Monday, January 31, 2011

5 old-school RPG features that should stay dead

There are times when I survey the current RPG landscape and wonder if I've become a hopeless curmudgeon. Part of my pain is that DnD has always been the main attraction for me, and there's no enticing DnD title on the horizon (aside, perhaps, from the massively multiplayer Neverwinter). Another part of it, which I'm wont to harp on here, is that recent RPGs seem to have abandoned many features that were staples of the genre during its golden age.

An interesting question is whether younger players are fundamentally different than older ones, or whether it's more the case that RPG developers are aiming for wider audiences. I tend to focus more on the latter, but I'm forced to admit the former as a possibility as well. As games mature, we're likely to see more and more generation gaps, with players of bygone eras preferring old-school games that younger players find intolerable for various reasons.

And let's face it. There are aspects of older RPGs that were flawed, inconvenient, or just plain hard to take. And I'm not even talking about the really old computer RPGs like Bard's Tale or Ultima, which even this curmudgeon can't handle. With so many longstanding franchises getting updates this year - Diablo, Elder Scrolls, and the aforementioned Neverwinter, to name a few - it seems like a good time to reflect on some of the ways RPGs have improved in recent years. Consider this a companion piece to last week's cranky post on how RPGs are being dumbed down. Yes, this blog is fair and balanced.

Here, in Internet-mandated list format, are five old-school design features that deserve (perma)death.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Rotted Report 05: The illusion of choice

I had a pretty solid week of modding, probably my best since starting this blog. I completed around 30 seconds' worth of cutscenes (which may seem puny compared to the 103 minutes of cutscenes that are in Dragon Age 2, but for a week of mod development, it ain't bad). I also added an important test area to my mod. And I implemented two central game features - well, theoretically at least. I haven't tested these features yet, and I'm expecting to find them in a comical state when I do.

Unfortunately, all this progress was somewhat counterbalanced by a single decision I made that will end up creating more work for me. I decided the mod is too linear, and needs to be slightly redesigned. Yes, redesigned. Read on if you dare.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More on the Dragon Age 2 dialogue wheel

There's a pretty clever article over at Critical Gamer lamenting the state of RPG video games, and targeting the dialogue wheel in particular. The article is called The Authentic RPG and its Tragic Demise. Here's what it has to say about the dialogue wheel in Mass Effect (it goes on to talk about Dragon Age later):
Rather than picking from a list of full responses, this convention only offers a few vague remarks to choose from, and there’s no guaranteeing that Shepard’s spoken reply will be worded the way you intended it to be. The voice acting poses another problem: it becomes impossible to create a unique character. Some people may appreciate the more cinematic approach to a lead protagonist that speaks out loud like everybody else, and ordinarily I’d agree. But in this case it limits the player’s creativity and becomes somewhat less enticing.
The article is a good read, and convenient excuse for me to beat a dead Hawke - er, horse - by revisiting the subject of the dialogue wheel. Last week, I focused on how the wheel puts distance between the player and the PC. That's essentially what the author of that article is complaining about here. However, the first part - the bit about the mismatch between player intentions and PC actions - also hits on a design challenge posed by the dialogue wheel. For this post, I want to get down in the weeds and look at that issue, and a couple others. But first, I should just come out and say how I personally feel about the dialogue wheel.

Monday, January 24, 2011

5 features that are dumbing down RPGs

At their worst, the computer RPG designers of yore were like sadistic dungeon masters, drunk on power and determined to punish anyone who attempted to finish their game. For players, rewards were scarce, death was arbitrary, and hoop-jumping was de rigueur. Even the simplest Fedex quest could give you fits, as you tried to track down a well-hidden NPC (possibly locked behind three doors, each requiring you to solve an algebraic word problem).

Then RPG designers got soft. Those sadistic DMs turned into something more like those genial, fiercely humanistic soccer moms who insist on trophies for everyone. Many features that were once considered standard in RPGs were removed or reformed, with the guiding principle being something along the lines of: "Take out everything that isn't fun."

