The Trap of Lastability
Every gamer wants games to never end, trust me developers want you to play games for ever as well, but different games can vary in playtime wildly from 4 or 9 hours in a story or atmospheric game such as Wolfenstein 2 or Dishonored to 60 or 700 or nearly Infinite with games like Divinity 2 and Payday 2 and Overwatch. With such a huge difference it's sometimes easy to see how games go about their replayability and the length of their games, and while some games do not need any replay value other games have difficulty finding ways to elongate themselves creatively. And I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the difference between real difficulty and artificial difficulty, how games can elongate themselves to create cheap lastability, and what games can offer when they manage to create carefully designed experiences.

(No Man's Sky - 2016)

Take Nier for example. Most players agree that it's one of the weakest Platinum games gameplay wise, and while it's story and characters can appeal to a lot of people, it's not difficult to see why. The gameplay was flawed and uninteresting, it lacked depth, and each weapon had very little moves that you were kind of limited on how to use. For example the starting sword has a single move you can make after dodging an attack and countering it which is a jumping slash that brings your character into the air, and since you are dodging quite often you tend to trigger that attack a lot, but since it forces you to jump you often end up far away from bad guys and not being able to damage them until you go back down, causing that move to be very ineffective, and causing most players to not even use it or the weapon in the first place if they want to maintain a higher and more consistent damage output towards bad guys, since you have no option to change it.
Sure the game has some cool animations and moves, but I feel like that just distracts people, like Transformers somehow distracts people with shiny lights and jiggly-sound toys from how fuck-awful the rest of the movie is as a whole (Not that nier is that fuck-awful specifically, but you get my point).

I take EVERYTHING with grains of salt, salt is delicious, and I don't trust anyone to know exactly what they are doing. But of course I use different influences and pieces of information to form my opinion and form things that would become part of my perspective of games and stuff. (Meaning you don't have to agree with an entire video or article in order to like it, you can get a general idea of it, or some parts of it, or even draw your own conclusions out of it that may differ from the video itself).
So for example, this is one of those pieces; ('Sequelitis - Castlevania 1 vs. Castlevania 2' by Egoraptor 2011)The whole video is neat, but specifically the "Number 3; Towns and the RPG" part is something I been noticing a lot more often, and I will be using elements from the video on this article.

Nier is a lot like Castlevania 2 (and a lot of other games as well), the game's design is very manipulative, there's a lot of Fuckn' Running Around. But it's not exactly difficult. If you go into an arena part of the map for example in order to progress;There's a door. It's locked. Bad guys come down. But they are aerial bad guys.
So why are they aerial bad guys? Because they are harder to kill than normal bad guys right? But that's not entirely the reason why they are here, now, and so often in different areas where you are required to kill bad guys, why these bad guys specifically?

Because they elongate the game, instead of going into an arena and spending 10 seconds ripping through dudes based on your skill + item level, you spend 50 seconds trying to shoot those idiots based on how the game limits your actions. The problem here tho is that nothing related to this scenario is neither difficult or engaging, shooting them isn't hard since you can either automatically fire at them or manually and both take little to no effort, dodging their attacks is also mindless as they attack with slow and easily dodgeable projectiles. The problem is how it just takes time to get hits on them because they fly around causing your shots to miss, so it doesn't take time to kill them because they are challenging or an engaging difficulty but simply because it wastes your time.
In a different scenario it would make sense to have a bad guy that takes a little time to kill (Trying to aim at it/waiting for auto fire to kill it) if you are required to dodge something interesting for example, because than the challenge comes from staying alive until they die and it would require an actual level of investment from the player's skill that corresponded between risk and reward. But in Nier that's not the case at all since shooting them is easy, it just wastes your fuckn' time, and dodging their attacks is easy it just wastes your fuckn' time, and having to deal with them instead of normal bad guys before you are allowed to progress wastes your fuckn' time.

"I hope you see where I am coming from so I don't have to keep WASTING MY FUCKN' TIME EXPLAINING IT" - Egoraptor.

(Diablo 3 - 2012)

The whole entire gameplay has instances of that on every corner. You go into a place; the door is locked, you go into another; the way that was previously opened is blocked, you go into the next mission; the teleporter is disabled, you go into the next mission after that; the teleporter near the objective is disabled. I mean seriously.
Later in the game is ever worst, the final big double-ball robot that you fight as 2A and 9S separately at first, literally disables it's own health bar from time to time which prevents the player from even being able to damage it.

