Monday, April 28, 2014

Titanite or Tediumite? An Argument for a Purely Stat Based Equipment System in the Souls Series

Going back to the Dark Souls PvP scene, I've found the decision to include a weapon/armor upgrade system perplexing. From my perspective, it only achieves three things. 1) It limits one's weapon options by adding tedium to the PvP process, 2) it creates an artificial gap between players who have time/desire to grind out gear and players who don't, and 3) it results in unfair inequities between player builds. What is truly frustrating about these things is that they are totally unnecessary. They could all be fixed by a simple adjustment: make equipment upgrades a purely stat based process.

First, let me explain the problems as I see them.  As things stand in Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, fully upgraded equipment is a requirement for competitive PvP. If your weapons and armor are not leveled to the highest degree, you will be at a distinct disadvantage against the majority of opponents you come up against. This means that to have a chance, you will have to collect a large number of items (called titanite) to bring your equipment up to par, a tedious process that will mainly involve grinding enemies in certain areas of the game.

This is especially infuriating given the large number of weapons potentially available to the player. In Dark Souls 2, for example, in theory the player has many weapon types to chose from and experiment with. But in practice, the player will have to focus on only one or two of these in order to consolidate upgrade materials. The other weapons are left collecting dust as a result because without upgrading they remain vastly inferior.

Some will object here and say, "Don't expect the game to cater to casual players." The thing is, the equipment upgrade process isn't about skill, but the willingness to sink large amounts of time into a repetitive process of killing the same enemies over and over again.

This brings me to my second point. The upgrade system creates a gap between players who have fully upgraded equipment and those that don't, and what that gap essentially represents is not a difference in skill but a difference in time devoted to repetitive play. The division here is not between hardcore players and casual ones, but between players willing to engage in hours of mind-numbing gameplay and those who demand that gameplay always be engaging. The former is not something that should ever be encouraged in game design.

Finally, the current weapon upgrading system enables all sorts of loop holes through the checks and balances built into the game. Soul level, and now soul memory in Dark Souls 2, is used to match players evenly with each other. Weapon upgrading can evade this kind of check, especially when you get people "muling," i.e., gifting low level players powerfully upgraded items. It also brings imbalance to the game by allowing magic based characters to wield extremely powerful melee weapons that in theory should only be available to players who have invested in melee stats.

A switch to a purely stat based equipment system would fix all of these issues in one fell swoop. In this system, the strength of a weapon would be determined entirely by the stats it scales with. For example, a greatsword's damage output would depend entirely on a player's strength stat, or some combination of strength and dexterity. The particulars aren't important. What is key is that there is no upgrading of one's equipment independently of upgrading one's character stats.

Consider the impact this would have on the issues I raise above. The tedium of weapon upgrading would be eliminated. By simply leveling the appropriate stats, your equipment will grow with you, becoming stronger as you become stronger. The process is far more elegant, as leveling up is a natural part of the game, while titanite collecting is more an artificial graft/side-quest.

All the weapons you collected would now be viable so long as you invest in the stats that they scale with. Thus, the available range of weapon options would be dramatically widened for players, introducing more variety and more strategy to more players.

Players would no longer be divided into those willing to grind and those who don't. Instead, skill along with effective stat management would become the deciding factor of PvP encounters. It's the players' builds that should be pitted against each other, not their equipment upgrades.

Finally, muling would be rendered a moot point. It won't matter if some experienced player gives a low level player a powerful weapon, because the weapon won't be effective unless its user invests in the stats that it scales with, thus increasing their soul level and soul memory appropriately.

Indeed, this solution is so simple and so effective, it truly perplexes me that From has not already implemented it. The only reasons I can think of for them not doing it are 1) it hasn't occurred to them, or, and more likely, 2) they are worried that certain elements of the fan base would react negatively to it.

Why? From might be concerned that certain "hardcore" gamers thrive on the idea that by investing hundreds of hours into a game they will get a guaranteed competitive advantage over other players. I emphasize guaranteed because this advantage is not about accruing skill but about accruing goods. The difference is this: gaining skill cannot be guaranteed. One can simply remain bad at a game, no matter how long one plays it, if he/she doen't grasp certain fundamentals. Goods, however, will be gained no matter how smart or talented the player is. So what we're really talking about here is a desire for a structural advantage over other players, i.e., one built into the system itself rather than being dependent upon the talent of the player.

