Thursday, February 2, 2012

RAGE and the Circular Design Dilemma

RAGE is a game I really wanted to love.  From the get-go, it offered up an astonishingly beautiful, hand-crafted world and some of the best straight-up arcade-style shooting that I've played in years.  On top of that, its advancements in artificial intelligence and animation produced a lot of interesting encounters and enemies who fought with a degree of unpredictability and spontaneity that is rarely seen in games.  In many ways, it's a triumph and a fantastic experience.

As accomplished as the regular gameplay was in RAGE, however, the longer I played, the more there was something about it that seemed to get to me.  It was extremely hard for me to pin down - here I was playing a beautiful, original and fantastically-produced shooter, something that I've felt we've had a bit of a glut the last few years beyond a few stand-out hits.  And yet, there was something about it that kept nagging at me throughout the entire experience, right up until the end.

After a good deal of thought, I realized what it came down to wasn't anything about the core action and the gameplay, but rather, everything that surrounded it.   RAGE is a game where the very mechanics and structure of the game exist not necessarily because they're fun, or because they make sense, but solely because they depend upon and reinforce each other.   It's what I've taken to calling the circular design dilemma, and it's at the core of what makes RAGE feel less like a complete game and more a collection of smaller ones.

It Starts With Loot

The first thing that started to bug me about RAGE was its reliance on looting, inventory and other systems generally centered around the collecting, organizing and using of things.  There are a lot of games where management of items is a key feature, of course, but shooters, beyond making sure your ammo and health are at acceptable levels, aren't really built on the same sorts of discrete hunting-and-pecking for doodads and trinkets in the environment.

I understand the rationalization for including loot in the game.  As a post-apocalyptic title, the theme of scavenging for supplies is extremely fitting, and many other popular games, including Fallout 3 and Borderlands, already have a heavy focus on loot, so RAGE might look a little strange to be completely devoid of that element.  It sounds great on paper - you scrounge up healing supplies, crafting items, ammo, and junk to sell, which you can use to purchase upgrades, exchange for more useful pieces of equipment, and so on.  Plus, it lets you throw in a few quick and easy fetch quests.  So far, so good.
Looting itself is not very interesting - it's what the act enables that gets players to care.
 At the same time, however, RAGE is also a game that has absolutely nothing to do with looting or inventory management.  It is broken up into discrete challenges - specific levels the player must conquer in more or less a set sequence, where the primary goal is almost always to get to the end and defeat a boss, or simply clear out all the baddies.  There's regenerating health, so the only resource to manage is ammunition (and, arguably, time, if you count the defibrillator minigame).  Loot is, for all intents and purposes, junk with no purpose in the game whatsoever.

Now, I don't want to devalue the idea of looting as a mechanic.  The prospect of micro-rewards for small victories (kill enemy, get money) scratches a very deep-seated itch in players that many developers choose to exploit using either experience points, items, or some other progression system to reinforce.  Defeating one enemy or solving one small challenge should in itself feel like it has consequence outside the individual combat encounter, and tying those into a larger game system by way of rewards is a great way to give the player a sense of forward movement.  However, everything has its place - and in a game that is primarily about shooting enemies until they're all gone, so you can move to the next room and do it again, spending an additional ten minutes per level pressing the use button/key at flashing objects doesn't really add anything.

Rationalization

So, RAGE has loot.  That's all well and good, but immediately the question reveals itself: what good is that loot?  Most games that have some sort of collection mechanic tie that collection into the game itself.  In Final Fantasy VIII, the (admittedly terrible) "Draw" mechanic ties into the magic system.  In Super Mario Bros., collecting one hundred coins rewards a 1-Up, which enables the player to continue playing the game longer.  In Fallout, the acquisition of new items is directly related to the player's ability to tackle more difficult situations, with more powerful equipment allowing forward progress and a palpable sense of improvement.

The problem is, RAGE doesn't really have any systems like that.  It's staunchly devoted to being an arcade shooter, with a very fixed structure - despite featuring a slightly open-ended upgrade mechanic, getting those upgrades is a matter of time, story missions come one-by-one, and even new weapons are doled out with a very particular regularity.  Despite all the open-world hype, RAGE is one of the most deceptively linear, point A-to-B games I've ever played.  The lack of a proper world map and over-reliance on the GPS feature only serves to highlight that despite its huge levels, your path is fixed.
You'll spend more than your share of time navigating the crafting menu.  However, one wonders exactly what this step accomplishes beyond taking up a few extra keystrokes and minutes.
 So, what do we do?  Well, the answer seems obvious - we invent reasons for that loot to exist!  Again, this is one of those "good on paper" ideas.  There are two primary solutions that RAGE provides to this problem.  The first is a crafting system.  Crafting, at least in theory, serves three major functions in the game: 1) It uses up all those items in the world, 2) it allows players to build cool special weapons, and 3) it allows a degree of choice in play-style.  The second solution is money - RAGE more or less uses cash as experience, with dollar bills paving the way to upgrades for both vehicles and the player's weapons and armor.

