In the assessment of Gamasutra's number five PC game of 2009 (Torchlight), the following was noted: “What makes a good loot-driven action RPG is hard to pin down -- there have been several solid efforts in the genre over the last decade, but until Torchlight, none of them resulted in the same satisfied, sleep-deprived nights to which Diablo II subjected me beginning in 2000 and lasting longer than I would like to admit.”
It’s a familiar question. What makes hack and slash fun? Mr. Crecente of Kotaku got a chance back in August to try out Diablo 3, and this is what he had to say about that experience: “[O]ver time it left me questioning what exactly I liked about Blizzard's famed franchise… I suspect that my enjoyment of Diablo III is more about reminiscence than it is dutiful gaming.”
I had a similar nagging feeling as well as I worked my way through the second level of Torchlight last week. I have to admit, I was actually rather bored at this point, though obviously less than an hour with such a game is not enough time to form any real opinion. But as the third level became the fourth, and that one the next, and so on, I experienced a considerable change in my level of engagement with the game. What was different?
It wasn’t until this point that I had begun to utilize my Vanquisher’s Ricochet skill, and the experience of herding mobs to quickly clear out the field with a few well placed Ricochets suddenly resonated with a fleeting notion I had come across before in Dragon Age with the Walking Bomb spell, in Diablo 2 with Lightning Javelin, and in WoW with my Retribution pally. These are all experiences of the same kind as can be found in the game of Tetris.
Tetris is a useful comparison because, due to its abstractness and straightforward simplicity, it is relatively easy to identify and encapsulate what exactly makes the game fun. While Tetris has many experiential components, in the end it’s really all about getting that line piece to obliterate a whole section of blocks. The fun lies in real time risk absorption to set up scenarios that achieve big payoffs. Or, conversely, to achieve an expert rate of clearance in order to preemptively minimize risks.
To be sure, the above generalized summation is so widely applicable that it could feasibly be mapped to any game, so, for the context of hack and slash games, it is important not to lose the mental image of that final piece falling into place that, by eliminating the danger they pose, makes the risks taken with all the other pieces worthwhile. It is an image which absolutely embodies the idea of a singular mechanical device that contains the threat to, the exercise of, and the restoration of player agency within a single interaction.
Dancing on the Brink and Laughing at the Face of Death
The most obvious corollary to this can be seen in point blank area of effect strategies in which a player aggros multiple mobs in order to decimate them simultaneously. If the vertical negative space left in a round of Tetris can be seen as the health bar, the growing number of adds as the growing space taken up by blocks, and the aoe spell or skill seen as the line piece, the correlation becomes quite clear. This is the most straightforward comparison, but all of the other typical classes in hack and slash type gameplay feature the same sort of thrilling race against loss of player agency. Something as simple as a slow but heavy burst hitting two handed weapon represents the same thing.
For ranged DPS, it’s getting the opponent down before the opponent has a chance to reach the relatively vulnerable PC. For roguelikes (excuse the expression), it’s getting off that critical hit or backstab to preemptively eliminate potentially fatal engagement in close quarters combat. Healers: bringing teammates back from the brink of death and successfully managing triage. Minion masters: keeping up the health of minions and landing that kill that allows the spawning a fresh minion and relying on them to keep the damage away/do the damage. Etc.
The effect of randomized Tetris pieces, then, is the same as randomized item drops. Since loot-driven action RPGs tend to be exactly that—loot-driven, that is, heavily reliant on proper equipment—the right item for the right build at the right time can make a build which might otherwise fail. The player makes use of the available resources/blocks to get by, but all the while he is waiting for that one piece which will solidify the strategy he has been investing in the whole time, which is where the risk lies. That item may never arrive at all.
Big Risks with Big Payoffs
I believe Mr. Ludgate was quite correct in noting that it’s really a duality rather than a trinity: it’s a difference in play/risk management style between burst and steady strategies. But perhaps his choice of the terms “offensive” and “defensive” was somewhat easy to misinterpret (the concept might be better communicated through the terms “aggressive” and “cautious”). With an “offensive” style we have the player that builds up more blocks in order to destroy more of them at the same time. With a “defensive” style we have the steady as you go, keeping blocks to a minimum style of Tetris. It’s the difference between a two handed weapon player and a dual wielder, for example.
These are not “offensive” or “defensive” per se, but there is a difference in the rate at which the player exercises his agency. The player concentrates either on dealing out more or retaining more agency than can be taken away from him in a given ludic event.
For example, under this understanding, Left 4 Dead 2 is, for all intents and purposes, essentially an FPS hack and slash dungeon crawler. Of course, the class system-like roles embodied by different weapons have been discussed before. But maybe more relevant for understanding what makes the game fun, though, is the tug of war between the exercise and depletion of player agency—that is, will the player’s risk investment decisions pay off?
Randomized mobs and items which may or may not be of use depending on those mobs, “investing” in “offensive” (shotgun/melee/defib/adrenaline) or “defensive” (sniper/magnum/first aid kit/pills) capacities, limited respec opportunities, and finally balancing the “herding” tactics between an offensive rush (at the risk of passing up items) or a defensive creep (at the risk of exhausting items)—these are all manifestations of that Tetris-like experience I described above of real time risk investment/management1.
Let’s Not Forget What Makes These Games Fun
Perhaps it is easy to concentrate on class systems or their short comings in these types of games when attempting to come up with new formulations. But this is somewhat akin to missing the forest for the trees—we should not forget the original interactive experiential component which makes them fun to begin with. And the fun in all of these games lies in making time dependent risky investments through meaningful expenditures of player agency which have no guarantee of paying off down the road.
Be it skills with cool down timers/mana costs or builds/strategies predicated on randomized item drops/limited resources, these are all scenarios in which a singular ludic device is both the bane and salvation of the player—a device which both expresses and limits player agency. We might be laughing from a successful flirtation with fate, but it’s a dance with death nonetheless. Remember, if all else fails, think Tetris.
1 The achievements and player statistics, then, serve as those tangible and visible game objects which provide boasting rights in a multiplayer setting (the “social” part of the investment).