Friday, 4 February 2011

Games: From product to service, and how you lost your say in it.

Haven't really posted in forever. So, instead, a "re-post" of something I said in a forum earlier. Enjoy (or don't, that's really your call):

@The_root_of_all_evil: [To paraphrase a long post as well, something about being upset at TF2 because it changed]

I'm not upset because it changed, I'm upset because it changed in a pointless way, it ruined what the game was, and I have no option to say "no thanks!".

I bought a game, that game isn't what I bought anymore... That is a problem. Imagine you go to a restaurant and you buy a meal. A lasagna, for instances. A very well made, no "microwave" bullshit, true Italian classic lasagna. And you're loving it. Now, halfway through your meal a garçon walks by and tosses whipped cream and marmite on your meal. You didn't ask for whipped cream and marmite on your lasagna. You didn't have a chance to say "no thanks", and they serve no fucking purpose on a lasagna. And yet you're still forced to eat it or pass. There's no option to just disable it.

And that's why I don't buy that this was all a test. First because any idiot could see the results of the "test" a mile away. I mean, seriously, would you test to see if your average male man gets aroused by an extremely attractive woman in sexy clothing being flirtatious? Would you test to see if your average person would accept a Ferrari for absolutely free, no strings attached? No, because the results are pretty obvious. Second because, if this was just a test, they would have given us the option to revert it MONTHS ago.

See, what actually happened is that a few years ago companies started realizing people were colossal suckers, and games like World of Warcraft and similar MMOs (be they P2P or F2P) were extorting seriously obnoxious amounts of dosh. Even more so when they noticed that, for the most part, the apparently "little leaguers" that were the Free-to-Play games with premium shops, were actually making even more obscene amounts of cash.

Since they everyone and their dog realize that there was more money in it for them to monetize games "in the long run". DLC - previously known as "updates". Purchasable items. "Online passes". Subscriptions. Anything that could cause people to consistently drop cash in the game would significantly improve the profit return on the initial investment. It's all about keeping your players paying. Previously it was all about getting the game through the door and getting as many sales as you could. Now the emphasis has shifted. Why invest several million dollars with a relative risk of little to no return (which there is, even on a "safe" sequel, there's still the chance that it's going nowhere and you're not getting your money back). It's much safer to invest what is pretty much pocket change and collect a few millions in return. From a financial point of view, this is brilliant. You're getting an impressive return on next to no investment. You know what it costs for a professional in-house artist to model a new hat? Fuck all. In return they get thousands, potentially millions, of dollars for it. Shit, you don't have to be an Harvard business graduate to make THOSE calculations.

So things changed. Gabe Newell himself said it: Games are becoming less of a product, and more of a service. Now, given my eyeballed calculations and whatever little info we can find on the ordeal, it's also safe to say that Valve makes rather egregious piles of money from Steam. That said, they're not stupid and they're not a charity. TF2 was becoming a bit of a money sink. Money was being spent in development that was not really being returned significantly. Let's face it, TF2 had sold about as much as it ever would. Being known by everyone even mildly connected to the gaming world, and after the absurd number of promotions where you could buy it for next to nothing, almost anyone that could ever be interested in this game now owns it.

So what do you do? You create a way to return it. You make attaining items, all of them, even the game changing ones, a colossal pain in the ass through a retarded and archaic random drop system, a system that was only ever invented in ANY game to inflate a game's length. You introduce pointless "rare" items (and we all know how people love anything that's rare, even if it's a giant piece of shit, if it's rare, the average simple minded dullard will want it more than food!), and create a market to further inflate the importance of these items. Then you "experiment" with an in-game shop with rather high prices. Sure, they're high, but you're not "forced" to buy them! Off course, they're kinda rare and that's by far the best way to get them! And in some cases (coughcough, unusuals and crates) almost the only way! But you totally don't have to!