That idea is very obvious, truly I do get it, it's meant to create an encounter more than a "Boss Fight", where it would require the player to do specific objectives other than just mash buttons, which sounds a lot more engaging and creative right?
And there are other games that do accomplish the feeling of encounters, like Destiny's Raid. A mission designed around completing specific objectives in order to "unlock" the Boss's health bar.But in Nier's case the real reason the Boss' health is disabled is because if it wasn't, you would have killed it already. It disables it to force you to spend more time in the fight, and just like the aerial guys earlier, you are never doing anything really engaging while waiting for the robot's health to be damageable again. 

The fight spawns these tentacles that barely ever attack or hit you, or the same bad guys you been fighting all game, and the shmup parts are incredibly dull with very few bad guys and a non-existent challenge. So ultimately what happens is you spend the entire fight waiting for the health bar to be "damageable" while doing nothing but walkin' in circles and mashing the attack button, exactly what this "design" wanted to avoid in the first place. And of course if you play on "European Extreme" difficulties it may appear like the game is challenging but it's really only a superficial and artificial difficulty by increasing health bars and lowering or increasing damage taken, you don't require any more engagement as a player as if you would play on Easy, the game requires the same player involvement and skill but it requires more character engagement, meaning the character evolves by gaining new items and leveling up while you as a player does not, which only really causes you to waste more time dodging waiting and grinding further in order to progress. 

Even games with real difficulties can sometimes also resort to that such as the NG+ runs in Dark Souls 3 where really all they do is increase health and damage from monsters, which can be an interesting challenge, to a point.

(Destiny 2- 2017)

It's specially hard to make a case for clever difficulty and game design now a days, with dozens of examples of games that actually embrace the elongated grind as something normal, and because developers are smart, they came up with ways to complement this design in a way that appeals to people. Which means a lot of people tend to like them or not notice them, and it's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a fairly dumbed down experience than a difficulty or combat that's carefully crafted. The video above mentions the other Castlevania titles so I will mention other examples.
MMOs for one are some of the biggest culprits of this, if you ask anybody they will say that "Grinding is just a part of the MMO Genre" but why is that? And does it have to be that way? We must remember that at some point in any game's development the game simply did not exist, so everything created on it was due to a decision, sometimes the decision comes from someone or comes naturally or comes even by accident or a certain specific set of circumstances, how ever we can almost always pin point the origin of some of these elements of game design if we trace down those decisions.
In the case for MMOs more often than not the culprit is simple XP Balancing, you make your character and you set off into the world, you start to accomplish quests and gain new items, after a certain point you realize that you just reached let's say level 14 yet your next main quest is simply not unlocked or available yet forcing you to go out of your way to finish secondary quests or grind-kill monsters for a while. A mandatory secondary quest is an oxymoron. I am not here to talk about if grinding is fun or engaging which can be a subjective preference, how ever is generally agreed upon that most MMOs sidequests are pretty lame and consist of mostly "Gather" or "Kill" objectives leaving the main quests to be a little more interesting. I am here how ever to point out that if those games simply balanced their XP Rewards in other ways, they could easily make sure that every MAIN quest unlocks the next MAIN quest. Or they could set their secondary quests as main quests to begin with. 

The problem doesn't stop there tho, quite often players won't notice much difference between main or side quests, while some games make sure to offer at least some engaging quests, others design their main quests like you would expect side quests to be like, "Go kill 10 monsters" "Gather these 5 boxes" "Collect 20 loot drops from these monsters". And in that case, is there really any difference between "Collecting 20 loot drops" in a main quest or in a secondary one or doing it out of your own free will to grind? Are players getting any sense of genuine satisfaction by performing repetitive actions over and over only to get small rewards that allow you to perform the same actions over and over in new areas and against new monsters?

So why would games make those decisions, and intentionally create gameplay that can rarely be differentiated to Grinding?
Of course it isn't easy to create an engaging and creative or unique gameplay and a lot of people are simply not capable of it, believe it or not, no developer is flawless and some are bound to have limitations when creating their game, be they indie games or MMOs or even AAA titles. But the other reason would be because designs like this are easy to manipulate in order to elongate a game, if you take all the grinding away and only look at the missions that require an actual level of investment from the player, MMOs would go from Week-Long-Commitments to maybe 10 hour playthroughs and a lot of games like Nier simply don't have enough substance on their own gameplay in order to hold players for long so they resort to these or other similar tactics, chief-popularity among them being LootBoxes.

