February 2021

The boredom of linear story based games

It really wonders me how I never witnessed anyone mentioning this issue and it is how boring story based linear games are. I'm pretty sure many at least subconsciously have experienced the boredom they bring and now I will tell you why they are probably even objectively boring.

If you are a game designer or ever seriously thought about how most games are designed you may have already figured out that they follow a fixed script. Or if you are not into games, think about how movies are made, they also first write a script and then they make the movie around it, the script almost always stays the same, they just make the movie around it, sometimes they even use the same script to make multiple seemingly different movies,yes and it is the same with video games, which are basically also just movies, if they follow a script, with the difference that they are more or less interactive or at least seem to be interactive. A video game often lets you walk around "freely", do things "your" way or do certain things your "own", but if you analyse the script you will realize, that you are only allowed to freely do what you want, if you don't violate the script, which you are unable to change.

Even if you never thought about anything like this or cannot figure this out, let me tell you that even when I was very young and played my first video games I noticed that issue, at least subconsciously and it manifested in boredom, so much, that the amount of story games I could play though was very limited, up to, that some games I never bothered to play through. So why was I so much into video games anyway? Well there was another kind of game and it was multiplayer games, especially those with level editors and modding capabilities, that is where video games really began to become interesting to me. I'm aware that big companies often categorize their customer into different personality profiles, one that is very famous is "the whale" which is like 1% of the customer group that makes up 90% of the profits in pay2win games, because they are prone to those gambling like mechanisms, I made the numbers up, but it is roughly somewhere in that area, meaning a small group of customers creates most of the profits and of course there are many other groups of gamers.

So into what group would I probably fit? I would probably fit into the competitive gamer demographic, which plays games mostly because of the competitive factor aka multiplayer games, therefore singleplayer games offer little to no value to such a competitive gamer, because there is no real competition other than the AI, which you will eventually beat, if you just memorize how everything works. The other category I would fit in, is the content creator or whatever it may be called, no idea if companies ever bothered to create such a group, since that group is probably very small, especially nowadays, where proprietary software games mostly make it impossible to create custom content by design, which means that target group cannot be relevant and projects that appeal to such people basically all fail no matter if made by an AAA studio or indie developer like me.

However I think there are no such groups in reality, sure you can categorize people into that, but to me it looks they just separate intelligent people from stupid people, from very stupid people and a certain subcategory of very stupid people becomes very attractive to big companies, since they can easily manipulated to spend lots of money.

I would rank the demographic group of gamer probably like this, from top to bottom aka from probably most intelligent to most stupid.

1. The creator, he like to create his own stuff and mostly plays or uses games to create his own things and that group today can directly revert to game engines which have become free, but in the past, this group had to chose a game to use it to create levels, mods or whatever for.
2. The competitive pro gamer, he gets games because he wants to get good at them and dominate other players or even become an official pro gamer, those people only buy a certain small number of games which are known to be competitive with a big audience, so that group is hard to milk for money, unless they can be manipulated to buy things like skins for their favorite game.
3. The regular competitive gamer, he differs from the competitive pro gamer, that he is not that serious about competition, but needs competition in order to be motived, he will buy similar games than the pro gamer, but will buy more different games, but mostly multiplayer games, so a bit more profit can be made from him.
4. The casual gamer, he is kind of the middle, he will consume almost anything, but will neither get seriously into competitive pro gaming nor into spending much on pay2win features.
5. The casual extreme gamer, this is where it gets interesting, the casual loser gamer will focus on playing through many games, mostly single player games, since he does not like real competition, but likes the feeling of the illusion of being the hero, so he will buy lots of games, but not focus on microtransactions or pay2win.
6. The casual loser gamer, he is similar to the casual extreme gamer with the difference that he is bad at the games and needs to spend money in microtransactions, pay2win features and similar, that group is where the real money can be made from.
7. The professional loser gamer, he is similar to the casual loser gamer, with the difference that he does not even bother to get good at the game, or paying legitimately to get pay2win features, he will just seek ways to cheat, which makes him less attractive to the game companies, but attractive to those who sell cheats.