Off course, that means destroying some things, like your original art style. If you had propose to Robin Walker the inclusion of "flaming hats" or any of this crap in the game 4 years ago he would have patted you on the head and showed you the way out. But let's be honest, how many people honestly, how many people do you think actually understand, let alone appreciate, proper game design? Go to the suggestions forums if you have any doubts. It's a veritable cavalcade of mediocrity, and I mean that in the worse possible way. 99% of all "IDEA"s you find there are mental abortions at best. You think those people even understand how beautiful and pristine the original TF2 was? Fuck no. They see something shiny, they go after it like moths. Remember we're talking about the "average" person. The type of person that comprises the majority of your user/client base. These are the same mouth breathers that made the dreadful Modern Warfare 2 the fastest selling game ever (or something like that).

So here is the approximate formula that at some point formed in Valve's collective heads: TF2's massive userbase - A layer of quality maybe 5% of the population can recognize let alone appreciate + Small investment in crap = mountains of cash.

Again, they didn't need to get their accountants around to do that particular bit of math.

Those of us who know better and are not particularly interested in all this crap, and could appreciate TF2 for what it was, on the other hand, keep getting flooded by all of this crap we didn't pay for and never wanted to begin with. This isn't optional. We can't "opt out" of it. We either enjoy it or fuck off. That's valid in an MMO, like WoW, where you're constantly paying to play the game. If at any time they do something you don't want you can simply stop renewing your subscription and you pretty much get what you paid for. A game that you bought, supposedly permanently, for what it was... That's not what we paid for.

Whether the game is better or worse, it's all arguable off course. I'm sure people like Kraken think it's much better now. Good for them. I dislike it, but I don't think I've ever said these things should be permanently removed from the game right entirely. I would certainly approve of it, but I also realize that some people like that... What I don't like is that we're not given the option. Something as simple as a "force default models" command, something that has existed since, what, Quake2...? Quake 3 I'm sure of. Something that simple just isn't present.

It really comes down to financial interests. Why would they let you disable advertisement.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Hey Ubisoft, why you hittin' yourself?

The following is a letter from myself to Ubisoft.

... If I had to represent Ubisoft in one picture right now, that would be it.

Let's cut to the chase, I like your games. In fact, I really like your games. I own both the original Splinter Cell (PS2) and the original Assassin's Creed (PC) which I rate as one of my all time favorite games. So, the question becomes... Why do you want me to buy the sequels?

Do you hate yourselves? Do you have a grudge against profit? Are you feeling fat and inadequate or something? No? Then why are you hitting yourself?

I know what you're thinking. "But you CAN buy it!". No I can't Ubisoft... No I can't. Because of you I can't buy and enjoy your games.

I'm, off course, talking about the draconian and obnoxious piece of malaware you called your own piece of DRM scam scheme scam.

You say I could still buy it with that, I obviously have internet, but I'll ask you if you'd like to buy a really good ice cream if you also had to have your knee caps busted by my baseball bat.

You see, when I play games online the "being forced to stay online" part of the deal isn't a bonus, or even a null factor, in fact it's a negative factor. The issue is, when I'm playing online with other people I have to, you know, connect to other people, so it's physically impossible to NOT be online, along with all the restrictions and limitations that implies. It's going to take a lot a really good argument and a set of balls made of granite to convince me I have to be online to play single player games, considering I've been playing those for twenty-odd years... There's also the minor detail of "what happens to our game once you decide to shutdown your server?". And don't tell me it won't happen, because we both know you'd be lying... In fact we both know it would be extremely beneficial if you were to "drop support" (I love euphemisms too Ubisoft) for older, no longer profitable, games... Maybe forcing stimulating people into buying the latest chapter in whichever franchise so they can keep playing. Yeah...

I had money set aside for ACII... Passed. Now I was REALLY interested in Splinter Cell: Conviction... Sadly, I'm going to pass on that too. Not because I have no interest in either games, but because you, Ubisoft, made it so I'd have to be a masochist to buy it.

What happened to us Ubisoft? We used to be in a good relationship. I'd send you my money, you'd send me your entertainment. But this got lost somewhere along the road. You became distrustful Ubisoft, and you pushed me away. I was confused, wondering what I did wrong... All I ever wanted was what we had. But our relationship, once characterized by fun and tranquility became all about mistrust and abuse... I had to go, for both of us.

