Friday 25 May 2012

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal

Syp asks “Progress?”, comparing character screens of Fallout 2 to Mass Effect 3. Spoiler: the answer is “yes”. Particularly as, in the comments on Wilhelm’s piece on talent trees, Syp clarifies: “I’m not huge on talent trees either. What I want are clear, meaningful choices for my character — and lots of them.”

I like a nice bit of character creation far, far more than the next man, unless the next man also has a vast army of pencil and paper characters not dead, but sleeping in dusty folders of photocopied character sheets. Computer RPGs aren’t great at options and choices, though, every possibility has to be considered by the developers and implemented within the constraints of the game, an increasing burden as time moves on from 2D sprites and a bit of typing to complex 3D graphics, voice acting and the like. From another older post:

The journey from pencil and paper RPG to computer RPG to MMO has generally been one of convergence. There’s an Encampment of Generic Monstrous Humanoids threatening the local Village of Friendly Villagers, Neville the Mayor wants you to take care of it. In a pencil and paper RPG, your actions are limited only by your imagination (and that of the gamesmaster, and possibly the rulebook). You could kill ‘em all, or sneak in and assassinate the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and hope that panics the rest of them, or try and reason with the Chief, or threaten him, or you could poison the river they use for fresh water, or pose as a manifestation of their deity and command them to leave, or embark on a far-reaching campaign to psychologically unbalance the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and convince him there are elements within the encampment working against him, causing a bitter and divisive civil war which you and the villagers can easily mop up after.

In a computer RPG, you’re limited by the imagination of the designers and the capability of the game engine. Maybe you’re down to about three of the options, Reason With The Chief (charisma check), Sneak In And Assassinate (stealth check), Kill ‘Em All (god will know his own, check).

In a typical MMO… well, it’s going to be Kill ‘Em All, isn’t it? Or Kill Ten Of ‘Em (then ten slightly different ones, then ten other different ones, then the named one), or possibly Kill ‘Em All, Wait For ‘Em To Respawn, Then Kill ‘Em All Again ‘Cos The Boss Didn’t Drop The Right Loot Last Time.

So particularly in MMOs, skills, choices, talents etc. tend to be related to combat, either your main role within it (tank, healer, crowd control etc.), or more subtle choices in how you fulfil that role (avoiding or absorbing damage, single target or AoE damage/heals etc.), which (very broadly, massive generalisation etc.) makes many choices a problem of maths/logic; “If two rogues take three minutes to kill seven goblins, how long does it take nine rogues to kill twelve goblins? If a wizard sets off at 9.03am in a fight casting instant-damage magic missiles against a boss with 1200hp, and another wizard sets off in the opposite direction casting damage-over-time acid arrows, does a 5% mana reduction in the cost of a magic missile benefit the first more than a 2% increase in damage over time for the second? For extra credit write a 12,000 word forum post explaining to the developers why this is RIDDICKYEWLESS, and mathematically proving you have been slapped in the face.” Some people love that sort of stuff; I quite enjoy a maths teaser myself now and again, especially if presented by Dara O’Briain, but I’m not desperate to break out a spreadsheet every time I level up in a game.

There’s a clear line from Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate series that (broadly) use AD&D 2e rules through the Knights of the Old Republic games using D&D d20 rules run through the fantasy-to-sci-fi-o-tron (replace “sword” with “lightsabre”) on to the Mass Effect series; in the original Mass Effect you can just about see the vestige of the rogue/scoundrel type class in the form of the Decryption skill, required to open certain doors and containers. Was it a meaningful choice, to be able to open a few extra crates or be a bit better in a fight? To once again quote Stephen Fry:

I remember Hugh and I wrote a sketch in which I played a waiter who recognised a diner in my restaurant as a Tory broadcasting minister. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him how much I admired his policies of choice, consumer choice, freedom of choice. I then was horrified to notice that he had only a silver knife and fork for cutlery at his table. ‘No, no, they’re fine,’ said the puzzled politician. But my character the waiter raced off and soon returned with an enormous bin liner which I emptied over his table. It contained thousands and thousands of those white plastic coffee-stirrers. ‘There you are,’ I screamed dementedly at him, virtually rubbing his face in the heap of white plastic, ‘now you’ve got choice. Look at all that choice. They may all be shit, but look at the choice!’

Undoubtedly the “RPG” elements of the Mass Effect series have been either dumbed-down or streamlined, depending on your outlook, over the three games, if using the “stats and skills and inventory management” definition of “RPG”; Rock, Paper, Shotgun suggested “guns and conversation” might be a better genre description. If you want meaningful choices, though, I submit there are few better examples. On one level, everyone is doing pretty much the same things, visiting pretty much the same planets, battling the same threat. On another level, though, everything is completely different, in Mass Effect 3 different characters are alive or dead, friend or foe, lover or ex-lover-in-really-awkward-demonstration-of-the-problems-with-workplace-romances. The class you choose, and the skill points you assign, affect how you fight (and do make a major difference in combat), but you don’t need to have put points into Charisma before a companion will talk to you, nobody is imprisoned in a cell and can only be freed if you happen to have picked a class that can space-lockpick, options in conversations depend on your general reputation and previous decisions rather than rolling dice against your Persuasion skill. I’d say that’s progress.

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