“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.” […] We need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game.
— Jeff Kaplan (Former Director of World of Warcraft) Speaking at the 2009 Game Developers Conference
Shortly after I started my first play session of BattleForge last week, I discovered that a majority of the real-time strategy game’s back-story and narrative was delivered to the player in an unfortunately common way:
The in-game book, in that screen shot, is displaying a mere two pages of that selected chapter’s storyline. There are five more chapters in that “Plot” book, and then even more like it in the “World” and “Legend” books. This is a game released to the world’s foremost interactive medium and it is relaying its significant narrative through a tiny, digital book. Mass Effect, too, chose to have an in-game encyclopedia/compendium feature in its game menu which served as a means for players to read an enormous amount of back-story and flavor text about the world in which the game took place. The Elder Scrolls games have an abundance short stories that could be found in logical spots within the game worlds and then read by players at their leisure.
Why? Why do we, game designers and developers, feel the need to expound on our games to the point where we task players, as optional a task as that may be, to sit and stare at their monitors reading digital books? When a player is given a large body of text in a video game, the general assumption is that this text is of some import to the game being played. The result is that we allow, and even promote, our players reading these bodies of text that very rarely have any gameplay relevance whatsoever. And, even worse, these works of writing are generally of poor quality and bland style the likes of which would never end up within the covers of any proper published book. The net result of throwing page after page of in-game text at players is that we abort any semblance of game pace while simultaneously conditioning players to consider any text within the game world as irrelevant or mundane. This doesn’t enhance the believability or character of the game world, it makes players stop playing the game and, instead, has them reading the writing of either game developers who have a thin grasp on the basic concepts of creative writing or the work of a contracted novelist who has a thin grasp on video games.
We are the experts on our medium, yet for some reason we still take countless cues from movies and books for our influences and presentation. If a game is a fantasy game, then its developers seem to take it upon themselves to attempt to create Lord of the Rings inside their game with The Silmarillion occupying in-game books and menus. If it’s a science-fantasy game, then Star Wars and every Star Wars book ever written must ship within the game.
There’s a widely-understood phenomenon regarding the book-to-movie translation: it doesn’t work. Books have the written power to convey thoughts, images, emotion to their readers while also providing an author with the flexibility to include as much information as he or she feels is necessary to make the book a complete work. Exceptionally books can be hard for readers to slog through, but the medium is not meant for consumption within the confines of a single sitting. Books are typically where readers will find most of our cultural and historical epics, incredibly detailed biographies, recounts of events and so on.
Film is a medium where concision, however, is paramount. The primary success of a film depends entirely on the success of the film’s director and screenwriters to convey every single one of their goals and intentions within a one-and-a-half to three hour period. In order to do this properly, the scriptwriters must make every word count while also depending on the movie’s actors’ ability to not only deliver the line but also to bodily express more than what is in explicitly in the script. The result, ideally, is a cinematic experience that has been very carefully directed and edited to produce the most succinct and powerful delivery possible.
The idea that the video game industry can just mash the breadth of detail and information of a book and the visuals and presentation of a movie with the inherent dynamism and unpredictability of an interactive medium is pretty absurd. That the game industry has gotten by this long by attempting to take so many cues from such well-established creative media is a testament to the craftsmanship and creativity of the game developers throughout the ages, but the days of text-heavy role-playing games are gone. Even gamer tolerance of cinematic-heavy games like Metal Gear Solid seems to have started to dwindle. At this point in the life of the video game, anything that takes the player out of the game actively works against the interest and integrity of the game design. And games that take the player out of the flow of gameplay in an effort to expound on the game world or universe through awkwardly-presented narrative is strange dichotomy to think beneficial to any game.
Embrace the benefits of video games. The medium has a unique ability to empower a player’s actions with meaning and the medium is getting to a time where technology and the collected knowledge of game design allows us to “know better” than to just throw a cut scene or a novel at players. If a back-story about this one character who did this one thing a millennium ago doesn’t directly impact the player’s gameplay experience, don’t toss it in with the other unrelated works of text — toss it out. Allow the player to interact with that character in a meaningful way and, maybe, convey that same information in a more concise and dynamic way. When a player shares in another character’s experience in a fashion that is unique to a given type of gameplay, that empowers that interaction and the information that the player receives more than just reading some arbitrary back-story in a book.
And please, please find a new pool of inspiration outside of fantasy and science-fantasy.
The lead designer on the game, Jay Wilson, also talks about skill runes which seems rad as hell.
I want it so much. So bad. So now.
