長文編譯,開發者談續作設計:做得不好還不如不做

原文作者:James Margaris  譯者:Megan Shieh

部分開發者在製作續作的時候,會在原作的基礎上對設計作出一些“改進”,但是這些“改進”在實踐中通常都只能產生微不足道的作用,甚至有時會帶來負面的影響。

我們將會聊到三種“改進”:

1. 真正的改進,通過謹慎的迭代作出的設計決策,足以帶來微小的積極作用。

2. 客觀的改進,從表面上看是有利的,但並不能使核心體驗變得更好。

3. 教科書式的改進,借鑑教科書式的理論在原作的基礎上進行修改,反而降低了遊戲體驗的質量。

(一)更好但是沒好多少

我最近開始在玩《超級馬里奧銀河2(Super Mario Galaxy 2)》,這種直截了當的續作在任天堂的作品簿裏還蠻罕見的,因爲任天堂一直都提倡“更大、更好、更牛逼”的做法,換句話說就是“通過謹慎的迭代來作出改進”。也許有人認爲《銀河2》比《銀河1》好玩,如果我是跟這些人一起玩的,或者先玩了2再玩1的話,可能會同意他們的觀點。但我是根據發佈順序玩的遊戲,雖然《超級馬里奧銀河2》也挺有趣的,但是它的存在似乎沒什麼意義,估計是該系列中最不值得玩的遊戲了。

大家應該都很瞭解“續作”和“體裁疲勞(genre fatigue)”的概念,在這裏我就不細說了。關鍵是,無論你的“小改進”做得有多好都還是無法抵消“下行壓力”的影響——玩家對題材太過熟悉,覺得沒有新鮮感,從而感到無聊。隨着越來越多續作的出現,許多人的思維方式不再是“續作比原作好玩嗎?”,而是“它好到足以抵消疲勞嗎?”

Super Mario Galaxy 2(from gamesradar.com)

Super Mario Galaxy 2(from gamesradar.com)

(二)意義不大的改進

案例一:《交叉領域計劃2(Project X-Zone 2)》

《交叉領域計劃》是我最喜歡的3DS遊戲之一,其登場人物雲集卡普空、世嘉以及萬代南夢宮三大遊戲公司旗下衆多代表性遊戲角色。雖說是“策略角色扮演遊戲(SRPG)”,但是原作對“策略”卻沒有什麼實質性的需求。在一般的SRPG中,玩家往往會用一些生命值較強的炮彈進攻單位作爲前鋒,從而起到防禦的作用。但是在這款遊戲中,策略不重要、攻擊隊形不重要、攻擊範圍也不重要,遊戲中的各個單位沒有什麼明顯區別,大致相同。

《交叉領域計劃》的設計缺陷之一是“必殺技”和“特殊招式”的使用。這兩種技能消耗的是己方全員共用的一條XP槽。“必殺技”需消耗100%的XP值(峯值是150%,不要問我爲啥…),可以增加一倍多的傷害值;“特殊招式”需消耗30%的XP值,造成額外15%的傷害。但是“特殊招式”的性價比那麼低,你還會使用它嗎?答案是:不會。這樣的話,遊戲中90%的“特殊招式”就都變得毫無用處。

當我讀到了《交叉領域計劃2》在原作的基礎上做出的變更時,激動極了。製作團隊表達了他們對玩家煩惱的理解,而且也有在全方位地關注遊戲中出現的各種問題。原作中出現的,策略層面的問題在續作中都得到了解決,而且還得到了一些巧妙的優化。

關於攻擊系統,本作加入了“側襲”和“背襲”的概念,遊戲角色從側面或背部攻擊時會造成額外的傷害——終於可以用上策略啦!“特殊招式”現在消耗的是個人的血槽,而不是全員共用的XP槽,這就意味着玩家無需在“必殺技”和“特殊招式”中強制二選一。續作還引入了一個新的養成系統,玩家可以強化單獨的招式。此外還有一個角色個性化系統,玩家可以自由選擇被動或主動技能。與原作相比,續作提供更多的選項、策略、個性化和“獎勵迴路”,甚至有“取消技”和“輪盤取消”!

《交叉領域計劃2》修復了原作中出現的所有機制問題,感覺他們像是我肚子裏的蛔蟲,解決了我所有的煩惱。

興奮過後,我玩了幾把遊戲,發現這些變更並沒有給遊戲體驗帶來什麼巨大的提升。

《交叉領域計劃2》最大的問題是,雖然提高了策略上限,但是也降低了難度。遊戲變得很容易(至少對我來說很容易,我在這類遊戲中算中等玩家…),無論使用哪種策略都能贏。你可以採用側襲和背襲的方式來造成額外傷害,使用“特殊招式”來拓展招式選項,然後使用“取消技”來組成一個既冗長傷害值又極大的連擊組合——但是即使不用策略,你也可以輕鬆過關。