That was just a rough categorization that I made up on the fly, where I try to show that there are not really different personality types, but rather just intelligent, normal and stupid people. The more stupid someone is, the more money he may spend, the more corrupt he may get and the more destructive and less constructive he may become.

What does this have to do with how boring story based games are? Well it is very simple, since the more you make a product that appeals to the lower of customers, the more boring it becomes to higher quality customers and maybe also the reverse does apply. You have to think about what the people try to get from an entertainment product and one main feature is to get some form of selfing aka ego boost from it, most people in real life are losers, they are unfree to do what they want, are unhappy and so on, so they play video games or watch movies to escape from reality into an illusion where they are the hero. The problem here is, that while a stupid person may be satisfied by a game fooling him to believe that he is a hero for beating it on easy mode, a more intelligent person will feel insulted, because he realizes, that on easy mode beating the game is not a real achievement at all, it is something almost any idiot can do, so the more intelligent people need more of a real challenge to convince them of their ego boost.

So the creator needs to actually create something for real to get satisfaction and a competitive gamer needs to win against real competition to know he is good for real to get his satisfaction and the casual gamer is satisfied with the illusion and the cheater does not care he simply gets satisfaction from making others feel worse.

And now from a game developers perspective he needs to appeal to all of the audience to make the most profits, therefore he has to create story based games that are predictable and appeal to all or most customer groups. Many games do that by having single player mode and multiplayer mode or at least some kind of high score, so you can compare your achievements. You have to imagine a gaussian bell curve over my list with the biggest spike in the middle, which is the group the game has to appeal to the most, leaving out the others, therefore creating a boring product for them.

I don't know how some people manage to buy one game, play through it, buy another play through it and so on, it seems like hell to me. Well as a child I imagined it was kind of a dream job to be a game tester, back in the days where there were actual physical PC gaming magazines you could buy, with real reviews and real playtesters, but now I realize such a job can quickly become hell, as I can see in the undertone of some professional lets play streamers on the internet, you notice that they get burned out over time, but hey such a job is like still better than a factory job.

Ironically many game companies seemingly did not realize that the most played games are not their story driven games, but the multiplayer or competitive games, yet they still keep focusing all their effort in making their story based games which are like interactive movies, while most people actually spend most of their time playing some outdated garbage game that is of inferior quality, just because it has a competitive factor, is popular and has a big community.

Before I forget my original topic, initially I wanted to describe how story based games are build. So a story based game you have to imagine like a line from A to B, just that this line is very long and takes a lot of curves and takes a lot of breaks, so the whole game consists of you walking from A to B, while the game consists of giving you obstacles to prevent you from going from A to be, but not seriously prevent you, just to annoy you on the way. Then around this line at least in the past when computer processing power was limited, there was build a tube, that was painted like it was an actual world with buildings, concrete, houses, cities, trees, nature, desert, whatever, but you could never actually leave this tube, because the world was fake and did not exist, it was all just a facade. Occasionally the line would branch off, so you could take multiple slightly routes to the same goal, but this was rather rare. Nowadays there are more open world games, where they actually bother to create the background world for real and you can even walk in there for real, but they mostly kept the old design philosophy of the tube, so even though you can go anywhere and do anything, you will quickly realize that if you go where you are not supposed to go, you cannot really do anything.

Yes and that is it, it is just a path from A to B in a tube, like an interactive movie with chapters. The only difference to a movie is, that you can determine the speed it plays and you have to overcome those annoying obstacles that prevent the story from going further. I admit occasionally playing such an interactive movie is a nice experience, the problem is just, that I cannot be too hard or too easy, otherwise it destroys the experience, so for the game developers there is a fine gradient to decide how hard they will make the game and most just decide to make it easy, so more intelligent people like me are almost always bored by it, yes there are different difficulty settings, but they often do not make the game more difficult for real, they are often only multiplayer, increasing the damage of the enemies, so you die more quickly and get more frustrated, but the actual game does not change much or does not change at all. Some old games managed to get a good compromise of story and freedom to play how you wanted, for example the old thief games, where you were given a job like steal item x and we got a map, but it was incomplete and then you were left on your own how to solve the mission, but still the game told an interesting story.

