Aug 24, 2017

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The Comfort Lie

Our new roleplaying game <insert name here> will have a quest compass for the player's convenience. Today, games need to be comfortable and accessible!!1!!!11eleven!

If I had an euro for every time I heard a statement such as this...

Personally, I believe any publisher or developer making such a statement is basically issuing a marketing lie - whether he knows it or not. This text of mine will explain the reason behind that.

The mysterious casual gamer

He seems to be a bit like the Yeti or Bigfoot. Many people believe he exists but no one can present an actual specimen when you ask for it.

What we know about him is what publishers tell us about him. Apparently, he's lazy and does not want to put much effort into playing games. He yearns for quick and easy success, is quickly frustrated and most importantly... he has a lot of cash. Which makes him more courted by publishers than us normal gamers.

Some people doubt his existence at all but many games that address his needs are commercially successful. Other games with the same gameplay fail on the market, however. The casual gamer is the equivalent of dark matter in the gaming industry. There seems to be something that influences commercial success and maybe there is a correlation with “comfort” features and “accessibility”. But no one can see it and all models that explain it are more or less unverified.

Well, even if we may have doubts, for the sake of this discussion, let us assume that games really need to be comfortable to gamers.

A comfort analysis

Ok, we need comfort to sell games. Now - what is comfort?

Comfort = No work?

Is it just to make things easy for the gamer? To prevent him from having to work? Manual aiming is difficult and if the character skills influence the hit chance, the player needs to level up first. And that is work. So, why not make auto-aim? Choosing options in a dialogue is frustrating, he could say something that offends the other or changes the outcome to something unexpected. And if there are no options like that, what point is there in providing a choice in the first place? Let's remove those annoying dialogue choices! Picking up items is a lot of work, why not make auto-looting? Combat is difficult, you can loose. How about altering balancing so we have sure-to-win fights?

And then we have auto-aiming, auto-levelling, auto-fighting, auto-looting and in the very end: auto-gaming. But such a thing already exists. It's called “movie”! And usually, it has much better graphics!

If people really wanted a movie, they'd buy it. But they bought a computer game. So it can't be as simple as to reduce the work the player has to do.

Comfort = No menial work?

No one likes to wash his dishes, do the laundry or clean up the room. So maybe there are things that people like to do and other things that they don't like to do. For my personal taste, I like to be free of menial tasks in gaming. If I want that, I can sweep the courtyard. I don't need a 45 euro game for it. So this is a kind of “simplification” that I can accept.

The problem with that definition is: Anyone has different preferences. Some people like cooking their own meals, others just want something to eat. Anything we take away from the game can gain and loose players at the same time.

But at least it is not total nonsense, so let's stick with this definition. Comfort is that you are relieved of things that are not fun.

Comfort for anyone?

Well, the casual gamer supposedly wants everything easy. We - the gamers that one can actually point at, sometimes also called “hardcore gamers” - are the masochists of the genre. We always protest when something is taken away from us. We want to suffer! We long for those burdens! Yeah, give us some pain! And no one understands us!

Right? Wrong!

I claim that even we hardcore gamers do not want to suffer. We do not want to be given stupid work just so that we have something to do. As I wrote before: If I want unsatisfactory work, I can find it in the real world in masses. That's not what I play games for. Are you different?

But, as we gain experience with games (thus earning the title “hardcore”), we also get a feeling for which things are really enhancing comfort and fun and which are not. We play game A with a certain comfort feature and game B without that feature and then maybe we realise that we did not really miss the feature in game B. Someone who has not played game B (the more inexperienced or casual gamer) has yet to reach that realisation.

So, in my opinion, the fundamental rule of publisher marketing is wrong. There is no difference in what gamers want. It's not that we want to suffer. We also like comfortable games. But we have more experience and know what is really comfortable and what not. It may sound a bit arrogant (hey, I've played more games than you, I know what it's all about) but that's what experience is there for, isn't it? To get to know things better?

