Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Open world issues Part 2: the Bethesda model

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Comments from yesterday's article prompted me to write a second update to discuss Bethesda's approach to open world games, since they're the other major player and take a markedly different approach worth discussing. We'll save the final discussion for where exactly we might like to pitch our own vision of an "open world" style game for a third installment.

The most obvious difference between Rockstar and Bethesda's approach to open world games is that the former makes action games and the latter makes RPG games. Where GTA has flirted memorably with light character mechanics with GTA:San Andreas, it's easy to see how far different the worlds are because of the RPG traditions of character creation and role assumption.
Not only am I naming and controlling the appearance of my character, the game assumes I am choosing a moral stance as well as preference for archetypal playstyles: warrior, rogue, or wizard, in the broad strokes, and all the flavors and subclasses in between.
As players we can assume much of the game/world content has been built to accommodate this spectrum of different player abilities and approaches. Tommy, CJ, or Niko we pick dress up clothes for but their stories are not ours; the traditional RPG focus of Bethesda's games assume a far greater stake in both role-creation and role-playing. We're expected to make decisions.

I explain the painfully obvious aspects of an action game character vs. an RPG character because I think it's important here in how their respective worlds are designed relative to player input. An action character has a set, narrow verb set but with generally greater resolution in those verbs, whereas RPGs take a broader approach, with a loss of fine resolution typically in action-style combat mechanics (though it's interesting here to note the hybrid forms in Mass Effect 1/2).
One key concern here is that Niko has no method to of interaction with other characters in the world, one to one, other than violence. He may play games, pay vendors for food or clothing, go on dates or hire a prostitute but these are only available contextually. Walking on the street with his girlfriend, his cousin, or past a police officer we are allowed either passivity or violence. This is why the otherwise incredibly well realized world of Liberty City seems so flat by comparison to much smaller-scoped, but more richly detailed games.  We may not encounter nearly as many citizens of whatever fantasy realm as pedestrians in Liberty City, but we can be assured we have at least some shallow, non-violent interactions with most of them.

 I am less an admirer of most fantasy settings; lesser still impressed when games lack an emphasis on finely tuned movement and combat mechanics, which I think has arguably been a weak point in Bethesda's games. So as with Part 1 I will use a post quote to enable discussion, this time from Internet scholar Liesmith:

    I think if you talk about the Bethesda model you should talk about the Daggerfall -> Morrowind -> Oblivion spectrum. Daggerfall is really innovative and provides a ton of stuff for the player to do, but it's overwhelming and specific towns + dungeons are bland because of the random generation. Still stuff like the item rules, where you trap souls and each soul has specific properties which it adds to your items, that's awesome and really ambitious.

Morrowind is a varied experience with really cool shit to do, and the best stuff is exploring a sweet ruin or tomb that no quest pointed you to, and finding a great sword or a book in dwarvish that needs translating. At the same time the quests are a lot of fun, especially since you have to seek them out rather than having them thrust upon you. It's a little scary at first though because gamers aren't used to so much freedom. Also fast travel is resolved in-game, with silt striders, teleport spells or boats.

Then Oblivion is a game that fails in exactly the opposite way as Daggerfall. In order to ease the new gamer's fear of the unknown and lack of direction, they made everything bland and introduced an insulting quest arrow. Fast traveling is similarly dumbed down, and at every turn it feels like they made the safe choices.

There's a lot to unpack here, but I appreciate him introducing a basic spectrum to talk about complexity of the world and correspondingly the emphasis each game places on the player's own will to conquer or explore. This seems consistent with what I have experienced of each title.
Daggerfall is almost punishingly vast in scope, perhaps crippled by overarching ambition for its period; Morrowind is a balancing act of reduced scope but greater specificity in how locations are realized; Oblivion narrows scope further for better graphical fidelity as well as ease of play considerations. Popularly speaking, it seems that Goldilocks picked Morrowind, though Oblivion was by no means unpopular.

Generally speaking I find that Bethesda's approach to open world design is a lot more winning than Rockstar's, in terms of response to a player's desire to play the game by their own rules. Least of all because of this sort of thing, again from Liesmith:

Also in Morrowind, you can kill everybody. This is a pretty crude measure of freedom but it's important. Some people will break the plot if they die, and it will tell you that you have done so after you kill the god Vivec or whoever. But it lets you keep playing because the main quest isn't a big deal.

