The Experiential Divide

There’s a tricky issue I’d like to talk about here in today’s update. This may not be relevant to most games, but it is worth thinking about in the context of first person perspective (FPP) RPG’s. I’ve danced around it previously, because my thoughts were still gelling.

A bunch of us have discussed the problems associated trying to do conversation and other paper-RPG-related game systems in a computer game. There are a lot of problems to be solved in “translating” traditional paper game elements into the new medium. Chris Crawford, using Poker as an example, noted some of these problems over a decade ago. In some ways, it’s a classic dilemma: people love certain elements of games with which they’re familiar in one medium and expect to see those elements in superficially similar games in other media. Unfortunately, some of those elements don’t translate into expressible computer game elements. So what do you do? If you modify the elements players love until they are expressible, players sometimes don’t like them anymore. In these cases, the elements have either lost their integrity–they have lost the aspects that made them fun in the first place–or there have changed so that they are no longer recognizable to the audience. The computer sucks at bluffing or calling a bluff. Plus there’s less fun in “tricking” a stupid machine. And in early, pre-Internet Poker, the thrill of winning or losing money was lacking. So Poker loses much of its appeal in translation (until you add multiplayer gambling to the system).

With traditional RPG’s, part of the trick is taking the elements loved by players of paper games and making them expressible in the computer game’s limited simulation and systems. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say, however, that you get those parts right–that you execute well and the inventory system, the combat or whatever is as fun in your computer game as it was in the paper game. Or that it just works–whatever.

The specific question I’m asking (and trying to answer) is not related to making old types of game-play expressible in computer games. In some cases that works, in others it does not. This question is more directly related to why in some cases switching between different types of game-play within a single game seems jarring and in other cases switching between different types of game-play is seamless.

A friend at Looking Glass recently pointed out that the reason exploration and combat (two different types of game-play) works so well in Final Fantasy VII is that the two systems are completely isolated; they are separated–you play one for a while, then you completely switch modes and play the other. Both happen to be well executed and are fun for some players. The two styles of game-play are never mixed.

Similarly, in a game like Deus Ex, in order to create the sort of game-play we want (and the sort of game-play we think our audience wants ), we need to switch modes. We want part of the game to be about playing with traditional RPG elements and part of it to be about exploring an immersive world. Traditional RPG elements in Deus Ex are things like: interacting with NPC’s through the conversation system, collecting and manipulating character inventory, and acquiring and upgrading skills and nanotech augmentations. The other style of game-play in our game is more experiential and includes things like: running, jumping shooting, climbing, throwing, stacking, swimming, crouching, and dodging.

The player must do both in the game, switching from one mode to another. Through all this game world and character interaction comes (hopefully) some complex game-play. Then we tweak and tweak to make it fun. In some cases, we have to make decisions about how distinctly separate we need to make the elements. For instance, do we stop the game while you’re on your inventory screen? To do so stops the peril, the thrill and some of the immersive, highly subjective elements. But to not do so detracts from the strategic aspect of the game–I cannot stop, take my time, select the right tools to tackle a problem in accordance with my strategy (a highly objective activity). Also, not to stop makes for some frustrating moments. So we decided to stop the immersive part of the game during things like inventory management. We are then, keeping the different game-play styles separated. For a while you run around fighting and exploring, then you stop, switch modes, and you manage your character for a while.

In games like Baldur’s Gate or Diablo, this is not much of an issue. For one part of the game, you are playing the “fight monsters” game, for another part you’re playing the “talk to NPC’s game,” for another part you’re playing the “manage my inventory” game, etc. It works fine (in most cases) and is generally fun.

But there’s an odd problem that creeps in specifically with regard to FPP games. Something about the switch, even when kept isolated from the other sub-games, is jarring. Why?

A player–someone who has been play-testing our first two scenarios–made an interesting comment a few days ago. He said, somewhat innocently, “I love the game so far, but I have trouble with the conversations…when I stop running around and ‘doing things’ in the game, I start to get impatient. At first I thought the conversations were too long, but I find myself getting impatient and being ‘broken out of the game’ even in short conversations. This is even true of the really interesting NPC interactions.” He’s a talented guy, but he’s not really a hardcore gamer. So you would not expect him to nail, in one breath, one of the very issues that a lot of experienced FPP RPG developers and players have been discussing for a few years now. But he did…it *is* somewhat jarring to switch between running around in the game and having a conversation, even though we keep the game-play styles separated, have a good conversation writer and try to keep the conversations reasonable focused. Obviously you can minimize the turbulence of the mode shift in many ways. (Which we’re doing for Deus Ex, since we *definitely* want an interactive RPG conversation system…) But why is switching game-play modes jarring for this game (a FPP game) and not in other types of games?

In essence, I believe it comes down to the active, visceral nature of FPP games. Moving around in a 3D world is engaging in very active ways…ways that are immersive. Final Fantasy VII is not immersive in the same experiential ways. It’s an enthralling game, but the body and mind do not actively engage in play the way they do in a FPP game. The same difference can be seen between chess-playing and snow-boarding. On a brain/body level, FPP games have more in common with snow-boarding or riding a bicycle. Final Fantasy has more in common with chess or Star Fleet Battles. Both are valid approaches to creating fun. I love Baldur’s Gate–building up my character and exploring the map. But when I play Quake, I literally sweat like a pig. I mean you should see my mouse pad…it is drenched. There’s a stain where my hand rests. Disgusting, yes. But also meaningful. One style of game-play is objective and more passive, one is subjective and more active, tricking the brain and body into snow-boarding mode. Both are great, both are fun. But switching from the faster-paced, more active mode to one in which the player mostly reads, listens and waits (even though intellectually engaged), simply makes the slower mode seem boring by comparison. Note that switching modes to manipulate inventory does not have this effect–the entire time the player is manipulating the inventory, he is actively doing something, moving the mouse around, making decisions and acting on them instantly. Conversation is different. It’s about receiving information at a specifically slower pace; it’s about waiting.

So I would put forth that keeping game-play styles separate, while a good notion in general, is less relevant to this problem than avoiding a mixture of objective/passive and subjective/active styles of game-play. In other words, shifting modes in a game that requires such a shift will be less jarring if the entire game, all the modes, are parallel–either objective/passive and subjective/active.

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