Monday, March 6, 2017

Zelda: Breath of the Wild - first game to deliver on the open world promise (for me)

I wasn't at all hyped for Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as I don't actually care for open world games generally. I've played plenty of very highly-rated open world games in the past that everyone else seemed to love, but just didn't do it for me, often with me giving up fairly early in the experience and moving on to something more compelling. Even Dragon's Dogma, I love for the amazing combat system more than the actual open world nature of it (I feel it would work better as a dungeon crawler, which is why BBI was a good fit for it).

I decided to give Zelda a try anyway because I liked the art style and of course the rave reviews just wouldn't stop. After a while of playing it though, I realized I was playing it just like everyone says you should be playing an open world game, and enjoying it for the reasons you are supposed to: the "hey, what's over there!" and "I wonder how I reach that?" and "Wow that's too scary, I'm going to come back and face that when I'm better prepared", and "I bet I could reach that place if I'm careful enough, let's try!" and so on.

The experience invoked feelings I haven't felt since, and this might sound weird, the original EverQuest when it first came out, where I spent a lot of time trying to reach dangerous places and explore, often coming across fascinating things in my travels and avoiding frightening enemies I looked forward to coming back to later once I was powerful enough. I've played many MMO's since EQ, and many single-player open-world games, and for some reason none of them caused the same feeling of wonder in exploration that EQ did - until now.

So I've been thinking about why that is, what it is about this Zelda game I didn't even think I wanted that makes it different from all the other open-world games I've played and invokes the feeling of wonder and excitement just from exploring - even though I do have beefs with the game (the weapon durability/frequency of weapon drops annoys me) and even though the combat system is not terribly compelling.

Reason #1: Lack of punishing permanent decisions

Most every other open world game hits you with a lot of permanent decisions (often without giving you at all adequate information about the consequences), particularly related to your character and their "build", but also things like how to resolve quests, which party members to use, and so on. Often these decisions have far-reaching implications - heck, in Mass Effect you can make decisions that not only affect the rest of the game but the sequels as well! There is an opportunity cost for every decision like this you make - you miss out on things you might have experienced if you had chosen the other path. You could "gimp" your character, or make them overpowered, or even just make them not ideally set up for the play-style you eventually settle on, and often there's no way to fix your build but to start the whole game over.

Every time a decision like this comes up, and I admit this is a personal character flaw, I feel compelled to stop the game and go do research on it. I don't want to "miss out" on content (and I don't tend to play through games more than once, especially big ones like these), so I want to find out what quest path is going to have the most interesting results, what party member is going to have the best dialog or be the most useful to my party, and so one. In short, these kind of decisions freeze me, and really bog down the whole experience. I know some people love that kind of thing, but it often ruins the game for me. I'm okay with it in shorter games with branching paths (like Telltale games and such), but in games that last dozens or hundreds of hours, its a big drain on my enjoyment.

Zelda does not have this kind of decision making. The only thing close to a permanent decision is whether you want more health or more stamina when you "level up" (collect 4 Spirit Orbs). This is not a decision that requires research, as the usefulness of each is obvious. Its also not really a decision you can screw up, since no matter what you choose, both are useful for all styles of play, and early in the game you'll be given the ability to change your mind if you want anyway.

This means the only decisions left are the fun stuff - where do I go next? What approach is best to overcome the obstacle before me? I feel free to make these decisions at my whim, knowing that no matter what I choose, I haven't missed out anything, as I can always go back and explore the other area later, or tackle the next obstacle in an alternate way. I have not felt compelled to stop and look things up with this game, which is very rare for me.

Reason #2: Rewards for exploration are clear and always actually rewarding

Let's say in your typical open world game you find a hidden cave full of skeletons. What are you going to get out of exploring this cave? First and foremost, exp and loot. But is that loot useful? Maybe. Maybe its stuff that's weaker than what you already have. Maybe it will just fill up your inventory with junk you now have to sort through and go sell. And you could get exp from anywhere really, often more of it from doing quests than from killing things, so then it feels like you are just cleaning out an infestation rather than exploring something interesting. Best case scenario, you get some quest or cool backstory somehow (and to be fair, that last possibility is not something Zelda offers).

In Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you have a limited set of rewards for exploration, but unlike the skeleton cave example, they are always useful. You either get materials, weapons/armor, Korok seeds, or a Shrine.

