Funding Canceled Funding for this project was canceled by the project creator on September 23, 2013.

Update #8


We are digging into combat this week and next week. We have a dev diary coming your way as well as something more special. Needless to say, our silence this week has not been without reason, we are giving it our all over here. the spirit of the "combat" discussion, we asked Jennifer to really set the record straight on her thoughts around combat. Enjoy. 

My Thoughts on Combat - Jennifer Hepler

So, first a disclaimer. I am currently a story consultant for Loreful, and if I join the team full time, it will be as lead writer, with no more input into the combat design than, say, a character artist or voice actor. (Just as my sole contribution to combat on Dragon Age II was to submit a bug saying the wave fights were tedious.) So, me telling you my thoughts about combat isn’t really any different than the crazy guy in the bar saying, “Now, let me tell you a thing or two about politics…” But people seem to keep harping on some things I said about combat many years ago, or more precisely, things they think I said about combat, so I’m going to set the record straight.

The videogame industry has a serious problem with non-completion of games. Only between about twenty-five and fifty percent of people who buy a game actually play it to the end. (I have much more precise numbers but they are proprietary to Bioware, so I’m going to be vague, but believe me that these numbers are real, even if they don’t represent you and your friends). I’m sure some of those players who don’t finish have external reasons – Xbox red-ring of death… leaving for college… car accident… – but the most frequently cited reasons for not finishing a game, far and away are:

1. Getting “stuck” on a combat the player couldn’t get past.

2. Getting bored with the grind and never picking it back up again.

Non-completion of games is a huge problem. As a game developer and wife of a game developer, and friend of game developers and friend of wives of game developers, I know how hard people work to make these games. It is an effort of hundreds of people working nights and weekends, destroying their health and sacrificing family time and sometimes their marriages in order to get this entertainment into the hands of players. Roughly two-thirds of whom never even finish!

Think about that. If that were the statistic for movies, it would mean that of every couple who walks into a movie theater at least one of them will leave before the end of the movie. In reality, how many movies have you walked out of in your life? And how many games have you left unfinished? What would be seen as a staggering failure in one form of entertainment is accepted as inevitable by ours, but the two most common reasons for abandoning a game are both related to combat and both incredibly easy to fix.

Over the past decade or two, games have already made great strides on number one. Many (possibly most?) games now offer different difficulty levels, and many (most?) of those allow you to change difficulty on the fly. In Bioware games, there are often load screen hints suggesting that if a fight is too difficult, you reduce the difficulty level so you can get through it. But for people already struggling on the lowest difficulty, those hints don’t help, since there is no lower difficulty to bounce to. It seems like an obvious next step to allow a “skip combat” or “press to win” option that players can select when a particular fight is too tough for them. This way, when you buy a game, you will always know that there is a way to complete it and have a satisfying experience regardless of your skill level.

It is ironic to me the backlash that this idea has gotten from hardcore gamers, many of whom are also hardcore anti-DRM protestors. Ultimately, we are making the same case: once you spend your hard-earned money to buy a game, you should be able to play it any way you want. Anti-DRM protestors don’t like being told they have to be always on-line and sometimes endure long queues to play the games they own; many other players and potential players don’t like knowing that they could spend $60 on a game only to be told they’re not allowed to play past the first boss fight.

The second issue is equally simple to resolve. It’s no secret that games have two types of combat – important fun fights and grinding through mooks. The mook combats are there to serve two functions: They let players practice the skills they will need to get through the more important fights and they draw out the play time, allowing the companies to advertise a game as “60+ hours long!” And sometimes they can be fun. But other times, they are a tremendous drag. And in a game with story, there is no reason not to allow players to select at the beginning of the game (or tied to the difficulty level) to have many fewer of these “speed bump” combats. This would also make the games more appealing to audiences for whom the idea of committing 60 hours to something is cause for stress, not joy. As players get older and have jobs and families and outside commitments, it becomes increasingly important to make sure that games give the most bang for their buck not only for the people who measure “dollars per hour of fun” but for the people who measure “can I have fun with this in the one free hour I have a month?”

The most common objection I hear from other developers about reducing combat in games or making challenging encounters easier to win is “but it’s so satisfying to lose and lose and lose and then finally beat the bastard!” Which is true – there is a rush when you beat an encounter that at first seemed too difficult. But it’s also awfully close to saying “I love beating my head against a wall because it feels so good when it stops.” If you love fights exactly the way they are now, great – that’s what higher difficulty levels are for. But the two thirds of players who never finish most games are obviously not willing or able to get to the triumph – for them, the game is remembered only as frustrating and eventually games in general become too associated with frustration to keep playing.

