…and a bunch of random ideas about game design and play
I considered not posting this. It’s not as relevant to game design as I usually like (and videogames aren’t really the focus of this blog – Thoth). On the other hand, I like Elder Scrolls. OK, I couldn’t actually play Arena or Daggerfall. I had to content myself with a buggy demo of the latter. But it’s an interesting series. Heck, I’d like to propose a book deal to Bethesda just because I want to write the Elder Scrolls RPG.
So here are a few odd notes about the upcoming Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. I’m not going to turn this into a review of Oblivion. However, I will start with a few notes on Oblivion, and why I want to see an awful lot change.
Oblivion was the long-awaited sequel to Morrowind. It released to rave, rave reviews. Unfortunately, it’s not so hot once you’ve played for a while.
Oblivion is simply shallow. You’ve covered almost all the content within a few hours of play. Admittedly, those hours are incredible. But once you start peeling back the mask you find a world with far less depth than Morrowind. They kept almost everything on the surface, but erased most of the really good aspects. The world, though slightly larger in the “physical” sense, was a lot less interesting. The key here is more: Of almost any mechanical or technical measure comparing Oblivion and Morrowind, Oblivion had more. More NPC’s, more area, more monsters, more stuff, more decoration.
But it wound up doing far less. Oblivion featured far fewer options or interesting places, people, and events. For every 1% improvement in scale, they removed 2% from quality. From the terrible interface to the annoying interactions, it wound up lousy.
So here, in no particular order, are my top suggestions for Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. I know flat out that this isn’t going to help, because it’s highly doubtful they’d listen to me or notice this on a blog devoted to tabletop RPGs. It probably doesn’t help that the game is scheduled to release in only seven months.
But on the other hand, I can also link these ideas to ongoing general design issues and suggestions. These will show up in boxes below.
Bring back spears! I like stabbing people with long pointing things. It makes me feel good somehow. Even if you don’t fight with them, spears (or javelins or darts) would be a handy tool for some characters trying to play a barbarian hero. It’s quite a classic weapon. Throwing weapons, possibly included under whatever skill knives go into, would be nice.
There actually is a reason for this. Until fairly recently, each generation of games aimed to add more options, choices, and possibilities. Sometimes things reset, or a particularly good game focused on a few elegant tools. But in the main, you got to do more. Oblivion inverted this by removing an awful lot. No levitation, no spears, crossbows or thrown weapons. Fewer skills, fewer options. Few NPC’s with something to say, and fewer small quests for fun. Fewer interactions. Now is a good time to start turning that around.
More is usually better. It can make things more difficult – a hundred weapons are harder to make useful and distinct than three. Five thousand spells are harder to separate than twenty. But people very rarely complain about more options.
Graphics are all nice and all, but make sure the art department is up to the task. I really don’t care that much about random rocks, but please do look at your NPC bodies and faces. No graphical failure in your game matters as much as the way characters look, and Oblivion had some, err, ever-so-slight difficulties there. People notice the way faces work. It’s hardwired in. You just have to deal with that. I don’t mind having some ugly people, but you really stopped thinking of the freaky flat mutant face people in Oblivion as real after a rather short time. Likewise, it should not be too much to ask for NPC’s bodies to move in a halfway-natural fashion.
And secondly, do some testing on your shaders. I’m tired of slowdown. This has gotten better, but the lack of support for basic functionality is a longtime “feature” of the Elder Scrolls series. And the best version of the game is the more-vulnerable PC and not the easier-to-test X-Box.
Take a look at World of Warcraft for comparison. They know how to set a scene. You’ll find dramatic vistas, but often running on surprisingly little hardware. They know what to spend time and CPU cycles on, and what to let slide. They know how and where to use color. These skills aren’t easy to acquire, but they’re vitally important in such a visual medium as games.
Obviously, this doesn’t precisely apply to anything but video games. But it does apply in terms of description. Some GM’s actually tend to leave out any description, but I believe a little scene-setting is priceless. (I’m also terrible at it and wind up monologuing endlessly.) Still, focus your description in the important parts. A loving depiction of the intricate vast vault of the ancient dwarven kingdom – good if the room itself is important. Focusing on the depiction if there’s a huge dragon in the middle – bad.
Yes, we have complications and exceptions. You could relax tension by using distraction humor: “There’s blah blah blah vast vault blah blah intricate detail blah blah and a dragon blah enormous pile of glittering treasure.” Sometimes you even trick the players into forgetting about the dragon, causing all kinds of chaos. But don’t do it often.
