Sequels: Originality and Entitlement.

The news that StarCraft II is to to be released as the first in a trilogy has caused some controversy. The variety and tone of comments on the matter has swayed from the conciliatory to the openly hostile, to the abusive. I have quoted an example of two such comments, culled from popular game industry news sites:

“Tip to Blizzard: Sell this to Korea only, America does not want your stupid, expensive, and uninventive sequel. Also – get some balls and come up with a new concept. Diablo + Warcraft + Starcraft are getting stale.”

“This is Blizzard fucking over people to make more money. I played SC for the multiplayer, but Single Player was still great. Now because some guy in some fucking suit over at Activison-Blizzard thought “how can we fucking milk this shit more?” we have to pay for 3 incomplete games. You thought EA is fucked up? this sets a new standard.”

With such comments as this often standard and not the exception is it any wonder gaming and gamers are considered juvnile?

StarCraft II is being released as three separate products with three different single-player campaigns included in each product; the release dates and pricing details have yet to be announced. The original StarCraft featured a single-player mode with three campaigns, one for each race, “out of the box”. Are potential consumers somehow entitled to a sequel that follows that trend and again includes three playable campaigns on initial release?

Haven't I seen this somewhere before?

This is not the first time StarCraft II and Blizzard have provoked controversy. Ashley Cheng posted on his blog that he was disappointed that Blizzard were taking a conservative approach to the design of their sequels. I have no problem with this comment, and I agree with Steve Gaynor who described it as a “sad-ass day” when Ahsley felt compelled to apologise for holding an opinion. He was stating an opinion and in fact one I agree with, however I do question if whether the conservative nature of Blizzard’s design philosophy is inherently a bad thing.

The underlying issue seems to be how important innovation and originality are to a sequel or franchise title. Is there something inherently wrong with providing games that fans of the original will enjoy? It is all but impossible to create a sequel that is aesthetically or mechanically identical to the original, incremental changes occur all the time and together with new technology this means any sequel is automatically going to feel at least a little different to the original. Genre conventions (Whether you believe they should be kept to or not) change over time, is there anything wrong with a new game including those changes while keeping the core mechanics relatively unchanged?

Another question is who should the developers be making their sequel for? If hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people purchased your previous title how do you decide how far to change or innovate for the sequel? The answer to this question is made even more complicated when you start to look at the general reception of some titles that have sought to innovate. Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War II is taking a different approach to its mechanics compared to the original Dawn Of War. There is a greater focus on individual squads and tactics over base building and resource management. This has caused consternation in some quarters as it no longer feels like the original title. So how much innovation is too much?

Is this a case of Goldilocks and the three sequels? This one is too different, this one is not different enough but this one is just right?

Too little change gives up Diablo III, too much gives us Deus Ex: Invisible War.  But even in the case of the former the art style has provoked comment and controversy, because it has changed “too much” from that of Diablo II.

Oh look. Rainbows!

I can’t help but feel that sometimes “lack of originality” is the battle cry of those who feel their own pet projects are not getting the attention they deserve. Are games there to provide entertainment for consumers, or to gratify the artistic desire of their creators? Is it possible for them to be both?

Who are developers ultimately answerable too? Themselves, their publishers (And their shareholders) or their fans? Are their fans entitled to a sequel with the same art direction as the original, or the same style of single-player campaign? Or should they seek to innovate, and if so how much and in which areas?

There are far more questions than answers, yet reading comments to news posts regarding upcoming sequels it seems like everybody knows exactly what the right way to create a sequel is, and unsurprisingly only a few of them agree with each other.

Are consumers entitled to anything beyond products that function correctly? If you don’t like something you are not required to purchase it, no one is forcing that upon you. Is there a fear that with the release of a particular style of sequel what you might have enjoyed about the original will be ignore? It can often be difficult to get two people to agree on the strengths of an individual game let alone what they feel should be included in any sequel.

Is there a value in change for the sake of change? If it’s not broken why fix it? If you are providing entertainment for millions of people is there a reason to change what you are doing? Is the games industry a consumer driven industry or a product driven one? Which should it be?

Personally I know from experience that both StarCraft II and Diablo III will likely be high quality releases that will be consistently supported by Blizzard in the months and years following release. Beyond that I am happy to let them provide what they want to provide, if it’s a similar experience to what I’ve had before I see no problem with that if I still want that experience I will enjoy it, if I don’t I won’t purchase it. There are enough other titles released each year that I know I will find something to entertain and engage me somewhere.