There are many reasons for this shift. I could write a book detailing how wider societal changes have led the genre to where it is today. Shifting attitudes about the middle class and the role of...

But no, seriously, it's all about World of Warcraft. WoW has proven something that few likely suspected prior to its release: that a fantasy RPG can appeal to a mass market and make lots and lots (and lots) of money. Thus it's no surprise that many of the features that have crept into traditional single-player games either originated in WoW, or were inspired by its "all fun, no hassle" design philosophy.

That's not a bad philosophy. And, it must be said, many recent changes to RPGs - especially those driven more by player feedback than the WoW copycat mentality - have been positive. Still, in the all-consuming desire to make every single moment of their games fun, I think single-player game designers are at risk of losing the sense of challenge that makes games rewarding.

Since the Internet seems to favor things in list format, here are the top 5 features that are serving to "dumb down" RPGs:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rotted Report 04: So, what is The Rotted Rose?

It's a blog, a mod, and a pub. The blog is fledgling, the mod is embryonic, and the pub is still in the process of being conceived.

That's the flip answer. For the non-flip version, read on.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It's official: Skyrim will include a toolset

Last week, I had the good news and the bad news about Skyrim, the fifth installment in the Elder Scrolls series that's due out later this year. Today there was an extra helping of good news as Bethesda confirmed that - like Oblivion and Morrowind before it - Skyrim will include a toolset. The new toolset will be called the "Creation Engine" (eh).

So, rest assured, no matter how heinous the level-scaling is in Skyrim, modders will be along shortly to fix it.

Based on a recent preview at Game Informer, the toolset used to create Skyrim is significantly different/more advanced than its predecessors. Could be good, especially for level designers.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Modding lessons, courtesy of The Witcher

Will The Witcher 2 include a toolset? There's no official confirmation at this early stage, but Internet rumors and idle speculation suggest it probably will.

Thus reassured, we move on to the next two unknowns: 1) whether the toolset will be available at release, and 2) whether it will allow modifications to the official campaign. If the answer to either of those questions is "no," it's going seriously to limit the growth of a Witcher 2 modding community. I can't explain it any better than Robin Scott of the Nexus modding sites, who posted this on the CD Projekt forums:
The D'jinni was a nice idea but from my understanding it had one fatal flaw; it only allowed the creation of new modules rather than modification of the original game campaign and content. Such limitations only serve to "gimp" the development of the mod community as many of the early mod releases for games come from small tweaks and bug fixes to the original campaigns.
D'jinni is the name of the toolset for the original Witcher. I've never used it, so I don't have anything to add specifically about the Witcher modding community. However, there's one interesting and, I think, often-overlooked point here that applies to all modding communities, which is that smaller add-in mods - the respec utilities, the rules tweaks, the bug fixes, and yes, the nudity/sex mods - are crucial. Without them, players are more likely to move on before the larger, standalone mods can be completed.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Being Hawke: The metaphysics of Dragon Age 2

Imagine that a foreign entity has gotten inside you. At a certain moment in your life, the entity took complete control of your body. It changed your name and appearance, infused you with new abilities, and uprooted you from your place in the world. A few friends and family remain in your life, but they don't seem to notice the change. And actually, you know none of this because the entity has banished your mind to some desolate nether plane. You have effectively become a brain in a vat, one with no connection to any stimuli.

Question: Is the person walking around in the real world still you?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Neverwinter's Forge toolset might not suck

There was much dismay in the Neverwinter Nights community when word got out that the next installment in the series - if you can even call it that - would be a massive multiplayer game developed by Cryptic Studios. That was certainly my reaction. I'm only being slightly melodramatic when I say that when I heard about this, my heart sank, my eyes rolled, and soon after, my mind buried any thoughts that the Neverwinter Nights legacy would continue.

Maybe - just maybe - that burial was premature. My assumption was that the new game would have nothing except a name in common with the other games in the series. As it turns out, the game - being titled Neverwinter - shares only half of the name. However, some of the other information that's come out has been mildly encouraging.

