Thursday, December 26, 2019

Camelot: What Makes Us Unique

This particular Camelot character has probably never existed before or since.
Back in 2004, I was meeting a friend at a bar in Boston. I opened the door to look in for him, saw that he wasn't there, and backed out, elbowing in the stomach the man behind me. I turned around and saw that it was the governor of Massachusetts. Since then, I've liked to think that I'm the only person to have ever elbowed Mitt Romney in the stomach while he was walking into a bar. I'm sure plenty of people have elbowed him in the stomach on other occasions.

This is the kind of story I like, because it's an assemblage of circumstances that has probably never occurred to anyone else. I look for those in life. I may not be the world record holder in any sport or hobby, but there's a decent chance that by the end of my life, I will have published more blog articles on CRPGs than anyone else alive. If that turns out not to be true, I'll only need one other modest qualifier ("than any other Mainer") to make it true. I guarantee that I'm the only person in the world to have my particular combination of jobs (if you include CRPG blogging as one of them). I don't hold the record for the number of airline miles flown between 2010 and 2018, but I've got to be within the top 10%, and when you're in the top 10%, you only need one or two additional circumstances to make yourself unique. It's possible that I'm the record-holder out of Bangor, Maine, for instance.

My enthusiasm for unique experiences filters into CRPGs and probably explains why I like open-world sandbox games so much. I don't like the idea that I've reached the end of a game in the exact same position and circumstances as everyone else who has ever played the game. When you can't even name your character, this is particularly infuriating. Look at my recent review of Deadly Towers, for instance. How do you really know it was me playing that game? I could have taken those screen shots from anyone. At least Dragon Warrior displayed the first four letters of "Chester."

These issues got me thinking about the peculiar trade-off that exists between player and character. Think of a game like Pac-Man. When a champion like Billy Mitchell achieves a perfect score, we don't say, "Wow, you created a great character there. You put a lot into him." The very statement is absurd; every player's Pac-Man is the same as everyone else's. Instead, all praise goes to the hands and eyes of the player himself. In contrast, when we watch the ways that various players have won the Mulmaster Beholder Corps battle in Curse of the Azure Bonds, we look for clues in the characters--their levels, their spells, their weapons, their movements. We're aware that there's a player behind it all, of course--perhaps a very intelligent and strategic one. But his success is slightly diffused by the imposition of the characters. We are aware that his strategy only "works" because of the allowances of the game. Perhaps most important, we are aware that we could have done the same thing, whereas no studying of his technique is likely to make most of us like Billy Mitchell.

It is for these reasons that I don't think it's really possible to be "good at" a game like Skyrim. Experienced, sure. Patient, definitely. But "good"--what does that even mean? Early in its existence, some players proudly posted images on Reddit of their characters clad in leather armor and wielding pick-axes (possibly the worst weapon in the game) killing dragons. I thought it was silly. Either the game has enough flexibility to allow you to do such a thing or it doesn't. It says nothing about your skill as a player that you were able to do it except that you were willing to use the game's resources to grind, or enchant that pick-axe, or improve that armor, or carry and drink a hundred potions, or whatever you did to make it possible.

I just bought Irene the Myst 25th anniversary collection for Christmas. That is a "good at" game. A player that possesses the strength of puzzle-solving to blaze his way to the end without any spoilers is an impressive player. But his end-game screenshot is the same as everyone else and the "character" of the game is essentially invisible, a no-one, a ghost.
In many modern games, "uniqueness" extends quite literally to the character's appearance.
In case it's not clear, I'm not particularly interested in being "good at" CRPGs. I don't play them for competitive reasons. I play them to enjoy the strategy, tactics, world-building, plots, and sense of character development. I like a challenge, but only a modest one--a temporary bump in a game that, because of its very nature (particularly because of reloading), you're almost certain to eventually overcome.

