Sunday, September 6, 2015

#97: Game Invaders: Dark Souls vs. Watch_Dogs

As many of you know, I have been working on a Let's Play series with my friend, Sam Callahan. Together, we have been trudging through Watch_Dogs. One of the more heavily advertised features in Watch_Dogs was the ability for players to invade the game of another in order to sabotage them. Fans of the Dark Souls games might recognize this feature, since it also uses player invasion as a game mechanic. Having played both Watch_Dogs and Dark Souls, I realized that I was extremely annoyed by the invasions in Watch_Dogs. On the other hand, that same general idea worked for me in Dark Souls, adding to the game. This is when I began to ponder why this might be the case.

One of the fundamental reasons why player invasions irritated me in Watch_Dogs was that they were almost divorced from the rest of the game. As a player wanders about the city of Chicago, outside of a mission or side-activity, another player may choose to enter their game at any time. Until the outsider is either dealt with or succeeds in their mission to hack the host player, the host is unable to continue the main story or do any side-quests. Even if the host dies while being invaded, the event continues uninterrupted and the invader is able to continue with their objective. In other words, to someone who is looking to complete the game's story and/or side missions, an invasion is just a needless distraction, rather than a core part of the game. They have to put their game on hold in order to deal with this new problem. Sam and I encountered this ourselves a few times in our Let's Play. Though we eventually remember that we could turn off player invasions, that further speaks to how separate they are from everything else. With invasions turned off, the game is improved because players can get to the rest of the content without wasting time killing an invader.
This is in stark contrast to Dark Souls, where the invasions are more nicely integrated into the whole experience. Normally, players won't be in danger of invasions. However, in order to invite other people to join their game and help them take down many of the game's bosses, they also have to spend a Humanity point and open themselves up to invasions in exchange. Invasions aren't so much a dedicated feature as much as they are a necessary drawback in order to balance out the act of asking for help. Even if the player is offline, there are NPCs in the world that can take the place of both co-op companions and invaders. In other words, this feature is so core to the game's fundamental design that From Software saw fit to include an NPC equivalent for those who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not play online. Opening oneself up to the aid of others will in turn open up the possibility that others will attack.
The difference between allowing oneself to be invaded in Dark Souls and the incidental invasion in Watch_Dogs is a very important one. Whenever I was invaded in Watch_Dogs, it was almost always at an inopportune time. Often, I would be about to accept a story mission, when the game informed me that someone had stepped into my play session, locking me out of the mission. It was an irritation that I had no interest in and gained nothing from. While an invasion in Dark Souls can be inconvenient, players must make a deliberate choice to spend Humanity and make them possible. This opting-in subtly prepares the player for the potential threat, which means they aren't surprised if and when it happens. In Watch_Dogs, player invasions are always surprising because they can happen at anytime. As a result, they will always mess up the player's plan and cause undue irritation.

Not only are the invasions in Watch_Dogs separate from the other gameplay elements, but they are also removed from the normal character progression. As players complete missions in Watch_Dogs, they acquire skill points which can be spent on skills in the various categories, like Hacking, Driving, and Combat. There is also another category called "Notoriety". Unlike the other skill trees, players can't use skill points to advance it. Instead, they accumulate "Notoriety" through strong performances in the various online multiplayer activities, including the invasions. Out of the 6 available skills in this tree, only two could be considered useful to players who don't play with others. The other 4 skills only affect elements of the online component, by raising the rewards or making it easier to detect an invading player. To put it plainly, almost nothing the player unlocks in the online mode affects them in the main story.
Dark Souls works differently. In order to gain Humanity points, players can enter another's game and help them defeat an area boss. Even if they fail in the attempt, they can still keep the Souls that they earned while in working with the host. Alternatively, the enter invade another player's game, gaining Humanity and souls by killing the host. Since they do not lose Souls in the attempt, they are incentivized to take advantage of this ability to gain Humanity. In turn, this Humanity can be spend to allow other players to join their game and hopefully gain an advantage in fighting many of the game's bosses. Both the aid of other players and the Souls obtained in these multiplayer events have a direct, positive influence on one's progression in the game.
Again, observe the difference between these two games. To the player who is only looking to complete the main story of the game, the invasions in Watch_Dogs are a waste of time. If they perform well, the rewards they provide won't help them in their ultimate goal, designed only to be used in online challenges. Dark Souls goes in a different direction. Even if a player only wants to beat the game, there is still a strong incentive to partake in the online invasions, or at least make oneself open to them. The aid of cooperative partners can greatly increase one's odds of successfully defeating a boss. Furthermore, there is a chance to earn more Souls and Humanity, which are used to further tip the odds in their favor. As someone who rarely participates in a game's online component, I still found myself making use of it in my journey through Lordran.

When Watch_Dogs was in development, Ubisoft said that while players could disable the option for others to invade their game, they considered leaving them on to be the "best" way to play. Unfortunately, the facts aren't in their favor. Without a way to prepare for them, or a strong reason to keep them enabled in the first place, it makes more sense for players to not even bother. As Dark Souls demonstrates, it didn't have to be this way. As rudimentary as they are, if Ubisoft had been a little smarter about the implementation, they could have been a seamlessly integrated and enjoyable aspect of the final product.

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