Most notably for modders, Neverwinter will include a toolset called Forge. As the game isn't due out until late 2011, information about Forge is understandably sketchy. I trawled various articles for what I could find, and turned up a few interesting tidbits.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Level scaling and the Uber Mountain Lion of Doom

There's good news and bad news for crotchety old-school gamers like me. The bad news (I always start with the bad news) is that Skyrim, the next installment in the Elder Scrolls series, will include that detestable design element known as level-scaling. The good news, recently relayed by a Bethesda community rep, is that the level scaling will be "similar to Fallout 3's, not Oblivion's."

I don't actually know what that means, because I've never played Fallout 3. However, Oblivion's level-scaling is about as bad as it gets, so I welcome any change to the system.

But wait, perhaps not everyone knows what I mean when I say "level-scaling." In a few words, it means that your enemies level up with you. Game developers use it to make sure combat remains challenging no matter where the PC goes. This is particularly desirable in sandbox RPGs like Oblivion, where the PC can choose to wander anywhere at any time.

In older games like Baldur's Gate, if you wandered into an area too dangerous for your level, you often found yourself facing a reload screen before you knew what hit you (Enter really old-school gamer: "Reload screens! We didn't have any of your dag-blame reload screens! We had to save our progress to floppy disk! *cough* *wheeze*"). At some point, somebody decided this was a problem, so developers came up with the most straightforward (read: lazy) solution: spawn enemies that are always appropriate for the player's level.

Oblivion demonstrated everything that can go wrong with level-scaling. Bandits decked out in Daedric armor roamed the countryside. Mountain lions capable of ripping a demigod to pieces lurked in the wilderness. Yes, it was a tad unrealistic. But perhaps more importantly, because of the way the leveling system worked, it was possible to actually get weaker (relative to the rest of the world) as you leveled up.

I'll continue to shake my fist at level-scaling as long as I draw breath. I much prefer a game in which I have the freedom to get in over my head, get my arse handed to me on a platter, then go back later to take revenge the monsters that once owned me. But (dagnabbit) level-scaling is pretty much a given in games today, so perhaps the best we can hope for is that developers become more sophisticated in how they implement it. Here are a few suggestions:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Getting hot and bothered over RPG romances

If there's a Bioware RPG coming up, it must be time for a romance controversy. A few weeks ago, David Gaider had this to say about critics of same-sex romances in Dragon Age 2:
So long as romances of any kind are optional and need to be actively pursued by the player in order to be experienced, they simply don't have a leg to stand on. Advocating that nobody should be able to have content you don't intend to personally use is largely pointless - outside of a vague notion that such efforts should go towards other things, instead. Personally, it's not a lot of effort to include them. The resources we can devote to a minority of players isn't great, but I imagine to those players it's quite worth it... and I would hope that some folks could be sensitive enough to be happy for those players, at the very least out of the selfish notion that they may one day end up in the minority of some content issue and receive the same consideration if nothing else.
If you've seen that quote before, it may have been on one of the blogs that pounced on it during the slow news weeks around Christmas, reposting it under headlines like "David Gaider responds to critics of same-sex romances." The only problem is that he wasn't responding to critics - or at least, they were nowhere to be found in the Bioware forum thread where he posted his remarks. The thread was about Bioware's confirmation that there would be same-sex romances in Dragon Age 2, and reactions ran the gamut from "meh" to "yay!" Nowhere in said gamut did I see anyone suggest that the romances shouldn't be included. Gaider's response was to someone claiming there were a lot of homophobic people on the Bioware Social Network.

So yeah, not much of a controversy. I'm not accusing Gaider or the blogs of erecting a straw man here. I just think it's too bad that these unnamed critics - if they do exist - didn't show up. Because I think there are some legitimate concerns about including same-sex romances in a fantasy RPG. And by "legitimate," I mean concerns not motivated by homophobia.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Rotted Report 02: Too cool for (mage) school

I don't read a lot of fantasy, but I'm currently making my way through The Name of the Wind. Or at least, I was. The early part of the novel was enjoyable, but now that the protagonist has arrived at mage school, I've begun to lose interest.

