Yesterday I looked at the internet furore that last week surrounded Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler’s wish to be allowed to skip combat in games, and asked if there was a worthwhile message to take from the anger, a lesson to be learned once we stripped away the surface layer of bile. Today I’ll look at Hepler’s suggestion itself to see how a “skip combat button” could work and argue that maybe, just maybe, it could be a good thing for the hardcore gamer.
As hard as it might be to believe after some of the columns I’ve written on this site, I’m all for the idea of bringing gaming to a wider audience. The more copies a game sells, the more money the developers and publishers get, and so the bigger budget they have available for the next game – fantastic! What I’m not so keen on, however, is games sacrificing depth and complexity in order to increase this widespread appeal. This may well increase the appeal to a certain demographic, but in doing so it runs the risk of spoiling the experience for another group. Trying to appeal to the widest audience possible requires a very careful balancing act, and so even an optional feature like the “skip combat button” must be considered carefully before it’s implemented. Below are a few basic rules which I think need to be followed in order for this idea to work.
1) Any games with this feature must have significant non-combat gameplay
Did you know this feature has already been used? Last year’s L.A. Noire allowed you to skip combat sections if you failed them three times, and no-one batted an eyelid. Why? Because the combat was only one aspect of the game, and a minor aspect at that. The real “meat” of the game was in the detective work: investigating crime scenes for clues and interrogating suspects. If anything, the combat felt superfluous: shoehorning in action in an attempt to appeal to Rockstar’s existing fanbase from the Grand Theft Auto games. Without combat, there was still a significant amount of “game” left.
On the other hand, allowing you to skip the combat on a Call of Duty or Serious Sam title would be ridiculous: you’d be left with nothing but a handful of cutscenes. Even RPG titles like Mass Effect or Dragon Age are pushing the limits of this idea, but that could easily be changed with greater rewards for exploring the game world.
Another excuse to mention Demon’s Souls! Man, did I ever hate this boss.
2) You should be able to enable or disable this feature permanently
Many of my most memorable and most satisfying gaming memories come from overcoming particularly difficult challenges. If the option was there to skip those challenges though, would I have taken it and unknowingly robbed myself of that satisfaction? After failing to beat Maneater for the 10th time in Demon’s Souls, yes, I probably would. I’d regret it later, but to save me the short term frustration, I’d use it.
To stop me being my own worst enemy, when starting a new game, let me choose to permanently disable the “skip combat button” for that entire playthrough. As long as I’m playing on that save file, I will never be able to skip combat, no matter how many options menus I wade through or how much I shout at my computer. This option should also be independent of the difficulty level I’ve selected.
Yes, I’m asking for developers to account for my own lack of willpower here, but given that this whole feature is designed to increase accessibility, I figure my desires are as valid as anyone else’s. I also sense I’m probably not alone in my faltering willpower.
3) If this button is used, all combat related achievements should be disabled for that playthrough
From a personal perspective I would struggle to care much less about achievements, but there are definitely an increasing portion of gamers who pay a lot of attention to them. Gamerscore has become an online bragging right, and while that idea is faintly hilarious, let’s preserve what validity it does have.
4) Don’t use this feature as a substitute for a proper difficulty curve
Creating a smooth difficulty curve for a game is a challenging task – or at least, I assume so. I’ve never attempted to do so myself, but judging from the number of difficulty spikes and troughs I’ve experienced in games over the years (I’m looking at you, Dragon Age II’s Ancient Rock Wraith) it seems to be something that even the biggest companies still struggle with on occasion. If developers know that players can skip combat once it becomes too hard, there will be some degree of temptation to put less effort into ensuring everything is nicely balanced for the most enjoyable experience possible. Getting the right difficulty curve is crucial to creating a great game though, and a “skip combat button” absolutely must not be used as a get-out clause.
Dragon Age II’s Ancient Rock Wraith. The hardest fight in the game, even though it occurs at the end of Act 1.
So now that we’ve set out a few rules for its use, why do I think this button could be a good thing for hardcore gamers?
Firstly, and tying in with everything I said in yesterday’s article, because it would give developers a way to increase accessibility without having to cut back on complex and potentially confusing game mechanics. Rather than trying to lower the barrier for entry to a level that anyone can reach, developers could be free to make games as deep, rich and complex as they could imagine, safe in the knowledge that people can still enjoy the story and game world even if they don’t want to get to grips with the combat. If companies embrace this opportunity, it really could be a way to please almost everyone.
There’s a more exciting possibility that arises from this button though. Looking backwards to the deep gameplay mechanics of old is one thing, but this opens up exciting possibilities for developing gaming in entirely new ways. Specifically, it would encourage more and more developers to look at the possibilities for rich gameplay outside of combat.
Think of the last five, ten or twenty story-heavy games you played. How many of them didn’t have combat as the main gameplay focus? Not many, right? The games industry seems to have fallen into belief that if there’s a story, the bits between cutscenes must involve fighting. Because, hey, what else are you going to do?
Well, quite a lot actually. There are plenty of possibilities once we shift away from this mentality of “gameplay = combat.” As I mentioned above, L.A. Noire was at its most engaging when you were simply scouring areas for clues or questioning suspects. It may have been flawed, but it felt like a breath of fresh air – until you inevitably got into a gunfight and it became all too familiar.
Or how about Mirror’s Edge? An underappreciated gem which sadly didn’t get the sales figures it deserved, it managed to make the simple act of movement into a joyful and liberating experience. The world became your playground in a way that few other games have managed. Unfortunately, as with L.A. Noire, the developers still felt the need to shoehorn in combat, causing the game – and Faith herself – to grind to a halt whenever you were forced to fight.
Mirror’s Edge. You probably didn’t buy this game.
Ultimately, games can make any activity interesting and engaging, it’s simply a case of finding the right way to do it. While combat is an easy and obvious choice due to its fast pace and clearly defined win / lose conditions, it’s far from being the only option. Hell, Flower made a fun game out of manipulating wind currents. The possibilities are endless – if we can only look beyond combat.