值得注意的是,ING評測完全沒有提到有關係統的任何改進。木有!儘管遊戲機制經過了徹底的改革,但是ING評測的結語是“在玩之前,做好心理準備。遊戲深度並沒有得到提升,更新的地方不是很多,跟前作沒有太大差別。”雖然這麼說有點坑爹了,但是也有點兒那個意思——做出了重大的更新,然而更新的都是些與核心體驗無關的東西。人們會去買《交叉領域計劃2》,不是因爲它的機制有多好,而是因爲你可以將許多經典遊戲中的人物叫到一起打羣架。遊戲難度的降低致使某些精心設計的機制顯得有些多餘,這是最大的問題。但是即使遊戲難度允許玩家適當地使用機制,遊戲體驗也不見得會變好。

原作引入了《領土擴展(Gain Ground)》中的一個關卡,這是我最喜歡的部分,關卡中包含了遊戲中獨特的“角色收集系統”。我個人超級喜歡《領土擴展》,它的引入讓我感到非常高興,因爲這讓我知道了,還有人記得它的存在。同樣,在續作中,我最喜歡的時刻是Ken和Ryu對戰M.Bison的時候(遊戲邦注:三者均爲《街頭霸王》人物),運用了日版《街頭霸王II(Street Fighter II)》電影中的一系列招式和音軌(原聲帶)。這些都是純粹的粉絲向時刻,注重的是粉絲,而不是遊戲元素。但是這款遊戲的優勢(核心)本就是“粉絲向”。將難度提高意味着玩家將會重複刷關卡,雖然這種玩法還是蠻有趣的,但是隻有在類似《火焰紋章(Fire Emblem)》這種更注重策略的SRPG中才會奏效,在《交叉領域計劃2》中就會顯得有些不和諧了。

要想把它變成一款充滿挑戰、機制好玩的遊戲,需要投入很多的努力,即便開發團隊在續作的製作中投入了大量的工作,但是它仍然需要一個徹頭徹尾的改變。《交叉領域計劃2》並沒有從本質意義上變得更好,因爲儘管開發團隊在策略元素上投入了大量的努力,但它仍然不是一款以策略爲中心的遊戲。

案例二:《塔科馬Tacoma》

另外一個例子是《塔科馬》。我敢肯定從來沒有人做過這種特殊的比較,但請繼續閱讀!(我知道《塔科馬》是一款衍生作品,不是續作,但是我覺得八九不離十——如果你還是不買賬的話,可以把《塔科馬》的女主角幻想成《到家(Gone Home)》裏面的女主。)

SteamSpy發佈的數據顯示《到家》擁有70萬的安裝量,而《塔科馬》只有2.6萬。《到家》多年來一直是人們談論的話題,而《塔科馬》的風頭卻只有幾天。這樣看來,《塔科馬》在某些方面的表現似乎出現了失誤。

開發者表示,《塔科馬》不只是把《到家》搬到了太空站上。他們的表達方式也是很有趣,在解釋《到家》和《塔科馬》的區別時,唯獨談到了機制方面的提升。《交叉領域計劃2》的主要問題就是,該作在原作的基礎上進行了大量的機制改進,可它不是一款以機制爲中心的遊戲,我覺得這理論也可以帶用到《塔科馬》身上。

我對《到家》的理解是,該作的吸引力是題材、氛圍和鄉愁,其主要機制是《生化危機1(Resident Evil 1 )》風格的“拾起並旋轉物品”。每當熱情洋溢的評論家們寫到《到家》的機制時,他們通常會着重讚賞遊戲機制的缺乏,就像下面這段節選所闡述的那樣:

“傳統的思維方式是,爲了使遊戲故事更可信、更觸動人心,自然就需要帶入更爲複雜的各種系統、更高的圖像質量、真人演員的參與,或大量的選項和獎勵。《到家》感覺有點像是個實驗,以全新的方式直面攻擊了這一傳統思維。”

而對《塔科馬》的讚揚則是:它在機制方面更有趣,填補了《到家》所缺乏的東西。但是,如果只是單純地加入更多的機制就能讓敘事遊戲變得更好玩,那…《生化奇兵(Bioshock)》不就天下無敵了?

在《塔科馬》中,玩家可以倒退或快進對話,從而創造一種交互式的、審查風格的對話重現。開發者認爲“反覆查看對話的玩家,在情緒方面似乎也越投入”,不過這個推斷似乎不是很合理。我倒是認爲,使用工具來探索會話內容反而會使體驗變得更加不真實,更會讓玩家置身事外,鼓勵玩家更理智地去思考。

那麼《塔科馬》和《交叉領域計劃2》有什麼共同之處?兩款遊戲的變更都與原作的核心體驗沒什麼關係,反而着重改進了一些次要的東西。雖然比起《到家》,《塔科馬》在機制方面更勝一籌,但是人們卻對此不以爲意,因爲“機制複雜性”從來都不是它的核心。而且雖然在機制上做出了改進,但這些機制還是較爲簡單。