If you ever come out of it, I still have feelings for you. We had good times before Ubisoft. Remember those? Before you started abusing unhealthy DRMs. Maybe we can have good times again. But you gotta get clean Ubisoft. I can't have you like this. I'm sorry.

I'm sure there's more of us out there too... We don't want to hurt you Ubisoft, we're just doing this for your own good. Drop that bad habit you picked up somewhere you probably shouldn't have been, and we might return.

PS: I'm seeing your "friends" Valve and DICE, and so is my money... They seem to understand my customer needs.

- A grieving (ex)customer.

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Believable Surreal

Jeez, I’ve been cutting myself some extra slack haven’t I? No posts since Christmas. In my defense I’m doing this for free and was swamped with exams. I’m sure the two of you that checked this blog meanwhile were thoroughly disappointed. Anyway…

One thing I’ve come to realize lately is how grossly misused the word “realism” in gaming culture really is. We say it all the time, while half the time we mean something completely different. I’ve grown to hate realism. Ok, not games that aim for realism per se, but the concept of realism as a mechanism used to bypass game design.
How many times have you heard the word “realism” being tossed around in an argument pertaining to a game involving one of the following: Aliens, space traveling, spaceships, space colonies, teleports, super powers, high powered portable laser rifles, power armored space marines, regular space marines, magic, trolls, zombies, mutants, cyborgs, giant robots, time traveling, magic self-regeneration, health kits that instantly cure all ailments, people that survive a bullet to the head and walk it off, respawns or a myriad of other unreal elements? You might be aware that none of those things exist in real life, yet most of them are regular staples of gaming culture. And we love them. Again, I ask, for how often (and generally out of context) we throw “realism” around, is it really the concept we’re looking for? 

I believe that the concept we’re really looking for is “believable”. You’re probably thinking “But Cali, you’re arguing semantics here…”, and it should be semantics, but the issue is that this reflects on game design. We can live with lack of realism, in fact we often ask for it, but lack of believability breaks immersion, and without immersion games are little more than pretty graphics. Realism by itself is meaningless.
Here’s a scenario: you’re playing Team Fortress 2, a game where you’re capable of jumping around 15 ft by shooting a rocket at your own feet (and live through it), can survive several bullets or explosives, despite the lack of any body armor and overall not exactly a very realistic game. You walk up to a fence on the side that’s clearly a map limitation and realize you can’t jump over it despite the fence being around 5 ft tall, and you being able to jump triple that height. Odds are it won’t bother you much. Nothing about that is realistic, not even closely, but being unable to jump that small fence is perfectly coherent with the cartoonish and overall surreal tone of the game. The fence is a barrier, it’s perfectly defined as such, and you accept being unable to transpose it because the game sets you up for it. Yet, the same situation in a different, far more realistic game becomes absurd and awkward. Playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, by all counts a far more realistic game than the aforementioned Team Fortress 2, you’ll run by several fences you can’t jump… And you’ll find it awkward. Why? Well, first because the game shows you you’re clearly capable of it. Through the game you’ll jump through more than a dozen equal fences, walls and obstacles, sometimes forcefully, yet when the game decides so a small fence becomes an insurmountable obstacle. It’s incoherent. It’s basically one step above the horrible “invisible walls” that plagued 90’s games. However, most of it stems from the realism inherent to the game. Unlike Team Fortress 2, Modern Warfare aims to be realistic, which leads us to wondering why a highly trained soldier suddenly can’t hop over a small fence. It’s uncanny, and breaks immersion faster than a “game over” screen. 

The principal psychological element at work here is an effect of contrast: In Team Fortress the whole ambiance is cartoony by nature, so it’s a lot easier to accept this kind of situation from the start as it does not deviate from reality any more than the rest of the game, while Modern Warfare on the other hand, approaches reality so much more that this situation stands out as uniquely out of character. If you hear a college student got drunk at a party you’ll likely have no reaction, if you hear a surgeon got drunk right before surgery, you’re likely to be at least surprised. 