Materials are the least exciting but since you have infinite capacity for them, it never feels like a waste to collect them. Weapons break easily so generally they are worth getting and having a stockpile on hand, and armor is very rare and very useful. Suspicious and interesting areas generally reward Korok seeds, which are used to increase your carrying capacity for weapons and such, and thus you really can never have too many of those and they are always appreciated. Finally, there's the Shrines, which act as fast travel way-points and always reward you with a Spirit Orb. Like Korok seeds, Spirit Orbs are infinitely useful as they can increase your maximum health or stamina, so finding a Shrine is always a net benefit.

Thus, you never feel like you wasted your time exploring somewhere. The world in this game is dense with interesting places to explore and yet, strangely, the variety of rewards for doing so is fairly limited - but that's a good thing because it means you are always rewarded with something you actually want!

Also, the Shrines in particular have to be noted as being much more rewarding than your typical cave or ruins or what-not in most open-world games, in that they always contain unique, hand-crafted gameplay rather than just mobs to kill and loot to get. They may not offer special quests or NPC's or backstory, but I generally would rather have Zelda-like puzzles than lore anyway (especially when new lore is hardly a guarantee anyway with exploring a cave or ruin or whatever in other open world games, and often isn't that interesting).

Reason #3: Truly open, yet always a goal

After the starting area, you can literally march right to the final battle if you want. You will almost certainly die, but you can. Crazy, right? You can also climb pretty much everything in this game, and you start out with several very useful abilities to help navigate past obstacles like a paraglider, so you really can go wherever you want (though figuring out how to get there is still often tricky). BUT, there is no "auto-leveling enemies" or anything, so some areas are just plain tougher than others. This is a great thing! It means you can run into something truly beyond you, and feel like "One day I'm going to come back and be able to tackle that thing! But for now, I think I'll try to just sneak past it, I really want to get to that tower I see over there!"

The game lets you wander as you feel like, and yet always has obvious objectives. The most obvious is the main quest objective of course (though it appears there is really only a handful before "defeat Ganon"), but there are also towers you can see in the distance that you can try to make your way toward, many of which are quite difficult to reach.

I remember when I played Oblivion (I think it was), after the starting part I was plopped out in the world and told I can go wherever and do whatever I want, but I immediately felt like "I have no idea which way I want to go, one direction seems the same as another, how am I supposed to pick?", and rather than feeling free by this I felt unmotivated to really bother. Zelda starts you out on a high plateau where you can see the world around you and all the interesting things you could go and check out, full of compelling landmarks (that you can helpfully "tag" from first-person view to mark on your map, which is a great idea all these games should include from now on).  Therefore I've always felt like I had obvious things to move toward, and though I'll have fun getting sidetracked along the way, I never reach the point where I'm left just wondering "well now what?"

Anyway, there are probably other reasons that made this game compelling where others weren't that are too subtle for me to notice, but this is what I thought of so far. I actually really disliked the last Zelda game (Skyward Sword) and didn't play it much, so its not just Zelda fanboyism, and I don't generally like open world games and was actually disappointed to hear this one was going to be that way (and wasn't sure I was even going to get it at all), so its certainly not just being an open world game that made it hard to put down. Its other factors like those above, and the attention to detail and polish in the game I'm sure, that make Zelda: Breath of the Wild stand out as the first open world game to really deliver on the supposed promise of open world games for me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Why Dragon's Dogma's Hard Mode Sucks

I really enjoy Dragon's Dogma, and I really enjoy challenging games or doing self-restrictive challenges in games.  This should be pretty clear if you've seen my YouTube series Dragon's Dogma Crazy Solo Challenge Run, where I played through all the content in the game without pawns, without using curatives, and even without armor.  Or if you just look at the kind of games I make, its pretty obvious I love a good challenge!

I was understandably pretty excited when I learned that a new "Hard Mode" was being added to Dragon's Dogma via a patch way back when, and viewers of my solo runs asked me if I would further challenge myself by playing through this mode.

I really wanted to like Hard Mode, but sadly it was very poorly done, at least as a way to play the game from the beginning.  It feels more like what New Game+ should have been than a legitimate Hard Mode intended to be played from the start, and I think it sucks a lot of the fun out of the game even for someone like me who prefers a challenge.  It was very obviously a tack-on with little thought put into it.

The reason Hard Mode sucks in Dragon's Dogma is that half the changes are actually things that make it easier, and the rest are more annoying than challenging, make the combat dull, or go too far and feel more like unfair random deaths and not a true test of skill.  In this post I will examine each of the changes made in detail, and at the end present alternate changes that would have made for a true challenge without making the combat dull, annoying, or unfair.

