Sunday, January 13, 2013

Rant: More Accessable Vs Losing Your Core

This is a Rant. It will be less organized and more stream of thought than my other posts. You've been warned.

Over the past say ten years or so there's been a large argument in the video game world between the "hardcore" and the "casual," "dumbing down" and "accessibility."

On one side you have gamers who rightly or wrongly feel that they are being ignored by the developers, that in an interest for ever more money and higher profit margins they have been forsaken for the brain dead masses. On the other you have companies that quite frankly are trying to survive in a tough economy, stagnant gaming cycle and astronomical development cost. Now some of those cost are their own fault, but that's a rant for another day.

I've seen a lot of these arguments, both from friends and from game journalist and I think there's a lot to be said for both camps, but what really pisses me off, and the bases for this rant is when companies simply mistake what making a game more accessible means, and fundamentally alter their games to meet some unknown common denominator.

There were two games I played this past year that really brought that to bare. Splinter Cell: Conviction and Hitman: Absolution. I want to say right off the bat that I liked both these games. While neither is perfect, I think they were both solid, fun, enjoyable experiences. (At least for Hitman it has been so far, haven't gotten all the way through it yet.)

Both of these games task the player with sneaking around environments and stealthily taking out bad guys.  Both come from beloved and long standing franchises. Both have always been middle of the pack popularity wise. Almost everyone knows of them, has played at least one in the series. But I can't ever recall a time when they sold hand over a fist or topped game of the year list. They're part of the B-list of gamedom, and that's okay.

But the companies need money, either to survive or please their shareholders. They want a bigger audience and to do that they have to round some of the sharp corners on their product. I get that. I'm okay with that. I think every gamer, no matter how hardcore they think they are, has put in a game, played for five minutes and then gave up because things were too confusing or the menus too dense.

This mostly happens to me in strategy games. I love me some strategy but I hate the long tutorials. Having played games since I was a toddler I can generally load up a game and figure it out as I go. But sometimes I see menu after menu and a hundred icons and all I want to do is buy some soldiers and fight somebody. I give up and move on to something else.

I understand why even though a game like Hitman or Halo or Skyrim may be second nature to me and an undecipherable mess to someone else. And I get why a company would want people to be able to get into their game, even without the money problem. Creators like people to see their stuff, shocking I know, but it's true.

Back to Hitman and Splinter Cell.

The older games in these series featured big open levels, especially the Hitman games. They were all about exploration, non-linear problem solving and experimentation. I have deeply loved that series since I first played Hitman 2. The amount of freedom it offered in finding clever ways to take out an enemy without being noticed or gunning everyone down. It was a unique experience I couldn't get anywhere else.

The first three game were never big on story, which is a shame, but they largely fixed that with Blood Money, the fourth entry in the series. Blood Money featured even bigger, more open environments with options upon options for play. The game could be hard, but you really felt a sense of tension and satisfaction from sneaking your way through its levels. They were even able to tie in a decent story without disrupting the flow of the game.

Now we have Absolution, which feels more like they wanted to make a Hitman movie than a Hitman game. The large open levels from the previous games have been split down into smaller, largely linear segments. Yes there are still the creative ways to kill someone, but they seem much smaller, more immediate than in previous games.

One of the best Hitman levels of any of the games and I think one of the best designed levels in any game is the opera house mission from Blood Money. Your tasked with infiltrating a building, killing the star of the opera and some fat cat who's there to see it. At each step your presented with challenges and tasked to over come them. How do you get inside? Steal a pass from a guest's coat? Take out the maintenance man when he goes for a leak and steal his clothes? Brute force?

You get inside. Now you have to get the actor. Break into his dressing room and choke him out between rehearsal or replace the blank in a prop gun with a real bullet? What about the fat cat in his protected balcony. Distract the guards to get him alone? Lure him out and sabotage a chandelier to crush him?

It was one massive level seemlessly broken into segments, true, but keeping it as one level gave it a weight and heft that the new missions lack. In the new game each section of the level is blocked off by doors. You go through one area, complete it, then move on to the next. The sense of openess and complexity is gone.

A few missions in and I've crept through hallways and rooms, passing goons only to get to an exit door and move on to the next section. Does it make the game easier, less painful to restart when everything goes horribly wrong? Sure. But I think it loses some of the magic in the process.

You see this in the newest splinter cell too. Instead of the multi-teired levels of previous games, and wide open environments you get walled gardens, separate and secure. Both games put a much larger emphases on storytelling and cenimatics. Which is nice, don't get me wrong. As a writer I tend to put story above all else. But in gaming, unlike other mediums, a lot of times the play, the interaction with the game is the story.

The story in a Hitman game has a lot less to do with whatever the hell Agent 47 is up to and lot more about how I sniped the Secret Service's star witness from a neighbor's tree house. Or dressed up as a clown for the target's birthday party and stabbed him in the face.

Good times.

These developers seem to think that easier gameplay and more linear storytelling is the key to the heart of the masses. Instead, by cutting off what makes their games great they end up with identical boxes giving me no reason as a consumer to spend money on the same experience over and over again.

They lose the things that make them so special, the very reasons we played them in the first place. They go from being a one of a kind experience to one I've had a dozen times over. They lose their niche and starve in the middle of two camps, unwanted by both.


So what's the answer? How do you make games easier while retaining what makes them so special in the first place. How do you gain new markets and not alienate the one you already have?

To that I give a big, fat, shrug. I'm not a game developer. If I was though I'd start with save systems. In this newer, "more accesable" Hitman they have checkpoints. Why the hell wouldn't you give them the option to save anywhere?

How many of us have played an Elder Scrolls game, gotten to some guy that we thought we could take and then stopped, quick saved and then attacked. Knowing that if we were wrong and the wizard turned out to be a total badass we could reload the game to the same spot, having lost nothing. No experience, no in game currency, no time. What better way to promote experimentation than taking away its cost?

You want to put story in your games? Do it in the level design. Do it with the little things. All you need is a soft touch. One of my favorite parts of earlier Hitman games was the newspaper at the end of each level that would describe how well you did the previous mission. If you were a truly silent assassin there would be a small column about an accident. Go on a blood thirsty rampage and you would earn yourself a headline and gruesome cover shot.

Blood Money was able to weave a story in between missions without upsetting the flow of the game. There's no reason why they couldn't continue along this route.


The point is to know your audience. Your company may not set the records of a Grand Theft Auto or a Call of Duty by releasing quirky games that only a few like, but it will survive. The best way to go bankrupt is to ignore the people that bought your games in the first place.

They played and loved those early games for a reason, don't ignore that. It doesn't mean you have to sacrifice innovation or never do new things or go in new directions. By all means, do so. It helps keeps things fresh, prevents stagnation. But changing what you are, and what makes you great for an extra buck is never the way to go.

If you want a larger audience you have to show them why your thing is great, not pander to them and make your thing mediocre in the process.

Unique things are remembered. Mediocrity seldom is.

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