Playing Optimally

My latest article is up at Gamers with Jobs. It’s about cover-based shooters and how cover mechanics push shooters in a lot of bad directions. I used Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption to illustrate how cover usually goes wrong. But what’s been interesting to me is how many people have come back with a variation on what I call the Hocking defense: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.”

I call it the Hocking defense because of a remark he made at a talk I attended. One criticism a lot of people directed at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 2 was that it was repetitive. You could play just about every mission using the same three weapons, and one random encounter or mission tended to look a lot like another. Hocking laughed and, admitting he was going to come across like a jerk, said, “I think if you find Far Cry 2 repetitive, then you’re probably repetitive.”

Hocking’s view was that he’d created a game where there were dozens and dozens of ways to approach the same problem. Players had access to different weapon combinations and weapon types, an incredible fire and physics model, and a beautiful open world in which every battle was likely to be different. If your reaction to all that freedom was to do the same thing over and over again, that was on you.

If that Krogan ever managed to get close, I would have been in mild danger.

In the case of Mass Effect 2, the problem isn’t with the game, but with the way I played it. The argument goes that it is my fault for, first, picking the soldier class. The soldier only has access to guns, and the only opportunities to use biotic and tech powers come from her AI squadmates. Had I played a different class, I would have been less tied to cover, and been able to adopt more variable tactics. Second, nobody made me play every encounter the same way. I could have tried different strategies than the “stand in cover and shoot” tactic that saw me through most of the game.

Now, in Mass Effect 2, there are several reasons why I suspect changing classes or approaches will still leave every battle in the game feeling generic and boring. But I’m more interested in the widespread assumption that because other options are available to players, they should use them. The existence of these other options apparently makes boredom or repetition the fault of the player.

The argument seems a little churlish to me, because I don’t generally consider it my responsibility as the player to locate the fun and variety in some aspect of a game. Besides, if a game is not fun or appealing while I am playing it, that makes me less inclined to try alternate approaches. The games that I experiment with are the ones I loved while playing in whatever was my natural style for that game. That’s what gives me confidence that experimentation will be rewarded. Great games invite you to consider other options, and they often show them to you.

Bioshock 2: where crazy stuff is always about to happen

But the argument is also naive about the powerful draw of optimal play styles. If the same tactics work again and again, players will use them again and again. Even if they don’t want to, because it is a guaranteed way to pass the next challenge. In fact, it becomes a vicious circle. The optimal tactic works everywhere so players use it too much, their overuse of the tactic makes the game boring, their boredom and frustration makes them want to rush through the boring parts, so they use the optimal tactic.

Second, if the same one of two tactics work in every situation, there is a problem with the game. Optimal tactics should be situational, not universal. Is the sniper rifle turning every encounter into a shooting gallery? Take away long lines of sight. Is the assault rifle slaughtering everyone from cover? Have enemies that can close quickly and deal massive close-range damage, before the rifle can whittle them down. Or simply deny the player cover and force him to close and assault. There are so many ways to introduce and force variety that it’s hard to forgive a game, even an RPG-shooter, that lets you coast through using the same tricks.

  1. I totally agree. For me, the only thing that kept the missions in Far Cry 2 from being totally repetitive were the fact that each one was done in a different place which for me meant a different building and guard detail to sneak around. I still felt like that game was too shallow though.

    Mass Effect and BioShock suffer from the same problem. I played an infiltrator in Mass Effect 2, and every mission was still the same thing: get to cover, cloak, flank for a surprise attack, AI hack, rinse, repeat. Very few enemies ever actually forced me to rethink how to be an Infiltrator.

    In BioShock I found myself sitting back and thinking “hmmm, how do I wanna take out this guy today?” which made each choice less interesting. That’s another sign of how BioShock is basically a simplified version of System Shock 2. System Shock made you constantly rethink how you were gonna use the strengths of the playstyle you had chosen. In BioShock, the same options were available to you at all times.

    To end my rambling here I’ll just say that the difference I see, is between a free sandbox and a problem with multiple solutions. Combat in BioShock or Far Cry 2 feels like someone just threw out a “do anything you want” sandbox and said “go play,” which in the end offers less challenge.

