The Power of Sound Effects

As someone who is a big fan of Subnautica, I often keep up with updates to the game, usually via various Youtubers who cover the game extensively.  Without spoiling too much, a huge portion of the end game is in development right now (when this article was written anyway).  Since it’s a key story point, it’s being tweaked to be as impactful as possible.  Animations, voice acting, textures, and tons of other aspects keep being overhauled to present the most satisfying moment that could be achieved.  However, in some of the more recent updates, one additive that added a ton of impact caught my eye: the sound effects.

Sound effects are one of those aspects of creative media that often get overlooked.  Whether the sound effects are audio or implied to with words, they make a huge difference despite being minor additives.  Unfortunately, in numerous indie industries, they can often be underused.  While certainly you run the risk of oversaturating a piece with sound effects, they are still an essential that should never be neglected.  To hammer in this point, let us examine why the sound effects make a difference in two industries: gaming and comics.

 

In the case of gaming, it is a very audio-centric media in most cases.  Though one could play games in complete silence, most people would concede the sounds make a difference.  Yet, as much as a background soundtrack adds to a game, so does the sound effects.  Take any game which involves swords or guns that you use to attack people.  Now, if you can, imagine if there were no sound effects.  No swosh or chink for those swords, no popping bullets, no anything; just imagine if you only had the animation, even if there’s a nice accompanying soundtrack.

Now ideally, if you can picture it, you’d realize how odd that’d be.  There would be a sense of emptiness to each attack.  Since in real life objects like this have sound effects, it is also something that would break immersion; the game is giving no feedback to the attack, so it feels unreal.

This being the key concept: sound effects in games provide feedback.

Let’s take a look for the moment at Dragon Age: Inquisition.  One key mechanic to the game is its search function.  Essentially, when a player presses a hotkey, a little circle fans out from the inquisitor and detects objects, whether it be resources, loot chests, or something hidden.  It is a pretty vital component if one wants to find the collectibles in the game as certain ones can only be found via this mechanic.  Now, of course, there are visual cues via the object highlighting, the mini map, and more.  Thus, one can still use the mechanic on visuals alone.  However, the sound effects for the mechanic make a big difference.  There are different sounds for finding nothing, finding a resource, or detecting a hidden object.  By consequence, one can put their eyes to more important things on the screen and let the sounds guide them.  Not only does this provide great feedback, but it streamlines the process of navigating.  In otherwords, one can run and scan rather than take those few moments to check if they found anything every moment.

There are a plethora of other ways sound effects play a role, whether it’s feedback from opening chests in The Legend of Zelda series or through loud thunderous sounds of dragons flying overhead in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The sounds give a true sense of presence and aid in immersing someone into the world.  Like in real life, one expects sounds when objects interact, so providing them in key moments makes a huge difference.

 

Nevertheless, games are not the only medium in which sound effects make a difference.  Let’s now turn to comics, which out of the gate obviously lack the same audio component games do.  For comics, the sound effects are part of the visuals and come in varying styles.  Whether they say “Pow,” “Kablam,” or anything else, they are generally something present in a lot of comics.  That being said, some people may question whether they’re important, since these “sound” effects are visual instead audio.  Yet, much like games, they provide important feedback.

In a similar function to the last exercise, let’s put our imaginations to work.  Imagine any two characters you want in a fight, and one panel features one of the characters dramatically slapping the other.  Now, because imaginations are pretty robust, you surely imagined the slap sound that would occur in the moment.  For comics, the way this is conveyed is with the sound effect text, which depending on how its styled can have a different effect.  Instead, though, try to picture the image without that text.  All you have is a slap making contact, but no feedback on whether it hit.

In the end, the effect that occurred for games occurred here as well: without the sound effect, the moment felt empty and lacking impact.

Even when the sound effects are visually very small, they play a role in conveying the world and making it feel real.  Speaking personally, I barely even ever read what the sound effects say; at the same time, when they aren’t present, I take extreme notice of how silent a comic’s world consequently feels.  As a result I feel confident saying that even their presence alone is enough to convey that there is noise in the world, which makes a world of difference.

Of course, sound effects can be used to aid the story too in this case.  For instance, when the story wishes to have an eating scene, it’s not uncommon to have a panel where a characters stomach growls.  This is shown not only by a close up of the stomach, but through sound effects to emphasize the growling sound.  The reader is left with no confusion about what’s going on, so even without dialogue the visual and sound effect convey the character’s need.  This, in turn, helps immerse one more into the moment; like in real life, the visual clues and sound are all that’s needed to convey the unspoken message.  There are numerous other ways the visuals and “sound” effects in comics can be utilized in a more poignant matter, so they are not something to be discounted.