Many people prize the opposite. I suppose even I do, in different circumstances. The value of most competitive games is that everyone's playing the same game under the same circumstances, with no real imposition of "character" between the player and the performance. A king in chess isn't a "character"; he's just a piece. You don't give him a name, and he doesn't acquire new abilities as he defeats pawns and levels up. When he moves to take a rook, there are no probabilities associated with the encounter. When he wins, all glory goes to the player who moves him.

When my king reaches the end of a game, on the other hand, I want him to be my king--a unique character that no other player has won with. I want my endgame screenshots to look different from everyone else's. And in those screenshots you should be able to tell something about how I played the game. Was I careful or daring? Did I rely on brains or brawn? Did I favor equipment or skills? What role-playing choices did I make along the way?

To me, some of the worst RPGs are closer to chess. Your "character" is just a gambit that you've moving across the screen, offering you no sense of connection or identity. These are essentially arcade games with a few nods to RPG mechanics. We've seen a million of them: Caverns of Freitag, Gateway to Apshai, Sword of Kadash, Sword of Fargoal. Even worse is when the game offers RPG-style inventory and leveling, but at fixed intervals along a linear plot, so that "character development" is just an illusion and everyone does reach the end the same as everyone else.

The best RPGs, however, offer plenty of opportunities to make your character your own:
  • Name
  • Selection of race, sex, alignment, and class
  • Attributes
  • Skills and talents
  • Inventories, especially those with multiple slots
  • NPC interaction, dialogue, and role-playing choices
  • Choice of what order in which to do quests and side-quests
  • Ability to grind, or not (only meaningful without artificially low level caps)
  • Customization of character appearance
  • Statistics, achievements, and trophies
The multiplication of these various factors means that many modern RPGs feature characters as unique as the humans who create them, finally achieving some of the sense of ownership and identification that tabletop RPGs allowed from the outset.
Every player may have had to do exactly what I did to win Ultima IV, but at least my name and the number of turns are unique.
Camelot is an early game, and thus not as advanced in the originality of its characters. But of the single-player PLATO games, it comes the furthest. When I play it, I do not feel as if I am feeding so many characters into a meat grinder, as I did with The Dungeon, The Game of Dungeons, and Orthanc. Its allowances for stealth, magic, and multiple fighting styles, paired with the strategic nature by which you must explore dungeon exploration, create as close to a unique experience as anything we're going to get for many years. If nothing else, the combination of items in the 13 inventory slots likely creates characters for each player that no one else has ever played.

I've put about 12 hours into the game since the last Camelot entry and I've gotten a lot more powerful--enough to take on dungeon Level 5 with relative ease--but it's still slightly frustrating how long its' taking to finish the game, much more so because I keep dying and resetting my score back to -99,999. But I recognize that it was designed for different players in different circumstances.

There was an interesting moment the other night where creator Josh Tabin happened to be logged into the system at a moment that I got stuck. I had teleported into a section of Level 4 that offered only one exit: a downward chute. Unfortunately, I had taken a Potion of Levitation upon beginning the expedition (you always want to use Scrolls of Protection, Potions of Cepacol, and Potions of Levitation at the outset of each expedition if you have them). It turns out that Levitation stops you from using chutes, even deliberately. The condition doesn't wear off until you return to town. There were no other exits from the area, and I was out of Scrolls of Recall. The only solution I could come up with is to wait until the turn of every hour, when the dungeon levels respawn, and kill everything in the half-dozen rooms I had access to, hoping to get a Scroll of Recall at some point. But since Josh was there, I informed him of my trouble and he opened a secret door for me, then spent some time patching the game so that even if you're under the effect of levitation, you can manually choose to take a chute.

