Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

5 August, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Attention to Detail
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:57 PM

I was playing a game recently when a bit of NPC chatter had the NPC complaining that a group of priests were “relying on superstition”. This is in a game where priests wield real power to heal and harm others. That’s a potent bit of superstition, if you ask me!

The writer obviously wanted to have someone dislike the priests, but he or she relied on conventions from our world instead of considering the implications of what happens in the fictional world when priests can wield directly and observable power.

It’s the attention to detail that matters, and often designers and writers get a bit sloppy when translating concepts from the offline world to a fictional world in a game.

Or, in another game I had to use an invisibility spell to eavesdrop on someone. I don’t know about you, but I’d be extra cautious about saying things if I knew people had invisibility. If I were doing something potentially dangerous or treasonous, I would think a counter-invisibility charm would be on the top of my shopping list.

Of course, there’s the always favorite graveyard in online games when there really is no permanent death, at least not the type that leaves a body in the world. And the NPCs always seem to respawn in most cases, or they never change anyway, so what’s the point in having graveyards?

So, this weekend’s challenge is to name an example in a game that shows this lack of attention to detail. I look forward to reading what you have noticed!

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  1. I noticed some missing textures in a level of Armies of Exigo. But not in a, oh well out of the way sort of place. But right there in the cinematic opening… A tall staffed crucifix just empty. Like someone had got some scissors and cut the page out. It’s interesting when a detail like that just slips through.

    On the priestly thing. I think it’s actually more detailed that they still complain about priests relying on superstition. There’s always non-believers, regardless of demonstrations of power who’ll just say. “Nah. Just trickery.” It’s just blind sided stupidity. If all the priests in reality could suddenly heal, there’d still be people now disbelieving it.

    Another nice moment in Exigo has an ‘inquisitor’ who’s a high priest of sorts and faced with the ‘wizards’ stating that there’s an evil enemy, with people clearly dead because of it, he just basically informs them they’re wrong and marches his army off to fight a lesser battle.

    It’s an interesting challenge :). I find that there are tons of examples of ‘attention to detail’ that I can think of, but hardly any that are ‘a lack of.’ Maybe it’s easier to ignore a missing detail.

    Comment by Jpoku — 7 August, 2006 @ 1:55 AM

  2. Good question! Your examples are very good, so it’s been tough to think of new, content-based, ones.

    One recent (and more blatant) example is an FPS game where all of the objects and pathways that I “need” to follow (or acquire) are all helpfully highlighted in red or blue. This type of handholding is unnecessary, and a too-obvious footprint of the developers. Not only did it ruin the immersive experience of the game, all of the challenges evaporated entirely.

    The game violated my suspension of disbelief again, where all of the computer screens helpfully displayed an image of the person I was supposedly looking for. The aliens couldn’t have known I was looking for her (since I had just arrived), but there she was, emblazoned everywhere. Here I saw the hand of the developer again, this time because I knew it served as somewhat of a guide or reminder about the prevailing objective of the game. Silly and unnecessary.

    Comment by kafka — 7 August, 2006 @ 1:58 AM

  3. I consider it rather obvious that at times you definitely want to see the hand of the developer, it just depends on how out of place that hand looks/feels and how you interact with it. If that didn’t exist, then games could easily become too difficult to get through as players became lost easily and unable to continue on with the game. There are ways around this, but I’m just trying to point out that it is not always a bad thing to have in a game.

    As far as the graveyards in games where players do not remain dead, it is simply an insertion of what we know into a game world. If you think about it, how many things would be different in a world where magic exists? Architecture, everyday life, transportation, everything would change and that can become just too much for a game developer to deal with. So we get graveyards, and many other things, as recognizable objects in these games to help tie us to them in a recognition sense. If you died in the game and didn’t end up in a graveyard, you would not get a sense of death in the same way. Then there are odd cases such as World of Warcraft where there are literally tons of outside references thrown into the world that so far have only served to enrich the experience for many people, so really its a case-by-case thing I’d say based on the person playing the game and which game they are playing for how much the “believability” really matters.

    Comment by Bartoneus — 7 August, 2006 @ 6:46 AM

  4. In City of Heroes, the developers made sure the backstory to explain away the zones, the hospital recovery room, and even the initial exclusion of such things like capes.

    Paragon City was the focal point of an extradimensional “alien” invasion (as is so common in the hero-comic-book genre). Massive energy-and-concrete “war walls” divide the city into districts (instanced maps). Heroes are equipped with “emergency teleport” tags that monitor their vitals and send them to the hospital when they go critical (respawns). They also get “arrest teleporters” to clip on defeated bad guys(mobs fading away). Even the outdoor “instanced neighborhood missions” usually have a reference that an “emergency forcefield” has been placed to contain the crisis you’re fighting.

    Now, we aren’t seeing these teleporters being used as “medic alert” bracelets for the elderly or taking the place of “jaws of life” in car crashes. Somehow, the public has no complaint that the walls that divide and protect the city districts are more massive than the city itself. For some reason, they actually WANT to live in such an environment where villains accost them on every corner.