 

Hopefully, at this point, I have conveyed why sound effects play a vital role.  With them, you can make something more immersive and impactful in both small and big ways.  Without them, you risk turning the consumer away from the product due to the world feeling empty and hollow.  In the end, even if it is a tedious aspect to consider, one should always try to include sound effects.  They can make or break a project sometimes, so to neglect them is to do your project a disservice.  The internet offers tons of sound effect resources, so there’s really no excuse not to use them.  So, go forth, and remember like the world, your work should have sounds.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioward, EA, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Link opening a chest from ZeldaDungeon.net.

Side Quests: Making Interesting “Fetch Quests”

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Inquisition (specifically the Hinterlands).

 

The week before last I analyzed side quests and how you could make them more compelling than the generic fetch quests one might see in a grind-like MMORPG.  At the heart of the matter, I illustrated three ways one could make them interesting, namely: having side quests add to the story, having side quests with worthwhile loot, or having side quests with an enormous gameplay challenge.  In regards to story, I discussed certain aspects in Dragon Age II and how some of its side quests vastly change outcome of the story.  However, today I would like to expound on this point some more, and also tackle fetch quests which I didn’t talk about fully in that post.

Before we begin, let’s first discuss what will and will not be included when I say fetch quests.  For those unfamiliar, fetch quests are a specific type of quest that basically involves you getting an item to give an NPC.  An NPC may say they lost an object and need you to find and return it.  Some NPC may request you clear an area of spiders and bring their fangs as proof (i.e. kill a certain number of this creature).  A different NPC may ask you to collect so much of a specific herb that spawns in an area.  These are the sorts of quests will be discussed in this article, but I am also including similarly simple quests that don’t necessarily involve lots of fighting.  For instance, if you find an ancient scroll that tells you to go to a cave to find loot or fight a monster, those are close enough in simplicity that they will be included in my analysis.

With that established, one must wonder how such simple tasks could be interesting.  After all, in the last post even I acknowledged the criticism that these are what make MMORPGs a grind sometimes.  Certainly, my purpose here is not to say fetch quests are the most interesting of all, and I stand by my post that there are ways to make more interesting side quests.  That being said, fetch quests still have their place, if not for the sake of giving players an easy way to kill some time, take a breather, and still earn EXP and money.  Since they are most likely going to stay in gaming for a quite a while, it doesn’t hurt to try and make them more compelling.  This is where story and world-building comes in, which even fetch quests can tap into and enhance.  Even if they cannot change the story, there are two things fetch quests can do very well, very easily: enhance the tone and atmosphere of the story and add to the world lore.

To illustrate this, I am going to discuss Dragon Age: Inquisition, so spoilers ahead for those not familiar with the Dragon Age series.

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One manner in which fetch quests can aid a game’s story is by reinforcing the tone or the atmosphere.  One of the primary background problems in Dragon Age: Inquisition is, of course, the mage rebellion.  The fight with mages has progressed so badly that even the Templars have gone rogue and hunt mages at their leisure.  Unfortunately, innocent people have gotten caught in between the fights, and there are a lot of refugees as a result.  This background setup primarily comes into play in the Hinterlands, where the player experiences first-hand how devastating the mage rebellion has been.

This being the case, many of the fetch quests in this area help reinforce this sad devastation.  For instance, some of the starting quests involve you getting supplies for the refugees, specifically food and blankets which the refugees have none of.  Through the dialogue of the quests, the suffering of the refugees is emphasized, as how they have no food or warmth is discussed by people at length.  Though a subtle insert, it helps drive home how devastating and far spread the war is.  Another example quest is obtained by entering a house that is fairly in the middle of nowhere.  Upon entering, you can speak with a woman who asks you to retrieve a ring that Templars took after killing her husband, who they suspected was an Apostate (a rogue mage).  Though, again, the dialogue is simple, it revolves around the thoughtlessness of the Templars and mages at the devastation that is being wrought upon the civilians.

Though I could name many like this, what should be clear is these specific fetch quests help emphasis the tone of war in the area.  The quests often revolve around the setting of the mage rebellion, involving issues with helping the refugees and trying to repair the area from the rampant destruction.  This being the case, the player is immersed further into the setting, as these quests aren’t random happenstance.  Rather, they are used to reflect a cause and effect in the world, which allows it to feel more real.  The flavor text also showcases the expected emotions in such a case, such as sadness, desperation, and hopelessness.  Everything about these fetch quests has an overtone of the setting, so though simple, they allow the player to remain immersed in the world, rather than be reminded they are playing a game.