Other things about the game since I last wrote:
  • As I previously mentioned, the game occasionally gives you a specific monster to kill before it will let you level up. It's very erratic. I had a period from roughly Level 10 to 20 where I got a quest every level. Then I didn't get any at all between Levels 20 and 29.
  • A "Palantir" tells you at what level you can find the object of your quest. If you're already on that level, it tells you the specific coordinates. Of course, if the hour turns while you're still seeking the quest creature, everything resets. 
  • As you move downward, enemies get harder but rewards get better. Some of the magic item rewards are awesome. I've had a couple of Wands of Fire that completely clear out rooms in one turn. The problem is how frequently they require recharging and the expense thereof. The game's economy is still excellent. I make a lot of tough choices between leveling up, recharging, and purchasing new items.
  • It turns out that items don't have a fixed number of charges but rather a small probability of running out within any given use. High intelligence seems to lower this chance.
  • Some of the best items that you can find increase your attributes. Manuals and tomes increase them permanently by one point while various potions increase them temporarily for several points. I have maxed out my strength, intelligence, and constitution with these items, and I must be close on the other two.
A Manual of Bodily Health raises my constitution.
  • Scrolls of Taming, Orbs of Entrapment, and Wands of Charming all work on different creatures. I've learned that when I lose a companion (or one leaves), I want to head down to the lowest dungeon level on which I can survive to start hunting for another. About six hours into this session, I was able to charm a succubus, and it's remained with me ever since--an extremely powerful ally.
  • I probably mentioned this earlier, but there are special rooms on each level that the creator calls "stud rooms." They feature enemies 2-3 levels harder than the normal ones on the same level, but with rewards 2-3 times greater. Any new expedition needs to begin with clearing the stud rooms that you know you can clear.  
In one of the "stud rooms." Seven green dragons are a little much for me. The Scroll of Identification gives grim odds.
  • There's a magic item called a "Tardis" that resets the dungeon in between the normal hourly resets. It allows you to quickly hit the stud rooms multiple times in a row until it runs out of magic. It's incredibly useful but back in the day when there were multiple players hitting the dungeon at the same time, it must have been very annoying for some of them.
The two players on the leaderboard who have won the game both have Level 60 characters, so I assume that's the game's level cap. Thus, I'm halfway there. I probably won't have much more to say about Camelot until I win, so hopefully I can get it done this week while I also wrap up Challenge of the Five Realms. I'll say this for Camelot: it's the first PLATO game that I've enjoyed lingering with, rather than blasting through it just to document its historical value.

Time so far: 40 hours


  1. I really appreciate entries like this where you talk about games from a design and philosophy perspective. It's the mark of a good critic to be able to talk about the principles and patterns underlying the work you cover, and it's what distinguishes a critic from a reviewer or archivist.

  2. Billy Mitchell playing a perfect game of Pac-Man is going to look like anyone else playing a perfect game of Pac-Man because they're playing at the highest possible level, and at the highest possible level in many games the optimum strategy looks similar.

    The only reason that different people playing the Beholder Corps looks different is because overcoming it doesn't require you to play at the highest possible level. If it did, there would be a dominant strategy, and successful players achieving it would look much the same.

    Players of Pac-Man at less than perfect levels will exhibit unique signatures and play-styles.

    Pac-Man isn't a great example of this because it's not a terribly deep game. A better example might be Diablo 3. Players for much of the game will use a wide variety of characters, with customisable builds, that they've designed to find a good mix between fun, success, and their personal skill profile. But players at the highest levels will use one or possibly two specific builds, because steadily increasing difficulty eventually whittles away all but the most effective builds. Their characters will no longer look very difficult.

    The main difference between a (Western) RPG and Pac-Man is thus not whether different players gain different experiences, but rather that the *point* of an RPG is to have those different experiences. Generating your personal story is often a key goal of the game, in a way that it is not for Pac-Man. It's servicing a different kind of fun.

    But it's worth noting that that "personal story" aspect is much more built into western RPGs than JRPGs, who are much less likely to offer that sandboxy feel, and instead regard deep storytelling and exploration of mechanical systems as higher priorities than wide player choice.

    1. (Collapsing "trivial" variants...)

      When you have a complex enough system, I don't think that there is necessarily only one or two dominant strategies, even for a contrived scenario like the Beholder Corps. There could be many strategies that have a mathematically similar outcome. And, of course, it's more difficult to even calculate or estimate such things.

