Subtle but different.
Has anyone tried the changes to World of Warcraft since Mists of Pandaria?
If you have, then you might be aware of a growing criticism from certain quarters that the convenience of certain things has been taking a little bit of a battering. Some argue the Looking for Raid cheapens the actual raiding experience, that Heroics are too easy considering their position, that Scenarios are too easy and that vendors are too plentifully scattered across the land. You might even come to the actual conclusion that Mists of Pandaria is easy as a game, that it is somehow dumbed down for a new audience, or to sate a more casual audience.
Of course, most of us who have played it know what a pile of crap that really is.
You see, convenience is important in certain regards when it comes to a video game. I don’t particularly want to be hunting down a repair vendor whilst I’m running around doing quests and/or dailies (although thankfully, dailies are becoming less and less key!) because that’s just annoying – more annoying than seeing someone there at an encampment eyeing my coin purse with a devilishly wicked grin. In business terms, of course you’re going to set up shop where there’s room and a thoroughfare of adventurers who may have little choice but to use your services to repair their equipment before they wearily begin the next leg of their ‘grand adventure’. If anything, the convenience is the key point to their existence. You can turn around and hunt down more things, die a few more times and end up battered, broken and filling the repair vendors pockets with even more of that precious gold coinage. I’m surprised the vendors don’t laugh maniacally in the process.
I love Dark Souls. I love it even in spite of the heartbreaking reason I no longer play – I’m too fond of Sif to see him fall to my blade anymore. But Dark Souls, and moreso the Artorias of the Abyss DLC pack, was not without its problems. Before the DLC, most people criticised the backtracking to get to vendors and NPCs for certain things. Which is a fair point; the warp points were quite sparse and the walk even from most of the bonfires you could warp to towards the NPCs you needed to visit could take a fair while. The warping was convenient; but it wasn’t convenient enough. People weren’t bowled over by it, and there was a general feeling that it was perhaps poorly implemented.
Then the Artorias DLC arrived and they expanded the Bonfire Warping quite considerably, making it a lot more open and straight-forward. This was a sticking point for a lot of people, and did FROM Software get any gratitude from their fans for it? No – if anything, a lot of people gave them a lot of stick over it. “Oh look!” they cried, “Look at that! FROM Software are dumbing it down for the casuals again, making it easier for lazy bints to get about! Back when I played it, I had to run from the Firelink Shrine to Andre of Astoria with my legs! These new people don’t know how hard that was!”
It’s a curious thing. But an important distinction has to be made – was the Artorias DLC easier? No. Quite the opposite actually, the convenience of the enhanced warping system was offset by the fact that the new content was bloody hard. Really, really hard. The Artorias fight alone felt at one time like I’d never get beyond him, and when I did there was a whole lovely town here in Oolacile built over a whole lot of nothing, where one false move or one surprise attack from the crazy locals would send me tumbling to my doom. Not to mention Black Dragon Kalameet, an optional uber-boss who requires exploration, a hand from an NPC and a hell of a lot of practice and trial and error when it comes to the right gearing path to take. Oolacile was a tough, tough challenge. I never once thought the warping made it too easy – if anything, it was essential to ensure that I could nip around, upgrade and refine gear and come back for yet another stab at Kalameet. Dumbed down? No. Anyone who believes this was dumbing down is perhaps not as smart as they would perhaps like to believe, and probably only looking for things to criticise.
Dark Souls 2 is clearly aiming to be a bit more accessible, but the sounds being made are this isn’t planned to be at the expense of what is already the one reason we revere it – the challenge, the difficulty. Dark Souls had a difficulty curve – albeit a vertical climb up a cliff face that just experienced a collision with a blimp carrying a thousand gallons of grease. I really loved that – but I am of the opinion that a proper difficulty curve, not one that fluctuates wildly, might be a very sound idea for its sequel; something that gets progressively harder as you delve onwards. I also believe that Dark Souls 2 could benefit from the more direct plot; not that Dark Souls didn’t have one. But to get the full story took exploration and arguably a lot of reading wikis and walkthroughs to get the most from the narrative, and in fairness that’s perhaps not always the most appealing manner in which to experience the conclusion of a story, or to find out details about the Furtive Pygmy and your players true role. It’s nice to be made to explore for the narrative; but perhaps making it a little less obscure would help its sequel.
In none of that have I said I want Dark Souls 2 to be easier. Quite the opposite. The sense of reward and achievement I felt toppling Kalameet is unmatched in any game I’ve played in years. Any game that can have you humming joyful tunes for several days afterwards, much to the bemusement of everyone you come across, is one I don’t want to see changed in a technical manner. But I want people to love Dark Souls 2. I really do. And this means that, effectively, they will have to be a little less deliberately obtuse with certain elements. And they definitely can’t have a repeat of the Broken Pendent gaffe. Seriously, there’s a certain joy in messing with players but ultimately there has to be a delivery; ‘Just kidding!’ instead inspires frustration and annoyance. They do need to apply some more coherent, more accepted design principles into Dark Souls 2. Doing so will make it appeal to more people, but remember this; people know Dark Souls for its difficulty. They are entering this fantastical, mysterious world for that challenge and therefore there is no getting away from the idea that this is the keystone point of the sequel – it has to deliver on the challenge.
