You have probably gotten accustomed to my formula by now. What do I expect from Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn? Stuff a lot like previous Final Fantasies and similar games, but with an MMO twist. What do I expect from Elder Scrolls Online? Stuff a lot like previous Elder Scrolls games, but with an MMO twist. What do I hope for from both of them? That they do it well, as has been demonstrated is possible by successful examples mixed and matched from said previous games. Might the games have shots of creative brilliance? Of course, and I hope they do, but I’ll leave that as a task for the developers, and be pleasantly surprised if they deliver.
What do I mean when I say pacing? I’m talking about designing what the player is doing or can do at any time, as well as how long they spend doing it in order to keep them engaged with and enjoying the game. I could take more time to introduce the subject, but I’ve already written about it, in the context of Xenoblade Chronicles doing it well. I recommend having a read of that previous post now if you haven’t already.
Lines and Non-lines
Let me come out and state my major point. One of the biggest jobs confronting the development teams of FF14 and ESO when considering the pacing of the game as a whole is balancing the linear and nonlinear elements of their respective games. When can the player (meaningfully) choose to go off and do something different than he or she has been told? How long is a player stuck with one series of activities? How easily can the player transition between activities? Right, I’ve glossed over a lot, so I’m backing up now, but keep that point in mind for the rest of this post.
A popular distinction between games are those that sport linear gameplay and those that are nonlinear (and any number of points in-between). While this is easily the topic of a post on its own (or a long series of posts) let’s start by getting on the same page so that we understand each other.
Nonlinear gameplay simply means that the player can mix up the order in which they do what the game wants him or her to do (or sometimes exclude bits of gameplay entirely). It’s common to think of vast open worlds (such as those sported in the Elder Scrolls games) or branching narrative (like Heavy Rain or any number of visual novels) when we consider nonlinearity, but I find a really nice example to be the Mega Man series. Typically there are eight stages to complete and the player chooses the order of completion. Nonlinear gameplay at its most straightforward (even if the levels themselves are quite linear).
In RPGs, this often takes the form of optional side-quests or subplots. The player can pursue these actions if they are interested, or forego them, and can often choose when he or she approaches these extra challenges. This extra gameplay can offer a different type of story or even a variation on the kind of game being played. At the very least, it can offer a change of pace, which is exactly what I’m talking about here.
Put simply, what better way is there to ensure the player is engaged in what they are doing than letting them choose what to do in the first place? Letting the player choose between a variety of activities (mostly) ensures that said variety of gameplay doesn’t backfire. If the player is saturated in a certain kind of gameplay, he or she can take a break from it with something else for a while. If the player wants more of a specific story, character or type of gameplay, he or she can attempt to pursue it in the nonlinear elements of the game.
Showing Some Spine
In Final Fantasy games there is a linear backbone of narrative, supported by barriers of exploration and combat. There is a path to follow, sectioned off into currently accessible areas and areas for ‘later in the game’, often guarded by enemies of an appropriately curved difficulty. Within the areas available, there are choices of activity, but if the player wants to run off, they are almost always met by a conveniently temporary wall, impossibly difficult enemies, or both.
The strengths of this style of game are: the ability to teach the player and manage a learning curve; the potential to deliver stronger stories and characters; and giving the player some control over what he or she does next. Just by nature of having some content that definitely comes before other content, the developers can modulate the rate at which the player uncovers complexity. Uncovering complexity at a controlled rate gives the developer more freedom to add depth (of course complexity does not equal depth, but sometimes it helps).
In addition, plots and characters can show change and development – central to making said stories and characters deep and interesting. This is very difficult to accomplish (if not impossible) if the developers don’t have some control over the order the player uncovers content.
The main weakness of this style of game is that it is only as nonlinear as the backbone allows. To maintain some linearity, the game needs roadblocks. These roadblocks are what tie all the threads of gameplay together into a whole, and make sure that Section A comes before Section B. However, they also tether the player to gameplay which they may have been trying to avoid altogether.
Let’s say I was really interested in an exploration and collecting aspect of a game (filling the Collectopaedia in Xenoblade, for example). I could finish the task for the area I’m in and want to continue on to other areas, but be unable to do so until the requisite linear storyline stuff is completed. Alternatively, if progress in a path is blocked by enemies I simply cannot defeat at my current level, I need to find something else to do (which I might not want to do) until my characters are strong enough to proceed. These are just a couple examples of the overarching issue.
If the game ends up feeling too linear, taking away much of that gameplay choice, then it can spoil the experience (even if the player mostly wanted the benefits of the largely linear track). Take the reception of FF13, for example. It is generally criticised for discarding many of the normal nonlinear elements, even if, in doing so, it is able to modulate an excellent difficulty curve for a complex but deep combat system, as well as flesh out interesting characters.
The lack of some sort of control over the experience really narrowed the audience who would enjoy the game. It became a hit for a narrow band of people, and a miss to others, without nonlinear grey area to bridge the gap. The game lost appeal to a wide band of potential fans who would tweak or personalise the experience through the nonlinear elements.