      Pac-Man is very simple — and additionally highly deterministic, maybe completely deterministic — so it's likely that there is basically only one dominant strategy.

      Diablo is significantly more complex than Pac-Man, but still much less complex than 2nd Ed. AD&D.

      I think even if you strip away the storytelling, there's an emergent story from all those strategic decisions. But, you are right in that this isn't the Strategic Simulation Addict blog.

    2. I mean, look, something like Street Fighter at the pro level doesn't boil down to everyone playing exactly the same character exactly the same way, so in a sense you're right. But also there's a scissors-paper-rock metagame going on there between human players that's different from engaging with a predetermined scenario.

      The thing about predetermined scenarios - even ones that contain randomisation inside the scenario - is that the more difficult they get, the more they strip out options. At one level, it might look like you can use a multi-attacking fighter OR an area of effect caster - but as that difficulty goes up, there'll be a point where one of those is able to kill a key enemy before it casts a spell, and one is not, and the possible space of solutions will narrow.

      The manner of increase in difficulty will determine the dominant strategy - if it becomes more difficult by adding more low-level enemies, it's more likely that an Area of Effect solution becomes dominant, whereas if it uses more one-hit-kill spells, speed and magic resistance become crucial. (If it randomises between either and allows save-reload, you'll still specialise and reload till you get lucky, and if it doesn't allow save-reload then an adaptive median becomes key.) But regardless, it will narrow down on a dominant strategy, and the harder it gets the tighter that straitjacket will become.

      Take another example - Slay The Spire. One of the delights of the early game is that you can combine cards to create a wide variety of decks. However, once you've unlocked the Act IV boss, it becomes clear that there's only one deck theme per character that can beat it. Or alternatively once you start Ascending, you rapidly start treating a large majority of cards - and, for that matter, encounters and artifacts - as unviable. The decision space collapses into a dominant path.

    3. And while this subdiscussion is interesting to me, I should probably reiterate again that the KEY distinction between RPGs and something like Slay The Spire or Pac-Man is that RPGs are *generally not about the challenge*. They generally don't want to force you into that dominant path and generally don't require you to find it, because that's not their primary purpose. Although there may be an optional boss or something to challenge those who do enjoy that kind of gameplay.

      And I get that Chet is kind of saying that that's something he values about RPGs, and *his* preferred fun is the self-expression aspect of RPGs.

      (Which again raises the point I made many posts back about the inherently subjective nature of reviews.)

    4. I agree about the straitjacket, that as a scenario gets more difficult, more strategies become less effective. Once you are dealing with 20 gaze attacks a round, you need to counter it somehow. That Dust of Disappearance will look mighty dominant to everyone.

      But, one thing that RPGs are explicitly about is mechanical personalization. A war game will have a handful of unit types, and you can employ different strategies on how you place them, and which types to use.

      But for a party member in an RPG, I have choices about each part of my outfit. I've chosen perks that complement my attributes. Yes, these end up converging into character "builds," but there are often so many choices that players are always finding new combinations that work a different angle of the rules. So for each class there are many effective strategies and even more effective variants. Some of this is by design, but some of it is emergent from the complex mechanics and wide variety of choices.

      So, maybe there are only a few strategies for dealing with all the gaze attacks. Now what? It's still an insanely difficult battle, and the rest of your strategy is still waiting for definition. There are really many layers of sub-strategies, some of which are completely independent, that make up the final strategy in total.

      I do think Chet is downplaying his enjoyment of challenge in this narrative. Not all people work through the hardest combats in RPGs and try to mark it Y in the win column. It's not about competition with other players as much as the scenario itself, and personal achievement.

    5. I was gonna comment, but Greg got this.

    6. What I thought was interesting about watching Billy Mitchell's perfect game of Pac-Man wasn't the later levels that are purely mechanistic. It was watching him play the early cherry/strawberry/peach levels. Those have patterns too, but not ones in which you can eat all four ghosts on every power pellet. He had to actually *play* the game and cluster the ghosts together so he could eat them all every time. He even screws it up a couple of times and has to restart. It's a great viewing experience.