其他例子

我們之前曾經把一款遊戲送去做模擬評價/分析,從中獲得了一張“建議改進”的列表,接着我們根據這張列表中的信息對遊戲內容進行了一一改進,再次送去做模擬評價/分析的時候,我們得到的迴應是“你改進了我們建議的所有東西,但是最終,遊戲的整體體驗並沒有變得更好。”儘管我們覺得有些失望,但這也是意料之中,畢竟如果他們知道具體該改些什麼的話,估計現在已經是遊戲設計師了。

綜上所述,某些改進無可否認地會改善遊戲中的某個方面,但卻不能提高核心體驗。

(三)“改進”反而降低了體驗的質量

案例一:《寂靜嶺:歸鄉(Silent Hill Homecoming)》

現在進入最有趣的類別:直接傷害遊戲的“改進”。

幾乎每一個變更都是基於傳統思維方式中的“好設計”,這些概念頻繁地出現在媒體文章、展會演講和Youtube視頻中——“技能點”能夠創造更多的長期目標和另外一個獎勵/激勵迴路;多給幾條命會提高遊戲的“可訪問性”;“特殊招式”可以帶來多樣性和更多的策略選項。上述的幾個概念聽起來好像是史上最完美的遊戲設計建議,但在實踐中,這些變更是不好滴,要是不經思考就把它們胡亂加到一起,你的遊戲基本上就毀了。

下面讓我們來詳細看看《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》。

因爲都是帶有糟糕操作系統和基本戰鬥系統的恐怖類遊戲,所以人們經常會把《寂靜嶺》系列與《生化危機》混爲一談,雖然只有第一部《寂靜嶺》採用了《生化危機》風格的差勁控制系統。《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》的公關稿子着重描述了戰鬥系統的改善。這款遊戲是由西方開發者開發的,因爲在那個時期,類似《劍勇傳奇:忍者龍劍傳Z(Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z and Lost Planet 3)》的遊戲差評如潮,大家都歇斯底里地喊着“日本遊戲爛爆了”。

以下是維基百科對《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》戰鬥系統改進的描述:

“與以往的遊戲相比,《歸鄉》中的戰鬥系統考慮到了主人公Alex作爲一名士兵曾經受過的訓練。玩家能夠執行輕/重攻擊,或者將它們混合,組成動作組合,還可以執行各種必殺招數,以確保怪物真的死翹翹了。攻擊敵人時,敵人身上也會留下與Alex在實施攻擊時的動作相匹配的傷口。”

“在控制Alex方面,玩家還可以執行新的戰術,比如在攻擊敵人之前瞄準敵人,躲避敵人的攻擊,然後進行反擊。除了近戰武器之外,手槍、步槍和獵槍也可以作爲武器使用,在遊玩的後期可以升級到更強大的版本:槍械處理也是以更現實的方式進行的,Alex必須扛着長槍,並且感受像“後坐力”之類的射擊效果。”

從表面上看,這聽起來確實是“更好的戰鬥系統”。爲了突出《歸鄉》的好,開發者甚至聲稱以前的《寂靜嶺》戰鬥系統都“很爛”。(遊戲邦注作爲接管了一個受人喜愛的IP的開發商,這麼做不怕惹惱粉絲嗎…?)

Silent-hill-2(from silenthill.wikia.com)

Silent-hill-2(from silenthill.wikia.com)

劇情大反轉:《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》被普遍認爲是該系列遊戲中最爛的一款遊戲,而它“改善後的戰鬥系統”恰恰就是其主要原因。

戰鬥系統變更對故事的影響

在《歸鄉》中,你扮演的是Alex,大概是因爲開發者需要解釋爲什麼主角的這麼能打,所以Alex是一名退伍軍人。許多人本就認爲《寂靜嶺》和恐怖片《異世浮生(Jacob’s Ladder)》還有美國短篇小說《梟河橋記事(An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge)》很像,把主角設置成軍人以後,它們的相似性就更加明顯了。(遊戲邦注:《異世浮生》和《梟河橋記事》都是從軍人的角度出發。)即使是沒看過這兩部作品的玩家,也肯定對遊戲中採用的敘事手法不陌生。因此在玩《歸鄉》的時候,我自然而然地假設《歸鄉》的結局會與《異世浮生》的結局相似,可能是變體也有可能是逆轉,但是不管結局如何,這款遊戲都感覺像是部衍生作品。

在遊戲的最後(PS. 以下內容包含劇透),我們發現Alex從來都不曾當過兵。讓玩家認爲Alex是一名退伍軍人,對故事並沒有什麼巨大的影響,但是如果你來個大轉折,說他從來都沒有當過兵的話,就得回答這個問題:爲什麼他那麼能打?這整個情節線的存在似乎僅僅是因爲在會議上有人問“我們該如何爲Alex的強大戰鬥力做解釋?”做得很好的話,這將會是一個“遊戲故事完美襯托機制”的例子。但是像《歸鄉》這樣,做得差的話,給人感覺就是一個巨大的敗筆,通過添加多餘的衍生情節元素,戰鬥系統的“改進”反而對遊戲中的其餘部分也產生了負面影響。