In the case of FF14, as an MMORPG, these roadblocks are likely to be power level related. You might not have a convenient invisible wall stopping you, but there could easily be level requirements to continue a quest line or a general increase in enemy levels which cannot be overcome simply by skill and strategy. In these cases, it’s up to the game to provide engaging opportunities to bridge the level gap (ideally several such opportunities, providing different avenues of exploration from which to choose), otherwise it leaves the player one choice: repeated tasks.
This might simply be a matter of quantity of different kinds of content (well, quantity of meaningful content) spread across the different stages of the game. If there are not enough nonlinear quests or ways to play the game to bridge level gaps when necessary, then repeating tasks after doing everything available (and thus not having choices available) is by default the remaining option.
The Panoramic View
Elder Scrolls games, on the other hand, have a linear main plotline, but it’s rarely, if ever, firmly enforced with barriers of any kind. The player can poke around pretty much wherever he or she pleases, and the power level of enemies scales relative to the player’s power level (to some extent). In this model, the main plotline is simply the most visible and fleshed out of the numerous storylines dotted throughout the world.
This style of game gives the player plenty of freedom in the world, but what if the player needs some direction? The Elder Scrolls games balance this openness with plenty of hooks – ways in which the player discovers new quests and activities. A courier might approach the player out in the open, a barkeep could provide a lead, an NPC might plead for help, or a man might fall from the sky.
Moreover, the world is textured with many short linear plot lines, allowing for development on a microcosmic scale. This leads to a great many slightly (but not deeply) nuanced characters. The main character is a generally blank slate, story to be written by the player’s actions.
The major strength of this style, especially with the epic implementation it is normally given, is the sheer scope of the world, and the agency the player has within it. If you get bored of what you’re doing, you can often walk off, mid-conversation, to go do something you think would be more enjoyable. And there is usually something more enjoyable out there, somewhere. I don’t expect to have issues with finding non-repetitive things to do in ESO (and if I do, shame on you ZeniMax Online), which is pretty much the greatest accomplishment of pacing if I’m going to spend hours upon hours playing the game.
There are two major weaknesses of this style of game (at least that I can think of right now). The first is a matter of depth of material. If the developers spend a ton of time (and money) ensuring that there are a ton of passable storylines, characters and quests, it’s natural that only few of them will be really deep or memorable (at best). Sure it would be great to have both breadth and depth, but I try to be realistic too.
Of course, the player builds the story of his or her own character through actions, but this is barely acknowledged by the world (by necessity of being so open). This means that the lone character who is consistently present (the player’s character) gets only the development personally imagined by the player, with very little reinforcement from the game itself. In some senses this might actually be better in an MMORPG, where your story is also shared with others, especially if you can make a difference in the world through your actions.
The second major weakness, in my experience, is the difficulty gradient. To be frank, there isn’t much of one. As you play more, your character gets stronger and you gain access to more resources, which makes previously unachievable feats more achievable. However, beyond a basic competency at controlling the character and understanding the simple enemy logic (not trivial, but not exactly as deep as a game like Monster Hunter which uses those same elements), the player does not tend to get measurably more skilled. But maybe that’s just my feeling – tell me off in the comments if you disagree.
In Oblivion and Skyrim, enemy level scales with the player in order to allow more exploratory freedom. Because of this scaling, often a new area or dungeon is conveniently the ‘correct’ power level for you to take on, slightly undermining the idea of a difficulty gradient.
In addition, the enemies scale to your general level, blind to the differences between combat and non-combat skills. If you were to spend a lot of your time using (and thus leveling) non-combat abilities early in the game, then you’re going to have a really tough time, no matter how skilled you are at the game.
I don’t want to go on about this point too much now, as it is mired in potential arguments. One, it’s very difficult to measure the difference between player skill and character power in these games (I would make a very similar argument for many RPGs, not just Elder Scrolls). Two, quantifying how much ‘skill’ goes into the knowledge necessary for preparation is difficult at best. Three, while the enemies scale up in power, more options later in levels will tend to combine in the player’s favour, so, in sum, the player character gains more of an edge as time goes on. But the point as a whole seemed worth mentioning, and certainly merits discussion. If the guys working on ESO should manage to create depth of gameplay that makes me feel like I have improved for my hours of gameplay (not just my character), then more power to them.
Clash of the Titans
So, four parts, a number of tricky subjects and five posts later, I’m at the end of this epic tale of two MMORPGs. And this is before they even release. I’ve tried not to be jaded by preconceptions created by internet stirrings of ‘what MMORPGs are like these days’, and understand at least the basic pressures on the development teams of these games. In the end, much of the battle between these games is decided by how many of your friends play the game and how different it is from some other standard or free option. To be honest, I’m impressed at the amount of time and effort going into both these productions, and I would like to be even more impressed by the outcome.
While I personally am not likely to be designing an MMORPG any time soon, I admit the prospect excites me (well, the prospect in theory, without all the ridiculous pressures and financial risks). Are you a seasoned MMORPGer? A current or prospective designer? New to the genre or in the market for a new game? Or perhaps, like me, you’ve stayed away in general, cautious of the time and money investments for the level of engagement you receive. Regardless, chime in with your own thoughts, whether you agree or disagree.
Also, if there are any games, genres or topics you’d like me to consider writing about through the lens of WIHILA or WILA, then add a comment with them below or pop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading.