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Skyrim (Part 2) - The Dovakiin Switcheroo

Is Skryim a game about loot or exploration? I discuss how the mechanics of Skyrim fail to support the breadth and size of the game, and steps designers can take to avoid design dissonance and make players feel like your game is worth their time.

Glen Cooney, Blogger

March 11, 2012

18 Min Read

[Prefer your blog posts on a sexy, dark background? Head on over to read this post and many others at Glenalysis! Though feel free to post your comments here.]

       In Part 1 I went into an overview of "endless" games and the different ways game work to extend their longevity. This part will jump off from that to focus on the larger question of player satisfaction and how to avoid design dissonance. Along the way I will also explore some of the ideas brought up in the comments of my last post as they relate to this topic.

A Tale of Two Skyrims
       In the beginning, Skyrim was great. Despite not being a huge fan of open-world games, I was an instant convert. I realized right away why people loved these games - the feeling of immersion as you traverse vast landscapes and slay monsters is unlike anything I had experienced before. I was able to overlook most of its tiny flaws - its combat, for instance, was a bit simplistic for me. It didn't matter, since the overall experience of the game so great. For 98 hours I was having a great time, then the experience changed dramatically.

       It was around the time I hit level 35 that the game started to lose its charm for me. I had learned most of the spells, gotten through most of the story quests, explored numerous side quests, and got some pretty awesome equipment. The problem was that I was at the point where the rewards for exploring were getting less and less interesting, and I had less and less need to level up or get better stuff.

       It was around this same time that I began to lose interest aimlessly exploring the world as I had done before. For every one area that had some genuinely interesting subplot to it, there were dozens of caves, ruins, and bandit camps purely there to guard loot. Short of going on a wiki or hunting those areas down on GameFAQs, how am I to know which areas are kickass adventuring areas and which are just filler dungeon crawls? Never mind a more casual player that hardly ever uses such resources.

       This presents an interesting design problem. Essentially the core of the game experience was not clearly conveyed to me as the player. The mechanics suggested the game was about accumulating loot and getting more powerful, fighting monsters, and completing quests. But in the grand scheme of things, the game is more about adventure and discovering what the world has to offer. The mechanics the player is exposed to early on does not set the correct expectations for the rest of the game, nor does it provide compelling incentives for exploration beyond a certain point.

What does your game say to your player?
       These days, players expect to learn how to play a game from jumping in and playing it. Often this includes a tutorial, but not necessarily. Thus the primary way for a player to understand how to play the game and what their goals should be is through the mechanics. The mechanics, particularly those the player are exposed to at the beginning of the game, teach a player what the game is about, and they can be thought of as a "language" by which the designer speaks to the player.

      Mechanics condition a player to approach a game a certain way. Whether you are a die-hard gamer, who expects to have a similar experience to similar games you've played in the past, or a new player with no expectations at all, the mechanics tell you how to play. The players level of game literacy makes no difference. They will invariably draw conclusions about the game from the mechanics that are most obviously presented to them, and herein lies the problem with Skyrim.

      Much like how action games condition players to get through the game as fast as possible, so too does Skryim put an emphasis on getting more "stuff," be it new spells, new equipment, etc. Which is hardly surprising, as it has become a staple of the genre for many years now.

Thanks, Diablo! >:(

       The problem is that once you have effectively accumulated all of the best stuff the game has to give you, Skyrim becomes a completely different game. It goes from being a stuff-oriented dungeon crawler to what is essentially an open-world adventure game, with a few combat speedbumps here and there. It's not unlike what happened with the controversial game Manhunt, which devoted the first half of the game to stealth and melee combat, then turned into a frenetic shooter later in the game.

       This kind of dissonance creates a situation where players have to choose to either fundamentally change their playstyle completely from what they were used to and had enjoyed, or walk away from the game and not bother with the remaining content of the game (which could be in the ballpark of 75% of what the game has to offer!).

       This is bad design on many levels. First, it means a good chunk of players will not bother experiencing most of your content, making it a waste of the dev's time and money. Second, it means your mechanics are basically tricking the player into thinking the game is about something it isn't. Finally, you are making an experience that ends in a fizzle rather than a bang, with players losing interest long before seeing the finish line.

Switching Gears while Keeping People On Board
       Now you could argue that there are plenty of games that switch things up on their players. If you really wanted to get nitpicky, you could say your basic RPG is like two different games: one where you are in town, and one where you are out fighting monsters. Could this not also be seen as a conflict? Not if done correctly.

       Switching gears like this can actually be a helpful tool if you consider its effect on the pacing of the game. In an RPG, for example, having the player go back to town or visit a new town helps establish a good curve of tension-to-rest, which facilitates a more enjoyable experience overall. Not only does it help create a bigger contrast between the game's highs and lows, it also gives players a chance to process the action they have experienced, and through NPC interactions understand the context of what they are doing.

