Friday, November 11, 2011

Skyrim, or How Not to Make a PC Game

As with many, I have been looking forward to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with both intrigue and trepidation.  Bethesda Softworks have long been a developer who both baffle and amaze in the most extreme of ways, and usually one has to overlook a lot of problems and outright bad design choices when it comes to their games in order to have fun (or install a thousand mods).  As a PC player, I generally expect Bethesda to deliver, if not the most polished and native PC games ever, at least a degree of quality that allows me to play their games without too many issues.

After spending a couple of hours with the game, there's no other way for me to say it: Skyrim is one of the worst PC ports I have ever had the displeasure of playing.  Though many issues will likely be fixed and improved as time goes on, and undoubtedly mods by more enterprising gamers will help additional problems, the release state of Skyrim is, frankly, inexcusable.  "Appalling" is not a word I use too lightly to describe a game, but it's the only one that fits here.

User Interface?  What's That?

After Fallout 3's interface left me with a bad taste in my mouth, I wasn't expecting Skyrim's interface to astound - indeed, preview footage lead me to believe that it was a classic case of Bethesda once again trading in functionality for looks.  Fair enough, that's nothing new.  I can struggle through the UI, even if it's a bit wonky, until someone comes out with a replacement.  Unfortunately, Skyrim's PC user interface is quite possibly the clunkiest and most difficult I have ever seen in a game made after the DOS era.  I have played games from 1985 that were infinitely more usable than Skyrim; that a modern game makes so many elementary mistakes suggests a certain kind of malevolence, not simple laziness.

The first sign things aren't as good as they could be comes before the game even begins.  The main menu is as sparse as can be, but is lacking features as basic as the ability to change settings before jumping into the game.  Why is this the case?  I can only speculate, but it probably would have required Bethesda to edit a couple of lines in an XML file somewhere, far too much effort to even bother considering.  Things take a nosedive soon after, as one realizes that not only are there standard menu items missing, but that the mouse doesn't even seem to work.  That's right, the first time you boot up Skyrim, you won't be afforded the luxury of using the mouse to start the game - you'll have to use the arrow keys like a schmuck.

Despite what it looks like, that "X to Delete" is not a button.  Also: click the load button and decide you want to go back?  Have fun figuring out how (hint: Alt+F4 is easier).
From there, things don't get much better.  After the game's highly scripted, lengthy and almost entirely non-interactive introductory sequence, you're called upon to create your character... only once again, something as simple as "mouse controls" was apparently too difficult to implement, as the dozens of sliders that allow you to customize your character to your heart's content can only be manipulated with the keyboard.  Bafflingly, turning between pages of customization options can be done with the mouse, but the settings underneath won't budge.

This inconsistency in where the game allows mouse controls extends to the main game even once you're past all the introductory stuff.  Many critical game functions, such as manipulating the world map, or assigning favorites and hotkeys, can only be done on the keyboard, while other shortcuts work just fine.  The game is also quite poor at communicating certain information in the interface itself (the first time I went to a shop, I accidentally bought a ton of equipment because it wasn't clear if I was buying or selling), but those are more general interface concerns I'll save for another time to pick on.

Other issues, like mouse acceleration being forced on and impossible to remove without an INI tweak, or the game defaulting to "Xbox 360 Controller - On" when started, even without a controller plugged in, or needless breaks from convention ("Tab" instead of "Esc" to exit menus) show just how little thought or care was put to the PC version's interface, and how little priority was given to this version in the game, or foresight given to what its players might want and expect.

"Customize" is a Four-Letter Word

Heavily tied to the horrendous UI design in Skyrim's PC port is the incredible lack of foresight demonstrated in the game's various customization options.  Some of these things, such as the inability to change certain game settings in-game, are unfortunate, but predictable considering previous Bethesda games.  There are, however, yet more problems which are clearly the result of extreme incompetence, ineptitude, or laziness, which extend to the most basic functions of the game.

Key remapping is something that you'd think would be a standard feature in a game, and that would work.  Bethesda, it seems, have decided that getting such a feature working isn't critical to releasing a triple-A product.  Though key remapping is in the game, whether or not it actually works properly is a crapshoot.  Many functions in the game can't be remapped, whether that's certain hotkeys or interface elements.  Fair enough - it's unfortunate, but not all games allow for player-customized hotkeys, so I can forgive Bethesda for that.