The other manner in which fetch quests can be interesting is via their ability to add to the lore.  At least for fantasy and sci-fi set RPGs, the general rule of thumb is the better developed the world, the more immersive a setting you give the player to get into.  However, one never wants to dump too much lore at once, so adding and increasing the world lore must be done in small chunks.  This is something fetch quests can be very good at in the right hands, since they are short, simple quests that the player can have a low key commitment to do.

For instance, let’s take a look at the landmark quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  As the player travels throughout the various areas in the game, they can claim landmarks.  This is a simple matter that literally involves traveling to the area and pressing a key/button in the right spot.  However, when the player claims the landmarks, they receive a codex entry (a small collection of world information).  The player can, of course, choose to ignore it, which is perfectly fine.  Yet, if one chooses to read the codex entry, they find out interesting world information that is tied to the landmark.  Though it’s a small addition, the world can grow via these landmarks and they cease to be just polygons on a screen.  Rather, they begin to live up their titular title of landmarks.  As a whole, though, they help increase the lore of the story, but also keep it optional for the players who don’t care about lore.

 

While I could ramble on and on about other sorts of quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition, let alone some other games, these are a few examples of ways one can make fetch quests more interesting.  Though, of course, I still wouldn’t say they hold a candle to more in-depth quests, they can be handled in a manner that continues to immerse players.  For game development, at least for story heavy games, the last thing you want is for a player to be reminded they’re playing a game.  This is, sadly, where a lot of MMORPGs fail with their quest design, since they add so little the player is hyper aware they are playing a game.  In Dragon Age: Inquisition’s case, though, the quests are generally always designed with heavy world overtones.  So, even if they can be a grind sometimes, the story additions make it worthwhile to still complete them.

Regardless of what you’re designing your quests for, the key is to always give them purpose beyond EXP and virtual money.  Compel the player to complete the quest, even if their additions are optional flavor text that just add a smidgen of lore or atmosphere.  You ultimately shape the experience for the players, so even if it’s fetch quests, use them to bring out the very best of your game.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age Inquisition concept art from Concept Art World.

Side Quests: Interesting vs. Boring

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II and Kingdom Hearts.

 

Anyone who has played any sort of mission/quest based game is familiar with side quests.  They’re those pesky optional quests that the player can choose to complete or not.  Some are simple, such as delivering a package to the NPC in the next town.  Some are challenging, like cave diving for a treasure.  Then there’s also the invariably hard and cruel ones that have you defeat some optional boss that takes every ounce of your being to defeat.  In either case, side quests come in a variety of flavors and vastly help to buffer the gameplay time.

However, not all side quests were created equal.  In fact, some can be outright snore fests.  Take, for instance, pretty much any optional quest in an MMORPG.  In general, these fall into one of a few categories: kill a certain number of creatures, collect certain ingredients/items, or deliver something to an NPC.  MMORPGs are very formulaic when it comes to this matter.  While these side quests do earn you experience points (exp) and virtual money, they have little else to offer the player.  They are, essentially, what makes a lot of MMORPGs grind-fests as it were.  Single player games can often be guilty of the same thing, especially for the RPG genre in general.

That being said, it is quite possible to make interesting side quests.  There are a variety of routes to go with this, but let’s examine three types of side quests that can actually be interesting.  These are namely side quests that add to the story, side quests that offer worthwhile loot, and side quests that offer an enormous challenge to test the player’s skill.  As a last note before we begin, for the purposes of this article we are defining side quests as any sort of optional task or fight that can be completed.

In regards to the first one, and personally my favorite, are the side quests that add to the story.  To example this, let us examine Dragon Age II.  Quests in this game are divided into several categories, namely “Main Plot,” “Secondary,” “Side Quests,” and “Companion.”  Despite the titles, the latter three can all be considered side quests for our purposes, since no quest in them absolutely needs to be done.  “Side Quests” in Dragon Age II offer the generic set of fetch quests, though they are useful for gold in Act 1 of the game.  However, “Secondary” and “Companion” quests are more than that; rather, they are sequences that add to the story.  For example, each party character has a personal story arc, such as Isabela’s attempts to find a relic she lost at the beginning of the game.  At the end of Act 2 when tensions are hitting their climax, the player receives the option to do a personal quest for her to retrieve the relic.  During this quest, the player learns that this so-called relic is the sacred Tome of Koslun, the entire cause for why the Qunari are in Kirkwall causing trouble.  Whether or not the player does this quest largely influences the main quest.  If the player chose to help Isabela and has a strong relationship with her, she will return with the tome, giving the player a different way to solve the main questline.  If not, the player is stuck with only two real options, both which involve a difficult fight.