Here’s a recurrent and inevitable situation if you’ve ever played Prototype, a game whose protagonist is a super powered mutant with the kind of capacities that would make a comic book super hero insecure: You run up the side of a skyscraper, you drop (or jump) down a good thousand vertical feet, and proceed to crash land on solid concrete street, making a giant crater on the floor before simply walking away like nothing happened. Amongst the whole entirely surreal episode, you know what’s the one thing you’ll notice as strange? That no one seems to care. It’s out of place. Your superhuman feats can be explained by the character’s superhuman powers, but nothing explains people’s robotic apathy. Everyone will panic and the entire military will unleash hell on you if you so much as punch a passerby, but apparently in this Manhattan it’s perfectly normal for average people to crash-land the height of the entire Chrysler building and then go for a jog, so much so that even the military looking for someone with that kind of powers won’t give it a second thought. 

At the end of the day is all about coherence, consistency. No matter how surreal something is, if it’s consistent, it’s believable. Yet even the most realistic puzzle falls apart when the pieces stop matching. It’s the same reason nobody questions why Mario can stand falling some incredible heights with intact legs, but Valve had to go an extra mile to justify the same situation in Portal (“main character has bionic leg implants”).

Am I asking people to stop making realistic games? No. Not at all. Reality is always a reference point for us. But perhaps it’s time we restart exploring the surreal. First because the more realism you go for, the less freedom you’re given. Reality is already rigidly predefined and when you run into limitations, and you will always have limitations whether they’re game engine or gameplay wise, the more realistic your game is the harder it’s going to be to cover them up. Mostly, however, is that reality is just… constricting. The lack of realism is as worth exploring as realism itself. So long as you keep whichever universe you create coherent, it’ll feel “realistic” by its own standards.

The bottom line here is that believability is the concept we should always strive for, there’s definitely room in this world for realistic games but just because they’re realistic it does not mean they’re believable. Toss out the concept of “realistic” as a standard, and let’s explore the unlimited potential of the believable surreal.

Friday, 25 December 2009

T'was The Night Before Christmas - Gamer Edition

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the internet
People were dying: “boom, right through the head!”
Sure it was a slaughter, but with a great deal of respect,
As people celebrated, not with pine trees but with lead.

I was sitting by my PC, and with love, not spite,
Shooting Nazis, Zombies and Army men alike,
When suddenly the most peculiar feeling hit me,
Some fat bearded guy was sitting right next to my tree.

“‘Scuse me”, I said, with great nonchalance,
“Are you here for cake? Perhaps a dance?”
The overweight fellow looked me right in the eye
And let out a “oh, oh…oh” before a long winded sigh.

“What’s the matter large fellow?” I asked, still concerned
That this rounded up figure was looking quite stern.
“I’ve had it this year” it said in a long deep voice,
“I’ve had it with present, with little girls and boys”.

“Every year I transverse the globe,
With a giant bag, and my big red robe,
And I do real magic, make things from thin air,
It’s very complicated, no time to spare!”

“Yet every year, it’s always the same ordeal,
There’s a ton of complaints, it’s truly unreal.
Kids bitch, moan, whine and complain,
Cause I didn’t give them the latest console or that one extra game.”

“There’s no winning with this kids, not nowadays,
Back then they were happy with well made wooden toys,
Now it’s just videogames, and oh dear lord,
Best be the latest one, and with all DLC, off course”

“Cheer up round guy” I said, in a tone most complacent
“I know of some guys, a group quite pleasant,
Who’ll definitely empathize, they too know ungratefulness,
Why it’s the Valve Corp guys”, I remarked with great finesse.

“Really?” said loudly the corpulent comrade
“They work everyday to give us free content”, I decided to add,
“And just look at the forums, it’s a little bit sad,
Every other post is filled with anger, people are MAD!”

“My, I never thought”, point out my guest
“That there were others like me, pursuing my quest!
And they go on unwavered, doing their part!
Just look at that Newell fellow, a man after my own heart!”

