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November 10, 2018

Filed under: gaming»design»aaa

Loot Pack

If you wanted to look at the general direction of AAA game development, you could do worse than God of War and Horizon: Zero Dawn (concidentally, of course, the last two titles I finished on my usually-neglected PS4). They're both big-budget tentpole releases, with all the usual caveats that come with it: graphically rich and ridiculously detailed, including high-priced voice/acting talent, but not particularly innovative in terms of gameplay. But even within this space, it's interesting to see the ways they diverge — and the maybe-depressing tricks they share.

Of the two, Horizon (or, as Belle dubbed it for some reason, Halo: Dark Thirty) is the better game. In many ways, it's built on a simplified version of the A-life principles that powered Stalker and its sequels: creating interesting encounters by placing varied opponents in open, complex environments. The landscape is gorgeous and immense, with procedurally-generated vegetation and wildlife across a wide variety of terrain with a full day-night cycle. It's pretty and dynamic enough that you don't tend to notice how none of the robotic creatures you're fighting really pay attention to each other apart from warning about your presence — you can brainwash the odd critter into fighting on your side with a special skill, but otherwise almost everything on the map is gunning for you and you alone.

In fact, Horizon's reliance on procedural generation and systems is both its strong suit and its weak point. It's hard to imagine hand-crafting a game this big (Breath of the Wild notwithstanding), but there's a huge gulf between filling a landscape according to a set of gameplay rules and depicting realistic human behavior. One-on-one conversations and the camera work around them are shockingly clumsy compared to the actual (pretty good!) voice work or the canned animation sections. Most of the time, during these scenes, I was just pressing a button to get back to mutilating robot dinosaurs. But you can see where the money went in Horizon: lots for well-rendered undergrowth, not so much for staying out of the uncanny valley.

By contrast, God of War is really interested in its characters, as close-up as possible. The actual game is not good — the combat is cramped and difficult to read, ironically because of its love affair with a single-take camera (which is kind of a weirdly pointless gimmick in a video game — almost every FPS since Half-Life is already a single-take shot). It's small and short by comparison to open-world games, with its level hand-crafted around a linear story. I was shocked at how quickly it wrapped up.

But there's no awkward "crouching-animation followed by two-shot conversation tree" here: it may be a six-hour storyline, but it's beautifully motion-captured and animated. When Jeremy Davies is on-screen as Baldur, it's recognizably Jeremy Davies — not just in the facial resemblance, but in the way he moves and the little ticks he throws in. There's maybe five characters to speak of in the whole thing, but they come through as real performances (Sindri, the dwarven blacksmith with severe neat-freak tendencies, is one of my favorites). In retrospect, I may wish I had just watched a story supercut on YouTube, but there's no doubt that it's an expensive, expressive production.

Where both games share mechanics, unfortunately, is a common trick in AAA design these days: crafting and loot systems. Combat yields random, color-coded rewards similar to an MMO, and those rewards are then used alongside some sort of currency to unlock features, skills, or equipment. It extends the gameplay by putting your progress behind a certain number of hours grinding through the combat loops, as this is cheaper than actually creating new content at the level of richness and detail that HD games demand.

If your combat is boring (God of War), this begins to feel like punishment, especially if it's not particularly well-signposted that some enemies are just beyond your reach early in the game. It bothered me less in Horizon, where I actually enjoyed the core mechanical loop, but even there playability suffered: the most interesting parts of the game involve using a full set of equipment to manipulate encounters (or recover when they go wrong), but most of that toolkit is locked behind the crafting system to start. Instead of giving players more options and asking them to develop a versatile skillset from the start, it's just overwhelmingly lethal to them for the first third of its overall length (a common problem — it's tough to create a good skill gate when so much of the game is randomized).

Ironically, while AAA games have gone toward opaque, grind-heavy loot systems, indies these days have swung more toward roguelikes and Metroidvanias: intentionally lethal designs that marry a high skill ceiling with a very clear unlock progression. It may be a far cry from Nintendo's meticulous four-step teaching structure, but since indie developers aren't occupied with filling endless square miles of hand-crafted landscape, they've sidestepped the loot drop trap. Will the big titles learn from that, or from the "loot-lite" system that underlies Breath of the Wild's breakable weapons? I hope so. But the economics of HD assets seem hard to argue with, barring some kind of deeply disruptive new trend.

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