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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Lost Value of Mystery

There's been something eating away at me about the current generation's games.  While we have come to largely master the designs of certain genres, and the last several years has brought us a base level of polish and playability that is unmatched in any other, there's something about these games that I'm finding, for lack of a better word, lacking.  It just seems harder and harder to come across a game with some sort of soul to it.

For a while I chalked this up both to the changing games industry and my own changing tastes, plus nostalgia for earlier days.  It's true that the games from my childhood that I love will never be made or remade again, no matter how strong their core designs may be.  After reading Hugo Bille's fantastic article "The Invisible Hand of Super Metroid" about a month ago, those questions about the heart and soul of games began to flare up in me more distinctly, and now I think I've figured out what so many newer titles are missing: mystery.

This isn't really one of my usual design-type articles - rather, it's more a personal reflection on certain design trends, and their cumulative impact on the end play experience.  Continue at your own peril.

A Boy and a Cave

The Legend of Zelda opens with one of the most iconic, but also surprisingly simple scenes in just about all of gaming: a young, green-clad boy in a lightly wooded area, with a cave visible nearby.  For decades, this scene has captured the imaginations of players, and rightly so: the prospect of both the cave and the world stretching out in three other directions present a temptation too great to ignore.  Shigeru Miyamoto famously designed The Legend of Zelda around his own boyhood instincts, and this is reflected immediately in the opening scene.

 
There are few game openings that are both so simple and evocative.
This scene, like many NES-era games, does a lot with very little.  The simple visual design sets clear boundaries for the player that suggests the available options - up, left, right, or the cave.  In placing the cave, a block of pitch black, both nearest the player's starting spot and differentiating it visually from the other paths, there is an implicit importance placed upon it - if you're going to continue on, you might want to check this place out first (which, of course, is reflected in the near-legendary words of the old man inside, "It's dangerous to go alone, take this!").  Just in case the player doesn't quite get the message, the area beyond this starting screen is populated with easy enemies to subtly encourage the player to check out that cave.

But aside from the good design in this opening, there's something more, something baser about it, something that permeates the entire Legend of Zelda experience - discovery, exploration, adventure, and, most importantly, mystery.  More than anything else, Zelda is driven by that tantalizing prospect of new wonders, secrets, and treasures to uncover on each new screen.  Everything from the always-visible inventory and its first-vacant slots, to the fixed screens the game world is divided up into, serve to give the player a hint that there's something more to come.  And, whether it's blowing up a wall with a bomb to find some hidden items, or stumbling across a new Heart Container, the game always rewards its players - right up to its second quest mode once the game has been won, complete with reconfigured dungeons.

Something to Look Forward To

This fundamental drive to uncover new things is one that gaming has been happy to exploit over the years.  While features and game mechanics are able to keep players entertained, it's the prospect of finding something new and interesting that brings players back once the initial buzz has worn off.  Many of our favorite games are also the most replayable, and why I hold titles like Fallout and Arcanum in such high regard - they do their best to not only provide a great experience for first-time players, but offer enough content and flexibility in both gameplay and story to keep things fun and interesting even five or ten play-throughs later.

Novelty, either in mechanics or in aesthetics (including story) is perhaps the number one driving force in keeping players engaged.  The difference between good pacing and bad pacing appears when we are concerned not so much with "at what exact intervals is it appropriate to give the player new content?" as we are with "what can we give players to look forward to, and how?" Being able to both set up and telegraph upcoming content to players, and then deliver on it, is essential to making sure they play to the end, and choose to play again on a harder difficulty, or jump into the multiplayer mode.

Effective pacing hinges on novelty, to the point where a game like Half-Life 2 is driven almost entirely by how effectively it's able to put new situations and mechanics in the hands of players.
One game that, to this day, still manages to wow me with its pacing, is Half-Life 2.  On the surface, Half-Life 2 is not an especially complicated or interesting game.  It's very easy to approach its core gameplay with the "it's just a shooter" mindset.  However, it's clear that Valve went to great pains to ensure that every single weapon is fun to use and useful within the game world, that all enemies pose distinct challenges to overcome, and that each puzzle poses an original obstacle.  As fun as the basic gunplay is, it's the "what's behind this door?  past this loading screen?  after this story sequence?" that makes Half-Life 2 so fun and exciting to play through even nearly a decade after its release.

