Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Toolbox vs the Singular Path

So against my better judgement I got back into playing World of Warcraft. I've always been a casual player so take what I say next with a grain of salt. And also a lot of what I'm going to be talking about has been discussed by the Extra Credits guys better particularly their tutorial, depth vs complexity, and choice,  videos.

Also you might want to read Mark Rosewater's, head designer of Magic the Gathering, article "This Land is My Land" which explains the concept of "strictly better" which I'll get to in a second.  Why am I giving you homework?


As I was saying I got  back into WoW and I like it a lot better than I remember but my primary criticism of it is still there. There seems to be a lack of customization. And after some thought that seems like a byproduct of deliberate design. If you're this level go to this place where you'll complete these quests which tell you to go to this dungeon, and get this gear. All of which makes me feel less like a badass knight errant and more like a guy checking off his grocery list after a while. In short the game doesn't feel like this.

It feels like this.

And the weird thing about it is that I felt the exact opposite about another recent game I played. About a month or so ago Iron Brigade was part of Xbox live's "Games for Gold" program.

I was amazed at how much I felt like I was making active style choices in that game despite the fact that it was really simple. Before I returned to WoW part of me wanted to write something about that but I got lazy. Now though that agency has a new context that I think deserves a post.

A Brief History of my History With RPG's
To understand my feelings on MMORPGs you kind of have to know a little about my history regarding them. Just as I was becoming a teenager my folks bought a brand new computer "for school". My mom had a laptop that I "liberated" whenever I had a day off school, but what I had an old Windows 95 machine a long time past playing anything other than old school demos. I never had an atari but boy did I get good at Battlezone and Millipede. I remember being pissed because I bought Black and White and couldn't install it on my old heap and the frame rates for the Sims were pretty lousy as well. Anyway, a lot of stuff happened around 2000 including a new rig, that in my eyes made it a golden age of video games for me. Well a golden age of video games ...and movies...and music.

Okay nostalgia aside let me put it another way. To this day almost every major western RPG that comes out has Bioware's fingers on it. (What about Elder Scrolls? Shut up!) This is the era where they go their start. And yes this post will reference their work a lot.

When I got my new computer the thing I realized pretty quick is that some genres just did better on a PC and western RPGs were one of them. As a gamer I always gravitated towards RPGs and strategy games. For everybody who hates it now this is why Fable and Knights of the Old Republic were such big deals to me.

One of these days I need to make a list of good Star Wars games.

They ware the only western console RPGs that felt like the stuff I already had on PC. Even the JRPGs were starting to feel a little dated with almost no voice acting and a very static turn based structure. Don't get me wrong most of the golden stuff I'm talking about is still turn based but it doesn't feel like it because the turns are so quick unless you bring out a special action.

The failure of RPGs as a genre though is that they are scripted.  With a standard FPS, cut scenes aside, I always controlled my destiny. The weapons I chose and how I used them were all up to me. With RPGs on the other hand as a player I was always aware that I was a character in a pre-written story. 

I love Neverwinter Knights. It is the golden benchmark by which I judge all other RPGs. 

Its toolset helpd to allviate this problem.

But in single player a dialogue tree is still a list of stuff the game will allow you to say. You do not have unlimited options.

My History With MMORPGS
And this is the reason MMORPGS excited me.  Rather than interacting with a bunch of bots players would interact with each other in a living breathing world. God, I miss G4's Portal.

Think of it as sort of a proto MMO Grinder.

Anyway what brought me on board was the idea that particularly in my character's interations I would be more free making it feel more like I was in control rather than just a slave to the developers who had calculated my every move in advance

Because of this I never engaged with MMORPGs the way most players do. Heck in those days the rules were still being written.

Leveling, the grind, dungeons, and even loot didn't matter to me so much as seeing cool places and engaging in the world. As a result I hip hopped across a lot of these. Before settling on Everquest as my default.

That said in regards to actually providing what I was looking for I would say Shadowbane was the best allowing for user created cities and vendors. The only reason why I stopped playing it was because the game expected a broadband connection in the days before YouTube made it compulsory and was pretty buggy and laggy on my PC.

Why Was WoW Revolutionary
While I rip on WoW it was revolutionary. What people forget when thinking about the glory days of Everquest is that the internet was just starting to look like it was now. What's a wiki? Everquest didn't tell you anything and the internet was not going to save you. Playing MMOs now, even WoW you would be amazed at how many times I tab out to see where an NPC is or where is the best place to get crafting items, but back in the day you were mostly on your own. I have 4 guides for EQ.

In WoW both the interface and the mechanics were geared towards steering the player toward the information that was most pertinent to them, and making the information and by extension the mechanics that weren't impertinent.

For instance most RPGs allow players to adjust stats during character creation. WoW doesn't. And while part of me is bummed by that it's a good thing. What are "good" stats for your build are going to largely be determined by your race and class anyway and that early in the game most players wouldn't understand what all of the stats meant anyway.

