The Great RPG Combat Problem

by Dan H

Dan Responds to an RPS Article
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So I was poking around our archives when I stumbled upon Kyra's article about Dragon Age II, which in a roundabout way led to my reading an article over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun about skippable combat, which expands on (or perhaps I should say reiterates) a suggestion made by Jennifer Hepler some six years ago, that video games should have a “skip” option for combat just like they do for dialogue.

Hepler's original quote goes like this (quoting extensively, partly for context, and partly because the original is a little tricky to find with the wayback machine):
If you could tell developers of games to make sure to put one thing in games to appeal to a broader audience which includes women, what would that one thing be?
A fast-forward button. Games almost always include a way to "button through" dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don't enjoy listening to dialogue and they don't want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you're a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can't have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.

This puts me in a difficult position. The thing is, Jennifer Hepler gets a lot of shit – she's a woman in the games industry, and the games industry is notoriously misogynistic. Unfortunately (as the above interview attests) she also has exactly the kind of attitude to games and gaming which, if she was a man, I would say made me want to punch her in the teeth. In the same interview, when asked what she likes least about the games industry, her response is “playing the games”. Now I absolutely believe that the games industry needs more diversity, and I absolutely believe that gamer culture in general needs to be more accepting of people with differing backgrounds, viewpoints and preferences, but I'm really not sure that this acceptance has to extend to “people who don't like playing games.”

Sorry, I'm digressing. Worse, I'm mostly digressing into apologia out of a morbid fear of coming across as sexist. Coming back to the original point, John Walker on RPS (citing Jennifer Hepler who works for Bioware) suggests that there is no reason RPGs shouldn't let you press x to skip combat just like they do for dialogue. To make sure I practice equal-opportunities quoting, here's what Walker says on the subject:

What’s interesting is the primary response seems to be extraordinarily defensive. “But that’s not the point of the game!” they cry. “You may as well watch a film if all you want is a story!” And it’s not even the poorness of those arguments that’s the issue here. What’s so strange is that people are arguing at all. Because to say, “I would like it if combat could be skipped” is not the same as saying, “You HAVE TO skip all the combat in a game or we’ll kill your parents.” But the only rationale I can find for why people are so incredibly angry or upset by the possibility of Escape’s powers working elsewhere is because they’re perceiving it as an infringement of their own potential enjoyment of a game.

The thing is, on the face of it, the Walker/Hepler position is a not-entirely unreasonable response to the Great RPG Combat Problem. RPG combat very, very frequently sucks. It's almost always unbalanced, frustrating, and just plain boring. I can count on the fingers of one hand the RPGs in which I have found the combat remotely entertaining (Fallout 1&2 because sniper rifles to the crotch never stop being cool, World of Warcraft because it's all about the combat, Star Wars: the Old Republic insofar as it is similar to World of Warcraft).

So what's wrong with the suggestion?

Faulty Analogies and False Premises

The most important point is this: skipping combat is fundamentally unlike skipping dialogue for one very simple reason, combat is interactive. It might be boring, but it is still an element of gameplay in the way that dialogue is not.

Let me be more specific, it is still an element of gameplay in the way that the parts of dialogue that you can skip are not.

The “skippable combat” argument is predicated on the assertion that “all” (or at least “many” or “most”) RPGs allow you to “skip” dialogue. This is flatly untrue. Many RPGs allow you to click a button to skip voice acting, and obviously nobody is going to hold a gun to your head to force you to read dialogue text, but the moment you actually have to say something, pressing “escape” will get you nothing but an irritating setback. You can “skip” dialogue only insofar as you can avoid reading it, you can't get what skippable combat would give you – which is a means to get some or all of the benefits of a particular gameplay element without engaging in that gameplay element. You do not, for example, get the option to click a button in Dragon Age and have the game auto-select the dialogue options that give you the best rewards.

All that “skipping” dialogue really allows you to do is to control the pace at which you go through the dialogues in the game. The dialogues themselves are every bit as mandatory as the fights, and the pace of the fights can be controlled perfectly well by simply adjusting the difficulty setting (I wonder, incidentally, how many people who claim not to care about RPG combat would never the less baulk at playing the game on “easy” - I suspect that for most their investment in the story comes a distant second to their investment in their gamer-cocks).

And yes, Walker is right that “why not just watch a movie” is a bad, hyperbolic argument, but it isn't quite as unfounded as it seems. Obviously a game doesn't need to have combat to have gameplay elements, many games get away perfectly well without having any combat at all, but the “why can you skip dialogue and not combat” argument fails to distinguish between those elements of a game in which the player is a passive recipient of content, and one in which they actively engage with it. It is the failure to make this distinction, rather than the desire to avoid combat, which makes me think that people who want skippable combat really would be better off watching a movie.

Here are the things which John Walker insists you miss out on by skipping the dialogue in Dragon Age:

The idea that someone would play the utterly brilliant Dragon Age and skip the conversations feels monstrous to me. Miss out on all the amazing jokes with Alistair? Skip over the scathing sarcasm of Morrigan? Fail to outrageously flirt with Zevran? Let alone not reading the Codex, and learning of the thousands of years of history that precede the events in which you’re taking part? But… but… BUT! That would ruin the game!


And he's right. It would. It would completely ruin the game. Except that clicking through dialogue and not reading the Codex causes you to miss out on exactly none of those things. (I'd also point out that “not reading the codex” is an entirely passive way of avoiding content, the combat equivalent of “not reading the codex” is “not scouring locations for enemies to fight” something which is, once again, already possible in all RPGs).

In my (admittedly abortive) playthrough of Dragon Age (abortive, ironically, because I found the combat tedious and the dungeons badly designed – again I note that this is not a problem that would be fixed by making them skippable – I don't want no combat, I want better combat) I read none of the Codex and skipped most of the dialogue but I missed none of the things Walker cites above. All of the important backstory comes out in other ways, and much of it is available online and in other sources outside the game. You get to hear Alistair's jokes and Morrigan's sarcasm just by having them in your party, and when you do get into dialogue (and you do, because it is mandatory) you don't have to listen to the full voice-acted line to know exactly what the character has said, and you certainly don't need to read through every single line of filler dialogue, in which the characters tell you what weapons they're skilled with or what their prestige class is, in order to understand their personality. And you most definitely don't lose anything by escaping out of a line of dialogue that you have already read and only clicked on by accident.

At most, the difference between “skipping” dialogue and lovingly listening to every syllable of it is the difference between playing on the highest and lowest difficulty settings. You lose out on an element of gameplay, but you get something similar and easier to swallow. Assuming the game is well designed, the combat and the dialogue are both necessary parts of the whole game, and while it is perfectly reasonable to have options to emphasise or de-emphasise one or other of those elements, the game (if it is well designed) would not function if you had the option to remove one element completely. An RPG would not be an RPG if you completely removed all of the NPC interactions and cutscenes, but nor would it be one if you removed all of the “RPG elements” (which in modern video game language basically means “Experience Points and Stuff You Buy With Experience Points).

The whole attitude reminds me unfavourably of the kind of nonsense you'd get in 1990s Vampire: the Masquerade sourcebooks – it seems to be based on the assumption that video games consist of “story” and “other stuff” and that the mark of a truly sophisticated consumer of games is a desire to pay as little attention to the “other stuff” as possible. Of course in reality this isn't how it works – all of the stuff you do in a game is part of the story. It might be a badly handled part of the story, but part of the story it is never the less.

To put it another way, it reminds me a lot of the very problem that John Walker himself identifies as causing problems in Dragon Age II, the idea that the only parts of the game that matter are the parts that happen in cutscenes. Yes, it's true that fights in RPGs are frequently meaningless busywork, but this is a design failure, not an engine problem. It only makes sense to allow players to skip fights if you assume that the combat segments of the game ultimately don't mean anything and in a well designed RPG that should not be the case.

Issues of Implementation

There is a game (a pen and paper RPG) called Trail of Cthulhu. Trail of Cthulhu is based on an older, more popular game, called Call of Cthulhu. Call of Cthulhu is famous for several reasons, partly for being (according to some people) “the only RPG for grown-ups”, partly for having an astoundingly high PC death rate, and partly for it being notoriously easy for a single bad dice roll to screw an entire scenario. This last “feature” comes about because far too many Call of Cthulhu scenarios hinge on a single, vital piece of evidence which the scenario mandates a skill check to locate. Trail of Cthulhu solves this problem by never requiring skill checks to find clues, but many people (myself included) feel that this applies a system-design solution to a scenario-design problem.

If RPG combat is unappealing to some people there are two solutions for those people. The first is to make combat more appealing, the second is to include less damned combat (or indeed no combat, adventure games get by perfectly well without combat systems, RPGs could do the same). The answer is not to turn the escape key into a literal I-Win button.

Part of Walker's argument, and the part that seems most superficially convincing, is that it should make no difference to my experience of the game whether or not somebody else uses the skip-combat button. This is simply untrue. The features available in a game affect your experience whether you use them or not. This is true for a great many reasons, partly it's true because it affects the way the developers spend their resources – it is not unreasonable to worry that if combat becomes skippable, designers will worry less about balancing combat or making combat something other than the tedious speedbump it already so often is.

More importantly, though, it's true because there is a genuine difference between an option that you have but don't use, and an option you simply don't have. Imagine for a moment a version of Chess in which either player, on their turn, can simply declare checkmate regardless of the state of the board. Now two players could come to an agreement not to exploit this rule, but including the rule fundamentally changes the character of the game, because either player can choose at any moment to exploit an unfair but utterly game-mechanically mandated advantage.

You get similar problems in a single-player game. If a single player RPG contains a spell, or a build, or some other element which makes the game trivial, then that is (for many people) detrimental to the game. Yes, you can choose to (for example) play Jade Empire without exploiting the completely absurd stunlocks or the mostly invulnerable Jade Golem Form, but many people (dare I say most people) would rather not have to make the conscious choice. A game which is only challenging if you play it with one hand tied behind your back is simply not challenging, and for people who want a challenge that is a serious issue.

Another analogy Walker uses is to compare skippable combat to – of all things – cheats. It is nobody else's business, he observes, if a particular person chooses to play Skyrim with a no-clipping cheat on because they prefer to walk through walls than to navigate dungeons. This is true so far as it goes, but what he is suggesting goes significantly further. It is the equivalent, in fact, of having “activate no clipping” as a default gameplay option. Yes, this might make it mildly easier to navigate dungeons, but does it really make for a better game overall? I'd also point out that if we throw cheats into the mix then once again, skippable combat already exists. I've been known to use console commands to get past particularly annoying battles in Neverwinter Nights for example.

Skippable combat in an RPG could work one of two ways. Firstly, it could work like the autoresolve feature in a strategy game (like, say, the Total War series), but for that to be the case it would need to come with a genuine possibility of your character dying in an autoresolved combat, which would undermine the whole point and could potentially lead to a horribly frustrating gameplay experience (particularly if it actually put the game in an unwinnable state). Alternatively, it could genuinely just skip the combat entirely, assuming that your party won the combat regardless. This second option would render the entire combat element of the game pointless. It would, in fact, be exactly the same as the chess game in which the players have the right to declare checkmate at any time. If the player can simply declare victory in any combat, a massive part of the entire RPG experience (at least as it presently exists) becomes moot.

Something I find particularly absurd in both Hepler's original interview and Walker's recapitulation of the idea is that both suggest that an issue to be overcome in a game with skippable combat would be the way to distribute loot and experience points for skipped battles. But actually the problem cuts much deeper than that. The problem with awarding loot and experience for skipped combats is not maintaining parity between the skippers and the non-skippers, the problem is that the loot and experience themselves become completely meaningless if you aren't going to be spending a large part of the game fighting stuff (which is after all what most of the loot and experience are for in the first place). What's the point in a levelling system if ultimately you're going to be able to just Press Escape to Skip the final fight and go straight to the end cutscene? Conversely, if you can't skip the final battle, surely that misses the whole point of skippable combat.

Streamlining, Storytelling, and the Loss of Choice

I think the thing that upsets me the most about the idea of skippable combat is that it seems to take away the thing I personally find most important in an RPG, which is choice. When you propose an in-engine solution to an in-game-world problem, you take away the opportunity to create a richer in-world gameplay experience.

There was a time when any big ticket RPG worth its salt would do its best to support multiple playstyles and paths through the game. I really don't want to be the kind of guy who harps on about how Things Were Better in the Old Days, from where I'm sitting now the philosophy of RPG design used to be to create a situation and let the player navigate through it using a character which they were permitted to create however they liked. Nowadays it seems like the philosophy of RPG design is to write a story, and punctuate it with fights.

As an experiment (and inspired partly by this article, and partly by the fact that I just really like the game) I've decided to try a non-combat playthrough of Fallout 2, partly to see how possible it is, and partly to test a suspicion, namely that as games have become more story focused they have, paradoxically, also become more combat-focused, or at least have become more inclined to include non-optional combat. I've cleared the Temple of Trials and Klamath, and have just arrived in the Den and thus far haven't fired a shot or thrown a punch.

Both of the original Fallout games, Planescape: Torment, Arcanum, of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and a great many other RPGs from the days of the infinity engine included, as a matter of principle, a purely diplomatic solution to their final boss battle. As games have become more streamlined and plot-focused, however, this option has been quietly removed. Game designers seem to have become more and more enamoured of their big set-piece fight scenes and as a result they seem extremely unwilling to let you just talk your way out of them (Bioware in particular have also gradually removed social skills from their games). A particularly glaring example of this is in the original Mass Effect, when you can talk Saren into shooting himself but never the less still have to fight him.

