Designed freedom

Free roaming game design has been with us for a long, long time. PC RPGs tended to give the player whatever way they chose to approach a quest or a task in order to give an illusion of  that the player can do whatever he wants. Whatever came afterwards was tied to events, and sometimes the way the player approached these tasks decided where the game went.

Arcade games were different. Their strength always was in the strong design that kept the gameplay together and required to master the gameplay elements as intended. There was relatively little freedom of choice, if any.

Console games could take the best of both worlds, as with Legend of Zelda. While you were free to tackle the game in whatever way you wanted like PC RPG, it was tightly tied to the design of the game and progress structure, just like an arcade game. Hence it being an Action RPG.

With sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto and Sleeping Dogs being examples of relatively free approach in games. Sometimes it is advertised that you are completely free to play the game the way you want, but this isn’t really the case. For example, Metal Gear Solid V has a strict ranking system that essentially makes the player to play the game in few selected ways rather than truly appreciating the way the player would like to approach the missions.

Would a free roaming game that emphasizes on the player’s own approach even have a need for a some sort of ranking system? For challenge missions and such yes, but outside that the system would need to be reward the way the player plays. It is supposed to be a free system after all.

The problem is a dynamic ranking system would be how to rank the different approaches. In a stealth game like Metal Gear it would make sense to give a penalty to the player for killing enemy soldiers, but with MGSV you’re the Big Boss and you call the shots. If you want to go in guns blazing, then you do that. It’s a valid method and was even demonstrated in Konami’s presentation. In this approach, shouldn’t the system rate the accuracy, speed and lack of collateral damage?

A problem with a dynamic rating system is how it would recognize the way its being played, but essentially there is no game that actually allows any sort of approach to the game. Ultima Online was the closest thing we’ve got. This is due to games being products that are always designed with a core idea. For a stealth game its stealth, even if would allow whatever approach. The game design would always push the player towards the designed method of playing. To go in guns blazing fits more Grand Theft Auto.

The solid nature of games is another thing that essentially prevents the player to do whatever they want. Games have a definitive beginning and end, and you can’t branch off those even with games with multiple different ends. While games may be interactive, they are not dynamic. What is coded in there won’t change. In Zelda you can’t side with Ganon. In Sleeping Dogs you can’t jump the ship and join the criminals.

It’s marketing speech when you hear that you are free to do approach the missions whatever way you want. You can do it, but don’t expect a high rank unless you manage to get around the system. A player who understands how he is ranked and how the system works can abuse it to their heart’s content as much as they want, thou most customers don’t give much weight or even care enough to put enough time into the game. Tool Assisted Speedruns are an example where understanding the game has taken to an absolute maximum. DS Brain Age’s TAS is an example how understanding how the game functions underneath allows player to essentially whatever they want.

No game allows you to approach itself the way you want to. The ways the game can be approached has been designed already and the templates are already in there. There can only be personal variations how these templates are then put into use. A game may have been designed to support multiple approaches with modifications and large amounts of options to choose from, but it may also have a core design that simply invalidates some of those approaches. The only game that’s completely dynamic in its approach are children’s games and traditional pen & paper games, where the participants give direct feedback to each other and change as the situation needs. This possibly ever-changing nature is something that electronic games can’t do without having a system that can allow such change or react to it. After all, neither computer or video games are reactive, that part is left to the player.

To compare with other media, movies are completely inert in their interactivity. What’s there can’t be changed and it can only repeated the exact same way. With games scenarios are often this way as well with the player giving them the dynamics to change with slight variations. Some games may emphasize on random elements with procedurally produced worlds or random placement of items and characters. It’s something, but far from actually changing or adapting to what the player is doing.

Long story short, if a game wants to allow the player to approach missions and task however they want to, and actually stick with this sentence, the games would need to be as reactive and mould themselves around those selections. Designing and programming such a game would be nightmare. Then again, most people seem to prefer the more tightly designed games, like the 2D Mario ones.

Collection of thoughts Sleeping Dogs struck with

I recently finished Sleeping Dogs as it had sat on my shelf for some time now. If you want a review about it, it would go as follows; decent overall design, horrible when it comes to details (who the hell designed this game so you can get on top a box from one direction only?) and the game clearly was rushed towards the end. Not a game I would return any time soon.

God lives in the details. While Hong Kong overall was painstakingly replicated as a game environment, the whole swallowed details. That, and the final steps of the game were plain awful. Sleeping Dogs commits one the cardinal sins of game design; all the experience and collected stuff, in this case moves and attacks, the player collects become useless in the end. The two opponents one can consider as the game’s final bosses both break the pre-established gameplay, where the first puts QTE’s inside a 1 vs 1 fight and the final battle crippling the player and simply asks the player to time his counters right rather than actually creating a challenging fight that would put all the player to the test.

