A Question of Difficulty

I have been watching the new HBO series, Westworld, with great interest. I am not a huge fan of the original book, but I like where the series seems to be headed so far. One of the ideas that they have flirted with in the show is the difficulty that people want with their gaming experiences. So far the show has not delved too deeply into it, but it is an interesting discussion, and worthy of our time.

How challenging should a piece of entertainment be?

This question applies to both gaming and writing. It is not a matter of quality in my mind; often a more accessible book or game is better polished and better made than one that is incredibly difficult or dense. Something too simple can lack any real depth.

The best answer that I can give is that it depends on the target audience of the work. An introductory or broad audience work is less difficult than one that is meant for experts.

What I see out there, however, especially in games and large publishing companies is very different from this view. The tendency not toward challenging the reader/player, but rather to create a work that appeals to as broad a base as possible. The idea behind this view is that a game or book that appeals to more people will sell more, just like any other product. This is largely born out over the short term, but questionable in building a long term audience for a property.

To illustrate my point I am going to talk about two games, Path of Exile and Diablo III. I have reviewed and discussed both at length on this blog, and I like using them because they both have similar pedigree in that they were made with the success of Diablo II in mind.

Diablo III is a commercial juggernaut. It might not be the top of Blizzard’s list, but it certainly rakes in a decent amount of money. It is far more accessible than Diablo II in many ways and is designed to appeal to newcomers and old players alike, but many veteran players found it too simplistic and repetitive and far, far too easy. Despite some glaring design flaws, I do like D3. It is not a difficult game at all, although Blizzard does offer some modes and endgame content that offer more challenge in an attempt to carve out as large a swath of players as possible.

Path of Exile is a more difficult game because it is aimed at a seasoned audience that is looking for a greater challenge. Death in POE is punishing at higher levels, even outside of hardcore modes. More interestingly, players are expected to make informed choices about how they advance their character: in POE it is possible to make characters that are sub-optimal and hard to fix them without substantial effort. The flip side to this is that a veteran can create very powerful characters and even search out unique/unusual builds.

In examining these two games it is obvious that Blizzard has come up with a winning sales strategy, but might have hurt the brand. I feel the same way about some elder scrolls games which lose nuance (I’m looking at you fallout 4 conversation system) as they are simplified for wider audiences. Path of Exile on the other hand has a smaller audience, but they are fanatically supportive of the game and the company that makes it.

Recently, difficulty has made something of a comeback, I think. As people have become more and more familiar with genre fiction and games their appetites have deepened. There will always be a need for introductory works with broad appeal, but those are likely to be dominated by companies with deep pockets. On the other hand a challenging work, if of sufficient quality, can help build loyal fans.

A Review

Often, when sales are down, or when a new book does not quite meet expectations, I wonder if I am doing the right thing by continuing to write. I suspect that this is something that almost writers struggle with from time to time. Surely the 20+ hours a week that I spend writing could be put to better use making money for my family. I have children and a wife to think of, and all the adult practicalities of life to bow to. Usually these thoughts are put down with me realizing that I have drunk too much coffee that day, or thinking of the positive reinforcement that I have received from readers, or family.

The thing is, even if practicalities demanded that I stop writing, I am not certain that I could. I have kept writing through some fairly rough (for my life) stuff in the last few years. I am nearing publication of my eighth novel in spite of it all. Its pretty fucking crazy, really. But, I do it because writing is one of the things that I do to feel alive.

It took me a long time to come to this realization.

And that is where Walter White comes into this. If you have never watched Breaking Bad, you should. I came late to the party, finishing the show well after the final season and well-deserved the glory that came along with it. I loved it despite the fact that I do not like outlaw stories, prefer not to watch TV for the most part, and really dislike grim stuff. Breaking Bad rose above all of that, implausibly in my case, and I am glad that my wife prevailed on me to watch it. It is the first TV show that has given me the same feeling, when it ends, that I have when I finish a great book or video game. That is something special.

I cannot offer you any new insight into the show. The acting is amazing from all sides. The characters and the writing are legendary. The descent of Walter White is both gratifying and horrifying, but no matter how you view his morality, it is a satisfying tale. It is cited as one of the best shows of all time for good reason. I have been replaying the last episode and some of the highlights of the show for a week now.