To put it another way, I would be all for skippable combat in games if the combat was skippable in character. Give me an RPG in which I can use the skills I have bought for my character (insofar as RPGs still use skill systems) to solve problems however I want (whether that involves fighting or not) and I will be a very, very happy gamer. The thing I want more than anything else in an RPG is to be able to choose how to play my character. I don't want the game to force my character into fights and then let me choose not to play through them. I want the game to let my character choose to avoid fighting.

So perhaps my real objection to skippable combat is that it implies a too-linear style of RPG. Skippable combat is only necessary if the game includes mandatory “fight scenes” which the player can't avoid (again, Dragon Age II's mindless waves of ambushers spring very much to mind). If combat only arises organically from the player's interaction with the world, players can “skip combat” already simply by choosing to avoid fights. I hate boss fights as much as the next man, but what I want is for the game to let me overcome the boss by multiple methods, not to let me choose between “kill the boss after playing the combat minigame” or “kill the boss without playing the combat minigame.”

I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that video games are a storytelling medium, but like all media they have their conventions. Fights in RPGs are played through in-engine using an in-game combat system. It doesn't have to be done this way – you could have an RPG with a purely abstract combat system (ironically this would in some ways make it rather more like a classic pen and paper RPG) but if the game does have an in-engine way to handle combat, then that's the convention the game establishes for portraying acts of violence. Letting the player kill the villain through personal combat that isn't mediated through the game's combat system is absurd.

Beating a villain without fighting them feels awesome, but the reason it feels awesome is because you're actually using your in-character abilities to find another solution. Indeed sometimes getting the non-violent end is somewhat harder than winning the battle. Talking the villain of Arcanum into giving up his plans involves no only maxing out your persuade skills, but selecting the right lines of dialogue out of several plausible lines of dialogue in order to actually convince him that his plans don't work. Convincing the Master to destroy itself in the original Fallout is possible only if you have a high Speech skill and found the crucial piece of information that convinces the Master that they're wrong. Both of these are a far cry from the state of play in modern Bioware RPGs (“I'm going to kill this man because he killed my mother!” “No, vengeance is wrong!” “Oh, okay then.”) but even that is preferable to what skippable combat would give us, which is the choice to either fight the boss or to not fight the boss, but to have the game assume that you did.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 11:20 on 2012-02-28
I guess the ultimate answer if you find yourself in Hepler's dilemma of loving dialogue but not really being into combat is to play games which offer lots of lovely dialogue but don't really involve combat, like point and click adventures and visual novels and text adventures and so forth.

Of course, this is predicated on the market actually providing such things. There will always be indie developers willing to produce them, of course, but freezing an entire section of the audience out of triple-A games because the market flat out doesn't believe people want to play a triple-A game where combat is either absent or optional seems problematic, on the face of it... except then again, if you're developing an adventure game then the necessity to have a full-blown combat engine, or a physics engine capable of modelling heaps of combatants and projectiles at once, or indeed anything beyond art, a dialogue system, and maybe an inventory system, gets taken out, at which point you don't necessarily need a triple-A budget to actually produce decent stuff.

So maybe it's only problematic if you think everyone deserves to have big budget games produced which correspond with their tastes, regardless of whether their tastes actually require a large budget to accommodate and regardless of the point that you don't make money back on a big budget title by appealing to the tastes of a narrow segment, by necessity you have to go the big tent route and try to make space for lots of people's approaches. I think you've made a good case here that in the case of RPGs made to Bioware's current model, adding a "skip combat" button doesn't expand the tent so much as it kicks down one of the more important tent poles.

That said: have you heard about the difficulty ratings for Mass Effect 3? Apparently they include a dialogue-focused setting where combat is either skipped or radically easier, a combat-focused setting where you just go from fight to fight and all the dialogue stuff is 100% skippable cut scenes, and a balanced setting where you get full responsibility for both dialogue and combat. If they're able to produce a game which is satisfying in all three modes more power to them.
Shimmin at 11:46 on 2012-02-28
Interesting article, and I agree with the general thrust of it. That said, I have a few thoughts about it (by which I mean: "I cast Wall of Text!").

You're right that the dialogue-skipping thing is a false analogy, but I think there's slightly more to it. Basically, dialogue-skipping (or dialogue-ignoring) let you say: "ignore this stuff I don't care about, let me Do Something Important". Something Important might be making a decision that affects the course of the plotline, or one that gets you different stuff from an NPC, or simply getting past the monologue and starting the fight. Those Somethings are not skippable, just as combat isn't.

The thing is, your argument seems to be based on the premise that combat is in itself Something Important. I suspect Hepler would not agree, and I'm not sure I could defend it convincingly. Basically I think part of the issue is that Hepler may view combat as the equivalent of a lockpicking minigame. In virtually all cases, combat boils down to beating some enemies, at the cost of some resources. Victory is not in doubt, because vanishingly few offer any final outcome other than death or victory; and if you die, you reload. If you don't enjoy the tactical or skill elements of combat, all you have is some tedious (and potentially stressful) interaction before you can get to the next Something Important. “Pace of the fights” is all very well, but the difficulty slider doesn’t let you say “ignore this stuff I don’t care about, let me make a meaningful decision”. You still have to pick targets, select spells, use items, move around, click click, because otherwise your characters stand around and die; and you have to make those decisions under pressure, click accurately, not hit the wrong hotkeys. Or you can leave it to the AI, in which case you watch a boring little film where people repeatedly make bad tactical decisions, fireball their best friends and hack twenty kobolds apart in the least effective way possible, possibly dying in the process.

Combat in any game, RPG or otherwise, is an obstacle you overcome eventually or avoid. You overcome it eventually because you can reload and repeat, or run and heal up, or go off and grind, until your tactical choices and character skills are enough to kill the enemies. Then you loot their stuff and proceed. Some dialogue has only a single outcome, but plenty more has a range of options that produce different outcomes of potentially game-altering nature. Skipping the actual combat would generally produce the same outcome as not skipping it, varying only in how much resources were exhausted by the fight. There are also combats you can avoid, which tend to work the same as dialogues you can avoid; you don’t go into the cave full of orcs and you don’t talk to the minor NPC, so you miss a bit of combat plus XP plus loot, or you miss some flavourful dialogue and perhaps a minor quest for a few XP. If you don’t enjoy those things, why bother?

An RPG would not be an RPG if you completely removed all of the NPC interactions and cutscenes, but nor would it be one if you removed all of the “RPG elements” (which in modern video game language basically means “Experience Points and Stuff You Buy With Experience Points).

An RPG would not be an RPG if you removed all the elements where you make any decisions about your character. That includes interactions where you define your character through dialogue and choices, but also the experience progression of gaining new abilities, characteristics and choosing equipment, clothes or hairstyles. However, I see no particular reason why omitting the bits where you physically kill the kobolds to gain the XP would make it any less of an RPG than omitting the bits where you physically wander around a shop asking the blacksmith to show you individual swords, or physically transcribe a new twenty-page spell into your spellbook – which are customarily omitted. Basically, if you do not personally enjoy handling combat, then I don’t see any particular reason why the 99% of combats that are fundamentally just a frustrating puzzle to overcome to get new content could not be skipped. Perhaps there’d be a level threshold to skip a particular combat (to avoid you entering areas that ought to be above your level, in more sandboxy games), which would work in a similar way to lockpicking or trap-disarming skills in most games, where they don’t require a minigame to work. But if you’re worried about Experience Points and Stuff You Buy With Them* then you need only award the XP regardless of whether people play through the combat or skip it.

*Sounds like an autobiography to me...

It only makes sense to allow players to skip fights if you assume that the combat segments of the game ultimately don't mean anything and in a well designed RPG that should not be the case.

We may be thinking at cross-purposes here, but I’m struggling to think of any combat segment of any RPG that ultimately meant anything except “you won”. Could you clarify?

However! Despite disagreeing with you about this, I do think there are plenty of problems with implementing skippable combat, for exactly the reasons you outline.

Another thing, just to finish: this whole issue partly ties in with the point that games are about the only medium where you can't control your access to content. If chapter 3 of a book is tedious, I can skip to chapter 4, or indeed quickly scan the rest and flick to the end to satisfy my curiosity. If Zone 3.2 of ShootMen or the Caves of Endless Skeletons section of QuestQuest is frustrating and dull, I can't move on without either eventually forcing my way through or using a cheat, even if I just want to find out what happens and have no personal investment in killing that guy with the mecha suit / spell immunity plate mail.
http://hafl.livejournal.com/ at 17:37 on 2012-02-28
In that interview, there's the continuation of her response to that question where Hepler makes an argument that's half stupid and half advertisement:

Granted, many games would have very little left if you removed the combat, but for a game like Deus Ex or Bioware's RPGs, you could take out every shred of combat and still have an entertainment experience that rivals anything you'd see in the theater or on TV.

I can't think of a single game, where the story experience would be enhanced by removing the combat.

I may be a bit bitter, because Dragon Age was the first time, where the story made me go "I'm not fourteen years old anymore. I'm too old for video games" (Though I could have avoided that by also avoiding the romance subplots.), but I think the problems is bad writers getting into the only industry with standards that are low enough for them to get into position of head writer or similar. Instead of actually thinking about the design choices they make, they think of everything else as the story as just getting in the way of the story they want to tell. Dragon Age 2 is probably the extreme example of this issue.

On the design side o the thing, the issue is that it is incredibly hard to create a combat system that is both fun and challenging. To make it fun, you have to include a lot of viable options, but the fact that most, if not all options are viable, makes the game too easy and there will always be gamers who would cry that a game that does not require extensive minmaxing is too easy or, god forbid, casual.
Arthur B at 18:02 on 2012-02-28
The lack of perspective in that quote is staggering.

I mean, I love Deus Ex and have enjoyed many Bioware RPGs. But the idea that you could gouge away great swathes of their functionality and still have something comparable to the very best of theatre or television is incredible. Their stories are only considered stellar because standard CRPG and FPS plots are so absolutely threadbare, and even if you take something like Planescape: Torment I hardly think the characterisation and dialogue were on sparkling, Vancian levels.

Is picking dialogue options and doing fetch quests (with no challenge because you've taken out combat) really an entertainment experience to compare to Shakespeare, Stoppard, Twin Peaks, The Wire and so on? I guess it is to Hepler but you have to wonder whether it would appeal that much to sufficient people to actually fund a Bioware game. I guess we'll never know unless Hepler does a Kickstarter or something.

(Also if you're going to cite videogames as being equals to the greatest works of other mediums then it kind of behooves you not to mention your own work, unless you're intent on being seen as a raving egotist.)

(Then again, maybe maintaining a healthy ego shield is necessary if you're a high profile woman in game design. The digs fanboys make at Hepler are completely abhorrent.)
Adrienne at 18:09 on 2012-02-28
So wow. The context in which the Hepler quote got published is apparently that she has been getting an enormous amount of vitriolic misogyny thrown her way over the last few days: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnyegriffiths/2012/02/21/bioware-hepler-harassment/print/

I wish i could say i'm surprised, but i'm not. Horrified, sure, but not surprised.
Adrienne at 18:13 on 2012-02-28
Also, Arthur, i think by "the theater" she means "the movie theater", not "the Theatre". So Shakespeare and Stoppard no, but Spider-Man 3 and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? Yeah. Can't even say i disagree with her, honestly.

I have a deep love for watching other people play through story-intensive games, because my coordination and tolerance for repetitive motion aren't all that great. So there's something to be said for the idea that in certain games, at least, participating in the combat isn't completely integral to the experience. (Though of course SOMEONE is participating in the combat, in that case; it's just not ME.)
Arthur B at 18:15 on 2012-02-28
That article's not only a good overview of how obnoxious gamers are being about the whole thing, but also points out that LA Noire already lets you skip action sequences that are kicking your ass. Which I think both proves and disproves Hepler's point: yes, it's viable to make a triple-A budget game these days in which combat or action sequences are optional. But at the same time, you do need to do a lot of structural work on the game to make sure it can support taking out the combat - you can't just take a game design model such as the one used for Deus Ex or Bioware RPGs, which assume that combat is going to be a prominent feature of the game, and then kick out one of the struts without compensating for doing that.
Adrienne at 18:19 on 2012-02-28
Oh, i'm totally in agreement that that's probably not a good idea. But i do think that (as Dan's article shows) there's a lot of room for discussion about how to make the combat bits less annoying and possibly (for those who want to) less important.

(And i think if a guy had said what Hepler had said, people wouldn't have dredged it up six years later to bitch about it and call that guy a fat whore. Which is a different, but not unrelated, point.)
Arthur B at 18:22 on 2012-02-28
Also, Arthur, i think by "the theater" she means "the movie theater", not "the Theatre". So Shakespeare and Stoppard no, but Spider-Man 3 and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? Yeah. Can't even say i disagree with her, honestly.

But she said anything that the theatre has to offer, not just the baseline average. So we're not just talking about equalling Underworld - something games reliably and repeatably do - but equalling your Lynches, your Coens, and pretty much every cinematic classic or sparkling arthouse obscurity you could care to name.

Either way, I'm inclined to think it's a sloppy example and an excess of hyperbole rather than a sincerely held and rigorously thought-through position so I'm going to stop harping on it.
Arthur B at 18:27 on 2012-02-28
Oh, i'm totally in agreement that that's probably not a good idea. But i do think that (as Dan's article shows) there's a lot of room for discussion about how to make the combat bits less annoying and possibly (for those who want to) less important.

Sure, though I think it's legitimate to point out that there are, in fact, better starting points than the Bioware RPG formula to arrive at the high-characterisation high-story high-dialogue low-twitch model Hepler wants, and in fact some games (adventure games, LA Noire) are already much closer to that point than Bioware's own stuff. You've got to pick the right tools for the right job, you know?

(And i think if a guy had said what Hepler had said, people wouldn't have dredged it up six years later to bitch about it and call that guy a fat whore. Which is a different, but not unrelated, point.)

Undoubtedly, which is why I'm glad Dan's tried to open a reasonable discussion on the topic here.
Adrienne at 18:27 on 2012-02-28
Yeah, I read "anything the theater has to offer" as roughly equivalent to "anything you are likely to see in the movie theater at any given time." But i definitely acknowledge that the statement was both hyperbolic and sloppy.

There are definitely lots of games that are more entertaining, deep, and thought-provoking than 95% of what's in a given movie theater on a given day, you know? (Not that that's a high bar.)
Arthur B at 18:34 on 2012-02-28
I honestly read Hepler's comments were as referring to "the theatre or TV" as a medium rather than as a physical theatre or television, and I honestly think most people would read them that way (not least because it was in the context of a discussion revolving around making broad statements about an entertainment medium).

But whichever reading you go with, I think you have to compare like with like. Either you compare what's on at the movie theatre today with this month's range of triple-A releases, or you compare all games available everywhere with all movies available everywhere.

Either way, I would agree with you that I could, if I wanted to, cite games which I enjoy to a similar extent to that which I enjoy my favourite movies. But I wouldn't include a mutilated copy of Deus Ex on that list. ;)
Adrienne at 18:36 on 2012-02-28
Completely agreed! (And I'm not much of a movie or TV person, so i'm kind of out of that end of things anyway. Generally speaking i'll give up the opportunity to see the best movie i've ever seen to read another novel, because it's a much more comfortable medium for me.)

I'd also like to call attention to both Okami and The Void as games that are pretty low-combat and high-story and completely phenomenal.
Dan H at 19:32 on 2012-02-28
Woah, a lot of replies. Where to begin.

@Shim

You're right that the dialogue-skipping thing is a false analogy, but I think there's slightly more to it. Basically, dialogue-skipping (or dialogue-ignoring) let you say: "ignore this stuff I don't care about, let me Do Something Important".


That's the thing, I honestly don't think that's the case. I think most of the time when you skip dialogue you're not saying "ignore this stuff I don't care about, let me do something important" you're saying something a lot more like "I have finished reading this line of dialogue and wish to read the next one" or frequently "I have literally watched this cutscene six times already."

Skipping dialogue *isn't* about controlling your experience of the game, it's about pacing the dialogue which you *are* forced to page through. Again it is a myth that RPGs habitually allow you to skip conversations. They don't. I can *ignore* conversations all I like, but that's the equivalent of just playing the combat in a really half-arsed way.

The thing is, your argument seems to be based on the premise that combat is in itself Something Important.


I wouldn't say "important", I'd say "interactive". And that it certainly is. An RPG without in-engine fights is a *fundamentally different beast* to an RPG with them. There's a reason that the RPG and Adventure Game genre are - well - different.

But if you’re worried about Experience Points and Stuff You Buy With Them* then you need only award the XP regardless of whether people play through the combat or skip it.


I think I didn't make that point clearly enough in the original article. The problem isn't that skipping combat makes it hard to award XP, the problem is that skippable combat makes most of your character customization options meaningless. If I can skip a fight and get an auto-win regardless, why on earth does it matter what class I play, or what level I am, or anything else?

We may be thinking at cross-purposes here, but I’m struggling to think of any combat segment of any RPG that ultimately meant anything except “you won”. Could you clarify?


Combat segments in RPGs have a whole host of meanings, most of which are so obvious or fundamental that people forget they're there.

Most obviously, they create the sense that *you are in physical danger* and *you are the sort of person who fights stuff and kills it*. Perhaps more to the point, they create this sense in a way that merely being *told* these things never does. If the "story" is that you, the PC, fought your way through or out of or past something, you simply cannot create that impression better than by actually having you *do it*.

@Adrienne:

So wow. The context in which the Hepler quote got published is apparently that she has been getting an enormous amount of vitriolic misogyny thrown her way over the last few days: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnyegriffiths/2012/02/21/bioware-hepler-harassment/print/


Yeah, I'd kind of heard as much, although I hadn't looked into the details. I did feel a little bad about referencing the original quote for exactly that reason.

@Arthur:

That article's not only a good overview of how obnoxious gamers are being about the whole thing, but also points out that LA Noire already lets you skip action sequences that are kicking your ass.


True, although I'd also point out that L.A. Noire is not an RPG in any sense of the word, and it works precisely because the whole thing is so utterly scripted and linear. The reason it is meaningfully possible to "skip" an action sequence in L.A. Noire is because nothing you do in the game makes any difference at all - all you really do is guide The Dude From Mad Men through a prewritten story. This is very much *not* a direction I want to see RPGs going in (and again, part of the reason I'm so bothered by this whole thing is that RPGs seem to be more in favour of reducing the game to a series of cutscenes anyway).
Axiomatic at 19:51 on 2012-02-28
All I can say is that if I was under the impression gameplay has to look like Dragon Age 2 gameplay, I'd want it skippable, too.

DA2's gameplay is bad, y'all.
Arthur B at 19:52 on 2012-02-28
This is very much *not* a direction I want to see RPGs going in (and again, part of the reason I'm so bothered by this whole thing is that RPGs seem to be more in favour of reducing the game to a series of cutscenes anyway).

It's a direction which big budget RPGs are going in, and as the Forbes article points out there are compelling market reasons why that's going to be the case. (And with the next generation of consoles apparently likely to be vastly more expensive to code for, I suspect you'll continue to see major developers aiming for a big-tent approach as time goes by.)

But then again, there's mid-tier and independent developers like Spiderweb Software who continue to put out rather gorgeous looking turn-based RPGs on the old school model. And as far as big budget stuff goes I suspect you'll see the pace of trimming down and simplification slow down once the number of people it turns off begins to significantly outweigh the new audience it draws in (like what seems to have happened to WOTC with D&D 4th edition). Arguably, in fact, Bioware already hit that point with Dragon Age 2, and they do seem to have taken the backlash against that onboard.
Dan H at 20:41 on 2012-02-28
It's a direction which big budget RPGs are going in, and as the Forbes article points out there are compelling market reasons why that's going to be the case.


It's a direction *Bioware* RPGs are going in, but it has nothing to do with market forces (if it did, Skyrim would have been a giant flop) and everything to do with game designers wanting to be novelists.

Also, the Forbes article is basically wrong. The fact that straight male gamers are getting angry about stuff does not imply any kind of change the demographics of the games industry. The fact that free-to-play casual games have more players than big-budget RPG releases doesn't either (you don't think more people played Minesweeper than Baldur's Gate?)

Making RPGs more like interactive movies doesn't make them more inclusive or make them appeal to a broader market, it just makes them more like the kinds of games the people who work at Bioware want to be writing. If Bioware were really *serious* about making their games appeal to as many people as possible, they'd make Mass Effect III a Bejewelled clone.
Arthur B at 20:59 on 2012-02-28
But you'd have to admit that Skyrim is significantly simplified compared to, say, Daggerfall or even Morrowind. I think both Bethesda and Bioware are reacting to the same changes to the market, it's just that Bethesda are much more cautious as to how much streamlining they do.

I don't think you're incorrect that part of the reason Bioware are doing this is because a lot them want to be novelists, but I also think many of them if you put them on the spot would try to justify it as adapting to a changing market. Of course, people have a remarkable tendency to believe that the best solution to adapt to a changing market is also the one which happens to coincide with what they wanted to do anyway.

If Bioware were really *serious* about making their games appeal to as many people as possible, they'd make Mass Effect III a Bejewelled clone.

I think Bioware are serious about making RPGs appeal to as many people as possible, and the fact that MEIII isn't a Bejewelled clone would suggest that they have some creative investment in the RPG genre and genuinely want it to thrive. It's just that, like you say, their ideas about how to make it thrive are taking things in a direction which don't play to the genre's strengths.
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 21:35 on 2012-02-28
In virtually all cases, combat boils down to beating some enemies, at the cost of some resources. Victory is not in doubt, because vanishingly few offer any final outcome other than death or victory; and if you die, you reload. If you don't enjoy the tactical or skill elements of combat, all you have is some tedious (and potentially stressful) interaction before you can get to the next Something Important.


Which is pretty much the way I feel about dialogue to be honest.

I once reloaded ME1 three times and spent several hours grinding trying to get enough paragon points to get through the Admiral Mikhailovich sidequest with all the right dialogue options (and don't get me started on Noveria) where I've never been nearly so worked up about going into combat.

My problem with the assumptions the 'skip combat' crowd seem to be making is that you assume that in dialogue and character interaction you are master of your own fate. That is the way I feel about combat, while in dialogue I feel at the mercy of some arbitrary game mechanics. At least when you shoot someone you can be reasonably sure they will in fact die (unless they're a Reaper). Whereas you can bend over backwards to help Miranda with no guarantee that she'll make up with Jack at the end of it.
Dan H at 22:50 on 2012-02-28
@Arthur

But you'd have to admit that Skyrim is significantly simplified compared to, say, Daggerfall or even Morrowind.


Simplified, but not plot driven. There are many ways to describe the modern Elder Scrolls game but "string of cutscenes" is certainly not one of them.

@scipiosmith

I once reloaded ME1 three times and spent several hours grinding trying to get enough paragon points to get through the Admiral Mikhailovich sidequest with all the right dialogue options (and don't get me started on Noveria) where I've never been nearly so worked up about going into combat.


Yeah, this is more or less what annoys me about the whole "why can't you skip combat like you can skip dialogue" argument. Not only can't you skip dialogue, you actually have to micromanage dialogue *quite a lot* to get the results you want.
Arthur B at 22:53 on 2012-02-28
Simplified, but not plot driven. There are many ways to describe the modern Elder Scrolls game but "string of cutscenes" is certainly not one of them.

Which is kind of my point - Bethesda have been careful not to let the simplification extend to pruning down the open worldness of TES, whereas Bioware seem to have no sacred cows whatsoever.
Shimmin at 23:02 on 2012-02-28
Before I start replying, I’ve had another look at Hepler’s interview, and it strikes me that in context her comment that playing games is her “least favourite thing about working in the industry” comes across rather differently. She seems to me to be saying that she needs to play lots games to keep on top of her field, she’s not a very skilled player, and since really she only needs to study the writing in those games, it would be professionally useful if she could skip the bits that aren’t writing. It seems entirely innocuous to me; the equivalent of reading an abstract rather than a whole paper.

Getting back to the comments... I should say that I do actually generally enjoy combat in RPGs, so I’m not really approaching this from a perspective of my own view so much as the principle. Also, I’m not comfortable with assigning views to Hepler, so for the purposes of this discussion I would like to introduce Wilbert, who doesn’t enjoy combat.

I think most of the time when you skip dialogue you're not saying "ignore this stuff I don't care about, let me do something important" you're saying something a lot more like "I have finished reading this line of dialogue and wish to read the next one" or frequently "I have literally watched this cutscene six times already."

Well, you might be. However, there are people who habitually skip dialogue, especially dialogue that seems like fluff, even if they haven’t read it. In these days of journal entries and quest logs it’s not really necessary to actually follow the dialogue, and some people don’t. This is what I meant by "skipping dialogue".

Again it is a myth that RPGs habitually allow you to skip conversations. They don't. I can *ignore* conversations all I like, but that's the equivalent of just playing the combat in a really half-arsed way.

Which is why I said skipping/ignoring, as in not paying any attention to it and waiting for something you can actually do. I can’t agree with you that ignoring is the equivalent of half-arsing combat; you can pay no attention to dialogue and keep hitting the Next button until you get to a decision point. If you pay no attention to a combat and wait for it to be over so you can do something interesting, you have died.

I wouldn't say "important", I'd say "interactive". And that it certainly is. An RPG without in-engine fights is a *fundamentally different beast* to an RPG with them. There's a reason that the RPG and Adventure Game genre are - well - different.

It’s true, fights are interactive. On the other hand, Wizardology was very interactive. Imagine that for every screen of dialogue in a conversation, you had to win a minigame involving (say) a sort of whack-a-mole. Unless you succeed, you die. Do you think this added interactivity would improve the game? If you had to play an elaborate haggling game (see: Recettear, only longer) every time you bought or sold an item, would that be an improvement or an annoying obstacle to reaching the state of Character Who Has Sold A Rusty Axe so you could get on with your life?

The thing I think you don’t see is that for Wilbert, combat is just a whack-a-mole minigame that gets between him and the next meaningful decision. If what you’re interested in is the decisions you can make and the story that arises from them, then combat is largely irrelevant, because the only canonical outcome is that you won. If you didn’t win, you have to reload. A thing about games is that in 99.9% of cases, you are the kind of character who if they get into fights, wins them; and that’s enforced by the fact that losing them ends the game. Whether you won the combat by clicking on goblins lots of times, or by clicking a Win button once, your character is now canonically someone that won that fight.

