July 28, 2009

Less is More, More is Less

So, I started playing Battlefield Heroes the other day. It's free, ya know, so that's pretty appealing. Taking the classic Battlefield gameplay and making it casual-friendly was an interesting concept, and I just had to give it a shot. And I like it, quite a bit, but I also have some problems with it... like just about anything, I suppose.

Heroes is an interesting example of two trends I think of as contradictory working in the same game- the idea of simplifying mechanics to minimize the learning curve alongside adding RPG elements for complexity and depth. And frankly, though it's an interesting game, I feel like the conflicting philosophies work against it. It's a good game, and certainly both the simple mechanics and the RPG elements make it better... but not as good as truly emphasizing on one or the other, because they sort of counteract each other.

I'll give you an example. In the previous Battlefield games, we have had 5 classes- Assault, Anti-Tank, Engineer, Medic, and Sniper. The series has had some 5 entries before Heroes, and in some of these, there were variations, but overall, that's usually the class roster. It took a few titles for DICE (the creators of the Battlefield games) to get the balance right, but by Battlefield 2 (which wasn't actually the second Battlefield game- confusing, I know), the classes were pretty balanced, and useful in most any situation. Heroes scraps this for a 3 class system- Soldiers, Gunners, and Commandos. The functions of all five older classes are implemented in some way into these newer classes. What this means, though, is that what was designed to make things simplier actually makes them more complex. All three classes have a plethora of abilities, some of which are confusingly similar to another class's (Gunner speed boost vs. Commando speed boost, for instance).

The end result of this is that you cannot tell what someone is capable of at a glance. It's nice to give people tools for any situation. It's ridiculous when you do that, but still expect people to know by silhouette what class someone is and what that means. Commandos use stealth and sniper rifles as their trademarks, but maybe this particular commando put all his points into his poison knife and speed boost, and suddenly the whole battle has changed- and not for the better. It's the same problem Call of Duty 4 struggled with- when you give people the option of using a wide variety of dynamic abilities, you need to give them some way of telling what the other guy has. The best example of this is the perk Martyrdom- one that makes it so that you drop a live grenade on death. That is the single most hated perk in the game- you NEVER know if someone has it, and so everyone gets into the habit of running the hell away from every kill they get. It's ridiculous, and completely obnoxious. Personally, I think it's a bullshit perk too, but there are obviously those who disagree.

Likewise, the game tries to make things more forgiving by making NOTHING instant kill- sniper rifle headshots, point blank shotgun shots, getting shot by a tank's main cannon, none of this does more than a third of your health. But this doesn't make the game easier- for a great many classes, it makes it way harder. So a headshot doesn't kill anymore? Gee! Why should I bother with a sniper rifle again? Because it seems to me like Commandos just became so situational as to be shit. And surprise! That's true. Commandos have to be right behind you or a mile away, or they die.

My point here isn't to bitch about balance. My point is to say this- yes, stripping away unneccessary features and content is a great idea. Hell, I love TF2 miles more than I did the original, and until the class updates, that's mostly all the game did- simplify the original. But it's really, really important to give the players to tools to judge a situation, handle it, and succeed. If they can't, you're really just kicking them in the crotch.


  1. when people refer to first-person shooters as "murder simulators" or refer to it as if it was looking upon violence as favorably, it's ridiculous. The reason being that if it was at all similar to violence, no one would play it, there would be too much to lose.
    You remind me of this when giving examples of things that you expect in an fps; one-shot kills, identification of abilities from a distance. Sure, these are things that exist in other games, but they don't have too. It's all balance. Shooting guns as human characters just happens to be the default skin. THink of it more as laser-tag.
    I mean, I enjoy reading your opinion on the game, I haven't even played it, but I've been thinking about this and you reminded me of it.
    It makes me realize how limited both mechanics and themes are in popular videogames to see that there is nothing war-like about war games, and yet they stick with the camouflage.

  2. It's an interesting point. I think that of all genres, shooters are certainly the most obsessed with realism when they don't need to be. The reason, though, that I think things like one-shot kills and ability identification are staples of the shooter genre because, well, they make things more playable.

    Without abilitiy identification, you can't make intelligent decisions as to how to respond. Without one-shot kills... well, things like sniping just get frustrating. Sniping is supposed to be about quick, efficient target elimination, and without one or two shot kills, it just becomes useless.

    But yeah, I do think if there is one genre where conventions need to be defied, it's shooters. The genre is just STALE.

  3. Yeah, I suppose sniping standards have been pretty well established. So if they want to have a weapon that can do minimal damage at huge distances, then they should just call it something else: like a pea-shooter.

    And I totally know what you are talking about with the abilities identification, it adds a nice layer of information to the game. I especially like games that confuse those identifications like Basura in Samurai showdown who can make a duplicate appear. Spies in Team Fortress 2 and the holograms in Duke Nukem.