戰鬥系統變更對遊玩的影響

《歸鄉》中有一個場景:一大堆長着鯊魚頭的怪物襲擊了一座建築物,我和它們展開搏鬥,死了。然後我一而再再而三地展開戰鬥,接着就一而再再而三地戰死。腦子裏有個聲音告訴我,我應該趕快逃走,而不是和它們展開搏鬥。有個NPC也是這樣跟我說的,但是這種重要的提示應該交給一個重要的角色來講,而不是NPC,否則會容易讓人覺得他只是隨便說說而已。然後我就想,是不是隻有我一個人這麼想?結果我在Youtube上找到了一個試玩視頻,視頻的上傳者和我一樣,卡在了這個地方,一次又一次地和“鯊魚怪”展開搏鬥,然後一次又一次地死掉。此外,我還在論壇上看到了類似的抱怨。所以這不只是我一個人在嘰嘰歪歪。這麼多人被困在同一個場景,你可能會覺得這只是一個糟糕的設計失誤,開發者本該通過測試來找出並解決這一問題。但這表明了一個更大的問題:《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》已經變成了另外一種遊戲,玩家的第一本能就是戰鬥。

當我在《黑暗之魂》中與Orenstein和Smough作戰時,在沒有召喚其他玩家或NPC的情況下,我打贏了。可能花了30次纔打敗他們,但我還是打贏了。對許多玩家來說,戰鬥驅動的遊戲重點就是克服挑戰——敵人或怪獸不是你應該逃避的東西,而是對你勇氣的考驗。如果動作遊戲《戰神》中的Kratos走進了充斥着30個敵人的房間,他不會轉身逃跑,反之,他會準備大戰一場。

在其他《寂靜嶺》系列遊戲中,我對“看到敵人轉頭就跑”這件事一點都不排斥,因爲在這些遊戲中,戰鬥是實在沒辦法纔會採取的手段,比如說你就快到目標地點了,可是前面有敵人,這時你就必須硬着頭皮上。但是在《歸家》中,不打不行。《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》提前發佈的公關文稿着重講述了戰鬥系統的趣味性和提升,玩家擁有酷炫的技能和必殺技。當你砍到敵人的時候,它會在你的刀刃上留下切口——如果你不應該用刀砍人,那他們爲什麼要費這麼多心思?戰鬥是遊戲中的首要系統,這個系統使得《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》與《寂靜嶺》系列中的其他遊戲不同——對戰鬥系統的強調使玩家感覺自己必須使用它。所以當玩家遇到敵人的時候,他們不會下意識覺得自己必須跑路,他們會覺得這是一款動作遊戲,自己必須展開戰鬥。

“強調”是設計師表達意圖的一種方式。如果《生化危機》中有一個簡單的造物系統,玩家會認爲它只是一個次要系統。如果一款遊戲中有一個開發完善的造物系統,並且被擺在十分顯眼的位置,就像《我的世界(Minecraft )》或者其他生存類遊戲中那樣,那麼玩家就會認爲這個造物系統是遊戲中不可或缺的一部分。拿《量子破碎(Quantum Break )》來說,人們抱怨得最多的是,它把自己標榜爲一款標準的第三人稱動作射擊遊戲,但是它的第三人稱射擊(TPS)機制卻很薄弱,從而影響到了其更獨特的遊戲元素。開發者對此的反駁是“你的打開方式不對”——你不應該躲在掩護之下,而是應該在使用技能的同時奔跑和射擊。那爲什麼這款遊戲有那麼多高牆、一個正式的掩護系統,而且還可以補血?關卡和系統設計師顯然在你本應該忽略的事情上下了很多功夫,這些東西暗示着你去“找掩護躲起來”,而不是直面衝突。
同樣,《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》給人一種“動作遊戲”的感覺,玩家是應該逃開那些比你強大很多的怪物,因爲你戰勝的機率本來就很小,但是《歸鄉》中到處都是這種強大的怪物,你想躲也躲不了。

戰鬥系統變更對主題和恐怖氣氛的影響

在其他的《寂靜嶺》遊戲中,玩家是獵物——一個闖進了不該去的地方的獵物。在《歸鄉》中你是個歷經訓練的軍人(但是後來又說你從來都沒當過兵???),隨時隨地都能展開戰鬥。看到敵人的時候,你腦子裏想的是“我覺得我能把它給殺死”,而不是“這東西可能會把我大卸八塊”。在《生化危機4》中,玩家也會產生一樣的想法,但是《生化危機4》本就是一款動作遊戲。雖說遊戲中也含有某些恐怖元素,但是玩家不應該害怕遊戲中的各種敵人。《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》始終想要當“恐怖冒險遊戲”,可卻沒想到它在不知不覺中已經變成了一款“恐怖動作遊戲”。對戰鬥系統和玩家能力的強調,把遊戲變得一點都不嚇人,但是改進後的戰鬥系統又沒有牛逼到能夠讓《歸鄉》成爲一款一流的動作遊戲。