Except, RAGE is a game that is about going from point A to B and shooting, blowing up or otherwise killing all the enemies in the way.  The game's arsenal, which is more or less guaranteed as the player receives certain weapons for making progress in the story (Pistol, Shotgun, Assault Rifle, Sniper Rifle, Crossbow, etc.), is already more than capable of dealing with the onslaught of foes.  While ammunition for a single weapon can occasionally get scarce, swapping to a new gun for a little bit rectifies any and all problems.  All said and done, it really doesn't need all these cool gadgets and trinkets to craft and collect, and while a few, like the RC Bomb Cars, open up new tactical options, they're rarely more useful than a straight-up grenade toss or Shotgun blast to the face.  Which means...

Is It Useful Yet?

RAGE does the next logical thing as it tries to justify all the new special items and crafted implements for the player to use: it gives the player very specific places to use them.  Much like weapons, these items appear at set intervals and often tie into the themes of particular stages of the game.  For instance, the RC Bomb Cars are used to take on the enemies in the Shrouded Bunker - in fact, they're positively littered all over the place, and enemies often start out with their backs turned to the player precisely to allow for the option of sneaking the RC Bomb Cars up behind them to detonate.

What's more, there are many sections of the Shrouded Bunker level where the player can only proceed by use of an RC Bomb Car.  In most cases, it involves piloting the things into small ventilation ducts or other passages to reach the other side of a wall or barrier, then blowing up a convenient stack of explosives in order to knock down the wall or door into the next room.  These serve as simple puzzles and admittedly help break up the action, but other than this particular level, this mechanic barely ever shows up in the game again save for a couple of optional extras and secrets.  What's more, it even pales as a tactical option because other levels are designed specifically to take advantage of other items, such as EMP Grenades or the Shock Darts for the Crossbow.  Chances are most players will never, ever touch the RC Bomb Cars again, despite having dozens of them available within levels, and the raw materials to craft even more.
RAGE's driving is fun, but has no connection to the shooting itself, and the game's open world really serves as an excuse to include the game's races rather than build upon the core action.
A more general example concerns the Lock Grinder, an implement that is, save for one or two places very early in the game, entirely optional.  The Lock Grinder is effectively a method for opening specific doors, and must be crafted from a few fairly rare raw materials.  However, RAGE is always extremely methodical about providing exactly the number of materials to make a Lock Grinder whenever you might need one, so instead of being a resource to manage and carefully weigh the advantages of using, instead the mechanic is boiled down to pressing a button in a menu and then another to open a door.

On top of this, the Lock Grinder itself almost never opens up anything interesting.  In just about every case, the only thing players will ever find for using it is... yep, you guessed it, more junk items to sell for money, more ammo, and more crafting items.  You never come across any special weapons by using the Lock Grinder, or upgrades, or quests, or characters, and save for the game's optional collectible card game, there's simultaneously no reason to open those doors, and no reason not to open those doors.  We've now come full circle: RAGE's entire looting and crafting system has been boiled down entirely to "get stuff, use stuff, and get more stuff."

Racing and driving in RAGE also falls into this category, although considering it comes with its own built-in progression system and upgrade path, it resembles a full game in its own right.  Despite it being a lot of fun to drive around the Wasteland and engage in those racing challenges, though, nothing about it ties into the shooting, or looting/crafting for that matter.  Sure, driving helps you get from point A to B, but then, the only reason that A and B are so far apart is.. because there have to be cars in the game.  I'd expect that the driving might factor into more boss battles, or let you blast through enemy fortifications, but the driving and shooting are literally divided up by invisible walls.  I thought this was a shooter?

Parts of the Whole

Again, I want to stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with looting, crafting, inventory management, and all that stuff.  My favorite games utterly depend upon them.  The key point that differentiates RAGE's systems, however, concerns a fundamental disconnect between the core shooting and the additional loot/craft/spend cycle.  In other words, you could take these mechanics out of RAGE and lose absolutely nothing at all.  The shooting will not get any worse if I can't loot crafting materials to make Wingsticks.  The game's level design will not get worse by removing those lootable items.  The guns aren't any less fun to use by making players pay money for the upgrades versus simply handing them over (especially as they're cheap, become available at particular points in the game and most players will be able to afford them as soon as they become available).

Games can usually be broken down into a series of smaller micro-games, individual modules of input and output whereby the player has a starting point, a processing state and an ending state.  It is the interrelation of all these micro-games that form what we consider to be a full, proper game, with the distinct inputs and outputs of each forming the context and challenge.  On its own, the act of pressing a button to fire a gun isn't too much fun, and certainly not a compelling mechanic - but when that event is contextualized by resources to manage, enemies to defeat, an environment to navigate, puzzles to solve, and so on, you have a system that is enjoyable.  It's the way in which the different inputs and outputs of these systems link to each other that creates a complete game, not the sheer number of them.

