Getting the Oblivion Feel, cont.

14 Nov
14 November 2009

(Continued from here.)

6 – Minigames

There are times when I’m less than excited about snapping 20 lockpicks in a row or struggling to spot the difference between the “like” and “dislike” expressions for the cat people.  But Oblivion’s minigames serve an important purpose — they lend tangability to elements of the world.

The core mechanical principle of almost all RPGs is abstraction.  Distill “capabilities” to a set of values, then use these values to determine probability.  How do we know if you can pick the lock?  Well, if your skill is 8 and the lock difficulty is 4, then there’s a 75% chance.

Abstraction works against immersion when it makes players feel like more like they’re manipulating a math problem than participating in a world.  Minigames can counterbalance this by providing more of a “tactile” feel in places — it’s not a roll of the dice to see if I open the lock, it’s me trying to line up the tumblers with a pick.  If I gain actual skill over time, I get the hang for picking locks, this starts to feel like a “real world” thing.

That’s powerful stuff for immersion and achieving it doesn’t require complex or overly entertaining games.  Oblivion’s alchemy model isn’t really a game but the fact that I see the plants in the world, pick them, learn their qualities over time, and experiement with them to make potions adds depth to their world.  Similarly, the book UI certainly isn’t a game at all but its implementation — picking up books, seeing the print, turning pages — produces a very different feel than what would be achieved if the exact same information were relayed to the player via entries in an “information” tab hung off of the character sheet.

7 – Not everything needs a reason

Few things breaks suspension of disbelief faster than walking into a town where there are six NPCs arrayed in a semicircle playing idle animations, each one with a quest.

It’s okay for NPC that have no apparent purpose to be walking around in the world.

It’s okay for locations and quests and items and characters that do not advance the main plotline to exist.

The answer to “Why is this here?” can be “because”.

8 – Hide stuff

Many developers suffer panic attacks upon realizing that something they put in the game might not be noticed by every person who plays it.  While the most theoretically efficient path is to determine the intersection of the minimim content that will be experienced by the maximum players, this does depth and replayability no favors.

Consider Oblivion’s basic rumor system.  All NPCs have some information but a rare few can clue you in to valuable or interesting things.  And all NPCs have a reaction to you.  By default, you’re nobody they trust so they aren’t telling you anything special.  If you earn an especially positive reaction however, they’ll share whatever valuable tidbits they possess.

Now, it’s work to get a good rep these guys and, unless you’re the kind of subhuman scum that co-ops RPGs with Google, there are a lot of them to try.  You probably won’t grind through the persuasion minigame for every NPC you come across.  But, if you did, maybe one of those guys has a really good rumor…one you haven’t seen before…that leads somewhere really cool…maybe….

“Maybe” is powerful.  Hidden things generate a lot of “maybe”. When a player discovers something hidden, it implies the existance of things beyond what is actually in the game (which is the great irony of this, given the common belief that anything not seen by everyone is wasted work).

I explore in Oblivion because they put things in there for me to find.  But I never feel like there’s a path I’m supposed to be on.  On occasion, I’ll find something that trips my “oh, they expected me to be here  and see this” sense.  More frequently, I feel like I happened upon something not becuase THEY wanted me to but because I made a choice to.

(“Hidden” also need not apply only to locations in the world.  The alchemy model in Oblivion, where you don’t have recipies but instead mix things and see what you get, is an excellent use at a different level.  If you want to see how powerful this can be when you get it right, go do a search for Horadric Cube recipes.)

9 – Don’t have XP

I never thought I’d say this and I’m not sure I believe it now but I’m pretty sure not having traditional XP is an important element of achieving the Oblivion feel.

I have some nostalgia for the use-to-improve model thanks to one billion hours of “practicing hiding” in Ultima Online (generally accomplished by jamming keys down with a penny before going home for the night), so I might be more immune to the shortcomings of this system than the average player.  Shortcomings like constantly running everywhere, casting spells and jumping around like a jackass….

Regardless, not having XP means less leveling pressure.  In games with XP, I find myself doing every quest I encounter because I “need” the points (which, of course, degenerates into accepting all quests unread and then stabbing things until I notice my quest tracker tick up).  Without this, the quests I accept are taken for other reasons, generally less artificial ones — I want to side with the NPC offering me the quest, I want the treasure I could get from the quest.

It also spaces out rewards and produces less of an artificial break when you level up.  One of your skill is almost always on the verge of advancing and, when you do gain a level, you don’t sit there trying to move points around to take your character down one path or another — if you want to go down a path, you just start doing those things in the game.  There is still a “break” when the character levels in Oblivion but even that is hidden with the fiction of sleep and a diary-like note to yourself — it feels different from just popping a level up UI.

10 – Let me make my own freaking character

I don’t care if the art is bad or if it’s difficult to make a good looking character — being able to dial up your own appearance is fundamental.

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