我在《歸鄉》論壇上看到的主要抱怨是,遊戲中有太多的打鬥場景;打鬥場景的增加遠遠超過了打鬥樂趣的增加。部分原因是因爲打鬥比較耗時。敵人的花樣頗多,你自己也有許多不同的防禦選項,結果一場打鬥就變得沒完沒了。問題不只是前面提到的打鬥太頻繁,另外一個問題是,遊戲激勵玩家去搏鬥,而不是逃跑,而且“改進後”的戰鬥系統還延長了每次打鬥的時間。結果就是,恐怖遊戲變得不那麼恐怖,探索和各種七七八八的主題最終都以鬥毆結尾。

強制帶入

在遊戲設計領域,信息分享的方式非常流行,各種媒體上有許多人都在分享“製作遊戲的最佳方式”。這些看法有時是錯誤的,即便它是正確的,還是得根據項目的自身情況來衡量。“一款好的遊戲是一系列有趣的決定”這是一個很好的觀點,但是對於《吉他英雄》或者大多數的步行模擬類遊戲來說,不適用也不實用。在遊戲中加入“環境敘事”,音頻日誌和模糊的威脅性塗鴉(用血寫的,好嚇人喔~~~)可以幫你…額…說實話,這種手法早就過時了。

在另一篇關於《黑暗之魂》的文章中我寫到:我不相信上下文無關的“好設計”是真的好設計。

連貫的設計很重要——某些設計決策會不會和其他設計決策產生衝突?遊戲設計必須和主題相匹配——遊戲設計在多大程度上襯托了主題和內容?我甚至認爲在遊戲製作中,設計和內容是不可分割的——設計不僅僅是傳達內容的工具,它也是內容。

這與本次議題息息相關。在《交叉領域計劃2》中,開發者深化了策略機制,但是這一設計決策卻降低了遊戲難度。在《塔科馬》中,遊戲故事本該挑動觀衆的情緒,結果卻以一種機械化的形式展現了出來,玩家的角色變成了警匪電視劇中的偵探,以一個局外人的身份在玩這個遊戲,絲毫沒有投入情緒。在《寂靜嶺:歸鄉》中,主題和氛圍暗示着恐怖和恐懼,而遊戲機制則暗示着戰鬥和對峙。

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Ostensible Improvements: When Better Isn’t

Today I’m looking at sequels with design changes that are ostensibly improvements but in practice have negligible or even negative impact. This is the intellectual cousin of my blog on incoherent game systemsbut with a key difference: in that piece the design decisions looked dubious even in theory when closely examined, whereas these sequel changes appear to be slam dunks on paper.

This piece will examine three types of dubious improvements:

Genuine improvements that are conservatively iterative enough to be more than cancelled out by the passage of time

Improvements that are in some sense objectively better but don’t make the game as a whole appreciably better

Improvements motivated by textbook good design that result in a worse game

Better But Not Better Enough

I recently began playing Super Mario Galaxy 2. It’s the rare straightforward Mario sequel from a company that normally eschews the standard “bigger, better and more badass” (AKA “conservative iterative improvement”) approach. There are probably arguments to be made that Galaxy 2 is better than 1, and had I played them side by side or in reverse order I might agree. But playing them in release order Galaxy 2feels fun but inessential — probably the most skippable game in the series.

Everyone is familiar with the concept of sequel and genre fatigue so I don’t need to elaborate. The point being that minor design changes, even when inarguable improvements, often can’t counteract the downward pressure of boredom with familiarity. As the number of “bigger, better more badass” franchise entries increases the less “is this game better than the last?” is a relevant question; the pertinent question becomes “is it better enough to outpace fatigue?”

Better in Ways that Don’t Matter

Project X-Zone 2

One of my favorite 3DS games is Project X-Zone, a Namco / Sega / Capcom crossover “strategy RPG” that takes no real strategy of any kind. Unit formation doesn’t matter, range doesn’t matter. There’s little unit differentiation — in most SRPGs you’d have a tanky low-damage front line protecting glass-cannon offensive units — in PxZ the units all feel roughly equivalent.

One of the weakest elements of PxZ design is the use of super and special moves. Both moves draw from the same globally shared resource bar. A super move takes 100% (out of 150% max…don’t ask me!) and can more than double the damage you do; a special move can take 30% of that same bar and do an extra 15% damage. Why would you ever use the latter given how XP inefficient it is? Answer: you wouldn’t, rendering 90% of the special abilities in the game useless.

I was very excited when I read about Project X Zone 2‘s changes. It struck me as similar in spirit to the detailed document the Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn team put out, illustrating that they understood the concerns of the player base and had an eyes-wide-open view of the problems with the game. Almost every issue with the strategy layer of PXZ1 was being fixed in 2, bolstered by some nifty additions. Characters do extra damage when attacking from the side or back — positioning now matters! Special moves now use a unit-specific resource rather than drawing from the same global super move resource, meaning special abilities and super moves no longer compete against each.

