Accessibility, easy mode, and the casual audience: the importance of not neglecting gaming’s entry level participants.

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I recently entered into a position where Blizzard has me completely locked down, and stuck in their twisted little maze of addiction.

You see, I’m a big fan of Overwatch. That by itself is impressive, since I’m not usually the type for competitive multiplayer games. I used to play Call of Duty 2’s online like it was a religious obligation, but I had thought I’d lost the spark necessary to enjoy those kinds of experience at some point. However, it’s hard to deny Overwatch’s sheer appeal: the fact there’s a character for pretty much every kind of player (both in terms of play style and actual characterisation) makes it hard to not get drawn into the weird and wonderful world Blizzard have created. There’s a whole plethora of reasons for Overwatch’s success, from Blizzard’s beyond perfect marketing for the game to the staggering amount of porn its fandom produces, but I believe it’s varied and fun cast is one of its biggest draws.

Indeed, it’s because of said ‘varied and fun’ characters that I found myself playing Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard, trying to maximise the most out of the millions of players they have in Overwatch, set up a cross promotion wherein your could earn new appearances for the characters if you played one of their other games, Heroes of the Storm. This isn’t the first time they had marketed something like this, but I had originally passed on the first opportunity: previously, the only prize was a skin for Genji, a character I don’t get a lot of use out of. However, the hilarity of being able to play as a 19 year old, professional gaming, mecha driving Korean girl dressed as a police officer proved too alluring to resist. Had I know that I was already caught in Blizzard’s web, I might have saved myself, but alas.

You see, it turns out that Heroes of the Storm is actually pretty fun. I was kind of surprised, since it was my first proper attempt at playing a MOBA (a brief stint in Smite being my only other experience). The ebb and flow between the minute-to-minute fights between players and trying to hold the lanes while also running after map objectives is actually pretty engaging. Engaging enough that, when I had a spare hour or two to play on something, I found myself thinking ‘do I want to play on Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm?’ It was only in that moment when I realized that Blizzard’s cross-promotional trick had worked its wicked magic. I am now alternating my time between two products from the same group, which is probably indicative that some marketing guy at Blizzard just earned a promotion much the same as an angel earning their wings.

I did, however, discover something else from this anecdote. Namely that one of the reasons Heroes of the Storm had grabbed me so much more firmly than my few experiences with other MOBAs was because it was simpler than the others in its genre. In HotS, you don’t have to worry about micro-managing a plethora of buyable items, nor even worry about your personal level, since you level up as a team. Instead of items, you’re given a list of ‘Talents’ that more strongly affect your character’s skills when you level, which streamlines the process compared to buying items. Likewise, HotS games are pretty darn short, clocking in with an average time of around 15-20 minutes, a much smaller time investment compared to others in the same genre. All of this makes it much easier for a total new-comer to enjoy Blizzard’s take on the MOBA, while still retaining a lot of the tactical depth and brutal combat that makes other MOBA’s so popular. Somebody who’s invested a lot of hours into League of Legends or Dota will probably find it somewhat underwhelming, but at the same time it has the appeal of not being as taxing as either of those games.

All of this made me think about the nature of certain games being more or less accessible (or indeed, appealing) to more entry level participants. Gaming, by its very nature, is all about over-coming some kind of obstacle or challenge. Whether that challenge is a boss, a puzzle, or indeed another player, gaming as a medium is one that puts problems in front of you so they can be solved or resolved. However, it’s important to recognise that not every player you’re trying to sell a game to will be on the same level of skill or competency. There can be an extremely wide difference in ability between any two players, and gearing your game to only serve one will naturally alienate the other. It’s probably why having the ability choose a game’s difficulty became so prevalent: by allowing the player to make their own judgement on how easy or hard a game is, they can set their own barrier of entry, which gets around many of the problems that a game’s difficulty might present.

However, I’m more interested in the games that don’t have such a simple solution, and thus have to come up with other ideas, for good or for ill. A clear case of a game that really struggled to catch the attention of a more casual audience was Street Fighter V: the game was rushed out without a story mode or an arcade mode, a fact that put a fair number of people off buying the game at launch. To their credit, Capcom were fairly transparent that they were going to do this, mostly so the game would be out in time for their own fighting tournament, but the damage was already done. While later patches would add the missing features and the game would go on to sell okay, there’s no denying that the early drought of casual players really hurt the game’s sales and reputation.