I’m not sure what point you’re making with the RPG/Adventure Game comment?

I think I didn't make that point clearly enough in the original article. The problem isn't that skipping combat makes it hard to award XP, the problem is that skippable combat makes most of your character customization options meaningless. If I can skip a fight and get an auto-win regardless, why on earth does it matter what class I play, or what level I am, or anything else?

To be fair, I did understand your original point, I’m just not sure I agree with it. Again, if what you’re interested in is the story and who your character is, then it doesn’t matter how you won the fight. It’s still interesting to choose the ways in which your character develops, by gaining different attributes or equipment or skills or whatever. I did mention this before, but skipping fights doesn’t have to mean auto-winning; it’s perfectly reasonable to have an ability threshold to get the Win button, just as games sometimes have an Intelligence or Diplomacy threshold to get certain dialogue options. You could insist that any fights over that threshold were played normally. Also, your new loot and attributes may come into play in non-combat situations, depending on the structure of the game.

Looking at it another way: increasing hit points and saves tend to balance increasing damage and attack bonuses, so you could probably more or less remove the progression from RPGs without too much effect on combat. Nevertheless, it is interesting and satisfying to see your abilities improve, or to get a new bit of shiny armour, even though enemies will still hit you on a roll of 11+ because you’re fighting bigger orcs now.

Most obviously, [combat segments] create the sense that *you are in physical danger* and *you are the sort of person who fights stuff and kills it*. Perhaps more to the point, they create this sense in a way that merely being *told* these things never does. If the "story" is that you, the PC, fought your way through or out of or past something, you simply cannot create that impression better than by actually having you *do it*.

Well, do they? Because the fact is that you fundamentally aren’t; you don’t lose fights in RPGs. It's possible to lose a party member, though I have to say I usually reload if that happens. Again, I enjoy combat segments and feel the tension of a good combat as much as the next combat-enjoying person. But for Wilbert, the combat is just an exercise is tactical twitch-clicking. He doesn’t feel it as his character being in physical danger, because the worst that happens is he loses the minigame and has to reload and do it again. He might find the combat stressful, but he knows that fundamentally his character is going to win this combat. As far as Wilbert is concerned, the important thing is the events that led to a fight in the first place, or avoided one, and the consequences of having won it.

If the “story” is that you, the PC, travelled across the mighty ocean to the distant land of Blaa to seek out the McGuffin, what better way to create that impression than by having you play through the journey across the sea? Or actually play through Jon Irenicus’ torture sessions? Those would impress those on me much better than a quick voiceover, but the fact is I’m not interested enough in those things to want them. Wilbert isn’t interested enough in tactical combat to enjoy playing through that, either.

Most games don’t insist on detailed playthroughs of lockpicking*, trap-disarming, spellcasting, bartering or building camps to rest in. Combat doesn’t usually go to the lengths of having you guide your character’s individual attacks and steps. I don’t know of any games with mechanisms for how a week of fighting, sleeping rough and lack of washing affects your social interaction when you arrive. All of those would increase the realism and immersiveness of the experience, but the general audience presumably doesn’t find them interesting enough to want them in their RPG. For some people, the same is apparently true of tactical combat. We don’t expect players to have the fencing skill to actually win individual duels, why must they have the tactical skill to win whole combats?

*I do realise that some games include lockpicking minigames; I'm also pretty sure that actually picking locks is a lot more complicated.
Shimmin at 23:03 on 2012-02-28
Sorry, I really do talk too much.
Dan H at 00:18 on 2012-02-29
Imagine that for every screen of dialogue in a conversation, you had to win a minigame involving (say) a sort of whack-a-mole. Unless you succeed, you die. Do you think this added interactivity would improve the game?


No. Therefore I believe that such an element should not be included in a game at all.

But if a game *did* choose to include a minigame element in dialogue (and to an extent I think it would be interesting if they did, although the only version I've seen was in Oblivion and it was legendarily terrible) I would not expect that minigame to be skippable, because I would expect that to be the way dialogue worked in that game.

Lockpicking minigames are a good example here. I personally hate them with a fiery passion, I find them fiddly and annoying (much the way I expect I would find real lockpicking) but I appreciate that if somebody wants to play a thief the presence of a lockpicking minigame probably makes them feel *more like a thief* and that's what (from my point of view) RPGs are *for*.

I've played several games with lockpicking minigames, and in all of them I have simply *avoided picking locks*. I absolutely do *not* want to be given the option to skip the minigame and have it resolved with a pure skill check, because that would render the minigame *meaningless* and would genuinely harm the gameplay experiences of people that *do* like the minigame.

Combat is the same. I have no problem with people not liking RPG combat, but the solution is not for RPGs to implement a (rather complex and fiddly) system in order to let them skip over combat, the solution is for people to design RPGs in which combat is as optional as lockpicking, or for people who don't like RPG combat to stop playing RPGs.

The thing I think you don’t see is that for Wilbert, combat is just a whack-a-mole minigame that gets between him and the next meaningful decision.


No, I see that, it's just that Wilbert isn't the only one in the room here.

Wilbert is not merely asking to be able to avoid bits of the game he doesn't like, he is asking that games be *designed around* his preferences. It doesn't sound like he is, because Wilbert couches his arguments in false comparisons and outright lies (seriously, dialogue is not skippable). A game in which combat is resolved by a minigame is a *fundamentally different game* to one in which it is resolved automatically, or not resolved at all. It is no more reasonable for Wilbert to demand that auto-resolution be implemented in RPGs than it is for me to demand that turn-based combat be implemented in FPSes.

You can not make combat skippable without turning it into a waste of time. Since one does not need to go through the combat minigame in order to get the benefits of combat, playing the minigame becomes utterly pointless. This is the opposite of good game design. And if you have a situation where playing the minigame gets you benefits that you don't get from using the autoresolve, Wilbert gets upset again because he feels forced into playing the minigame.

I’m not sure what point you’re making with the RPG/Adventure Game comment?


The point I'm making is that I have played games in which combat is resolved in-engine (RPGs) and I have played games in which combat is resolved abstractly and without the risk of PC death (even if that necessitates only a save-reload) and they feel qualitatively different. There's a reason most Lucasarts-style adventure games are light hearted and comical - it is very, very hard to create a sense of tension in a game which you know cannot be put into an unwinnable state.

Well, do they? Because the fact is that you fundamentally aren’t; you don’t lose fights in RPGs. It's possible to lose a party member, though I have to say I usually reload if that happens.


Yes, they do. There's a fundamental difference between playing a game in which you can reload when you die, and a game in which you can't die at all. It is a demonstrably different experience.

To put it another way, if you get killed in an FPS you can reload, but people generally don't play FPSes in god-mode even though the end result (you get to the end of the game without dying) is the same. There is a fundamental difference between finishing a game after overcoming a particular gameplay challenge, and finishing a game *without* overcoming said challenge.

But for Wilbert, the combat is just an exercise is tactical twitch-clicking. He doesn’t feel it as his character being in physical danger, because the worst that happens is he loses the minigame and has to reload and do it again.


Then Wilbert *does not like games with in-engine combat* and Wilbert should *not play them*. He should not go around demanding that games be designed in a manner that aligns with his preferences (particularly since such games *already exist* just not in the genre he wants them in).

If the “story” is that you, the PC, travelled across the mighty ocean to the distant land of Blaa to seek out the McGuffin, what better way to create that impression than by having you play through the journey across the sea?


If the story of the game is that I go on a journey across the mighty ocean, then yes I *would* expect to play through a certain amount of that ocean voyage (not in real time, but I would expect some effort to be made to give me the impression, through gameplay, that I had actually gone on an ocean voyage, if the voyage was important).

Most games don’t insist on detailed playthroughs of lockpicking*, trap-disarming, spellcasting, bartering or building camps to rest in. Combat doesn’t usually go to the lengths of having you guide your character’s individual attacks and steps.


Actually quite a lot of combat involves having you guide your character's individual attacks and steps (particularly in more FPS style games) - in a lot of shooty games you're expected to aim your weapons manually for a start. And that's sort of my issue here, including skippable combat, and doing it properly, essentially amounts to implementing a *whole alternative combat system*. Wilbert pretends he's asking for a simple skip key, but in reality he's asking for a game to be specifically designed around his (extremely niche) preferences.
Adrienne at 02:48 on 2012-02-29
Just to be clear, Dan - I was DEFINITELY not suggesting you shouldn't have quoted her, or brought this topic up, or whatever. This is a great conversation and I'm thrilled it's happening! You're using her words as a starting point for examination of a larger issue, rather than using them to condemn her as a person or a writer or what-have-you. I just happened to come across the link (and several others) on one of my other usual reads (this is kind of all over the feminist gaming community) and thought it was useful context to throw in as an aside.
Axiomatic at 05:02 on 2012-02-29
Incidentally, I do find it hilarious that everyone's talking about meaningful decisions, as that species of animal is almost entirely absent from Dragon Age 2.

Heck, there isn't even one of those worthless "here's a choice in the last 5 seconds of the game where you decide what ending you want" decisions because there's only one ending, and you get it no matter what.
Guy at 08:11 on 2012-02-29
Just a quick note on context - I think Hepler's original comment that kicked off this debate comes from an interview where she's asked how she feels about playing games. And it's obvious that she's a writer, she was hired as a writer, and she's never really played games on her own initiative, and so when she's asked "what would you change" she basically is talking about something that, for her, is a work process. "I could get through my work a lot faster if I didn't have to fight all these damn combats". But what she doesn't say, but is implied, is that she'd really rather just spend that time with her family. So... yeah. In that context what she's saying makes perfect sense to me, even though I think the idea of "skipping" the "fight scenes" in RPGs is in itself quite silly.

There's a bit in Homo Ludens by Huizinga where he divides games into two types according to "tension". With jigsaw puzzles, the tension comes from not being able to find the piece you want right now - but you know even as you look for it that, unless it's gone under the couch, it's just a matter of time before you find it. With chess, the tension is essentially different because you're not just searching for a "good move" (analagous to search for "the right piece"); depending on what you do, you might win or you might lose. Jigsaw puzzles always end the same way; the tension comes from how long it takes to get there. Chess ends differently depending on what you do.

But I think CRPGs are kind of in an in-between category. Unless, you're playing a roguelike, you pretty much expect to "win" a certain number of hours after you start. It might be 50% more or less depending on your approach, but, like a jigsaw, it's just a matter of time.

And yet... I think that despite the "meaninglessness" of death given the save/load cycle, it still feels important to the player. Symbolically or something, you get a little of that deflating feeling of defeat when your party is killed and a little of the elation of victory when you crush your enemies... even if it was the 15th time you fought that battle. Maybe especially if it was the 15th time.

Which is why I agree with what Dan said about RPGs vs Lucasarts Adventure Games; you can't "really" lose either - in fact, you're more likely to hit an impasse in the latter if you fail to "hunt the pixel" on the right screen or whatever - but it's going to matter to gamers which style of "not being able to lose" they are presented with.
Arthur B at 09:11 on 2012-02-29
Guy, Shimmin: Both of you have now said that Hepler's comments, in context, were about making her job as a writer who doesn't actually want to play games easier. Why on earth are you saying this? The question she's answering is this:

If you could tell developers of games to make sure to put one thing in games to appeal to a broader audience which includes women, what would that one thing be?

She is specifically proposing that games would have a broader audience if they made combat skippable, because there's plenty of people who don't like combat. The fact that The Sims, a game with absolutely no combat or story, was a massive and ongoing success at the time the interview happened, would seem to suggest that the game design community is in fact already fully aware that they need to cater to an audience beyond the one who likes twitchy combat, but Hepler was either unaware of this or chose to ignore it.

I mean, maybe when she was asked "How do we make games more appealing to a broad audience?" she heard "How do we make games more appealing to you, personally, for your professional purposes as a writer" and answered on that basis. But her answer isn't phrased like that, and I think if we're going to treat her fairly at all we should at least have the decency to assume she was making a good faith attempt to answer the question she was asked.
Wardog at 09:48 on 2012-02-29
In general on the topic of Hepler:

I, err, feel really ambivalent to her to be honest. I agree with Arthur that she's talking not about *her job* but *games in general*. I certainly don't believe she should be the target of misogynistic attacks but equally I kind of feel what she's saying here is kind of stupid, and that's entirely personal and has nothing to do with whether she's a Woman TM, but given how marginalised and mistreated women are within the games industry I'm not comfortable condemning her for stupid. I mean part of this is, of course, the wider problem that Hepler is not merely someone who works for a games company like anyone else, she is a Woman TM (this is different to a woman) and therefore her statements are always taken in or applied to the context of Women TM.

Equally I think it's personally reasonable for her not like games very much - I mean she's a professional person, hired to do a job. Again, another one of the problems of the games industry (again, this is something Hepler mentions in her interview) is that it's meant to be this huge labour of love:

I think that the biggest detriment to more varieties of games being made which appeal to women and casual gamers, is simply the fact that people who don’t love games don’t become game designers. A game company tends to be filled with people whose best memories come from the games they played, who spend all their time swapping war stories with other gamers, and it’s not too surprising that they end up wanting to make games that recapture those experiences. A lot of ground has been broken in other media when someone who is dissatisfied with his existing choices decides to try something new (Samuel Beckett comes to mind, as the self-professed playwright who hated drama).


