September 28, 2011

In Defense of “Gamification” in RPGs

Last week we had a double-barreled shotgun blast of opinion pieces advocating for RPGs to hide or drop some of their core conventions and abstractions. Tom Bissell, writing about Dead Island, complained about pop-up damage numbers in a real-world zombie RPG and landed a glancing blow against leveling and statistics-based gameplay. In a separate argument, George Weidman over at TruePCGaming issued a searing denunciation of onscreen HUDs.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m fiercely devoted to variety in gaming; pieces like these, where people present their particularized preferences as universal Thou Shalt Nots for games…well, suffice it to say that they tend to get my dander up. What follows is a defense of the things discussed in the articles above.

UI graphics: why have them?

I’ll start this section off by quoting relevant portions of the articles. Weidman complains of  “the abstract, visually impossible presence of an interface.” “There’s something to be said of how a smaller interface almost always correlates to greater immersion,” writes Weidman.

Bissell, in turn, states: “Where you begin to lose me is when I am shooting at someone in Borderlands and numbers begin to cascade off his body. These numbers represent the amount of health your enemy is losing, which is a pretty amazingly unnecessary bit of information to take in during a gunfight. How about you just shoot at each other until one of you is dead?” He also comments on the “weird experience” of seeing a zombie’s level appear onscreen, then later implies that it undermines the emotional experience of playing the game.

I don’t buy these immersion arguments. Something about them reminds me of the age-old insistence that a game has to be first-person to be immersive. The FPS argument essentially goes like this: the more the onscreen representation of the game world mimics our ordinary perception of our day-to-day surroundings, the more we will be immersed in the game world. The premise is essentially that the player cannot immerse him or herself within the game unless it really looks like he or she is actually looking at the game world through the screen. (Here is the latest in a long line of articles making exactly this sort of assertion.)

This argument has always struck me as specious. For one thing, we don’t generally play games standing up. So even when the view onscreen provides a first-person, eye-level-while-standing representation of the game world, it still doesn’t match the physical reality of our bodily positioning. The character is standing; we are sitting. If immersion truly depended on seeing in the game what you would see in real life, we would need to start making FPSs that feature protagonists in chairs.


Like this, but with you in the wheelchair.

Additionally, there’s the issue that monitors do not cover the full range of our peripheral vision. We can always see our real-world surroundings as we play. We would need massive monitors that extend 180 degrees around us if we were ever to succeed in shutting out visual stimuli not representing things in the game world.

More fundamentally, however, players simply don’t need to have the game world presented to them with exacting literalness in order to be immersed. We need not hunt down and remove every abstraction from games as part of some sort of aesthetic witch hunt. All games require the player to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief in order to become immersed.

It takes a baffling underestimation of the human imagination to think that abstracted visual elements must somehow prevent that suspension from taking place. Abstract elements have featured in highly immersive games for decades. RPG gamers of a certain age all managed to get lost in the original Fallout’s crude world of 256-color isometric hexes despite its onscreen textual narration and surprisingly obtrusive rust-metal HUD. In fact, even games whose graphics consist of nothing but abstractions are well-known for immersing their players. Tetris is nothing but crude 2D blocks, and yet it is notorious for bleeding over into the real world because players get so sucked into it.

Imagination transcends technology. It does not depend, and has never depended, on a 1-to-1 graphical representation of the thing being imagined. To say otherwise is to conceive of immersion as a mechanism by which the game disengages a player’s imagination and replaces it with direct sensory input. I hope that I am not alone in finding that idea disturbing.

Weidman actually does make a good point about increasing immersion by removing HUD elements, but critically, it’s not about visuals. He argues that requiring a player to study the game world to discern information otherwise readily available in the HUD increases immersion. Particularly good is his example of having to note the position of the sun to tell time in-game. This, to me, is a separate point from “a game has to visually represent the world accurately to permit immersion”; this is less about tricking your brain with visuals, and more about the depth of the player’s interaction with the game world.

After all, there is nothing “unrealistic” about someone in a future post-apocalypse having a clock on a heads-up display. But there is definitely something more engaging about having to study the environment for clues to your survival. It requires the player to engage in second-order thinking based on the rules of the game world, which in turn entails a certain internalization of those rules. That is why people who’ve been playing Tetris for hours look for ways to complete rows on supermarket shelves: they’ve thoroughly internalized the rules of that game world. People have reported this same phenomenon with Portal: after playing for hours, they find themselves scanning smooth surfaces for places to set up portals. It’s about systematized rules and interactions, not just literal visual representation.