The "Favorites" menu is reserved for those who avoid the temptation to rebind their keys.  No spell for you!
Less forgivable is that many key bindings outright conflict with other interface elements and can almost entirely break the user interface of the game.  After setting up my standard "Bethesda game" control scheme that I've been using since Morrowind, I found almost immediately that those controls were incompatible with Skyrim.  The first sign something was wrong was when I went to "loot all" from a container using the hotkey of "R" and found that my camera perspective swapped to third-person.  Okay, whatever, rebind the third-person camera key, no big deal, right?

Unfortunately, things soon became worse.  After rebinding the hotkey for the Favorites menu to "F" and the auto-walk key to "Q", I found that Favorites menu didn't want to open anymore.  Curious, I pulled up my inventory and tried assigning some items to the Favorites - only it didn't work.  I spent the first hour of the game assuming the Favorites menu was completely non-functional, maybe because I hadn't unlocked the ability to use it yet or something.  Turns out, the "F" key is holy ground - because it controls the assigning of items to the Favorites menu, rebinding it to perform another function during regular gameplay, even a related function, makes it impossible to assign items and spells to it.  The Favorites menu, I should note, is a critical component of the game and outright necessary for any sort of convenience when using a large number of weapons, items and spells - that this bug wasn't caught shows a severe lack of play-testing on Bethesda's part.

Console = Cheater

Using the console in games to manipulate quest variables, add items to the inventory, to noclip through walls, and so forth has been a standard practice of players for many years, and even more so for Bethesda games - not because Bethesda players are damn dirty cheaters, but because the number of bugs in Bethesda games almost necessitates the occasional use of the console in order to avoid running into problems, whether that's getting stuck on the terrain, a critical item being lost or disappearing, or a quest not functioning properly.  Again, no hard feelings; it's an open-world game and sometimes things can go wrong.

Except it seems that Bethesda would rather not have its players making any changes using the console.  While it is fortunately enabled by default (unlike many other games), even so much as hitting the tilde key ("~") is enough for the game to permanently lock the player out of the Steam achievements the game so readily boasts as one of its key features.  That's right: get stuck in a Bethesda game due to a bug, and you have to choose between getting un-stuck, or losing out on your achievement.  Granted, restarting the game and avoiding the tilde key will allow you to continue on to earn achievements, but this introduces an additional level of tedium, as you'll need to restart the game every twenty minutes because you explored just a little too much in an Elder Scrolls game.

Should you "accidentally" fry a quest-critical NPC, you'd better not try using the console to bring him back to life.  Cheater.
This change was actually added in Fallout: New Vegas, because some players criticized Bethesda for their leniency regarding Fallout 3's achievements.  In Fallout 3, the achievements were actually unlocked using a set of console commands, just like manipulating any other standard game variable, so players could simply type in a few commands and get their Gamerscore maxed out.  Bethesda's response at the time was apathy, but apparently the outcry was great enough that they introduced the "console commands = cheater" measure in New Vegas.

However, what was a bad design choice then is still a bad design choice.  I can understand maybe they had to put such a restriction in place due to technical limitations in the New Vegas engine, but when Skyrim's new "Creation" engine has been so hyped up, one would expect it'd be possible to introduce some sort of counter-measure to prevent cheating, without forcing players to avoid the console entirely.  Apparently, expecting this was too much, and so now players who want to get around bugs in the game are being inconvenienced and punished for it, either by being denied their achievements, or by repeated game restarts.

There's another big problem with such a system.  I'm a gamer who's fairly sensitive to field-of-view; as a long-time PC player I'm comfortable with a standard 4:3 field-of-view of 90 degrees, and occasionally can tolerate lower FOVs depending on the game (I'm much more comfortable with low FOVs in third-person games than first-person ones).  In order to change the FOV to a usable setting in Skyrim, I have to use console commands... which in turn means that I have to choose between basic playability, and achievements plus motion sickness and disorientation.  Thanks, Bethesda.

Bomb the QA Department

One final damning point about Skyrim's PC port - it's horribly, pathetically optimized, and has major compatibility issues.  Right from the bat, I knew that something was wrong when my high-end system was getting framerates in the low 20s from time to time, and when performance did not improve upon lowering the graphics options.  Things became even more suspicious when I realized that there was no rhyme or reason for any of the framerate drops - whether I was outside in the overworld, the terrain stretching into the distance, or inside a tiny shop the size of a prison cell, the game's framerate fluctuates all over the place.  There's no question about this: Skyrim is badly optimized.

A second issue I immediately ran into was an intense audio distortion - crackling, skipping and popping most commonly heard in dialogue, but also in many of the game's environmental sounds.  No in-game audio options helped and there seemed to be no relevant settings in the game's INI files to help.  On a lark, I went to my Windows Sound Properties page and dropped my sound card's bit rate from 96,000 Hz to 44,100 Hz.  Instantly, the problem was gone - and instantly, I was frustrated at the fact that once again, it was clear Bethesda had foregone so much as basic compatibility testing.