“Thanks my friend”, said the chubby guy,
“You brought back joy to this old man’s eye”
“It’s no problem”, I was quick to reply
“Just please get your reindeer to stop eating my Christmas lights”

Ever since that day, every year spent,
At the same exact date I have a game with my dear plump friend
A great deal of things Santa brought me,
And all I really wanted, was episode III.


Merry Christmas Valve…

…Now get to it.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 – A comparative review for you.

Ever since Left4Dead 2 was announced I’ve been seeing the same questions time after time: How much like the original is it? How much does it build on, if at all? Is it really worth the price or is it just an inflated expansion pack pumped out to appease the franchise monster?

Quite a few people still dwell on these doubts, so I’m going to attempt to clarify the whole matter by doing a comparative review of Left4Dead 2.

First thing you’ll notice is that the game is harder, much harder, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In the original Left4Dead the difficulty curve was pretty absurd. Easy was for the brain damaged only, normal was way too easy, advanced was easy, and expert was ok - except for the Tank parts that were very difficult unless you had a “professional” team, and even then it was a bit of a gamble. In that sense, the game would often become frustrating as finishing a chapter would depend heavily on if, when and where you got a Tank. It wasn’t smooth, it felt like a wildcard, a random difficulty inflation from “challenging” to “nightmare”, just because.

This issue, however, has been addressed in Left4Dead 2, and the difficulty is more consistent this time around. While the general difficulty has been considerably amped up, the survivors were given a whole new set of tools, like bigger weapons and explosive or incendiary ammo that indirectly fixed the tank issue. As of now Tanks feel tough, but fair. Valve also listened to the “it’s still too easy” complaints, and added an alternative Realism mode. This plays a lot like a zombie movie and if you still think Expert is too easy, then Realism Expert is exactly what you need.

Second thing you’ll notice is that the game itself is more dynamic, and I don’t mean the whole “dynamic paths” thing Valve has promoted that was meant to change the map each time, that has only been partially successful. I mean the way the entire game plays out, owing mostly to the major changes they’ve done in the way of “events” and map design. The original game generally flowed very linearly. Go from point A to point B, camp during point B’s crescendo and proceed to point C after. This made it so that, while the maps could be as varied as you’d like, the game flowed fairly similarly regardless. In Left4Dead 2, however, every map feels unique since they’ve added a variety of events, ranging from running to deactivate an alarm causing a constant stream of zombies to picking up gas cans to fuel up an escape vehicle while zombies drop to give you an entirely unhelpful kind of “hand”.

A big contribution also came from the new weapons (melee is insanely fun) and the substitution of generic ammo piles for loaded guns. On the original Left4Dead you’d generally stick with your tier 1 weapon until you found a tier 2 stash, pick your favorite and generally run with it till the end of the campaign. In Left4Dead 2, however, that’s generally not an option. Weapons have lower ammo capacity, and ammo piles are a lot rarer, while weapon spawns are a lot more common. What this means in practice is that while you’re hard pressed to run out of ammo, you’ll be forced to switch weapons all the time, based on what’s available, or put a lot more emphasis on ammo conservation. The new infected also play their part on making the game more dynamic. Whereas previously in Left4Dead the best possible defense against anything NOT tank-shaped was bundling up in a corner, in Left4Dead 2 you need to constantly change and adapt your strategy or risk having the whole group incapacitated in a wink.

This isn’t to say the game is a perfect upgrade. All this new “dynamism” has certainly confused the bots, which seem remarkably stupid this time around. Surprisingly, in Left4Dead 2 the bots actually seem denser than on Left4Dead 1. And it doesn’t seem like a simple case of the developing team forgetting to adjust their AI accordingly either. The bots seem genuinely denser than before, which is rather confusing as you'd expect things to either improve or remain the same, not become worse, so make sure you’re playing with humans online or prepare for a headache or three. Equally disappointing was the absence of truly dynamic path and weather systems (the latter only applied to half of one campaign) and, I’m aware this is quite the petty gripe but, the absence of the fucking SDK at launch as Valve goddamn promised!