And for a sequel-driven industry, this is crippling, since low completion rates mean you can’t predict future game sales based on previous ones. Dragon Age II sold fewer copies than Dragon Age: Origins -- but how much was that influenced by lower reviews and some poor word-of-mouth, and how much was from the fact that the vast, vast majority of Origins sales were to people who never finished the first game and had no desire to pick up a sequel? We’ll never know. But we do know that every time the industry has made a move toward making games more open to new players, less challenging, easier to learn and easier to complete, the industry as a whole has grown and thrived.

Our goal on Ambrov X is a 100% completion rate. We want to make a game that is compelling enough that you want to see the ending, short enough that everyone will have time to play it, challenging for those who want it and supportive for those who need it, and that will make sure nothing comes between you and making peace in the galaxy.


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      Creator Dirk Schlobinski on September 21, 2013

      Interesting points.
      Personally, I tend to not have time to continue playing a game or start a new one and then forget about the first one.
      The only game I ever stopped playing because I couldn't beat a fight was the now ancient Warsong (Langrisser).

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      Creator Morrandir on September 20, 2013

      For me, playing RPGs is all about immersion. I want to have the illusion of taking part in a (fictional) reality.
      When my character has to make an important decision (e.g. in a dialogue), I want to have the feeling that this decision will have an impact on the fictional world.
      When my character buys some expensive gear, I want to have a feeling of regret, loosing that much money.
      When my character has the opportunity to do some stealth stuff, I want to feel the thrill, the possibility of being caught and punished.

      And so when my character has to fight, I want to feel the heat of the battle, I want to feel the possibility of a defeat.

      But yes, I agree that everybody should be able to play the game as he or she wants. So I think we indeed need combat to be more customizable. Why not implement a ultra-easy-god-mode-difficulty, where the main character can hardly be injured? Also you could just give the player the possibility to dramatically reduce the number of enemies, or reduce the number of battles by implementing the more possibilities of peaceful solutions to conflicts.
      Another thing would perhaps be a real intelligent combat system that learns the players (not the characters!) combat skill level and adjusts the combat appropriately.

      But this all should be optional, for there are players who love the challenge of an "uncustomized" combat set up by the game designers, who love to beat the challenge by their own.

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      Creator Wynter L Nichols (deleted) on September 20, 2013

      I enjoy combat, as long as it is not repetitive and RSI inducing, but it is not why I play games. I'm more interested in plot and characterization and the unfolding story. I don't think playing a 60 hour game based on the Sime~Gen universe would cause me any stress. =-)

      In general, though... I think this universe might be more interesting in an adventure space-explorations style game than a combat orientated one.

      Wish everyone the best of luck. I will buy it whatever type of game it is.

      I don't think anyone should have to explain why they don't like combat or prefer certain game elements over others. Everyone is different.

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      Creator Nina Ballerina on September 19, 2013

      I've been in that "combat rage quit" scenario myself just recently with Remember Me. I wanted to finish the game, I wanted to know what would happen to my character's story, but alas, the last boss fight made me want to smash my keyboard.

      Well crafted but difficult fights are one thing, tedious and nonsensical fights are another.

      Mass Effect had a "Story Mode" which I thought was excellent for replay value! I didn't want to spend 30 hours fighting the same fights I had already completed, so I was able to access the content I wanted in a more efficient manner.

      Thanks for the update and hopefully this project is successful.

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      Creator Gatt on September 19, 2013

      With respect, there is a major divergence between this project's philosophy, and my own. It is with regret that I must withdraw.

      I wish you luck, and hope the game succeeds!

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      Creator Theobeau:OOoE\Mad man with a box/Exiled on September 19, 2013

      Interesting post and I hope the controversy helps drive eyes towards this struggling but worthy campaign.

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      Creator Marios Georgiou on September 19, 2013

      Disappointed, wanting to hear more on Ambrov X and not on Bioware combat games.

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      Creator Alexa Booth on September 19, 2013

      This makes 100% sense to me.

      Jennifer, I saw you talk at EA Vancouver last fall (women in games) I think you touched a bit on this there as well. Marketing and the age group (early 20's) means grabbing players attention with regularly timed explosions rather than selling them with a compelling mature story. (my words- ha!)