    7. After I walked away from my earlier comments, I thought about it, and I think a clearer version of what I am saying is this:

      Choice exists within a predetermined scenario in inverse proportion to the mechanical consequences of that choice.

      That is to say, if a choice has no consequences - i.e. pick a red shirt or a blue shirt, and all it changes is the graphical appearance of your character - you have free choice.

      If it has some consequences - the blue shirt gives water resistance, the red shirt gives fire resistance, but you can win the game with either - you still have some choice, but you've introduced the possibility that there is a "correct" answer for that player, especially if they otherwise found the fire area of the game hard but the water area easy.

      If there are *significant* consequences for the choice - again, the shirts give resistances, but the final boss is very hard and deals fire damage, so not taking the red shirt severely increases the game difficulty - then it's not really a free choice. You're only making a choice to extent of whether you want to play "easy mode" or "hard mode".

      And finally, if only one of these options gives you a reasonably viable chance of winning the game, there's no choice at all, in the same way that the choice in Mario Bros between jumping over a Koopa or letting it hit you is not really a "choice" - it's a test of skill.

      I wrote about meaningful choices versus non-meaningful choices in another context (link below) which doesn't directly answer this particular situation but I think helps define some of the space around it:

    8. An interesting and well written blog entry is complemented and expanded upon by thoughtful, insightful and civilized discussion. This happening so often here is a reason I like this blog. Thanks to everyone involved for the food for thought!

      Another thing I like is how Chet turns entries which are nominally about his current experience with a specific individual game into "hidden" special topic postings. The only "downside" being having to remember what was discussed where (or finding it in the first place if you are new to the blog) without the aid of a specific index as there is for the "official" special topic entries.

      Maybe, if Chet agrees and someone has the time and energy to do it, one day an index of such general "subjects" / "themes" - even including extended discussions in the comments section? - could be created. That would be awesome and very helpful given the wealth of interesting content these twelve years of blog life have already created thanks to Chet and the great community of commenters, but I recognize it would be quite an endeavour.

  3. In many games, especially roguelike or similarly inspired, winning players will look different because the options available in the world are different from game to game.

    If winning ideally requires a Ring Of Poison Protection, but that only exists in 50% of games, then in 50% of games you need a different build. Maybe sometimes you wish you kept something you discarded before you realised the RoPP was not going to turn up. Too bad! You must win as you are.

    1. But in a significantly hard roguelike, the strategy they used in making their decisions will be identical. The process has yielded a different result because of randomisation, but it's the same process.

    2. Many old roguelikes tend to have increasingly more similar itemsets the more the game advances (the more the game lasts, the more likely is that you find equipment, so if there is one optimal combination in the game eventually you will get it).

      This goes double for games with a wish mechanic, where you can sidestep the RNG.

      Most of my Nethack characters end up looking rather similar by endgame.

      Modern roguelikes are generally better than this, with less obviously optimal choices of equipment and more randomeness, but even then long ones still tend to fall into this.

  4. I think the science of what different people look for in a video game is really interesting. I can understand when other people explain what they like (like you do here), but I also often can't relate to it.

    I've come to the realization that the most essential ingredient for me in a video game is a high density of interesting decisions. I have a low tolerance for having to stop playing to read lots of text or watch a cutscene. When I want that I'll read a book or watch a movie. Story and flavor are fine, but I want it delivered concisely or in the background while I'm playing.

    And I use "decisions" as a pretty broad term. It can be turn-based tactical/strategic choices from a set of options, or it can just be the proper timing of button presses for a dexterity game. But I want to be bombarded by decisions, with low downtime in between. I don't start a video game to be passive.

    Also, those decisions need to be tied to some sort of success/failure feedback loop. Pressing a button to move a character down a predetermined path to advance the game does nothing for me. But neither does some of the customization stuff you mentioned, like picking your name and what color your pants are. For me, they are empty decisions, almost nuisances, if they don't impact "getting good" at the game.