Comparing Half-Life 2 to a similar sci-fi shooter like Crysis 2 is interesting, to say the least.  Although Crysis 2 tries its best to give players neat locations to fight in, lots of wordy characters and plot events to take in on a frequent basis, and provides weapon upgrades at reasonable intervals, much of the game revolves around meticulously-animated set pieces and taking in beautiful vistas.  The shooting itself is fun enough, but the enemies you fight don't really develop beyond the few basic types and the odd boss battle, and the weapons never stray beyond the ordinary.  Even the Nanosuit, the game's biggest hook, is never developed over the course of gameplay.  After finishing the first level of Crysis 2, I'd forgive anyone for shutting the game off and saying "yep, that's enough of that."

The 10-Minute Game

When I hop into a modern game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Gears of War, this generation's equivalent of Halo or Half-Life, I am never struck with a feeling of mystery, not throughout the entire five or ten hours I spend with them.  These games are not lacking for content, and the content they do contain is often beautiful, exceptionally polished and play-tested to the point where just about anyone should be guaranteed entertainment.  Paradoxically, however, I am rarely if ever thrilled or delighted by the prospect of new content in these games, even though by all accounts they have a far higher standard of content.  Why is this?

It's common knowledge that most players don't finish their games.  Depending on the game length, the game genre, and the market, completion rates can range from 15% to 50% on average.  Even though players demand that games be longer and more expansive with each iteration, the data suggests that players are less interested in actually exploring that content and more interested in justifying their own purchasing habits by using game length to determine value.  Developers have done a lot to combat this, and I have to applaud many of them for having the discipline to get rid of sub-standard content - arguably, if it wasn't for this knowledge, most games would still be 12-20 hours long on average, and only about three of those hours would really be any good.

Can you tell me which Gears of War level this is?  What point in the story it's at?  Or which game in the series, for that matter?  It's okay, I can't tell either.
Unfortunately, this need to produce shorter, denser games has also largely robbed them of any sense of mystery.  Rather than introducing game mechanics in a steady, metered fashion, or new weapons to play with, it's far more common to be shown everything a game has to offer within the first 10 minutes or so.  Call of Duty does this.  Gears of War does this.  Assassin's Creed does this (at least, once you get past the very lengthy intro sequences).  Even games that rely on exploration and adventure, like Tomb Raider: Underworld, or 40+ hour RPGs, like Dragon Age II, have fallen victim to this.  While you can keep playing for hours and hours, what's the point when you have nothing new to see or do except shoot the same old reskinned enemies from behind the same old pieces of cover with the same old assault rifles and shotguns (replace with "sword" as necessary)?  Aesthetics, including set pieces, and story, can help to make the monotony more bearable, but also tend to be vacant and empty of meaningful gameplay, and if the story breaks down, there is effectively nothing left to keep players playing.

Halo made itself famous on Bungie's so-called "30 seconds of gameplay", a loop of interactions and mechanics the player would be engaged in over and over again while playing the game.  I think some developers may have taken this sentiment a little too literally - Halo, despite its problems with repeating levels in the late-game, had the sense to introduce new weapons and enemy types one at a time, and then, after original content ran dry, to reappropriate them in interesting situations.  Enjoyed your romp in the tank earlier?  Now try driving it under fire from gunships.   In BioShock, the closest you'll get to this is trying to complete the hacking minigame with a smaller time limit.

Over the Hillside

Many people will justify the lack of mystery in a game like Call of Duty by saying "well, of course there's no mystery, it's a realistic military shooter!", and while I mean no disrespect to the developers, these are little more than rationalizations and excuses.  This effectively says "our game isn't interesting because it isn't designed to be interesting," which, in my opinion, is not a good attitude to have if you're making games.  Realism and real-world settings do not preclude mystery and discovery, and spending tens of millions of dollars creating five-hour theme park rides is just not efficient in my mind.