This is not the fault of the inexperienced gamer, however. We all started at that stage at some point. The fault is that publishers and magazines tell them so many times that certain features are enhancing comfort, that they believe it. They don't (yet) have the experience to know the truth.

Basically, this means: Comfort in games is always a good thing and no sane gamer would willingly deny it. But there are things more important than comfort (fun, for example) and not everything that we are told to be a comfort feature is actually one.

So let's go through the things we usually get as “comfort features” in games and check if there is any reason behind it.

Comfort features

Quest compass

We all know that triangle on the compass or the minimap that points us into the correct direction for our current quest, right? We have stuff like that in Oblivion or Fallout 3, for example.

The idea behind the quest compass does not seem so wrong. Sometimes, it's really hard to find places in the game world. And searching for them can be a little frustrating. Yeah, I feel it, too. But not every time! Occasionally, the search is the very thing that's fun. Imagine that you are supposed to search a murder scene for clues. It would not be much fun if there was a flashy triangle pointing you in the right direction, would it? And in most cases, locations are so easy to find that you don't need any help with it.

So, we have three situations:

  1. The location is not hard to find.
  2. The location is somewhat hard to find but that is exactly the point in the context of the quest (e.g. clues in a murder scene).
  3. The location is somewhat hard to find and it is not really important that you search for it yourself (e.g. finding a shop in a foreign city with winding alleys).

For the first two, a quest compass is unnecessary or even counter-productive. But what about the third? We need a quest compass there, don't we?

No, we don't! Why not? Because what we really need is not a quest compass. What we need is some help finding the location that we are looking for! That does not necessarily mean quest compass.

Allow me to explain with two examples: Gothic 1. Released 2001, it was designed to be easy and accessible (we will use this example again later on). But it has no quest compass like Oblivion, my other example. Maybe you know the game, maybe not. Let me pick a certain situation from it. There is a location called the swamp camp. It's a collection of stilt houses and finding your way there is not that easy. But right at the entrance of the camp, there's a guy named Lester. Lester explains to you what the society in the camp works like. And he also shows you the important locations! You just ask him how you can find your way in there and he'll offer to take you to the important places. Then you pick a location from a dialogue and Lester will directly lead you to it. He'll even give additional advice, like: “The alchemy laboratory is up the ladder. Down here, you can find Fortuno. He sells the swamp herb.“

Now ask yourself: Isn't that way better than a quest compass? How many times did you follow a marker such as the one in Oblivion and ended up in front of a mountain, a chasm, a wall or another type of dead end? A quest compass only shows you the direction as the crow flies, no matter if there are obstacles in the way. Lester on the other hand shows you the path to your destination. He shows you a way around any obstacles so that you can find your location much easier. He even explains to you what other spots of interest are around, in case you might be interested. Other people in Gothic will show you the way to the major settlements and even defend your character against all monsters he encounters on the way! You just have to follow the lead, your guide will slay the monsters and you'll be the one who gets the experience points for that! Now how comfortable is that? Not even a GPS-like navigation system that actually shows the path to walk can compete with that!

I know that Gothic has been given the image of being hard and difficult. And we who play it often enjoy ourselves in the role of the hardcore Gothic gamer, the tough guy who eats a group of Hells Angels for breakfast. But - as much as it may shake you up - Gothic is much more comfortable and accessible than Oblivion in many elements.

A quest compass is a crutch. The real deal would be NPCs that show you the way or maybe traces on the ground which you can follow. Random people you can ask for direction.

Skill tree

With this, I refer to the ability to enhance your character's statistics directly in the character screen. You know, usually with that plus sign behind the numerical values or with some kind of button in case of binary options (perks, etc.).

What is the idea behind this? Well, in a roleplaying game, you need some way to enhance your character, right? I admit that in some games (usually the ones derived from Pen-and-Paper rulesets), the skill system is so complex that a seperate screen or level up assistant is the only suitable option. In that case, it is more comfortable.

But not every RPG has a complex skill system. Many games today try to simplify it. Gothic also did this. The developers said that they wanted to make a game in which players are not forced to deal with a lot of numbers and statistics and features. They wanted to make a RPG that you could just play. Hence, they made lean skill system with only a few variables. And they integrated something else: teachers.