What Hard Mode Does

* Double XP/DP and increased gold drops

What. The. Hell.  Does this sound like a "Hard Mode" to you?  If someone is looking for extra challenge, why do you think they'd want that to include changes that make the game easier?  What were they thinking here?

I get that you might want to add some kind of incentive, some reason to play the mode (though I'd argue you don't really need one because the players who prefer a challenge don't need any extra incentive).  But if you must have an incentive, don't make it something that counters the very idea behind the mode!

And if this was done to counter-balance the elements that make the mode hard, than clearly you are doing it wrong.  Everything in the mode should be at least as hard as the normal mode, but doubling xp gain and giving extra gold does the opposite - by completing the same content as before, your character will now be significantly higher level and have enough cash to buy the best equipment.  If the developers felt the mode was too hard as it was, they should have toned back the other changes rather than add something like this that goes counter to the very idea behind a higher difficulty level!

Honestly as a solo player, I already find my character leveling up faster than I'd like (due to not splitting xp with my pawns), so having double xp on top of that means I have out-leveled all the content long before I get to it unless I go out of my way to avoid getting xp.  This change also causes other problems I'll cover later.

On a side note, Hard Mode also increases the power of some augments, like Bastion!

* Increased Stamina usage for moves

Well at least this is a step in the right direction.  Sadly at best its a minor annoyance, and at worst it just makes the gameplay more dull.  Stamina is used by all of a character's special abilities, so having it run out faster just means more time spent doing the basic attacks instead, which don't require stamina.  These basic attacks are often just as effective as the special stamina-draining ones anyway, but the stamina-draining special attacks add a lot of variety to the combat.  Restricting your moveset may make things tougher, but it also makes them dull in the process!

And honestly it doesn't really add much challenge anyway.  Not only because the basic attacks are often sufficient on their own, but because no matter how much stamina a special attack uses you can always perform it as long as you have a little bit of stamina left.  You can also pause the game at any time, including during the animation of any move, and consume a mushroom to restore a tiny bit of stamina.  This means as long as you have a mushroom left, you can use high-stamina moves as much as you want, you just have to pause the game more often.

In short, carry around a lot of mushrooms and this is just an annoyance, not a challenge increase.

* Decreased knockback/stagger ability of player attacks

Again, on paper this sounds like a good idea, like the stamina thing does at first glance.  And certainly, there's no question this makes the mode harder...but it also, again, makes the mode less fun, and on top of that is poorly balanced across vocations.  Some vocations depend greatly on knockback, like Warriors, but others don't really need it that much, like ranged characters.

Mostly I just don't like how this detracts from a lot of what I find appealing about the combat system in Dragon's Dogma and the physicality it has, which is one of its strengths over many other games in its genre.  Learning to exploit moments of weakness in the enemy patterns in order to knock them down and get extra hits in, or stagger them at the right time to prevent an attack, is a lot of the thrill of becoming skilled with the game and learning each enemy in-depth.

For example, when facing a Chimera as a Fighter, you may eventually figure out that there's a brief moment right after it rears up on its hind legs, just before it does a leap forward, where a Burst Strike will cause it to fall on its side leaving it vulnerable to attack.  Learning to recognize and utilize this tell and others like it can take time and practice but is a lot of the satisfaction of mastering the game.

Without things like this, there is little incentive to directly engage an enemy and the ebb and flow of combat, the back and forth of avoiding attacks and then taking advantage of openings like these, is lost.  Instead you are left depending on staying in safe spots or out of range, or if melee is your only option, just taking potshots the entire fight in the brief openings you get.  Just not that engaging, in my opinion, and a loss of one of the game's strengths.

* Player character takes significantly more damage from attacks

Finally!  A good, solid, tried-and-true way to make a game more challenging - punish mistakes by increasing the damage the player takes when they mess up, so they can afford fewer mistakes before they die.  Now this is a change I could get behind... except that the way it was implemented doesn't suit this game at all!

One would think it would just take the final damage you receive from attack (after armor modifiers and such) and multiply it.  So if normally you would take 50 damage from an attack when all is said and done, make it doubled, to 100, or quadrupled, to 200, or whatever seems to ramp up the challenge enough to intensify combat.  That's obviously not how it works though.  I'm not sure what formula was actually used, but I suspect they just added a flat, high amount of damage to every hit you receive.