I think this is an important element because of what it means about the overall character of the world and the designer's esteem of the player.
One of my greatest issues with the GTA experience is that the free play/story mission bifurcation makes me feel as though I am a child allowed to play in a consequence free environment until I decide to "behave" and do the story missions, and over time I'm rewarded with progress in the game world: more of the city becomes available, safehouses, money, etc.
 A game like Morrowind, by placing even important story characters "in the world" and at the mercy of the vengeful player suggests greater trust in the player's intelligence and desire to shape his own experience. If I begin my game and I decide I would like nothing better to do than to exterminate every character I come across, I could go a very long way toward this goal. This is a lauded feature of other classic RPG franchises, such as Fallout. Is this simply revealing how much we value mass-murdering in a game? Or is it an act of good faith by the designer?

To me it says the designers realize the player understands that if they kill the guy handing out all the quests, they're probably not going to be able to get to the golden castle high on the ridge that's at the end of all of this. Or maybe they will, but not the way they would have if they'd done the quest. But instead of considering this a gamebreaker and flatly disallowing it, it assumes that it's meaningful to the player that even quest NPCs are mortal; that there might be clever alternate solutions, ways to game the system.
In the end the game's respect for me as a player ends usually spells how much respect I have for the game in return. How much leeway as a player to do I get toward making my own fun?

How important is that to you as a player? Watch for part three for further discussion.


Johnnyburn said...

I agree that too much hand-holding makes a a game into a chore of clicking. But if I accidentally chop somebody's head off instead of unequipping my sword, I would appreciate the opportunity get myself out of that without replaying the whole game. Open consequences and auto-saves seem to be a good match.

Also, I thought that the written-out, 'turn left at the big tree' directions in Morrowind were annoying. In the age of GPS, I think that it is okay to incorporate some low-resolution quest direction to get you to the area of the level where the action is.

Although, having an arrow point you directly to the well behind the building is a little patronizing too. I think that low-resolution quest direction and "walk there first before you get a quick-jump point" is a reasonable compromise.

You run a most responsive blog here Jack. Looking forward to Part 3.

Grauth said...

I believe that making all characters mortal is a good sign of faith from the creators of the game. It reminds me of all the tabletop roleplaying I've done. Some gamemasters use what we call "Circus Tents". You can't avoid the tents, and when you enter them your forced to do what the GM wants you to do. On the other hand there are GMs who allow you to freely act within their quest. Sometimes the players solve the quests with extremely crude methods. One GM stops you from using crude methods, while the other holds your accountant for your actions.

I feel that some creators act the same way when it comes to video games. When a child were present in a firefight in the original Fallout game your would have to use your weapons with extreme care in order not to harm them. You could fire your weapon without caring about the children, if one was hit by the stray fire, and killed, you would have to pay for your actions. The people you met would shy away from you, not wanting to do business or talk with you.

Other games such as Fallout 3 and Oblivion instead completely removes the action from the game.

Johnyburn: I agree with you that some sort of navigation help is required in most games. Different navigation helpers are required depending on the game. Multiplayer games on one hand most of the time don't try hold the player immersed in the gameworld. Left 4 Dead for example uses different colored silhouettes in order to inform the other survivors about one survivors status. While I believe that games such as Metro 2030 and Dead Space earn a lot from keeping the navigation helper inside the gameworld. Metro using a notepad and a lighter, Dead Space using the "ship navigation beam".

I've always found it interesting to read your thoughts about the game subject. I hope that you will keep on writing blog-posts.

Zwebbie said...

I think there's a bit of a problem here because both GTA IV and TES appeal, or try to appeal, to a variety of players. They've got such ginormous budgets that they can't afford to be single faceted, and as a result, they try to appeal to players who love to explore, players who want storytelling, and players who would much rather be playing dating sims but like to believe they've got a sense of a class.

