Your playable character enters a town, having been brought here due to a severe lack of important questing supplies. You move him from the town’s outskirts to the main center, looking for any sign of a store nearby. You find one in seconds, and instruct your avatar through a clicking command to move that way, open the door, and talk to the shopkeeper. He greets you with a snarky comment about your appearance, which you ignore and proceed through the conversation. A list of conversation options flashes up on the screen, and before you purchase your doodads you pick the option that inquires about the man’s profession. He sadly informs you of a herd of less-than-desirable creatures constantly raiding his establishment. You immediately see where this is going and accept his request to help without asking further questions. He didn’t mention a reward but in the back of your mind you’re already estimating how many gold pieces he’ll give you and what you can spend them on.
At this point I’d like to ask the reader to try to guess what game I am talking about. What are your thoughts? The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind? Dragon Age: Origins? The Witcher? Actually, the game I had in mind was Ultima VII: The Black Gate, one of the most famous Role-Playing Games of all time from the days of yore (relatively speaking). And yet, I can almost guarantee that a sizeable portion of the readers were thinking of a game released within the last five years. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the most intriguing aspects about video gaming. Despite the enormous stride in advancements of video game technology, game mechanics and the overall basic structure that serves as their backbone has remained largely the same. In many cases these mechanics have actually been simplified over the years.
Let us, for instance, explore the mechanic that is conversation in an RPG. Looking at it strictly from a Western RPG point of view, in-game conversation really has not become any deeper or more complex than in the early 1990s. Non-playable civilian characters in any nondescript town from your favorite WRPG of choice almost always greet you immediately upon you talking. They almost always open with a statement or two, and it almost always leads to the game presenting you with a menu of options to pick from not unlike a waiter at your local restaurant. Once you pick your conversation du jour, your character either speaks the option out loud or the game implies said action. Once that particular conversation is over it almost always results in two outcomes: the topic has been fully discussed in which case the conversation option is greyed out or removed entirely, or that conversation leads to other topics that can be discussed which are added to your conversation menu.
This system is mostly reminiscent of the basic functionality of a finite state machine, most likely implemented back in the day due to it being an elegant balance between simplicity, ease of implementation for the developer, and ease of understanding for the player. However, this exact system appeared both in Ultima VII and Mass Effect 2 with very little to differentiate between them, despite both games being a whopping eighteen years apart. In fact, in many ways the conversation system in Ultima VII can actually be seen as more dynamic and perhaps even deeper than that of Mass Effect 2, despite the latter being heavily marketed for its achievement in character interaction.
Another example of this is the change in direction between Morrowind’s and Oblivion’s conversation options. Morrowind appeared at a time when voice acting was just barely catching on, and games with “full VA” as they are known today were few and far between. Games with a tremendous or even considerable amount of dialog were unfeasible by that day’s standards. Fast forward to Oblivion, a game with a far more simplistic approach to conversation and NPC interaction. Instead of the deeper, more complex system that Morrowind employed, which was complete with entire paragraphs of exposition and letting the player click on a highlighted word within the conversation to inquire about said word (usually a place, character, or event), we “advanced” to Oblivion’s system of two-to-three sentences per topic, usually with 3 or 4 topics at most per character, and no “hot-linking” between them. The reason why this was done was due to the fact that every word of Oblivion’s dialog was backed up with full voice acting, which was a feature greatly touted by Bethesda and revered by many reviewers at the time. People were simply floored at the sheer amount of voice recording packed into the game, in some ways oblivious to the fact that the conversation mechanics themselves were greatly simplified to make this possible.
However, to be fair this phenomenon is present through practically every genre in video gaming, not only Western RPGs. Fighting games have budged very little since Street Fighter practically invented the genre in the early 1990s. The basic horror elements of Doom are still largely in use in First Person Shooters of today. Even block-based puzzle games still center on the connect-several-elements-into-clusters mechanic introduced several decades prior. Over the years, games have been tweaked, upgraded, streamlined, and otherwise changed in every way imaginable, yet the basic rules of engagement have remained essentially the same.