All that aside, fostering mystery in game design is not a lost art.  Open-world titles such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Risen give players something interesting to find over every hillside, and despite not being nearly as structured as some games, the mechanics of the skill systems ensure that progress is expressed not just in terms of "how many numbers does my guy have?" but "what new options have I just opened for myself?"  The mountainous vistas of Bethesda's games are, in their own way, just as enthralling as the starting screen of the original Legend of Zelda.

Mountains!  Forests!  Ponds!  Ruins!  Towns!  Games like Skyrim keep the faith by offering something new just over the horizon, whether literally or figuratively.
The games industry is going to have to be proactive in ensuring that mystery doesn't die out, however.  Triple-A games are expensive to produce, and generally becoming less viable every year as development costs continue to grow exponentially.  Social and mobile games already beginning to cut into the "core" platforms, but as so may of those titles are built around five-minute game sessions, and repetitive feedback loops based on frequent reward mechanisms, I have to wonder whether games will still continue to amaze and delight players on a long-term basis.  And, frankly, I also wonder if the only reason players aren't finishing their games is because there's nothing new to see after the tutorial level.

Closing Thoughts

This article has been a little meandering and personal, and not as analytic as I would have liked, but I think the point I'm making is clear all the same: it's not enough to give players a beautiful, kinetic and entertaining experience if your goal is to make a game that is fun not just for a half-hour, but for five, or ten, or twenty or more hours.  Mystery is an integral component of game design, and as development budgets swell and the cost of implementing content skyrockets, I see less and less of it as even the basics of gameplay become more difficult to manage.

Maybe it's unfair to pick on more mainstream games like Call of Duty - after all, they're built to appeal to a particular audience and play it safe.  This is understandable, but it's just no excuse for why a team of artists and designers should, say, work for a month creating, modeling, texturing, and animating a weapon model, if it looks and feels exactly like the ten other assault rifles in the game.  Not only is this a poor way to spend resources, but it actually lessens the impact of all other parts of the game, as the redundancy in content ensures the biggest asset of content - novelty - is lost on players.

Am I just being bitter, jaded, nostalgic and grim?  Perhaps, a little bit.  But I'd like to think that game developers can come up with more than "a different type of AK-47" when brainstorming when brainstorming ways to keep their gameplay interesting.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reckoning: Breaking the Moral Choice Mold

Last week I gave my thoughts on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Big Huge Games' just-released open-world action-RPG.  In that article, I examined how the game struggled with its sheer size and MMO-style design considerations, and how they ultimately resulted in a weaker single-player experience.  However, there's another side to Amalur that I think it pulls off excellently - the way in which it handles the moral decisions it gives to players.

Most RPG fans are big fans of being able to sculpt their own destinies in games, and there have been plenty of developers that have taken advantage of that to create more personal experiences.  Oftentimes, it's a key selling point, and not having some sort of morality system built into a game can leave it looking dated.  Kingdoms of Amalur, though, despite having no formalized morality mechanic, actually has some of the best moral decision-making I've seen in a game in some time.  It breaks and surpasses the standards set by most other games and produces choices that are genuinely intriguing and effective.  Though this article is partially about Reckoning, more broadly it is an articulation and demonstration of a framework for developing interesting and effective moral decisions.

Why Moral Choice?

I suppose it's best to start at the beginning for this one.  While many developers integrate moral choice into their games, often it's considered a virtue in and of itself to include.  Players want options, they want to role-play, so why not give them to them?  The reality is that it's a little bit more complicated than simply giving the player choice or not giving the player choice, and I'm not even talking about the obvious increase in development time and complexity.