I feel this way because I noticed that things like rats, bats, snakes, and spiders, all of which are so inconsequential that pawns won't even bother killing them, will still kill you in 1-3 hits early on.  Yet, larger monsters like wolves and saurians do, percentage-wise, barely more damage, also killing you in 1-3 hits!  In normal mode these tougher enemies do significantly more damage than the fodder enemies.  Therefore it can't be just multiplying the resulting damage, it must be doing something else, and whatever it is doesn't make much sense.  Bats and rats should not end up being more threatening than a hobgoblin due to being harder to avoid yet doing nearly the same damage!

Its also just very clear that this game was not meant for such a damage system.  This isn't Dark Souls, as a comparison.  In Dark Souls enemies are always in the same place, heavily telegraph their moves, and, for lack of a better way to describe it, the combat is just much more structured and orderly.  Its still very difficult, for sure, but also...more predictable, less chaos factor.  Dying in 1-3 hits works fine, because every time you get hit its your fault.  Its difficult, but fair, just like in Volgarr the Viking (shameless plug!).

Dragon's Dogma is NOT built this way.  For example, even if you know when they will appear, there's no way to attack bats before they swoop down on you, and even if you react quickly to swat them out of the air when they swarm, there's times where you'll randomly get bit by one anyway and there's really nothing you can do about it.  The enemies in general are much more random in their AI and have a lot less telegraphing in their moves.  They swarm a lot more often and attack from multiple angles, and there's usually a lot more of them per fight.  Plus many characters don't even have any defensive moves beyond just moving or jumping out of the way, whereas in Dark Souls you pretty much always have options like block, dodge, or parry.

My point is, overall the combat in DD is just far more chaotic than similar games, and its much, much harder to completely avoid getting hit, but it works in normal mode because things that are random and nearly impossible to avoid do such tiny chip damage that it doesn't really matter in the long run, its still mostly about avoiding and countering the "big hits".

Suddenly dying in 1-3 of the weakest attacks from the weakest enemies in this kind of chaotic, free-form combat system doesn't feel "fair" at all, its not so much a challenge as it is just stupid random death through no real fault of your own.  Plus, it really makes it kinda pointless to even bother with armor and such for a large portion of the game because you'll die in the same number of hits regardless.

Look, I'm cool with dying instantly from a powerful spear stab or leaping attack from a Saurian, for example, even when decked out in great armor, but dying from a rat nibbling on my toe twice that I didn't even notice was there?  That's just dumb.

* Makes Pawns stronger with no downsides for them

In Hard Mode pawns do not take extra damage, do not have reduced knockback/stagger capability, and do not run out of stamina any faster like the player's character does.  They do still gain the double XP though, and of course the bonus gold you get makes it easier for you to outfit your pawn, meaning they quickly become far more powerful than they would be in Normal mode, and compatively far more powerful than the enemies you are fighting.


Okay, granted, I play solo anyway, but I tried Hard Mode once with a pawn thinking it might make the mode worthwhile.  But now I have a pawn that is leveling twice as fast as they ought to but with no reduction in their power.  So there's your hero, ordering around a pawn that is several times more powerful and sturdy.  That just makes you feel like a weakling that's dependent on these AI characters to do all the heavy lifting for you, and encourages a "stay back and let the pawns handle it" style of play.  Very unsatisfying.  Plus, hire a high-level pawn (if you are into that system) and there goes all the challenge Hard Mode could have offered you, as they'll be just as effective as in Normal mode.  So. Lame.  Ugh!

* Screws up the combat music system

Okay, I know I'll probably sound a bit petty on this one, but it matters to me, and was actually kind of the clincher for why I don't like Hard Mode.

I really like the music in Dragon's Dogma, especially the exciting combat music that kicks in when the game decides that you are in a very dangerous fight and are very likely to die.  Really pumps me up.  On the other hand, the combat music that plays when the game thinks you have an easy fight on your hands and probably shouldn't even bother is very boring and slow-paced, like its trying to put me to sleep (its not as bad in Bitterblack Isle, fortunately, but I actually prefer the mainland's 'intense combat' theme).

How does the game figure out what music to play?  It compares the level of yourself and your pawns to the level, number, and type of enemies you are fighting.  But it doesn't take Hard Mode into account.

Now recall, Hard Mode has you level at double the normal rate.  This means that past the very beginning of the game you are always much higher level than you normally would be when facing any particular enemy.  But as explained above, it also makes you take massive amounts of damage from even the weakest enemies.