The sequel introduces a leveling system that lets you power up individual moves and a character customization system that lets you choose passive and active abilities. More player choice, strategy, personalization and “reward loops” huzzah! The game even has Roman Cancels and Force Roman Cancels — google it!

Project X Zone 2 fixes every mechanical problem with the original. It’s like they read my mind when planning the sequel.

But then I played the game and those changes make almost no difference.

The big problem with PxZ2 is that while the strategy ceiling has been raised the difficulty has been lowered. The game is so easy (at least to me, being decent at these types of games) that any application of strategy is purely optional. You can attack from the back for extra damage, use special moves to increase movement options, use Force Roman Cancels to develop long and damaging custom combos — but you can easily beat levels purely by bumbling through them.

Tellingly the IGN review makes no mention of any of the system improvements at all. None! Despite the mechanics of the game being radically overhauled the review signs off with “Don’t come expecting deep gameplay or even inventive updates to distinguish it from the previous game.” While that’s not exactly right it’s right enough in spirit — the game is significantly updated, but along an axis irrelevant to overall enjoyment.

Low difficulty rendering the advanced mechanics superfluous seems to be the biggest issue with the game, but I’m not convinced that making the game hard enough to require the proper use of mechanics would make the game better. My favorite moment in part 1 is the introduction of a Gain Ground level that includes that game’s unique character collecting system. The reason I love this moment is that I @$*!ing love Gain Ground (the secret best Sega game) and it makes me happy that someone somewhere remembered it exists. Similarly my favorite moment in part 2 is when Ken and Ryu fight against M. Bison, using the sequence of moves and the soundtrack from Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. (Snob voice: the Japanese version)

These are pure fan service moments, not gameplay elements. But the strength of the game — the entire point of the game — is fan service. A harder game with a realistic possibility of losing would mean repeating levels, and while that can be fun in a more strategy-oriented SRPG like Fire Emblem it would be jarring in such lighter fare. Turning the game into a challenging, mechanically satisfying one would take a lot of work, even on top of the substantial amount of work put into the sequel. It would require a radical transformation. The sequel improvements fail to make the game meaningfully better because while much work was put into strategy elements ultimately it’s still not a strategy-centric game.

Tacoma

Along the lines of Project X Zone 2 is Tacoma. I’m fairly certain nobody has made this particular comparison before, but read on! (I realize Tacoma is a follow-up, not a sequel, but it’s close enough — if it makes you feel better imagine the main character in Tacoma is the girl from Gone Home grown up.)

According to SteamSpy Gone Home has 700k owners. Tacoma has 26k. Gone Home was a subject of conversation for years, Tacoma for days. It’s not my place to say that the game was a disappointment commercially or critically — I haven’t played it nor do I know what the budget or sales expectation was. But it feels safe to say that it underperformed in some sense.

Revamping Tacoma to be more than ‘Gone Home on a space station’, in which the creators explain the differences and improvements from Gone Home to Tacoma is an interesting read in that the focus is squarely on mechanical improvements. The problem with Project X Zone 2 is that the improvements were mostly mechanical to a game that was not mechanics-driven, and I suspect that is even more true ofTacoma. (Normally I’m loathe to talk about games I haven’t played, but this section is based on critical and audience reception, not my personal opinion)
My understanding of Gone Home is that the appeal is the subject matter, the atmosphere and the nostalgia. The mechanics are Resident Evil 1 style “pick up and rotate objects.” Often when effusive critics write about the mechanics of the game what they praise is the lack of mechanics, as in this Atlantic piece:

Gone Home also feels a bit like an experiment. It’s a new, effective attack on the convention that in order to be plausible and poignant, game stories necessarily need more complicated systems, higher-resolution graphics, the participation of real-world actors, and heaps of choices and rewards

The pitch for Tacoma is that it’s more mechanically interesting, an embrace of the convention that the previous game rejected. If adding more mechanics makes a narrative game better isn’t the endpoint just…Bioshock? (I would note that my favorite narrative game, Kamaitachi no Yoru AKA Night of the Sickel Weasel AKA Banshee’s Last Cry, has no mechanics at all!) In Tacoma you can rewind and fast forward conversations to create interactive CSI-style re-enactments. When the devs speak of “active” vs “passive” observers the distinction is not emotional engagement or attentiveness, it’s APM. The idea seems to be one follows from the other — that players who are more mechanically involved will also be more emotionally involved, but that may be a plausible-sounding non-sequitur, especially considering the success of the first game. If anything I suspect that using tech tools to explore conversations makes an experience less emotional and more clinical, encouraging left-brain thinking. I’ve seen “Sleep No More” (an inspiration for the game) effusively praised but never has that praise been that it’s emotionally engaging. Instead it’s wonkish appreciation for the elaborate construction.

So how is Tacoma like Project X Zone 2? Both games improved upon largely irrelevant aspects of the first game, while doing little to improve (or even taking a step back from) the core appealing elements of the original. Tacoma may be more mechanically advanced than its predecessor but those advances were met with a collective shrug because mechanical complexity was never the point of the game. And while the systems may be more advanced they’re still relatively simple; in neither game did the systems improvements pass a relevancy threshold.