Generally, moral choices and morality systems exist in games not for their own sake, but in order to give the player a feeling of authorship over the world, and, more importantly, to create a power fantasy.  This is especially true in Western games.  The story of just about every Western game (and most other media) can be summed up as: hero rises from low status and fights against all odds to defeat a bad guy.  The Western world is built upon this idea of self-actualization, of taking advantage of your skills, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and claiming victory through your own strength of will and abilities, and this carries over into almost all of our stories.
Dragon Age: Origins offers a variety of shades of grey between the yes and no - these options are often cosmetic, but often enough are neither simple, or the outcomes predictable.
Moral choice is a big part of this in modern games.  It's not about being told a story, as in many Japanese games, but rather, about making a story.  Players want to feel like they have control over their experiences, which is why just about every shooter these days has leveling up built in, or why open-world games were all the rage a couple of years back.  It often doesn't even matter so much what the choices are or their consequences are - the mere act of choice-making is often enough to give players a sense of ownership over their stories, to make them feel like it's them calling the shots rather than a writer or a designer.

Many games often come under fire for stupid, illogical, or unrealistic moral choices.  The Fable series has been oft-criticized because it provides ridiculous scenarios and responses to them, either because they are cartoonish and pointless, or because sometimes the "good" and "evil" options are ambiguous enough that they could be interpreted either way if it wasn't for the devil horns or halo your character springs.  Fallout 3 is another game I've railed against in the past for its juvenile and simplistic approach to morality in what is ostensibly a realistic and serious world.

However, it's also important to recognize that, in a sense, the actual details of moral choices are incidental.  The purpose of them isn't just to give the player a brain teaser to mull over - sometimes it's the act of choice and not he consequences that lend power to an experience.  Just as purely cosmetic decisions, like an avatar's hairstyle, can have lots of appeal, the cosmetic value of choices can't be understated.  It's why, as much as I protest, Shepard in Mass Effect has no arc, or Fallout 3's karma system can be so easily gamed - it's about the player projecting themselves onto a world and being given a sense of mastery over it.

What's in a Moral Choice


That out of the way, it's worth stating: if you make sloppy, pointless, or stupid moral decisions for the player, and the players notice, then they will probably feel cheated or insulted.  This is still bad design, and building moral choices only on the cosmetic value, or only to achieve the end power fantasy is a quick way to leave your players feeling disillusioned, or to have them stop taking your game seriously.  Creating moral choices that are interesting and difficult is challenging.  While it's easy to tug on the player's heartstrings by giving them a cute kitten to kick around or play with, or to play Emperor Palpatine and do counter-intuitive, stupid-evil things for the fun of it, to do anything beyond that involves a good deal more work.

There are several steps I have identified to ensure a moral decision doesn't fall flat.  Admittedly, these are a bit rough, and not incredibly specific, but I do think they stand up under scrutiny.
  1. Build the context.  Most good moral decisions have a background to them.  In Mass Effect 2, for example, the Krogan-Salarian conflict is something bubbling under the surface of many scenarios in both the story and gameplay, and it occasionally rises to the top.  This is impossible to do without solid universe design and background lore to accompany the choice.  When you're getting the player to care about two factions, or a bunch of strange-looking alien creatures, you need to inform them what's at stake and why they should care.
  2. Set up the choice.  A good moral decision is something the player should be able to anticipate - not necessarily the specific details, but the nature of that choice being made.  Much like setting up the context, the player needs to be given an understanding that a certain decision is coming up, before being called upon to actually make the decision.  This gives the time for a player to contemplate and prepare for when the choice finally comes, and can help avoid the whole "sitting in front of the screen for 15 minutes trying to make up my mind" problem.
  3. Foreshadow the outcome.  This isn't so much about telling the player exactly what's going to happen if he/she presses that big red button - a failing in a few games, especially in their endings - but rather in giving the player a hint of what to expect.  A good moral choice is not a choose-your-own-adventure where the player is allowed to flip the page ahead and see what happens; likewise, it is not about springing the outcome of an action on the player out of nowhere ten hours into the story.  The Witcher largely got this right by hinting at future events, such as the stolen Witchers' secrets and supplies leading to tougher mutated enemies earlier in the game - it's a surprise otucome, but a logical one.
  4. Provide a gameplay consequence to match.  This doesn't have to be a 1:1 ratio - if the player makes a universe-altering decision, it's unrealistic to give the player a whole other game to play.  At the same time, games speak through mechanics just as much (if not more) than cutscenes and dialogue, so it's a good idea to give the player an outcome that is expressed in those mechanics.  This can be something as simple as money or new items to play with, but it's generally best when it leads to new content, or a different type of challenge to overcome.
Many games get a couple of these steps right - Mass Effect's choice to sacrifice a squad member late in the game, for instance, gets the context and gameplay consequences right, but it springs the decision on the player out of nowhere, and there are no real effects on the plot later on, save for which character model appears in a background scene.  These sorts of choices can have emotional weight to them, but unless the decision hits all of these points, there's going to be an imbalance - a decision driven entirely by pragmatism, or by shallow emotional appeals.  There are always going to be players who min-max and game the system, but if your complex game systems are being reduced to "do I want +1 reputation with X or Y?", or "do I like NPC A or B more?" then that choice has been cheapened significantly.