Thus, typically every fight is one where you could die at any moment, and are outmatched by your enemies due to the factors Hard Mode adds, but technically you are much higher level than the enemies, so by the game's calculation you are in an easy fight picking on things much lower level than you.  Therefore the music is playing the dull, slow, "this fight should be easy" song for pretty much EVERY fight!  Really kills a lot of the joy of the game for me, but maybe not something that would bother other people.

* Grants bonus armor set if you complete it

This is the one thing that this mode got right.  Much better than bonus xp/gold while playing the mode, which makes the opposite of sense, this gives a nice "trophy" for beating the mode.  I still don't think such incentive is even necessary for most players that would want a Hard Mode, but its a cool extra.

It doesn't even need to have good stats (after all you've already supposedly done the hardest thing you need to do, what would be the point of powerful armor at that point?), just looking cool and distinctive and being at least viable to use is a great reward, and since you don't get it until you complete the mode, it doesn't make the mode any easier like some of the other changes.

* Nothing Else (as far as I know)

By this I mean, it doesn't change enemy behavior, give enemies new attacks, increase enemy numbers, increase enemy health/defense, or anything else that might make the game harder.

To be fair, I'm glad it doesn't increase enemy health/defense.  Many a Hard Mode I've seen in other games has done this and been ruined by it, because although enemies living longer does make them harder, it also makes the fights often drag on for too long and become tedious more than challenging.  A slight boost doesn't hurt, but punishing the player for mistakes (taking more damage when they screw up) and making the fight more difficult in other ways is a far better path than increasing enemy health and making fights drag on forever.  So at least there's that...

What I Wish Hard Mode Did

Can't really complain about how something was designed if you can't suggest a better way to do it, right?

* Increase damage player (and pawns!) takes in a sensible way - multiply the damage that you receive AFTER armor and such is calculated by some multiplier, like x4 or x8.  That way bats and similar stuff that will often get nearly-unavoidable hits on you still aren't likely to kill you, but a powerful hit from a strong enemy (which you should be reasonably expected to avoid as a skilled player) could kill you instantly.

* Keep the bonus armor set reward for completing it - that was a good idea.

* Have the music system take Hard Mode into account - just bump up what the "threat value" of an enemy is in hard mode so tough fights still play the exciting music!

* Eliminate instant healing at any time - this is the major reason why I only died once in my solo playthrough - unless an attack is an instant kill or you have no curatives left, the only thing you need to do to keep alive is get good at hitting that pause button right after you take a big hit.  You can then consume as many items as you want while the game is paused with no risk whatsoever, even while being juggled by attacks or held in a monster's grip!

Even in Normal mode, I really wish the game was more like Dark Souls or Monster Hunter in this regard, requiring you to retreat and find a safe moment to heal.  I understand it might upset people to have this in Normal mode after the game came out, and I don't mind being able to pause the game at any time and manage your inventory (I'm not asking for it to be like DS/MH in that regard where you can't truly pause at all), but it would be nice if when you did pause you wouldn't be allowed to eat any curatives while your character was in the middle of other animations (kinda like it how it doesn't let you change your equipment in those situations) and when you did use a curative, it would immediately un-pause and force you to do a brief animation of eating it to get the health (just like when you try to equip/put away your lantern) making you vulnerable to attack.

That would really ramp up the challenge of the game but without reducing the thrill of the combat like the stamina and knockback nerfs do, and since its similar to the equipment change and lantern-lighting mechanics already in the game, wouldn't take much effort to add (besides having to make the special eating animation).

* Change the enemies themselves to be more aggressive in their AI, use moves they didn't have before, etc.  I understand this of course would be a ton of work to do, so I can't say I'm surprised it wasn't included in the patch that added Hard Mode.  But it would be pretty awesome (Devil May Cry did this kind of thing for its harder difficulty, and Monster Hunter does this for some monsters when you get to High/G Rank, and both of these are also Capcom games)!

* Do NOT include the other changes like double xp, increased gold, decreased knockback/stagger ability, and increased stamina used by moves, as those are either counter to the idea of hard mode or serve more to make the combat dull than to make it feel more challenging.

And that's why, while I may continue to come up with restrictive challenges to do in this game, I likely won't be using Hard Mode.  I hope they do a better job with the mode in the sequel (and really hope there is a sequel!).
One of the things I miss about working in a large game development studio (vs working at home as an indie dev) is being able to go off on some big gaming-related rant with a co-worker or two as the audience.

So I thought I'd start a blog!  I hear its what all the kids are doing these days.

I don't expect anyone to likely find or read this blog, but it will at least give me some outlet for when I want to blather on about something or other (provided I remember this thing exists).