It is a masterwork.

What I can add is what it taught me about myself. I see a little bit of Walter White in me. In the end, he realized that being Heisenberg made him feel alive, and everything else was just an excuse. It was his art, as writing is mine.

Through art we come to know ourselves…

Disclaimer: I do not intend to use my writing for evil… 😀

Tuesday Teaser

This week’s teaser comes from Bloodlust: Will to Power, the second book in the Domains of the Chosen series.


The Cover for Bloodlust: Will to Power

When I first planned the series, Sadira was going to play a smaller role. She started off as a cross between a Kardashian and Drizzt, a perfect performer for the fighting grounds. Mosr of my readers reacted surprising well to her, which prompted me to give her more depth and a larger role.

Will to Power follows Gavin, but I managed to shoehorn Sadira into it with a series of interludes describing her match with her chief friend and rival, Karmal. On the whole I really like how it turned out, though it is a little messy. Here is a sample from the first of those interludes.

“Long time no see, Red Scorpion,” said Karmal. The flame-haired woman smiled, revealing her too-sharp teeth. “You’re a long way from the whorehouse. Having fun with those two little harlots you `rescued’ from Dregs? Do they fill the void now that little Lina’s worn out?”

Sadira answered with a rude gesture. A ripple passed through the audience. Looking into Karmal’s eyes, she found it difficult to force herself to see beyond past friendship and acknowledge the hatred burning within those emerald depths. Memory and reality clashed.

The crowd was intent on their words now, listening to the voices of the two Gladiatrices, amplified by magic. The trumpets would not sound until the verbal sparring ended; this was widely considered to be the best match of the Grand Championships, two lifelong friends turned bitter rivals, and none of them wanted to miss even the smallest nuance.

Sadira thought about putting on a show, returning Karmal’s taunt and concealing how she felt from the crowd; it would be easier that way. But she did not hate her former team-mate; instead she felt a deep sense of loss where their friendship had been severed. She spoke from the heart, not caring how the fans would react.

The Two Diablos: D&D, Game Mechanics, and Design Philosophy PART FOUR

The first two articles in this series dealt with the differences between Diablo II and Diablo III, two of my favourite computer Action RPGs. The third post discussed how the systems clash between the Damage and Primary Attribute systems and the Itemization system and how Blizzard had to work hard to fix the gameplay contract, namely a game based exciting loot drops that provide the primary means of customization.

In this post I talk about another gameplay contract: namely that of the sequel. D3 is the sequel to D2 in the franchise, but many players point to other games as spiritual successors, and some even feel that the story line in D3 does not mesh at all with D2. But that is jumping ahead of myself. There is an even more basic question that must be answered here:

How much does a sequel owe to the original?

I will admit that I was pissed off that D2 did not have the same classes as the first iteration of the game. My initial complaints, however, were drowned in a Tsunami of awesome new features, combined with reverence for the original game that I knew and loved. D2 was more or less everything I loved about D1, but with better systems and a sweet skill tree to boot. Once I understood the new classes, I saw why they did away with the old. It was pure evolution.

Many people feel that a sequel to a beloved game should stick to improvements on existing systems and save the real innovation for new things (like the skill trees, set items, and sockets added in D2) and not rock the boat too much.

Others are obsessed with originality, and feel that every iteration of a game, even a sequel should strive to be new and different. These critics fear the stagnation that comes with sticking to a tried and true formula.

Both sides have a point, of course. If a sequel strays too far from the original it risks offending fans, on the other hand stagnation seems to be the order of the day with AAA games like Call of Duty and Assassins Creed turning out very, very similar games at a yearly rate.

In the end, a sequel should strive to stay true to the original but it must also try to make improvements in the series.

Is Diablo III a true sequel to Diablo II and why do I keep referencing D&D?

While I love D3, it is not a true sequel to D2, and I feel it breaks the gameplay contract by straying too far afield. D3 changed too many core systems and has an entirely different feel to character creation, leveling, story, and even the role that items play. While it doesn’t bother me, I can see why it upset a large number of people who loved the older games.