As you can see in this example, the side quest can vastly affect the outcome in the story.  That being the case, the side quest becomes worthwhile, whether you do it or not in this case.  Particularly for story heavy RPGs, any quest that can tie into the story, even it’s just about developing the player’s relationship with a character, can increase their emotional involvement in the story.  This makes the game far more compelling to play, even to the point that sometimes you can overlook poorly implemented mechanics to continue the story.  Thus, the quest is interesting, because it can have tangible effects and doesn’t just fade into memory.

Another sort of interesting side quest is one that has worthwhile loot.  In this case, we will look again at Dragon Age II.  During Act 3, the player has the option to slay a High Dragon.  Though I wouldn’t personally say it’s the most difficult fight in the game, it is one that is a challenge and requires quite a bit of micro-managing to succeed.  However, what makes this fight worthwhile to do is that the dragon drops one of the main components for the “Mantle of the Champion” armor set.  Not only is this set extremely good as far as stats, but it’s also probably the most badass looking armor in the game.  Frankly, I could not imagine completing the end game without wearing that armor.  It would just feel too odd and make the end game even more difficult.

Regardless, it is the loot in this example that offers the interesting facet.  In more boring side quests, though the player may get money or loot, it is generally not anything game changing.  In this example, however, the game adds value to the player’s time spent doing the quest.  The rewards, despite the pains in doing the battle, are worthwhile and give the player a greater edge during the last parts of the game.  In that case, then, though the quest itself is straight-forward, the reward creates a side quest that is compelling for the player to complete.

HighDragonDAII

Lastly, let us discuss the final type: side quests that offer the player a challenge for their skills.  In this case, I’m going to switch series and look at something more classic.  Namely, we’re going to examine the optional boss fight with Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts.  For those not familiar with this fight, let me start off by saying the following: Sephiroth can one-shot you right at the start of the battle.  This fact alone should give you a hint at how hard this boss fight is.  Not only are Sephiroth’s attacks powerful, but his long sword gives him an immense range.  Even if you spend the hours it takes to create the best Keyblade, the fight is still extremely difficult.  One must have honed their skills and strategy in the game for several hours to even dream of taking Sephiroth on, and even then the fight would still be a challenge.

However, that is what makes that “quest” interesting.  The difficulty of the battle is like nothing else offered in the game.  It taxes the player’s time, skills, and reflexes and may even require training to complete.  The consequence, though, is that being able to defeat Sephiroth offers a sense of pride that other fights do not.  The player knows that it is because of their skill that they were able to beat this boss, so they can take satisfaction in that.  In a sense, what makes this type of side quest compelling is the potential bragging rights.  By doing this quest, you join a special club of people (metaphorically) who were actually able to complete it.  All in all, it is these factors that make the optional quest captivating to complete, despite the huge spike in difficulty.

In summary, there are a variety of ways you can make a side quest interesting.  Whether it’s by story, loot, or challenge, each of the mentioned examples above adds value to the player’s time.  In a sense, these quests feel like they have purpose in the game, more than just making the player feel like the game is longer than it is.  They offer compelling experiences that serve to immerse players more, rather than remind them that they are playing a game.  Though fetch quests and other similar low maintenance side quests have their place, one must not forget these should not be the sole form of optional quests.  Players are devoting their time to the game, so one should respect that time given.  Though no simple task design wise to be sure, it is something I hope aspiring developers will consider when developing their games.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Kingdom Hearts is © Square Enix, Disney Interactive Studios, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II screenshot of the High Dragon.  Obtained from the Dragon Age Wiki.

Another Argument for Mechanic Transparency: Dragon Age II Edition

Warning: Semi spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II.

 

Enemy waves are no new concept to video games.  They have been around for years and will probably remain for as long as they offer value to players.  While from my experience their existence can be a bit polarizing, it’s hard to discount them completely given the numerous amounts of players that like the challenge.  That being said, there are cases in which its execution is flawed at best.  One such instance that I wish to discuss today appears in Dragon Age II, where a lack of transparency makes the experience somewhat infuriating.

Before I delve into the brief discussion, let’s first define what I mean by waves of enemies.  In this case, I am talking about games that have their enemies appear in large groups or “waves.”  Regardless of whether the initial wave is visible at the start, enemies will continue to show up in a group at specified intervals.  These intervals can be dependent on time, amount of enemies left, or other factors, as long as a clear, identifiable separator between groups can be determined with observation.  The size of the groups is also irrelevant for the sake of this discussion; all that matters is the game’s enemy mechanics are based on several groups/waves of enemies showing up before full completion of a combat sequence (whether for a temporary sequence or the entire game).