So there's an extent to which what she's saying and doing is probably quite helpful.
Arthur B at 10:20 on 2012-02-29
I'm extremely ambivalent about that quote.

On the one hand, she's 100% correct that you don't want any industry to become an echo chamber. I think I saw elsewhere - I thought it was the Forbes article, but it wasn't - someone saying that the reason the comics industry has so completely bricked itself into a corner is precisely because of the sort of issues she raises there.

On the other hand, throughout the interview she rather brushes under the carpet such things as adventure games and visual novels which do offer a dialogue-first gaming experience (and in the case of some VNs, such as Phoenix Wright, it's possible for the dialogue-based gameplay to get extremely tense, just as it's possible for it to lead you down branching plotlines). It's all very well to say that you need to try something bold and new when the existing choices aren't satisfying to you, it's another thing to say it when there's actually choices available which give you precisely what you've been asking for.

On the third hand, Hepler is an employee and Bioware don't make adventure games or VNs. "Our games could be really interesting if we go in this bold new direction we're thinking about" is a statement her bosses couldn't possibly complain about. "Our games are rubbish, I'd much rather play this sort of game which our competitors make" wouldn't make her look like a team player. So it's possible that if she does occasionally say things that look odd it's because she either is constrained or has reason to feel constrained in making these statements.
Shimmin at 10:34 on 2012-02-29
Basically I think we agree on most of this stuff.

I should maybe clarify that I was not using Wilbert as a cypher for “the set of real people who demand skippable combat”, which you seem to be doing. I specifically set him up as a hypothetical person who enjoys RPGs but not combat, to help me work out how that would affect my viewpoint. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I have not been following internet arguments about combat-skipping, and as I mentioned before I think it would be a bad idea in practice.

You can choose to avoid picking locks in most games, because there are other ways to get things you need or open those doors. In RPGs that implement in-game combat, the chance to avoid all combat is vanishingly rare, which means Wilbert is badly served. But there is a lot more to RPGs than tactical combat, and he wants that stuff. Ideally, as you said, people would design more RPGs in which combat is entirely optional, but to be honest it seems unlikely. There’s also a secondary point, which is that people may want to play “a heroic warrior” and simultaneously not want to play tactical combat games. So I can see why Wilbert would turn to other RPGs and want there to be a way of skipping the combat. That doesn’t make it a good idea. The sensible thing is for Wilbert to use a cheat to get past the combat and continue on his merry way.

Not only can't you skip dialogue, you actually have to micromanage dialogue *quite a lot* to get the results you want.

I don’t think the dialogue=combat model is a useful one (and you don’t seem to either) because they’re very different beasts. Dialogue has a discrete set of outcomes and very little randomness, so you can get the result you want with a few attempts. Combat basically has one outcome (victory) but a continuous range of states within that (from losing a few hit points to the death of all your companions) and is highly random, which means if you suck at it it’s much more difficult to get the result you want. It also demands a lot more interaction. So if you don’t enjoy combat (or when the combat sucks) you have to put up with a lot more busywork than if you don’t like dialogue. I enjoyed the story of Recettear but found the combat phenomenally dull, so I sympathise.

I don’t think my comment about the physical danger was very useful. Let me try again. For someone invested in the combat then it’s perfectly true that it creates a sense of physical danger, and also that this is fun. But I suspect that if you’re not invested in the combat, it may just feel like being sent back home in Ludo; Do It Again Stupid. Wilbert either may not feel a difference between dieable and undieable games, or simply may not care about that difference.

If the story of the game is that I go on a journey across the mighty ocean, then yes I *would* expect to play through a certain amount of that ocean voyage (not in real time, but I would expect some effort to be made to give me the impression, through gameplay, that I had actually gone on an ocean voyage, if the voyage was important).

Well, “you travel a long way to the next scenario towards the goal of your quest” is a frequent part of RPGs, dividing the tutorial from the jungle bit from the tundra bit, but it’s generally just a cutscene. But again, it comes down to importance: I think the combat is important enough to be worth playing through, but Wilbert doesn’t agree.

Actually quite a lot of combat involves having you guide your character's individual attacks and steps (particularly in more FPS style games) - in a lot of shooty games you're expected to aim your weapons manually for a start.

Fair enough, then I just haven’t played those. If you mean things like Skyrim, though, you of all people will know that that’s still extremely simplified compared to actual combat, which is what I was getting at.

Basically, I consider the problem with skippable combat is that a canonical (not “conanical”, as I originally wrote...) Win button would compromise the game for everyone else and weaken game design in the long run. I don’t think your arguments about it making the rest of the game objectively pointless hold up, though. I personally cannot see the appeal of playing most RPGs and skipping all the combat, but then people enjoy all kinds of things that I can’t see the appeal in.

@Arthur: Well, as I said, I was specifically referring to her comment about “least favourite thing”, not Dan’s quote above. I did originally have the whole response quoted but my comment was already massive so I removed it. It’s here and seems to be very clearly about her job. I suspect Guy means the same thing. The quote Dan used, on the other hand, is pretty much as you say. Saying that, it’s entirely possible that including a skip button would give existing games a wider audience, because people who aren’t into tactical combat might play them for the other aspects. That doesn’t mean I think they should do it or that it’s a good idea, mind.

Just coming briefly back to Hepler: I'm not at all surprised that she isn't talking about adventure games or sims. She's an RPG fan who works for an RPG company as a writer, and is being interviewed in that context, so it isn't going to be on her mind and it's not what they want to hear about, let alone any worries about what the boss will think.
Heidi at 11:11 on 2012-02-29
I think there's an issue where a lot of games conflate conflict and combat. Often, combat is reserved for the running around and hitting things parts of the game, whereas other types of conflict are reserved for the standing around and talking bits. It's dividing what should be a cohesive experience into two chunks. People sometimes like both, and sometimes they prefer one over the other.

When I play an RPG, it often feels like I'm playing two different games, one in which I'm a heroic adventurer trying to save the world from evil, and another in which I need to kill X-amount of fluffy critters to get from one town to the next. There's this disconnect between many games' stories and combat, and being faced with it breaks immersion for me. For example, I like FFXII's combat more than any of the other FF games', and I like its story more too, but it feels weird to be grinding for hours while my party is supposed to be hurrying to stop the bad guys. The two aspects aren't integrated very well, and I can see why someone would want to skip what they don't like (either combat or story) to get to what they do like. And since you can skip the cutscenes and completely blitz through the dialogue in that game, I don't know why it's unreasonable to want to be able to skip or speed up the combat, too. But, like you said, this is "a system-design solution [for] a scenario-design problem."

Something I'd like to see implemented in more games are cutscene galleries. I know some games already do this (like Saints Row 2 and Uncharted), but that this isn't available in more games (especially story-heavy games like Final Fantasy) disappoints me. One reason people seem to want skippable combat is that they don't want to replay large parts of a game just to get to their favorite cutscene, and a cutscene gallery would solve this issue. I think something that lets you replay conversations, like the ones in ME and DA, would be a neat feature, as well. However, it would still be necessary to play through the combat to unlock the story.

This is a tricky issue, and I agree that it requires a more in-depth solution than simply letting people skip large chunks of a game's content. However, I'm not particularly bothered by people wanting to skip combat. So, in a way I agree with both you and Shimmin; RPGs need to better integrate the combat bits with the story bits, including more ways to resolve conflicts than just, "Go here, kill these, go there, kill those, etc." Unfortunately, I doubt there's going to be an influx of big-budget games that deviate from this model anytime soon, so I understand wanting an option to skip through combat to get to the story.

Different players play games for different reasons, and sometimes one type of game doesn't appeal to all players. Being able to skip combat in something like Demons Souls would completely defeat the purpose of that game, so people who don't want to have their asses handed to them every five minutes would do well to avoid the game entirely. Then you have visual novels and interactive fiction, and they don't usually appeal to players who really want the challenge of a good combat system. But there are games that try to balance both, like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, and some people are going to like one aspect more than the other.

I'm glad that Bioware's including the different play styles in ME3, and I don't see how other RPGs doing the same would ruin the experience for anyone. This is only a short-term solution, but if anything it'll help more people enjoy the game. And perhaps it'll even get some RPG designers to examine how they integrate the story and combat parts of their games and make them realize that they're trying to make a unified whole, rather than two interactive experiences in one package.
Arthur B at 11:12 on 2012-02-29
Why would Wilbert yearn for a hypothetical RPG which has the combat carved out rather than just playing a well-implemented adventure game or VN? As Dan points out, CRPGs are a format built on the premise that combat is going to happen, and the vast majority of the gear you get which isn't a crafting item, quest object, or junk intended to be sold for cash is an item related to combat.

If Wilbert really loves CRPGs but really doesn't want to have to go through combat, then Wilbert fundamentally dislikes a basic axiom of the way such things are put together. At which point Wilbert really needs to do some introspection and work out what he actually wants. Maybe adventure games or visual novels would be a better starting point. I could easily imagine a VN or adventure game with an open world aspect to them, where you can tour around and get embroiled in side-stories and so forth depending on which NPCs you talk to. It'd require a lot of writing, of course, but then again open world RPGs in general require heaps and heaps of writing anyway.

Or is there something about RPGs Wilbert believes he can't get in any other game genre? In which case, what is it?
Arthur B at 11:15 on 2012-02-29
Oh, and this:
Saying that, it’s entirely possible that including a skip button would give existing games a wider audience, because people who aren’t into tactical combat might play them for the other aspects.

People who aren't into tactical combat already play plenty of games. They just don't play games in genres built from the ground up around combat.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 11:23 on 2012-02-29
Perhaps a solution would be like in some strategy games, where you can bypass the tactical battle and the outcome is decided randomly and the chances are calculated based on the items, strengths and skills of the character(s). The outcome could be described in a way that would help the combat averse to get the necessary strengths to bypass the situation, or then you could try the tactical option. Of course this solution would ideally work only in the sort of game where you actually had multiple options for combat situations anyway. By which I mean where the avoidance of combat was an organic part of the game itself, rather than combat being simply skippable.
Guy at 11:47 on 2012-02-29
@Arthur Yes, that thing Shimmin linked is the thing I meant. It kind of seems like she moves from saying "being able to skip the combat would make my job easier and faster" to saying "oh, and maybe more people like me would play the games for fun, too."

I think there's another thing going on with RPGs, which is that there's a process of... disaggregation of gameplay elements which seems to be going on in the development of games, and RPGs are sort of the last in line. That is... there used to be quite a lot of games like (say) Sid Meier's Pirates, which combined exploration, trade, combat, romance... each "genre" in the game was played with quite different "verbs". Or X-Com, which had tactical combat, resource management, ship-to-ship combat, research, some simplified politics... but that model seems to have died out and instead mostly games are about One Thing. Shooting people in the face or jumping over things or driving fast or whatever; and when a game like Space Rangers 2 comes along people complain, yuck, what's this RTS doing in my space combat game?

But in some ways the defining feature of RPGs is that they don't have one defining feature. Or at least, they never used to. Fallout's a great example; there's stealth, combat, lots of variety in the dialogue, various "simulation-y" things that don't much affect the outcome but do create a sense of immersion in a "real" world. But the same disaggregation process seems to sort-of be happening, but under strain, because if you're going to simplify the game down to its core elements, you need to know what those core elements are. And because RPGs have always been so multifaceted, it turns out that what was the "core" of them has always been different for different people.
Shimmin at 11:55 on 2012-02-29
Why would Wilbert yearn for a hypothetical RPG which has the combat carved out rather than just playing a well-implemented adventure game or VN?

Or is there something about RPGs Wilbert believes he can't get in any other game genre? In which case, what is it?

In my experience adventure games are fairly linear and allow little or no customisation or character development, just discovering a set story. VNs I can't really speak to. If Wilbert enjoys roleplaying then an RPG would seem to be the obvious option. CRPG Designers focusing heavily on combat isn't his fault.

I could easily imagine a VN or adventure game with an open world aspect to them, where you can tour around and get embroiled in side-stories and so forth depending on which NPCs you talk to.

So... basically an RPG without combat, then? Sounds good to me :)

People who aren't into tactical combat already play plenty of games. They just don't play games in genres built from the ground up around combat.

I already read plenty of books, but that doesn't mean removing the racism from Howard wouldn't increase the chance of my reading his books as well. Companies want people to play their games. RPGs don't have to be built from the ground up around combat any more than fantasy novels have to be built around horrendous stereotypes. If Hepler was trying to suggest a way that individual RPGs could attract a bigger and more diverse audience, which is how I interpret that quote, then it's not innately ridiculous. It would be a compromise that some existing customers would object to, including me, but those considerations are part of designing. Obviously that's only one consideration in game design, and giving it paramount importance leads to Farmville.
Arthur B at 12:30 on 2012-02-29
In my experience adventure games are fairly linear and allow little or no customisation or character development, just discovering a set story. VNs I can't really speak to. If Wilbert enjoys roleplaying then an RPG would seem to be the obvious option. CRPG Designers focusing heavily on combat isn't his fault.

