When do Hubs Work?

Doomthief


I've been going back and forth between two games, both on the old XBox we have: Doom (Ultimate Edition and II, both emulated through the Doom 3 collector's edition), and Thief: Deadly Shadows.
 
Doom's been a breeze, and I'm still finding little things I never noticed before (or at least forgot). It's not a terribly complicated game, but couched in its linear find-the-key design is often some pretty non-linear level exploration that I can't get enough of. We don't really need to do it all scripted or all free-form, fellahs. Plenty of fun in the middle ground, too. I even managed to do the rocket bounce secret level in the third episode without looking up that I needed to do it, which was rewarding. I didn't bother with FAQs at all this time and stopped trying to OCD every little secret and item, which made me enjoy the game more. Now that I beat the first three episodes I might skip straight to Doom II. I tried the fourth bonus episode, and it's a bit too sadistic for my tastes.
 

Hubris

 
Most of my thought, though, has been on Thief 3. After listening to the podcasts I linked before that had interviews with former Looking Glass Studios members, I had a desire to play some sort of Thief game. Rather than fiddle with trying to get the older games to work, I figured Thief 3 would at least have a bit of pick-up-and-play value. I remember being a bit disappointed about its design differences from 1 and 2, so the past week or so I decided to start playing Thief 3 to see if those feelings still held, of if it was just a symptom of being too close to the original games.
 
Turns out, by and large, that while I enjoy some of it, I'm still disappointed in the same changes, both subtle and major (if you want a list, I can give it to you), to the basic design. One aspect that I didn't realize might bother me this time through is the hub. In Thief 3, you're given several missions throughout the game where you go to different locations, but eventually you wind up back in a hub area where you can fence your loot, buy equipment, and perform several mini-tasks. All these things are actually fine, but I think what it winds up doing is making the gameworld feel smaller. With mission-based gameplay, to me, the world feels massive. You may only see a small part of it through the missions, but you can imagine Garrett actually living in a vibrant world. It's sort of the same concept that makes radio compelling, since one's imagination has a better special effects budget than most game companies can manage.
 
Focusing on the hub puts up the same walls that a mission has everywhere, making his world feel small. Like I said, I like a lot of these teenie distractions, but one of the game worlds I like most is Thief's, where it feels like there's always more mystery and weirdness going on in the edges than any single game could ever address. By cutting into some of that and making it a bit more mundane (and at times repetitive ), I don't get as much of the feeling that I'm getting the highlights in this guy's life, which I think in games with a certain level of atmosphere is sort of the point.
 
Still enjoying it in a general way, despite the annoyances. I'm also challenging myself, in addition to setting the difficulty to the max like normal, to try to fence as little loot as possible, and to try to survive on what I find. I'm also trying to stay away from blackjacking unless it's absolutely necessary (outside of the prison, where I was feeling a bit vengeful on guards' brain cells).
 
Question I'm going to ask you this time is, when have hubs worked or not for you in games you've played? You think they have their utility sometimes, or are they just an annoying fad? I will say right off that it depends; I liked the hub in Ultima Underworld II as a sort of refuge from the cooler but more hostile places that you visit once you get past a certain point in the game. 
 
Lemme know how you feel if you wanna, and have a good weekend.
10 Comments
11 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

Doomthief


I've been going back and forth between two games, both on the old XBox we have: Doom (Ultimate Edition and II, both emulated through the Doom 3 collector's edition), and Thief: Deadly Shadows.
 
Doom's been a breeze, and I'm still finding little things I never noticed before (or at least forgot). It's not a terribly complicated game, but couched in its linear find-the-key design is often some pretty non-linear level exploration that I can't get enough of. We don't really need to do it all scripted or all free-form, fellahs. Plenty of fun in the middle ground, too. I even managed to do the rocket bounce secret level in the third episode without looking up that I needed to do it, which was rewarding. I didn't bother with FAQs at all this time and stopped trying to OCD every little secret and item, which made me enjoy the game more. Now that I beat the first three episodes I might skip straight to Doom II. I tried the fourth bonus episode, and it's a bit too sadistic for my tastes.
 

Hubris

 
Most of my thought, though, has been on Thief 3. After listening to the podcasts I linked before that had interviews with former Looking Glass Studios members, I had a desire to play some sort of Thief game. Rather than fiddle with trying to get the older games to work, I figured Thief 3 would at least have a bit of pick-up-and-play value. I remember being a bit disappointed about its design differences from 1 and 2, so the past week or so I decided to start playing Thief 3 to see if those feelings still held, of if it was just a symptom of being too close to the original games.
 
