Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Balancing Obstacles vs. Payoff

In all honesty I hope your long weekend, or normal length weekend, was better than mine. For those that don't know, I have been laid up sick since about Tuesday evening when I some how managed to tweak my back in such a way that caused it to be sore/uncooperative for two days. This led directly into a bout of sickness that is reminiscent of what happened to me last October that I'm thinking it is related somehow. About the only two good points of my weekend was that on Friday I was still able to run game and the session was fun, and that I got to play through a good chunk of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for the PlayStation 3.

It is the latter that is fueling today's post.

What About The Game Is Relevant To This Blog?
In particular I want to talk about the end of the game. I haven't beaten it yet, and what I have to say contains no plot spoilers suffice to say this: on the writing alone this game is worth the play through if you enjoy the type of game. The game is very cinematic, the writing is good, the characters well realized, and the dialogue crackles. It is definitely a fun story with a complex plot and easily ranks up there with other similar stories from Hollywood (for good or bad, I guess) int he vein of Indiana Jones, National Treasure, and other "treasure hunting" movies.

However, one aspect I don't like about the game is that over the last few levels (I'm fairly certain I'm on the final level) that the game is just padding out the length and difficulty for no reason. Guns, which already feel weak against enemies but ridiculously strong against the player, do even less against the new bad guys (who, at least story wise, are also highly resilient.) The "normal" bad guys who show up are also equipped with a lot cheaper weapons. Bringing RPGs and other one shot kill weapons to bare quite frequently which can lead to cheap and unavoidable deaths as the second Drake moves out of cover he gets hit by 4 rockets, 2 shotguns, a crossbow, and the incredible hulk.

Now I don't want to come across as simple whining, and I know at least some people will read this and say I'm bad at videogames (I probably am) and stuff like that, but I want to point out that I am not adverse to challenging or hard gameplay. I've beaten Ninja Gaiden Black on Ninja Master mode, and I rather enjoy the entire Devil May Cry series (save for 2) for the challenge and hard obstacles those games can bring. However, when my character can only carry 5 magazines of ammunition for his assault rifle, and emptying 4 magazines into one enemy (of which there are more than 4 running around of) does nothing, I'm left wondering what the point is. To give a different example of scale, there was recently a set piece battle where Drake takes out a tank with 4-6 RPGs. Seems reasonable right? Well, there are 2 single enemy types that show up in 2s or 3s that each take 2-3 RPGs a piece to take down. The number of RPGs lying around has not increased to similar levels of availability either to compensate, and probably by design to make the "end game" harder. Only, to me, it feels cheap and padded which is a problem.

Ok, But Why Does This Matter?
The reason this matters is because it is a balancing act that needs to be handled, and differently depending on the medium your story is being told in. In a movie or book the fighting, desperation, and scarcity of valid tactics would be mentioned but ultimately expected to be glossed over to get on to the meaningful conflict and the "story paydirt." However in a game, both videogames and RPGs, the expectation seems to be that it is ok/better to have the players actually fight through that to get to the end game. Why? Maybe more so in videogames where ammo can be freely dropped along with health kits and checkpoints for retries, but it does happen in RPGs a lot too.

Why is this? Well, my theory is because the game has to exist as a game and as a story. As such the challenges and obstacles are viewed as "raw gameplay" and something to be embraced. This isn't even a necessarily bad though, but before you go blindly doing it you need to understand what kind of game you are running.

Well, I'll use videogames for my examples here to keep the discussion on the same medium but remember these terms can apply to RPGs too. In the vein of action games we have games like Uncharted where the point of the game seems to be to tell a cinematic action/adventure story through a videogame. Then there are games like Ninja Gaiden Black and Devil May Cry where the story is there to give a reason to the action of the videogame. Essentially one game is focused more on story (the cinematic, the characters, the big set piece events) while the other is focused on the gameplay and the challenge of beating the game.

You can generally tell the two games a part by  where the game focuses the majority of its TLC. Does the plot seem reasonably well researched (at least to get key points in place) with strong cutscenes, good dialogue, and lots of big set pieces? Probably the first game. Does the game focus on tight controls, high reaction times, and the only thing keeping your face from the floor being your skill at manipulating the protagonist in fights? Probably the second.

Now in the second what I am talking about isn't padding. it is the point of the game. The payoff for that game is in beating it. In overcoming the challenge. The story, while we might be invested in it, is secondary to the gameplay and people are playing it for that reason. Very few people picked up Devil May Cry for the story. I know, I'm one of the few people I know that is super huge into videogame stories, even bad stories like told in Devil May Cry, and I don't buy those games for just the story. You buy them for the gameplay and thechallenge.

In the first game though it is the opposite. People don't buy the game for the gameplay. The focus isn't on that, even if it can be fun. People buy it for the set pieces, the story, to see what happens. The pay off is in the emotional pay off in the story, not necessarily in overcoming the challenge of a big fight (though sometimes that does happen, just as the inverse can happen for the previous game type.)

Ok, And the Point?
This ultimately comes down to the point of ballancing challenge andobstacles versus payoff. Now, granted I am sick, but I've debated not finishing Uncharted 2 because I am getting tired of the game stalling out on the payoff. While the story is good I am not seeing how it could be worth what the game is putting me through to get to that point. It isn't unique or complex enough for me to not already know the end (Drake wins, bad guy dies, and we end with a scene of folks sailing off into the sunset perhaps with some stolen goods to make it worth their wallets time.) This is not what the game designer wants to happen. And if you are the GM it is not what you want to happen in your game.

The obstacles and challenge have to match the payoff. If you are running a pure combat game, that is easy. The payoff is in the victory. If you are running a more story focused game, then be prepared to fuzz some things or gloss them on the side to keep the focus where it belongs. Otherwise you can end up with disappointed players who don't see the point in continuing on.

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