I am a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t play the game much anymore, I prefer homebrew systems, although I still own books from every edition. Nonetheless, D&D opened up the world of role-playing games for me, and kindled my interest in fantasy, so I love the game. (For the record, I think 5th ed D&D is a great edition for new players and nostalgia driven fans, but that is a different tale.)

Most of the editions of D&D follow a very similar evolutionary pattern, with relatively changes with each new version of the system. Obviously some players preferred the older editions, but as a whole each one felt like a natural progression from the last; even if you did not like where that progression went, you could still see where it came from.

Not so with 4th edition D&D. 4th was a major departure, leaving behind tried and true systems in favour of radical new ideas like encounter and daily powers, healing surges, and so on. Gone were the days when the fighter was defined by being the guy with the high attack value and multiple swings. Interestingly 4th ed also introduced the idea of each class having a primary attribute that mattered more than anything else on all their powers.

Sound familiar? There is no direct connection between D3 and D&D 4th but the design philosophy is very similar. Let me break it down:

  1. Fear of sub-optimal character builds: Both D&D 4th and D3 are afraid that a player might gimp their character by building it wrong. This is where the primary attribute and damage mechanics prevalent in these games come from: they are meant to prevent a player from playing a barbarian who puts all his points in charisma and is not as effective as a strength based barbarian.
  2. A desire for “smooth” gameplay experience and power curves: the statistical analysis that goes into both game is pretty impressive — it has to be because bucking the curve in either one results in a character that is either too weak or game-breakingly powerful. In D3 this is handled by allowing the player to shift difficulties, while in D&D 4th it is up to the DM to be aware of it. Because these systems are so tightly wound around having a certain character efficiency at a certain level they require special systems to cope with outliers. A good example is in D&D 4th where campaigns without magic items must compensate characters with special bonuses to hit and damage so that they can keep up with the expected curve. In D3 they replaced the old normal/nightmare/hell difficulty progression with player selected difficulty, which gives an entirely different feel to the game. When I say replaced, I mean it: D3 originally had a normal/nightmare/hell progression system (with a new level, inferno tacked on… badly) but it scrapped this in favour of a player controlled system, partly to compensate for outliers. In D2 players who bucked the power curve could simply progress at their own pace, but this is a less effective control in a game where DPS is so rigidly defined.
  3. Rigidity of Design: This is the real kicker. Both D&D 4th and D3 are rigidly designed games. Their basic systems are not flexible at all. In creating a polished, balanced experience they have filed off some rough edges that actually had real design purpose in their predecessors. A good example of this is levels in D2 versus levels in D3. In D3 Levels mostly act as a control — unlocking new powers and determining what level of gear you can equip. In D2 Levels were a core framework, directly determining how powerful a character was by offering precious skill levels and attribute points. As a core system levels advanced beyond the difficult of most areas in the game, allowing even the most casual of players to eventually conquer a difficult area by leveling up. A corresponding example would be hit chances in D&D 4th. Prior to 4th the fighter classes enjoyed a much higher attack bonus than other classes, allowing them to reliably land melee attacks, even on higher level creatures. Mages and Rogues were compensated with other abilities such as massive damage spells or exceptional skills and positional attacks. In 4th everyone has very similar damage potentials, hit chances, skill levels, and the general utility of spells just disappears. Most of the flavour and a lot of the flexibility are ground off in order to satisfy design goals of smooth play, balance, and safe builds.

The Gameplay Contract of Sequels

Ultimately a player expects a sequel to be faithful to the original. IP aside, D3 is as guilty of being unfaithful to the original design as 4th edition is. Both games are good in their own right (yes, some people like 4th, get over it), but just play differently than their predecessors. The design philosophy is simply too different. Both D&D 4th edition and Diablo III were influenced by the reigning king of fantasy games at the time: World of Warcraft which needs the systems that they embrace (builds, smoothness, rigidity) to handle the needs of a very different player base.

D2 and D3 are both Isometric Action RPGs with cool randomized loot, but that basically describes the genre that Diablo built. Many games that have been created since are evolutions of D2 while if I took away the name and the visuals I doubt you would recognize D3’s pedigree. The game’s systems are radically different and thus it is easy to see why some people who truly love D2 just feel betrayed by the sequel, even though it is a really fun game. It just isn’t faithful to the original, is it?