RAGE, outside of its basic shooting gameplay, does not adhere to this understanding of game design.  id Software are complete and utter masters of their craft, and I applaud them for that mastery, but everything around the shooting is completely ancillary to it.  Instead of building systems that are interrelated, networks of mechanics which depend on and influence each other, RAGE has three games in one which, at best, intersect with one another only in ways which enable each other.  Racing has little to do with shooting and only enables more shooting levels, and a faster mode of transport (which only is necessary because of the open-world structure, which only exists to facilitate driving, etc.), and looting/crafting/spending has little to do with shooting other than the fact that it is enabled by that shooting.  The end result is that RAGE is a game where the design is not focused around building upon the core gameplay ideas, but on trying to rationalize and justify the existence of its side-mechanics.
Conclusion

 After all this, I'm still not entirely convinced that RAGE is a poorly-designed game.  I think it's much more accurate to call it two or three games in one than a single game, however.  It's clear just by looking at the disparate elements that many of the features exist simply for the sake of them being there, rather than to enhanced and build on one another.  Compared to a game like Borderlands, where looting enables new options for combat, the open world allows for more tactical options and open-ended structure, and the driving enhances the core shooting, it's clear that id Software struggled with trying to include all the things they wanted in a way that led to a coherent end result.

The most fascinating part of this analysis to me is how little a lot of this actually gets in the way of the core fun of RAGE.  The loot acquisition does indeed scratch that "I'm getting better!" itch, the racing is a fun diversion, and the shooting itself, as I've mentioned, is the most enjoyable I've played in quite some time.  However, that lack of consistency and coherence is exactly what prevents it from being the modern classic that many players waited five-plus years to get their hands on.  In the end, the final game is a hodgepodge of ideas, and a case-in-point that a great idea in isolation isn't enough to make a great game.

6 comments:

  1. As usual, you've written what I was thinking about the game, only better than I ever could.

    I guess the only difference is, for me, all these issues got to a point where it really did detract from the fun of the game for me. I felt the FPS elements suffered (in my opinion) as a result of the other stuff.

    I hope with Doom 4 they re-focus on making a really good FPS experience, because, as you said, id is one of the best in the business at that. RAGE really feels like a missed opportunity.

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  2. After reading this, I felt the same way about the issues, most importantly, the repetitive levels where the only change, is the amount of enemies inside (for instance, Ghost base: going back after the initial time in the beginning, and the only thing that's changed is one corridor is locked and another has opened up).

    I never enjoyed any type of driving game, even in Borderlands the driving never really did much, other than get me from point A to point B (but Borderlands never had a true focus on driving in my opinion). Rage just mimics that feeling for me, even though a good part of the game revolves around vehicles (need to upgrade in order to get to the north, etc.). I just did the bare minimum to progress in that aspect.

    I think they tried to adhere their loot system to cater to new FPS-RPG type players. Instead of worrying about how much ammo you might need or how much money you'll need to get a super weapon, you only need to worry about killing the enemies and the good stuff will come trickling in. I think a lot of people get turned off by RPGs because of the exploration/time factor, meaning spending lots of time to get a certain high level item (knights of the round materia in FF7). For traditional hardcore RPG lovers, that doesn't even phase us because we are so used to it, but to new players that want to spend an hour playing the game a day, the idea of spending time finding certain items or fighting for those items (and possibly dying and restarting) seems outrageous, and are ultimately turned off by it. I hate to say it, but the number of hardcore RPG gamers seems to be dwindling down (in correlation to the final fantasy series in my opinion), and big name developers have to cater to the masses, and that means cutting back on some core values. Core values which may become non-existent soon. The easy loot and puzzles are just there to appease new users (to the FPS-RPG line); new users that only want a shoot-em-up type game with no real thinking involved. I'm not against this, because they still made a pretty well game, like you said (and me agreeing with everything on this post), it's just I believe game developers feel they need to move away from the old school, especially since they are not making a true RPG type game (WoW, EQ, etc.), where it's almost required you put in time to get the things you want.

    Since the RPG-FPS genre is still pretty young (I believe), I feel in the near future, we'll see some interesting games come out that hopefully refine certain areas that were lacking in previous games.

    All in all, great post and a great read. Keep it up Eric.
    Also, did you get my other 2 responses to your last post? Hopefully I'm not pestering you in anyway, never my intention. Thanks again!

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  3. This is a superb analysis of Rage. I recently played through the game myself and was at odds to understand just why I found it such a vague and ambivalent experience, despite it being fun enough that I chose to play more over any of the myriad other games I could have chosen. This has articulated the drive behind that motivation very clearly. Thanks for posting it!

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  4. @Shaun

    Glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for reading.

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  5. So I stumbled on this while looking for screenshots of Rage and I have to say I wholeheartedly agree. I feel like the game would've been better served being just a straight shooter, or a straight driving game, or a straight open-world sandbox. I find this catch-all approach seriously limited the coherence of the entire package.

    Oh, also, thanks for the picture. Shameless plug here, I used it in a blogpost partially about some other issued I had with Rage that you may or may not be interested in (http://soherearemyideas.blogspot.ca/2012/05/why-maps-in-games-suck-especially.html).

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