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With that established, let us turn to Dragon Age II.  Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, where most of the combat has all enemies on the screen, Dragon Age II relies on waves of enemies to save on processing power amongst other things.  The various waves show up usually dependent on health and amount of enemies left on screen.  While in some cases the player can escape and get out of the combat sequence (though generally this requires a lot of stubbornness to achieve), in most cases the player is stuck in the combat sequence until all waves are defeated.

Of course, this sounds fairly standard for a “waves of enemies” mechanic, so at what point do I think the game went astray?  As I stated, this has a lot to do with a lack of transparency.  In a lot of games, when it implements waves of enemies, it will have information on the screen for the player.  Generally, this is information such as number of waves that the player will have to face, number of enemies the player has to defeat, or a combination of both.  In either case, these sorts of games make it clear to the player how long they will be fighting.  As such, the player can strategize appropriately.  Especially in games where inventory may be limited, this allows players to choose appropriate moments to use items, or to know when their best opportunity to prepare a trap is.  There are numerous instances where such information can be handy, and for players it makes the experience more satisfying.  Additionally, if a player fails, they know better at what point, and can appropriately adjust their strategy for the next try.  In the end, this results in a more fulfilling experience, since the game is delivering enough information to allow the players to apply their skills appropriately.

Unfortunately, Dragon Age II does not feature this simple information.  Rather, the player is left in a void of uncertainty on how many waves they will face.  While some can be guessed because of certain questlines having consistency, more often than not the player will have to have played the game before to know.  This makes good strategizing near impossible, sadly.  You could be struggling to save a mana potion, only to find out you were on the last wave and could’ve ended the fight quicker if you had taken it.  Another scenario: you went through most of your health potions, used the last one thinking you’re at the end, only to discover there are two more waves.  Numerous situations like this come about, all because the game chooses not to inform the player more clearly about what situations they will be facing.  While some would argue that this makes it so players have to be prepared, there is a point where preparation and strategy must work in conjunction.  Unfortunately, Dragon Age II’s transparency issue makes it so the preparation and strategy are not able to work together.

This lack of transparency results in one simple thing: the combat becomes tedious and somewhat unenjoyable.  The end goal is fairly undefined outside of kill everyone and don’t die.  By consequence, once the player wins there is almost of a sense of anti-climax, since there was no way to identify that would be the end point.  In similar fashion, when the player fails, they feel less like it was their fault; the game feels like it is unfairly throwing enemy after enemy at you, so it was more the fault of a badly designed game than the skill of the player.  Whether that is true or not, players who come away from combat feeling that will not be inspired to continue playing the game.  In the end, a lot of fun is ruined in Dragon Age II, simply from choosing not to be transparent about its game mechanics.

While I do like Dragon Age II just fine, I can identify its combat has this fairly noticeable flaw.  Though many others would point out the terrible, over-used level designs, I think the very nature of its combat exasperates that problem as well.  Had the developers chosen to be clearer about the enemies faced, whether it be by wave number, enemy number, or something else, the game may have had a more robust feeling combat that was skill based.  As it stands, though, the experience can be frustrating.

Overall, I hope this analysis serves as a cautionary tale to indie developers.  Even if the information seems minuscule, sometimes it is better to mention than not mention a piece of information, lest you wind up damaging the player’s experience by leaving out too much.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II promotional game screen.  Obtained from PC Gamer.

Minimalism vs. Transparency in GUIs

First and foremost, let me make something very clear: I’m pretty critical of graphical user-interfaces (GUIs).  There’s a fine line for me between having an aesthetically pleasing interface, and having an interface that is functional.  In all honesty, this can make or break whether I want to even use a program, since GUIs are the main way users interact with a program’s functions.  Unfortunately, I find more often than not programs and/or games prioritize one or the other instead of achieving a balance.  While this presents a whole slew of issues for software, it is for games where I begin to actively notice it.

From my experience, modern games have begun to favor a rather minimalist approach to games.  Aesthetically, these are usually very pleasing to the eye; not only are they sleek, but they generally offer a maximized view of the main game screen.  Sadly, though, their presence usually comes at the cost of transparency.  By transparency, I mean how clear the game delivers information about its mechanics.  Rather than plain numbers, a game can choose to display that information in a number of ways, such as the red bar commonly seen for HP.  Unfortunately, the use of such graphical cues begins to make the math behind the mechanics hazier.  In turn, it makes it more difficult for a player to strategize, whether it be because they can’t tell which attack is stronger or because they don’t understand how resources are being allocated.