Narrative Design in Open World Video Games

Video Games have always fascinated me as a medium, as well as one of my primary forms of entertainment. Before I tried my hand and writing fantasy novels, I was employed as a game designer. I worked on a few commercial titles, even attaining lead design on two projects, but I was never able to sink my teeth into a project that I found truly satisfying. The money was good, but I felt I was better served following my own course.

Now that the Unity 5, Unreal 4, and Source 2 engines (think of them as game making tool kits) are mostly free and easily accessible, I am becoming more interested in the space again. Part of the attraction of writing, for me, was that it is a medium where I don’t have to rely on too many other people. I feel that creative endeavors are best kept small, in most cases. Now it looks like more and more games are being made by smaller studios, which I find very exciting.

Regardless, I recently saw a job posting for “narrative design” at a large game studio that makes games that kind of interest me, in a city close to where I live. That posting came with an essay question which involved narrative in open world games. I love essays, and so the question stuck with me, even though the job posting seems to have disappeared (sorry V), here are a few thoughts that have been swimming around in my head as I was formulating how I would write this essay.

Open world games come in many flavours. Rockstar, Ubisoft, and Bethesda are the dominant AAA producers of Open World games in my mind, although there have been very string entries by other companies. Take Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, and Assassin’s Creed as examples. In these games the player directs most of the action, with the story acting as a framework more than the driving force behind the game.

Narrative in these games is difficult. The story has to provide the player with a beginning to situate them and provide a compelling chronicle to guide them into the experience, but the point of an open world is to allow the player to explore and create their own moments. The only game company that seems to be able to do it well, over multiple systems and game types is Bethesda. Their elder scrolls series established their reputation, but it was Fallout 3 that proved to me that they had mastered the form. I will use their games as my primary example.

Personalization of Character

The ability to choose the appearance of the player avatar is a big deal. Part of telling your own tales is creating a character that look appropriate to the part you want them to play. Sometimes that manifests as the user making a character that looks like them (proxy), their favourite actor/star (director), or simply fits the concept that they are thinking about. Bethesda’s open world games always offer a lot of options for the player in creating and customizing characters.

The difficulty then becomes how to fit a very broad array of characters and backgrounds into the story and also overloading the design. Some open world games strike a balance by creating a character that can be customized but always has the same background (Shepherd in the mass effect games).

Exceptions abound, of course, Red Dead Redemption had a strong open world but the story and the personality of the main character were fairly set. It was still a wonderful game.

Non-Linear Gameplay

Most stories are linear. If you read one of my books, i will follow the same path through the story every time you read it. Linear games are similar, following a fairly set path through the story and the game world. Open World games strive to be non linear, trying to avoid shoving the player down a particular path except at very key, brief moments.

The ideal is something like Daggerfall, where the player can do whatever they want, even ignoring the main story to the point where the titular city burns to the ground, becoming a haunted ruin as the main story progressed without player input. This kind of immersion and story is awesome, creating a world where the player engages with events as they progress throughout the game and gets the experience they want from it.

The problem here is that it is hard to create a sequel to that kind of game. Bethesda had to fiddle with continuity quite a bit to get fit Daggerfall’s six(?) possible endings into the story for their next elder scrolls game.  I can’t imagine how that would work with franchise open world games these days.

Living World

Open world games require that the world have a fair bit more detail than other games. The world has to react to the player character, but ideally it also has to have a sense that it is progressing on its own when the player is not there. Shops have to open and close. NPCs have to move about and so on.

I still remember coming across battle between two sides of NPCs in one of the old Ultima Games. The idea that I could join one side or another, attack both, or even just move on and ignore them filled my young mind with exciting possibilities, of course. But what strikes me as most memorable about that moment was the feeling that these two groups were doing something that had nothing to do with me, and yet I could get involved. It made that little digital world feel very lively and it still thrills me to see groups of NPCs acting and reacting to one another. in an unscripted fashion, without my input.

A living world is one that reacts to what the player character does, but also one where the world can spontaneously create events for the player to react to. This last bit is worthy of a full post, so I’ll get to it later.