    Of courses, they probably don’t care because all civilians are INVULNERABLE. Toss a fireball that roasts every foe accosting her and the lady will just retrieve her purse and thank you. If she’s so friggin invulnerable, why isn’t she out here helping me?

    I guess you could argue that heroes are just really really mindful of the public and make sure to miss them. I can accept that. It makes me wonder if the arrest teleporters “heal” the villains as well as they do the heroes- when I arrest someone by impaling him on my katana (he was snatching a PURSE!) it makes me wonder what the trauma care center of the prison looks like.

    When capes were made available (very nice, flowing capes- fantasy-game cloak-builders take note) a story circulated to explain their initial lack of availability:

    During the alien invasion, a British hero named “hero one” that was famous for his incredibly long, elaborate cape, led a suicide mission to close the alien portal. In a sign of respect to those who sacrificed so much, Statesman hung up his cape. Then, when capes were added, Statesman makes earning a cape a badge of honor to recognize the new generation of heroes taking up the cause.

    It was relatively well-written to wiggle in and demonstrated a solid attention to detail, but it leaves all us heroes worried about what’ll happen when Capt BaggyPants passes away.

    When City of Villains was released, there didn’t seem to be THAT much effort explaining away the odd game mechanics. Some offhand mention of emergency medical teleporters are made, but not as much story into why the great head of Arachnos wants to preserve so many that fail in battle. Arrest teleporters are not mentioned, but you can assume that this bad guy is more generous with his health care than the heroes are, I guess.

    The “City of Villains” is on an archipelago- but traveling too far out to sea will find you hitting a glowing blue barrier very similar to Paragon’s war walls. You need to take a ferry between the isles.

    Getting a cape? Well, you still “earn” it by defeating a caped hero, but why any image-conscious bad guy would respect a “dress code” when starting out, I don’t know.

    And even though you’re a bad guy, it’s still nice to see that you respect the defenseless folk on the street, who are still immune to your fireballs of doom.

    I don’t fault the devs for this though. Games often are abstract models of more complex systems, and with every level of abstraction, the system is going to diverge from the ‘reality’ a little more- even the “backstory” reality. You have to decide whether the altered mechanics will dictate story or whether the differences can coexist. In the case of a franchise license, the decision is made for you (clone respawn centers in SWG?)

    The tabletop game “Battletech” and its successor “Mechwarrior” have generated over 50 novels. Now, for the most part, the novels deal with the out-of-cockpit politics, trechery, and adventures of the heroes- a backstory that greatly enriches the game and makes the “universe” come alive. At least one chapter, it seems, MUST deal with a mech battle, and it was here that you really saw the difficulties in balancing the story with the game mechanics.

    The problem is, despite all the “wow”ness of the weapon-laden mechs and the tabletop game- the game mechanics make for absurd stories. As one example, weapon ranges for the scale used in the game are so pathetic that man would have never bothered developing any such device. Many units can run from “out of range” to melee before the enemy gets a single shot off. At that scale, a modern tank could reliably target a foe across a dozen game tables, but that’s difficult to make work in a game.

    As a result, the authors of the novels often have to balance the narrative- adding storytelling elements that didn’t translate well to the game or stay so true to the game mechanics that the battle borders on ridiculous. I’ve read both… and seen fans butcher both decisions. They complain that the tactic the hero uses wouldn’t be available ingame, or they complain that the battle almost appears to narrate a turn-based-game.

    Personally, I prefer it when the story stands on its own, and doesn’t try to compensate too much for the game’s quirks.

    Comment by Chas — 7 August, 2006 @ 9:44 AM

  5. (Not a very good one but:) Deus Ex: Invisible War used to annoy me with it’s “different guns, same ammo” approach. I can vaguely understand the whole “power cell” approach but couldn’t work out why they just didn’t implement a “single gun, different output” – kinda like Judge Dredd’s lawgiver.

    Looting locked chests from animals is another convention that sometimes bugs me.

    I probably shouldn’t mention the existence of Jedi in SWG!

    Comment by Dragon — 8 August, 2006 @ 9:22 AM

  6. In Diablo 2 the NPC that takes you from Act 1 to Act 2 is suppose to be a world travelling merchant but he has no items to buy and same goes for the Act 2 to 3 sailor guy.

    Comment by Ketzup — 8 August, 2006 @ 11:31 PM

  7. Hey, I’ll stand up to defend the NPC dialogue: he’s read the Foundation books! Remember the fake “religion” Salvor Hardin set up to take over the neighboring systems? Its priests had real, observable power that they could turn on and off at will, and if you asked them for an explanation of where that power came from, they’d tell you what they believed. It would be the self-consistent, logical, and reasonable product of a strong faith backed by years of learning in a seminary. But it’d still be a complete pile of superstitious nonsense.

    Our NPC feels the same way about priest magic: there’s the explanation they give themselves for what they can do, and then there’s the truth. Sadly, that truth probably isn’t much more than “they’re wizards in slightly-different hats, they just don’t realize it”. but… okay, I mean when it comes to the game background, we’re… the point is that I never get to make Asimov references in mixed company anymore, so don’t steal my sunshine, okay?

    Comment by Anticorium — 9 August, 2006 @ 7:18 PM

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