If Wilbert has roleplaying as his primary motivator he'd better find some human beings and take up tabletop RPGs because in any computer game he takes up there's going to be compromises when it comes to branching plotlines and character customisation.

If you have a game which is based mainly around dialogue and fetch quests and the occasional puzzle - which is what RPG gameplay would amount to if you took out combat - then you already have an adventure game format anyway. It seems to me that linearity and a lack of character customisation are issues with the format which could either easily be fixed or actually cease to be important once you take out the twitchy aspects of a game.

With respect to linearity, VNs already do nonlinearity a lot - you can get some where the plot has a branching tree structure where the course of the plot hinges on what you say in dialogue and what order you talk to people in, for instance. Implementing such a thing in an adventure game may be very easy if the game has a heavy emphasis on dialogue anyway, or might be quite hard if it has a large emphasis on puzzles. (But then again Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis essentially offered you three almost entirely different experiences after the branching-off point.)

As far as character customisation goes, it's incredibly rare for any CRPG to actually allow much of that beyond picking what clothes you wear, what kit you use in combat, and what skills you have. The first one is pure aesthetic and could be fairly easily implemented in any game with an inventory system, and doesn't really have any impact on gameplay. In a non-combat RPG, the combat kit aspect becomes irrelevant for reasons Dan has explained and so we cna set that aside. So all that's left is a skill system.

Implementing a skill system in an adventure game would be an interesting experiment and I hope someone does it. Maybe picking the "thief" skill set would unlock sneaky, thiefy sort of solutions to puzzles which you'd have to solve through clever dialogue choices and social manipulation if you took the "diplomat" skill set, for instance.

However, at the same time a lot of dialogue-heavy VNs essentially put you in the position of customising the character through dialogue choices as opposed to through spending points. In our hypothetical dialogue-heavy combat-free game then it seems obvious that the way you carry yourself in dialogue is much more important for establishing character than spending points, and you don't really need an RPG-like character gen system to do that - just give people a decent range of dialogue choices and let them decide whether their character is a sarcastic asshole, or a polite and helpful soul, or whether they're a dick to some characters and nice to others.

Think about it for a moment: how much meaningful character customisation is actually available to you in most RPGs if you take out every choice relating to combat? And how much of what is left is purely aesthetic? Mass Effect with its multiple background options comes sort of close, but even then those are picks from a very limited list and the sort of person your Shepard actually is is influenced much more by your dialogue choices than it is by anything you picked as a character background.

So... basically an RPG without combat, then? Sounds good to me :)

Well, no, because you're beginning from a different starting point. In particular, you'd need to rely on the tools and approaches adventure games and VNs and text adventures have developed to support that sort of play and make it an interesting game experience, because CRPGs from Wizardry and Rogue onwards have more or less always been constructed on the assumption that combat is going to be available as a means of solving problems (and have usually always involved at least some fights that you just can't avoid).

I already read plenty of books, but that doesn't mean removing the racism from Howard wouldn't increase the chance of my reading his books as well. Companies want people to play their games. RPGs don't have to be built from the ground up around combat any more than fantasy novels have to be built around horrendous stereotypes.

But as Dan and you both point out, if you want to maximise the absolute number of people playing your games you wouldn't be attached to any particular genre of game at all - you'd just make games in the absolute most popular genre of the day.

Sure, you don't read Howard because he's a big old racist.

So.

Um.

You read other authors. There's other choices available. In the same way Wilbert can just go play other games rather than demanding that a genre of game based around axioms he doesn't like magically transform itself into a different genre.

You seem to be talking about CRPGs from the point of view of someone who is very into tabletop RPGs and tends to think about CRPGs in the same way, and I'm not sure that's helpful. You and I know that tabletop RPGs don't have to be combat-oriented, but I would point out that computer game genres are typically defined by the gameplay experience they support through the in-game engines, and the whole edifice of CRPGs - from the basis of their character generation systems to the types of items you can acquire in the game - has been constructed from the ground up to support combat. If you change all of that to support a different type of gameplay experience by definition you have changed the genre of the game. Take the shooting out of an FPS and it's no longer an FPS, take the computer implementation of tabletop RPG-like combat out of a CRPG and you don't really have a CRPG any more, you have something which is much more like an adventure game (in that adventure games also offer branching dialogue and inventory systems and fetch quests but excise combat).

Wilbert's big problem is that he's complaining that cheese doesn't taste like chocolate, and then when offered chocolate he rejects it because he wants to eat cheese.
Arthur B at 12:57 on 2012-02-29
tl;dr version of the above: it's easier to add something to a framework which is able to support it than it is to take something away from a framework that relies on it. Adding a degree of non-linearity and character customisation to adventure games/VNs is very doable, and in some cases has been done in the past. Subtracting combat from the CRPG structure would compromise a whole lot of other parts of that structure. In general, if you want existing games to do something new, then you want to take an existing type of game and make it do something new, not make it do less than it already does.
Shimmin at 15:18 on 2012-02-29
If Wilbert has roleplaying as his primary motivator he'd better find some human beings and take up tabletop RPGs because in any computer game he takes up there's going to be compromises when it comes to branching plotlines and character customisation.
He'd certainly be better off with tabletop RPGs, but then people wanting a really authentic FPS experience would be better off paintballing. I don't think that means people should stop trying to make games for either group.

So... basically an RPG without combat, then? Sounds good to me :)

Well, no, because you're beginning from a different starting point...

If you have a game which is based mainly around dialogue and fetch quests and the occasional puzzle... then you already have an adventure game format anyway.

My take is that a game where you take on the role of another person, have meaningful choices and some control over the path of the story, is pretty much an RPG. That seemed to be the type of game you're talking about.

Implementing a skill system in an adventure game would be an interesting experiment and I hope someone does it.

Agreed, it could be really fun. There are also things like D&D feats or Pathfinder traits that can add interesting twists to a character without necessarily being limited to combat.

Think about it for a moment: how much meaningful character customisation is actually available to you in most RPGs if you take out every choice relating to combat?

Depends how well it's implemented, really. I for one care whether I'm an orc or a halfling, it affects how I play the game, and ideally how people respond to me. In a good game, your choice of clan or profession can affect the quests available and how people interact with you, and making a small agile character will give you different options from being a large strong one, be it combat or how to get into the Duke's palace. As you mentioned, I'd also consider choices of dialogue, outfit etc. to be ways of customising your character, and ones that aren't always available (certainly some adventure games I've played had no meaningful choice of dialogue).

But as Dan and you both point out, if you want to maximise the absolute number of people playing your games you wouldn't be attached to any particular genre of game at all

But only if you literally only care about the numbers, which is obviously not the case for most game designers. If you have a fantastic idea for a CRPG, but would like more people to play it (whether because you think it's so great, or because you want the money), and there's one aspect of the game they don't enjoy, then I can see how you might think "maybe if I provided a way for them to avoid that bit, they'll play the game". Especially if you personally aren't too keen on that bit and enjoy the rest.

You read other authors. There's other choices available.

The problem with "read other authors" is that it only works if the rest of the genre doesn't have the same problem. If people enjoy most aspects of fantasy novels, but all of them contain sections of elven poetry, that makes it annoying to read a genre you otherwise enjoy. Telling them to go and read thrillers instead is not solving the problem. Luckily they can just skip the elven poetry pages. This is not true of games, even though combat is no more intrinsic to roleplaying than elven poetry is to fantasy. Wishing for a way to skip the combat is not wrong, but I perfectly agree that asking for a skip button is solving the wrong problem.

I think I maybe haven't been too clear, so apologies for that, but we seem to be conflating some separate issues, and I suspect we agree on most of them.
Firstly there's Hepler's comments about games, which I think are fairly innocuous in context even though I don't think her skipping idea would work.
Secondly there's how anyone winds up wanting a Skip Combat button in CRPGs, which I thought was interesting and vaguely sympathise with, and Dan seemed to find baffling.
Thirdly there's what those Wilberts should do. My view is that if they really want to play existing CRPGs, they can use cheats to skip the combat; but also that it would be nice if designers would implement games where combat was less of a focus, either by offering non-combat paths through traditional CRPGs or by writing entirely new games. Adding a skip button really doesn't seem like a good idea, but that's because of side-effects on other people and game design, rather than anything to do with Wilbert.
Fourthly there's a fairly semantic issue about exactly what genre of game this hypothetical choice-heavy dialoguey sidequesty game counts as, which I consider an RPG in this context but I don't really care about, sorry.

Wilbert's problem, as I see it, is that he's complaining about the number of toffees in Revels, and wishes Nestle would make those green so he can avoid them entirely and enjoy the others. That would ruin the surprise element for other Revel-eaters. A better solution is for someone to sell Revel-like sweets without any toffees in. People offering him cake or Maltesers are not solving his problem, even if he enjoys those as well.
Shimmin at 15:22 on 2012-02-29
TL;DR version:
I think we mostly agree. We seem to be quibbling over the definition of "RPG" to no good end. I don't think wanting a skip button is wrong, I just agree with everyone else that it's the wrong solution. Suggesting that people who like CRPGs just stop playing CRPGs is not very constructive.
Arthur B at 16:05 on 2012-02-29
He'd certainly be better off with tabletop RPGs, but then people wanting a really authentic FPS experience would be better off paintballing.

Not really. There's heaps of stuff that FPSs can provide where paintballing simply can't compete for simple safety reasons, lots of areas where paintballing can offer something FPSs can't, and both formats end up sacrificing authenticity a lot - FPSs for reasons of playability, paintballing for reasons of safety. So if you were out for a super-authentic shooty experience there's pros and cons of both options.

Conversely, RPGs played with actual human beings offer orders of magnitude more possibilities for roleplaying, character customisation and dialogue options than CRPGs offer. If those are the things Wilbert sets at his top priority then CRPGs just aren't going to offer him what he's looking for to nearly the same extent as tabletops can.

My take is that a game where you take on the role of another person, have meaningful choices and some control over the path of the story, is pretty much an RPG. That seemed to be the type of game you're talking about.

In which case your take is pretty much at odds with how most discourse about computer games handles the term - what you've described there encompasses a whole lot of games which aren't generally considered as being CRPGs.

The problem with "read other authors" is that it only works if the rest of the genre doesn't have the same problem. If people enjoy most aspects of fantasy novels, but all of them contain sections of elven poetry, that makes it annoying to read a genre you otherwise enjoy.

Conversely, if someone enjoys most aspects of GRRM's stuff except for the fact that there's magic and it's not set in the real Wars of the Roses, suggesting they might want to try historical fiction is completely rational.

This is not true of games, even though combat is no more intrinsic to roleplaying than elven poetry is to fantasy.

And again here's the problem, you're defining a CRPG as any game where the activity you define as roleplaying could conceivably happen, and what I've been saying is that this really isn't how CRPGs are usually defined in discourse about computer games.

Wilbert's problem, as I see it, is that he's complaining about the number of toffees in Revels, and wishes Nestle would make those green so he can avoid them entirely and enjoy the others. That would ruin the surprise element for other Revel-eaters. A better solution is for someone to sell Revel-like sweets without any toffees in. People offering him cake or Maltesers are not solving his problem, even if he enjoys those as well.

But if Wilbert has specifically says "I hate the toffees in Revels, they keep getting in the way of the Maltesers, which are what I actually enjoy" then it's silly not to offer him Maltesers.

And likewise, if people offer Wilbert a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts and raisins and Maltesers and all the rest all mixed together and he rejects it because he insists that he desperately wants to eat Revels, not something which happens to include multiple different factors he really enjoys about Revels and doesn't include the bits which spoil the party for him, then I suspect most people will give up on the guy as being impossible to please.

Conversely, if we go with your broader-than-average definition of RPGs, then let's have the bag of Revels be the entire set of those and the toffee ones being CRPGs as they are usually defined. In which case Wilbert is saying "I don't like the toffee Revels; I mean, I like the idea of a chocolate-covered sweet and all, I just wish they had Maltesers or raisins and peanuts inside". And everyone else is scratching their head wondering why Wilbert insists on picking out and eating the toffee ones and complaining about them rather than selecting the Maltesers instead.
Adrienne at 17:15 on 2012-02-29
I have nothing to add to the actual topic right now; I just want to state for the record that I'm completely entranced by the names of all this candy I've never heard of. :) What's a Revel? Or a Malteser?
Shimmin at 17:49 on 2012-02-29
Fair enough, the FPS analogy is dodgy. Maybe I'm just excessively reluctant to tell people to give up looking for something, which is probably the influence of my job.

...what you've described there encompasses a whole lot of games which aren't generally considered as being CRPGs

I was attempting a loose description of roleplaying. If in general discussion of gaming "Computer Role-Playing Game" does not mean a game where you roleplay on a computer then a) there is probably no point us continuing this discussion, and b) I am moving to a cabin in the Welsh mountains to wait out the inevitable collapse of civilisation.

If, as you seem to feel, adventure games and visual novels contain all the stuff that Wilbert wants from an RPG, then yes, he's mistaken and perhaps unreasonable. That is not the impression I've got of adventure games and visual novels, but then you're far better up on them than me. My take was that they each contain some of those things, but not all of them, and that that is not what Wilbert is asking for. Some people are so hard to please.

Anyway, I don't think I have anything more to contribute here, and also the ill-advised sweet analogies are making me really hungry.
Arthur B at 18:03 on 2012-02-29
@Adrienne: Maltesers are the lighter way to enjoy chocolate! Except they're actually a higher calorie snack than normal chocolate so everything I've ever been told about them is a lie.

