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.