For the reverse, the Sniper Elite games are surprisingly accommodating for players of all skill types even beyond their difficulty settings. My dad doesn’t play a lot of games, and specifically avoids games that are too frantic since they take a lot out of him, but he absolutely adores the Sniper Elite games because they allow him to play at his own pace whilst still taking a fair amount of skill to complete. Indeed, the very mechanics of sneaking and sniping in the Sniper Elite franchise rewards the careful and steady strategies he employs while still allowing for the more gung-ho player (guilty as charged) to be aggressive. In addition to being fun as hell, these games are a good example of how the mechanics of game can allow for players to set their own pace.

On the other hand:

While I do think that making room for less hardcore players is generally a god thing, I’ll not totally deny the argument that some developers end up hurting their product when taking this concept too far. Making something simpler and easier to understand is worthwhile, but inevitably runs into the issue that you lose some of the nuance that you could have placed in it. Not to mention it’s a two way street: some players will be put off something if it offers absolutely no challenge (or at least no entertaining challenge), or feels ‘dumbed down.’ A game that suffered more than a little bit of this was DMC: Devil May Cry. I have a lot of “feelings” towards this game, but the only really objective one is that making the style-meter much easier to rise only hurt the game, since it no longer felt as gratifying to finally reach the S-ranks.

Likewise, sometimes it just isn’t necessary to worry about matters like this, since the game you’re making doesn’t really align itself with more casual audiences. MOBA games and Bullet Hell games are rightfully seen as games you have to invest yourself in to get the most out of them. While there are outliners that try to be a little more forgiving (HotS for MOBAs; the Touhou games are generally agreed to be more accessible, though only slightly easier), games in these genres aren’t really going to attract a large market by their nature, and instead are usually sustained by players who are already fans of the genre.

In conclusion:

Bottom line is, adding an ‘easy mode’ to something never really hurt anyone. It doesn’t necessarily fit every type of game: for example, the Dark Souls series is known for its difficulty, but they can only maintain the precarious balance of ‘tough but fair’ if they have an exact idea of what the player is coming up against. However, in many, many cases, adding a mode that lets people who need easing into a game or genuinely needed the added help never hurt the more hardcore players, since it’s a simple of matter to just not use that mode. I’ve always supported the idea that the more ways a game can offer the player to make it more fun for themselves the better, and choosing just how challenging an experience a game is makes a good example of this idea. How difficult or accessible a game is, and whether or not it is on the right side of the spectrum, will be something each player will have to decide for themselves.

Unapologetic plugging, or how I learned to stop worrying and link my content.

Hello, loyal reader, thanks for stopping by today!

For those who have been here a while, you might have noticed that we missed last week’s deadline of uploading some new content on Sunday (not that this particular blog is exactly fantastic at staying on schedule, ha).

Hopefully without sounding like I’m making too many excuses, one of the main reasons for the delay in content was that I finalising an application to the site ‘Gaming Respawn.’

I’m going to be posting some articles there from now on (which can’t be cross-posted to here), but I want to reassure that this won’t affect the upload rate from here on out: now that the application has gone through, we’ll be back to our semi-reliable schedule of one article a week every Sunday.

I also just wanted to thank everyone who’s followed the blog. It’s a small thing, but I’m super glad that some people actually enjoy reading this little collection of eclectic thoughts.

(In a final act of completely shameless self plugging, I’ll just leave the link to my spot on the website here: http://www.gamingrespawn.com/author/oliver-culling/)

Quick Review! Shadow Warrior.

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“You got Wang.”
– The protagonist, who happens to be called Wang, perfectly showing this game’s humour.

It’s always fairly surprising when a franchise that everyone thought was already long dead comes from the brink of obscurity with a new game. It’s even more surprising when it turns out that said new game is faithful to the series it’s revitalising without feeling the need to be completely the same. Shadow Warrior is, thankfully, one such game.

Shadow Warrior is one of those extremely hard to classify run-and-gun, action and exploration shooters of the early days of gaming. If you played Duke Nukem or indeed the original Shadow Warrior games, you already know what to expect from it in the game play department. However, in addition to the new coat of paint that modern hardware can give the game, Shadow Warrior also takes this chance to expand on the story and characters unlike the old games.

For the first point, let’s talk about gameplay. Shadow Warrior’s core gameplay is an extremely frantic and bloody melee, wherein Lo Wang’s (the game’s protagonist, and yes that is his name) only option of avoiding damage is to either dodge it or kill his attacker before they get the chance. Over the course of the game, you’ll be given access to a multitude of weapons, all of which will offer you new and satisfying ways to remove ‘problems’ from your forward path. However, one of the neat aspects of the game is that you can actually get by using nothing but your starting katana, mostly because it can become the deadliest weapon in your arsenal. Which is pretty impressive, considering your arsenal includes a god damn rocket launcher. Your katana eventually gets crazy useful magical attacks and powers via the games levelling and upgrade system, resulting in melee combat being as fun and viable as shooting from range.

