still, the problems she’s addressing are so universal that it’s hard to deny that they are a key part of gaming culture.  Developers ought to pay attention to how the approach violence against women and be certain that their inclusion of such themes don’t trivialize a very real problem.

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