Number Theory — Revisit

I started this blog with my first published article Number Theory for the purpose of, at least at that time, posting my homework assignment from my Game Design class. In that post I mainly discussed a current trend of game design appearing in multiple AAA games, especially games from publisher Ubisoft, such that games put numbers on almost every single element in the game, which is totally unnecessary. I argued that visible stats shift the focus of those game substantially and mostly, a bad, lazy design ideology.

To be perfectly honest, as you may notice after reading it, I did not finish the article. I admit that at the time of submission I was not able to include a conclusive paragraph in the article. The question was not going away — I’m still very concerning about the trend and want to do some further discussion, except that I was also starting to question my own position. At the time of writing the only game I played mentioned in the article was Ghost Recon Wildland, and I had mixed feeling about it. Now I have been finished GRW, put more than 20 hours into Assassin’s Creed Origins and 40 hours in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, another game changed design from its predecessor. I won’t debunk my previous claim but playing them instead of reading and watching reviews give me a much different perspective. Despite some of their problem, I enjoyed playing all of them. In this post, I’d write down some after thoughts on those three games and revisit the “number-oriented” game design.

Among three games Ghost Recon Wildland is probably the least affected game design-wise. The only obvious addition in GRW with number is character level. Character level in GRW has one purpose only: unlocking perks: by leveling up characters, special abilities are added to the character, including silent sprinting for better stealth, more resistance force ability including calling supply of vehicles or air attack, or carrying more grenades, etc. Beside of these perks, there’s not much difference between a level-1 and a level-20 character. This character progression system has abundant similarities with the multiplayer progression in Call of Duty series. Compared to GRW, players are actually leveling up themselves, their in-game avatar, instead of the in-game character they created. While the progression system in GRW is perfectly fine, seeing all those military soldiers having a level beside their name tag is still inconsistent with the overall tone of the series. On the other hand, the delayed competitive multiplayer mode of GRW, Ghost War, does not follow the multiplayer progression system from Call of Duty series, leaving it almost an entirely different experience to its singleplayer counterpart.

Ghost Recon Wildland’s singleplayer uses character levels to indicate how far the character is on its skill tree progression and the number of level is not exactly the traditional thing for a military shooter like this. Should GRW discard the level system? My answer is no. First, the character progression system is almost a must for a large-scale open-world game like this. Sea of Thieves, the open-world multiplayer pirate game from developer Rare, received a huge backlash for its non-exist character progression system; players found frustrated that their characters do not change at all (except for cosmetic changes) after finishing a bunch of missions. Players want their characters to be stronger while they are playing and thus progression system is needed for this type of games. Even for more linear games like Call of Duty (campaign) adds character progression and reward players for fulfilling basic and advanced mission requirement. Linear games, however, are easier to be designed to fit the character’s skill trees compared to open-world games. This is where character level comes in. By adding a quantic measure to characters, game designer has more control over the game flow. As a result, GRW keeps bringing new challenges with more ability within its 20 to 40-hour campaign.

Both Assassin’s Creed Origins (ACO) and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (SOW) have the same root of the first Assassin’s Creed game. And yet as the time of their predecessors, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was criticized for monotonic gameplay while Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, despite being developed from a totally different company, had been called “the Assassin’s Creed game we always wanted but never get”. As a result, ACO completely overhauls the old Assassin’s Creed formula while SOW takes a giant step further from its critically-acclaimed predecessor. Surprisingly, both game took note from the same franchise: Diablo. The hack-n-slash series provides the timeless action-RPG formula with a gameplay loop containing combat-loot-grind-level up. The problem is, that fans of Assassin’s Creed games do not expect this type of overhaul. Players are not able to be the deadly assassin all the time; instead, they can only battle characters on the same level or lesser level. Otherwise, players are not able to damage much and the opponents’ attack would be very deadly. Two enemy soldiers wearing same armor and holding same weapon would be completely two levels of challenges even though in real life, it doesn’t make sense.

And yet it works. ACO is definitively a breath of fresh air after 9 canonical games with similar game progression. What I tend to think about a typical Assassin’s Creed game is about seeking the evil person, infiltrating into a heavily guarded environment, assassinating the target and then leaving without any trace. Such gameplay loop sounds reasonably ideal on paper, but in reality it’s not that attracting. In fact, that is the exact gameplay design of the first Assassin’s Creed game, which was criticized for its repetitive gameplay loop. In the later games of the series, Ubisoft puts more story elements into each game, making the series an icon of cinematic storytelling combined with openly explorable world and stealth gameplay. Later entries gradually introduce more and more gameplay element usually found in Role-Playing games, including upgradable weapons, enemy health bar, character perks and so on. None of them, however, completely shift the series’ focus like ACO. To be honest, all my aforementioned concerns happen to be true. But that is okay because the new system brings overwhelmingly amount of goodness to overshadow its weakness. My initial impression of ACO is a modern, 3D Diablo-style looter RPG, which is amazing except it is not Assassin’s Creed. But soon, I find that the leveling system fixes the not-so-amazing stealth gameplay in previous entries. Originally, I worried a lot when I saw the pre-release gameplay footage featuring a low-level player trying to assassinate a high-level target, but end up only depleting less than half of enemies health bar. It only happens, however, when the player tries to explore more dangerous areas out of game’s guidance. Stealth gameplay is enhanced by greater threat from these high-level characters compared to normal enemy from previous games. With better melee and ranged combat system, stealth gameplay in ACO is actually a great improvement, not a minus. Moreover, characters’ level system shapes the story flow really well and prevent the openly-explorable world they created a wasted potential.

SOW is not a drastic change of formula from its predecessor, but it takes the level system from Shadow of Mordor and put it to a pillar position to the gameplay. Leveling system in Shadow of Mordor almost feels like nonexistent. Other than unlocking perks leveling system in SOM offers little else. SOW on the other hand completely build its progression system upon the revamped leveling system. Not only characters and captain orcs have levels, weapons and armor are also bond with level, and thus players are required to grind better gears when progress the game, otherwise they will be not able to compete with higher-level enemies. Enemy orcs and uruks can be possessed in the similar fashion of Pokemon’s signature mechanism, and the post-game relies almost completely on this mechanics. More varied gameplay mechanics uplift the series to a much-larger scale.

Then, I start to think, that maybe one day, even Mario can be adapted to this formula. The fun of most of Mario game comes from mastering platforming skills, discover formerly unreachable areas, collect hidden treasures, etc.. It’s already a lot of fun. What if we change the hidden treasures to “rare gears”, platforming skills to gears and skills? Sure, it may cause significant backlash from the Mario community, especially from the purists, but the potential problem can be solved with meticulous design, and that is exactly what Nintendo can do with their games.