When you’re not slaughtering your way through the hordes of enemies that want to make a mess of your day (and face, and organs, and pretty everything else) you’ll be scouring through levels looking for secrets. Secrets come in many flavours, from straight up EXP boosts, unlocking more magic powers, to pretty funny Easter eggs. Because of this, regardless of what you’re looking for, the game really does encourage upturning every rock and checking behind every corner for its secrets. In addition to all of this, the game has some really neat boss fights, and a good variety of enemy designs.

For the second point, the game’s story and narrative is actually really good. We play as one Lo Wang (seriously), a sword/gun for hire who is employed by a man by the name of Zilla. At the very start of the game, Wang is sent out to find an oddly well guarded katana; he recognises the whole situation is pretty suspicious, but he is loyal to his boss, and does everything he can to get the job done. Before too long, however, we get to the real meat of the matter: the earth becomes over run by demons from beyond our world, and the sword he was sent to find is the key to stopping earth from turning into a hellscape. To make things even more complicated, Wang picks up a sarcastic little blighter of demon called Hoji, and the sword he is looking for is actually three swords. Now, with his boss suspiciously keeping radio silence, both Wang and Hoji must try and set things right.

There are two things I really love about this game’s writing: for one, it is just pure unadulterated fun. The banter between Hoji and Wang is fantastic, and serves as the basis for many of the jokes. The game knows that it’s completely over the top in many ways, and doesn’t shy away from making cracks about the whole thing, which becomes even more hilarious when juxtaposed to the actually pretty freaky locations you often trollop through. However, it’s the other part of the story that I really admire: for all of the jokes and gags, the narrative actually has some pretty heavy moments. As you find out more about why the demons are invading earth, and more about the key figures behind this whole situation, the more it becomes clear that this isn’t necessarily a clean and simple matter. I’ve said before (here: https://oliverculling.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/an-exploration-of-tone-in-drakengard-and-nier/) that a great way to control the tone of something was to bring your audience’s guard down with something more light hearted, before hitting them with the heavy stuff, and that’s certainly done masterfully here.

While the game is great, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the levels, particularly towards the end, start to lack the openness to make exploring them fun. Early levels have a good balance of keeping the spaces open to encourage exploration, without losing the tightness of good liner level design, but later levels lack this quality. Likewise, there are a few enemies later on in the game that are more of chore to fight, rather than challenging or engaging.
A more constant headache, for me at least, was the rating system. At the end of large and major conflicts, you’re given a score of blank/5, and are rewarded with extra EXP depending on your rank. However, the scoring system isn’t really clear enough, which makes it difficult to consistently get high scores. It’s never clear if it’s more important to use a varied set of attacks and moves, or if it’s more important to clear the horde out quickly, or without taking damage, etc.

None of these points are really deal breakers, however. The game is a fun ride, with varied and fun combat and a surprisingly engaging story.  The game delivers a strong performance as a love-letter to its source material while also being fun for new and old fans alike. Jump in for a frantic sword and gun battle to the gates of hell and back, if you think you can handle the Wang.

 

Voice acted RPGs: how role-playing is both enhanced and hindered by voice acting.

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I gotta admit that I’ve got a lot of respect for Larian Studios: not only did they make a shining example of a truly deep and engaging RPG when they made Divinity: Original Sin, they proceeded to somehow make an even better version of what was already winning awards. Seriously, they made a really stellar game that fans and critics loved, pretty much everyone agreed was worth kick-starting, and then turned around and said “nah, we can do it better,” and released the Enhanced Edition. It shows a real passion for their craft that they cared enough to put so much work into making sure the game was as tight and satisfying as possible. One of the biggest changes that I didn’t expect was that they added voice acting into the game, and even more surprisingly added it without compromising on the game’s writing.

Voice acting in RPGs is kind of an odd feature, both in terms of its effects and possible consequences. It’s been around forever (Even the Zelda CD-I games had voice acting way back in 1993, though that might be the only kind thing I can say about them), but noticeably started to really pick up steam as the industry grew. Noticeably, pretty much every RPG that came from the bigger and more prominent companies has had extensive voice acting in recent years, and the amount of voice acting only seems to grow as time goes on. This is a marked change from how it used to be, where only critical NPC’s and important cut scenes had voice acting, most likely as a consequence of the games already being expensive to develop without adding what was at the time a more esoteric component. While not a 100% vital component, it sometimes feels like the bigger RPG releases have put a greater emphasis on voicing as much of the game’s dialogue as possible, even going as far to give the player character fully voiced lines.