To demonstrate this, let us turn to a survival game I’ve spoken of before: Subnautica.

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In the screenshot above, you can see the interface as it’s been for quite some time.  Of note, I want to focus on the bottom left.  Here we see information displayed about four essential survival components in Subnautica: Oxygen, Health, Food, and Water.  It is through these bars and numbers that one keeps track of the state of their character.  Food and Water slowly decay over time, indicating the need to eat or drink.  Oxygen decays while underwater, and health varies depending on injury, food level, and other factors.  In summary, these bars are extremely important in determining how “well” you are surviving.  Thankfully, while the GUI has some graphical value to it, the numbers also help indicate how nutritious or not a food is.  This is extremely useful for resource management and determining when exactly you should eat.

At current, due to decisions in development, the team is now working on a new interface design.  This design, pictured below, adheres more to the minimalist aesthetic that modern games prefer.

newsubnauticadesign

Arguably, this new interface is far more pleasing to the eye and fits with the general aesthetic style of the game.  That being said, one thing is clearly obvious: Food, Health, and Water no longer have number values visible.  While, of course, there are bars there to indicate the various values of each, the lack of numbers suddenly erases some of the certainty on how effective every resource is.  Does this fruit heal 50% of Food or is it less?  What about this water?  Unfortunately, in a survival game, being able to process this sort of information is important.  Resources in survival games tend to be limited, so suddenly taking away one of the information cues makes resource management all the more difficult.

Although I wish I could say Subnautica was the only game to ever do this, this is sadly not the case.  There are rather a slew of modern games that choose to take away information in favor of aesthetics.  As someone who appreciates and writes about art quite often, I can understand why they would make this choice.  However, as someone who also understands the value of clear information, it is disheartening.  Not only is the trend set to confuse players who prefer to play a game as efficiently as possible, it can make games potentially frustrating when trying to understand how something works.  Understanding the mechanics is a key component to being able to play a game.  Interacting with the mechanics is something one can only do through the GUI, and if the GUI is not clear, the mechanics become unclear.  Inevitably, you can see how this suddenly becomes detrimental to the experience.

All that being said, my purpose in this article is merely to point out a troubling trend.  If you are an aspiring developer, please keep in mind beautiful GUIs should not be the final stopping point.  Rather, one should aim for the ideal of having both information and aesthetics.  GUIs should look nice, but should also enhance the game rather than be an unclear information pit.  While this is by no means an easy feat to achieve, it is the goal that will leave users of a wide variety happy and able to play the game.

 

Subnautica is © to Unknown Worlds all affiliated parties.

Image 1: Screenshot from Subnautica during one of my playthroughs.

Image 2: Screenshot from the Subnautica Trello board.

The Broad Usage of Indie

Speaking from a game development perspective, you’ve most likely heard the word “indie developer” thrown around.  It’s becoming quite the phenomenon lately, especially with the numerous changes that benefits indie developer.  These changes range from financial support systems like Kickstarter to platforms that make indie games readily available (circa the Steam Greenlight program).  There are also numerous engines available to the public now such as Unity and RPG Maker.  All in all, the industry scene has changed quite a bit for indie developers, allowing them more access to tools to make games and more access to people to play those games.

All that being said, none of these changes have affected how we apply the word “indie developer.”  Yet, for me personally, I have to wonder if the term is applied too broadly now?  With more tools and more platforms comes a wider variety of quality in these games.  Is it fair that all indie developers get lumped into one group?  That is the topic I wish to explore today, or more so, apply my opinion to.

To begin, we first must have our standard definition.  Wikipedia defines indie games as the following:

“Independent video game development is the video game development process of creating indie games; these are video games, commonly created by individual or small teams of video game developers and usually without significant financial support of a video game publisher or other outside source.”

By this definition, we’re speaking then of creators who are not supported by publishers like Electronic Arts, Bandai Namco, etc..  While this may at first seem like a fine definition, when one looks at the wide range of games available, it starts to have some flaws.

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Let’s take a look at Subnautica by the studio Unknown Worlds.  For those unfamiliar with the game, Subnautica is a survival, crafting game with a futuristic, underwater theme.  Subnautica, in my opinion, has a graphical quality that could challenge a lot of AAA games.  While there is a stylization to it, the graphics in it are high quality featuring smooth meshes and spectacular animations.  Fish in the game all have individualistic movements, from the Gasopods who more float around to the Reaper Leviathan’s who coil about.  The interface is also well-developed, featuring stylistic minimalism that serves its use while fitting in with the futuristic tone of the game.  The world is fairly vast, featuring numerous individualistic biomes.  This includes areas such as a biome filled with mostly underwater lava to a biome that that is in shallow water and has a bunch coral like structures.  The mechanics of the game are also well-developed and pretty balanced, letting the player explore, gather resources, and craft items at a good pace.  The atmosphere the game possesses is very intense and has vast immersive factors; one cannot but help but be a little more scared of the ocean.

