I read a news report today that made me a little bit sick in my mouth, so I thought it would be fun to deconstruct it a bit and discuss why I think EA is one of the weirdest games companies out there.
In this case, that’s not a good thing.
The report I’m talking about specifically is one I found on the Escapist (original source GameSpot), discussing some parts of an interview with high-ups from EA. The first charge is pretty straightforward;
Our games are actually still to hard to learn, the average player probably spends two hours to learn how to play the most basic game. And asking for two hours of somebody’s time … is a big ask.
An immediate reaction from most game enthusiasts like me is that, well, that’s ridiculous! Spending a long time to really get used to a game feels quite natural to a lot of us, and that’s fair when the games are built for enthusiasts. On the other hand, EA aims at what one might call the “non-enthusiast” market (more cash, you see), where maybe a 2-hour tutorial level would be somewhat too much. That’s reasonable, but it’s missing the point.
One of the most important things about teaching a new player how to play a game is engagement. The best tutorials don’t feel like tutorials at all, and as a result you’re not asking your audience to spend two hours learning the game – you’re asking for two hours enjoying the game. That makes a big difference. Some examples of good tutorials which do this; Dishonored, The Banner Saga, Bastion, and Skyrim. Even games like Total War: Rome II managed this in most aspects.
What do all of these games have in common? They weren’t made by EA.
Here’s another thing about that which irks me – games are a long-form medium. In comparison to movies or TV, games tend to last a lot longer. This is a real benefit of the medium as an artistic space – you can tell longer stories, explore larger issues, entertain over longer times and build audiences better. If EA were to suddenly (somehow) make all their tutorials 10 minutes long, would that benefit this? Would, at the very least, they add in 1h 50mins of content later in the game? I certainly wouldn’t trust them to do that.
Now let’s have a look at the other headline bit of news in the same article, from the design director of Shadow of Mordor, Michael de Plater.
Every game is an RPG now, you wouldn’t make a game without progression and levels and XP. And I think every game is going to be a social game… good ideas propagate.
Once again, I initially find myself reacting strongly against those statements (I hate games which coerce people into social media), but the issue is a bit deeper than the initial reaction of an enthusiast.
Firstly, what makes a game an RPG? Well, I’ll be damned levelling and XP make your game a Role-Playing Game. Dwarf Fortress is a classic example of this, where there are levels and XP and progression but no Role Playing on the part of the player’s character*. Conversely, one can Role Play extremely well without relying on XP or discrete character upgrades to make it work – see The Banner Saga for strong evidence of that**.
“RPG elements” have become a videogame trope, just like “you must rescue the princess”, and we need a better phrase to describe the combination of levelling, XP, and character upgrades. However, what interests me more is mechanics which don’t use the traditional RPG elements but manage to give the effect of them anyway. Dishonored is a really good example of this – it does away with the idea of XP and gives the player character progression through decisions they make with their own agency.
“Do I try to make this jump in order to find the Rune which gets me the next upgrade to my favourite ability?”. I think what’s extra special about this is the way these “RPG elements” are an active decision rather than just a mechanic that happens and you don’t pay attention to after a while. It makes it more engaging and more skill based.
On the opposite end of that spectrum is Minecraft, which incorporates an XP mechanic which has no impact on the game whatsoever. It’s not even remotely an RP game because there is no overarching story for the player to interact with (where their decisions as the character would have some impact). Minecraft’s player progression has nothing at all to do with the XP mechanic (or even an explicit mechanic that one would put in a tutorial!) and so it subverts the idea that “XP and levelling makes an RPG”.
What troubles me about this is that the people literally leading the industry in game production appear to speak solely in tropes. Hell, I’m surprised we haven’t seen a “your princess is in another castle” in a Call of Duty game recently.
Every game is an RPG now. Sod that, I’m going to go play Papers, Please.