I’d like to talk about a phenomena in gaming that anyone who grew up with a controller in their hands can relate to: sucking. Sucking isn’t actually the negative thing its made out to be in gaming, despite the inherent negative connotations made with the term. Sucking, or being bad, is a by product of being a newbie. Its the seed from which being passable and then talented comes from.
In modern game development, there has been a loss of artistic grit in the form of transparency. And by that I mean that the art of lacking transparency in just the right way is a practice modern game developers are leaving in the dust.
To “lack transparency” in just the right way is to obfuscate, hide, or outright lie about information presented in a game to purposefully keep the player out of the know. For me, I think about Dark Souls 1 and its ability to have a complicated combat system that players can learn the basics of without spilling any of the deeper mechanics in an obvious way. Spell casting, for example, isn’t something that’s listed as having anything to do with dexterity, but absolutely does work in tandem with the attribute. Dexterity speeds up spell casting, and this is only something someone could know through self made trials (or data mining).
This is a very specific example, and a very bizarre one at that, given the mathematics behind the mechanics of the casting speed in DS1, but ultimately the specifics aren’t important for this discussion. What is important is the key takeaway: FromSoftware decided to hide specific information about the game from the player and let the studious among their fans find out the info for themselves.
For game developers, specifically, this is something I want to see more of. Patch notes, official game guides, in-game books and descriptions, and all of the information you can get in-game should function this way. They should be minor, incomplete, or non-existent altogether, at least in some regards.
A player shouldn’t be mapping out their game route before they’ve begun playing a game. And when developers show every little number and change in the game as they’re released, it feels like the game itself is becoming detached from the world its trying to pull its players into. Its no longer a separate entity to escape in, it’s a piece of art that’s not only stuck in the real world, but requires real world study to get the most out of before its even been played.
This philosophy I’m advocating for, which is a philosophy in favor of partially or completely hidden mechanics in-game, isn’t a philosophy that’s going to work for all games. And I completely understand that point. If tomorrow, Riot Games began releasing “secret” updates every week that changes the numbers of specific champs in League of Legends, I’d wager the uproar from the casual and competitive gaming community would be loud enough to force Riot to revert any and all changes immediately.
But for game developers who are creating pieces of art that are meant to be learned about in-game and in real-time, I’d like to offer a piece of advice, if I can be so bold: Act as if you’re developing an RPG / MMO that’s going to be played by millions of people every day, concurrently. Ask yourself, “Would I want to tell players that this is the META at this stage of the game? Would I want to disclose this mechanic? Would it be far more enjoyable for players to discover this on their own?” I hope the answers to these question outside of a competitive PvP game, is “No, No, and Yes, of course it would.“
Transparency and the 2000’s
I remember playing OSRS back when it was just RS in 2007 and just walking around, having zero clue what I was doing. That not knowing made every little thing worth doing because I didn’t know if what I was doing was effective or not. “Is this fishing method the best XP/HR? Who knows? No one knows, so I don’t care.” That’s the mentality of a player who’s having fun, and that mentality only exists in ignorance.
There’s a reason people still talk about the 2000’s as the golden age for gaming, and I reckon it isn’t because developers have gotten worse at their jobs or because games are objectively less fun. I think its because gamers as a whole are able to cipher information about what they’re playing a lot easier, and when developers display that information and leave zero room for experimentation on the part of the player, the game in question becomes solved faster than developers can possibly keep up with.
The solution? Lose the transparency. Create games that obfuscate information. But provide players with the necessary tools to experiment with the mechanics of the game themselves: leave clues via NPC’s, dialogue, or other means to teach players about your game without handing them the keys to victory for little to no work. And if you as a developer can manage it, release updates that are either partially or completely secret. If you buff, nerf, or otherwise change something in game, let players know that something has been changed and watch them scurry about trying to find out what it is and how it effects the way they play. That, right there, is half the fun.
Games are fun. Games are especially fun when you’re bad at them. Stop giving me the tools to be decent at every game before I’ve had my fun with them and let me just be terrible for a while.