Monday, September 24, 2012

A Tale of Two ARPGs

I had a moment of clarity while I was in the midst of slaying goblins and evil robots this weekend, and it was on the topic of game design. Now, I am not an experienced game developer, not do I think I am capable of designing a game of commercial magnitude from the ground up. There are a lot of subtle complexities that go into these things. Therefore, this post shall reflect a non-critical approach; a mere interesting observation, because nothing frustrates and angers me more than novice developers making baseless criticisms, trapped in their own Dunning-Kruger hell.

There just so happens to be two competing ARPGs on the market at the moment. They look and feel very similar, but were produced by two different game companies. Both games share many of the same mechanics. If you aren't privy to the games, let me share with you an interesting piece of confusing trivia: one of the games is a sequel in a series that was created by the other company. Lose you? It's very simple: Company X makes game #1a. Company X makes game #1b. Then, the people in Company X leave, and form brand new Company Y. Company X hires new people, and then they go on to make game #1c. Meanwhile...the original team behind the first games (Company Y) start over, and make brand new game #2a. And then, just this last weekend...they release game #2b.

Still confused? I have your back. The pictures below should hopefully clear up the confusion:

Company X (Blizzard) - Game #1c (Diablo III)

Company Y (Runic Games) - Game #2b (Torchlight II)

So, now that you've been formally introduced, let's get to the epiphany. Game #1c has been getting a lot of negative feedback in the news lately, both from professional game reviewers and the game players themselves. The complaints cover many subsystems of game #1c, but one area in particular took a lot of heat early on, the "dumbing down" of the character customization. In games #1a and #1b (considered old-school by many veteran game players), characters leveled up and gained points which were spent on attributes like Strength, Dexterity, Vitality and Energy. This left the player to choose what path they felt was right. Should my character do more damage, or have more health? Should she be able to cast spells for longer durations or should she cast spells that critically strike more often? A player who put thought and care into their choices meant for a much powerful character as the game grew in difficulty. Conversely, players that plugged stats in randomly got what they deserve: frustrating deaths due to misappropriated stats.

There is a growing trend in the industry to cater to a certain type of gamer that doesn't have time to figure out what stats go where. I won't address that trend in this post (don't get me started), but what I will point out is that trend successfully affected game #1c's design, and Company X removed that layer of complexity from its design. I'm not going to critique their reasoning; you're free to watch their explanation and draw your own conclusion. Just know that game #1c disallows you from making those choices.

Now, as it turns out, Company Y did retain attribute customization in their game, #2b. This means that you can just as easily create a powerful character, or shoot yourself in the foot and make a character that's totally useless. Forcing the player to take some ownership in the customization process, thereby directly tying the player to the fate of their character was a conscientious design decision on Company Y's part.

Where's the epiphany, you ask?

As players progress deeper and deeper into game #1c, in which they are unable to tweak their character's attributes to better prepare them for the most difficult challenges, all paths (more or less) end up at the same destination. The final, most difficult portion of game at the end of #1c is almost entirely unplayable; it is oppressively difficult (for more reasons beyond this), and Company X has been forced to revisit their design several times since its release to tweak it. Company X still had to implement a design for game #1c which drives the player toward an increasing difficulty, but without stat customization, players (both amateur and expert) were treated with the same result: an unplayable endgame. The running joke of a child screaming in terror from a swarm of chickens isn't far off.

On the other hand, it is quite ironic to note that Company Y's treatment of game #2b produced the opposite effect: early botched stat customization can ensure that a poorly tweaked character will suffer very quickly as the difficulty progresses. However, if the player takes care with regards to stat allocation, the reverse of #1c's endgame is the result: Characters in game #2b arrive at the most difficult challenges and lay waste to them.

I won't critique, I promised you that from the start. But, these two competing designs definitely produce very different levels of enjoyment. The question is, do you enjoy blowing things up? Or running in terror like a child?