As such, it's important to note that not all of these facets appeal to everyone. Personally, I do not care much for exploration. I barely did anything besides the storyline in GTA IV, nor in Morrowind, where I actually ended up spending a lot of points on agility so that my character would finally be able to walk across the bloody island at a semi-decent pace. In Oblivion, I never rejoiced over finding a storyless dungeon. Contrary to what you'd expect, I'm not one of those players who finishes a game quickly and never looks back - well, except Morrowind - and I know games like Deus Ex, Max Payne 2 and Vampire - the Masquerade: Bloodlines pretty much by heart. It's just that I don't care much for unguided gameplay, being dropped somewhere and being told to have fun. The whole idea behind sandbox is largely lost on me.

Anyhow! The more I think about it, the more I think Role Playing Games can learn from the GTA series. I'll be the first to say that Bethesda's writers simply aren't worthy to even stand in the shadows of Rockstar's; but at the same time I also think it's impossible to write a hundred good quests and a hundred interesting characters. The small selection that GTA games provide are much more appealing; I'll remember San Andreas' inhabitants long after I've forgotten about everyone in Morrowind and Cyrodiil. Not only have I gotten to intimately know GTA's characters in situations other than them asking me to kill evil demon guys, they are also much more fluidly introduced, rather than waiting for random strangers to wander into their houses to ask them about their problems. I'm very much in favour of this approach where a few situations and characters are well developed, as opposed to Bethesda's ideal where you can talk to a great many people and be tasked to kill a great many boring things.

Related to that, GTA's missions *can* be more interesting because they can give you the old rules but a new objective. For example, after you learned to fly in San Andreas, you were tasked to fly under a certain altitude, and later, behind another plane, or to pick up a truck with a helicopter. You can *fly* anytime you want in the sandbox part of the game. The missions bend the objective so that you have to use your flying skills in creative ways. This is, admittedly, not perfectly executed and GTA IV often doesn't maintain this, but it's generally better executed than in the TES games; there, you're usually tasked to kill people, which is your modus operandi in the game anyway, so hardly a change of pace. GTA's design may not so much be part of the sandbox gameplay; it *complements* it.

If you're looking for sandbox gameplay on a whole other level, I'd recommend taking a look at Fallout (the original, obviously); the non-linearity is an essential part of the (important) main quest, whereas the non-linearity of Morrowind's or Oblivion's quests starts and ends with when you decide to do them, but it plays little to no actual gameplay role.

Zwebbie said...

The blog wouldn't let me have more characters, so this tidbit is a new comment:

As for the stats you mentioned in the beginning of this write-up, I've recently begun doubting them. I'm playing through Deus Ex recently and through game design and use of skill points and augmentations, I've found that I've always got most roads open for me; I can, pretty much always, choose to either sneak, stab, shoot, hack, silently kill or climb my way out of situations. Compare to traditional RPGs where, once you're spending points into wielding swords, your solution will always have something to do with decapitation and doesn't leave for much creativity outside of the character creation screen.

Ben said...

Despite the Fallout series' open world feel, there was always one sneaky thing (in all three to date) that would nudge you onto the main quest path - the karma system. It was subtle, but I've found it to be probably one of the most effective game mechanics in an RPG.

Anonymous said...

The big problem with the open world is that it does not operate independently. Sure, most npc are given scripts of actions. NPC1 will go to the Tavern from 4-8. Go to sleep from 11-6. Go to work from 8-3. But these are really non interactive.

In order to get past the empty feel there needs to be some work done into environmental systems of interaction. Each system should generate the environment around it to some extent, and these conflicting environments will provide a greater depth.

For example, a colony of orcs might grow large due to a few lucky kills in one game, while another might die out due to a lack of food in another. The differences on players might mean that merchant trade is increased or decreased. Of course this isn't limited to only reproductive cycles, but in towns or otherwise various npcs would have goals and try to achieve those goals independently of the player. Thus a player could walk into a town and a bar might be boarded up because the innkeeper is refusing to pay taxes because his "become rich" goal was being interfered with by the local rulers "become rich" goal. Alternatively if the player spent a lot of cash at the bar before moving on it wouldn't of been shut down.

Oblivion tried to do this and didn't succeed very well because the scope of the interactions was too narrow and was note easily apparent to the player since everyone you spoke with would spew out main quest information pretty much exclusively.

