255: Gaming's Social Contract

ajbell

Poor Impulse Control
Dec 6, 2007
33
0
0
Gaming's Social Contract

Although many are unaware of it, there is an unspoken social contract between a game's designers and the players. Andrew Bell investigates what players expect, and how a designer can let them down.

Read Full Article
 

Onyx Oblivion

Borderlands Addict. Again.
Sep 9, 2008
17,032
0
0
I've seen a particularly bad case of contract breaking in Splinter Cell: Conviction this morning.

If I am hiding in COMPLETE DARKNESS, nothing near me at all, and shoot out a light halfway across the map, how do I get detected? I understand if they get an idea of my location. But I got full on "Mission Failed" detected in Infiltration (kill a buncha dudes without being detected, even once) mode, from shooting out a light with a silenced pistol.

A stealth game shouldn't count you as detected until visual or audio confirmation of your exact location.

Far Cry, which was mentioned in the article, also had serious issues with the rules of stealth, namely line of sight. Enemies can see you through all that damn foliage. But I can't see shit because of a few leaves in my first person view. Which is pretty much your problem. You had to peek out from the leaves of magical stealth, and the enemy saw you, and shot you dead immediately.
 

Deofuta

New member
Nov 10, 2009
1,099
0
0
I think we can some this article up pretty well in saying that The Computer is a Cheating Bastard [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheComputerIsACheatingBastard]

(Temp Sig!)
 

ekimekim

New member
Dec 12, 2007
27
0
0
Similar example from many of the Worms games. The computer could calculate using the exact wind speed and power needed to land a grenade or missile right on top of you. In contrast, it would take a skilled player a few turns to fine tune it to that point, and even then they a. can't read the wind accurately enough and b. can't time their power buildup finely enough.
 

Brian Name

New member
Feb 1, 2008
93
0
0
Neat article. Far Cry feels a bit cheap sometimes yeah. Far Cry 2 on the other hand plays with the 'social contract' of get-better-guns progression that you mentioned. Loads of the usual types of gun are available to you so long as you kill the right person to get it. Eh-kays, Blunderbuss, Jet Fuelled Bomb Launcher, et cetera. But the enemies guns aren't well looked after and jam if you use them often. Initially this gives you the old 'Computer is a Cheating Bastard' feeling but then the game offers you the chance to buy a special non-jamming version of the gun, which you can pick up in any safehouse. Viola! The social contract is reformed.

Eventually, after buying all the personalised non-jammy weapons, you tend to only use the faulty enemy guns in emergencies, adding to that great stressed/excited feeling you get when playing games sometimes: "Don't jam... don't jam... Ohshitohshitohshitohshit - yes! Phew." Pretty cool game design methinks.
 

GunboatDiplomat

New member
Mar 23, 2009
50
0
0
Are any Games writers more than casual gamers? I don't know anyone who had problems with Far Cry. Your relative power DOES increase in Oblivion even though the monsters level up with you. At end game you can knock the shit out of anything no matter how much health they have.

And Dragon Age Origins is meant to be a hard game. Luck is a factor in some fights but this only hones your strategy generally so you're ready for every fight to be a tough one. By the endgame your strategy is so honed by the unpredicatability aspect you shouldn't suffer a single death unless you make a mistake. Or you could turn it down to easy.

Otherwise the articles ok as far as it goes.
 

ajbell

Poor Impulse Control
Dec 6, 2007
33
0
0
@Onyx: I guess it might depend on your definition of "detected" ("I've spotted him!" versus "There's something going on!"), but that's me being generous. Sounds pretty sucky to me.

@elimekim: Oh gods, I had forgotten about Worms! You're right, it's appalling for that. The 3D versions are even more obvious about it.