I'm very interested to hear others' thoughts on this. What do you think about this stat based system? Am I missing something? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Is Dark Souls Better than Dark Souls II? A Critique of Nostalgia

Now that we are a month or so past the release of the latest entry into the Souls series, people are beginning to make comparisons between it and the previous game. Unfortunately, many of those comparisons have veered towards the negative. People have been quick to point out Dark Souls II's faults and shortcomings vis-a-vis Dark Souls. And while I agree that there are grounds for criticism, I think in many cases people are letting feelings of nostalgia get in the way of objective assessment.

More often than not, when people compare Dark Souls II to its predecessor, they are viewing the latter through rose-tinted glasses. They aren't thinking about the entire experience of Dark Souls I, but isolated moments remembered fondly, such as the run through Sen's Fortress and Anor Londo. Who could forget  those swinging guillotines or those archers guarding the palace? The icing on the cake was, of course, Ornstein and Smough, perhaps the single greatest boss fight in video game history. People bring such examples up, and feel convinced that the first game was pure and simply better. And no wonder, in such unbalanced comparison (the highlights of Dark Souls versus the whole of Dark Souls II) there really is no question about which appears better. But the truth is, Sen's Fortress-Anor Londo was a mere sliver of Dark Souls, a piece of a long game with high points and low points.

The lead-up to AL is quite good, so long as you ignore the tedious nature of most of the enemies you come up against and the overall linear nature of the journey. You start in the Burg and things are pretty interesting. But then you go down and spend hours fighting rats, dogs, and frogs, baiting them to strike your shield so you can hit them back safely. If the enemy was bigger than this, you circled him and stabbed him in the back.This is pretty much the first 35 hours of Dark Souls. Block with your shield and strike, circle around your opponent and strike. Now get to a bonfire and level up and then continue down the corridor filled with more dogs, rats, and frogs.

The fact is, there is very little adventuring in Dark Souls, especially in the first half. You can briefly visit a few areas early, if you're feeling suicidal, but the reality is, these areas are designed to seriously deter you from going very far into them. Instead, you are pressured to take the "correct" path, and this is how you'll spend much of the game leading up to and including Anor Londo.

Contrast this with Dark Souls II. Once you get to Majula, there are two paths immediately obvious to you. One is clearly harder than the other, but not impossibly so. You could realistically take it on first and there are good reasons to do so, including opening another path. There's also a big, empty well in the town with platforms for you to drop down on. A simple to acquire ring will open this area to you very early as well. So near the beginning of things, you have four different paths to take, each with its own challenges and rewards. Moreover, you aren't stuck with any one of them once you start it, because you can always warp back to Majula and take another route.

This is real adventuring. Carving out one's own path through a game according to one's own inclinations and luck. There's a lot of variety in player experience in DSII compared to DSI consequently. I didn't realize there was another way to get to the Lost Bastille outside of the hawk that transports you after the Pursuer battle until way later in the game. Others found it but never fought or beat the Pursuer. Some went down into the well early. Others waited and ventured into Huntsman's Copse. All were legitimate pathways that made for unique journeys. Locked doors and sealed passageways also gave you fresh reasons to return to earlier areas--something Dark Souls really lacked.

There are challenges that come with this more open design, mainly dealing with enemy difficulty. It was easier for the creators of Dark Souls to consistently match difficulty of levels with the progression of the player, as they always had a fairly good idea of what level a player would be at a given segment of the game. DSII made this calculation much harder because it gave the player real choices. But despite this, they managed to have challenging scenarios and bosses along each path, no matter when you took it.

Speaking of bosses, Dark Souls II has some great ones. The whole line running from the Pursuer to the Ruin Sentinels to the Lost Sinner was fantastic, particularly if you do it early and don't summon. Each boss meaningfully ramped up the difficulty and provided new challenges to overcome. Other notable battles include the Charioteer, Iron King, and the Ancient Dragon. All of these were well-designed bosses that presented unique scenarios for the player to take on.

Dark Souls II has its share of less impressive bosses, but so does Dark Souls. Don't get me wrong, the Gargoyles were intense, and the Iron Golem fight had great atmosphere. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the bosses in DSI are just giant damage sponges that hit hard and move little. More often than not, the mechanics of the battle are wonky, making the confrontation feel more like a clusterfuck than the elegant dance that is achieved in many DSII encounters.