Nowadays you hardly ever get games like this anymore, some of the old good franchises are continued, but they are often degraded into just being able to chose between path A and B, or like using violence and killing the opponents or "stunning" them in a friendly way, not killing them, but mechanically the stunned enemies just lay down if they were dead, so in reality the difference is just in your head and in the statistics.

You have to think about the definition of a game, a game is defined by having a goal and by having rules, so you define a goal, define the rules and then it is up to you how you solve it. The process of reaching the goal is the actual fun, if you figure out a way to succeed. A linear story based game seems to do that, but only on the surface, since deep down the game of course has a goal and also has rules, the problem however is, that the path you have to take to achieve this goal is already laid out for you, but hidden from you. Modern games often even tell you while you are playing what to do and when and where, to make sure you do what you were predetermined to do anyway.

If you look up the definition of a game on Wikipedia you will read that a game consists of a goal, rules, challenges and interaction. The problem with modern linear story based games is, that they limit the challenges and interactions. Sure there are always some forms of challenge and interaction, but would you really call it a challenge or interaction, if the game tells you in a certain place, that you now have to press X to do Y which makes you win the game? I mean do you have a choice what to do? No not really, yes you can of course just chose to to press the button, but then the game will get stuck. There is only a niche group of extreme gamers and speedrunners that make it as their challenge to beat the game in a way that was not intended, which basically turns the game into more of a game again, those people kind of hacked the non games to make them into games again.

Competitive games at least bring back the challenge in the game and even focus on that, but then leave out much of the interaction, by removing as many alternative ways as possible to win the game. And again also in this case some hardcore gamers figured out how to beat even those limitations as they found bugs and glitches in the competitive multiplayer games, which turned those multiplayer games into more of a game again and often those bugs and glitches became main mechanics of the game, or sometimes even other games were build around those mechanics. One famous example is the rocket jump, the game developers laid out a path the players were supposed to take, but some intelligent gamers figured out, they could just shoot themselves and use the blast to circumvent the path they were given and so gain an advantage and so potentially winning the game.

Now it seems to me, that game developers are constantly working on making games boring and some gamers are trying to invent ways to have fun anyways. It would be much easier, if games were designed to have fun to begin with. This phenomenon can also be observed in reality, where reality is intentionally designed so that you walk the path you were given, for example the city is designed that you walk there and consume, not that you go for example skating and have fun, if people are observed doing something they are not supposed to, it will be made illegal and they are prevented from having fun, the similar problem you can face in the virtual world, even though it would not need to be there, since in the virtual world you cannot physically harm anyone.

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Why there are no more RPGs

Have you ever wondered why it seems nobody is making RPGs anymore? At least AAA RPGs, since I'm not perfectly aware of all those thousands of indie game developers that may exist, but I would guess with a high probability, that even those will or have not created any true RPGs, since RPGs are hard to make and require a lot of resources, talent and skill, which indie developers often don't have, well at least not the resources, but often they also lack talent and skill.

I already covered the RPG issues before, in my blog post: https://duion.com/blogs/bad-game-design-choices-pseudo-rpg and a bit in https://duion.com/blogs/ultimate-bad-game-design-choice-money but now it seems to me that this issue may be deeper than initially thought.

At first I thought there have been real RPGs in the past and over time the industry has gotten more corrupt and dumbed them down until we only have pseudo RPGs that look like RPGs, but are totally not RPGs.