    In the end, the uniqueness of my solution for the game doesn't matter to me. I'll take either type of game as long as I'm efficiently engaged with an interesting problem.

    Which means I can't really play most of the games covered on this blog. But I still think these games are interesting, which is why this blog is so great! It allows me to still experience them in a format that I can handle.

    1. I had a feeling of deja vu about mentioning Density before, and Google says I had! Here, on the BDI post.

      But, then I saw you had, too!

      I wonder if at some point we have exhausted everything there is to say about RPGs and now we are just repeating all the things we have forgotten we said.

    2. @asimpkins Do you have ADD?

      I regularly feel, when reading this blog, that I could never be diligent enough to complete or enjoy whichever the current game is. My impatience would pull me elsewhere.

    3. Lots of people *hate* making decisions. They *like* the interactive movie style, with tons of cutscenes and scripted action sequences. These people have money and buy games. They have a low tolerance for any kind of frustration and want a "YOU WIN!" screen as a reward, every time. And there better be townsfolk saying "THANK YOU HERO" because that causes genuine good feelings.

      We "challenge gamers" are not so many. We're the ones who will try again, try different strategies, re-equip at the store and see if it works, and feel rewarded when we finally vanquish a difficult adversary.

      But the others aren't like that. They have enough frustration in their lives already, thankyouverymuch. They don't want to turn on a goddamn video game in their precious spare time and feel *any* kind of bad feeling. They want to feel great, and video games are the method by which they mean to achieve this goal.

      It's all about the release of pleasurable brain chemicals. Perhaps someday there will be another way for them to get their hit of pleasure and we can go back to games that reward skill and practice.

    4. @Harland: Have you ever considered that your desire for "challenge" is as simple and "chemical" as other people's desire for a satisfying narrative?

    5. @stepped pyramids, have you ever considered reading books for a satisfying narrative?

    6. I never liked that particular analogy or what you might call it, it implies an either or scenario I don't really think applies that much. Most people can enjoy both narrative and choice at the same time. Balanced against eachother it can make for an experience greater than the sum of its parts.

    7. @Iffy Bonzoolie I had forgotten about that, but yeah, lots of overlap. I guess in an obvious way a lack of density of whatever you are looking for is the reason for any gamer to get bored with any game. The more interesting difference is what different people are looking for.

      @Tristan Gall Maybe, I did sound a little maniacal. I can't tell if I have a lower tolerance for boredom, or if I'm just bored by different things. I certainly try to keep my mind occupied, but I'm also good about finishing things.

      But it's not like I can't handle passive entertainment. I love books, movies, music, etc. But those areas have me covered, so if I reach for a video game I want to scratch a very different itch.

      @Harland It doesn't seem so grim to me. I'm neither bothered that other people aren't like me, nor do I find it difficult to find the type of games I like. Yeah, sometimes I mistakenly start one of those other types of games and marvel at the people that make it and enjoy it, but I just switch to the next game on my list.

      @Anonymous Yeah, definitely lots of people that like blended experiences in addition to those that are looking for something very specific. I can appreciate those passive elements as long as their delivery doesn't interupt the active elements I'm looking for. There's a big difference to me between voiced dialog that I have to stop and listen to compared to it playing in the background while I'm playing. But if you like to stop and savor it, then great!

    8. @PetrusOctavianus I enjoy books and a good narrative game. They are completely different mind experiences.

    9. Why are some people so triggered over the fact that not everybody likes hard games? Not everybody likes olives, in fact very few in my experience, but I'm not on some food blog constantly complaining under every entry that REAL gourmets eat olives on everything and everybody else is just a simple-minded fool.

      If you like challenging games, even if they're unpopular: own it. Seek out those games, pump them up, shout them from the rooftops. Back their Kickstarter. Hell, start a blog! It's a lot cooler and more productive for everybody than using armchair psychology to justify why your favorite game is better than somebody else's, an argument as childish and asinine as "my dad can beat up your dad."