However, this isn’t without consequence. The reason I was impressed by Divinity’s ability to put in voice acting without also flubbing up the writing was because I had kind of gotten used to RPG’s writing suffering in return for voice acting, because at times it feels like it’s an unavoidable effect. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge factor on the quality of the writing, since the actual script and scenario creators are going to have a far larger hand on a game’s writing than anything else, but it’s a noticeable effect all the same. One of the main factors for this is that rewrites become impossible beyond a certain stage: the art of writing is a really difficult and complex system, but it is made infinity harder if there’s a pressure to get it down in as few iterations as possible. If every line added needs to be fully voiced and you’re working within a deadline and a budget, there will be a pressure to make sure the writing is as good as it can be in only a few rewrites. However, as anyone who has tried to write more or less anything can tell you, creating quality writing is a process that requires a lot of rewrites (I’m not even a professional writer and the stuff I made felt like it took years off my life). Thus you enter a situation where the writers need to make sure they’re getting things as good as can be in the shortest amount of time, in a genre where the story and writing are one of the most important parts. Naturally, there’s going to be some fumbling involved.

There’s also the problem of potentially limiting the kind of characters the player can be when you have to fund voice acting for them: because the player character is going to be saying a lot through an RPG, just adding even just a single alternate race for the player to be can be expensive as heck. This is likely why games like Dragon Age: Origins have the player character be the only character without voice acting.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying it’s impossible to create an RPG wherein the writing is both voiced and great. The Witcher series, Divinity’s Enhanced Edition, and the Yakuza games are all RPGs with great writing and a ton of voice acting. Like I said, the competency of the game’s writing staff is going to be far more of a deciding factor in the matter than anything to do with the voice acting, but the presence of the latter does make it harder for less than fantastic teams. When things work out, the addition of voice acting can be a serious boon, however: giving a character a voice goes a long way to helping to actually characterise them, and thus giving every person you meet a voice helps to make the world itself feel far livelier. Giving every character a voice goes a really long way to immersing a player into a world, and when the setting is one of the selling points, that’s a valuable (if expensive) asset to have. I suppose the tricky part is getting the balance right: because it’s cheaper to use less voice actors on more characters, one could just use the Oblivion/Skyrim method of using a pretty small pool of voice actors to voice every non-important NPC. While this does mean that every character has a voice, it becomes pretty noticeable that many of them have the same voice. Other times it’s simpler to just not voice minor or non-essential characters, such as in the Yakuza and Nier series, which means their dialog can be more easily edited.

Another factor to consider is the quality of the voice acting, or more accurately how much the development team is willing to pay for higher quality. I’ve rattled on about writing and how difficult it is, but let’s take a second to actually appreciate that voice acting isn’t exactly an easy job either. There’s a reason for the recent large scale voice actors strike, and while that’s a mire of a morally grey area in which I’m reluctant to throw my hat into the ring, I will say that I understand why the voice actors felt the need for the strike. Voice acting is a pretty difficult job with a relatively low amount of recognition or payment for how much effort it requires, with only the really big names like Nolan North, Troy Baker or Jennifer Hale gaining much lee-way. To that end, it’s a pretty easy thing to do to just not throw a lot of funding into the voice acting part of development, which in turn leads to a lack-lustre or bland job being done. And let’s not even get started on the added expense of dubbing a foreign game during its translation phase: translations are an expensive thing to do for what inevitably turns out to be a relatively niche audience, so it’s no wonder that a lot of dubs of foreign games suffer somewhat (Nier: Automata is a pretty recent example of an exception to the above). Also, getting celebrities to voice characters is certainly a neat idea, but you have to beware of both budgetary issues and scheduling issues if you’re going to put them in a big role, as Bungie learned after the situation with Peter Dinklage in Destiny 1. So, in addition to the effect on the writing, it’s important to consider what the cost of the actual act of voice acting could be, and how much will be needed to be spent to make sure it’s of a sound quality.

Much like many parts of creating a video game, there’s really no ‘easy’ answer to all of this, and much like many other things we’ve talked about before it’s something that needs to be done on a case by case basis. Some games are going to really benefit from giving a lot of characters voices, even if it comes at the expense of the writing, while others can only stand on the strength of the writing, and thus can’t afford to compromise too much on adding voice acting. Personally, I’m happy to play with games in either style, but I’m also looking forward to all the weird and wonderful ideas that this industry will come up with as we struggle to find a compromise.

As always, thanks for sticking with these rambles of thought. One of my favourite parts about writing these entries is that I often collect my own thoughts on a matter with much more clarity than if I had just let the matter lie. I’m hoping that I can make them entertaining for others to read as I go, so I appreciate everyone who sticks with me as I often run through my own thoughts as much as I run through the various aspects of this industry. So here’s to you, loyal reader.