Gameplay vs Mechanics

Ever since Soulcalibur: Lost Swords was finally, and disappointingly, revealed to be nothing more than a cynical free-to-play cash grab, and large middle finger to everyone who enjoys playing Soulcalibur games competitively, I’ve been trying to spin it in my head into something positive, because God knows I’m an optimist at heart. I also have a really boring job, so I spend a lot of my time lost in thought (or listening to BBC comedies, because when I decided to be a nerd I figured there was no point in half-assing it). Over time I was able to start putting the pieces together, and was immediately reminded of a thought experiment once used to disprove the concept of qualia. The question was whether I didn’t like the games because they were different from the games I used to like, or because I no longer liked that type of game at all. And if the games had changed, what about them was making them less appealing to me?

Obviously a lot has changed about me and the way I play games over the last 10 years or so since I made the most dramatic shifts in what I played–going from mostly FPS and RPGs to now mostly just playing some DotA, fighting games, and the occasional indie release–but there were still times in between where new games excited me. I recall gushing to an old boss about Mass Effect when it was first announced, only to then play Knights of the Old Republic and lose all interest in both Star Wars and anything Bioware did after that. I didn’t even play the first Mass Effect until after Mass Effect 2 was released, and couldn’t force myself to push through to the end. There are other big franchises that I’ve felt similarly toward, like the God of War games (though I at least beat the first 2, and I own the 3rd). Meanwhile I played through Ninja Gaiden Black on 3 difficulties and was part way through my 2nd run of Ninja Gaiden 2 when my 360 started conking out on me.

It was the gameplay reveal for Bungie’s new IP, Destiny, that put the final piece into place, and I understood. Destiny was beautiful. Destiny was technically impressive. Destiny was also painfully boring.

Somewhere in there, between the floaty console FPS controls, and the generic scripted combat encounters, I found the idea I had been trying to get my hands on. It’s not exactly a complex idea–I’m talking Duplo, not Lego–but it was enough.

Most modern games are about gameplay instead of mechanics.

These terms need to be made clear. I suspect that a lot of it exists in my head, if only because I never see or hear other people discussing them in the same way. What I mean by mechanics are the basic nuts and bolts of how a game works, while the gameplay is a more general reference to how a game is designed to be played. The primary reason why I have a low tolerance for open-world or sandbox type games is that I find them to be mechanically dull, which makes them boring to play. Sure, they’re designed to have a lot of different gameplay angles, allowing players to essentially do what they want and tackle the game any way they like, but when the mechanical means of each of those approaches can’t hold my attention that’s not very appealing. I’d rather play a good Tales game than an entry in the Elder Scrolls series, because even though Tales games are linear and full of terrible anime cliches, the combat is mechanically rich, which holds my attention, while the combat in the Elder Scrolls games does nothing for me, which makes the idea of vast open-world about as appetizing as extra helpings of gruel.

I see this approach to game design as top-down, and it probably has a lot to do with technological advancements and marketing. The emphasis is on larger ideas and goals to keep a player interested, rather than more minimalist design that allows players to invest their own skill and creativity. Selling games based on mechanics is hard, because often they have to be experienced first hand before they’re understood, and unless a player is already familiar somehow it’s hard to make distinctions for them. Even back in the day there were many people who saw no difference between Unreal and Quake, though any player of either game could quickly list off dozens of mechanical distinctions that set them apart, in the same way that the only differences I know between modern Call of Duty and Battlefield games is that one offers more environmental destruction, and possibly vehicles.

Gameplay is about goals while mechanics are about means, and everywhere I look the goals are piling up while the means rarely justify the effort required. Achievements, trophies, experience points required to unlock weapons, skills, and classes, even the deadly cow clickers, they are all there to give perceived value where there isn’t necessarily intrinsic incentive to keep playing. I have seen forum and blog posts lamenting a player’s inability to get all the achievements in some game, not because the last few are too hard, but because they might take online play where the player is unable to play it online, or local multiplayer where the player has nobody to play with locally. Sometimes it goes so far that a player decides they will not buy a game that they are interested in because they don’t think they would be able to get 1000/1000, or buy and play through a game they don’t like just because they can get 1000/1000.

