Thursday, November 24, 2011

Triumph of the Simulation

In fact, we experience a victory of the simulation right now and Blizzard is maybe the last big company fighting a few rearguard actions to keep the “gameplay first” motto alive.

When I started this blog I gave it the motto, “A MMORPG should be as credible and consistent as possible and as little as necessary”. I later changed this motto but still discuss the dualism of gameplay vs. simulation (world) regularly.

Compared to most MMO players I lean more towards the simulation but still emphasize the importance of gameplay whenever I can. My line of attack is usually towards making MMOs better simulations without hurting the gameplay. Within WoW, and thus within the mainstream MMOs over the last ten years, the trend has been towards putting immense weight on gameplay and ignoring the simulation. And I often felt like being on the defensive.

However, I am slowly realizing that this perception is completely wrong. In fact, we experience a victory of the simulation right now and Blizzard is maybe the last big company fighting a few rearguard actions to keep the “gameplay first” motto alive. But the most interesting thing is I am pretty certain that this is not a good thing.

I first realized this when I looked at the story-based genre of first person shooters. Like many MMO players I didn't play many single player games over the last few years and I was genuinely surprised when I played Call of Duty for the first time. The linearity aside, Call of Duty's single player mode is just a simulation. The actual gameplay is trivial and ultimately irrelevant. You can succeed in some missions without firing a single shot. I later played Crysis 2 and realized that I could sneak through almost every level if I wanted. And that would be faster than playing normally and also be a rather trivial way of 'beating' the game.

But these are linear experiences. Skyrim is not. And still Skyrim is a good game exclusively due to the simulation background. The actual abstract gameplay is .. irrelevant and even bad. As a mage my entire abstract gameplay consists of keeping enemies chain-stunned by chain-casting the exact same spell.

And that's it. There's really nothing else to it! Add to this that the character development is an unbalanced mess and the controls are terrible. I am 31 years old. Do I play Chess because the pieces are so beautiful and because the background music is heroic? No (in case you wondered).

I am not the only person being a bit confused. Extra Credits just tried to answer why they loved Deus Ex: Human Revolution so much and concluded that it is the simulation; and nothing else. I do feel a bit uneasy here. Yes, I like games with strong simulations - especially RPGs. And - yes - I like Skyrim. And - yes - the mass market agrees with this.

But just as ignoring the simulation and focusing solely on the gameplay was bad, so is ignoring the gameplay to focus on the simulation bad, in my opinion! I'm not sure I like where this is going, really.

Tadhg Kelly likes to say that “all games are played to win”. But this is just wrong looking at current games. Winning modern games has become irrelevant. And I don't think it becomes much better if you water down the word 'win' until it is nothing more than any goal however trivial to achieve, like Tadhg does. Also, this is not just a problem of the sub-genre that recycles the ever same gameplay to make money with (more or less) interesting stories. It's true for open-world RPGs, like Skyrim, as well!

One last thought: As long as games are not meant to be played for a long time, they might not need to have good gameplay. But if you want a game to be played for hundreds of hours it sure needs to have good gameplay ... doesn't it? Let's see how long players need until they bore of Skyrim's bad abstract gameplay ...


  1. Welcome to the dark side. ;)

    I kid, I kid.

    You are correct about game designers seeming to completely ignore the "game" part of game design as they focus on simulations. It is eerily similar to the current film industry who has given up on crafting stories worth experiencing and are simply mining the past, down to the dregs. Or relying on Michael Bay-isms of outrageous explosions (etc) to entice audiences.

    I have always sided with gameplay (or story) over simulation, because the former always works well whereas the latter is such a fickle, fragile thing. I was playing an indie puzzle game on Steam yesterday for about 4 hours, completely "immersed." Was it simulating a 4cm robot drilling and placing blocks extremely well? Of course not. But the activity and engagement made immersion automatic.

    And hey, quality gameplay can be way less expensive than quality simulation.

  2. Perhaps Skyrim would have been better without the magic. There are far to many spells and it just adds too many complications for them to balance and swapping the spells with the current control system is a pain.

    In any case archery is well implemented and a lot of fun in Skyrim and I haven't yet come across any obvious exploits with my paladin type archery/sword and board toon (with a little restoration magic).

  3. And here I say once again why Vanilla and TBC wow was the best game ever created..because it kept a perfect balance between gameplay and simulation..and when I say perfect I mean it :P

    In numerous times I told this people told me that it is nostalgia and such things but I know it is not..its just what I said..a great simulation game with awesome gameplay..

    too bad for them they screw it and thus why their community have dramatically changed

  4. As always the answer lies in balance; simulation vs. gameplay, open world vs. meaning, challenge vs. name it. :)

    what WoW currently shows best is how things go wrong if the scale tips over in favor of one thing over the other.
    Skyrim on the other hand, might not achieve the same in all areas either, but is more balanced overall - and maybe more importantly, redefines / abandons the significance of those areas where it isn't perfect in (for example item rewards / gear are no challenge and don't have to be).

    not that you can very well compare the two, anyway. Skyrim will certainly exhaust itself longterm, because it is per se not designed to last as long as an MMO. if Bethesda chose to though, they could make this a game that lasts a very long time, getting its own content patches etc. while still staying 'offline mode'.

  5. About the gameplay of skyrim: have you tried something else than magic? From what I hear, both from my friends and from forums, people seems to agree that magic is the easiest/most boring ways to play the game, with sword/board being the most fun.

  6. Not yet, Jondare. But I will eventually.

  7. i would like to hear your thoughts on the dialogue in this game. especially snippets like this from the first encounter with the greybeards that i'm sure you're familiar with. paraphrasing -

    GREAYBEARD: welcome dragonborn, glad you came
    DRAGONBORN: yes, i'm answering your summons
    GREYBEARD: prove you're dragonborn, let me hear your "voice"
    DRAGONBORN: kaboom
    GREYBEARD: yes, you are dragonborn. welcome.
    GREYBEARD: so, dragonborn, why are you here?
    DRAGONBORN: you summoned me...

    what kind of simulation is this?

  8. My thoughts are that the dialogue could be improved, Nobody. But other things bothered me more.

  9. Nils, I just found your blog today and left some comments. The insights you have on game design are so much fun to think about, thanks for writing them up!

    I actually posted something related to this on your Youtube video, but I feel compelled to respond to Jondare:

    In this game mage actually seems to be the weakest (or at any rate weaker than melee) character. Unless you force yourself to not using smithing/enchanting/alchemy melee becomes stronger than magic because you are guaranteed to create the best equipment possible, and that equipment is OP. In diablo 2 for example even after it has been out for over ten years no one has the best (non-hacked) axe possible, and that gives the game a lot of longterm play value.

    If I were to design a mod to skyrim it would obviously have to make the game harder, and I think a way to do that would be to improve the loot system, and make at least one but probably all of smithing/alchemy/enchanting significantly weaker. After 70 hours of play on my main character no quest items or any items I found are better than the items I smithed while high on 130% potions. :(