In summary, though, the point is that this is a high quality game that you can tell was developed with great care.  While the game is still in development at the moment, there’s a certain level in which you could be tricked it was finished.  That is how amazing the game is.

That being said, let’s take off our Subnautica hat and look at someone else: me.  Now before you click off, understand I do not choose myself for shameless self-promotion.  I choose myself, because I’m the person I can criticize the most without hurting anyone’s feelings.  My intent in this article is not to discourage anyone from making games, so I’m a risk free candidate.  Moving on, in October 2016, I developed a Halloween game called Dark Forest.  It was made in the RPG Maker VX Ace engine and used, for the most part, in-engine assets.  The game is a puzzle-horror game and was made within the span of a week.  The game takes maybe 20 minutes to beat.  While I personally may be proud of certain aspects, I’m under no illusion that it’s some amazing, revolutionary game worth playing.

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The unfortunate fact is, however, that a lot of indie games are closer to mine in quality.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that as everyone has to start somewhere.  Yet, all these beginning developers (such as myself) still get to wear the title of indie developer.  So the point I ask you is that particularly fair?  Should I be able to say I belong to the same grouping as a hard working studio like Unknown Worlds?

In my opinion, the answer should be no.  In fact, I would argue applying the word indie so broadly in this case is detrimental to both sides when it comes to public perception.  Let me explain.  Say there was a player who only ever played my game and games of similar quality.  Let’s also assume that they did not care for these.  So, when a game like Subnautica comes along, there’s a risk players may not even consider it once hearing that it is an indie game.  After all, indie games to them have so far been of an immense lesser quality than AAA games.  On the flip though, say they were someone who, so far, only played games like Subnautica or Stardew Valley.  These are both fairly high quality indie games, so overall those high standards would inform their perception of what an indie game should be.  However, when they go to play a game by someone just starting, they are probably going to hate that game by default for not matching the higher quality of others.  In the end, both sides of this coin cause a huge rift in player perception.  Either they are going to expect gold or expect trash upon hearing that one word.

I feel this is a gross disservice to both experienced indie studios and those just starting.  While I, of course, have no power to suddenly command language to change, I do advocate that maybe it should in this case.  At the very least, I feel indie games should probably have sub-genres of a sort: one for games like Subnautica and one for games like mine.  In this way, the word indie would have less effect on players’ expectations, and the quality someone was getting into would be better known.  Though I acknowledge this may disadvantage those starting out, at the very least these developers would not be getting people who hate on them for not being these more intense indie games.

Unfortunately, this is the extent of my power in making this change happen.  I have no real expectations for it to change, nor am I going to go on one-on-one tirades for anyone who is okay with using the term broadly.  I do understand that not everyone feels a need to get that specific about word usage.  Nevertheless, I did want to put my two cents out there regarding this linguistic phenomenon.  At the very least, maybe someone thinks about indie games different than they used to, and I would at least consider that a victory.

Subnautica is © to Unknown Worlds all affiliated parties.

Image 1: Screenshot from Subnautica during one of my playthroughs.

Image 2: Screenshot from my game Dark Forest.

Why I Find Dragon Age: Origins Quests Tedious

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Origins.  Also, this is a very game specific opinion piece.  If you aren’t familiar with the game, you may not understand this post very well.

 

As I continue to traverse in my little free-time through Dragon Age: Origins yet again, I am reminded of a consistent fact: I hate the Fade.  For those who need a refresher, lore wise the Fade, or the Beyond to Dalish elves, is a world of spirits, demons, and dreams.  Gameplay wise, the Fade is a major component during the “Broken Circle” quest line, as at a certain point you get transported to this nightmare-scape by a demon.  It is, in my opinion, a nightmare to play through as it involves numerous loading screens, numerous fights that are overly difficult if you are a rogue or warrior, and a bunch of other small annoyances.  However, as I examined my dislike for this sequence, it occurred to me that many of the main storyline quests in Dragon Age: Origins are equally tedious to me.  Why would that be though?

Then it hit me: three of the four major storyline quests have false endings and terrible boss pacing.