I know consoles still have issues with memory management, but you need to find a way to put in cities and towns larger than a postage stamp. Give it some streets and scale there, even if there’s some empty spaces and uninteresting houses scattered about. That’s OK: it’s a world. Not every little corner is interesting. You might be surprised as to what players do with it. And if you can’t, then put in an option for PC’s to remove some arbitrary loading barriers.
Complicating what I just said, make sure you add some extraneous details. You never know what fun detail may start the players on a completely new idea or adventure. The mighty, world-spanning heroes may just decide one day that they like the poor fishmonger’s daughter and go to ludicrous lengths to get her a good husband. Or the sneaky cyberpunk mercenaries might suddenly opt to help a local charity, just because.
Put in meaningful storylines that don’t end when you reach the arbitrary “top rank”. This was a problem in Morrowind and Oblivion. Once you reached the top tier the fun was over and you could just go home. There’ wa no ongoing involvement with it. It’s great that I can aspire to becomes the grandmaster thief. But maybe I want to play *as* the grandmaster thief and suggest houses for the minions to rob. Maybe I want to lord it over the other fighters or go on a grand adventure with them. Maybe as the mightiest wizard in the land I like the idea of exploring mystic secrets made available to me or following up on rumors the lesser spellcasters pass along, or even teaching them myself.
The point is that there’s a lot to do and reaching top rank should feel like a reward, but one which brings responsibilities and new opportunities. Sure, no game is completely endless, but it doesn’t need to just stop once you’ve got a pretty, but meaningless title.
This is easier to manage in Pen n’ Paper, of course. As long as people play the game, they often want some kind of advancement, whether mechanical or social or whatever. The characters, after all, are great heroes and champions. The game doesn’t need to simply stop becuase the character got to “max” level. Continue the system or find another way to advance in whatever fashion they like.
Player housing is all the rage, and it’s easy to see why. People like stuff, and getting that cool mansion or castle is a great way to show progress in a game. I commend Morrowind and Oblivion for paving the way. However, a few pointers:
- Location, location, location(s). And style. In Oblivion all you got was a lousy little shack in the big Imperial City, and that was down in the beggar’s den. Several other houses weren’t much to talk about, either. Players should have some upscale options. This is all to the good: you can round out a city with a few houses to buy and/or rent out to NPC’s, while offering the players some choice for very little investment.
- Give people locations to display their stuff and good ways to do it. I always liked having a well-stocked library, but arranging books with the wacky physics engines in Oblivion and Morrowind made that impractical. Armor and weapons display stands are also pretty cool, and I’d like to see one which let you collect one of everything just to show it off. People liked that kind of thing and made many mods to do it. I’d also like to see gardens for my alchemy supplies and things: a quest to collect seeds would rock!
- Have some minor bonus about any special home. I’m not talking about character bonuses, just a small convenience for the player. If they can put in a fixed Alchemy or Enchanting stations or something like that, they have a nice good reason to drop by frequently.
- Involve the player in quests and little daily life vignettes. There’s all kinds of ideas – everything from a neighborhood watch showing up to a neighborhood murder to secret chambers to political factors. NPC’s should treat the player like he moved in. Some won’t like him and some may want to involve him in things. Again, not every location needs this kind of involvement, but it’s nice to have the odd event.
- Let people upgrade them. oddly enough, players seem to love upgrading their stuff. As long as it offers some minor benefit and fits the above, upgradable housing works really well as a motivating factor.
Let’s break this down for general design principles:
1) If you build up a location as important, players will love reaching it, or being known there, or rejoice when the King grants them some land in the fertile upcountry, or whatever.
2) …has nothing whatsoever to do with non-video game design.
3) (See #5, below)
4) Depending on your group, having some small everyday issues now and then may make the game more comfortable or real to them.
5) Lots of little upgrades of gifts, which add up over time, are better than huge upgrades now and then. Not that you should never have big upgrades, but having many small ones hands you a very useful tool for motivating players.
More mystery. Quests in Oblivion and Morrowind tended to be pretty straightforward. You were told to go somewhere, kill or fetch something, and come back for a reward. Surprises were not part of the package. That probably ought to change. Not every quest needs to be that unusual, but they should have some hidden options, changing conditions, and results-based solutions.