Turns out, by and large, that while I enjoy some of it, I'm still disappointed in the same changes, both subtle and major (if you want a list, I can give it to you), to the basic design. One aspect that I didn't realize might bother me this time through is the hub. In Thief 3, you're given several missions throughout the game where you go to different locations, but eventually you wind up back in a hub area where you can fence your loot, buy equipment, and perform several mini-tasks. All these things are actually fine, but I think what it winds up doing is making the gameworld feel smaller. With mission-based gameplay, to me, the world feels massive. You may only see a small part of it through the missions, but you can imagine Garrett actually living in a vibrant world. It's sort of the same concept that makes radio compelling, since one's imagination has a better special effects budget than most game companies can manage.
 
Focusing on the hub puts up the same walls that a mission has everywhere, making his world feel small. Like I said, I like a lot of these teenie distractions, but one of the game worlds I like most is Thief's, where it feels like there's always more mystery and weirdness going on in the edges than any single game could ever address. By cutting into some of that and making it a bit more mundane (and at times repetitive ), I don't get as much of the feeling that I'm getting the highlights in this guy's life, which I think in games with a certain level of atmosphere is sort of the point.
 
Still enjoying it in a general way, despite the annoyances. I'm also challenging myself, in addition to setting the difficulty to the max like normal, to try to fence as little loot as possible, and to try to survive on what I find. I'm also trying to stay away from blackjacking unless it's absolutely necessary (outside of the prison, where I was feeling a bit vengeful on guards' brain cells).
 
Question I'm going to ask you this time is, when have hubs worked or not for you in games you've played? You think they have their utility sometimes, or are they just an annoying fad? I will say right off that it depends; I liked the hub in Ultima Underworld II as a sort of refuge from the cooler but more hostile places that you visit once you get past a certain point in the game. 
 
Lemme know how you feel if you wanna, and have a good weekend.
Posted by Mento

I generally like hubs but how effectively they work absolutely depends on the circumstances. They tend to work best in larger games with many thematically disparate areas (because teleporting from a hub doesn't make the sudden switch from a desert to a swamp seem all that weird) as well as games where you always have a need for half a dozen conveniences like merchants, or a forge or an alchemy bench or item storage.

Off the top of my head, I'd say the best examples are Oblivion or the Fallouts where you are given several choices for where to set up a base of operations, so the hubs in their case feel more organic. Like they're simply spots where you've chosen to settle and make a base, rather than the game deciding for you.

I also dig the increasingly lively hubs of games like Dead Rising or Suikoden, where you can go back and see how it's filling up with people you've helped or recruited, or Assassin Creed 2's villa as it builds up with all its upgrades. The recent Ghostbusters game (not the dualstick shooter one) had a nice touch where the possessed object collectibles you found all made their way back to the Ghostbusters HQ, and you could walk around and find out where they're all living. Making hubs a bit more dynamic like that definitely gives them more character beyond simply being the designated safe zone.

Moderator
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

Certain hub areas work all right for me, but sometimes, to make a world actually feel alive, I guess I wish there were more of them. The game I'm thinking of in particular here is Lord of the Rings Online. It really only feels like there are a handful of central hub areas, those being the major cities mentioned in the novels, when in fact the occasional outpost or two acting as a hub might be a hugely welcome change. I think they actually did try that at certain points in the game's existence, but the player base tended to stay around the earlier major hubs, which is a shame. It gives the world this eerie empty feeling when you come across a town and no one but NPC's are in it.

I should mention I greatly enjoyed Starcraft 2 and (strangely enough) the Wing Commander series' hubs. I guess that's not so surprising, considering they're very much alike.

Moderator
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Mento: It's funny, but in free-roaming games, the term "hub" is only incidentally related to places like you describe, where you can equip, heal, and all of that. In that case it's just a matter of geography. In games where there are a bunch of separate elements that exist as discreet missions, but you wind up going back to a specific area, almost like a meta-mission where familiar buildings are, feels more like a hub in the strict, game design sense, but my experience in games isn't as extensive as I'd like in this regard, so I don't know if what I'm thinking is the exception and not the rule.
 
All the things you mention are actually pretty cool as far as I know, and from what I saw of the Ghostbusters game, yeah, it's neat to be able to look over the stuff you've collected and see all the injokes in relative peace.
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Sparky_Buzzsaw: I must be out of touch. I had no idea Starcraft 2 and Wing Commander had much in common at all. Interesting comparison.
 
Again with the free-roaming there is an organic need for these sorts of things, and these things are conceivably possible in a much more organic way: where there would likely be a heavily used crossroads, a hub would usually show up anyway, where everyone would meet up, trade, and watch everyone else's back. Makes sense, and in free-roaming it's even a kindness on the part of the developers not to force arbitrary hikes. Hell, I would think it would be neat if in a game with a large time scale, the routes a player character walks most frequently might actually dictate WHERE a hub would eventually spring up.
 