Also, there needs to be a little less focus on "main quest" in the open world games. Even in Daggerfall the main quest and the guildmaster questlines were fairly linear. Instead the player should be left without a guideline for completion. Certainly quests will have to exist, but it might not be impossible to procedurally generate epic quests between cities based on the needs of those in power. Certain plotlines would be landmarks, but could play out differently depending on the random events in a game, or the way the player tries to complete them.

For example, the princess might be in the castle, but maybe she doesn't date elves and when she's rescued she runs away. or maybe if the player waits too long another adventurer NPC with the "get famous" goal rescues her first.

Dhatz said...

Biggest problem of GTA is absolute lack of any other content than phycho simulation in any other GTA than SA. you can't even sti down without a mod. and internet is there useless place spammed with shallow pages(R* is excusing their ass if they say it's intentional.)

Dhatz said...

Another major problem in games is team invulneability, because it's games that drop crime rates.

StickFigs said...

I think trying to make a real "sandbox" game is the same as trying to solve the problem that burdens MMO games, the problem of it just not being possible to make every player the main character and hero. The only way I could even fathom resolving either of these issues is some sort of sentient AI director capable of creating new content on its own so it can morph the world around the player's decisions, as unpredictable and illogical as they may be.

Dhatz said...

re:StickFigs the problem is the world existing only in near vincinity to the player, this approach shows little to no plans of making any added interesting (re)action. Nobody even tried doing enough to make games feel different(NFSUg gets points for aerodynamic sounds). I Don't remember any game where ambient was actually coming out of city as opposed to ocean sounds in the way you could distinguish rotation of camery by sound.

James said...

@Zwebbie I'd argue that, really, comparing Rockstar's methods of storytelling with Bethesda's is difficult, because they're both exploring different methods of delivery (and they are both getting good at each).

Frankly, Bethesda have me sold with their exploratory storytelling. Fallout 3's best moments for me were never in the story (which had some bloody good moments), they were in finding something like an abandoned house in which there is a story entirely written in map design. You can look at the objects there and figure out what happened, or there might be some audio logs or a few scraps of paper to further that on. And then the realization that these little touches have been added to every abandoned house and building, and some of them interlink. This overwhelming collection of lore was hard to appreciate in Morrowind and Oblivion. For me, mostly, it was the theme, but TES has been a work in progress, much as GTA. The story is not told in Bethesda games, it's experienced.

I think the difference between the developers, you're mentioning isn't in skill, but taste. Hey, I'll be the first to object to your comment, I love Grand Theft Auto, but there's a notable lack of subtly to the (kinda cult?) film influence driven stories they write. You're putting Rockstar pretty high, there, and why? Because they have succeeded in finding interesting ports of dark comedy? Or because they've managed to find a genre to aestheticize violence? They've managed to merge some interesting techniques from movies into their games, but I'd hardly call them masters of storytelling.

Zwebbie said...

@James: don't get me wrong, I don't think Rockstar are the masters of storytelling. In fact, I've got rather a dislike for cutscenes, because they're telling the story outside of the game.
Personally I think the Bethesda method of storytelling falls apart because their games break immersion.

I can't explain much, though; just that GTA's jokes consistently have me laughing and TES' jokes consistently have me cringing. In part, it may be because of Bethesda's terrible voice actors, but I also think that Rockstar's lines are always sharp and effective at conveying something, even if the grand ideal of their story telling is a bit lame.

StickFigs said...

@Dhatz What?

Resin said...

Mount & Blade had some really nice sandbox features that neither of these other games have. The way they have companions and lords have a relationship stat or state for both the player and one another is really quite cool.

Resin said...

Another game I would point out is the up-coming MMO Mortal Online, it draws a lot off of Ultima Online and is a sandbox game in ways that only MMOs can be, it is somewhat in the vein of WURM or EVE in that sense though I think there will be a bit more pre-made content. Still the focus of these games is squarely on player2player interactions, and relies on this in place of content. So maybe it doesn't really belong in the same conversation as single player games.