Making it a more satisfying story, with more convenience and a more nuanced and acceptably steep (but not vertical!) gradient to the difficulty curve are simply the resulting ideas from people who are learning from their original mistakes, and trying to better them for the sequel. And these people did make mistakes – there are mistakes, and these things aren’t universally adored even by fans of Dark Souls. We shouldn’t defend them so blindly that they constantly repeat the same errors time and time again, otherwise what progress is being made? You can’t grow an audience if you aren’t learning from the reasonable feedback. “It’s too hard!” isn’t reasonable feedback. “I think having to find Kaathe for a big chunk of the story is a bit unreasonable, considering how important what he has to say is!” is a reasonable critique. We can make the distinction here, and the distinction IS important.
People complain World of Warcraft is casual-city and admittedly, the heroics and scenarios are hardly a challenge, but similarly their point is not to provide the challenge either; their role is to provide gear, Justice Points, some Valor Points and arguably also deliver some narrative. These things are time-killers, not the challenge. Much the same as Looking for Raid, once upon a time we all clamoured around websites and blogs and YouTube to get a glimpse of the upcoming boss fights, and learned tactics from others. Looking for Raid is that, but interactive. It prepares people for raiding, provides basic tactics without being unreasonably touchy when it comes to mistakes (although there are plenty of ways to wipe a raid still!) and gears them up to be more proactive and sensible when it comes to an actual raid team. This is not unreasonable, or dumbing down.
The dumbing down we’ve always done. We have mods like DBM and we poured over sites for tactics, how to play our classes, the best setup, the best gear, how to reforge and so forth. The playerbase inside World of Warcraft has itself been dumbing the game down for years. People have often let better guilds take the strain and then mooched their tactics, let others run the theorycrafting gauntlet and simply hitched a ride on their coat tails. A lot of what World of Warcraft is doing now is convenience – it’s trying to add a lot of these functions we already took for granted into the game proper, the stuff that were considered essential mods and additions and they are adding them into the game. But in doing so, people cry that Blizzard are making the game easier – and that’s simply not fair on them. You can’t use these mods and make them ‘essential’ mods, and then similarly criticise Blizzard for adding those functions into the game to save on memory and loading lag.
In both these cases, the problem is the playerbase doesn’t quite understand the design process, or rather would choose not to understand it. Taking a step back, they come across as quite ungrateful, the sorts of people who can never really be satisfied unless they’re criticising something. And I feel some pity for them, because that’s often a terrible way to play a game. Especially for those I come across inside World of Warcraft, because you do have to ask the valid question; “If you dislike this stuff so much, why are you still subscribed?” Sucking the fun and enjoyment out of something by always trying to find something wrong is a sad way to exist, but it’s been going on a long time. And it’s always people complaining things are getting too easy, being dumbed down, no longer for them etc.
Progress is about making things better, and sometimes that involves yes, making certain elements slightly easier or more convenient. But that doesn’t mean that everything has to be easy. Getting around via portals to various locations doesn’t mean that Dark Souls got easier; it just meant that you could more easily reach certain NPCs, hone your gear and grab a few spells and such forth. The challenge in the game wasn’t diminished by this addition; rather, allowed it to be enhanced. There is no joy in having to run through a half-dozen enemies just to get to your target; moreso when in a game like Dark Souls, most enemies can still quite realistically do you some harm.
You can enhance certain games by simply making things work better. Yes, sometimes this might look like they’re making something easier, but don’t always believe that is reflective or indicative of any future direction, or the content change as a whole. Good design is about making things better, more convenient and more bearable. Making things deliberately obtuse, hard to get to or generally twitchy in execution may come across as ‘a challenge’. But it’s still bad design. You can’t call bad design a challenge. Because it’s not, it’s just a poorly implemented element which, when fixed, operates as the developers intended. Crying out at that point about dumbing down is… well…. dumb.
I have no doubts that FROM Software know exactly why we loved Dark Souls. They have a bigger budget and more lofty ambitions. But they also come to the fore with more experience. Dark Souls 2 will have a PC version, which will be done by some with experience of PC architecture. They listened. They learned. And they are doing things better. Dark Souls 2 shouldn’t forget the truly great stuff in Dark Souls – the boss fights, the sense of isolation, the fantastic message system and the wonderful flexible RPG elements. But they shouldn’t carry on the stupid stuff – the PvP at the end was unforgivably bad. Sometimes there were too many pitfalls, Sen’s Fortress and that narrow bridge is perhaps something not to be repeated ever again. Stupid design is stupid design. The vague narrative and the obtuse and sometimes far too complex/open to exploitation Covenants.
So let’s just try not to get too stressed out over whether Dark Souls 2 will be hard or easy. Because not only is it a bit early to call this (moreso considering we don’t even have in-game footage of it yet! Seriously, the horse is still in the stable guys! No need to panic about open gates yet!), but people aren’t always able to tell the difference between a well-designed challenge or a poorly-implemented barrier. And there is a profound difference. The difference is like night and day.
And I would always prefer the former, rather than the latter…
Due to my neighbours having been broken into, I’ve had a busy few days so here’s a
republished one from December which still holds up.
Will ensure tomorrows review goes as planned.