This entry isn’t about bashing Sleeping Dog’s detrimental qualities, it’s a decent game bogged down a lot of stuff for sure, but it’s more about how this seems to be common nowadays. You got these games with huge production values with high staff and even more incredible hype, and they end up being just ‘good.’ By all means, games like Sleeping Dogs should something phenomenal but they’re all but that. It’s partially because of the hype machine the developers fund, and also because a lot of the gamers buy that hype and willingly throw coal into the stove.

The game press has, even now, power to affect the mood and direction of the reader. This is because very rarely you see objective pieces balancing many sides of one product and often aim for one particular end only. The Mass Effect 3 Ending controversy is an example of this, where the ending in the game was only about colours and the true ending was later released as DLC. The press basically crucified the developers like no other, while holding back the information how during development the devs basically lost too much money and time to fix some error. The gaming press does this even now when it comes to #GamerGate as they only concentrate on one side of the story. That said, there are always those who are willing to showcase the more objective side of the story, but get far less exposure than what they deserve.

In this light, I can understand how Sleeping Dog’s details suffered through the hard development. However, that alone does not excuse lacklustre game. With Sleeping Dogs the lack of experience of the team is not a reason either. The reasons why things come as they do in anything is never just because of thing, but a whole mess of reasons. Two of them in Sleeping Dogs are pretty outright; Hong Kong replication and story. As both play integral part in the game, they also affect major parts of the game. I absolutely love the darker bits of Hong Kong, especially how Night Market was modelled and the neon signs exists everywhere. It reminds me of Shenmue II a lot, and to some extent my own experiences. The story on the other hand seems to hold the player’s hand all the way through and ultimately pats on his head. It seems that at the very end, the story determined how the game should go, thus the awful last hour or so. The player can’t affect the events of the finale at any point, despite its otherwise open approach to other things. For example, you could deal the normal street punks any way you wanted, and I often chose to use a car later in the game. Story Missions on the other hand were more or less locked down. Even some collectables were locked from the player either to prevent sequence breaking or lack of attention to the details. I’m specifically referring to a collectable statue that is locked away inside a house that is not open until certain event happens in the game, during which it needs to be collected. The player can’t miss these collectable statues either, as they’re prominently displayed in cut scenes. Why introduce a secret and optional collectable element that ends up being useless at the end, and is far from secret? The very last move you gain is a more powerful counter, which characters that are plot characters effectively ignore, but the most basic counter always works. It boggles my mind why the game was designed this way.

The game ends in a way that it sets up the sequel. I already quickly saw the possibility of player controlling Wei Shen in his police duty having to fight and balance between law enforcement duties and his connections to the Sun On Yee. Instead an expanded and even more detailed Hong Kong with numerous new places and interesting characters the player could roam in, we’re getting Triad Wars MMO, which concentrates on the titular war between different triads. This is a pretty harsh genre shift and focus moves away from Wei Shen. Sadly, the announcement trailer for Triad Wars is all sorts of awful, concentrating on the developers speaking rather than allowing the product speak for itself, which is highly worrisome. It doesn’t add any trust when the devs directly as in the video what the customer would like to see. It’s like these people are clueless about customer research and are not able to make decisions on themselves for the sake of the product. However, credit is where it belongs, at the very end one of the devs make a statement how some liked the police aspect, some liked the criminal aspect and they just cut the police away to cater more those who enjoyed being a thug. That said, they could have opened a door for police players to play law enforcement role and do criminal investigations, or even take up similar role as undercover cop similar to Wei Shen.

Anyway, the point was that even games have become serialised from the get go. It seems more and more games have become products where you can’t simply pick up a game and play it as its own unique entity. While the Metal Gear Solid series is all sorts of bullshit when it comes to story, I would argue that until MGS4 you could pick up any game in the series and play it as standalone. After that, not so much. Triad Wars, as a spinoff, is one of these games you can just jump in without prior knowledge of Sleeping Dogs and because of the nature of MMOs. The possible Sleeping Dogs 2 could go either way. If properly handled, the player has no need to even know about the prior events or gameplay mechanics, but those who have would get more out of it.

I’m not sure where this mega-serialisation and speed-franchising comes from. CAPCOM was known to milk their franchises dry, for better or worse, but it seems everybody and their mothers are doing this. Because of the dubious way the game press works, the hype they manage to build up doesn’t really go away despite the customer pushing the press’ ideas away. Just like that, the press also discards what the customer thinks and wants and simply but megahype on the sequel of the game they hyped. Good thing the customer can vote with their wallet, but the fact games have lost their own cohesive entity and are tied to multiple entries nowadays take away a lot from the products themselves.