Verb Development.

The ability to play a role is one of the manifold reasons people choose to spent time with games over other forms of entertainment. The ability to assume a new identity, to make choices as a different character, to manage the development of that character, is a vital part of what makes narrative games pleasurable and meaningful. So why do we seem to spend a more than trivial percentage of our time in these role playing games studying statistics and calculating the benefits of of a “+1 to Damage” over a “+2 to Attack”, exactly when did playing a role require that the role include statistician?

Math isn’t dramatic, usually, playing a role should be. Games that feature character development options tend to focus on the underlying mechanics, with choices defined by numerical increases to base abilities. How easy is it to really see the affect of a “+2” increase to melee damage? Not very, so these games also make the underlying mathematics visible, with numbers floating from character’s heads as you chip away at their health. This can be entertaining, but is it dramatic?

The problem is down to the verbs these games use. In the majority of role playing games the actual number of verbs that are valid is low. They break down to “move”, “attack” and maybe “talk”. When we make character development choices we are modifying these verbs. We select a “Point Blank Shot” feat and this serves as an adverb, modifying the “attack” verb slightly but still retaining the same core functionality, we are simply changing how and when we can attack; changing the underlying equations.

A more dramatic approach to role playing would be to tie character development choices to new verbs. However to do this would we would need to take a less abstract approach to our definition of verbs, combining adverb-verb pairs to allow “melee-attack”, “ranged-attack” and “indirect-attack” to be separate verbs from simply “attack”; for “move-fast”, “move-silently” and “move-instantly” to take the place of the catchall “move” verb. If we look at verbs on this lower level we can then hook character development choices directly into new verbs.

If I decided to upgrade my character with a “Stealth” ability it would allow me to make use of the “move-silently” verb; the “Hacking” ability would open up the use of a “talk-computer” verb. Each object, or character, within the world would be designed to respond to each specific verb and so every character development choice would have a clear and direct impact on the world. This would lead to a more pronounced form of character development as every choice made would open up new interaction possibilities in the world instead of just modifying the interactions already available.

Drama is after all about actions and consequences not mathematics.

I’m not the first person to think along these lines, and in fact there has been at least one game that has tried to follow this approach to character development, I’ve already covered the potential problems that arise when discussing that title.

Redundant?

For a choice to be meaningful, for the making of it to be worth consideration at all, requires that it be an informed one. We need to have an idea of the consequences of any choice, there needs to be a discernible difference between taking one action over another. An uninformed choice isn’t really a choice at all. When random chance is as likely to give you a desired outcome as any act of intent then there is no decision to make and the term choice is a misleading one.

Is clarity of consequence alone enough to make a choice meaningful?

In strictly logical terms having two different choices with near identical outcomes means you don’t really have two choices at all. If both possibilities lead to the same result what is the purpose of selecting one over the other? Redundant choices provide multiple means of attaining the same outcome, so why offer redundant choices?

Removing redundant choices improves the clarity of those that remain. Free of redundancy there is a one to one relationship between actions and consequences. From a logical perspective this feels like a sensible design decision, prune away all non-meaningful, uninformed, or redundant choices.

Of course there is a problem here, one I would hope is obvious, life is rarely logical. Life is full of redundancy, multiple different types of objects that all perform the same basic function, multiple different brands of baked beans or washing powder that all serve the same purpose and cost approximately the same. Why is it important that we have this ability to choose between functional similar but superficially different options? It helps us to define our identity, our character.

Our selection of one particular choice over another is not necessarily about the objective worth of the product we are choosing so much as what it means to us in a subjective sense. We choose because we can, and what we choose says much about our character.

Redundant choices reduce clarity and complicate the logical relationships between choices and consequences. On the other hand such choices serve to aid characterisation, and improve verisimilitude.

So which is better characterisation or clarity? Is it possible to have both? Most games seem to settle for allowing redundant choices but this can lead to a sensation that all choices are fundamentally superficial.

One game that attempted a reduction in redundant options and a focus on clarity over variety was Deus Ex: Invisible War. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to analyse those specific elements in isolation given the provocative nature of that title.

A case of Reductio ad Invisible War? If it was in that game it must be a failure? Or is the general consensus an indication of what happens when you strip away redundant options, a game loses its sense of character, of nuance, and becomes instead mechanical and artificial?