I found Infamous kind of interesting, if somewhat 2-dimensional. They could have at least added the lawful vs. chaotic to their somewhat dubious good vs.evil system. It is still somewhat obtuse as personality descriptors go but if you had something of this nature, or Meyer Briggs or whatever based on gameplay choices and then wed to an AI director like in L4D - well maybe......idk.
Sometimes its better if a developer has a singular theme and idea they want to convey though, instead of trying to be all things to all people. Tricky I guess.

StickFigs said...

@Resin If what you're suggesting in your second paragraph there is an MMO who's world is orchestrated by an AI director I think that would be very interesting, even if not an AI perhaps a team of human dungeon masters. But not in the sense of something like The Matrix Online where the only thing they do is run a special event once in the game's lifetime.

Resin said...

Actually I was refering once again to Single player games, just suggesting that the AI director be responsive to a number of personality states that the game could gather about the player.

However Mortal Online does plan on having an ongoing team running epic quest lines, these are one time events once completed by any individual or group it is over for everyone. I don't know if that is more similar to what you are thinking or to what the Matrix Online does.

Jordan said...

It's sadly unrealistic to expect developers to embrace the idea of spending time and money on features that most players will never see.

"Sean Bean's voice MUST be heard", sayeth the Oblivion designer, "because we spent alot of money on hiring him.".

So the modern RPG becomes a collection of satisfying side-quests that really bring a feeling of immersion to the game, coupled with a fairly cliche fantasy/sci-fi story that nobody gives a hoot about.

The aim has to be a compromise. Whilst you'd have a hard time arguing Mass Effect 2 is a radical improvement on the open world design (same old Hero/Maniac dissonance), it's a good example of a design that hides the rails that direct the narrative from the player.

Having the story branch into modular sections or quests arrive from NPCs rather than external agents does a handy job of burying the main story inside a collection of interesting side missions.

The major failing is the lack of consequence. The response to your actions is almost entirely binary (the Good/Evil-ometer) and having to buy the sequel to see any real plot developments from your choices is a pretty low move, but that's a different discussion.

It would be an interesting experiment to see a design that just regards the 'main story' as another quest, one to be happened upon by chance, perhaps many hours into playing the game proper. After all, what good is facing an overwhelming enemy if the hero hasn't been through trials to reach it? It's drama 101!

Resin said...

I wouldn't mind following main quest lines if they weren't so pathetically written, most of the time anyway. There are just some extremely predictable overused plots and characters that were never that great to start with.

I also think that the text based input is underused- Mount and blade's opening stat generator was great, a good example of less is more. A pretty simple way to allow the players imagination to fill in the blanks, no cutscenes or voice actors neccessary.

StickFigs said...

I'd be very interested in seeing an MMO uses a history/world generator like Dwarf Fortress has to progress history and shape the world based on decisions made by the players as a whole (rather than by individuals).

Dhatz said...

WhatI meant was that all the NPCs and cars in all games only exist in a diameter related to the player or camera(some hecks exist to separate those from each other), unless there is sime script that in specific case makes the scripted one visible from far. and this approach shows us how limited sense of simulation the devs have.

chiasaur11 said...


Mass Effect is actually one of the games making the most progress in that area, generally.

It's not Hero/Maniac, it's Captain Carrot/ Jack Bauer. Or at least it's trying for that, and seems to be getting better at it.

Also, Dhatz?

You ain't getting clearer.

Jory said...

Dhatz appears to be talking about the way Rocksar (et al) present the illusion of an environment that is total even though the player views only a small part of it at any given time. He appears to be talking about the fact that in GTA4 it's only in extremely specific cases that a car is actually heading toward a destination that it will eventually reach. Since only a small amount of processing power can be allotted to simulating the actions of NPCs, the area surrounding the player is simply cobbled together through time-based population values.

@Jordan (and his final paragraph)
The first Fallout is an interesting example. Though the game obviously puts quite a large amount of stress on the game's main quest and so doesn't quite speak to what you're trying to describe, it's pretty cool that an experienced player can actually reach the game's climactic moments straight from the beginning of the game simply because they know where to look.

Anonymous said...

I think Fallout 3 did a good job at the sandbox genre. Perhaps because it is sort of linear but the way you react to different events. However the interesting part about Fallout 3 is both my brother and me had no interest in rescuing our father. My brother was getting quest through his boss where I was speaking writing a book for a shop keeper in hope of getting the Rock-It Launcher schematics from her.