If I may provide a small amount of anecdote, a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to purchase and play Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter despite having never played any Serious Sam game before. I actually happen to love it mostly because the game’s level design is far better than that of any First Person Shooter I’ve seen in the last decade plus. I truly love the way the game continuously raises the proverbial bar in absurdity of level design, from enormous open areas to vast chasms requiring the player to use jumping pads that launch you dozens of feet into the air to the creative placement and timing of enemy encounters. I am even more floored that the game is able to have truly amazing gameplay moments in ways that games generally considered more technologically superior to it do not. I actually see the gameplay mechanics of Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter as better than those of Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo: Reach, simply because at the end of the day I consider the original developers of SSHD:TSE have a much better mastery of the basic nuts-and-bolts of gameplay, whereas I feel that Black Ops and Reach are more invested in presentation at the expense of gameplay variety and creativity. I am not saying this simply as an “older games are better” statement, I am bringing this up mostly to highlight the fact that game mechanics in FPSs have not only remained unchanged since those days but sometimes the mechanics found in the older games are actually more creative and inventive on a fundamental level.
One thing I must mention is that I am not merely criticizing the fact that, for instance, we are still using traditional conversation trees. I am raising the issue, however, that the breadth and depth of these mechanics are staying largely the same, and in many ways becoming actually far more simplified. It’s not that these mechanics still exist; it’s that at a core level said mechanics have barely budged from the time they were essentially introduced or made popular. This phenomenon is what I like to call the “Paradox of Gaming Technology”. It’s the idea that, despite the incredible advancements of gaming technology, at a basic core level the player has actually not experienced a significant improvement in game mechanics.
There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon to occur, largely due to the sheer time and effort required in making even a simple game that’s only “passable” by industry standards. Although gaming technology has advanced exponentially (as most other forms of technology today), part of the reason why game mechanics themselves have not advanced at the same rate is due to the time and effort required to back up ambitious overhauls on such a low-level. It’s simple to stipulate that inFAMOUS should have gray-area morality with its own set of powers, quests and story consequences. Actually, it would be quite swell if Sucker Punch would’ve not only added a “gray area” option, but also make each of the three paths wholly different from the start with completely different story progression and main quests as opposed to the binary, more superficial system the game currently has. However, with the amount of time, budget and effort that the project already took before being released in 2009, it is not a realistic expectation for a game to have this; at least not without the quality of the assets currently in the game at any rate. Perhaps if the game would’ve had a graphical presentation from the N64 days with synthesized music and text for dialogue would Sucker Punch be able to create far deeper mechanics, but by and large that kind of presentation would obviously not sit well with the current market.
Another reason for this phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that deeper game mechanics in many ways alienate those unfamiliar with them, and the industry trend since the better part of last decade has been to expand your product’s market and accessibility. It’s largely the reason why these mechanics are not only kept identical, but even simplified and streamlined such that any player with even one iota of interest can play the game without needing to read a modicum of information. With gaming budgets as high as they currently are, it is not simple for a game developer to simply cater to a niche market. In fact, given the current trends of the industry, catering only to your most diehard fanbase is actually dangerous to you as a business.
The answer for this, from my perspective, is obvious although unfortunately just as unlikely to occur. Should the industry collectively cut back in terms of sheer presentation (which would effectively encompass everything visual and audio about a game), the amount of time and effort spent into these game elements would be free for use as gameplay mechanics, carefully designed in such a way that they are intuitive without alienating newcomers. Should The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim drop voice acting and revert back to text for conversations, it is very likely that it would enable Bethesda to expand on the depth of conversation options and consequences, for instance. However, such cutbacks are far too drastic for a developer to even consider, especially considering how much the average gamer takes these presentation values into consideration. Developers, through their analysis, have somehow fully determined that this kind of effort is better spent in prettying the package further rather than overhauling the mechanics below it.
So, is the answer beyond us? Perhaps. At any rate, I doubt the AAA retail game side of the industry will ever put function over form any time soon. A more realistic approach to a solution would be to have smaller teams within the studio develop side projects released as budget, downloadable titles not at all focusing on high production values, such that the lower risk of loss would enable game developers to stretch their legs and experiment with the mechanics. Should this experiment prove successful, said mechanics would be worked into the larger, AAA-budget releases with the better peace of mind that said mechanics have more or less been proven to be received well.
This kind of proposal is highly experimental in itself, of course, so it is largely unknown whether there is even a small possibility of it working. However, if Ubisoft were to make a budget downloadable title of Assassin’s Creed showcasing a new experimental movement and combat system as a self-contained 3-4 hour game with less production values than normal, it’s possible that this can help a developer determine whether or not said mechanics can work. In some ways, I believe fear of failure can be the biggest reason why developers are not truly expanding their game mechanics. Perhaps by exploiting this easier method of game distribution to consumers can developers overcome this “Paradox of Gaming Technology”.