Hidden options were well-represented in Morrowind and some questlines of Oblivion (the Dark Brotherhood especially). Oftentimes you could get through a quest, or a significant part of it, by stealing, persuasion, or killing – even if that wasn’t the goal. Sometimes there were cross-questline options or complications (the Morrowind Fighters and Thieves’ guild mess was a fun example). In fact, something of this sort should almost always been present, to make sure there’s a back path available if you don’t fulfill the primary method of the quest. But more than that, they’re fun. Finding them based off little hints or exploration is pretty cool. You shouldn’t be beaten over the head with the option, but it’s always nice to get rewards for interaction with the gameworld.
Changing conditions were not all that common for whatever reason. Rarely did you start a quest expecting one enemy or situation and then found you were sorely mistaken. Part of this is Oblivion’s level scaling and dungeon design, which encouraged a lot of bland samey-encounters. Did you really care if you were facing Marauders or Bandits? But these are really good and important, because they heavily impact the experience of the world. Quests should often hand out decent information, perhaps even including maps or estimates of the oppositions, more than they do now.
After all, if the quest-giver has that information available, he’d be crazy not to give it to me. Now if the quest-giver doesn’t have that information, then they should admit it, or the writer should know why the NPC gets it wrong – and your character’s journal or other quest text may comment on it. Even better, sometimes the quest-giver may have a hidden motivation, which may include sending you to your death, or have a personality which makes them lie or deceive. All good, as far as the player is concerned…
Results-based questing is fun, too. This is sometimes done well and sometimes not. I don’t mind if a quest for a rare treasure requires that one specific treasure. But probably your earlier quests shouldn’t require the Five Legendary Flowers (or perfectly ordinary flowers of which there happen to be exactly five in only one location). Just let me buy or find five flowers. Likewise, if a quest requires I kill somebody, the game should definitely ask one thing: is the guy dead?
If a specific method is demanded, then not only should that method be a fun change-up, it MUST have an impact on the storyline of the quest. If I bump off a master thief with a rare poison, then it should be organic to the storyline and finishing the quest “right” means I’m not suspected of the murder. If you turn around and all my efforts go for nothing, I’m going to be upset. If I haul off and decapitate him, that could either weaken my position or result in failing the quest or questline. Maybe I take his place, but I have fewer friendly NPC’s and miss several quests, or I am expelled from the Thieves’ Guild. Or whatever. You can rarely get away with it, but the player is even more rarely fooled. Instead, the player is annoyed that he went to a great deal of trouble and got nothing.
More responsiveness. Responsiveness is tough. Brutally tough. It demands that you have NPC’s who are “smart” enough, or program with enough triggers, to respond to what the player does. Stealing is one annoyingly complex area – it looks normal until you find NPC’s that go crazy when you take something which shouldn’t belong to them, or anyone (but might be registered as owned for whatever reason). And then you can have weird player behaviors they should really talk about, like players standing on tables or poking people with forks. But this of course demands a LOT of minor work, such as voices and AI debugging, in addition to the basic program. And let’s not even discuss the weirdness which results from NPC’s conflicting with each other.
As an alternative, you can opt for less interaction this way. That’s no sin: you recognize there’s only so much AI work you can effectively accomplish without stripping other behaviors. That’s fine. Gothic did very well with some amusing cross-controlled behaviors and quest triggers. Act in the right way at the right time, and some helpful event triggered for you (often through dialogue). This was certainly annoying to program, but it likely didn’t take that much effort and was a lot easier to debug. And there’s nothing wrong with it. They gave the world a lot of verisimilitude* at a moderate cost. As an upside, nobody expects your NPC’s to react realistically in such a simulation. The less stress we put on the uncanny valley, the better. You can do that either by rising out of it or backing away from it; they both work.
*I’ve always wanted to use that word and finally had a chance.
Change things. I mean, really change things.
Yes, this is hard. Showing the impact of the player’s actions is tough, painfully so. And it’s something that Oblivion did better than Morrowind and which I want done even more.
Change things. Towns can be ended, period, full stop. Lives destroyed. Quests stopped cold and messy. Stores shut down. Storylines stopped. But also stories fulfilled. The player is develop his or her (let’s face it: mostly his) own story here. The ability to fail or succeed and have that represented in the game world is utterly priceless.
Having NPC’s die is pretty cool. No problem there. But take it to the next level. What happens to the *world* when events and characters change? We do have ways to represent that: changing equipment or clothing and moving them to new locations. While I liked some aspects of Radiant AI, I felt it needed some more definition and conversation snippets. These don’t need to be very significant – Gothic used some pretty vague tidbits, often designed as “half-heard comments” to make the world pretty real. Changing what you overhear and where is a great way to handle things.