Maybe "hub" doesn't connote exactly what I mean, where the hub feels just as removed from the world as the other mission locations. Again my problem may be how precisely I'm using my terms.
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@ahoodedfigure:

Just very barely relatable, those two. Their idea of a hub, where you talk to characters in between missions with static screens, is only similar at its very core. Starcraft 2 has obviously updated it since then.

And I gotcha on the detached hub. Hmmm. Let me think. Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines had one kinda sorta like what you're talking about, but to be honest, I wasn't a huge fan of the game as a whole. The hub mechanic was serviceable at best. I used to really like the base in Perfect Dark for its interactions and its shooting range, but again, times have changed and rendered it a little bland and devoid of life.

Moderator
Posted by ArbitraryWater

Thief: Deadly Shadows' hub area is a pretty good example of the unnecessary type. But it was 2004, and you can probably guess there was some sort of "This GTA game is hot and has an open type world! Let's put one in our semi-hardcore traditional stealth game!"   I feel like that game in particular didn't need a hub because of how well the level based structure of the previous titles worked. 
 
Meanwhile, I'm probably going to say that the hub area in Ultima Underworld 2 is good, since it sections off the actual adventuring areas from one another and doesn't intimidate me nearly as much as the giant sprawling labyrinth of the Stygian Abyss does. That's obviously the major structural difference between them, and I think it works in the sequel's favor. Then there are your general headquarters that are in almost every modern D&D RPG, usually places where you store/craft your loot and talk to your companions. The strongholds in Baldur's Gate II represent pretty good examples of these, having their own little mini quests to go along with them and adding yet another layer to game already thick with content. I'm not sure what point I'm exactly trying to make here, other than "Sometimes hubs are good and sometimes they are bad", but believe it or not, there are some things that I don't have strong opinions on, one way or another.

Posted by HistoryInRust

I don't have a lot to say on the matter, but I thought ODST had a great hub world that felt relatively engaging, even in comparison to its more linear individual missions.

Posted by FancySoapsMan

The hub (nexus) in Demon's Souls was interesting and well done, in my opinion.
 
It was the only place in the game where you could feel safe.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@FancySoapsMan:  Yeah, that's a good example of a Hub that changes the mood, especially since the rest of the game is so crazy-hostile. There the hub actually changes the nature of the game, without changing how you interact with the environment so much (you still walk around and interact with things; it's not a menu). Thief 3 basically had you still worry about being caught by guards while trying to get from one mission to the next. Sometimes it was diverting, but sometimes it had me acting rashly just because I was tired of pussyfooting around in order to activate the next mission, just because the guards were hyper-aware of my presence. 
 
@Sir_Ragnarok: When I read about their setup it sounded neat, although it seemed a bit too deferential to the missions it hubbed, like it was more just a way to move from one mission to another and not enough of a mission in its own right. Not sure if that rings true for you, though.
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater
 

Thief: Deadly Shadows' hub area is a pretty good example of the unnecessary type. But it was 2004, and you can probably guess there was some sort of "This GTA game is hot and has an open type world! Let's put one in our semi-hardcore traditional stealth game!"   I feel like that game in particular didn't need a hub because of how well the level based structure of the previous titles worked. 

Yeah, that's pretty much where I'm coming from. The mission-based gameplay worked fine. I felt like they were just checking off a game design box here and not thinking about how it might affect the mood.
 

Meanwhile, I'm probably going to say that the hub area in Ultima Underworld 2 is good, since it sections off the actual adventuring areas from one another and doesn't intimidate me nearly as much as the giant sprawling labyrinth of the Stygian Abyss does. That's obviously the major structural difference between them, and I think it works in the sequel's favor.  

I bought that even though I have the disks somewhere just because I remember enjoying the different environments a lot. It's a removed hub, in that you gate to other worlds rather than just transition to them, so it just feels like a less hostile, more involved separate environment. Some people never make it past this beginning part, though, which is a damned shame.
 

Then there are your general headquarters that are in almost every modern D&D RPG, usually places where you store/craft your loot and talk to your companions. The strongholds in Baldur's Gate II represent pretty good examples of these, having their own little mini quests to go along with them and adding yet another layer to game already thick with content. I'm not sure what point I'm exactly trying to make here, other than "Sometimes hubs are good and sometimes they are bad", but believe it or not, there are some things that I don't have strong opinions on, one way or another. 


My thesis was unclear, which is part of the problem. I more just wanted to get people talking about hubs, because what experience I've had with them they often don't feel properly integrated into the game, and they feel almost crammed in there as a fad rather than having genuine intrinsic worth, but the examples in the comments and others show they're fine if they're done right. I also like the idea that there's more than one hub in a game with a lot of environments, such that you can sort of move away from the repetitiveness of moving around to do mundane restorative tasks.
 
I almost look at the fortresses or whatever as outposts more than hubs, but they do act as stopping-off points that help break up traveling. But when I think about the systems BG II uses, I just long for the sectional exploration from the first game...