Now I think there may never have been true RPG video games at all. I did some research where role playing games originated from and they originated from the role playing games you actually played with pen and paper where the game took place mostly in your imagination. This was before my time or at least outside of my social groups or at least not known to me in the past, but on early role play video games you can see that they were based on those table top role playing games. There was a lot of randomness and through gaining skills on your character and intelligent play you could turn the odds into your favor. In the elder scrolls games you could see that in their skill system where every skill is a value from 0-100, which originally probably was to define the percentage your skill would succeed. For example a 25 skill melee fighting would result in a 25% chance to hit your target very simplistic speaking, in reality there were of course a lot more variables such as the skill of your enemy, armor rating, luck etc but this is just so you get the basic idea behind it.

Table top RPGs were played with dice to simulate the probability of your undertaking to succeed, which is primitive but effective and fun. Video games easily adopted the randomness element, since a random generator is easy to do. Where video games failed however was probably to give you a visual clue on what is happening. What you would see in a video game where you for example had a 25% chance to hit the enemy, that you would hit the enemy almost a 100% of the time, but only have 25% of your hits count, which looked and felt stupid. I think this is one of the first things where the video game adoptions failed, because pen and paper games took place in your imagination, so if you would create a video game based on that, you would need to manifest the imagination into the real world or at least virtual world, which to a large degree was never done or not done properly. RPGs on the computer often had for example just one animation for attack and if that succeeded was more or less random and there was no visual clue since for success or failure there was the same animation. What video game designers would have needed to do was to create visual representations of all the different possible outcomes of for example a fight, not just have both characters swing their sword until someone falls down dead.

To make a long story short instead of advancing the system after realising real role playing mechanics looked and felt bad, they just removed the RPG elements and made RPGs more linear and skill based. The problem with that is first obviously you make it less of an RPG, but secondly through adding skill based combat, based on your physical gaming skills allows you to circumvent the whole RPG system just by being very skilled on the game or often also by using exploits which are coincidentally especially common in RPGs. So for example using skill and exploits your level 1 character or whatever could beat a dragon you were not supposed to beat at that level just through skill and exploits, which circumvents the whole game mechanics. Sure in a real RPG you also have an extremely small chance to do the same, but it is more random, so you cannot pull this off consistently as it is possible with video games, a lot of speed runners for example are very good at that, some even beat the whole game without actually playing the game, like reaching the end with level 1 or just running through, which should not be possible in a real RPG. Game developers of course realise those issues, but often instead of fixing them the right way by adding more RPG, they instead do the opposite and remove more RPG elements, since they think those randomness elements add too many exploits, while in reality it sometimes may be the opposite.

I already drifted away from the original topic a bit so let me try to define what a role playing game actually is. A role playing game is a game where you play a role, obviously, but many are not aware what this means and or implies. Modern "role" playing games are more a predetermined action adventure where the outcome is already fixed, since you cannot tell a story when you give the player to opportunity to break the game. So in a real role playing game you chose what role you play and how you play it and what the outcome will be. For example most games have a goal to kill the end boss and save the world, like kill the dragon or the orc leader and then everyone is saved. Those are fixed quests, but in a true role playing game you could just chose to not do the quest or pretend to do the quest and in the end let the "evil" end boss live, maybe ally with him and destroy the world, or whatever. You see in a real role playing game, there are almost endless possibilities and your choices make a real impact on the game and the story which carries on later in the game. You may have already figured out that a game with such possibilities may be hard to program, but considered the resources that go into making games, like hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases should in theory make it possible to create such a game, so that cannot be the excuse anymore.

So why are there no real RPGs being made anymore or maybe ever at all and I think I already figured out the other main reason such projects are not made, it is because companies need to appeal to an as broad as possible audience, to max your profits. You have to consider real RPG players are a niche customer group, so imagine even making the best RPG game that appeals to 100% of true RPG players, may only reach lets say 5% of the customers, because only 5% of the customer base want to play true RPGs, while on the other hand, if you make the RPG into kind of an action adventure mixed with 3D shooter with some story and some RPG elements you can appeal to multiple customer groups at once and maybe reach 50% of the market of all gamers. So screwing over 5% of your customers based to potentially reach 45% more is a good deal profit wise.