There is also a defensible point to be made about visual noise. It’s hard to argue that visual noise isn’t a problem. Clearly, developers should not clutter up screen real estate with pointless gizmos (much less gizmos which trivialize the challenge of playing the game). And certainly, not all games need extensive HUDs or pop-up damage. Limbo and Shadow of the Colossus, for instance, get great mileage out of extremely minimal UI.

But–and this needs to be said–those games are not RPGs. Historically, RPGs have always had abstracted visual aids onscreen. And for good reason: by and large, RPGs aren’t games of “point-and-shoot-the-moving-thing.” As I’ve argued before, one way or another, you need clear information in order to make intelligent tactical decisions in an RPG. Maybe you don’t need it onscreen at all times, and maybe you don’t need all of it, but you definitely do need some of it.

RPG developers use pop-up damage because it provides clear and immediate visual feedback to the player about the efficacy of a character’s attacks. Maybe that doesn’t matter so much in a game where you choose between a rifle, a pistol and a submachine gun for your armament, but in a game with a dozen different attack elements, failing to provide that sort of feedback to the player would be disastrous.

A HUD, likewise, is essential in games where you manage multiple characters. The player needs to be able to see at a glance what state each character is in. Imagine playing X-COM: UFO Defense (or worse, a game with real-time combat) with no HUD. Until the player learned two dozen or so hotkeys, the game would be virtually unplayable; and in an age where AAA games demand console ports, a user-unfriendly keyboard workaround is not even possible.

To put this more succinctly: immersion is great, but it isn’t the only consideration. A game developer has to think of user-friendliness as well. Putting all of the information one needs to play the game in a place where players can easily see it is essential. Leaving that out in the name of immersion is a little like leaving out the page numbers and chapter headings from your novel because you think they detract from the raw experience of reading. A few people might appreciate it, but it will anger far more people than it will please.

Leveling and skill development: why have them?

HUDs, level indicators and pop-up damage are really just the tip of the iceberg here. Bissell goes further, comparing such basic RPG systems as leveling and skill progression to “the devices and enticements of Gamification,” a bit like getting “achievement points for doing things like brushing our teeth or working out.” Bissell hints at (but never quite makes) the argument that one can use RPG systems to craft an abusive, addictive game through manipulative use of numerical progression and random rewards.

Instead, Bissell complains that leveling and skill trees should not be used in a setting without traditional fantasy or sci fi scènes à faire, then–without explanation–abruptly detours into a ridiculous theory about how RPGs come to have these mechanics under the hood:

I recently asked a game-designer friend if one of the reasons these skill-tree and leveling-up systems actually show up in games is due to the fact that some poor bastard actually had to work for months and sometimes years refining them and planning them and gaming them out, so that everything made sense and demonstrably kept players from getting too powerful too quickly. He said, with a sigh, “Pretty much.” Which means that one problem with game design today is the game designer’s emotional inability to hide his or her hard work.

So, I am going to go ahead and take a wild guess that Bissell’s game developer friend does not make RPGs. For those of you who are now wondering, allow me to set the record straight: RPG developers do not use leveling systems because we are poor, misbegotten souls who poured years of our lives into making and refining them.


"Finally! After all these years, I made it so the numbers go up."

Do you know how long it takes to code a leveling system? Less than an hour. Maybe two if you get really fancy with it. And if you’re going to spend years making a game, don’t you think you would suss out something as fundamental as “should this game have leveling” prior to spending months or years of balancing the thing? Further, I’m not even going to chance a guess at what convoluted method one might use to render a skill tree “invisible.”

Let me be blunt. RPG developers do not add leveling or skill trees into our games by accident, then fail to remove or hide them because of loss aversion bias. We add them–quite deliberately–because they lend a game a different sort of play experience. Levels and skill trees are a way of forcing the player to sculpt her character over time, making permanent trade-offs in the way the character develops. The player needs to be able to see what areas her character has developed in, and what choices she faces as she continues the character’s development. That is not gamification for the sake of gamification–that is central to what an RPG is.

Many of us like that sort of dynamic. Bissell seems to realize that, ending his piece with a rhetorical question:

The hell of it is, many gamers will probably love Dead Island. So many numbers. So many levels. No wonder such people turn to Metacritic for guidance. For these gamers I have one question. In a game about running from things that want to eat you, what is more important: the emotional experience of running from things that want to eat you, or knowing that the thing that wants to eat you is a Level 23 thing that wants to eat you? Knowing that the machete in your hand can take its head off, or knowing that the machete in your hand is capable of doing 320+ hit points of damage?