       At the same time, it is important to delineate which modes of play (such as combat or visiting town) constitute the core game experience, and which play a secondary role of enhancing the core experience. For an RPG you can generally see the connection between the town and combat fairly easily - the town allows you to stock up on equipment and weapons to help you fight monsters better, and provide quests and lore to help enhance the sense of purpose behind those actions.

       Occasionally the core play experience is a matter of debate, as was the case with Guild Wars. The original concept of the game was to build it around a competitive experience, where the single player experience (PvE) acting as a prelude to competitive PvP, which the designers assumed players would graduate to once they tired of the single player experience. But that wasn't what happened.

       The playerbase instead was divided between players that loved PvP and those that loved PvE. Sure, you had people that loved both, but the vocal players were the ones at either end of the spectrum. PvP players were frustrated they had to play through the single player campaign in order to unlock the abilities and equipment they wanted, and wanted to have everything unlocked without any grind. PvE players, on the other hand, felt that would be unfair, as it would belittle the hard work they had to go through to unlock those same items from questing. So a compromise was reached where they introduced "Faction" points you could earn from PvP to spend on unlocking more stuff.

WoW developed its own suspiciously similar Arena mode some time later.

When an Object says more than a Character
       Planescape had a similar issue of dissonance. Like Skryim, it had a large number of weapons and spells you could get, as well as various items to boost your combat effectiveness, yet was ultimately about exploration and discovery. The designers cleverly used the games inanimate objects and loot to help reinforce, rather than override, the player's desire to explore the game world.

       In place of generic swords and healing potions are various blood charms, enchanted teeth, magical tattoos, talking books, detachable eyeballs, bugs that crawl in your brain to make you smarter, and many more. Every item tied itself inextricably to the lore of the game world, and functioned like a puzzle piece that fit into the larger tapestry of the game's vast and imaginative lore. Every object was imbued with a sense of purpose and mystery, reflecting the tone of the game and enticing the player to learn more about the Planescape universe.

       There is only one item in Skyrim that reminded me of what Planescape did - The Wooden Mask. The player stumbles across this mask in an ancient ruin, along with a note talking about how a man put the mask on and vanished into thin air. If the player puts on the mask, they themselves are transported into a magical room, with a series of busts resembling figures wearing similar masks. No further explanation is given, but the player over time realizes the purpose of this room. Finding that mask was by far the most enjoyable thing I did in the game.

       Items aren't the only way to make a stronger connection between the narrative and gameplay. Games like Bioshock did a brilliant job of making abilities and the environment itself tell a story, and support the "proper" narrative told by the various NPCs. Dead Space likewise took an interesting approach with its weapons, with each one being a repurposed mining tool. All of these are great examples of using objects in the game to reinforce the narrative, and perhaps even entice players to learn more about the game world.

       In short, design choices should be considered carefully as to make them all fit into place to form a cohesive whole, rather than compete against eachother and create a fragmented experience.

What am I Doing With My Life?
       Bigger still is the idea of making games feel more meaningful and worthwhile for players. This can only be accomplished by considering what the designer wants the player to get out of the game, beyond of the confines of the game itself.

       The most memorable games I have played are games where I got something meaningful out of playing them. Final Fantay VII's strong musical score added deep emotional resonance to the experience. Planescape challenged the player's preconceptions of reality and philosophy, making one think more deeply. Beating a match in Starcraft 2 gives players a great boost in confidence, and killing demons in Devil May Cry 3 to its awesome soundtrack gives you a feeling of thrilling empowerment.

       These are all games that made me feel something even after I stopped playing the game. They made me feel that my experience was rewarding and well worth the price of admission. After all, what is entertainment if not the trading of money for the chance to experience powerful emotions?

       That's not to say that every game needs to be a Shakespearean drama or a Nietzschean dissertation on the nature of reality. Sometimes some mindless violence or some lighthearted fun is just what players want. But too many games try to be like snacking on Cheetos - a delicious yet unenlightening experience, instead of aspiring to be like a mind-blowing documentary, which could change a player's life forever.

       In the grand scheme of things, every time we choose to do something, we miss out on doing something else. Playing a game is an investment of time and money that could be spent elsewhere, and as such games are competing for people's attention from movies, books, socializing with friends, or dating. Consider your game like a present you are giving to your players. Underneath the shiny wrapper of nice graphics and gameplay, what do you ultimately want the player to walk away with? More confidence? A stronger bond to their friends? A new perspective on life and the world around them?

       All too often developers seem to take the easy route, looking to make a game purely for someone to kill time on, or to stave off boredom. This may be well and good for an iPhone game, but if we hope to make the jump from whimsical diversion to enriching entertainment experience, we as developers need to go deeper and give players something that is comparable, if not better, than other activities.

