Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Of Mechanical Dissonance, Potions and Bacon

Recently, I picked up Hothead Games' latest title, The Baconing.  Despite the lack of obvious branding, The Baconing is actually the third title in the DeathSpank series, a quick-witted succession of action-RPGs created in conjunction with Ron Gilbert, perhaps one of the funniest men in videogames.  While I don't have any experience with the prior games, I have enjoyed Hothead's work in the past - namely, the Penny Arcade Adventures series, which was a fun combination of RPG and adventure game that managed to scratch two of my itches at once.

Going for The Baconing seemed like a no-brainer after my previous positive experience.  While the game has a lot going for it, though, especially as far as the artwork and humor goes (it really is a beautiful and hilarious game, something rare enough, and rarer still to see done well), I didn't exactly find myself having a ton of fun through much of the game when the jokes stopped and it was time to actually play.  This boils down to, at its heart, a severe case of mechanical dissonance which renders much of the gameplay just a little too frustrating.  While I use The Baconing here as a case study, though, the phenomenon actually applies to a large number of games, especially action-RPGs.

Defining Dissonance

Mechanical dissonance is one of those things that is not always obvious on paper when starting out development, or even without extended play-testing to reveal it, but becomes very apparent once a game is actually in the hands of players.  Generally it can be described as two or more game mechanics which, rather than complementing one another and forming coherent systems, instead tend to pull in opposite directions and leave players feeling conflicted as to what they should be doing, how they should be going about completing a task, or simply frustrated when one action does not lead naturally to another when the game logic suggests it should.

One of the most reliable ways to conceptualize games is to think of them as a series of mini-games in themselves, small challenges which at their hearts have problems posed to the player that must be solved through decision-making.  This goes all the way down to making individual moves in a combat scenario (do I move right, left, or stay in place?  attack or defend?  etc.), but also extends to larger processes and mechanics that end up forming what we think of as the gameplay.

The individual actions made in a game, even a "simple" one like Mario, need to flow into each other naturally.  We don't think about it when it happens, but we sure notice it when it stops.
Usually, when a game works, we don't really notice the how or why of it - except that we're having fun.  If I'm playing a Super Mario game, I don't have to consciously think about how the subtle presence of the timer is goading me onwards towards the goal, or how the risk/reward dichotomy in going for a power-up will ultimately impact my success rates.  The proof of mechanical coherence is in the final play experience, not in the individual details that I'm caught up in.  For game designers, it's essential to be able to step back and see these interactions for what they are, but they are invisible to most players -  until they become a problem.

Guzzling to Victory

In The Baconing, that core gameplay effectively revolves around the interaction between two pieces - the player's health, and the methods the player has available to restore health.  A classic gaming staple, to be sure, and one that entire genres are based upon (beat-em-ups and fighting games especially).  Despite being an action-RPG, The Baconing actually features a very squishy, vulnerable protagonist - DeathSpank, for all his heroism and blinged-out gear, can still be taken out in one or two attacks from a powerful enemy.  Even the smaller, weaker enemies will chip away at health very, very quickly, and while blocking can help to mitigate damage, it doesn't completely eliminate it, and the recovery period between blocking and attacking ensures players simply can't hold the button down all the time.  Sounds good so far.

One problem that tends to plague action-RPGs is that players are effectively reliant on potions and other healing items and spells.  Made famous by Diablo II's extended boss battles that required players travel back and forth between their battlefields and town (including potion vendors), it's something other action-RPG developers have also struggled with - how do you create a sense of immediate danger without simply instantly killing players, or forcing heal-over-time abilities on players (which usually results in lots of running around in circles waiting for health bars to fill up)?  It's a potent issue and one that really has yet to be properly reconciled.

The Baconing gives you a short leash - five healing potions, and then it's over.  It prevents the usual potion-guzzling problem, but doesn't change that you are still only as effective as your total potion count.
The Baconing effectively takes a hybrid approach in trying to solve this problem.  While the majority of healing is done in heal-over-time style through the use of food items, potions provide instant bursts of healing - the idea being that potions will keep you alive in the thick of things, but food will sustain you for the long haul.  This is additionally emphasized by the fact that just about anything will interrupt eating, meaning that it's almost impossible to do while in combat.  Furthermore, while potions have strict limits (five of each type), food has no real upper limit, so even if you do have lots of potions you're still going to have to either run from an encounter and heal up in safety, or take on the enemies and finish them off before continuing.

Unfortunately, the food is where things start to break down.  I can fully appreciate the problem Hothead were trying to solve, but in doing so they actually created what is arguably an even bigger problem.  See, DeathSpank really is not vulnerable as long as you have a few healing potions on you.  The potions almost fully heal you, so you can just quaff a couple of them and keep mashing the attack button until your enemies fall over.  However, as soon as you finish those potions, you're a sitting duck - enemies can still kill you in a few hits, and your only alternative is to run away, either to heal up and keep trying your luck, or head back to town for more potions.