Breaking Step

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is one of the few games that manages to, in most cases, hit every one of these points.  The reason for this is largely because it offers up relatively few moral decisions that are expressly presented in expensive cutscenes and plot lines, and instead offers them up in proportion to the size of the scenario, whether that's a small in-game bonus or a world-altering moment.  You might not be making a moral decision in every single situation, or an important one at that, but when you do, chances are you'll think about it more than in many other games.  In order to do this, I'm going to use one of the shortest and most insignificant parts of the game to demonstrate this.

An early quest sees the player hunting antelopes and retrieving their heads in order to recreate a folk tale - placing the heads in the right place summons a troll to kill, who guards a magic ring, which is then presented to a damsel.  The player is able to follow the quest forward without any dialogue options or cosmetic choices.  The decision made available at the end is a simple one, but has more depth than your typical good/evil or saint/jerk response: do you give the ring back to the person who asked you to retrieve it, or do you keep it for yourself?

Right off the bat, we have context.  The player has been given a quest that not only has a definite end goal behind it and a set of steps to complete, but there's also a larger world that it fits into.  In the Amalur universe, Fate dictates that the events of stories play out time and time again over the ages - the recreation of this story is something that is logical within the game world, and has been established at the point the player receives the quest.  This is important, because the universe of Amalur is fairly alien, and the regular concepts of good and evil don't really apply - they are embodied as Summer and Winter in natural, symbiotic magic and creatures, and questions are less about good and evil and more about change and constancy (which in itself makes most choices about five times more interesting).

The way the quest is set up here is a bit more subtle.  As a Fateless One, the player's character is not bound by Fate in the same way that everyone else in the universe is - unlike others, he or she has the power to change destiny and, perhaps more importantly, change the story being retold.  The player's status as Fateless is important, because it gives the choice weight and meaning,   The foreshadowing in this case is fairly simple, and admittedly a bit weak, but it does what it needs to, specifically: the player gets the ring as a reward rather than keeping it.  Similarly, the consequence is the magic ring the player gets - probably one of the first and best rings the player will have access to (I used it for several hours afterwards).
In Amalur, even a simple quest can have interesting decisions, and demonstrates consequences don't always have to be huge or dramatic in order to be effective.
Sure, this is a small choice, but in providing a morally ambiguous decision - is it okay to defy an agreement when you stand to gain at the expense of another? - and combining it with a proper setup that fits into the universe the player inhabits, the decision becomes far more compelling and interesting.  Granted, it could be improved - keeping the magic ring yields a more valuable reward than surrendering it, so players who don't take the selfish route are going to find themselves lacking a little bit in comparison.  Additionally, the quest giver is a member of the Travelers faction - backstabbing her could have had an influence on the player's attempt to join the group.

Still, all this done for a simple side-quest the player will finish in five minutes?  It likely wasn't any more work to include in the game, but it's a far more satisfying decision than choosing to, say, shoot or not shoot a faceless NPC without good reason.