What I getting to is that we did care about finding our Dad at all. Which is weird because I really liked the my Dad as a character but I didn't want to find him.

I think its because the wasteland is this vast seemingly endless world.The player takes this hostile place as a challenge. The world is so difficult to survive in that you have convinced yourself that your way of playing is the best way playing. But the main quest just feels like your confined to the path that has already been carved for you.

So one to the point about having the option to kill everyone and for the most part fallout 3 does this with the exception of a few characters that will just get knocked out. This didn't really bother me but I'd interested what a game like Fallout 3 was like without the main quest. If the story was entirely shaped by the players choice.

Anonymous said...

Gauss, when is part 3 going to be up?

gauss said...

Very worthwhile contributions to the discussion everyone, I hope it continues.

Anonymous: traveling over the last few weeks has been very disruptive to the site; I've also been dealing with settling terms on a new apartment/getting ready to move. But that's all taken care of, so look for part 3 this coming week. Thanks.

Sui said...

"This is a lauded feature of other classic RPG franchises, such as Fallout. Is this simply revealing how much we value mass-murdering in a game? Or is it an act of good faith by the designer?"

In response to this, I would like to highlight the fact that we kill people in games not because we like seeing people die, or because we're all fucked up psychopaths at heart, but because it is our most viable method of discourse within the game world.
Now, you may think that, rather than violence, TALKING is the most viable method of discourse in games that allow it, because it lets us communicate with NPCs in a way which results in more than a simple binary consequence (death of the player vs. death of the NPC). This, I would argue, is not true; it’s too fake. Any player with a slither of intelligence knows, deep down, that they’re not truly interacting with the NPC, they’re picking their way through a choose-your-own adventure book; whereby the things that they say and the things that the NPC says are predetermined by the developer. Sure, it can result in different outcomes, but all that’s really being achieved is the revelation of another pre-written story page (and perhaps a pre-determined reward), no different to a GTA IV cutscene. The only difference is that you need to invest much more time into the game to see the whole story, through multiple playthroughs.
Violence, however, is different. We like it because it’s the only thing in the game that gives us real, true control over a situation. We have the POWER to directly disrupt the game world – to destroy an element of the game that was not necessarily meant to be destroyed. Killing a merchant in Morrowind and stealing their stuff is different from taking part in a quest which presents you with a moral choice of whether to kill a merchant or not. In the former, we’re exercising our one true form of discourse – violence and the ability to kill – outside of the influence of the developer. In the latter, we’re choosing which page to turn to in a choose-your-own-adventure book. We may PRETEND that the outcomes are the same, but this is roleplay; the only outcome in which we experience the euphoric feeling of making our own choice is derived from the former example.
The game that I’ve had the most fun experimenting with has been Metal Gear Solid 2. I played the demo endlessly, hour upon hour. Why? Because it took the discourse of violence, and expanded your vocabulary. Suddenly you could hold guards hostage; you could tranquilize them without killing them; you could maim their arms and legs, limiting THEIR ability to use the discourse of violence upon you; you could fool, distract, and everything else. This is interaction that goes far, far beyond cycling through pages of dialogue with NPCs. It’s fucking real.
Now, it seems that most games have taken a step back. One of the reasons that Oblivion felt so vapid was because, despite giving the NPCs day and night schedules (supposedly adding to their personality), your available interactions with these characters remained limited and conflicting. You could either engage in horribly limited dialogue (which was so due to the costs of voice acting etc etc), or attack / kill them outright, probably resulting in a bounty put on your head. To be fair, they added a few new ideas, like the concept of poisoning food etc, but I never got stuff like that to work properly, least of all feel satisfying.
So, my point is, in games which allow you to interact with NPCs both through violence and dialogue, violence will always be the more meaningful interaction, simply because it is the one which the player has complete control of. Dialogue is a maze. Violence is direct.

Daniel said...

Sports fever is always on it's peak when anyone talk about open games i always wanted to go there and watch them live but haven't done till the date you can also check Top 10 Best Open World Games -

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