Clearly an allusion to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

       Board games, for instance, have done a great job of blending a light, fun game experience with social bonding. In fact, some games have taken this a step further, featuring interesting player conflicts that can spark conversation, friendships, and be a vehicle by which other players can get to know each other. A board game like Battlestar Galactica is a great example of this, as it toys with the idea of trust and creates a situation where players really need to analyze each other and discern their motives in order to be successful. It creates an environment where players are asked to express their personality, which gives players a stronger emotional bond with the game and those they play with.

Rewards vs Rewarding Experience
       In discussing why Skyrim isn't as satisfying as it could be on my last post, an interesting idea was brought up. Perhaps the problem with Skyrim, and indeed many games, is that they rely on artificial rewards in place of making the act of playing the game being its own reward. Perhaps the over-reliance on these artificial measures of reward are what's holding these games back.

       I think this is a good point, especially when it comes to games like MMOs. Most MMOs task player with some sort of menial quest, with the promise of some gold and perhaps a new weapon for completing them. Now when you think about it, what kind of game experience is that? You are telling the player to go work on something boring and then get rewarded with what amounts to nothing more than a gold star. Sure, you could use that gold to get better equipment... to do more boring quests... to get more equipment...

      Compare this to the Assasin's Tombs found in Assasin's Creed II. These are areas where the player has a chance to relive the glory days of Prince of Persia, acrobatically climbing and leaping across various platforms in the environment. It makes for a nice diversion from all the neck stabbing, and as a reward gives you a seal you can use to unlock Altair's armor from the first game. This I think is a great example of how this should be done: make the end reward be icing on the cake, not a consolation for forcing your player to put up with your lack of imagination.

      Turning back to Skryim, one could make the case that because Skryim ostensibly makes getting loot and better stuff appealing, that those things detract from the game's more substantive content, and in some cases is even used in place of interesting encounters. This is the wrong way to go, and I think it is time we focus more on the experience of games being their own reward, rather than handing out trophies for putting up with tedious activity.

      "Get your designer hands out of my play experience!"
       "Get Big Designer off our backs!"
      "Let the Free Gamer decide rather than Big Designer picking winners and losers!"

      Like their political counterparts, there are some people out there that don't want to be told what to do. They don't want an authority figure dictating how they should play their games, and desire as much freedom as possible in their play experience. Some even go so far as to say that making games built around expression and freedom are the future of gaming, and there is certainly merit to that argument.

      You could certainly make the argument that giving players more freedom to play games as they please is not only the best way to go, but the ultimate future of the game medium. After all, who is a designer to say how the player should have fun in their game? Some players decide to play Skryim like they were an NPC. Others may play racing games and drive backwards just to see cars crash into each other (like myself). For many designers this kind of behavior is not only welcomed, but encouraged.

      From my perspective, however, I don't think this is a one-size-fits-all approach, as there are some games there giving the player more "freedom" can actually hurt the experience. It is not unlike the dichotomy positive and negative freedom  in political theory. The former is meant to ensure freedom of one's choices in life through protective safety nets, while the other subscribes to the notion that people are most free when left alone by authority figures.

       In terms of games, one could likewise see how more designer-authored games are designed around inspiring players by introducing something new into the mind of the player, enabling engagement, yet potentially feeling overly constricting. Conversely, player-authored design revolves around a more hands-off approach where players can express themselves and create the experience they want to have themselves, yet can also feel less compelling from a lack of focus.

      Giving players the ability to determine the direction and even playstyle they want to engage in certainly has its advantages. On a purely business side, it means the difference between making 5 games targeting different audiences and making one game that can appeal to them all. Likewise it also means that if a player gets bored of one type of playstyle or just wants an extra challenge, they can try it out without having to pop in another game.

      Deus Ex: Human Revolution worked because you could approach the game through stealth, combat, social interaction, hacking, or any combination of those and the game still felt like a cohesive experience. By contrast, if you were to be a real adventurer and wander around Skyrim, you would have to go against the grain of accumulating more stuff in order to enjoy yourself.

      Perhaps the key is to create an ever-illusive game that both allows for freedom of expression yet feels directed enough to produce an interesting experience.

The Next Frontier
      As games shift more toward player-authored experiences, I believe it is important not to forget the strengths of designer-authored games. These two paradigms need not be in opposition to each other, but can be used together to great effect. Consider The Witcher 2, which divided its game world into chapters (or levels, if you will) which acted as a hybrid between an open-world play experience and a tightly directed narrative experience.

      Consider also how every mechanic works together, and what those mechanics communicate to the player. If Skyrim had, for example, added more interesting ways to navigate and interact with the vast environment as a game like Journey does, perhaps it would feel like a more coherent experience. When all of the game's elements are reinforcing each other, rather than fighting each other, then you have a much more enjoyable game experience.

     I will be taking a brief hiatus from posting for about a week or so to focus on other projects. Stay tuned for future posts!

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