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Four Gaming Clichés That Absolutely Need To Die
Date: Apr 27, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
A few days ago, news broke that Max Payne 3 would require ~35GB of storage space. That's a huge number; even Rage, released last year, came in at a hair under 20GB. If you've followed game development at all, you've undoubtedly come across figures showing how the cost of developing a next-generation title has risen at an geometric rate over the past 20 years.

Up and to the right, with a business model driven right into the dirt.

Much of that increased cost has gone towards creating art assets, with another sizeable chunk for hiring actors to do voice-over work. It's not a question of whether better graphics are something gamers want (they are), or if Max Payne 3 is gorgeous (it is). The cost curve is unsustainable over the long term, particularly given the trend towards handheld gaming.

What all of this suggests is that the game industry is in desperate need of an overhaul. Gamers aren't going to accept $80-$100 games, especially not with mobile prices in the 99 cent - $4.99 range and with food and gas prices on the rise. Attempts to seize the used game market and turn it into a profit source are liable to backfire and won't generate enough revenue to solve the problem in any case.

There's been some confusion on the point of this story, so I'm inserting a paragraph to address it directly.

If the long-term cost curve isn't sustainable and better art/special effects/voice overs are primarily responsible for rising costs, game developers need to find more sustainable ways of building better games. Unlike investments in art, which may only be useful for 1-2 titles, investing in building better games through improved AI routines, imaginative storytelling, and finding ways to make gamers feel more a part of the story can be carried over from engine to engine or even between console generations.

Solving The Problem One Headache At A Time:
As part of our positive approach to the problem (our therapist says it's a necessity), we've put together a list of some of the industry's most annoying game play clichés, from scripted sequences to impossibly incompetent NPCs -- and how they might be solved. Hopefully *will* be solved, because some of these techniques are older than dirt.
Scripted Scenes
If You'd Only Been A Little Faster

Original game ad from PC Magazine. The left-hand side is a "typical shooter"

This mechanic made a major debut in Half Life, where it helped set the tone of the entire game. After (accidentally) kicking off the Resonance Cascade, Gordon stumbles out of the test lab and back into the main complex. There are a number of places in the early game where you'll see scientists abruptly yanked into ducts, ensnared and eaten by barnacles, or killed by headcrabs. Half Life was one of the first FPS games to offer this sort of scripted event, and it was a big deal. Previous games, like Quake II, relied on a silent-protagonist-against-the-world approach; Black Mesa, in contrast, felt much more organic.

We were thrilled to have other characters on screen that weren't trying to kill us.
It was a different time.

That was 1998. Fourteen years later, games still rely on exactly the same mechanic. The problem with this approach is that it breaks the idea of control and briefly transforms the game into a movie. Nothing kills the sense of being "in" a game more quickly than realizing that the redshirt running ahead of you or the civilian you unexpectedly encounter as you turn the corner is going to die, period, no matter what.  

Fixing this can be as simple as allowing for the possibility of success. I'd argue, however, that these micro-scenes, properly harnessed, can be a potent force for increasing game immersion. Stumble upon a wounded marine fighting off an alien, and maybe it's possible to kill the alien, only to have the marine die from his wound, unless you're willing to sacrifice a medkit or have an appropriately high Medicine score (depending on the type of game).

Ideally, these sort of events would happen whether the player is there to witness them or not. If you're moving slowly through the level, maybe you only find the marine's body -- if you're slightly closer, you hear the sounds of the battle but may not arrive quickly enough to save his life. The true difference between a static event you witness and a dynamic event you play through is that the latter creates uncertainty -- and uncertainty is critical to keeping a game exciting.
Conveniently Indestructable Objects
Suddenly, Unbreakable Glass

This difference between this cliche and the previous one is typically a matter of degree. The previous example refers to short scripted events while UGS (Unbreakable Glass Syndrome) tends to occur during plot sequences. One moment, you're walking through the game world carrying enough weaponry to devastate a mid-sized country. Suddenly, you catch sight of something important. You race forward, only to come up short against a pane of glass or other barrier.

You can tell this is an important plot sequence because I'm standing there like a moron.