      Even this is part of a greater issue being discussed recently: Games are for everyone, especially now with mobile/social games targeting 'non gamers' why not pull these people into console/PC gaming world? But the perception is these games are 'long' and 'challenging', but if a game has a solid story, rivalling or exceeding that of a movie, why can't this be accessible for everyone?
      If a game makes you rage quit because a boss battle wants you to use a strategy you haven't had to use before or it's just plain too damn hard or too frequent and frustrating you bet people throw down the controller and never pick that game up again. I would say, the few times I have managed to return to a game after a incident like this was when there was a really great storyline. I never found bioware games to be difficult, the combat was fun at high difficulty levels, however other games like Heavy Rain and Assassins Creed III, I loved the story but the gameplay drove me up the wall. I kept returning back to it with the promise of the awesome plot. Not many games have that strength, so allowing people to skip combat or do something like sneaking around to avoid confrontations while still furthering the story may be something we start to see more of (especially when faced with numbers on completion/replay of games?) This would be the only way to attract that mobile/social self labeled 'casual' gamer to the console or PC gaming world (an attractive prospect for many console companies I'm sure)

      From a design standpoint: I would hope that any sort of solution that decreases friction and frustration in games will be done seamlessly rather than feeling tacked on or a lesser experience. Perhaps including options to avoid combat or less frequent but better combat or story only modes of games or cinematics of the fight scenes (rather than the player fighting) or simpler combat modes like iOS games use.

      On another note: I personally loved DA2, and everyone I mentioned it to was like: "Ugh but the first game.." but once I pressed that the story was "THAT good" and they finally played it, they fell in love and finished it (even adult friends who never finish games— HA) Sometimes a good review or recommendation goes a long way, but a bad experience of a previous game can have a serious impact on the sequel, and the other way around where the first was amazing but the sequel just doesn't live up to the high expectations you had of the first. This is the same with film and TV I think.

      I'm backing this project because I think the team has got the 'right' idea of how to make a great game experience, focusing on quality not quantity. Happy to see that projects like this are what people want to make, because it's the kind of game I want to play.

      — Alexa

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      Creator Stephen M Accetta on September 19, 2013

      I love this clarification, but I feel the issue isn't that people misunderstood you, so much as certain people have a narrow definition of what a game is, and don't feel that completing a game should be inevitable.

      The thing is, the industry is big enough for all sorts of gaming paradigms, from Dark Souls to Dragon Age 2 to Call of Duty. My friend is one of those people who feel that games should all be hard, that having difficulty settings makes games worth less, etc. There's no getting through to gamers like him, because the pride of superiority is more important than the engagement of a story, always.
      Thant said, keep doing what you do, and people like me will keep supporting projects you are involved in!

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      Creator Randy Stulce on September 19, 2013

      Well said Jennifer. I don't mind a challenging fight, but I see no problems with making combat easier on the "easy" setting for players who want to focus on the story. For example: I picked up the X3 series on the last Steam sale, there are three games and I find I'm trying to rush the first game for the story so I can move into the next in the series. It's also why I support game mods, so players can tweak the game and expand replay value as well.

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      Creator christian lund on September 19, 2013

      Interesting thoughts thanks.

      I bought DAo and have not completed it yet, and yes I didn't buy DA2. One of the reasons was a dlc messed about my game, bye the always on drm on the dlc, and I did find the combat to be rather grinding. The reason that I didn't buy DA2 was that what heard in forums that the combat had became more uninteresting and grinding. I re-bought DAo on steam sale and I slowly playing it again on easy :), to quickly get over the not so interesting combat. There are nothing more boring going through generic in action and looks horde nr. 145

      As an old gamer, where money is not really the problem. I find that I more quickly walks away from a game if it doesn't grip me, and grinding do I find increasingly tedious, so therefor have I never invested much time in mprg.

      Of the newer rpg. have completed more than once are the Fallouts 3 and 4 where I liked the New Vegas more. Especially when you add mods that makes the games more "realistic" by making the player more recurses consciences.

      My all time favorite rpg game is Torment, that I have replayed I don't know how many times. The combat there is rather boring and it feels very rather clumsy especially with magic, but the story and the companions are what makes it interesting, and also the game most of time rewards the player who doesn't fight. The ending confrontation have two different methods, for how that you could win without a fight

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      Creator Emma Karlholm on September 19, 2013

      It's sad that such obvious truths needed to be spelt out. I'm nevertheless happy that Hepler decided to do so. Was a nice read =)

      I mean I doubt I'll skip any combat, but who am I to dictate how others enjoy their games?

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      Creator Adi Zeller on September 19, 2013

      I agree with most of what you say, I love video games, but regard combat generally as "the price I have to pay to get to the story". That said, I do like longer games, much the same as I like the length of a long and heavy book. I wouldn't trade a page out of the Lord of the Rings, for example.

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      Creator Blessed on September 19, 2013

      Good defense :)

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      Creator Zoe Farris on September 19, 2013

      This is an excellent article. The few games I have tried in the passed left me stumped and frustrated. I like a bit of battle etc, but I am going to really love the way Ambrov X is going to allow so much in depth play and exploration. Thank you Jennifer.

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      Creator Curtis Hay on September 19, 2013

      Well said and 100% agreed.

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      Creator Duane Crago "Skyrek" on September 19, 2013

      Awesome information and well said

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