(LawBreakers - 2017)

The LootBox debate has been a big thing lately but like it/care/agree or not, it's a very easily identifiable case of a mechanic specifically designed to elongate a game, in Lawbreakers for example if you were able to simply gain new items from each level up you would find yourself owning every single skin and item in the game a lot sooner than you think, because the key to LootBoxes is that not only they are random but they can also hold duplicates, forcing the player to gain skins that the player may not like encourages the player to keep trying, while giving duplicates ensures the process will just take longer and creates a system where a player could literally never finish completing their collection of items if the game doesn't have a store. Games like Overwatch are all about replayability and lastability, the idea that a mechanic (Collecting items) could literally never end is what makes Blizzard executives giggle like schoolgirls. 

Agree or disagree with the "labeling them as gambling" discussion, it is indeed a lot like gambling, not because it's random but because it's specifically designed to ensure that not everyone is a winner, and designed to make you want to keep trying. Overwatch is by far from the only culprit of this either, specially now seeing games like LawBreakers and Battlefront and others all resorting to LootBox systems, and it's not a secret why, they want you to keep playing their game, most of them just can't find ways to encourage that through gameplay or difficulty or quantity of content so they must encourage that through other means, unlike the case for Overwatch actually where it wouldn't necessarily need the LootBox system.

The danger of it all tho is how some people can get really used to this, like how people already assume that grinding is just a part of MMOs when in fact it doesn't have to be, because the more people are used to something the more likely developers are to continue these practices. And the thing I feel like is lost here is what players would otherwise gain from games that do take the time and care to prepare experiences for the player without resorting to simply elongating them.

A lot of people for example have this idea about Dark Souls games, people that only heard of the genre but even those that have played it and beaten them too. The idea that memorizing patterns and dying to bosses is "how to play dark souls" or to bring it back to MMOs "just part of the sub-genre". Where that's not the case exactly. Some people would even go as far to say "You can't know what's the right thing to do until you do the wrong thing" in this case meaning "try to fight them, die, then try again".

But that's not the case at all, to put it bluntly you can beat every boss in dark souls 3 on the first try because the game doesn't simply throw monsters at you with the idea that "each monster has a unique animation that would force the player to re-learn how to play the game every time", the game in fact teaches you how to "FIGHT", as a general concept, the game prepares you for every situation including the ones you haven't seen yet. Much like real fighting, you don't fight someone 3 times and lose 3 times expecting the 4th time to be similar and to finally "learn how to win" even tho that could happen it's not what you prepare yourself to. 

Much like a soldier, the game teaches you what to do in every situation and how to behave in order to not fail and how to not put yourself in a bad situation and what to do to fix situations if you would put yourself in them and to be prepared, so regardless of what the monster is, or is going to do, or how the second phase may be, or what attacks are going to spawn, it doesn't matter if the boss suddenly decides to spawn zombies at you, it doesn't matter if it summons a horse and starts running away, it doesn't matter if the boss has a 4th phase where it turns into a small human with a dagger or a giant flying snake with one big maw; THE PLAYER CAN ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR ANYTHING, because the game teaches how to be, through it's levels and monster placements and pacing before even getting to a point where one would really need to put those skills to a test. 

That's the mistake a lot of people do in Dark Souls, they assume the area between Boss Fights are a grind of some kind, nothing more than "an area of dudes to kill you which you need to make through", often they assume such because of other games doing that exact thing. But in some cases like Dark Souls, each monster and challenge is actually specifically placed to teach the player something, something about fast animations and how to avoid them, something about traps placed near the edges of cliffs, etc. And if you give the care and engagement required to learn these things, similar to the care and engagement the developers put into creating a game that does not elongate itself by simple repetition or lack of depth or randomization, then you truly see what these games have to offer, and then you truly learn how to fight, and how to play Dark Souls.

That is how a player manages to survive the first encounter with the Xenomorph in Alien Isolation, by learning how to maintain your calm and pay attention to the game's design and subtle direction, managing to experience the Xenomorph and survive to continue the game is actually a far more terrifying experience than dying to it.
That is how a player manages to trigger the Escape Sequence in Portal without having to reset it, which is a once-in-a-life-time experience.
That is how a player stops a bad guy from doing something evil in a Telltale game when it gives the player only a small and quick reaction time to draw a weapon or act, which paints an entirely different story in most cases.
That is how a player can beat a Boss on the first try.
That is how a player truly dives into what games can offer.
That is how a game can offer a unique and everlasting first impression without resorting to cheap repetition and time wasting.
And THAT is a beautiful experience.
  • SlipSlot
    February 24, 2018

    Some great points here, especially those about Diablo III

  • blur92
    February 27, 2018

    nice look game. 

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