To add insult to injury, the main character will often hammer on it. With a fist. As opposed to the FleshRend 9000 or Phase Transition Cannon strapped across his back. Avoiding this trend is more about good storytelling and scene creation than anything else -- giving players reasons not to do things is a much better way to handle the situation than arbitrarily forbidding them from doing so. In a game like Dead Space, pictured above, the reason could've been the risk of vacuum exposure or the high likelihood of killing the two hostages. Instead the doors are conveniently locked and none of my weapons even scorch the paint.

Monsters can smash through whenever it's convenient.
In this case, right after killing my captain. I stoically watched.

Ideally, let's just get rid of invulnerable structures, period. No more chain-link fence that moonlights as a solid surface, no more flimsy wooden doors capable of withstanding tank fire. A few games, like the Red Faction series, have played with this -- DICE has the right idea with Battlefield 3, which allows for a significant amount of environmental destruction, but such titles are a distinct minority.

Giving players the freedom to re-shape terrain does create certain challenges, but not as many as you might think. There's a reason why soldiers in the real world don't go around firing rocket launchers inside of buildings or hurling blocks of C4 at the opposing side.

Not Pictured:  The original building

Physics, it turns out, is a really nasty end boss. The over-enthusiastic use of explosive ordinance in confined spaces could kill innocents, destroy valuable upgrades and ammo, completely ruins any chance of a stealth mission, and creates clouds of dust that choke and blind a player. At the same time, destructible environments open up more avenues for players to experiment and have fun inside the game.
Mandatory Success
Press the Win Button!

One of the reasons why the Wing Commander and, to some extent, Freespace franchises were so great is that both of them allowed you to fail. They handled the concept differently -- Wing Commander had a "Losing Tree" of missions that was separate and distinct from the main game, while Freespace handed you difficult mission objectives that you could fail without losing the game. Both approaches created uncertainty and left the player wondering if better performance in-mission would change elements of future missions.

In contrast, virtually every game today demands uniform success. Fail an objective and you die. Success becomes something scripted rather than one option out of several, and the fact that the gamer knows there's no other possible outcome takes away from the fun of playing through a second time. Every now and then, a game like Call of Duty will throw in a mission where failure, is inevitable, but these are so obviously scripted that there's still no question as to whether you ever actually had a chance.

Obviously it's not possible to create an alternate outcome for every mission or scenario, but even a handful of alternatives goes a very long way to keeping a title interesting. Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers a great example of this sort of structure. At the beginning of the game, you've only got a certain amount of time to start the first mission. If you dawdle, a group of third-shift workers being held hostage end up dying. Later in the mission, there's a woman you can save—if you talk down the man with a gun to her head.

Meet Josie: MIddle-aged, a bit stout, and terrified.
Her reaction to her husband's death made me replay the mission to see if I could save him.

You know what happens if you let either the group or the woman die? The game, like life, goes on. People express reservations over whether or not you were ready for the job, and there's some discussion of your methods, but the player is left wondering whether you could've changed things or made different choices that resulted in a happier outcome.

Creating replayability is as much about offering different, legitimately interesting outcomes as it is about good AI or well-implemented difficulty. If you want people to come back for a second-helping of single-player, offer them a character that evolves into one type of person if he wins, another if he loses.
Fetch Quests & The Chosen One

We're Going to Split Into Teams... (Or the ridiculously limited plot)

Team A and Team B. Team A will consist of myself, Stan, Kyle, Eric, Chef, and Nurse Goodly.
Team B will consist of Kenny.

Back when computer gaming involved staring at an oscilloscope, it made sense to have a single protagonist--a Chosen One--on whom everything depended. Nowadays, it's a frustrating example of limited imagination. There's a fine line between being an important protagonist in a story and being the sole focus of the plot.

Dammit, Data, I said a fedora. A FEDORA.
Riker! Stop ogling the Romulan ambassador.

Imagine if every Star Trek episode consisted of watching over Data's shoulder as he fetched things for Picard or if Star Wars included a lengthy segment in which Han, acting under orders, gave Chewie a bath, combed his fur, and threw in a nice foot massage.

The face of satisfaction.

On second thought, actually, don't imagine that. Ever.

The point is, we accept ridiculously limited plot contrivances in gaming than in any other medium. NPCs rarely do anything of importance unless they're called upon to do so via a plot twist in which every other standard game mechanic is chucked right out the window.

Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII is the gold standard for this sort of thing.
If this video doesn't make you sniffle, you have no soul.

Ironically, hyper-focusing on one character -- any one character -- makes it difficult to create a compelling story or interesting world. When everything revolves around the actions of a single character, the rest of the world is reduced to the status of cardboard cutouts. Taking the focus off the human player's character might seem counter-intuitive, but showing NPCs as bad-asses in their own right, giving them credible tasks to do, or making them an important part of a narrative rather than a mannequin for the player's romantic interests actually makes the game easier to care about.
Oblivious NPCs
Honorable Mention: A Very Special Skyrim

Being an NPC in Skyrim requires that you pass some sort of terminal stupidity check. I've created a short multiple choice test below:

You're a small-time bandit living near Whiterun who enjoys Horker sandwiches, long walks through the countryside, and taking an arrow to the knee. There's a pair of possible marks walking close to the cave you and your handful of half-starved followers call home, seemingly unaware of your presence. As they approach, you notice that one is covered in gleaming black plate that flickers with magical energy and strange, demonic-looking runes. The other wears flexible scales with boney protrusions at the shoulders and the tough, weathered look of dragon hide. Both carry eldritch weapons of ancient design and terrible purpose.

As you spy on your potential prey, one of the figure makes a remark to the other. The second laughs -- and six birds drop dead out of the sky.

Do you:

A)  Fight to the death.
B)  Flee.
C)  Hide. If they notice you, attempt to buy your life with the handful of gold coins and old cabbage you've managed to squirrel away.

If you answered anything but A, we're sorry -- you're just too smart to be a Skyrim NPC. Skyrim, to be fair, is far from the only game that uses this sort of mechanic, but the behavior of its NPCs stands out in what's otherwise an excellent title. Bandits and other low-level NPCs will continue to attack you on sight, despite the obvious disparity in your equipment and capabilities.

 Yes. Attack me. That's a good move.

This sort of game design is irksome because it directly contradicts human behavior. In real life, criminals make decisions about who they will and won't waylay based on the person's size, bearing, and estimated capability for self-defence / violence. If you make your living robbing people, this is a vital job skill, which is why it's hilarious when would-be muggers pick the wrong targets.

In Skyrim, I'm wearing pieces of dragons I killed, I've got a demonic horse, an undead assassin helper monkey, and I can fling giants off a cliff with a well-articulated belch. I have a second deadly companion who follows me around as a pack mule. You have a broken sword and a badly-stained pair of pants.

This ties into another problem with Skyrim, which is that very few NPCs ever actually surrender. Instead, NPCs will cower when low on life, typically shouting "I yield!" Stepping back and sheathing your weapon doesn't lead to any sort of negotiated surrender or strategic retreat. Instead, they'll just start attacking you again. I've actually felt guilty for killing bandits who simply wouldn't stop whacking me ineffectually with a sword while I went about my business.

This sort of behavior earns an honorable mention because it's not the same as the clichés we've been discussing but it's still frustratingly immersion-breaking.
Clichés only become clichés because they're popular. In the case of those we're discussing, some of them date back decades or were readily adapted from film. The concept of the Chosen Hero, of course, dates back to the beginning of recorded history -- or at least to The Adventure of Zelda.

We're PC gamers here, which means we arguably love eye candy more than the console crowd -- at the very least, we shell out for systems and games that track the technology curve far more tightly. All the same, if the figures don't work, they don't work.

When Half-Life came out, I played it on a K6-233 with 64MB of RAM and a 12MB Voodoo 2. Today I game on a system clocked more than 10x higher with 4x the cores, 256x as much RAM, and a GPU that fifty Voodoo 2's in parallel couldn't match. If Half-Life-style sequences are still the rage, it's not because underlying hardware hasn't offered the ability to deliver something different.

None of these alternatives are as easy as "make the monsters look better," but if the industry's cost projections are to be believed, that's a losing proposition in the long run. The best thing the game industry could do is to focus on improving how we interact with games and what sort of natural, immersive actions are possible, versus the lopsided situation we're in now where burning millions on building better pixels is the rage and game play takes a back seat.

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