A real-time strategy game is, by definition, a game where players are forced to make strategic and tactical decisions in real time. As the game industry grows, the real-time strategy genre has narrowed its focus to a very specific type of game that does little to force players to consider an over-arching strategy as comprised by numerous tactics. Instead of allowing a player’s large- and small-scale decisions to adapt and change as events in a given skirmish unfold, RTSs just make players think of resource usage (I have X, I need Y, and I get Z/minute) and basic army composition. Everything else in the span of a game flows from these two mechanics into what is, typically, one large battle near the end of a game. Relic’s Company of Heroes changes this design and, as a result, makes its real-time strategy gameplay into a more dynamic and far less predictable experience that forces a player to make harder decisions more frequently.
It’s a commonly-held tenet in real-time strategy games that when an enemy unit is right-clicked upon that death befalls it after it takes a certain amount of damage from units that deal a specific amount of damage every few seconds. Blizzard’s Starcraft is practically built around a very definitive combat model that follows a rock-paper-scissors methodology with very consistent unit performance results. The micromanagement that occurs within battles in Starcraft has nothing to do with centering an army around a well-covered/fortified position or ensuring that when your Dragoon attacks that his bullets will hit the right part of the enemy siege tank; instead, cover is just determining if a Protoss melee unit is in range of a bunker filled Space Marines and any hit a Dragoon lands on a Space Tank will do the same amount of damage whether it hits the armor-heavy front or the weakly-covered rear.
The design team at Relic took a far different approach to the combat in Company of Heroes than any of Blizzard’s efforts. Every part of the game map has a cover value attached to it that, when right-clicked upon, will serve as a hint to a squad of units as to how they should interact with their environment (ie, crouching behind a wall of sandbags or ducking under the lip of a crater). Under this design, two squads of riflemen with the exact same stats can face off and reach a dramatically different outcome depending on their cover situation. As an example, Squad A may be crouching behind two layers of sandbags (heavy cover) while Squad B attempts to take their position from an unfortified open road (no cover or, worse, negative cover). Since the only difference in this sort of encounter is each squad’s probability of landing a successful shot (modified by their cover) on an enemy it is, theoretically, possible for each squad to kill each other at the same time. In practice, it may take Squad B three-to-four times as long to eliminate Squad A was it would for Squad A to wipe out Squad B.
The design becomes more complicated when tanks and troops wielding bazookas, panzerfausts, and panzerschrecks join the fray inhabited by the rifle squads above. Unlike rifle bullets, large projectiles in Company of Heroes are a very prescient danger that visibly travel across the screen and violently collide with in-game entities and structures. If a rocket launcher is fired and hits tangentially to a tank’s front or side armor it will take minimal damage (or, in some cases, deflect off and hit a nearby structure). If that same rocket hits the lightly-armored rear, though, the take can sustain heavy damage along with a busted engine or armaments. And if that same rocket, or tank shell, hits the layer of sandbags that Squad A was hiding behind in the above example then a player can say goodbye to half of the squad along with the sandbags that were covering them.
While designing the game, Relic must have known the endless amount of abuse that these rockets could wreck upon map structure and players alike because they added a very heavy degree of variation in how a rocket could be launched or tank could fire. The developers of Company of Heroes completely violated the unspoken tenet of real-time strategy and, as such, when a player chooses to attack a target using his Tiger tank there is a chance that a rocket may completely miss a target and hit another enemy, fly harmlessly into the distance, or deflect off of a stray tank trap into a player-controlled building. A player can position his Tiger in such a way as to make a direct attack far more likely but there is, in essence, never a guaranteed strike from a rocket or tank.
The change from a fairly predictable combat design to a very visceral, dynamic battle engine is one that Relic handled to great effect but does such a degree of randomness in combat scenarios do anything to cheapen the “strategy” involved in the game? A fervent Starcraft or Command & Conquer player would be quick to point out that the lack of consistency from game to game would prevent a game like Company of Heroes from ever being considered for competitive play at a pro gamer level. That is a definite possibility, of course, but more realistically what Company of Heroes does is to provide a far more strategic gameplay experience as a result of the surprises that occur in the middle of the game. The game design provides the mechanisms by which a player with a less grandiose army can, by utilizing both cover and more intelligent rocket infantry positions, overcome a larger set of forces. And when such an upset can occur in the middle of a game that encourages tactics across numerous encounters it offers the chance for another reversal of fortunes later on. And that is the kind of strategy that can adapt and change over the course of a game which allows randomness in its design.