When I take stock of the games that have lasted for me, they are always the games that I played simply for the pleasure of playing. There were no greater goals than the ones I set for myself, and no set achievements other than improving my own skills in some way. I didn’t play through Ninja Gaiden Black on multiple difficulties so that I could see the ending again, I did it because I kept finding ways for the mechanics to interest me when I upped the game’s difficulty setting and imposed more restrictions on myself. I don’t go back to Mega Man X every few years to refresh the intricate plot in my mind, I do it because it is a game that I have complete control over and I take pleasure in that. And Knights of the Old Republic may have had a better script than Shadow over Mystara, but the combat encounters–the mechanics of the game–were like getting slapped in the face by wet newspaper, and about as fun.

The idea that modern games are increasingly designed to be compulsions rather than fun ways to spend some free time is not a new one, and at the most basic and cynical level that’s the point that I’m making: filling bars is not a mechanical skill worth investing in. But there is more to it than that. Back to the Destiny gameplay. That game has been compared to Borderlands, which is fine by me, because Borderlands is a prime example of the problem. It’s all about finding new guns, getting more loot, producing bigger numbers, filling up bars. It is graphically interesting and has a sense of humour. Unfortunately, actually running around in the environments and shooting at enemies is tedious when it isn’t boring. Granted, I played through the game alone and everyone tells me that it’s much better coop, but you can say that about any game short of Battletoads, so that’s not a real point.

When it comes down to it, I will happily play a game with an awful story¬† if I enjoy the mechanics and have fun playing it, but I can’t say the opposite is true.

(Of course, the ideal would be to have bars that took just long enough to fill that when a dedicated player finally manages that the sequel, or at least some DLC, is out and they’ve got new bars to start filling even if the gameplay, graphics, AI, or matchmaking hasn’t changed in any meaningful way. The Koreans figured this one out a long time ago, at least as far back as the original Lineage, which had a levelling system so daunting that most players couldn’t even approach what were suspected to be the caps. I knew a guy who was high enough level on the English servers that he successfully blogged about his progress. The sound of him spending hours on end attacking the same monsters, which all made the same sound when they took damage, is something that I’ll never be able to forget. His dedication was such that during the times he was forced by real life to leave the net cafes he set up shop in, he would often hire someone else to take his seat and kill monsters for him, so that he wouldn’t fall too far behind. Not surprisingly, one of his main complaints about Lineage 2 was that a level cap actually existed and was attainable.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum are genres that rely so heavily on mechanics that they become harder and harder to keep afloat. The arena shooter, once the battleground of titans like Quake and Unreal, is basically dead, and fighting games spent nearly a decade as niche titles after ruling consoles and arcades in the 90s. When I look at both of those genres I see a conspicuous lack of broader gameplay goals and bars to fill out, because they both traditionally resist that, having been previously designed for balanced competition between small groups of players. I’d say the same thing about RTS games except that Starcraft 2 manages to walk the fine line well enough, even if the more casual crowd still complains about it being filled with archaic mechanics.

These are two genres that have nothing else to offer a player other than their mechanics. Sure, fighting games have been trying to up the quotient of singleplayer content, from the Blazblue games packaging in complete visual novels, to the Mortal Kombat games doing their best have lengthy story modes, but at some point the player still has to play the game, and do most of them spend their brief time with a new character in the story mode trying to work out optimal bread and butter combos, or trying to find whichever move will allow them to quickly exploit the enemy AI so that they can get to the next cut-scene? How many of them would enjoy the games more if they didn’t have to do the fighting game parts?