Teachers offered you a way to train your character without having to bother with numbers. You could look them up in the character screen but you did not have to. You trained strength and all you needed to know was that you now made more damage in melee combat. Who cares if the strength is 74 or 71 as long as the orc scout is dead at the end of the day?

On the other hand, teachers require that you go to them if you want to enhance your character. You can reduce the walking by placing more teachers in the world but the basic problem persists: You cannot instantly spend gained XP. You have to find a teacher, first.

You could also hide the skill system by making a learning-by-doing system as in Oblivion. And no need to search for a teacher. But that would mean that you'd have to slay dozens of monsters to get better while in Gothic, you gained XP through quests (which are usually more interesting that grinding the world for monsters) and could invest them in the skills you liked. Learning by doing - obviously - means that you have to do it to learn it. Even if you'd like to do something else. Of course, a game with teachers could also require grinding (for XP in this case) but that is a matter of actual balancing not a fundamental flaw in the system.

Let's collect what pros and contras we have (only with focus to comfort!) about the three systems in a table:

  teachers learning by doing skilltree

pro

  • hides the skill system from you
  • reduces grinding
  • hides the skill system from you
  • no need to go to trainers
  • no need to go to trainers
  • reduces grinding

contra

  • involves some walking
  • increased grinding
  • confronts you directly with the skill system

Remember, we're currently only focussing on comfort. A skilltree might be less immersive but immersion will be addressed later. For now, we only want to see if any system is more comfortable than the other.

But I fail to see that. The pros and contras equal each other out. That leaves only one conclusion: Each system has its unique comforts and discomforts. None of it is more comfortable than the other. Hence, if they are all equivalent as far as comfort is concerned, the actual decision for one of them should be based on some other reason. That other reason could be immersion. It could also be money but we'll come to that later. Let's just hold it here with the result that a skilltree is not more comfortable than other systems.

Floating signs over characters

We all have seen them. In some RPGs, characters which are somehow important (part of a quest) are marked by specific sign. It could be a question or an exclamation mark. Or it could just a triangle or some other symbol. Let's just call them “floating signs” for now.

They serve the function to let the player know to which characters he or she should talk. First, let's see if this is really necessary.

As stated above, the problem is not that I have to do stuff in the game. It's just boring stuff that could be reduced to the required minimum. So the real question is: Is it boring to find quest givers? It is in one case: When you have to talk to everybody you see and most of them have nothing to say.

So, one way to solve the problem would be to make all characters in the game more interesting. This way, the player would have fun in talking to them, hearing about their problems and opinions, even if there is no quest involved. However, I admit that it might be too expensive to give every character in the game a unique set of things to say.

Which brings us to the second part: If it is necessary to give the player a hint at which characters he should talk to, must it really be floating signs over their heads?

Of course not! There are other ways. A very simple solution can be found in Gothic (again). There are two types of characters in the game. One with their own name and one with just a generic name, like “Bandit” or “Mercenary”. And everyone who has his own name is in one way or the other important for the game. All others are just supernumeraries to make the world more lively. And even they serve a function: Usually, you can ask them for directions (see the paragraph about quest markers).

Because it is not economically possible to give each character in a game a unique appearance and you have to re-use clothings, heads, bodys and such, the player cannot recognise a certain character by his looks. Therefore, the characters need labels (their names appear somewhere on the screen when you look at them). If you already need the labels (at least as long as there is no way to give them a unique appearance), you can also use them to distinguish between real actors and extras. Those with a name are important and you should talk to them. It's easy, it's simple, it's... comfortable.

Another way to indicate a character that is important would be to emphasize him by means of story-telling. If a character on the street calls out to you - well, then he probably has something to say, wouldn't you agree? If a character is acting strange there might be something wrong with him. It could be interesting to speak with him.

Again, we reach the conclusion that floating signs are not really the most comfortable option to indicate important characters. There are other ways just as comfortable!

Then why?

