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. So...in 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.