Graphically the actual engine is pretty similar, and while Source is by no means the absolute peak of our generation, everything still looks very pretty if you turn all options to max. The graphical highlights are definitely the facial animations and the new effects (body damage, dismemberment, weather effects), which effectively make the game look a lot prettier.

The bottom line: is this a good sequel or an overpriced expansion? I say, despite my original concerns, this is exactly what a sequel should be: it picks up the original, expands and polishes. The core of the experience is still the same, surviving and killing zombies, but so much has been changed that the actual experience is quite different. And Left4Dead 2 is nothing if not beautifully polished. You’re bound to find a scratch in the paint here and there, but overall if you like co-op, survival and zombies this is a no-brainer of a purchase.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Put your money where your mouth is.

If you have internet access (and if you’re reading this, you do) I feel like I don’t need to explain the massive shit-tsunami generated in the wake of Infinity Ward’s announcement to drop dedicated servers. PC gamers have been up in arms, started boycotts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if death threats had been sent. When former-gaming-visionary John Carmack announced ID’s new IP (the only new IP ID has developed since Quake in 1996) Rage would also be dropping dedicated server support PC gamers threw their arms over their head and awaited Armageddon.

And I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to put up with it. No. Stop. Put down that Boycott group. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that these companies seem to have forgotten they work for us, not the other way around.

Oh we’re certainly to blame for it. There was a time before the internet where our wallets did our speaking for us, loud and clear. At that time, developers took us seriously because if they didn’t, they’d crash and burn. But not anymore. I mean, blame Infinity Ward all you want, but you can’t say we’re not sending them mixed signals here... What’s the point of a boycott where everyone buys the product being boycotted anyways? They can’t hear your e-hate over the sound of how awesome their sales figures are. You think Mr. Kotick cares about your blog? Or your verbose forum post? You think IW give a damn about your eloquent review saying their game sucks monkey balls when you bought it? Go ahead. Tell them it’s the worst thing in the world since cancer. Once you buy their game all they hear from you is “ka-ching!”. Conversely, you can write all the good things you want about a game, but if you don’t buy it, your support falls flat. If any of these companies could make the worst game in history, a game so horrible it would make Atari’s ET or Superman 64 look like flawless masterpieces, knowing EVERYONE would buy it, they would.

Regardless of how much I hate Bobby Kotick, as off this moment, I couldn’t take us seriously either. We’re all bark, no bite.

So how do we get to them? How do we show them they need us a lot more than we need them? With money. The all important currency. The fun thing about this business is that it’s like a permanent election. Companies follow the flow of money wherever it goes. You disagree with a company? Send your money to a company you DO agree with.

The bottom line? Are you pissed about the new “no dedicated servers” policy? Is it important to you? Well, would you look at that, here’s a company that actually seems to care. Dice are reaching out, extending their hand, and saying they care. Meanwhile, Activision seems perfectly content in violating us some more since we seem delighted to take it.

Our turn. Our move.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Playing the Role of Role Player.

Back around 2008 when a new Star Wars game was announced, I was ecstatic. I love the Star Wars universe. In October that year, when it was announced this new game would be an MMO I entirely lost my interest in it, while everyone seems as excited as before. I’ve been one of the few persons I know to not have the slightest interest, not even fleeting, in Aion, Warhammer Online, WoW, or whatever your MMO-flavor of the week is.

One could argue that role playing is just “not my thing”, and for a while I thought so myself, but then I realized that’s just not true. Role playing is defined as (“duh”, I know) taking on a character’s role. Pretending to be someone else, usually part of the universe you’re exploring in your book, party, game… etc. Now, while I admit dressing in cardboard and pretend-fighting someone is just not my thing, I like to immerse myself in the game I’m playing. When I transverse the Capital Wasteland, I am a wanderer trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world on his own. When I load up Assassin’s Creed, I take on the Creed’s mantle as my own. Hell, when I play TF2 I’m an Australian assassin (Not a crazed gunman dad…). I don’t even look at it as something abnormal or “extra”. To my mind that’s part of the game. That’s part of letting the game tell you a story properly. And I’m more than willing to let it do its work… If it lets me.

