By Hiver 0 Comments
The stars have aligned and I have a few minutes where I cannot play a game, I cannot do work, and I cannot see people. So, I'm going to attempt to think deeply about Infinity Engine-style games. Why do I love these games, and why do I never complete them? What could be done to help me stick with them?
First, my bona fides as they were around the time Baldur's Gate was released. I had never played D&D with anyone around a table, but I was active in a chat room that encouraged role playing and had a dice engine. I was mostly active in 1 vs 1 "arena" combat between player characters, both as a GM and a combatant. I knew AD&D 2 pretty well. I won't say I had the spell list memorized; but I could tell you how many d4 to roll for a magic missile and how far away you needed to be to cast fireball without getting caught in it yourself without checking the rules. THAC0 calculations are natural to me. I still have to double check my math every time I play D&D 3+. I had dabbled in campaigns as a player, but they tended to fall apart after a session or two.
So, Baldur's Gate came out. I was 15 at the time, living in rural Wisconsin at least 10 miles from my nearest friend. My interest in D&D was pretty close to it's peak. Baldur's Gate seemed like the perfect way to escape. Except for some reason it wasn't. The first year I played it maybe 15 hours. I'd get to Candlekeep and then lose interest. Years later I'd make it to the titular city, kill some zombies, and then fade away. Yet I still recall it as a positive experience.
The same process has happened with every Infinity Engine-style game since. A few weeks ago I started playing Pillars of Eternity; I got about 10-15 hours in.... and I've stopped playing it. I want to play it some more, but if I'm honest with myself I know I won't go back for a long while, and when I do I'll create a new character. The one exception I can think of is Neverwinter Nights 2. I was enjoying it, made a lot of progress on my keep, but... I failed out when I got in a fight with a red dragon that I couldn't beat. So I cheated. And immediately the game wasn't fun anymore.
So what's the problem? Well, the it's easy to get pulled away from these games. In my estimation the stories are all slow burns. The important aspects of the game play are very slow paced and cerebral. While these traits are what I like about Infinity Engine style games, the lack of something faster and flashier gives room for "quick fix" games to come in and steal my attention. PoE lost me when Titanfall 2 went on sale, and Final Fantasy 15 has cemented my time away from the game. Neverwinter Nights lost me to GTA. Dreamcast launch lineup for BG2. Counter-Strike for BG1. It's consistent... these quick hit, fast progression games will steal me away every single time, no matter how much I enjoy the core loop of an Infinity Engine game.
So, how could this style of RPG increase their stickiness to people like me? Well, I see a few things that could be done. The combat could be shortened by increasing damage relative to hit points... but that seems to lack nuance. Another approach would be to add some sort of constant progression. I should never have a session where a quest line goes incomplete or a new skill/piece of gear/keep upgrade remains locked. Keep hitting the dopamine receptors. A 30 minute Titanfall 2 match rewards me multiple times with character, weapon, and mech points. A single kill is satisfying; not just a step in a battle plan. Perhaps move EXP from kills/k.o.'s (which I've never been able to do in an IE game, what gives?) to when they happen instead of the end of the battle... and play some fanfare or give me some other consistent visual reward when it happens. It could be as easy as a mischievous grin on my character's profile picture.
My final suggestion is to introduce minigames. I understand we're emulating turn based dice combat under the hood but... Give me a small challenge to add +2 to my crit chance or a bump in damage for a few seconds. Something as simple as Gears of War's active reload system or a small puzzle would be huge for my engagement. When I play D&D with people, I can impress the DM with clever thinking or good role play. When I play a computer version, I lose that in-the-moment skill element. Minigames would help supplement the strategy portion of the loop with smaller successes that can keep the experience compelling over multiple hours. It's something jRPGs have included (FFXV's stamina meter, FFVII's limit breaks, etc) to make the player feel more involved in the moment-to-moment of the game.
The classic Bioware/Obsidian games and Obsidian's retro-style games will always have a special place in my heart. But let's not fetishize their game design. A revival of this style of game is ripe and possible... but an effort should be made to adapt to modern sensibilities as rogue-likes and adventure games have done recently.