Setting the mood is as important as showing players the reuslts of their actions. It’s also a bit more troublesome in pen n’ paper games. Players may move around constantly and display remarkably ingenuity in making absolutely certain that no one ever knows about them or has any reason to notice them.
If you have DLC (I expect you will) make it worthwhile. The trend towards small DLC is annoying. I don’t blame you for wanting to cash in with some cheap (but very profitable) items, but it has led to a situation where expansions are very small and trivial, don’t add much actual content, and ultimately feel hollow. Follow in the footsteps of World of Warcraft: they have room for Star Pony and big content upgrades like Cataclysm. In fact, Oblivion wasn’t a terrible model here. I have other issues to Oblivion, but the DLC situation was perfectly sensible: a broad mix of add-ons and fun stuff (the store page is and was awful, however).
However, do not follow in Bioware’s increasingly awful trail by putting in shallow content and then demanding more money for it. It’s tacky and obnoxious to the extreme, and smacks of being so greedy you can’t see past the end of your wallet. In any event, if you anger your customer’s enough. you’re probably going to see people rip your content and redistribute it free whereas people line up to buy cool expansions a la Bloodmoon and Shivering Isles. And ultimately they can do it themselves if they really wish.
I consider making a long, rambling statement of how this really meant that butterflies were the eptiome of Buddhist Nirvana. But I’ll just let it stand for itself.
Morality in games is a tough cookie. For all that a great many people rant and rail about the evils of morality meters (a la Knights of the Old Republic‘s Dark/Light side meter), they have one huge advantage: they’re clear and let you play a distinct character. You can be a great hero or a wicked villain.
Things aren’t so easy with open-world games. For one, they usually don’t have a clear good/evil dichotomy. For another, it’s hard to see why people do the things they do. In one Oblivion quest, I went about freeing some ogres from captivity when I attacked and killed a guard. The question of why I did so is crucial. I killed the guard because I was on the ogres’ side, because he didn’t have any lawful authority to enslave ogres, and because these particular ogres weren’t my enemy (in the preceding game, slavery was legal and I didn’t massacre slavers). I could just as easily have done the same for Dunmer, the world’s dark elves – although ogres, being politer and better-looking than Dumner, have the edge.
Nevertheless, I was notified that dark powers had seen my wicked deed and was promptly contacted for recruitment into the guild of assassins. This was an interesting result. I had, true, started a fight and killed a man. He was also about a half-step to the side (not up or down) from a common bandit. I’m not even saying I’d go kill slavers simply because they are slavers: slavery is a complicated institution which has not been the same everywhere. But these were aggressive, cruel, and selfish people who explicitly captured their prisoners, outside the law and society.
Things got odd in the follow-up Dark Brotherhood questline. In fact, it’s the only outright evil quest in the game. The Thieves’ guild sees you stealing (but rather minimally, and most of it concerns manipulating magical law) and acting all Robin Hood. The Fighter’s Guild has you fall into a bad situation while ending a terrible threat. The Mages Guild semi-forces you to support a jerk who created his own enemies in order to stop those enemies from doing Very Bad Things. Yet you can always feel like the hero. Even if you don’t like every step, you have at least reasons to assist. Not so much the Dark Brotherhood.
Things might be different if it *were* a brotherhood. You have other members, who are rather interesting characters. You also kill them all. This is the one flaw of the otherwise very interesting questline: Choice in how you complete your quests but not in what you do. You don’t get to work with your clan brothers. You don’t interact all that much. You do betray them (pointlessly).
Down the line, you may well have no reason to continue, and the game doesn’t let you end it on your terms. Given that the questline ends with a confrontation with the mysterious Night Mother, whom you may have very good reasons for killing, it would seem like logical option. Nope. Not present.
This points to a subtle issue in Oblivion. Give me choices about how to end things as well as accomplish them. Going back to the start of this section, think about the Morag Tong quests and the Dark Brotherhood. The Morag Tong was an assassin’s guild. But it was morally ambiguous. They killed people, sometimes for relatively little reason. But they kept down the level of brutality and warfare. You could do the kills at your leisure. You weren’t judged and no motive was assigned, even implicitly. You could end the quest-chain in several ways and at several points. The differences are subtle. But you still choose them: it’s your life to live.
The Dark Brotherhood quests are not like that. They’re full of cartoon villains sneering as they dispatch you on errands of murder. You hang out with people who gush about the wonders of killing. You’re assumed to have no loyalty, no mercy, and no humanity. You can’t change the end result of any quest. You can’t choose to fight the Night Mother.