    10. Your dad could never beat up my dad.

    11. Using olives as a food metaphor seems like a non-sequitur. Maybe one person would make that argument. I mean, an argument that makes sense would be to compare it to someone constantly complaining about fast food, or not using fresh food. That wouldn't be an argument in your favor since those are universally agreed upon in gourmet spheres. Its more like gourmets constantly complaining that there's no good place to eat. Helpful people chime in that a lot of people enjoy eating fast food nonstop and you should seek out (that every effort has been made to hide) that rare restaurant that serves quality food (before they go bankrupt because nobody can find them).
      I guess you could also try comparing it to some sort of specific diet, but I don't think that'd be a very good comparison either.

    12. I'm sorry people feel uncomfortable, but it's 100% true. Video gaming today isn't about what it used to be in the period this blog covers. Video gaming today is about getting people to pay money in exchange for the release of pleasing brain chemicals.

      In the 80s/90s, game companies didn't have psychologists working for them telling them what people want and how. Today? They do.

      There is an unspoken but sometimes spoken compact between the companies and the players. You pay your money; we provide the win. I about fell out of my chair the first time I heard, "the players paid for the game, they should get to experience all of the content. It's not fair to keep them away from a win with difficulty. Our psychologists tell us people play games for a release from the frustrations of life and the last thing they want to feel is frustration during our games." Translation: press X to win.

      Oh, and of course us "challenge gamers" are all about the pleasing release of brain chemicals too. Where did I say anything differently? Anything good in life: a bottle of wine, a sunset, an A on a test, making love to a woman, all of them release pleasing brain chemicals.

      We have a possibly obsolete idea that you should have to work to get those chemicals, that they are the reward for doing good. Things like drugs and games provide a shortcut to the chemicals without the work. Who am I to be such a monster to tell people that after a hard day's work they have to spend two hours trying different techniques to defeat a boss? When they could just press X to win and feel great about life for a while? Where do I get off being such a dictator telling people they can't escape?

    13. I'm not arguing against the truth of what you say. I watch game developers talks from GDC all the time, I know exactly about reward systems and the tricks they use to make games more satisfying.

      My problem is with the way it's always phrased. "I like hard games but then other people came and made easier games popular, they're just chemically hooked dopamine addicts." You say I'm calling you a dictator like it's some unreasonable exaggeration, but earlier in this very thread you were wishing that "others" would get their fix somewhere else so harder games would be popular again.

      It's never stated like "I like old games, I support the games I like." It's always "Gaming was good, but then other people came and other types of games are more popular, I wish they would leave and us 'challenge gamers' could have the hobby all to ourselves again."

    14. And it's not just you Harland, the attitude I'm talking about is all over the Internet. A large section of gamers threw a fit because "Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice" had a completely optional easy mode. There's this trend where people feel like their enjoyment of a single-player game is invalidated because other people are able to experience the game at a lesser level of difficulty.

    15. And those old "hard" games also prevented games from reaching a broader market, and thus getting better since there's more money to put into them now.

      A lot of the "difficulty" of the older games was anything but difficult, as people have seen from reading this blog. A game is not difficult because it takes ten hour of grinding to reach the next section or retrying a luck-based mission dozens of times. Look at Deadly Towers as describe here. It had so much padding it's considered one of the worst games ever, but it's not hard just time consuming.

      Also, some games that are actually hard don't interest some players. Look at Dark Souls. I'll never play it, but not because of it's difficulty. I just can't stand games that require precise timing like that, including RPGs.

    16. Whilst there are some easy games, some of the games with the highest public opinion - Dark Souls, Dead Cells etc - have a serious skill level to attain almost anything from them. So hard games are popular.

      But massively popular with the general populous games usually have a financial barrier rather than a skill one - freemium and the like, and the few that don't are generally online games (LoL, DOTA, Fortnite, CSGO) that have a crippling skill level thanks to there always being that one person who is fed by a drip and plays it 24h a day.