See, I hate mage school.

Part of the reason is that I find it to be an immersion-shattering analogue to real-world education, in which the smart and fortunate kids go off to college to learn how to become masters of the universe. But also, it just doesn't fit my conception of magic, which I think should be mysterious, impalpable, and unique to each practitioner. If you must have magic training, it should be through an individual master of questionable repute, or perhaps a secret society operating in the bowels of the squalid big city. Once you institutionalize it, you take some of the, well, magic out of it.

So, as you can probably guess, I'm not a big fan of the Magi Background in Dragon Age: Origins. I understand that if you're only going to have one origin for mages, it has to involve the Circle of Magi because of the group's importance in the setting. But personally, I'd rather play an apostate. They're the cool kids who skipped class and retained an aura of mystery. They're the ones who learned how to cast Fireball the old-fashioned way: by blowing stuff up. Honestly, setting aside looks and everything else, who would you rather hang with - Morrigan or Wynne?

If you said "Wynne," you're weird (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Anyway, in The Rotted Rose, you are the cool kid, an apostate who has recently escaped the Circle Tower and is on the run from the templars.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Where are all the modules for Dragon Age?

Looking at the Projects Page on the Bioware Social Network, two things seem perfectly clear: 1) players need a better way to find Dragon Age modules, and 2) the current crop of standalone adventures is sorely lacking. The most popular mod is apparently something called Sappho's Daughters, which I hesitate to even try to categorize. After that, it's a lot of utility mods, some Sappho's Daughters spinoffs, and a remake of the Irenicus dungeon from Baldur's Gate 2. Then, finally, you get to something that could truly be called an original standalone adventure (Alley of Murders).

So what gives? Many people, myself included, assumed Neverwinter Nights 2 builders would migrate to Dragon Age en masse and start producing high-quality mods. But judging from the number of standalone adventures, that doesn't seem to have happened. With Dragon Age 2 looming, it seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the situation and ask why we haven't seen more finished projects by now.

The typical answer is that the Dragon Age toolset is simply too difficult. That's fine as far as two-word explanations go, but a more comprehensive answer might include the following:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Selective memory: Amnesia in video games

Judged from the outside, my New Year's Eve was dreary. With a four-year-old to watch and wife mired in a funky work schedule, I didn't even entertain the thought of celebrating. Instead, I spent the evening trying to fix a bug in my Dragon Age module and surfing tv tropes, all while the Twilight Zone marathon played in the background.

Some might even call that "lame." If so, perhaps it was a fitting end to what was, overall, a pretty lame year. But for me, it was actually a fascinating evening. I'd just discovered tv tropes, a wiki devoted to cataloging the various cliches and crutches used by writers in various media (despite the title, it covers all media - including video games). It may not be a worthy way to spend your New Year's Eve, but it's definitely worth a Tuesday afternoon. If you're a writer, or just a jaded pop culture consumer, you might want to check it out.

At the end of each trope's entry, there's a list of examples. On a lark, I typed in "Mysteries of Westgate" and learned that it is an example of a Thirty Xanatos Pileup. I'd quote the definition of a Thirty Xanatos Pileup, but it's thoroughly entangled with other tropes - you really have to go to the site and link your way through it. Basically, it's a twist ending that's hopelessly convoluted, with various characters claiming to have manipulated things to their advantage. As someone who worked on MoW, my reaction to reading this was to LMAO. Yes, this is an accurate way to describe the ending.

Anyway, my real reason for visiting the site was to satisfy my curiosity about the use of amnesia as a plot device in video games. If you've read the description of my Dragon Age mod, or clicked on the screenshot at the top of this post, you know that it contains an amnesia element. I knew when I outlined the plot that this was one of the biggest cliches in video games (if not the biggest). But after wrestling with various alternatives, I decided to go with it anyway. Why?