    A contrast to that would be Hitman Blood Money, System Shock 2, or Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (ironically designed by Hocking himself). Those games are open-ended, but each mission feels like someone actually designed a problem with multiple solutions. I think that’s why you should try out Crysis someday because it carries the same virtue – the first two thirds of it is made of really well-designed open levels.

      • Flitcraft
      • December 16th, 2010 9:30pm

      Someone, I think it was Hedgewizard over at GWJ, said that one problem is designer have to make it so that every class can basically do everything, because players hate feeling like content is locked away, or that they are disadvantaged. Which kind of moots the point of being an RPG, right? But I think ME2 bears the fingerprints of this kind hedging. For me, what kills the soldier class is all the ammo types. There is an ammo type for every single problem you will encounter over the course of the game. Robots and shielded enemies? Disruptor rounds. Unarmored enemies? Incendiary rounds. Lots of enemies? Cryo rounds. Organics? Shredder rounds.

      Everything you run into, you can deal with by loading a different type of ammo into the weapon. There is never a second where you want something that you don’t have. Every problem can be shot to death if you just take a moment and put in the right ammo. There should be more uneven matchups to make team balance and character class a bigger decision than it is.

  2. To follow your thesis, then, good game design doesn’t allow for optimal play styles? If the player is offered them, the player will take them, and if said player then complains about a lack of variety in their gameplay it’s because they opted for the optimal (i.e. least challenging) suite of options. So, if we deny the player those options, the game will be more interesting?

    But then the player quits because the game is too hard. Like Sid Meier says, the player expects to win.

    Inasmuch as gaming is an experience which is partially created by player choices, yes, I do think that if players don’t take advantage of all the options available to them, and stick to quick and easy paths to success, then some of the boredom rests on them.

    I played Mass Effect 1 through first as a Soldier, and it was way too easy, even with the difficulty cranked up, because I had a weapon for every situation. Then I tried it as a Sentinel. It was a little more difficult, because pure gunplay didn’t do the trick all of the them. Finally, I played it through as a pure Biotic, depending utterly on my squadmates for the damage dealing, and the game was hard as hell…and much more satisfying.

    If I tried to play Mass Effect 2 through on Insanity as a Sentinel, I don’t know that I would make it. I actually took my Soldier from ME1 into the sequel for the Insanity run, instead, and it’s still not easy. I have difficulty accepting the argument that just because every firefight demands using cover, that this makes the game repetitive. Crank up the difficulty – you’re going to have to start using your squadmates well. You’re going to have to flank. When Krogans rush you, you will be scared, because they can take a lot to put down.

    Personally, I like cover mechanics. It makes a lot more sense to give me a game where I actually have to stay out of the line of fire rather than rush right into it like a rabid rhinoceros. It’s only when enemies don’t effectively flank to remove the benefit of that cover that cover mechanics get dull. My solution is just to crank the difficulty high enough until I can no longer afford to just sit in cover and plunk away at the bad guys until it’s safe to proceed. I can usually find that right setting for maximum challenge if I want it.

      • Flitcraft
      • December 24th, 2010 8:45pm

      Well, as I say toward the end, what is “optimal” should change throughout the game. When combat allows one tactic to be repeated throughout the game, and rewards it with success every time, the game needs some kind of twist. Now I could play it on insanity, but I’m kind of bored with the game now. Plus, why did Bioware hold back the real game, the one that requires interesting tactics, to the highest difficulty setting?

      It could be the problem really is just with this one class. Maybe Biotic or Vanguard is the way to go. But if so, the game should not default to a boring class. It needs to be livened up a bit.

    • Zach
    • December 30th, 2010 8:30pm

    One reason I really love the Final Fantasy Tactics series is because the best way to play it is to constantly rotate your characters throught different classes and armor setups and weapon payouts. it’s a really smart decision because different classes and weapons demand different tactics – an archer obviously plays a lot differently than a warrior or a mage.

    i also really strongly agree the onus is on the designer to make a system that wants you to change your style. (Chris Hecker’s “achievements considered harmful?” talk is indirectly related to this I think): Bioshock sometimes did this by placing an enemy in water so you could shock them (intrensic motivation with intrensic reward), Fable did this with achievements for 500 kills with each style (external motivation with external reward), Bayonetta does it through its combo meter & tracking the move counts (intrensic motivation with no reward), FFT does it by making you lose if your characters aren’t well-rounded with a ton of diverse skillsets (intrensic motivation with intrensic reward).

    in contrast Mass Effect 2 places a HUGE barrier on changing your style – you have to start a new game to change classes! and the first game actually rewarded you for sticking with the same party members the entire time with achievements. A lot of western RPGs also have the “start a new game for a new style” barrier. But jRPGs tend to sometimes be a bit more flexibile about this – Golden Sun’s djinn encourage you to mess around with loadouts, and so did Lost Odessy with a FFT-style “learned skills” system. which is probably why I enjoy a good jRPG a little more than a okay western RPG.