My response: that is for gamers everywhere to answer. Some may prefer the visceral thrill of not knowing what their characters are capable of, while others may prefer crunching numbers in their heads and making tactical calculations about how to deal with the things running at them and trying to eat them. We don’t have to choose to only make one kind of game or the other: we can have both.

And that, ultimately, is a big part of why games are so wonderful: they represent the potential for infinite variety. I think about the nearly endless combinatorial possibilities of language (“…it would take far, far longer than the age of the Universe for monkeys to completely randomly produce a flawless copy of the 3,695,990 or so characters in the works [of Shakespeare]”), and then I think about the exponential increase in complexity represented by video games vis-à-vis text. Text is just a tiny slice of everything a game is made of. The universe will be long dead before we have exhausted all of the possibilities inherent in the medium. And that’s okay; but I still want us to make the attempt.

  • G Weidman

    I will say that I was being a bit inclusive in my assumptions: the rules tossed about in my article primarily refer to the kind of 3D, story-driven first-person shooters and RPGs that have the most to lose from visual abstractions taking up screen space. For these games, there is almost always a pretty strong correlation between the amount of HUD visible and the amount of immersion lost. For me in particular, I’ve recently started playing Just Cause 2 with a first-person mod and no HUD, and found that it was the only way I was able to get into the game. For New Vegas, I was also already familiar enough with the mechanics of the game to play it flawlessly without a HUD. However, that it is even possible to play it flawlessly without a HUD should send a clear signal that these things are often unnecessary. Certainly, something as abstract and as far from the FPS/RPG genres as Tetris doesn’t lend itself to the same rules. nnThere is a slew of minute details that make the immersion you’re thinking of impossible. Monitors not covering full peripheral vision is an oft-cited example, but one that can’t be corrected with the same kind of second-order thinking you’re mentioning. Thing is, we do this kind of thinking with a keyboard and mouse for virtually 100% of a gaming session. Quickly pivoting one’s entire body for quick glances to the left or right is certainly faster and less tiring in an FPS than in reality. On a similar note, thinking that immersion means making games that take place within office chairs is so far off from my own definiton of immersion that I can’t even begin to think in similar terms. Games almost always need some kind of fantastical, dramatic, or surreal setting to be interesting. An important goal of design is to make it visually interesting as well, or palatable even. Noisy HUDs are counter-productive to that end.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your response; that certainly addresses some of the issues I had with your article.nn”that it is even possible to play it flawlessly without a HUD should send a clear signal that these things are often unnecessary.”nnSee, here’s the thing. It wasn’t until I began to develop games* that I realized just what a huge proportion of players simply won’t figure things out in a game without them being spelled out onscreen. So while I think you make a lot of good points about the advantages of going HUD-less, the fact that it is technically possible to play flawlessly without a HUD does not mean that such an approach doesn’t place huge barriers to entry on a game. As a developer, I can’t afford to ignore that, even if it does produce some benefits to immersion (as I’m sure it does).nnThat said, I think that even in the relatively narrow subgenre of story-driven FPSs, there should be room for both approaches. I liked your suggestion of including a no-HUD option (though that would necessarily mean more work for the devs in ensuring that the resulting game is playable without a HUD).nn*I don’t develop story-driven FPSs, exactly, but I would be shocked if FPS developers didn’t have this same experience.

  • Bissell wrote: “what is more important… …Knowing that the machete in nyour hand can take its head off, or knowing that the machete in your nhand is capable of doing 320+ hit points of damage?”nnObviously the former.u00a0 But what Bissell is missing is that it is very difficult to adequately communicate to the players that a particular machete can “take its head off” without giving the player some degree of accurate feedback on the weapon’s performance.u00a0 And we all know that game designers aren’t going to program in a dozen subtly different animations per monster/weapon combination in a game with a dozen weapons and forty types of monsters.u00a0 The combinatorial problem is extreme.nnNow there are certainly some poor motivations for some use of numbers in games.u00a0 If a designer wants to use a reward stimulus pattern of stat building gameplay where the reward for a quest is a very, very slightly better weapon, and a player goes through a hundred levels of weaponry over the course of his career, he needs a way to communicate to the players that the Rusty Machete is slightly better than the Cracked Machete, and slightly worse than the Tarnished Machete.u00a0 So there’s that.nnBut generally, in an RPG you need your character to make realistic decisions.u00a0 To make realistic decisions you need your player to have accurate information about the consequences of those decisions.u00a0 To give the player accurate information about consequences you need to have some communication channel between the designer and the player, and HUDs and numbers are an efficient way to achieve that.nnThis actually comes up a lot in pen and paper RPG discussions.u00a0 Numbers reduce immersion.u00a0 But not having numbers leaves you flailing about looking for feedback from the gameworld, and that REALLY reduces immersion.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you. I hated Bissel’s anti-rpg rant. His entire argument boiled down to “I don’t like this, therefore no one should like this.” It was asinine.