Closing Thoughts

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has more of these decisions - dozens more, in fact, and just about every quest that revolves around obtaining an item gives the player the option of keeping it, either through a skill check or some other means.  This extends from the big decisions to the small ones - while the example I gave was mostly spoiler-free and fairly unimportant in the grand scheme, it applies even more effectively when hunting down and killing former Red Legion bandits to save another man, or when the player is asked to save the Fae's Summer Court and maintain the rigid adherence to tradition, or to let the Winter Court's Maid of Windemere establish a new paradigm and change the very nature of an entire race.

The power fantasy is not harmed, but enhanced by these proportionate and meaningful decisions - the small ones are necessary for the big ones to matter, to build up expectations, introduce the moral codes and systems of the world, and provide a sense of growing authority and mastery over the game.  While games like Mass Effect will often throw life-or-death decisions at you in their earliest hours (or minutes) and take it as a given that a death in and of itself is dramatic, Kingdoms of Amalur creates strong foundations for all of its choices, so when they do come along, the player will feel comfortable, confident, and rewarded, but not without difficulty in the choice-making itself.

I think that a lot of game developers can learn from the decisions Reckoning provides the player.  They very often play to the player's power fantasy, yes, but they do so without being cheap, pandering, easy, uninteresting or lazy.  All it takes is a little thought about what you're asking the player, a desire to go beyond simply providing the ends, and crafting an interesting means.  While Reckoning doesn't always follow the framework I've established here, it does so more than any other game I've played in a while, and it's all the better for it.  Writing and logic are cheap - not every player will notice the effort put in, true, but those that do will be rewarded with a far more rewarding narrative experience.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A World Without Reckoning

I've had a copy of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in my hands for the last few days.  The years-in-the-making project by Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, which went through both an IP switch and a name change over the course of its tumultuous development, has finally seen the light of day.  As an open-world RPG, it's been positioned by Electronic Arts' marketing team as, more or less, a competitor to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - though four months on, it's perhaps telling that Bethesda's title is still such fierce competition.

While I've enjoyed my time with Reckoning, the game is one of the strangest that I've played in a long time.  While it does a lot of things right - fast and fluid combat, a deep and engaging progression system (at least next to most other contemporary RPGs), and a massive world to explore, there's also something decidedly vacant about the Faelands.  As a game that draws much of its inspiration from MMORPGs, Reckoning serves as a case in point that bigger is not always better when it comes even to open-world games.

All World, No Content

The world of Reckoning is massive, even by modern open world standards.  Though perhaps some players roll their eyes at the prospect of yet another sandbox experience, it's hard not to be impressed by just how much terrain is featured in Reckoning.  That large game world is divided up into approximately 30 discrete zones; save for a few city areas and the interior levels (dungeons and buildings), all of them are sprawling, lush and gorgeous plains, forests and deserts that capture a certain limitlessness that few games do.  Opening the world map and pulling back the camera can be an equally impressive experience, as well.


This illusion of size is slowly diminished the longer the game goes on - not due to growing familiarity with the world or a recognition that it just isn't quite as big as it looks, but instead, due to the general lack of actual content populating it.  The towns and cities that players visit are soon revealed to only have two or three quests to complete, each of them providing about 5-30 minutes of gameplay (which is often just running from points A to B); moreover, once you've completed a task in a given location, it's time to move on to the next, never to return - in most cases, literally.

As imposing as the world of Amalur is, it's striking just how little of consequence actually exists within it.
While I can't say specifically how many locations Amalur has, it's got to number in the hundreds.  Most towns have around three or four buildings to be explored (some of them more or less empty, others full of NPCs to talk to, shops and services, etc.), there's usually two dungeons in every wilderness zone (almost always quest-related), and when one takes into account the number of zones in total, it's clear that there is a ton of ground to cover.  However, on a per-location basis, the amount of time spent is extremely low.  Many of those buildings will be visited for about 10 seconds before players move on.  Towns and cities only take a few minutes to see the entirety of.  Unless one's goal is to inspect ever single nook and cranny of the world, these vast spaces will be exhausted of gameplay in a matter of minutes, not hours.