Unreasonable Knowledge
One of the most infuriating things as a gamer is when game expects you to understand game mechanics before explaining them. It sucks when you lose in a way you didn't even know was possible because the game didn't tell you thing x is dangerous.

It also sucks to lose because the game didn't tell you about a mechanic you could have utilized to help you.

For a practical example of this I dare any Civ fan to watch Game Grumps let's play of Brave New World without screaming "God damn it, Ross!"

And this is the problem in the genre WoW was trying to solve.

Let's take character death. In Everquest when you died you lost not only exp but also your items. You could get them back by looting your corpse, risking doing the thing that caused you to die in the first place. This created a scenario where a player would be punished for not knowing a ledge was too high to climb or that a lake was too deep to swim, things that the player shouldn't necessarily be expected to know without trail and error or being explicitly told.

WoW says, "you know what" dying interrupts gameplay and that is punishment enough. Get back to the raid."

The Singular Path
Despite my praise though I can't help but feel something's missing. It seems WoW solves the problem of unreasonable knowledge with the singular path.

Rather than having a lot of game mechanics that the majority of players aren't going to understand let alone use the game tries to streamline things.

The thing that originally turned me off of WoW was the crafting system. Rather than trusting me to understand recipes and components it implied, "hey you, this is the armor you want here is the skill you need to make it and here is the skill you need to get that stuff, don't worry about anything else as a matter of fact after you got that covered nothing else exists."

It enforced a two crafting skill limit.

More recently what annoys me is that now only hunters can use ranged weapons. I never intend to one shot kill anything but it was nice to be able to kite stuff in order to lure it away from other Mobs that might join in so I don't have to fight 10 guys at once. (Note: I think throw is stupid. In terms of flavor I always thought crossbows were a good melee helper while my more traditional rangers went longbow.)


Because they figure ranged weapons aren't optimal for anybody other than hunters so nobody else uses them so nobody else should have the option to use them.

It ticks me off because I favor Da toolbox.

Da Toolbox
Da toolbox is basically when the game lays out multiple tools normally, gameplay mechanics, for me to reach my objective or solve the problem of the game but doesn't tell me how to use them, instead allowing me to decide for myself how I want to win or even in some games like Minecraft and Sid Meier'Pirates what is winning.

Whenever I play Total War or Civilization I'm almost never thinking about the game's victory conditions instead normally working towards my own goal. "This guy seems like an asshole so I will end him. Don't care how many troops I lose, or how bad the economy tanks."


"I will be Lord Grand Marshall of the western territories!!!!! God wills it!"

(How many times did we fail trying to invade Canada again? Shut up.)

The problem with the tool box is that it relies on multiple game mechanics and if the game doesn't explain how each mechanic effects the game as a whole you're right back with unreasonable knowledge.

Despite my eternal love of the Total War franchise I will always hold a grudge that it took me a year to figure out that I could convert castles into towns and vice versa in Medieval 2. Oh the eastern invasions I could have held off.

Or for an even better example that armor upgrades appeared visually in the field so I could tell how bad ass the enemy army was by looking at their armor. The game never explained that so it took forever for me to notice it. Or in Empire looking to see if the enemy troops are firing by rank rather than a single massed volley.  I think it's an even fight heck even better on my side because I have more guys then WTF. How many armies I could have saved through tactical withdrawal.

Welcome Back Soldier
This is what I love about Iron Brigade.  Your trench i.e. combat mech is customizable. Eh hem I can't help it.

The game does a really good job of explaining

  • What each option does.
  • What scenario is each option suited for.
  • The best way to alter your game play style for each choice
  • The opportunity cost of each option
The best part though is that it is very rare that any loadout is strictly better than the others. Used the right way a sniper wielding engineering trench can be just as good as a machine gun/artillery wielding assault trench. There is no obviously right way to play.

Furthermore it's really easy to change the loadout. If I'm not digging my choice it's a cinch to change it. 
I don't have to deal with the sunk costs fallacy keeping me from rolling a new character. 

All of this culminates in me feeling like when I make its my choice rather than the game pushing me into something. 

An Informed Choice That Matters
Iron Bridade fascinates me because there are relatively few game play mechanics compared to other "toolbox" games yet I still feel the choice. Once you get down to it you can only really change three things about your mech, but those three things have direct visible impacts on gameplay.

Not only that but because the game is so good at explaining the predictable outcomes of player decisions the player is making an informed choice. I am choosing the sniper riffle because I like being able to hit single targets well at a distance. I am choosing a machine gun because although it deals less damage and aims worse, it can fire suppressing fire against at massed enemies.  I am choosing the shot gun because although it sucks at a distance it has stopping power.

The game tells me what I can do not what I should do.

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