Revels are what happens when Maltesers hang out in a bag with a bunch of their friends.

@Shimmin: FWIW, I was an IRL Wilbert for years before I decided that actually CRPG combat was pretty fun, and I found adventure games, VNs and text adventures to deliver the goods. A lot of them fail to provide the meaningful choices and control over the path of the story, but that's not a hard limit of the medium and several of them do provide exactly that. And as for taking on the role of another person, pretty much all of them do exactly that, to the extent that I was at one point willing to argue that they were a much better implementation of what I actually enjoyed about the tabletop RPG experience than what most people called CRPGs.

I'd also say that a heck of a lot of games which are more or less universally seen as CRPGs kind of fall down on the meaningful choices/controlling the path of the story front. JRPGs, in particular, are notorious for having ramrod-linear plots, and there's a bunch of SSI-era AD&D adaptations which are similarly linear.

In other words, the videogame industry seems to work on a definition of roleplaying which is much more specific than any you or I would embrace and I'll be joining you in your apocalypse hut. :)
Dan H at 19:30 on 2012-02-29
Wow, many replies *again*.

I think Shim is right that a lot of this seems to come down to the question of what you think a "Role-Playing-Game" is, and perhaps also what you think "Wilbert" actually wants.

Basically the way I see it there are two different versions of Wilbert being discussed in this conversation.

Wilbert A is - to put it bluntly - me. Wilbert A likes RPGs but thinks that the combat elements are often the least well realized parts of the game.

Wilbert B is causing the problems. Wilbert B doesn't merely dislike combat, Wilbert B is all about the "story". Wilbert B not only *dislikes* combat, he fails to accept that combat is a meaningful part of the game *at all*.

Wilbert B, whatever he may claim, does not like RPGs.

It is possible to imagine a person who has enjoyed every single musical they have ever seen, but who fundamentally believes that songs are an ineffective way to communicate a story. This person cannot be said to "like musicals" no matter how much they enjoy an individual evening of musical theatre. They are, at best, a theatre fan who is indifferent to musicals. Wilbert B likes interactive novels and is at best indifferent to RPG elements.

To stick with the misguided sweets example, I think Revels are actually a pretty good analogy for what makes RPGs RPGs - they're a *mixture*, and part of the fun of eating Revels is never being entirely sure what you're going to get (indeed, I'd suggest that part of the fun of eating Revels is the fact that you will sometimes eat something you don't particularly like). Wilbert B doesn't like Revels at all - he likes some of the things that are *in* Revels and places no value at all on the experience of eating an admixture of different sweets.

I'd note, incidentally, that Wilbert B has an equally annoying cousin Philbert B, who sees no difference between playing through interactive NPC dialogues and watching non-interactive cutscenes. Philbert B is apparently getting a whole Difficulty Setting to himself in Mass Effect 3 which will completely remove all of the game elements that *aren't* combat. This will effectively allow Philbert B to do what everybody keeps insisting he has been able to do all along, which is to "skip" the talky bits of the game and just get on with the shooting. I should probably observe that Philbert B doesn't like RPGs *either*.

I think this overlaps rather unfortunately with the points that Guy and Heidi raised about (severally) the disaggregation of gameplay elements and the tendency of games to rigidly segregate "story" from "combat". The Industry seems genuinely unsure what to make of the RPG genre, and it seems to be responding to the hybrid nature of it by trying to disaggregate gameplay elements *within the same game*. Again ME3 - if rumours are true - looks like an extreme example of this. It seems like Bioware intend to, in essence, write one first-person shooter and one interactive novel, and loosely stitch them together in the middle.

The problem is that this isn't how RPGs work, RPGs are a whole experience (like a bag of Revels). Trying to separate the talky bits and the fighty bits in an RPG is like trying to separate the songs and the story in a musical. You could do it, but you'd be missing the entire point of the medium.
Arthur B at 19:36 on 2012-02-29
Wilbert B is causing the problems.

I'm sorry my brother is being such a troublemaker. Cousin Philbert is a bad influence on him.
http://hafl.livejournal.com/ at 17:48 on 2012-03-01
I've been thinking about this issue some more and if you forgive me harping on Dragon Age 2 some more, there's one more thing I can add. (This turned out to be more rambly than I wanted and it is mostly examples of how some less known games handle story and combat. Just warning what to expect, if you decide to read.)

I've seen Dragon Age 2 compared to a JRPG, because it had an incredibly linear storyline, where player has almost no opportunity to appreciably change the outcome. However, there is also a similarity in that most combat are random encounters, that come seemingly out of nowhere. In JRPGs, this is actually part of the game's difficulty, since the encounters sap player's resources and increase danger that future encounters pose. Combined with the fact that most JRPGs don't have a "save anywhere" option, the combat contributes to the challenge of the game and poses an actual obstacle that must be overcome by the player. In Dragon Age, however, the random encounters don't have this effect, since it is eliminated by saving and regenerating health. The combat is therefore a speedbump at best and a significant annoyance at worst. All of this is completely irrelevant to the player's enjoyment of the story. Therefore, 90% of combat in Dragon Age 2 is both badly designed and completely removed from the game's story.

Now, I have also been thinking about some other RPGs I've enjoyed lately and how their story interacts with the combat and gameplay. These examples are mostly Japanese-only freeware games, but they actually show most divergence from the usual storytelling fare in RPGs today.

First of all, probably the most well-known example, Etrian Odyssey. It actually got an English release, even though the last two games were only released in the US. These games really show the influence the Wizardry series had on Japanese RPGs, if one disregards the Japanese continuations of the series. There is almost no story, what is there is just a vague goal deep in the labyrinth, although well presented. The player cannot change the outcome of the story (Except for the third game that has one point where the story diverges into two. Apart from few bosses, the gameplay is unchanged.). However, the goal of the developers, as they stated in some interview, was that the player should make their own story. They create the adventurers and they tell their story. It is explicitly playing to the easiest way of telling a story in games, letting the players do it themselves. The game's actual story is only a setting.

Now for combat, it 100% conforms to the JRPG standard I mention above. Random encounters sap player's resources and it is impossible to save inside the labyrinth. Super strong monsters, FOEs, are scattered in the labyrinth and the player is encouraged to avoid them (In fact, the second game gives no experience for slaying FOEs). Combat is exciting, because it is balanced around being deadly. The entire game is centered around exploring. Combat is the obstacle in said exploring and story provides flavour.

Second example is Zill O'll, an obscure PSX RPG notably only because it managed to almost separate player's actions and the story. Story is divided into chapters and most of them can pass by without any input from the player. It is perfectly possible to miss a war that changes the political landscape of the world, because the player was delivering a letters. That has the good result of player feeling that they are only a small part of larger thing, but it also has the bad result that the player actually is only a small part of larger thing. As an experiment, it has mixed results, but it is certainly interesting. Combat is standard JRPG fare, except with the nice feature that it is possible to skip attack animations (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy VII.).

Third example is Summon Night, a Strategic RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics. The most interesting point about its story is that it explicitly divides "game story" and "personal story" into two. By "game story" I mean the part of the story that always happens when you play the game. By "personal story" I mean what happens to the protagonist and can be affected by player's actions. An example among WRPGs would be Dragon Age, where the Archdemon is always defeated, but what happens to the Warden is up to the player. Summon Night's still unique in the aspect that the two parts of the story are separated from each other and while they both progress at the same rate, they have no effect on each other.

As for combat, it is standard Strategic RPG fare, a string of set piece battles, but since SRPGs are a particular niche, they are not of much use when discussing non-SRPG combat.

Continuing the theme of "game story" and "personal story", there's Blue Bullet a freeware Japanese dungeon crawler. It is very similar to Etrian Odyssey, after all, they're both the same subgenre. Again, story is mostly flavour, but player can affect the "personal" part of the story to see a different ending.

What makes Blue Bullet so much fun is the combat system, because it is so integrated into the general game design. The basic premise of the game is that the characters are trapped at the bottom of the dungeon and they have to get out before it floods. At first, you have 250 steps left (200 on hard mode) and you get 250/200 steps for each cleared floor and you can also buy another 250/200 steps. Resting costs 100 steps and resting while reviving an unconscious character costs 150 steps. To top it off, the game has the best motivation to players all over the world: an arbitrary number to evaluate player's performance. Each floor is evaluated based on number of steps taken, number of found treasures and amount of received damage. Apart from plotting the optimal course through each floor, the entire game is designed around combat and combat is designed around dealing the most damage to enemies while expending the least amount of resources and the characters' skills are tailored to this end.

The best for the last, Ruina: Fairy Tale of Forgotten Ruins. It is the best RPG and probably the best game I played in both 2010 and 2011, but I'll try to contain my gushing only to the story and combat parts. The game actually bears a strong gamebook influence (the author has stated in an interview that the Grailquest series was a major inspiration) and it shows. The game is text heavy and consists of going through set point that contain encounters.

There are four possible characters to choose from (Fighter, Mage, Thief, Cleric) and they actually change how the plot revolves: the main character has different motivation, characters react to them differently, they have different means of solving problems and, most importantly, they have an entire storyline devoted to themselves (From Fighter's fairly lackluster one to Mage's totally awesome one). The character's gender has smaller effect on the story, but it's still there: For male Fighter, the primary love interest is the maid NPCs, while the knight is the subtextual love interest. It is exactly the opposite for female Fighter. Female Thief is the only character than can solve the ghost dance party encounter by outdancing the ghosts etc.

So while the story is fairly varied and with lots of details, there's still the combat. Again, the combat has mostly the role of an obstacle during exploration. This role is incresed by making give little to no experience, while most experience is obtained by solving encounters. (That is actually to overcome programming limitation in the RPG Maker engine, which makes awarding experience to characters not participating in combat stupidly difficult.) The real rewards from winning a battle are treasure and opening way deeper into the dungeon. Again, it is mostly standard fare, but boss battles show a lot of invention. For example the first boss is the standard "human hand can't kill him" type of boss. The most obvious way to win the battle is to run past him and awaken a sleeping dragon child, who is able to damage him. However, it is possible to kill the boss by using summoned creatures or damage items or lowering his resistances. These are not the preferred methods, but it is quite satisfying to both discover them and actually pull off.

Again, sorry for being so rambly, but maybe there's something intersting in those examples.
Arthur B at 19:09 on 2012-03-01
In JRPGs, this is actually part of the game's difficulty, since the encounters sap player's resources and increase danger that future encounters pose. Combined with the fact that most JRPGs don't have a "save anywhere" option, the combat contributes to the challenge of the game and poses an actual obstacle that must be overcome by the player. In Dragon Age, however, the random encounters don't have this effect, since it is eliminated by saving and regenerating health. The combat is therefore a speedbump at best and a significant annoyance at worst.

I think this is a really crucial point of what Dan's saying in the article, which is that the general framework of a particular computer game genre or subgenre actually can't be screwed around with arbitrarily to "fix problems" with the subgenre in question without either turning the thing into an entirely different sort of game or just plain making the game worse. I can definitely see someone feeling frustrated that they can't save anywhere in the Dragon Quest, but you can't simply turn around and add that in for the reasons you point out.

I didn't like JRPGs for years until two things happened which reconciled me to the genre. The first thing was that I realised that JRPG combat is essentially a matter of resource management and attrition, where the game world wears you down by sapping your HP and MP with random encounters and you wear down the world by levelling up and becoming capable of going forth and adventuring for longer and longer periods and facing bigger enemies and eventually you win once you become too big for the world to slow down. The second thing was that the PSP and Nintendo DS both had hibernation modes you could put the console into, so you don't have to keep playing to a save point before you stop playing and do something else.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 18:34 on 2012-03-02
As a girl who had a brother who had a Nintendo growing up, I do think you're missing the point a little. It's not about being able beat the monsters and bosses without any effort, it's about the fact that I don't care about the bosses or monsters at all. And yes, I can still enjoy video games that way.

My brother had Zelda, and I enjoyed greatly running around in areas he'd already explored and riding the horse (I really enjoyed riding the horse) and learning all the story elements, but I hated fighting and that basically I had to sit inside or where ever was safe at night, because I hated all those little monsters that would pop up. Collecting ruppees (or whatever those red gems were called) and cutting up treasure chests and running around exploring the terrain and interacting with every mindless villager probably sounds mind-numbingly boring to you, but I did it for hours with great enjoyment, and it was interacting with the world.

I tried to play the game on my own instead of playing in my brother's game and gave up after only a little while because I found all the fighting I had to do made the game so much less interesting to me than if I'd just been able to run around and talk to people and ride the horse where ever I damn well pleased.

The same thing happened to me with Kingdom Hearts. My friend had the game and I liked the story and wanted to know what would happen, but the sheer amount of combat that was involved in everything turned me off of the game quite quickly. I don't mind fighting a simple monster every once in a while, but most games seem to have them popping up every ten feet.

Obviously, neither of these games were made with consumers like me in mind. I think the point of the article was that no game is really made with consumers like me in mind (or at least none were when I was still a kid and could have potentially became a video game fan).