Dragons?  Pfft.  This bread is the most challenging scene Skyrim has to offer your video card.
 While my problems from there on out were smaller, I've heard of a number of people have experienced severe graphical glitches, including corrupt textures, anti-aliasing incompatibilities, and strange flickering black marks across the screen while playing, all of which hint at a rushed and completely apathetic release with very little testing.  This goes beyond basic optimization and into the realm of "did not even make an effort."  If Bethesda think that this product is fit to sell, then Bethesda are clearly not fit to receive a single penny from me in the future.

All of the preview footage for Skyrim I'd seen was for the Xbox 360 version, with the PC version only featured in screenshots.  Many PC-focused web sites were reportedly denied their own review copies from Bethesda, as well, and in all those glowing 9/10 and 10/10 reviews, the PC version was either downplayed or not mentioned at all.  Now it's clear why - it's because it is at best a half-functional, poorly-performing wreck of a game.

Conclusion

"Mods will fix it" is a phrase commonly uttered when Bethesda games are mentioned, and it's certainly true that their often-buggy and occasionally-broken games have been substantially improved by their extremely dedicated fan community - I probably would not have got through Fallout: New Vegas or Oblivion if it wasn't for the countless hours fans spent overhauling the game's interface and fixing the bugs Bethesda refused to officially acknowledge.  Even so, Skyrim's PC release is a new low for Bethesda - it's not that the PC version was a low priority for them, it's that it was no priority at all.

As a PC gamer, it's hard to get my hopes worked up these days.  I've suffered through too many awful ports and broken games to expect every single title, especially one with strong console roots.  Even so, Bethesda have a strong PC history and their biggest fans have always been on PC, making their occasionally-great games even better.  But with Skyrim, it's clear Bethesda don't care too much about the fans that made them in the first place - not even enough to provide them a functional product.  Considering recent comments made by Bethesda's publishing side, and the poor quality of Rage on release, I'm not sure which part of the company is to blame.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but in truth, it reflects on the sheer apathy the games industry has towards the PC platform, even as many publishers come out claiming that they care about the market and that it's a priority for them.  If this is what things look like when developers and publishers supposedly put in an effort, I'm not even sure why I'm playing games anymore at all.

7 comments:

  1. I bet their UI designer can talk circles about how actually it is awesome.

    I think the problem with the 'PC Platform' is that there is no more PC platform. How many hundred thousands of combinations can people make on a PC. It's just too much. Back in the 90's it wasn't so over whelming. Just a few processor types and a few different Video Cards. But after a while if you are not a PC building enthusiast it becomes too troublesome a 'platform'.

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  2. The PC has a fairly standardized set of input devices and design conventions separate from consoles which should not be ignored. While there are always going to be hardware and software compatibility problems, things as basic as "getting the mouse to work right" should not be left as tertiary concerns.

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  3. Eric Kinkead: While I agree that the number of choices for the different parts of a PC can be overwhelming, it doesn't have to be. Especially if you decide to ask someone who is a PC enthusiast what they recommend in regards to what you want your PC to do and what your budget is. And I don't mean your local Geek Squad member; they're salespersons, so they're more likely to suggest something that earns them money. I would suggest going somewhere like Lockergnome.net and asking people there. Yes, it is still somewhat time consuming, but not nearly as much as having to read about every single cpu and graphics card on the market.

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  4. What ever happened to downloadable demo so I can check it out first to see how it runs? WHY did that ever go away for PC games? I am reluctant to install this game on my m11x without seeing it in action and figuring out what effects I need to turn off first to get 20fps.

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  5. Unfortunately, demos are a thing of the past for many games. Not only do you need to make a specific build and test it out, you also potentially need new art (splash screens), new code (perhaps Steam integration to allow players to unlock the full game, or new scripting), and so on. It's more work, more money, and it might not even pay off.

    Of course, some games, like Skyrim, are very hard to demo properly, due to their structures. Demos are usually designed to be high-impact and brief, leaving players with a desire to buy the full game, and that's a lot harder to engineer in an open world game than in something like a shooter, where you can generally just cut a piece from one of the game levels and call it a day.

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  6. Was a great game. Your grammar and spelling are bad and you're a whiner. You'd made up your mind on "the state of the business" long before you considered evidence, I'd guess because you think criticism makes you superior (a common fallacy of the lower classes).

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