This elegance, by the way, has a lot to do with the refined combat system of DSII. The mechanics of battle are just flat out better in DSII than Dark Souls or Demon's Souls. Animations are smoother and more realistic. Sword swings are weightier and more visually discernible when incoming. The timing and mechanics of rolling are better implemented too. All around, the battle system is more precise.

Dark Souls II also manages to give us a much better second half than the first game.

And if Dark Souls II doesn't have anything to quite match Ornstein and Smough, it makes up for this with a superior second half. After O&S, you are sent back down to the deep, dark depths of the world. People forget how anti-climatic this is. Narratively, this just doesn't work. You can't repeat the rising structure after it has happened once and get the same results. Going back down is a drag. As a result, the second half of the game becomes a chore. It doesn't help that the bosses and levels in this half aren't very inspired. The main thing motivating you to continue on at this point is the sheer investment of time and energy already sunk into the game and the desire to see it through to the end.

It's a strange fact, but the quality of Dark Souls directly corresponds with the relative elevation of your character on the world map. The higher up you are, the better the game.

Dark Souls II does better. In its second half, there are once again choices to made about which path you will take. They lead to some exciting and devious places, and previews of the game let you know that there are some real treats yet to be seen which keeps you motivated. I was still wondering when I would find the Mirror Knight. I also knew that dragons would come into the picture sometime. Finally, I wanted to find the King. This kept the latter half of DSII a lot fresher and more engaging than the second half of Dark Souls.

Some people have taken issue with the lack of world interconnectedness in Dark Souls II. The incongruous transition from Earthen Peak and Iron Keep is the chief example brought up in this context. This is a good point, and I don't want to come off as simply dismissing it, but people really exaggerate the quality of interconnectedness in the first game. The way some people laud it, you'd think the game is very open and that you can get to all areas of the map from tons of different directions. But this isn't the case. You can see The Demon Ruins from the Tomb of the Giants, but it's not like you can get down there from that vantage. You're still bound to the preset path determined by the game's designers. So the interconnectedness exists visually, not materially. It gives the illusion of depth where there really isn't any, like a matte painting in a film.

This doesn't excuse Dark Souls II for lacking the interconnected of its predecessor, even if it is largely cosmetic, because it did clearly show the care and thought the first game's creators put into it. For me, however, the contrast highlights the need for a marriage of the two in a future game: a deeply interconnected world that also facilitates truly open exploration. 

I haven't mentioned the online components of the games. Suffice it to say, the online component of Dark Souls was a real step back from Demon's Souls. The switch to P2P meant far fewer messages and phantoms appeared while playing. The balance between human and hollowed was totally under-thought in the game as well. The effect of which was to severely diminish the quality of certain PvP elements, namely invasions. DSII, by returning to a server based system and by allowing invasions regardless of the host's status rectified both these serious flaws of the predecessor to some degree.

None of this is to say that DSII doesn't have its faults. It does, certainly. But most of them are faults that are common to the series as a whole rather than unique to DSII. Both games have anti-climatic final boss fights which is something FROM has yet to getting a handle on. The series still relies too often on bosses that essentially require circling and dodging. FROM need to press themselves to come up with more innovative encounters or reduce the number of bosses and focus on making a few great ones.The same goes for level designs. They need to stop re-using the Valley of Defilement/Blighttown template and come up with something new. Also, they need to give the multiple gargoyles boss a rest, because it's no longer exciting.

If Dark Souls II has an individual fault, I would say it is a lack of commitment to some of its best and novel ideas. The torch mechanic ended up being implemented half-heartedly and consequently has no real purpose in the game. The gradual hollowing of the character upon each death (with corresponding reductions to the health bar) was a bold move that FROM significantly undercut by including the Ring of Binding early in the game. Finally, the frightening prospect of always being vulnerable to invasions never fully materialized because of the scarcity of red orbs and lack of incentives for invasions.

On the whole, however, I would argue Dark Souls II represents a substantive step-forward for the Souls series. It loses ground in some areas, such as interconnectedness and having a truly breathtaking, stand-out boss fight, but gains in more important areas such as combat depth, exploration, and online play. So let's take stock of this and try not to let our nostalgia for what never was prevent us from appreciating what now is.