I doubt the kind of visually- and storytelling-rich RGPs ever would be, because they take a lot of money and resources and people who think like me are a smaller segment than people who enjoy combat like you. But if you could have an option before you began to turn on a setting that would allow skipping of combat (that way normal players wouldn't be tempted during hard battles), then it would allow another segment to buy and enjoy RPG video games.
Axiomatic at 19:12 on 2012-03-02
Honestly, that kind of game does sound interesting to me - I just don't trust the creators of Dragon Age 2 to pull it off.

A "game" I quite liked for a while was Noctis, in which you play a galactic explorer. You fly around a galaxy of a couple hundred million stars, and you can visit any one of them, and land on any planet (or moon) with a crust you're capable of standing on - gas giants are right out.

That's all there is to the game. There are no objectives, no collectibles, you have no health bar and it's impossible to die. The only possible thing for you as a player to do is visit as many different planets as you care, and collect screenshots of interesting geographical features.

And the sheer feeling of FREEDOM to go wander off in any direction you care to is damn awesome.

---
On the subject of skipping combat, I think it's a terrible idea, but I do think that all combat should be avoidable by a player who doesn't want to do any fighting - sneak past enemies, run past them like the Road Runner in a Wily E. Coyote cartoon, chat them up and convince them to not fight you, bribe them to go somewhere else, hire mercenaries to clear your path for you, impersonate something so intimidating that all the enemies run away, etc.
Dan H at 00:53 on 2012-03-03
Obviously, neither of these games were made with consumers like me in mind. I think the point of the article was that no game is really made with consumers like me in mind (or at least none were when I was still a kid and could have potentially became a video game fan).


The thing is, I don't think that's true. Adventure games are made *exactly* with consumers like you in mind. You get to explore environments, collect objects (you don't necessarily get to ride horses) and talk to NPCs, and you seldom if ever have to fight anything (and if a game is following the Lucasarts school of adventure design, it will be literally impossible to die or put the game in an unwinnable state).

I doubt the kind of visually- and storytelling-rich RGPs ever would be, because they take a lot of money and resources and people who think like me are a smaller segment than people who enjoy combat like you. But if you could have an option before you began to turn on a setting that would allow skipping of combat (that way normal players wouldn't be tempted during hard battles), then it would allow another segment to buy and enjoy RPG video games.


Again, I *don't* enjoy combat (I stated this quite explicitly in the article). What I enjoy is games which provide an *integrated experience* - in which conversations are played through in-engine by selecting dialogue choices, fights are played through in-engine with however the engine's combat system works, and locks are picked in-engine using whatever the game's system for lockpicking is.

So even a disableable (is that a word?) skip combat option would wreck RPGs for me, because it would contribute to an *already* common attitude amongst RPG designers that an RPG is supposed to be a shooter glued to a novel.
http://jmkmagnum.blogspot.com/ at 01:25 on 2012-03-03
I actually don't mind the shooter-glued-to-a-novel format for video games, I dug Mass Effect 2, although I think it works a lot better as an embellished shooter rather than a new format for roleplaying games. It's cool to me that there are spiffy shooters that have characters and dialogue and settings instead of just COs barking "Go to the glowing waypoint!" at you. BUT it has been pretty tragic watching the format displace integrated RPGs.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 03:48 on 2012-03-03
The thing is that there are people that love video games, like my brother (and probably you, though obviously I don't know you), who as a kid would save up to buy the latest Nintendo system and games because he loved pretty much everything about video games.

Then there were people like me, who are intrigued by the concept of video games and willing to give them a try if someone offers me an opportunity. So, the games I played were the games my brother bought for the most part, or the games my roommates brought to college.

And it's perfectly fine that I never became a gamer, but if the goal is to appeal video games to a broader audience, then the games normal gamers would buy, also need to be playable by that broader audience, because that's going to be their (possibly only) opportunity to try RPGs out.

As someone who as a kid searched for RPG games I could play, I really had trouble finding something that fit the bill. (Echo and Pokemon were sadly it.) And maybe that's changed somewhat, but every video game I hear people getting excited about comes with inevitable fighting.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 04:15 on 2012-03-03
Again, I *don't* enjoy combat (I stated this quite explicitly in the article). What I enjoy is games which provide an *integrated experience*

I didn't mean to imply that you run around killing every pixilated man, woman, and child you can find to slake your bloodlust. ^^ I just meant that compared to me (who can't stand having baddies popping up five steps on the path), you can appreciate that part of the RPG gameplay.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 05:56 on 2012-03-03
I talked to my brother about this, and he came up with a better solution since he knows video games much better than I. ^^

There are some RPGs where fighting is the RPG, and obviously there wouldn't be a point to playing the game at all and skipping combat. There are other RPGs that involve a huge puzzle element or non-fighting tasks and mini-games (such as the Zelda series). In these types of RPGs, there is two types of fighting.

Case 1) The event's only purpose is fighting.
This would be boss battles or a fighting task, such as getting through a guarded gate. In these cases, it would impossible to remove the fighting because that is the task.

Case 2) Grunts used to extend a non-fighting task.
This would be when you're running around an area trying to complete something, and these enemies appear to slow you down. As an example, my brother used the new Zelda, where there's a task in which you're trying to catch three birds in a forest. You have to swing on vines and play hide and seek with the birds until you catch them. Along the way goblins and plants attack you.

I'm not bothered by the Case 1 events, because then I know I'm going to be fighting. It's a fighting task, so I want to complete that task. It's when I'm doing a Case 2 event and suddenly find myself having to fight Heartless at every street corner that I get frustrated.

Those goblins and plants aren't actually part of the task, they're there to keep you from getting bored while you're chasing the birds. But for people like me, it's this type of fighting that actually detracts from the story. I wouldn't be bored without them, I'd be able to enjoy completing the non-fighting task without the constant annoyance of them popping up. I don't find them a challenge, I find that they actively cause me to quit playing.

Because Case 2 enemies are only put in to keep the average RPG player from getting bored and to help them level up to fight the bosses, it would be incredibly easy to have a mode that eliminates 80% of the Case 2 enemies and then scales down the stats of the Case 1 opponents to account for lack of leveling up, just like most games have an easy and hard mode.

It would be much better than allowing players to decide when to skip combat, but there would finally be enough games to make a reasonably sized library of RPG titles available to potential players like me.
Heidi at 08:18 on 2012-03-03
@descrime I totally understand where you're coming from. It seems like you enjoy games where you control the character directly in order to interact with NPCs, find items, and solve puzzles, but you don't like when combat is presented as a sort of mandatory obstacle course. It also seems like you're interested in games with higher production values, like Kingdom Hearts and some Zelda games. I'm not sure how many adventure games have those. A couple of games I can think of are The Longest Journey (PC) and its sequel Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (PC & Xbox 360). The first is a more traditional point-and-click adventure, but the second allows you to control the characters in a 3D environment more like you would in an RPG or action game. I've heard that while there is combat in Dreamfall, it's not a very big part of the game, and most of the time you're just talking to people, finding clues, etc. I haven't played these games myself, but they seem to be closer to what you're looking for.

I think it's the arbitrary nature of a lot of RPG combat that puts many people off. You have to mow down hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies while playing certain games, and why is that? I know that if combat was taken out of something like FFX or Dragon Age, there would be long stretches of just running from one point to another, with nothing to do along the way. Some games, like Skyrim, can get away with this. The world is interesting enough to hold my attention without throwing a monster at me every five steps, and it's filled with many places and items to find and characters to talk to. Other games, like Galerians: Ash, turn into endless gray corridor after endless gray corridor when there's nothing to fight (the fact that that game is terrible overall doesn't help). A lot of RPGs, especially JRPGs, would just be so empty if there was no combat, since they don't bother putting much else in the world to interact with.

I don't think the answer is simply turning off combat, but creating more games where combat isn't the main way to define your characters. There's more methods of gaining experience and skills than battling waves of enemies. I think that The Sims 3 is a good example of a game that lets you level up skills without combat (I also think of it as an RPG, but not everyone does). You create a character or characters, increase their skills and relationships, make them complete tasks to earn money, then spend that money on better stuff for them, all while trying to accomplish their life goals. (Alternately, you can try to make their lives as miserable as possible.) Sure, there's no real story to The Sims 3 other than the one you create yourself, but I don't see why a similar game design couldn't be applied to something a little more narrative-heavy.

Like Shimmin has been saying, I think we all relatively agree on what the problem is (RPG combat is often boring, repetitive, and separated from a game's story, and sometimes it prevents people from accessing a game's other content). We seem to disagree on how that problem should be addressed. If people can just skip combat, what's the point of including the combat in the first place? If people don't like certain parts of a game, why should they have to suffer through them just to get to what they do like? How can designers appeal to a wider audience of gamers without alienating their current audience?

As I've said before, I'd like to see the development of more RPGs that don't focus on combat, rather than simply changing the ones we already have. Or, if combat is necessary, actually make it necessary, instead of an arbitrary obstacle that has barely any impact on the story (for example, I consider many boss fights to be relevant to the story, whereas fighting groups of Critter X is less so). Case 1 fighting makes a lot more sense to me, context-wise, and I'd love to see more games have combat like this; however, I also enjoy Case 2 fighting (when it's not needless difficult or broken), and don't want to see it go. It's a complicated issue, and I think all sides have good points to make.
Heidi at 08:22 on 2012-03-03
*whereas fighting _random_ groups of Critter X is less so.

(I could preview for days, and I'd still miss stuff ^.^;;)
Dan H at 12:28 on 2012-03-03
Case 2) Grunts used to extend a non-fighting task.
This would be when you're running around an area trying to complete something, and these enemies appear to slow you down. As an example, my brother used the new Zelda, where there's a task in which you're trying to catch three birds in a forest. You have to swing on vines and play hide and seek with the birds until you catch them. Along the way goblins and plants attack you.


Ah, with you.

Again, here we don't disagree - I don't like Case 2 fights either - I think ironically I'm actually *more hardline* on this that you are. I see Case 2 situations as flat-out *bad RPG design* (then again, I wouldn't count Zelda as an RPG so much as an action game).

So the reason I don't think games should have a mode which gets rid of all the unnecessary, unavoidable combat is that I don't think games should *have* unnecessary, unavoidable combat.

Case 2 combats aren't there to stop the average RPG player from getting bored, they're there to pad out the content (and possibly to stop the average FPS player from getting bored).
Axiomatic at 12:41 on 2012-03-03
I mentioned Noctis earlier. The galaxy exploration game?

Try it out. Also, did I say there's hundreds of thousands of procedurally generated star systems? I made a mistake, there are 78 billion.

I just hope you like DOS-era resolution.
Heidi at 07:34 on 2012-03-04
@descrime Just remembered another game that you might enjoy. (There's some spoilery stuff in the link, so be careful) Shadow of Memories (UK)/Shadow of Destiny (US) is an older game for the PS2 (though there are other ports available). It's not an RPG, but it doesn't have any combat at all. It basically involves hopping around through time to unravel the main mystery, and meeting a few characters and searching for items along the way. I played it a few years ago, and I enjoyed it.
Arthur B at 14:55 on 2012-03-04
It's a great example of a very nonlinear adventure game too.
The features available in a game affect your experience whether you use them or not. This is true for a great many reasons, partly it's true because it affects the way the developers spend their resources – it is not unreasonable to worry that if combat becomes skippable, designers will worry less about balancing combat or making combat something other than the tedious speedbump it already so often is.


Quoted for truth. Ultimately, the presence or absence of a given feature can totally change the nature of the game if only by changing the way the developer approaches the design of 'challenge' or 'fun.' Now, when you refer to old-school cRPGs, you mostly mean late-90s games like Fallout 1&2 and the Infinity-Engine games, but here is an example from the old-old-school days of the early-mid '80s. In the days of wireframe (and CGA and EGA) dungeon-crawlers, you not only had to deal with "perma"-death, but you also had to make your own maps on graph paper!

Now, mapping was more than an annoyance in those days; it was half the challenge. There is nothing in modern cRPGs quite as nerve-wracking as getting lost in dungeon corridors and not knowing if you will/can make it out alright. Even if you did die, it would not have been a complete loss since you would have mapped more of the dungeon. The early designers recognized the challenges of map-making and included various dungeon features with the sole goal of messing up your map, such as spinners that spin you in a new direction or teleporters that warp you to a new area in the dungeon level (or, worse, a new level). You had to pay attention and think twice before setting additions to your map in stone (or ink, as it were). Now, let's add in an auto-map feature and watch all that challenge disappear. If you always know where you are, then spinners and teleporters become mild annoyances rather than sources of sheer terror. Sure, you could say that the complainers did not have to use the auto-map, but its inclusion totally changed how developers approached the game design and its challenge factor (since there are hardly any spinners or random teleporters anymore).

Of course, that kind of auto-mapping only works with grid-based dungeon layouts, and 3D technology has allowed us a more organic approach to world design, so a better example would be the loss of "perma"-death. When a character died in Wizardry I, s/he was dead. To revive him or her, the party needed to have a high-enough level Priest or to exit the dungeon and pay for a resurrection. If the entire party was killed, the player needed another party of adventures able to plumb the depths and bring their corpses back to the surface. The high costs of failure (and the inability to truly 'rest' in dungeons) promoted discretion and judicious use of resources since you had to make sure you had a good chance of surviving all the encounters you may come across. When easy resting and perma-saving came in, discretion was thrown to the wind, and the only way to maintain any challenge was in creating individually difficult set-piece battles rather than in the slow accumulation of battles. In other words, it totally changed the nature of the game.
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