Few other genres attract players who are purely interested in the mechanics. Quake spawned the Defrag community, who do nothing with the game but try to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

And in the most roundabout way possible, I’m back to Soulcalibur: Lost Swords. It’s probably just my own messed up way of seeing the world, but I’ll always connect those old school, mechanically-driven FPS games to fighting games in my mind. So the question then became, “Where is the fighting game equivalent of Defrag?”

Lost Swords, despite everything else, is something novel. It’s the first fighting game in a long while where the stated goal is something other than beating the snot out of other human beings. First person shooters long ago broke that arena fighter mould, and we’ve had games like Half-Life and Portal and Mirror’s Edge since, but fighting games–even the ones with all that extra singleplayer content thrown in–are still about direct competition. But maybe they don’t have to be.

Just as Defrag skills, while useful, serve little practical purpose for a competing Quake player, combo videos are often a means of artistic expression through mechanical manipulation and are of no use to the average player (most of the combos seen in non-instructional combo videos are either so physically unlikely that they’re impractical, or are tool assisted, or they’re just plain bad combos that would do less damage and cost more resources than something that takes 1/10th the effort). Both eschew traditional competition in traditionally competitive games, but allow players to still invest considerable effort into mastering mechanics, and both are respected by regular players instead of being looked upon as carebear time wasters.

(And maybe it’s just me, but I find combo videos for classic fighting games much more interesting than modern combo videos. Something about those old systems being more open to unintended abuse, while modern mechanics are increasingly either rigidly enforced or purposefully loose, which are both less appealing.)

I’m not saying Lost Swords means anything. It doesn’t. But I do think there has to be a place out there for a fighting game that isn’t about fighting. People make combo videos, they put a ton of work into them, and who is to say that if there was a game where the goal was to simply land big or goofy combos on a practice dummy nobody would play it? There has been a big surge in games without traditional gameplay lately–maybe that’s a direct response to all the rigid set-pieces and unlock grinding in modern AAA games–but it’s clear that a game like Minecraft, where the only goal for most players is to find their own goals, is attractive to a lot of people. The possibilities are out there, and I think Lost Swords is going to do one thing that will show how fighting games can be different: throw out balance without having to apologize. The players are beating on AIs, and AIs have a long history of not whining on forums or voting with their wallets, so it’s the perfect opportunity to throw out the rules and just let players push the limits of what they can get away with.

Funnily enough, Soulcalibur 4 already did something like this in its single-player mode, Tower of Souls, where players could instantly tag between 2 characters to pull off some crazy combos.

If there was a fighting game where players never fought each other at all would people play it? I think so. Would it be a success? It might not sell as many copies as a new Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but there is demand out there for something. I know I’d buy it.

As video games become increasingly service oriented the games themselves will also change. Giving players bars to fill is the easiest way to keep them coming back. Coupled with that is the video game industry feeling the crush of the amounts of cash being generated and increasingly succumbing to the blockbuster effect, where the pressure to make money, and not squander the amounts of money being spent, lead to new ideas being shunned while every game moves closer and closer to the lowest common denominator singularity. Just like with movies, innovation still happens, but it happens outside of, or despite, major studios and developers. That is, innovation in gameplay or mechanics; new ways of lighting polygons or squeezing more money out of customers will always interest major developers, publishers, and hardware manufacturers.

Maybe there will only be 3 new games next year that actually interest me, and I’ll enjoy 2 of them. A decade ago it might have been 10 new games, and I would have enjoyed 6 of them. What matters is that I am still enjoying games, and I have also learned some impulse control. But I know that if someone ever did try to make this game that only exists in my dreams it would be on my list, and I would even try to earn all the achievements.

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A Post-Street Fighter 4 World

Preface

I want to make two things very clear right now: I enjoy playing the Dead or Alive games (specifically Dead or Alive 2 in all its iterations), and I think the Dead or Alive games are terrible fighting games.

This article is a result of one direct question: Who is the real target market for a non-Capcom, Western aimed fighting game, and how much should it have to change in order to appeal to competitive players, SRK, and the stream monsters?

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: this is an opinion piece.

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