While I don't like to draw comparisons that are too direct, there are many other RPGs on the market that make far better use of their game worlds.  Fallout 2, despite having about 20 major locations (each of them quite small to traverse), can potentially squeeze eighty hours out of a play-through based on sheer gameplay content alone - sure, you're not seeing a new area every few minutes, but that's not a big fault when there's always a new quest to embark on or character to talk to.  After the fan backlash against Dragon Age II's content reuse last year, it's fair that developers should be afraid of offering "too little" to players, but the flip-side of that is a huge game world that just doesn't have enough to sustain itself.  The fact is that Amalur's world could have easily been half its size, the filler trimmed away and the quests given greater focus, and it would have gained from it.


The Single-Player MMORPG


Aside from the sheer size of the world, Reckoning also does some curious things regarding the structure of that world - namely, it draws very heavy inspiration from MMORPGs.  As mentioned above, the world is broke up into distinct zones, connected by convenient canyons and passes that are probably serve both technical and gameplay functions.  The player's progress across the map is more or less west-to-east, with things opening up a little bit more at the midgame point as the player's objectives expand.

For gameplay purposes, MMOs typically split their worlds up into discrete zones.  Not only does this make things easier for the developers to handle, but it also provides a level of certainty and structure for players that helps both understanding of the game world and the game balance.  Zones can usually be classified as belonging to a particular level range, defined by the monsters and quests that exist in it - 1-5 is a starter zone, for instance, while a level 80 zone is for the players who have more or less reached the top of the food chain.  Within each zone, there's usually a quest hub, such as a town or camp, which provides the player's tasks as long as he/she stays in that location, and provides essential services (healing, repairs, etc.).

Due to the sprawling nature of MMOs, and the fact that they offer more content than just about any player could ever hope to see without repeat play-throughs, there's almost never a reason to stay in a zone once it's been out-leveled, as the rewards for completing those old quests are likely to be outstripped by the ones in the new areas - and let's face it, chances are nobody's hunting down Smoked Rat Tails for the sake of the engaging narrative.  It's a simple but effective method of compartmentalizing gameplay that works within a multiplayer setting, where the sheer amount of space is needed to house so many players.

The player spends almost all the game in Planescape: Torment's Sigil, which serves to deepen the player's understanding of and emotional bond to the location and its characters.
Most traditional single-player RPGs do follow a similar quest hub structure, but instead of running off to the next hub once one has been exhausted, instead players are asked to gradually familiarize themselves with the game world.  This has a number of benefits and reasonings behind it:
  1. Reuses existing game locations for more efficiency in content creation.  Why make a new location when you can use the same one multiple times?
  2. Helps build an emotional bond to the setting and characters, as the player will spend more time in the same places over the course of the game.
  3. Gives a sense of consequence, as the world can be depicted to change based on the player's actions.
  4. Objectives can span the world rather than just individual locations, and tasks as a result can often cover the length and breadth of a game - most RPGs have at least a few long-term quests.
Most lacking from Reckoning, I think, is that sense of emotional attachment.  At one point in the game, the player is given the option of destroying the town of Canneroc, a small silk-harvesting village in the middle of a spider-infested wood.  In a more traditional RPG, the decision to destroy this town would not be something taken lightly: chances are the player would have spent some time there, got to know its residents, its place in the world, been given some sort of investment into its well-being, etc.  However, in Reckoning, it's just another quest hub to move on from, and whether it continues to exist or not has no impact on the game as a whole.  What could have been an interesting moral decision is cheapened significantly by the lack of gameplay repercussions and the structure of the game itself.

I think it's very strange that Reckoning subscribes to this MMO-style world design.  As a single-player game driven largely by its quests, story and exploration factor, there's very little reason for players not to want to complete every bit of content (at least in theory).  Even if a zone's enemies are cannon fodder, or the loot is no good, players want to be able to tick those quests off one by one.  By segregating the game world in this manner, there's a fundamental conflict of interest between the world design and the motivations of players in navigating it.