Another reason is probably that you need to remove as much elements of randomness as possible, because you need to be able to give the customer a consistent quality game experience. What does this mean? Well of course if you would allow the player to actually change the storyline and how the game plays out, this will obviously result in stupid players screwing up the game and getting frustrated therefore having a negative experience, therefore getting angry, therefore giving a negative review, therefore discouraging others to buy the game, therefore start a hate train, therefore ruining the game, therefore making the company bankrupt. I mean I experienced it myself with my game Uebergame, people often get angry, because there was no button they could press where they would instantly be entertained, not realizing, that they were playing a multiplayer game, where they themselves were supposed to host a server, choosing the map, the game rules and settings and bring players to play against. I there could experience first hand to what gamers today have been degraded, you as a developer need to give them a consistent idiot proof entertainment, where the developer is supposed to entertain the player instead of the player come up with a game to play. In the past it was more the other way around, where players would come up with games to play, but now video games are more like TV where they log on and demand to be instantly entertained and not being able to entertain themselves.

So the game developer faces a real dilemma, where he has to pretend to give the player freedom, while in reality he has to take as much freedom away from him, because the more freedom the player has, the more he can fuck up and fucking up is not good and makes the player angry, which would start the hate train again.

The irony here is, that most of the problems arise from having immature customers who are not able to deal with freedom and not able to think for themselves and where do all those immature customers come from? Of course they have been intentionally recruited to maximise profits. It is kind of a self perpetuating cycle of doom, where you need to dumb down your product to appeal to the dumbed down audience, which then attracts more dumbed down audience which then forces you again to dumb down your product even more and so on. Some game developers manage to break out of that cycle, but they are the minority and even if they strictly stay with their philosophy, they may get bankrupt in the long run, because they will not make as much money as the other companies and so the other companies will eventually eat them.

There is a very nice game that shows that dilemma, called "The Stanley Parable" where the player always is presented with choices, but the narrator is trying to tell a story and is constantly trying to get you on the "right" track, you should try it out if you don't have already, so I will not spoiler it any more.

When you analyze most games, they all do the same thing to the customer, I think I even heard that someone coined a term for it and it is called "selfing". So what does this mean? Well it is simply that most customers of a video game want to please themselves or being pleased. In most cases it is the story of the hero who saves the world. The script is almost always the same, you start of as a loser and then become the winner and everyone tells you how great you are and so on. People have an ego and they like to have their ego pleased. I even knew a software designer who told me, they had to learn how to design software to not piss of the customer, like the software needs to always be friendly and submissive to the customer, otherwise he would get pissed of and not use the product anymore. So software programs including video games have to be designed to please the customer or to boost his ego and always telling him how great he is etc and there is actually science and math behind it, software that is destined nowadays is not just random, it is often intentionally designed like it is for specific reasons and one of this is that games have to be dumbed down to appeal to an as broad as much audience and another thing is that they always need to make the customer feel good.

Let us bring a real role playing game into play now, how would it be different? One of the main and most obvious differences would probably be the possibility to fail or a lot more possibilities to fail. I remember old adventures where it was common that you could actually die and the game would be over, while newer adventure games where designed in a way so you can never die or fuck up the game and eventually get through, if you just click enough things. Well this example is for adventure games, but a similar thing has happened to RPGs where they would be more and more designed in a way that you cannot fuck up. For example one important element in RPGs is dialogs or interaction with other NPCs, in an old or more true RPG you could seriously fuck up, if you said the wrong thing to the wrong person, whereas in a modern dumbed down RPG you can just click through it without looking and your choices make no or no big difference. I'm such a player who does not like dialogs in games and I quickly realize when dialog choices do not matter in games and I end up skipping the entire dialogues in the entire game and still make it through. Only in some old more hardcore games I actually listened to the dialogs, because they actually made a difference. Sure I'm a person who does not like dialogs, but when I realize they matter, I actually listen to them, part of what makes dialogs annoying in modern games is, that you are forced to listen to them or at least skip them every time even though you know they don't matter. It is similar to cut scenes, you are forced to watch them, even though they do not matter, as you cannot influence them and they cannot influence you, they are there, but don't matter, but you still are forced to watch them, which makes them annoying. On the other hand a cut scene can be rewarding for example if you only get into the cut scene if you earned it, because then you know you achieved something and got a reward in form of a cut scene, but when you realize that it is predetermined to show you how great you are, even though you are not doing anything and cannot influence it, you at least subconsciously know that you are being cheated.