Tug of War

Effectively, we're back at square one - there's still the Diablo-style problem of potions driving the player's forward progress - but a new problem has also been introduced.  See, while food items heal the player over time (and almost fully, in most cases), they also take about 10 seconds to fully act.  And, when I said eating can be interrupted, I really meant it - just about anything will interrupt the act of eating, even standard interface functions.  Take damage while desperately running away from pursuing enemies?  You stop eating.  Want to open your map to see where you're going?  You stop eating.  Check your inventory items?  No food for you.  Pause the game?  Yep, even that stops your healing effect.  Even looting chests, or starting triggered conversations, wastes the food item you're chewing down and requires you eat another once you're done.

In other words, the player is not just punished for trying to flee from combat, which the mechanics  itself encourage the player to do (the only other alternative is death, once you're out of potions), but even performing the basic maintenance tasks and interface that come with any game also punishes the player.  I still can't think of any good rationale for this - is it more fun if the player's healing is constantly interrupted, and that 10-second process has to start over again?  Will the player somehow be able to exploit healing items if he or she is able to pause the game during their use?  It makes no sense, and it ultimately what makes an already tedious mechanic (anything that revolves around extended wait times for immediate benefits, I'd argue) even more annoying to use.

Negative feedback can often come across as unnecessarily punitive - but it's even worse when that feedback doesn't feel deserved or warranted.
Another minor point, but an important one - whenever the player's eating is interrupted, a buzzer-type sound is played.  While I'm sure the intent of this was to let players know that they hadn't finished their food, and thus should probably try again, it ironically ends up making things even more frustrating.  The negative "bzzzt!" sound produced reinforces the notion that the player has done something wrong, even when it's something the game outright requires the player to do, or forces on the player.  It's a subtle kind of dissonance between action and feedback, but jarring and unnecessarily punitive all the same.  Imagine a racing game where every time you slammed on the breaks, a little gremlin laughed at you - that's more or less the effect produced here.

In an even bigger twist of irony, one of The Baconing's most intelligent decisions, that to limit the number of potions the player carries, actually ends up contributing even further to the dissonance in gameplay.  The reason why Diablo II, imperfect as it was, still remained fun despite being a potion-guzzling festival, is because Blizzard were able to recognize that the alternative wasn't suited to the gameplay they intended to create.  Rather than an obvious hard limit, a soft limit was imposed - the player's number of belt slots (better belts = more slots, giving added utility value to the item type), as well as inventory - which didn't feel nearly as contrived or arbitrary, but also necessitated occasional trips back to town to preserve the utility of those vendor NPCs.  Diablo II is a fast-paced game, and those trips back to town formed a certain rhythm that didn't really detract from the pacing - in fact, in all probability they added to it, as it also gave the player a chance to crank the loot conveyor belt via item buying, selling and gambling.

Instead, The Baconing ends up with a hard and strict potion limit to make the food mechanic viable, which, in attempting to prevent abuse, actually just adds additional wait times to gameplay that have no real purpose other than to, well, add more wait time.  The only alternative to using food is to head back to a nearby vendor, and since The Baconing does not have instant-use "town portal" spells or items, it's either die, or spend five or ten minutes hiking to town through the same areas, possibly fighting enemies that have respawned on the way, spend money on those items (without an easy "buy all" option), and then hike all the way back.  As well-intentioned as it is, it's not fun at all, and is completely counter-intuitive to the game's foward-moving nature and extremely fast and frantic combat.  To go back to the racing analogy, it's as if someone put traffic lights all along a Mario Kart course, and you had to come to a full five-minute stop for every minute of gameplay.

Closing Thoughts

I've really torn into The Baconing here, but truth be told these are problems that many other action-RPGs have, especially those built in the Diablo II style.  The difference is that many of these other action-RPGs have measures in place to mitigate the downsides of such a system.  Torchlight has those town portals, as well as more frequent potion drop rates than most other games of its type.  Skyrim gives you healing spells and a replenishing mana pool to make sure you are never completely screwed out of basic healing functions.  Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning allows you to dodge incoming attacks if you're good enough, so a lack of potions doesn't mean death, whereas in The Baconing you are going to take damage no matter what you do.

For what it's worth, The Baconing is still an extremely witty game with some great laugh-out-loud moments, as well as some of the most interesting art direction I've seen in quite a while.  Of course, many of these comments can also be applied to the other DeathSpank games, and while I haven't played them, I understand they are effectively identical - which makes me wonder why these problems have yet to be solved.  For a title that seems so heavily bent on making players happy, it's simply counter-intuitive to frustrate them once the dialogue stops and the gameplay begins.

1 comment:

  1. Love this analysis! Some ways that games are designed seem unecessarily punishing. I liked the eating mechanism in _Contact_--foods would fill your stomach up, and you couldn't eat on a full stuomach--though it had a similar "unlimited potions solve everything" problem. Not sure of a good solution :-/.

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