Other

I once worked on a game that was sent out for a mock review / analysis. It came back with a list of suggested improvements, and when we made all the improvements and resubmitted it the response was “you did everything we wanted but ultimately the game isn’t any better.” Which was disappointing but unsurprising — if mock reviewers knew which specific changes to make to improve a game they’d probably be game designers.

When I first played Earth Defense Force I made fun of how bad the upper body animation was, but better upper body animation wouldn’t make EDF appreciably better. (I’ve since repented and now recognize the majesty of EDF) Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon contains the most “objective” improvements in the series but is the red-headed stepchild of the franchise.

Counter-intuitive as it may be it’s possible to undeniably improve an aspect of a game without improving it as a whole.

When Better is Worse — Silent Hill Homecoming

Now onto the most interesting category of changes: on-paper improvements that directly hurt a game.

I covered the Tactics Ogre PSP remake in my blog on incoherent design, but I’ll mention it again to make one point: almost every individual change sounds like the sort of “good design” conventional wisdom you see repeated in medium posts, conference keynotes and youtube videos. Ability points add more long-term goals and another reward / compulsion loop. Redundant death failsafes make the game “more accessible.” Special moves allow for more strategy and variety. The changes in the remake read like a greatest hits of game design wisdom, the sort of pro tips you’d see in a “can’t miss” tweetstorm. But in practice these changes are bad, and together they are multiplicatively bad.

The Main Course

The game I want to talk about in detail here is Silent Hill: Homecoming.

The Silent Hill series was often lumped in with Resident Evil under the umbrella of horror games with clunky controls and rudimentary combat, despite that only the first game uses classic RE style tank controls. The PR for Silent Hill: Homecoming focused heavily on better combat and the game was made by a western developer during the height of the “Japanese games just suck” hysteria that brought us games like Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z and Lost Planet 3.

Here’s a wiki description of Homecoming’s combat improvements:

In contrast to the more naïve everyman protagonists of previous games, combat in Homecomingtakes into account Alex’s training as a soldier. The player is able to perform light and heavy attacks, or mix them to perform combinations, and may also perform a variety of finishing moves to ensure that the monsters are dead. Attacking enemies also leaves wounds in them that match the motion carried out by Alex in inflicting the attack.
In terms of controlling Alex, the player may also perform new maneuvers such as targeting the enemy before attacking them, dodging enemy attacks, and performing counter-attacks. As well as melee weapons, pistols, rifles and shotguns are available as firearms, which can be upgraded to stronger versions later in the game: firearm handling is also rendered in a more realistic manner, with Alex having to shoulder long guns and suffering aim effects like recoil.

On paper this certainly sounds like “better combat.” The developers of the game went as far as to claim that previous Silent Hill games had “shitty” combat by comparison. (Side note: as a developer taking over a beloved franchise this is probably not the best way to endear yourself to fans)

Plot twist: Silent Hill: Homecoming is generally regarded as one of the worst games in the series and the combat is a main reason why.

Combat’s Impact on Story

In Homecoming you play as Alex, an army vet, presumably because the developers needed to justify your character’s combat prowess. Silent Hill has often hewed close to Jacob’s Ladder and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and by making the protagonist a solder the similarity is even more obvious. Even players unfamiliar with those specific stories are almost certainly familiar with the storytelling twist they employ. While playing Homecoming I fully expected the ending to exist relative to Jacob’s Ladder, either as a variation on or reversal of it, which makes the game feel derivative regardless of how it plays out.

At the end of the game (ps: this blog contains spoilers) it’s revealed that Alex was never an army vet. That Alex was supposedly a veteran adds little to the story and reversing it is twist that lands with a thud, and raises the question Alex as a veteran was supposed to answer: why is Alex so good at combat?

This entire plot line feels like it exists only because someone in a meeting asked “how can we narratively justify the increased combat emphasis?” Done well this would be an example of form and function working together with the story supporting the mechanics. But done poorly, as it’s done in Homecoming, it feels like a cascade failure, with the combat changes negatively affecting even parts of the game that aren’t combat related by adding superfluous and derivative plot elements.

Combat’s Impact on Play

In Homecoming there’s a part where an overwhelming number of bipedal hammerhead sharks storm a building. I fought them and died. Then I continued, fought them again and died again. Over and over.

A voice in the back of my head told me I was supposed to run instead of fight. An NPC tells you as much, though arguably that NPC could be written in character rather than as a cypher for the designers. Wondering if this was just a me problem I found a Let’s Play video on Youtube and the player got stuck at exactly the same place I did, fighting and dying to the sharks over and over. I also found complaints about this exact sequence on forums. So it’s not just a me thing.

That so many people get stuck on the same part might lead one to think that it’s just a case of bad encounter design, something that should have been smoothed out by playtesting. But it’s indicative of a larger problem: that Homecoming has shifted to a game in which the player’s first instinct is to fight.