@Brian: That does sound like a very nice workaround. A good mix of worldly realism and progression. Maybe I should give the franchise another shot.
 

ajbell

Poor Impulse Control
Dec 6, 2007
33
0
0
GunboatDiplomat said:
Are any Games writers more than casual gamers? I don't know anyone who had problems with Far Cry. Your relative power DOES increase in Oblivion even though the monsters level up with you. At end game you can knock the shit out of anything no matter how much health they have.

And Dragon Age Origins is meant to be a hard game. Luck is a factor in some fights but this only hones your strategy generally so you're ready for every fight to be a tough one. By the endgame your strategy is so honed by the unpredicatability aspect you shouldn't suffer a single death unless you make a mistake. Or you could turn it down to easy.

Otherwise the articles ok as far as it goes.
Granted, by the end of Oblivion you are decked out and able to kill most anything just by thinking about it, but for the vast majority of the game (I would argue easily the whole main quest plus a good half of the rest of the content) the NPCs keep pace with you. It's frustrating to come back to a dungeon you struggled in at level one and still struggle at level 10.

As for DA:O, it might be different on PC, but on the Xbox there were points where it was simply impossible to avoid a death. The battle outside Orzamar in particular was the one that scuppered me. As it was the first time I entered that area, but late in the level progression the NPCs had a lot of stun abilities but I had not been able to get the anti-stun potion. I don't doubt that some of this is due to the consoles' control system. ("What do you mean I can't order my party to go to different positions at the same time?")
 

GunboatDiplomat

New member
Mar 23, 2009
50
0
0
ajbell said:
GunboatDiplomat said:
Are any Games writers more than casual gamers? I don't know anyone who had problems with Far Cry. Your relative power DOES increase in Oblivion even though the monsters level up with you. At end game you can knock the shit out of anything no matter how much health they have.

And Dragon Age Origins is meant to be a hard game. Luck is a factor in some fights but this only hones your strategy generally so you're ready for every fight to be a tough one. By the endgame your strategy is so honed by the unpredicatability aspect you shouldn't suffer a single death unless you make a mistake. Or you could turn it down to easy.

Otherwise the articles ok as far as it goes.
Granted, by the end of Oblivion you are decked out and able to kill most anything just by thinking about it, but for the vast majority of the game (I would argue easily the whole main quest plus a good half of the rest of the content) the NPCs keep pace with you. It's frustrating to come back to a dungeon you struggled in at level one and still struggle at level 10.

As for DA:O, it might be different on PC, but on the Xbox there were points where it was simply impossible to avoid a death. The battle outside Orzamar in particular was the one that scuppered me. As it was the first time I entered that area, but late in the level progression the NPCs had a lot of stun abilities but I had not been able to get the anti-stun potion. I don't doubt that some of this is due to the consoles' control system. ("What do you mean I can't order my party to go to different positions at the same time?")
With DA:O I was playing on the PC and I must admit I did download the raven respec mod (thanksfully there is an in-game respec in the Awakenings expansion) which made changing strategy easier until I had the 'perfect' party setup (dps tank, arcane tank, dps rogue, cc/healer). And I did struggle with the first few levels of oblivion for sure, messing up my first character until I had to restart from scratch.

However I think your article is missing a point on the role of failure as an incentive for many, let say, more hardcore gamers. I would argue the social contract was not broken in either of DA:O or Oblivion because failure forced a rethink of strategy/build and thus a deeper understanding of combat mechanics OR there was an easy button you could press.

This is quite different to many FPS, where repeated failure is more annoying than anything else because there is a far more limited number of ways to succeed in an encounter than in an RPG. However I did not really experience this in Far Cry, probably because FPS are easier on the PC than a console generally.
 

ajbell

Poor Impulse Control
Dec 6, 2007
33
0
0
GunboatDiplomat said:
With DA:O I was playing on the PC and I must admit I did download the raven respec mod (thanksfully there is an in-game respec in the Awakenings expansion) which made changing strategy easier until I had the 'perfect' party setup (dps tank, arcane tank, dps rogue, cc/healer). And I did struggle with the first few levels of oblivion for sure, messing up my first character until I had to restart from scratch.