Speaking of being cheated, it feels to me that many people nowadays like being cheated as the cheaters seem to be growing in numbers. Now it seems to be that there are only two main groups of people, the normal people and the cheaters. A normal person works hard to achieve something and then gets his reward, for example winning at a game or whatever, while the cheater just wants to win the game no matter how, because all he cares for is having his ego boosted and to show off to others how great he is, while not caring about the process of getting there at all. Those cheaters do not only cheat others, but also cheat themselves.

Imagine an RPG where you play as a hero, but as you fail more and more, you completely fail at the game and the game tells you that are a loser and the NPCs in the game world also look down on you. Well at least the element of the NPCs looking down on you exists in many modern RPGs, but the story is predetermined, since in the beginning they look down on you, but you will eventually become the hero and everyone will celebrate you, it is always a predetermined script. Sure most people probably want to be the good guy, be the hero save the world and such, but some people actually want to be evil assholes, at least in game, because they cannot do it in real life and one of the main reasons to play games is to do things you cannot do in real life and those people are completely cheated if you give them a game where the outcome is predetermined and they cannot do any wrong in the game, no matter how hard they try. Modern "RPGs" often have like essential NPCs which cannot be killed, because that would kill the story. In such game you can play the most evil character possible, slaughtering everything in your way and still be crowned as the hero who saved the world, even though you killed every friendly person that was possible to kill, it is just kind of boring. Of course in the past many people found glitches in games that would actually allow them to do things they were not supposed to do or things that were not planned by the game designers that resulted in actually having fun and made the game more into an actual RPG, but the developers often saw this as a failure and often "fixed" those "issues" or at least prevented them in future game, by making their games even more linear with even less freedom.

I wonder if there is an actual conspiracy behind the dumbing down of games, since video games are kind of an education element and if you would teach kids that they have the freedom to do whatever they want and that their choices have real consequences or the fact that they have choices at all, that may be harmful to the system which wants to force everyone on the same path and force everyone to "be nice" all the time. There is no law that tells you that you need to be nice, you have a right to be an asshole and you should be allowed to play the "evil" guy in a game at least and have the "evil" people win.

Therefore I think true role playing video games may have never existed. Early adaptations may have been very close, because those role playing games you played with pen and paper in your imagination were actually very close to a true RPG. I'm not an expert on those, because I never played those, because I'm more a fan of video games and graphics, because the ability to make your imaginations visible with video game technology has been a game changer to me, yes you can play a true RPG in your imagination since your imagination is almost unlimited, but being able to make those imaginations visible and play with other people virtually in this visibly world makes the actual difference to me that makes the whole thing appealing, but sadly the jump from porting the table top RPG to the RPG on computers has failed in my opinion. In the past early video game adaptations were close to the original, but they were relatively uninteresting, because of technical limitations and now where the technical limitations are not the biggest problem anymore you are dealing with social problems or problems of the system we live in that make the realization of such projects impossible.

Well this has gotten super long, but if you got any of the gist of what I was trying to say I suggest you to imagine a real role playing game in a simulated world, where you can do actually anything, like interact with any item, any person and do just anything to anything and anyone, wouldn't the possibilities be endless and amazing? This should be the actual end goal of video game design, not to make the best interactive movie where the customer gets the best selfing possible.

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