When I fought Orenstein and Smough in Dark Souls I did it without summoning another player or an NPC. It probably took me 30 tries to beat them but beat them I did. For many players the point of action-oriented games is overcoming challenge — a flood of monsters isn’t something you run from, it’s a test of mettle. If Kratos walks into a room with 30 enemies he doesn’t turn tail and run, he cracks his knuckles.

I have no problem running from enemies in older Silent Hill games because in those games combat is a last resort, something you use when an enemy is between you and the destination. But in Homecoming combat isn’t a last resort. Pre-release PR focused on how combat was fun and expanded. You have cool abilities and finishing moves. When you slash enemies it leaves gashes in the path your knife took — why would they put that in the game if you aren’t supposed to knife enemies a bunch? Combat is a tier-1 system, the system that differentiates Homecoming from previous Silent Hills — presumably you’re supposed to use it. So when the game introduces a combat encounter with many enemies the player doesn’t interpret that as a sign to run. It’s a combat game, you fight.

Emphasis is a way for designers to signal intent. If a game has a simple crafting system a la Resident Evilthe signal is that that’s a tertiary element of the game. If a game has a well-developed crafting system put front and center, a la Minecraft or the various early access Steam survival games, the signal is that crafting is an integral part of the game.

One of the main complaints about Quantum Break was that it was a standard third person cover game with weak TPS mechanics that overshadowed the more unique gameplay elements . The rebuttal to that was “you’re playing it wrong” — you aren’t supposed to hide behind cover, you’re supposed to run and gun while using your powers. But then why does the game have familiar chest-high walls, a formal cover system and regenerating health? The level and system designers sure put a lot of work into things you’re supposed to ignore, things that indicate “stop and pop” rather than “run and gun” gameplay.

Similarly Silent Hill: Homecoming signals that it’s an action-oriented game. Including a set-piece where the player is supposed to run from uneven odds makes no sense in a genre where uneven odds are the norm.

Combat’s Impact on Theme and Horror

In previous Silent Hill games the player is prey — a normal human in way over their heads. In Homecomingyou’re a trained soldier (or are you????) with a fancy combat system at your disposal. When you see an enemy you think “I bet I can kill that thing”, not “I bet that thing can kill me.”

Resident Evil 4 represents a similar shift, but Resident Evil 4 is a great action game that knows what it is. While there are still some horror elements much of it is tongue in cheek — you’re not supposed to be deathly afraid of Wizard of Oz Munchkin reject Salazar. Silent Hill: Homecoming still plays it straight and tries to be horror, seemingly unaware that it’s now in the action-horror genre. The emphasis on action and player capability makes it not scary, but the improved action doesn’t rise to the level of an A-rate action game. The main complaint I see on forums is that the game has too much combat; the increased amount of combat outpaces the increased fun of combat. Part of that is due to combat being more time consuming. Enemies have less simplistic patterns, you have defensive options, and combat becomes a more elaborate dance. Whereas in previous Silent Hills you run up to a dog, bash at it with a pipe and one of you dies. (Or you just run away) It’s not just that the number of combat encounters is too high, it’s that players are encouraged to fight rather than run and that the improved combat systems dictate longer fights. The end result is that the dial is turned away from atmosphere, exploration and themes and towards brawling.

Obligatory Wrap Up

Game design is very fad-driven with many, many people constantly sharing the best way to make games. This conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, but even when it’s correct in the abstract it’s rarely tailored to individual projects. “A [good] game is a series of interesting decisions” is a nice rule of thumb but doesn’t apply to Guitar Hero or most walking sims. “Juicing” a game via bouncy animation curves, icons that grow and bop around on hover, motion trails, etc, can be fine but would be wholly inappropriate for a game likeDark Souls with its stark gothic aesthetic. Adding “environmental storytelling” to games via audio logs and vaguely menacing graffiti (written in bloooooooodddd so spoooooooooky!) may work well for — eh, let’s be honest, it doesn’t work well for much these days.

In my blog on Dark Souls I wrote the following:

I don’t believe that context-free “good design” is a real thing.
Coherent design is important – how well do design decisions work in the context of other design decisions? Form matching theme is important – how much does the design support the theme and content? I would go as far as to say that form and content are inseparable in gaming – form isn’t just a vehicle to convey content, it is content.

I still very much believe this and find it pertinent here. In Project X Zone 2 the design decision to deepen strategy mechanics doesn’t play well with the decision to lower difficulty such that strategy is irrelevant. InTacoma the story is supposed to be emotionally engaging, but the form it’s presented in is clinically antiseptic, and your story as the player is that of a dispassionate investigator in a CBS police procedural, not of an emotionally-involved participant. In Homecoming the themes and ambience suggest horror and fear but the mechanics suggest action and confrontation. In all of these cases there’s increased mechanical complexity and decision-making. Tacoma presents an entire system of making “interesting decisions” absent from Gone Home and that’s better, right? Gone Home is the novel and Tacoma the far superior Choose Your Own Adventure book. (Source: gamasutra.com  )