And that is my issue with MMORPGs, and even RPGs in general. Ironically, some characteristics inherent to the genre just keep me from immersing myself in the game. So many of the things that define an RPG are exactly the sort of things that yank me out of my game experience faster than being set on fire. In order to try and keep this from being filed under “ignorant hate speech”, allow me to try to elaborate.

It mostly comes down to leveling systems. I don’t think I remember a single RPG of any kind without one of these, and more often than not they’re an exercise in frustration more than anything. If there’s one thing that yanks me out of an experience faster than anything else is a random warning telling me “hey, you just grew up! Congratulations!”. There are very few things that feel quite as fake as having a random number define your skill.

I realize why these systems appeared though. Back in the D&D days, which to my knowledge were the cradle of this sort of thing, role playing was considerably more limited, particularly in its interactions. How would you fight a paper drawing? I think you’d quickly run out of friends if you were to fight them every time you had an encounter… And so the leveling system was created to add some form of strategy to fights that would otherwise be determined entirely on dice rolls and “who hit first”. But nowadays, do we really need that? Don’t we have perfectly good fighting systems that can create an interesting interactive experience? In today’s gaming world experience already IS a factor. Put a seasoned veteran in TF2, UT3, Counter Strike, CoD4, or any other FPS you care to pick, against a new comer and tell me experience isn’t a factor. We don’t need an arbitrary number telling us “Oh, you’re now better than that guy!”, “Why?”, “Because you’ve played longer basically.”, “But I’ve been on auto-pilot basically… I haven’t learnt jack squat.”, “Well, you’re still starting with an advantage because you’ve played longer!”.

It’s fake. It’s fake and to my mind it’s just bad game design. Even with games that emphasize “character building” is there a reason we need levels? Is there a reason we can’t just pick the abilities we want, and change them if we feel like after? The answer seems to be, because it’s easy. It’s easier for developers to slap a leveling system in and copy paste more of the same monsters with different models and variables for power than it is to create different and more challenging opponents. It’s easier to make all weapons work nearly the same with different visuals and base your performance on “which specialization did you pick” than it is to make weapons behave differently and force the player to learn the weapons.

This leads us to another mechanic that often tags along with the leveling: Loot. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against loot. We all love picking up a brand new machine gun that shoots rockets on fire, but can you make it at least somewhat credible? I reckon I’m no hunter, but I don’t think animals drop coins and entire armories when they cease to be… It seems pretty reasonable that you’d scavenge a dead outlaw for his weapons and pocket change, but I’m not entirely sure where a reanimated skeleton would hide a whole broad sword, and I shudder to think where in heaven’s name would a boar get (or hide) coins and ammo…

And finally there are quests. This is mostly a MMORPG thing but most quests immediately catapult me out of the game experience for their completely inappropriate nature. Why exactly am *I* the village’s only hope against this threat? I’m level 13, there’s a level 76 right over there! And they seem to be doing fine without me, regardless of how long I take. Also there are 3 other guys standing around this same NPC completing this same quest to save the village... Again… See, most developers forget the “multiplayer” part, and go on creating long and heavily romanticized stories that completely ignore the fact that you’re NOT the special one-of-kind savior they babble on about. You’re just another guy (or girl), in the increasingly bigger population of guys and girls doing the same you are.

There are a few more (albeit less relevant) things, but this article is already enormous as is so I leave it at that.

The bottom line here is that all these things that throughout the years have come to define the role-playing genre, a genre which should be defined by its openness to creativity and imagination, are the very things that keep my creativity from playing its part in the game. The game seems so afraid I won’t play my role properly that it defines all parameters for me, becoming more rigid than most other games. Consequently the whole thing becomes so fake that the game itself constantly reminds me I’m not really that character I made, I’m just playing a game pretending to be that character. The result is that these RPGs end up feeling less like role playing, and more like “role-playing a role-player”. Like pretending you’re pretending.