Too... Much... Loot!

I'll be the first to admit that I love loot in RPGs.  Whether it's got random modifiers or you've just got a ton of unique items to experiment with, chances are loot drops are going to keep me occupied - and I'm not nearly as dedicated as some players out there.  In giving players a large number of inviting zones to explore as one of their selling points, however, Big Huge Games put themselves into a bit of a bind - exactly how to justify all that space?

Much as I pointed out in my analysis of RAGE last week, the answer is loot.  Lots of it.  There are standard junk items, uncommon items, rare items, unique items and set items, items with sockets, crafting items... just about anything you can think of that's an RPG standard has found its way into Reckoning, albeit with a lot of the useless stuff stripped away (no more hoarding pots and pans, sadly).  Chests, in their many whimsical permutations, dot the landscape as if they were plants, and masses of alchemical reagents fill the space in-between those chests.  You can scarcely walk more than 30 or so paces without running into something to loot, whether that's a fungal pod or a Brownie's backside.

Unfortunately, this extreme emphasis on the loot factor also reveals a major issue: that aside from plundering chests, there really isn't all that much to do in Reckoning's huge world.  There's plenty of stuff to find, yes, but 99% of it will be sold off as vendor trash.  As if the developers already realized this problem, the ability to send items straight to the junk bag for immediate selling or destruction has been placed on just about every inventory-related UI element.  If so much of this stuff is junk, even to crafters (who will likely only use a handful of pieces before finding gear they like), then it begs the question: why is there so much of it?  The only answer, of course, is: to give players something to do.

The loot in Kingdoms of Amalur is so prevalent that the mechanism it follows is not unlike that of a quick-time event - cheap and easy, but empty and meaningless at once.
A lot of anger has been directed towards quick-time events, and perhaps rightly so.  While they do have their advantages, a common over-reliance on them in order to produce effectively non-interactive sequences of gameplay can leave players feeling less involved, or even bored as they watch games rather than play them.  I propose, however, that the looting that's done in Amalur isn't all that far off.  After all, it still follows the exact same feedback loop of no-skill input resulting in disproportionately rewarding output... well, in Reckoning, that Awesome Button has a new name: Take All.

When provided as a reward for players after a tough battle, for completing a quest, or for exploring a far-off corner of the world, loot can be a fantastic way of motivating players and cultivating a feeling of accomplishment.  To be frank, however, press button -> get reward is not a particularly engaging game mechanic, and placing a treasure chest around every corner, paradoxically, only cheapens the value of what should be one of the game's major selling points.  Despite there being kilometers of game to explore, the loot system only emphasizes just how empty that space really is.

Closing Thoughts

For what it's worth, I do want to stress - Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a very fun game, beautiful, and has some excellent game mechanics.  However, as much as I want to like it, the sheer size of the game has a number of pitfalls to it.  The world, being as massive as it is, is necessarily empty and devoid of unique, interesting content, and the movement through the game from one zone to the next only serves to reinforce just how fleeting and inconsequential that unique content actually is.

Reckoning is more or less the prototype for an upcoming MMORPG, so it does make sense that the game follows at least some MMORPG-style design tenets.  At the same time, it's also very clear that what works for an MMO simply does not work well for a single-player game.  A story-driven experience demands that players are emotionally engaged with the game, and in focusing everything about the game world on the player, from movement through it to the transitory nature of the quests and objectives, it's harder to care about the larger picture.

Interestingly, I think one of the game's biggest failings isn't so much its size, but its portrayal of size.  In trying to portray multiple nations and kingdoms, and even different continents, it inevitably falls victim to its own necessary abstraction.  A game like Skyrim works because it is centered around a single province, and we are more ready to accept the compromises in scale needed to keep the game a reasonable size.  Amalur tries to convince players that its cities of twenty are some of the most bustling, important places in the world, and under such strain, the illusion shatters.

In short: Kingdoms of Amalur would have been an excellent 40-hour game.  Instead, it's merely a good 100+ hour one.

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.