Let me begin this snippet with a question: “How many of you gamers are enthralled by the idea of character builds?” I have always loved the idea… until recently when I really thought about what was going on and then I discovered that I miss the old ways of making a PC, your character, more than what we get today!
Long ago, when RPG’s ruled the world, there existed several IP’s that set the stage for playing the ‘role’ of the hero you controlled and provided you, the player, a means to harness your personality and play style and mold it into your character and play experience. You could call them tabletop gaming or WRPG’s.. Baldur’s Gate, Obvivion, Neverwinter.. etc. Remember?
Fast forward to today and the past 10 years and yes there is some overlap, but the majority of people think about World of Warcraft or Diablo, yes there are other culprits but we’ll leave it there as they are both recognizable and related so it may be easier to draw these examples.
For those diehard fans, please tune down the hate and just try to soak in what I am actually saying when I say it’s not the game thats’ bad but the way we interact with it as players, is so elementary we should feel dumb and lame for falling prey to the spell that is ‘Blizzard Entertainment’.
Blizzard has created success after success and continued to build raw sales seemingly from nowhere with each game they release and you have to give them credit for that but where do you give credit? Is it the fans, the game design, marketing or some cryptic combination? Who knows and it doesn’t really matter but I want to bring to your attention something about the way Blizzard captivates it’s audience and then exploit that by showing you the weakness it has.
In WoW, play experience was only measured by 1 thing, how far you got or your character’s level. The same measurement existed for gear, there were obvious choices for each class and quest rewards catered to reward the player with ‘appropriate’ rewards, instead of rewards that were valid and relevant to a rich world and circumstance. In that sense it is like a casual gamer being given an achievement or the ability to send a friend a gift virtually. If you put the time in, you’ll get what everyone else is getting, so don’t worry about not becoming powerful or being left out of something cool. It pays to do what everyone else is doing!!
This mindset carried into the skills, rune combinations and even got dumbed down to the point where people didn’t even try ‘other skills’ because they already had the best ones for their class. This is a main point in my argument about how ‘dumb’ game design is these days when it comes to creating customization under the guise, ‘build’. It’s a joke! Now in the defense of games likes this, I understand why they are made this way; to make you feel powerful, not special, there is a difference. But my argument is not that fact, it’s that a uniquely crafted PC is powerful, if made by someone that is invested in that PC and is skilled enough to make choices that improve prowess on and off the fields of combat.
In Diablo 3, the returns from this same scope were somewhat different as you could use runes to change the properties of the limited amount of skills you could use. At first it felt better but in the end it became the same for anyone playing a particular class. Sure there is some variance but at the end of the day, they basically all play the same way, even among relationships between different classes. In a game that has role playing aspects, thats kinda sad when you think about it.
What has happened is that in order to appeal to the masses and make money, these developers are creating hard-wired responses by implementing mechanics that are viral and extremely basic and mundane. This makes it easier to balance skills and classes and ultimately the result is the same play experience only with different class models, skill names and rendering. From a logistical stand point I can understand how hard it is to create true originality and find balance as I have spent hundreds of hours developing game content, characters, NPC’s, worlds, quest lines.. and finding the happy medium is difficult. In fact most of the time I don’t pull it off how I would like but the idea I am conveying is that I am 1 person, not trained and not amongst peers who do the same thing for a living. It seems odd that a team would spend millions on game design and create mediocrity in the name of epic adventure and fantasy because of course you wouldn’t expect a designer/developer known around the world, selling 10’s of millions of copies to push the envelope? <- that was sarcasm
True ‘builds’ are not choosing 1 skill over another at level 10. It isn’t socketing an INT gem instead of SPIRIT or choosing to use whirlwind instead of earthquake. Builds are actual variance in a character in terms of how they play and why they are built as such. A perfect example would be from tabletop gaming, a love of mine.
In Warcraft I would make a Rogue and by the time I hit max level I would be like every other rogue, wearing 70%+ the same items and using most likely 90% same skills. Depressing when you spent hundreds of hours on it isn’t it.
In one of the worlds of tabletop my Rogue could also be a Fighter or maybe a spell caster or maybe I take a feat to allow myself the ability to jump really far or pick a lock quicker. Maybe my backstory is I grew up in the slums and am good in a street fight and don’t care about backing into the shadows to work on my ‘stealth’. Perhaps I’m good with a bow.. do you see the difference? Yes your still picking upgrades and yes you are aiming at becoming powerful but the difference is that you can fail, you have to work at it and if you have a good game master, your choices are going to be relevant to where you have been, actions you have taken and resources available to you, making each upgrade mean something and that is an integral part in making an RPG with value in my book.
Blizzard Entertainment is perhaps the most successful gaming company out there that puts the least into the core mechanics of game design and the most into the superficial highly polished ones that are so ‘tasty’ to us gamers. I don’t know if it’s my age or the fact that I look at games differently now but I miss the old days and long to see a celebration of what it means to have a unique character build, not Braxxis’ D3 Whirlwind Barbarian v1.2 build’… because I mean I get it, tabletop is VERY time consuming and takes a long long time to do, I’m ready for a console version that encompasses some of the concepts from pen n paper and make something more accessible I can pick up and put down at a moments notice on console.
Another thought is to modify what an RPG is now. If you are part of the 80s, like me, RPG probably means something different than to someone much younger. I don’t look at all of them the same, but calling a game an RPG DOES speak to me more than ‘action adventure’. I’d like to see these new games with RPG elements remain a brand all their own and leave the title ‘RPG’ to actual RPG’s. The same goes for Final Fantasy.. it actually isn’t an RPG either by my early standards, more Epic Fantasy than anything.
I am not pointing the finger at Blizz for committing a crime but using them as a tangible example almost everyone is aware of and can relate to, to show you that even the big boys have room to grow. There are countless other games out there that do the same thing and don’t do some others. They remain one of my favorite game companies in terms of what they turn out but as per my point, even the mighty fall to true game design, true originality and careful relevant direction! In this edition, the pen is actually mightier than the sword, long live tabletop, long live the ‘OG’ RPG!