  • elderago

    Thank you your areu00a0 right, I want good old rpgs were I have to crunch number worry about skilla feats andattributes that is isometric, not another pretty game with stripped down gameplay that is first person and claiming it is an rpg…nnnyes I glaring at skyrim right now… I what my intellect scores bethesda !!

  • Guest

    Let me first state that I’m very much in agreement with you.u00a0 There was more to get me into the game world in Fallout’s oft-cheeky narrator box than there is in all the painstaking, blood-spattered ‘glory’ of a raider group’s typical way of marking territory in Fallout 3.u00a0 The limbless corpses that seem to have been nailed firmly to mattresses were mildly sickening but jarred Bethesda’s precious immersion more than my health meter or the hazard indicator for a thrown grenade ever did.u00a0 “Why would anybody do this when comfortable places to rest are in such short supply?”nnBut moronic and meanspirited as most of his argument is, bully-boy Bissel and the anonymous friend he may or may not have are fumbling to make a point they feel strongly about.u00a0 Somebody is moving their cheese-making games in genres they dislike, with settings or subjects that were always from genres they loved.u00a0 That’s the nature of innovation, and technology is taking us to where RPG makers can do virtually anything.u00a0 Take Bissel’s violent reaction as a warning; you can slap him down for his illogic, but you’d better be prepared to weather the hordes of zombie shooter junkies who are probably going to be just as pissed off as he will be if Dead Island spawns copycat companies that want to see if they can get rave reviews with just a little more RPG shoehorned in.nnOr we can force them all to play System Shock 2 and remind them that the infected crew are as much zombies as anything Gordon Freeman ever jammed his crowbar into.u00a0

  • Kent

    I were hoping for an article where you try to defend RPGs in general. Why have leveling systems or skill trees? I say that if a game is 1st person and you shoot stuff in it – then you shouldn’t apply some artificial RPG system to it. In the case of Dead Island the formula seems unnecessary when the game could have been a fairly decent first person shooter instead. The same goes for strategy games. DoW2 got huge criticism for removing bases from the game and replacing it with some half baked RPG system instead. RPGs aren’t generally bad but sometimes you want to enjoy a RTS as a RTS and a FPS as a FPS. Its best when the RPG system is designed from the start, but even then it can be pretty half baked like all the major RPGs today: Elder Scrolls series, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. I can tell you right now what they should have been: Elder Scrolls should have been a Hack ‘n’ Slasher, Mass Effect should have been a third person shooter and Dragon Age should have been a dating simulator. The RPG systems should have been there to complement it’s strong sides or offer nice perks (like Deus Ex Human Revolution). Not barge in with an obscure stat system that really doesn’t mean anything.

  • stinyk472

    Have to say that I think seeking maximum immersion is a dead end. In the real world, I sometimes have to look for 10 minutes to find where I put my car keys. Doing that in a game just reminds me of how boring the real world actually is and there’s nothing more bound to take away immersion in a game than boredom.

    Things like onscreen HUDs, visual cues and feedback often speed things up — help us gather information more quickly that the game failed to accurately convey or would be too tedious to find otherwise. It’s a way to fast forward the boring, a way to gather information that the game cannot adequately provide otherwise, and a way to do actions quickly that would otherwise be harder to control or find.

    If we seek to go a more immersive route with fewer HUDs/controls/indicators, no automaps, no ways to instantly go from one destination to the other, etc. then I think the player is bound to get lost unless games take a dramatic leap in technology that makes up for these things in ways that abstract game worlds today cannot. Even then I would be afraid of spending 10 minutes looking for my car keys again, at which point I will be reminded that I should probably get some work done and not be playing games.