Ok, based on some examples we saw that in many cases where we are told that certain “features” are only for our comfort, there are really other options which are just as comfortable or maybe even more.

Which leads to the question: Why does a developer/publisher choose these features?

The answer is simple: Money and uniformity!

If you make characters that show you the way, you need a guide NPC for every situation. They need to be modelled, dialogue lines must be written and you need voice actors for them. A trail of blood on the ground that shows the way requires texture memory and we all know that's a scarce resource on the console to which any game nowadays must be ported - or so is common belief. A quest compass on the other hand is much more simple. You only need to implement it once. After that, it shows the direction to any location. It's not as comfortable but it is cheaper, both in consumed time and in platform resources.

The same goes for trainers instead of a skilltree and floating signs instead of characters that show their importance in some way.

And then there's the uniformity. As game development becomes ever more professional, commercialisation sets in. A lot of money is put into games today. Major studios have over a 100 employees and the marketing and advertising eats a lot of budget. That has to be earned back by sales. If a game with a certain set of features is commercially successful, it's likely that another game with these features will also be a success. So we copy most parts of it instead of making something different that could fail. And then you have two successful games - which is interpreted as the market's demands and all the others fall in line. If you stray away from the mainstream, you're sailing in unknown waters and could end up shipwrecked. No one can afford that.

This is fortified by the occasional game developer or publisher who dares to break away from the mainstream and indeed ends up broke. Many such games are not commercial blockbusters. On the other hand, a lot of mainstream games are also not really successful. But there, no one attributes it to the streamlined orientation. Strange but true.

In rare instances, unusual concepts are very successful on the market. If it happens more than once, companies start to imitate that, too. And it becomes the new mainstream.

It's as in the television. One successful quiz show and everyone copies it. Again and again and again. After a while, the viewers can't stand the dozens of quiz shows anymore and ratings drop. Then another concept is burned out.

Basically, it's cowardice. Everyone knows that the umpteenth iteration of Diablo or WoW for example is bound to fail and that sooner or later, you need something different. But no one wants to be the first.

And what about immersion?

The whole time, I only concerned myself with comfort. This is because I wanted to react to the statement of the publishers that these features are indeed unique comfort enhancements. Which they are not as we have just seen.

Now we can take a step back and look at the whole. What the publisher really wants is not making comfortable games. He wants to make games that sell. He only believes that comfortable games are the ones that sell. That is probably not totally inaccurate but also not entirely true.

I might be wrong on this but I think the one thing that really sells games is the fun that players can have with it. Comfort however cannot provide that. All it can do it not reduce it. No one plays an otherwise boring game because it is so comfortable. Comfort is not a reason to play a game, comfort - or the lack of it - is a reason not to play a game.

Which means the fun is the thing which really matters. While it can be impaired by comfort, it first must be introduced by something else. In roleplaying games, one of the major elements is immersion. The ability of loose yourself in the game, feel with the people in it. Basically the illusion that you are really inside the story and not just an observer. Just as in a good book or movie.

When it comes to immersion, you do not want things that kick you out of it. Like elements on the screen that are not part of the world. Some graphical interface elements are necessary (see the labels I mentioned) but they should be as few and as non-intrusive as possible. Again, Gothic becomes the gold standard on this. Many comfort elements are very bad for immersion while the alternatives we discussed - even if they are not necessarily more comfortable - are much more immersive.

A character that calls out to you on the street is much more believable than a character with a yellow exclamation mark over his head.

So while comfort can be an important part of a game, it can never sell the game. Comfort is something that can give an average mainstream game an edge over other average mainstream games. As long as they have less comfort. But a really good game will pull the player through even if it is a little inconvenient here and there.

And really good RPGs that pull the player in are immersive, fun games.

Conclusion

You may or may not sympathise with the publisher and his economical problems. You may or may not believe in comfort as important aspect of selling games. But one thing cannot be denied: Many (but not all, of course) “comfort features” are in fact cost saving features. More or the same level of comfort could be achieved in a much more immersive way.

So the publishers who claim that this is all done in service of the lazy gamers are just lying.

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