And worst of all, this was the best Oblivion could do. Bad as the Dark Brotherhood line was, the others were still worse.
Short version: No railroading. If you must railroad, make bloody sure it’s what the player would reasonably want to do anyway. And once you’ve shoved the player into a task or role, be prepared to accept whatever decision the player makes about how to accomplish the task – or avoid it.
Oblivion dungeons tended to be rather insane. They were disturbingly similar in size and layout, being mostly a maze of twisted passageways, all alike. At no point was there any implication that it was anything other than a random dungeon, a fact attested to by the obnoxiously metagame enemy placement. Seriously, do we honestly want enemies restlessly pacing about their room or corridor day and night, the dungeon being a long line of corridors opening into rooms and then continuing into more corridors. Sure, I don’t mind if a bound Daedra (demon, more or less) stand around annoyed for a few centuries. But human enemies in dungeons should have the same vitality of people in the cities.
Likewise, dungeons should clearly have a purpose, which must be backed up by the design. A cave can meander aimlessly and have useless dead ends. If inhabited, I fully expect people to lay out their bedrolls wherever comfortable. In a tomb, you may see a fairly linear design (and most tombs would be rather small). In an actual prison of some sort, the design should favor that: blocks of cells, with rooms set up as facilities for cooking or bathing. Where do the guards sleep? Do they just squat about in the darkness holding torches? A tower should have windows and a design that says, “Hey, we’re in a tower!”
In short, design for most buildings should be tight, like any actual space people live in and use. I know that’s not a trivial design consideration. Smaller stages mean more happening in a smaller area, makes it easier for the player to be mobbed by multiple guards, and so forth. But consider the fun angle. Realistic design could make stealth more fun and organic to the play experience. It would make planning fights more important, and I’d love to see players deliberately luring enemies and ambushing them.
As a consequence, you may want to lower the difficulty of most enemies. I think Oblivion overshot things by continuing poor design choices in character development. The game tended to challenge you at a level designed for characters with the best they could reasonably have. This was a huge problem for characters not built for direct combat. Lowering the challenge could have some good effects. Characters built for combat will tend to grind through enemies more quickly, but without speeding their progression by much. Other characters won’t require constant healing, and characters can more easily push on to advanced content as they get ready.
Further, and most important, it ups the distinction between enemies. Any place you went in Oblivion had enemies who were roughly equal. to you You didn’t see much difference between “strong” and “weak” enemies. (Alright, rats still showed up, but everything else was pretty consistent from stage to stage – always set for your level). But even if you have strong level scaling, you should have a lot more difference from one enemy to the next. They should have more differences in hit points, weaponry, gear and defenses, and spells. This is all good to vary, simply because people vary. It makes players more alert and interested when the bandit chief is relatively weak (because he’s a charismatic leader), but is backed up by his tough bodyguard. On the way in, the bandits are notably weaker than average (they’re poorly armed and trained), but a few more experienced raiders round out the group.
Short version: variety is the spice of life. It’s not just dungeons: players should always be taught to expect the unexpected, unless they work very hard at researching and anticipating events. In Shadowrun, this is called legwork. In D&D, it might involve following up rumors and using divination. But basically, not every enemy is the same, or what was expected. Traps may be unusual. The players’ goals might have been moved or changed somehow.
Don’t use this to simply massacre the players. Some enemies should be weaker than expected. Some should have different abilities. Heck, if you find them getting a little bored or distracted, have one enemy panic and use a last ditch magic item for some impressive effect. When they realize they face foes actually doing things beyond Move/Attack actions, they’ll spark up.
Now we come to a more specific concept. Some people hated the idea of the Compass, and complained about it in practice. Personally, I think the compass is a great substitute any time you need directions and there’s no reason you wouldn’t have them.
But what if players had to earn it?
Think about The Legend of Zelda. The various treasures meant something because they weren’t handed to you. Each tool opened up more of the world or made life easier, so you really rejoiced when you finally got your hands of the compass or the flippers.
That’s no small benefit to the game as a whole. It also allows players who want the things to get them, but players who don’t can simply ignore the item (this being an open-world game).
In short, it’s a fun way to add content without a lot of extra work, give players a sense of accomplish and improvement more than a mere weapon or even a house.
You can work into any setting if you like. Depending on the setting, the players may have it available for free right at the start if they bother to think. A modern campaign, much less a super-tech one, could easily have hyper-connected computers the size of smart phones. Players can put in maps, connect to instant sources of information, and so on.