Regardless, the character defining benefits of redundant choices shouldn’t be overlooked.

Gameplay Contract.

Deus Ex - Invisible War 01
“Modify your behaviour.”

The request of The Omar, the cyborg black marketeers of Deus Ex: Invisible War, is made when you throw something at them, repeatedly. It’s a little strange to hear this retort each and every time you throw a lamp, or cup at their heads but if you are constantly bombarding them with junk and getting the same reaction is the problem with the game or the manner in which the you are playing it? Might it actually be sensible to do as you have been asked and modify your behaviour?

Reading Sande Chen’s article on Gamasutra (Towards More Meaningful Games) and especially the comments, started me thinking on the role the of both the player and the design in crafting a game narrative. Do players have a responsibility to abide by certain guidelines and accept certain restrictions in order to get the most from a game narrative? In essence should there be some implicit gameplay contract between player and designer?

Something akin to:

“Provided I act in a manner consistent with my character and their role in the world and accept certain limitations on my freedom, you will ensure that I am engaged, entertained and that all my actions have meaningful consequences.”

With films there’s a tacit acceptance of certain conventions and strictures of the format in the name of entertainment. Audiences will accept montages, flashback, slow-motion and even split screen if it aids the telling of the story. All too often it feels like games are seen as simulations over entertainment, instead of accepting certain restrictions both players and developers are more concerned with authentic simulation.

A simulation can be entertaining; but entertainment is not simulation. It’s simply not possible for a game to be good at everything, or to be able to respond meaningfully to every possible player action, unless those actions are heavily, often artificially, restricted.

All games feature boundaries, and the more realistic or simulation based the game the more obvious those boundaries can become. They have even become clichéd, the doors than can’t be opened, or the invisible walls. Players should be encourage to explore the possibilities of the content that does exists, but if they go off and try and explore an area that is far from where they need to be, or start to act in a manner that is out of context with the situation should the onus be on the developer to anticipate that action and cater to it? Should a player baulk at a brief lose of direct control if it actually serves to improve their emotional engagement?

Suspension of disbelief is an active thing, it requires that those who want to achieve it consciously turn off their more critical faculties in the service of entertainment. Sometimes in order to be effectively engaged we need to be looking in a certain direction or behaving in a certain manner. Is this why some are more willing than others to overlook the  sometimes odd conventions of a game like Metal Gear Solid, because they have made an implicit agreement with the game to accept it’s idiosyncrasies in the name of entertainment?

So might players not owe it to themselves be more forgiving, to enter into a contract with the designer whereby they will except some necessary restrictions in return for an enjoyable engaging experience?

Motivation.

It’s common for games to provide an array of tools by which you can alter your own character or the environment to better suit a particular play style, but without some degree of active encouragement it’s possibly for a lot of these tools will go unused.

While playing System Shock 2 you are required to manage you resources, it’s necessary to be careful to improvise because it’s rare to have the Ammunition, Health Hypos, Cyber Modules or other resources required to blast through every encounter. Because you’re never particularly well supplied, you are forced to think about you actions, to use your abilities and the environment to gain an advantage.

The outwardly similar title Deus Ex: Invisible War also provides options to be inventive and experimental. There are a number of different means provided for changing the environment, however as resources are plentiful and alternate options clearly indicated, there is rarely any tangible benefit to experimenting. It’s possible to use a clever combination of weapons and BioMods to bypass a particular security system, but when there’s nearly always an air vent available to lead you around the area in question, there’s no advantage to be gained from expending your resources.

Given a choice it’s human nature to aim for the path of least resistance. If you are consistently in a state where you are well supplied, there’s a distinct disinclination to attempt alternate strategies, it makes no sense to try a tactic that might work when you already have one that does work.

Halo: Combat Evolved is a title that subtly encourages experimentation. In a standard first person shooter, there might be a dozen different weapons each with alternate fire modes, however most players will stick with one or two different weapons that are reliable in all situations. By restricting the available weapons to two at a time Halo encourages you to experiment; none of the weapons are universally useful, therefore it’s necessary to keep changing and experimenting with different combinations as rely exclusively on a single pairing rapidly becomes ineffective.

Necessity is the mother of invention: if players are never in a situation were need to try different strategies to survive then it’s unlikely they will be inventive for its own sake.