However I think your article is missing a point on the role of failure as an incentive for many, let say, more hardcore gamers. I would argue the social contract was not broken in either of DA:O or Oblivion because failure forced a rethink of strategy/build and thus a deeper understanding of combat mechanics OR there was an easy button you could press.

This is quite different to many FPS, where repeated failure is more annoying than anything else because there is a far more limited number of ways to succeed in an encounter than in an RPG. However I did not really experience this in Far Cry, probably because FPS are easier on the PC than a console generally.
Perhaps it was poorly explained in the article, but I wasn't actually arguing that the stuns were a bad thing in DA:O. What I objected to was that it seemed too random when it used them. Either fight me tooth and nail, or go easy. Don't do one then the other. That's not satisfying. That's just making it obvious you're letting me win.

I don't object to some auto-levelling either. To stick to DA:O, it works well there, as the game generally levels with you, but throws some low level mooks at you later on to slaughter in droves. Perhaps Oblivion is just too slow in letting me get to that all-powerful-God-amongst-men stage for my tastes. Or I just suck at it. Either is possible.

And maybe Far Cry was subtly changed (other than controls) between PC and 360. I know it's not a straight port to account for the 360's hardware, so maybe something got broken in the move. Or maybe I just suck at it, too.

I understand the joy of failure though. I love me some raiding in my MMO of choice, even though I definitely suck at that!
 

Callate

New member
Dec 5, 2008
5,118
0
0
Thanks. I think this explains in a nutshell at least five of the reasons why I seem to be one of the few people in the world who really didn't like System Shock 2. (Stop shooting me with empty, broken shotguns, dammit!)
 

Andy_1305

New member
Dec 2, 2009
4
0
0
According to this article, it seems Valve has cracked social contracts, As both Portal and Half-Life are mentioned positively. I, of course, agree totally
 

ajbell

Poor Impulse Control
Dec 6, 2007
33
0
0
Probaly the best social contact I ever had in an RPG is Fallout 3.

God, that game comes with excellent immersion and character progression/devolepment. I remember when I was fresh out of the box literally, no weapons and no skills. I stuck to Megaton like it was my Life Draft. However, I always imagined myself growing and learning the ways of the Wasteland.

Devoleping, scavenging, knowing which areas are dangerous and which areas are not makes me believe I am a seasoned Wastelander. Together with Dogmeat, I share wisdom and advice to those who are benevolent and cap a bullet into the ass of any Raider. Also, Galaxy News Radio is the place to listen to.

Interesting read and well-explained article!
 

GonzoGamer

New member
Apr 9, 2008
7,063
0
0
If there's one social contract I would like to hold devs to, it would be that if I'm paying $60 for a game, I shouldn't be finished with it in one weekend.
 

veloper

New member
Jan 20, 2009
4,597
0
0
ajbell said:
I don't object to some auto-levelling either. To stick to DA:O, it works well there, as the game generally levels with you, but throws some low level mooks at you later on to slaughter in droves. Perhaps Oblivion is just too slow in letting me get to that all-powerful-God-amongst-men stage for my tastes. Or I just suck at it. Either is possible.
Why revise your statement? You were correct the first time.

Everything levels up with you. Leveling in itself actually makes your PC WEAKER compared to the NPCs and it is only through Optimized Leveling and playing against the major skills that you can get ahead (or through underleveling if you want to abuse the system).

It's the perfect example of breaking the contract and of poor game design.
 

ReverseEngineered

Raving Lunatic
Apr 30, 2008
444
0
0
Great article all around. Too many game designers forget that us gamers feel cheated when the computer pulls a dick move like shooting us in the head with a pistol from across the map or the well-known Mario Kart trick of warping the computer players up behind us even when we left them in our dust.

I don't know if "social contract" is the right phrase, though. I think "expectation" might be a better way of describing it. (Maybe they are the same thing?)