Now before I begin with the specifics, do not get me wrong.  I love Dragon Age: Origins.  If that was not the case, I would not be on my fifth or sixth playthrough of it.  Nevertheless, I can recognize flaws within the game, and this happens to be one of them.

So, what exactly do I mean by false endings and terrible boss pacing?  Let’s first take a look at the “Broken Circle” quest line.  After traversing three or four floors of the Circle’s tower, the player is sent to the Fade, which is a rather long sequence that requires about the same amount of time as the tower itself to complete (at least if you’re thorough about some of the extras).  At the end of the Fade, you fight Sloth, the demon who put you there in the first place.  It is not an easy battle by any means and requires killing Sloth several times in different forms.  There is a sense of finality to the battle, yet, that is not the end.  Rather, you must fight Uldred, the real boss, who is almost literally right after the battle with Sloth.  In this case, there is no breathing room between these separate boss battles, making the fight feel long and tedious with little time to resupply and prepare between them.  The Fade sequence does feel like it should be the end of the questline as well, so to have another boss battle right after it feels somewhat anti-climatic as far as story-telling goes.

What about the other quests though?  In “The Arl of Redcliffe” questline, there are various paths to completing the quest, namely saving or abandoning Redcliffe and saving or killing Connor (the possessed mage child responsible for the problems in Redcliffe).  Once dealing with Connor however, it turns out this was not the end of the quest line.  Now, the player must go on a whole separate questline (“The Urn of Sacred Ashes”) to heal the Arl; unfortunately, this second questline has no real boss battle as a finality (the High Dragon is optional afterall).  The numerous amount of back and forth in this quest line vastly ruin the pacing and make it hard to feel there’s a proper climax.  Additionally, no battle within it feels like a true boss battle and it becomes a mix of easy enemies and hard enemies.  Thus, this questline, to me at least, has never felt like it had a final moment of feeling like I earned something.

Then, of course, we have the “A Paragon of Her Kind” questline.  Before even heading into the Deep Roads, the player must get the support of Bhelen or Harrowmont through various quests.  One of these support quests involves killing the carta boss Jarvia, which is a decent mini boss.  Alas, she is but one of three mini bosses before the player even gets to the final point.  While in the Deep Roads, the player must pass through four thaigs in order to get to the Anvil of the Void; however, all these thaigs are long enough to feel like two main storyline quest worth of material.  This is not to mention the fact you must also fight two mini-bosses before getting to the final fight against whichever Paragon you did not support.  In the end, the pacing on this quest was just overly drawn out.  One keeps wondering when they’ll finally hit the end, and every boss fight seems like false hope to reaching that sense of finality.

To summarize, these three quests are just terribly paced.  While I can appreciate trying to have variance in the composition of the questlines, the pacing feels off because of the segmentation of each quest.  They are not interconnected well to feel like parts of the same quest (even though completing them moves the main story-line along), so drawing them out as in “A Paragon of Her Kind” does not work well.  The timing of bosses was also ill conceived in some cases, since they felt either like they should have been the real boss or were simply of no concern as a climax at all.  In the end, a lot of these quests just feel tedious, since they do not properly convey a sense of achievement when they are completed.

Now you may have noticed I left out the “Nature of the Beast” questline.  This is because this is the questline I think is well-designed.  The quest has a few stages that are decent in gameplay length, and give the player opportunities to breathe and resupply.  Mini boss wise, the player can fight The Grand Oak or the Mad Hermit, but this is smack dab in the middle of the quest stage and is completely optional depending on choices.  There is also a dragon to fight within the ruins, but it is equally in the middle of the ruins sequence.  At the end, the player is given a clear idea that fighting the Lady of the Forest or Zathrian will be the end of the quest and accomplish the end goal.  As such, this is a pleasant quest, for me at least, to play through.  The story feels properly climatic where it should, and I never feel like the quest is dragging on too long.  The bosses are also well-paced to get the blood-pumping, but never catch the player unaware by putting them too close together.  In the end, this is the easiest one to play through and feel like something has been accomplished without feeling overwhelmed.

That being said, I’m sure others will have different opinions.  I can only give my opinion here on this blog.  However, I hope that someone will take these insights to heart when designing a questline, as pacing is very important to making a pleasing experience that doesn’t trap the player in an anti-climatic tedium.  This goes for story too, of course, but gameplay and story can be very intertwined.

My last thought on the matter is simply this: next time you’re playing a game and don’t understand why you dislike a certain sequence, maybe take a look at the pacing, as that may explain quite a lot.

 

Dragon Age: Origins is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age: Origins Cover.  Obtained from Wikipedia.