Wednesday, February 15, 2012

X-Com Dev Interview Rant

In developer interviews, the X-Com developers reference Dark Souls and Dwarf Fortress as examples of difficult games and as a comparison to X-Com's difficulty.

Dark Souls is a trial and error action game where mistakes are punished with grinding to make up lost souls or backtracking. It's in no way difficult in that it significantly tests typical action game skills as found in series such as DMC, NG, or Bayonetta, or even God of War and Vindictus, most of which have extremely fast enemies that require millisecond timing, coordination, reflexes, and more complex strategy. There's also far less potential for grinding out of a difficult situation. Yes, I can hear the goalposts being hurriedly moved at this moment, claiming "Dark Souls is an RPG, you can't compare it to action games!" Most action games have RPG elements these days, including all of the ones I just listed, and the comparison is valid.

It is true that you can theoretically run past every enemy in the game without dying, smack the final boss around a bit, then win the game. I don't think this is how Dark Souls is typically played, since it bypasses a huge amount of content. It's generally assumed that the player will want to explore the world and fight most or all of the bosses to experience the content.

Dark Souls has almost nothing to do with the strategic depth and difficulty found in a turn based tactics game. Instead it piles tedium on the player for making mistakes or getting caught by trial and error nonsense, although there is less trial and error than in Demon's Souls. Remove the punishment and grinding/leveling from Dark Souls and you're left with a sluggish action combat game with bosses that don't take any particularly complex strategy to defeat, certainly not approaching the level of complexity that can be encountered in tactics games. Not to mention Dark Soul's lack of a scoring system and pecking order style PvP.

Of course, that's one of the reasons why Dark Souls is so popular. Almost anybody, even poorly skilled gamers that are bad at other action games, can eventually complete it with enough patience, tedium, and simple trial and error, then go around proclaiming that they "beat such a difficult game". If such gamers think they really do love difficult games, they should give this list a try and let me know how many buckets of tears they fill.

It's the same with Dwarf Fortress, which is a heavily random and punishing sandbox game. Dwarf Fortress is designed for the player to randomly and uncontrollably fail, and the randomized sandbox style method of failure is supposed to be part of the game's amusement, much in the way that random disasters in SimCity are supposed to be fun. You also need to familiarize yourself with dozens of obscure rules and systems in order to progress past the first few bits of game play. What does this sandbox play have to do with turn based tactics game strategic difficulty or depth? Pretty much nothing, which is why it makes little to no sense to be comparing X-Com's difficulty to Dwarf Fortress, either.


Shitai said...

An interesting appraisal of difficulty, and one I agree with, excepting that Dark Souls and Dwarf Fortress are rather different animals. I would say DF has an excuse for its unreasonable (almost irrational) difficulty in that it is a sandbox game. The act of exploration of the game's own mechanics is the game itself.

Dark/Demon Souls, on the other hand, is labeled an action game, and has no such excuse.

Unrelated note: Bayonetta is quite hard in its own charming way. Made the "mistake" of buying the Gaze as my first accessory and now I don't want to take it off...

Matthew Emirzian (mjemirzian) said...

Thanks for your comment, Shitai. I think DF's "irrational" difficulty is part of its charm - just look at the DF wiki and you'll see multiple references to "fun", which in DF means taking amusement in the different ways a complex sandbox ecosystem can collapse.

But the main point of the article was to point out that it's rather clueless of anyone to compare a turn based tactics game's difficulty or applicable skills to games like Dark Souls or Dwarf Fortress.

I enjoyed Bayonetta and Vanquish and I'm looking forward to more Platinum Games in the future.

rjcarello said...

I've never considered Dark Souls to be a very difficult game. I generally describe it as "extremely lethal" in the sense that an inexperienced player will die a lot. However, once a player learns what to avoid and develops a strategy for the game's various obstacles, everything in the game is rather ordinary in it's difficulty. I still consider it to be a fantastic game.

However, the developers comparing it to XCOM is troubling because it suggests that their heads are in the wrong place.

Matthew Emirzian (mjemirzian) said...

Yes RJ, it's a very punishing game and makes you grind to make up mistakes, but if you remove that element or if you're skilled at action games it's rather dull. I've seen WoW bosses that require more strategy than the stuff in DS.

rjcarello said...

I think you want to avoid the pitfall of saying a game forces grinding when it doesn't. Granted, that is probably the response a lot of people have upon dying and losing a bunch of souls.

However, even ignoring the Lvl 1 playthroughs and 90 minute speed-runs, Dark Souls really isn't about grinding. For every difficult battle I've encountered, I won by coming back after finding applicable items or improved the strategy and execution of my play. Never did I aimlessly kill monsters to level up, nor did I ever feel like leveling up would tip a battle in my favor if I was playing poorly.

Also, there are plenty of ways to mitigate the risk of losing souls. Spend them, wear a Ring of Sacrifice, or warp away with Homeward Bone. Even failing to do that, you have to die twice before you actually lose anything.

That said, it sounds like Dark Souls wasn't your cup of tea, and everybody is welcome to their preferences. It might also be true that I suck at action games. Most games I play are turn-based aside from some shoot-em-ups.

I just can't stop myself from responding when people erroneously say a game requires grinding, is a grindfest, etc. (I'm sure nearly everybody who ever reviewed Devil Survivor 1 has heard from me.)

Matthew Emirzian (mjemirzian) said...

I never said Dark Souls required grinding. I said it uses grinding as a form of punishment for failure. For example, if you used up a bunch of important consumables trying to defeat a boss but lost anyway, you aren't going to get those back. You'll either have to grind to get more consumables, go get better items/gear (as you said yourself) to have a better shot at it, which probably involves some amount of killing the same enemies repeatedly.. that would be a form of hidden grinding and stat building to come back with better stats or abilities.

So I would say that grinding is still very much a part of Dark Souls gameplay to your average gamer.

rjcarello said...

When I mentioned coming back with better items later, I didn't mean grinding. Just putting that boss/section aside until you've explored other parts of the game.

But yes, it is an RPG, so leveling up and accumulating currency is a big part of the game. Many players who struggle grind their way out of any problem.