      In the squishy middle of all that are some truly spectacular games which have neither the difficulty level of eating the sun, nor a press x to win mechanic. General terms : Hades, Hitman, OOTP, Cities Skylines; CRPG specific : Disco Elysium, Pillars of Eternity etc.

      Modern store fronts (Hi Steam) have never made it more possible for those of us with our own loves in gaming to quietly play dozens of the genre we adore and ignore the seething masses.

    17. Addressing Harland, who is passionate but I think oversimplifying, game design today absolutely recognises that there are a subset of gamers who enjoy and seek challenge, and recognition for overcoming it.

      It turns up in almost every discussion of ways to classify gamers, from the concept of "hard fun", which originates outside of gaming but was picked up by Koster and others, to Bartle's "achiever" archetype, or Edwards' "gamist", to a range of other systems.

      And designers today specifically pick who they are designing and marketing games for.

      The reality is that for any type of gamer, there are more and better games specifically targeting you today than there ever were in the 80s. And there are plenty of games that are not remotely interested in giving you an easy win - the entire Souls-like genre, the range of precision platformers exemplified by Super Meat Boy, the entire catalogue of ridiculously deep Paradox Interactive 4X games, bullet hells such as Cuphead, and so on and so forth.

      But I'd repeat my comment that difficulty is primarily a function of teaching, and that the difference between difficult games that people like and difficult ones that they spurn is about how well the game creates a stable, predictable environment with predictable consequences, and teaches you the skills necessary to engage with it.

    18. Exactly. I can understand being upset if some set of game types was crowding out others. That might have been very true in the past. But with indie gaming and direct download there's a huge emount of diversity available today, and you should be able to find what you want.

      The gaming landscape is too vast to make unitary statements like "gaming today is all about..."

      Now if you're just resentful that some people are different and like different things, or that some tastes are more popular than yours, then I'm not sure what to say. I'd suggest not feeling responsible for making sure everyone else doesn't miss out.

    19. As an interesting note, Masahiro Sakurai (Creator of among other things Super Smash Brothers and Kirby) has recently started a youtube series on game design, and has discussed 90s game design (ie when he started and had his first hits), and one of his points was that basically game designers in that era made games harder as they didn't know enough yet to make a good game that would last a while that wasn't brutally hard.

  5. "Even worse is when the game offers RPG-style inventory and leveling, but at fixed intervals along a linear plot, so that "character development" is just an illusion and everyone does reach the end the same as everyone else."

    I like such games because they offer certain types of stories and characters that I can't seem to make outside of PNP RPGs. If a developer made a game with deep character creation and choices but with JRPG story and character aesthetics, that would probably be my dream crpg.

  6. This is the reason over tiime I moved more and more away from RPG, and more and more toward Strategy Games or Grand Strategy games (not RTS) - it feels like whatever you are doing, you were the only one to do it.

    Similarly, I am more and more into Succession Games, or everything that is relevant to you : you find yourself in situation that no "single player" would have ever been into, due to having to cope with the previous player playing still and having limited time to do your thing.

    1. That definitely is one advantage to playing against an AI, but you're talking about the PLAYER here, I think, not the "characters" you're playing. I don't want my SITUATION to be unique so much as my "guy."

  7. "When a champion like Billy Mitchell achieves a perfect score, we don't say, "Wow, you created a great character there. You put a lot into him.""

    No, but I do wonder how much he cheated to get that score.

  8. I would also challenge that you can't be more skilled at Skyrim then another player. I know lots of players who get through fights that I am chugging potions left and right in without taking damage, because they are far better and blocking and dodging then I am.

    Heck, given ADGQ is on right now, check out the speedruns of Skyrim: You'd probably be a Glitchless type of player:

    Currently the main quest, not using any glitches to make it faster, takes them an hour and seven minutes. I couldn't do that, not if I did nothing but Skyrim for a week. Sure, I can beat Skyrim, but I'd have to grind to compensate for my lack of skill.


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