      • Flitcraft
      • December 31st, 2010 12:39am

      I think it’s the hesitancy to make players lose that really kills ME2′s good idea. Every motivation for class diversity has been taken away. Now you don’t even need hackers to be part of the party to crack safes and lockers. Now you just play a pro-forma minigame. The soldier can just shoot every conceivable threat do death. If you create a system where forward progress always has to be possible, then the whole point of the RPG is defeated. Whereas JRPGs have no problem sending players back to re-spec and grind their way to a better balance. But for me, it’s the grind-heaviness of JRPGs that kills the experience. Though I’ve never really played Tactics, so perhaps I should give that a shot.

        • zach
        • December 31st, 2010 7:08pm

        I’d start with the DS game FFT:Advance2, as it’s really the best experience – the PS1/PSP original game in the series is dense and mechanically poor although the story is apparently incredible, and the first FFT:A had some goofy stuff that gets tolerated because the core gameplay is so fun. FFT:A2 is really the best starting point.

        I agree that jRPGs sometimes rely on grindfests. The best ones are designed so the encounters are challenging without being too hard – discouraging exploration – or too easy – worthless filler that takes up time, and harder stuff is optional or hidden (ultima weapon stuff). I think Golden Sun does a pretty good job of keeping up this balance, as does Baiten Kaitos, and a handful of older games. Also the random encounters of jRPGs can really encourage you to switch up playstyles by giving you different enemy weaknesses you have to react to – I know ME/ME2 tried this with the ammo types, but, um… blurgh. they were a pain to apply and they lacked feedback so you could tell how effective they were (rpgs tend to show floating damage numbers for a reason – FF always did a great job of teaching you how one spell was more effective than another via big numbers… Pokemon also did a great job, with the “it’s super effective / it wasn’t very effective…” messages) and iirc the ammo skills were mostly held by the soldier class – and they didn’t have the fun of the biotics combos (lift/slam, etc).

        I don’t know if ME2 is hesitant to make players lose – see Insanity difficulty, which is nearly unplayable – as much as it’s reluctant to keep content from players. Which taps into the old debate between, um, Warren Spector and Will Wright, I think – Spector says “we should put content in there that not all players can access. the player is therefore motivated to play through again with a different style to get all the content. it’s more important to make the richest environment possible than to hold the player’s hand through a linear environment”. Whereas Wright (? really, i’m not sure who the other person was, someone big though) says more along the lines of – “If content is missed by the player, it’s like it never existed, and you just wasted resources on something the player will never experience. 80% of players never play through the game more than once. Content should be upfront and discoverable, and resources wasted on unseen content should instead be spent on making that content the BEST content possible”.

    • Jake
    • January 2nd, 2011 8:51pm

    Farcry 2 was boring and repetitive, no doubt but I think that the only reason it was is because it was hard to try a new approach to a situation, when something is working well and you don’t have to change it up why should you. Well in my case when I tried to shake things up in the game and try something new I would die but I would have fun up until that moment I died. I think if a save any where system was utilized instead of only being able to save in a safe house was used I think it would encourage the player to use more creativity in a battle. This then would not punish the player for trying new things, and send them all the way back to the safe house and make them drive through 20 guard stations only to fight a battle the same way every time.

      • Flitcraft
      • January 4th, 2011 6:18am

      Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. My favorite memories from Far Cry 2 tended to come from random encounters, where I was more likely to be caught unprepared and unusual things would happen as a consequence. But if I have to drive across the map to overrun yet another base? I’m using my favorite gear, every time. Too much busywork involved in the missions to make me want to repeat it.

      But of course, if the missions were a bit more creatively designed, rather than asking the player to bring the creativity, it’d be a different story as well. Either option would have worked: lower costs of failure or force players to utilize diverse approaches.

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