All of the expectations you mentioned are spot on. We expect the enemy, even if computer controlled, to be approximately as capable as us. They should be under the same limitations, including line of sight, steadiness, and reaction time. Anything less makes them uninteresting, anything more makes them unfair. Same thing for the boss fights: if a boss has 10 times as much health and multiple weapons, he had better have some sort of weak spot to make up for it. If not, how is the player ever supposed to win? An unbeatable game isn't fun at all: we expect that we are able to win with enough cunning and practice, otherwise there's no point to playing.

Randomness is also a huge one and one that drives me crazy. Dying due to random chance is terribly frustrating, because you've been punished for something that you couldn't control. Equally, winning due to random chance kills any sort of sense of achievement, because you know that it wasn't your own efforts that lead to the win. Randomness is good for keeping things different and for adding some dithering to a conflict so that even the underdog wins sometimes, but when it overshadows skill, you're not playing a game, you're playing a lottery.

The other expectation you mention is the tendency to improve in strength over time. I'm not sure that this is an expectation of games so much as an expectation of learning: we naturally measure our progression in terms of how much easier our past challenges become. If the same enemies are still just as difficult 10 hours later, I don't feel like I've improved; I can't immediately tell that the enemies have improved along with me. Without that yard stick to measure our progress against, we lose the reward mechanism that comes with learning a game.

One case you didn't mention is the pre-scripted death or escape. It's really disappointing to give it your all in a fight and lose, only to find out you were supposed to lose and never could have won. If I couldn't win, why was I trying? How do I know if I can win the next fight? It's cheating in the purest sense and it undermines the trust that gamers have that a game is beatable and therefore worth playing. Almost is bad is when you beat the bad guy, only for him to fly away. You worked so hard -- you won -- and yet you are denied the gratification. It's like playing a board game with somebody, and when you win, they tip the board over and say, "Nope, didn't happen, nobody won."

Gamers play games because they are challenges to be overcome. If there is no practical way to overcome them, then they aren't worth playing. Vice versa, if there is no challenge to overcome, they aren't worth playing. "Hard fun" is a delicate balance between the two where the challenge is one we know we can overcome, but it's going to take some effort.
 

IvanRosski

New member
Apr 24, 2008
34
0
0
Great article old bean. But I simply must say, if you ever use the word "mom" again, I'm going to come round your gaffe and wrap your 360 right around your noggin.
 

Brian Name

New member
Feb 1, 2008
93
0
0
ajbell said:
@Brian: That does sound like a very nice workaround. A good mix of worldly realism and progression. Maybe I should give the franchise another shot.
You definitely should. The second game does still suffer a weeeee tinytinytiny bit from 'ghost jungle bullet syndrome' ("Somethin' just jumped up an' bit meh!") but it's a far better game than the original.

As for Dragon Age: Origins, I'm with you on that one. The randomness of difficulty just makes it frustrating sometimes, with deaths that really seem unfair at times. And it means you have to keep adjusting the difficulty setting to try and find a good balance. There should be a cream for that kind of irritation.
 

daftalchemist

New member
Aug 6, 2008
545
0
0
I really liked this article. In a way, it's all the things I ever felt about bullshit moments in videogames without really knowing why exactly I felt them. More than that, it makes me feel validated in those times when I complained about a game truly not being fair. I always felt like that was some kind of childish cop-out excuse for sucking, but in truth I could have just been dealing with some real unfairness all those times.
 

The Random One

New member
May 29, 2008
3,310
0
0
Excellent article. Such seemingly small things are why some games succeed and some games fail, and also why some games can be a hit with the sales, get high scores on every review, and be forgotten a year later. Now finding the precise point exactly between a breach of the social contract and needed suspension of disbelief, that's the tricky part.

IvanRosski said:
Great article old bean. But I simply must say, if you ever use the word "mom" again, I'm going to come round your gaffe and wrap your 360 right around your noggin.
Wow, your mother sounds really angry!