Saturday, August 17, 2013

#63: CRPGs: Why are They Always so Terrible to Start?

Much of my time this summer has been spent playing games from a bygone era. Because I have only recently started gaming on the PC a few years ago, there is a whole backlog of games, both old and new, that demand my attention. Of those older games on my backlog, I have mostly been playing some of the classic RPGs (cRPGs) from the late 90s and early 2000s. These titles include games such as Baldur's Gate and it's sequel, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights. All of these games used the Dungeons and Dragons license to create what were essentially virtual DnD campaigns, even using the same rules and systems. As a result of all the hours I have poured into them, these types of games have been occupying my mind and most of my thoughts lately. Although each of these games had their own way of utilizing old school RPG concepts, they mostly seem to have glaring flaws in one particular area: the beginning.

In almost every one of these games, the beginning is easily one of the worst aspects of it by far. This runs counter to what one might consider to be the logical way to design a video game. After all, the introduction to the game, including story and mechanics, is the point where the designer has the responsibility to hook the player and keep their attention. If the start of the game does little to generate interest and convince players to stick with it, than it has failed at its job. In my opinion, there are a number of contributing factors that led to this phenomenon. This week, I will discuss why I believe this happens and possible ways to help mitigate the problem, now that the genre is seeing a bit of a resurgence in the realm of Kickstarter.

One of the biggest reasons that the introductions to cRPGs can have problematic introductions is that often many of the most crucial choices a player will make in the game are done at the very beginning, before the player is even introduced to any aspects of gameplay. The Baldur's Gate series is a pretty good example of this. In both games, when the player selects “New Game”, they are immediately bombarded by a list of options. First, the gender of the protagonist character needs to be selected, followed by their race. After that, the player chooses which of the playable classes the protagonist will be (and if they wish to utilize any of the class kits made available). Next, the karmic alignment of the character is chosen among the axis of Law/Chaos and Good/Evil. It is then that the main character's statistics, include Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma need to be allocated from a static, finite pool of points. The same must also be done for weapon proficiencies (and Thief skills if that is the protagonist's chosen profession). Finally, the player is left with cosmetic choices like appearance and name.
As one can easily discern, that is quite the list of choices that need to be made. This alone can prove to be a daunting task for new players, but it is worsened by the fact that there is no real context with which to make those choices in beyond a typical DnD adventure. The player has no idea what kind of obstacles they will be facing along the way, which playstyle will suit them best, nor the amount/variety of situations they will be thrown into. At the very best, they can make an educated guess based on their own personality and possibly the track record of the company who developed the game. The player does not even know anything about the plot when making these decisions. Worst still, once they have been made, there is no going back and no way of correcting any mistakes aside from starting anew. If the player decides about 3-4 hours in that their character is no longer working for them for whatever reason, there is no way to mitigate the damage done and try to change tactics. (There is an exception if they are playing as a human, giving them the option to Dual-Class. However, since both games have a hard experience cap, this too may cause problems if not done early enough.)
However, not all cRPGs have this issue, despite its prevalence. Another, very well-loved game from this genre, Planescape: Torment, had a pretty interesting way of skirting around this issue. The only real significant choice players needed to make at the beginning of Planescape was which statistics to put points. Even that decision was partially made for the player, since no stat could be lower than 9 for the protagonist. Most other characteristics of the player character were either preselected or were emergently generated as a result of play. The player character of the game was a human male that had immortality, but no name and no memory of who he used to be. “The Nameless One”, as he was called by the game's text, starts out as True Neutral-alignment Fighter class. This can change depending on what actions he takes over the course of the game and whether or not he chooses to undertake training as a Mage or a Thief. As long as there is someone willing to train The Nameless One, he can always undergo a class change if his current profession no longer suits the current situation. Even if the player learns that he/she did not allocate his stat points favorably later on, leveling up to high enough levels of any class will grant them more stat points to allocate, so even then there are ways to “fix” any perceived damage done. All these elements combined give players the ability to react to the game and adapt to challenges as they progress as opposed to working around challenges based on what their party is capable of doing at the time.

Another very common problem I noticed in the introductory sequences to classic RPGs is that oftentimes the initial encounters are fairly difficult. Often, I found myself encountering enemies that I could not have been reasonably expected to defeat at the start of the game, even on the easiest difficulty setting. One example of this comes again from the Baldur's Gate franchise, although this time from the first game. I have a very distinct memory of the start of that game. After leaving the first town of Candlekeep and officially beginning the story, I explored the starting area of the game, just the very first zone. As with many games I play, I wanted to do as much as I can in a given area as possible before moving on. While looking around and making sure I did everything and talked to everyone, I encountered a brown bear. Thinking that this was the first zone, and therefore the designers could not possibly think to throw a challenge at me that a starting character could not be expected to overcome, I used my Thief skills to Hide in Shadows and go for the Backstab Critical. Despite landing a successful attack and dealing damage, the bear turned around and hit me, killing me in a single blow.
This was not the only such experience I had playing these types of games. In the first chapter of Neverwinter Nights, shortly after the prelude, players are task with locating four creatures important to the story scattered across the city of Neverwinter. I decided to check out the Prison District because that was my first lead. There, I defeated quite a few random thugs through Sneak Attacks and liberal use of ranged weaponry on my way. While exploring the area looking for clues as to where to go next, I was attacked by a Thug Leader and died when he landed a successful Sneak Attack. When reloading and successfully fending him off, at the cost of quite a few healing potions, I pressed on into the Prison District's sewer system. Shortly upon entry, I was felled by another Gang Leader and three of his henchmen. It took the use of console commands to boost my character's level a few times in order to defeat this foe. Only ten minutes later, I needed to utilize the console again in order to fight a Sorcerer whose spells kept defeating me in a single deadly blow.
This is a pretty simple problem with a pretty simple solution. All it requires is a better balance of enemies encountered throughout the adventure and a more clear communication of where tougher enemies are located. Although there is no way to be absolutely sure where players will go in these kinds of games, designers do have a general sense of what most players will do and in what order it is done. This can be used to better balance the encounters and provide a steady progression of more and more difficult opponents. Furthermore, since game designers know how much experience players can be typically expected to gain over the course of a given segment (through play testing and tuning the number of enemies and their positions), it is possible, though still admittedly difficult, to use that information to better tune the level and types of encounters throughout the game.
Though not exactly a classic RPG, and highly contentious among its audience, this is something that I found that Fallout: New Vegas did very well. At the start of New Vegas, players are explicitly directed to take the South path around to the town of Primm. However, the player is allowed to head north through Sloan if they choose. Should they do so, they will be warned that it is smarter to turn around and go the other way because deathclaws patrol the area. This clearly communicates to the player that the enemies they will encounter are well over their current abilities. With this information in hand, most will make the decision to go back and take the South path, which has weaker enemies that are designed for low-level players to fight. Some will undoubtedly go and fight the deathclaws anyway, but the intent and direction of the design has been made very clear. There is little in terms of ambiguity. As a result, the game has a steady progression such that players will rarely face a challenge that is too tough for their level unless they are deliberately making the choice to give themselves a tough challenge.

I am overall very pleasantly surprised by the coming resurgence of this particular genre of games. Though I have only recently begun to play them for myself, I find that there is a lot designers and players can do with it. However, I hope that the designers of this new wave of cRPGs learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. While many were of very high quality, they were far from perfect. There is clearly lots of room for improvement. The introduction is of particular importance to get right. Without a strong intro, players can find themselves quitting a game before it realizes its full potential. I hope that my advise will not fall on deaf ears.