By PeezMachine 1 Comments
Welcome back to Talkin' Shop, where we take a look at some of our favorite issues in the world of game design. This week, we're looking at a little system with big implications: lockpicking!
I'm a huge fan of Bethesda Softworks, and can can think of no digital worlds I've been as happy to wander as the ones found in the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games. And while 2011's Skyrim represented a huge step forward from its predecessors in a ton of meaningful ways, there's one thing that still has some issues: lockpicking. I'm not talking about the lockpicking minigames, though – I'm talking about how the ability to interact with locked objects is related to character development. Both series bring their own approach – in Fallout, locks are broken into five tiers, and players can not attempt to pick locks of a given rank until they've allocated enough points into the Lockpicking skill. The Elder Scrolls also breaks locks into five tiers, but without the limitation on what you're allowed to unlock. In this edition of Talkin' Shop, we look at the limitations of both of these systems and see if we can do any better.
The Fallout Approach:
If you played Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas, I want you to take a few seconds and think about the skills that you pumped the most points into as soon as possible. All done? Cool! Did Lockpicking make your list? What about Science? If you're anything like me, you put a lot of early points into these skills because you didn't want to miss out on things just because they were hidden behind a lock or a computer terminal that wan inaccessible due to your skill levels. So whether you were a big lumbering brute with a minigun or a sneaky assassin with a knife, you needed these skills. They aren't support skills, they're access skills since you might not be able to access certain (optional) things without them.
And you might be thinking, “but hey, there are always multiple ways to approach things in Fallout. Sweet-talking, sneaking around, or just killing any and everyone who gets in the way – they can all get you where you need to go.” And that's true on a pretty large scale, but not universally. Not every locked chest in the game has a key for you to steal or loot off of a corpse, so at some point you're going to find yourself unable to access something in the game because your Lockpicking skill isn't high enough. And sure, it's true of most skills (you'll miss out on certain conversation options if your Speech isn't high enough, for example), but it's different with lockpicking, as being unable to unlock chests can make some experiences simply feel less rewarding. Killing a room full of Super Mutants only to find that you can't collect your full reward just isn't satisfying, and that's what makes the Lockpicking skill a must-have. Likewise, foregoing the Science skill means missing out on tons of great Fallout lore hidden away on locked computer terminals, so you need to max Science to get the most out of the game world.
The Elder Scrolls Approach:
In the other corner is Bethesda's other open-world series, The Elder Scrolls, in which a freshly minted level one character can try to pick any lock they see, provided they have the patience and lockpicks to spare. While it's refreshing to know that you're not going to be missing out on anything the game has to offer just because it's locked, this approach comes with its own design issues, chief amongst them being, “how we get players to care about lockpicking?” In Oblivion, the lack of discrete choices when it comes to character development makes this a bit of a moot point – as you pick more locks, you get better at it, and the “points-free” leveling system means you never have to choose to boost your ability to pick locks at the expense of other skills.
Skyrim, however, introduces skill points which are earned at the rate of one per character level and can be spent on “perks” from certain skill trees to gain new bonuses or abilities. One such skill tree is Lockpicking, and while there are some cool perks on there (like one that makes you more likely to find special items), the core tenet of this skill tree, “make lockpicking easier,” is inherently unrewarding. When you take perks from the Lockpicking tree, you aren't gaining access to new locked areas, you're simply reducing the number of picks you'll break when trying to pick a lock. And while you might find this handy that one time you forgot to stock up on lockpicks before heading out, it's less useful and fun than choosing perks in pretty much any other tree (and it won't even save you as much money as putting one point into the Specch tree, which adjusts item prices by ten percent in your favor).
I'm On A Role!
One thing we musn't lose sight of here is that both Fallout and The Elder Scrolls are role-playing games that live and die by their sense of immersion, by their ability to make the player feel like they are part of a world that acknowledges their existence. This is why something as minor as lockpicking can be such a big deal in these games; the flaws in the lockpicking systems force players to put game mechanics ahead of role-playing. In Fallout, you’re forced to invest in lockpicking no matter what type of character you play or you risk missing out on rewards and lore. In Skyrim, you're punished for role-playing as a lockpicking expert because the associated perks don't really improve your character's abilities in any meaningful sense (and are just plain boring). In both cases, there's disconnect created between how the player imagines their character and the way that they spend skill points. Sure, players could make their skill point choices stay true to their character, but if it means ignoring lockpicking in Fallout or embracing it in Skyrim, they'll be punished for it.
Overall, I think that the less restrictive Skyrim system is more enjoyable than Fallout's “dear lord I need to improve my lockpicking” situation. The uselessness of Skyrim's Lockpicking tree is a disaster, but I think making it relevant again has a pretty simple solution: make lockpicking happen in real time. Under the current system, in-game time pauses while you pick locks, so you're just as likely to get caught picking a lock if you takes you thirty real minutes as you would if it takes you thirty real seconds. However, if you're the kind of character who needs to pick locks quickly – perhaps to avoid getting caught breaking into a house by the city guard, or to empty out a chest before that troll wanders back and destroys you- then you'd benefit from taking some Lockpicking perks. In fact, it would even make sense to cut the number of lockpicking perks down to 1-3 and throw them into the Sneak tree, as the ability to pick locks quickly without detection probably wouldn't matter much to characters who would prefer to just kill the troll and take their time with the locked chest. You'll be able to access everything no matter what, but you'll still be rewarded for making some investments in lockpicking, and that sounds like good news for all players.
I think it's worth noting that lockpicking is clearly an issue for the player community – mods have popped up for the Fallout games that remove the restrictions and there are mods for Oblivion and Skyrim that add them. So while part of this issue comes down to player preferences, I believe the real-time system captures the rewards of Fallout and openness of Skyrim in a way that should appeal more broadly than either existing system does on their own.
Also, it was awesome in Thief.
As always, feel free to chew us out in the comments or PM us with a topic idea. Join us next time when we take a look how to keep turn-based strategy games fresh and fun.