Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Why Our RPGs Still Need Numbers

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 24, 2011

Luke Plunkett at Kotaku asks the question: “Why Do Our Role-Playing Games Still Need Numbers Everywhere?”  Though it’s not so much of a question as a call to get rid of such archaic relics of the past.

The Snark

So first off, I’ll offer the defensive, snarky response that you are waiting for: “We’re already making games that got rid of ’em. They are called ACTION GAMES.

Now this isn’t entirely accurate, and is probably not what advocates of more visual / action-oriented RPGs are requesting. But we’ve had action games for a long time that offer permanent performance upgrades (or new abilities) for the player’s avatar. Sometimes purchased in shops. The performance and abilities of the ship / character may be based as much on your upgrades as your own controller-twitching abilities. (Here’s an old example.)

You throw in story and dialog, and some interesting player choices into a game like this, and what’s the difference between this action game and a “true” role-playing game? Not a lot. Maybe nothing at all.

I’m actually cool with the idea of hiding all those numbers in some role-playing games. To turn Plunkett’s argument around on him just a tiny bit,  I can definitely see the appeal.  You are  not alone, and there will always be games catering for you.

But I’d suggest most people who actually consider themselves RPG fans (and not just gamers who occasionally play RPGs) are fine with ’em.

Serious Response: Quantification

But let’s talk about why game developers shouldn’t be beating a path to number-free Nirvana. I’d like to answer Plunkett’s actual question. Why do our RPGs still need numbers everywhere? Great question. Are numbers still important? Let’s ask Clint Eastwood:

As a situation become more important to us, or may demand greater care on our part to interact, we require details. And, where possible, quantification. Particularly in unfamiliar situations where we haven’t had time and experience to internalize likely outcomes.

It’s not enough to hear that our bank account is “fine” if we know we’ve got some major expenses coming up before the next paycheck. It’s not enough to hear from a doctor that a friend who was rushed to the emergency room in serious or critical condition is just doing “okay” – we need details. Okay as in, “She’ll be as good as new after a good night’s sleep,” or okay as in, “We estimate that her chances of surviving the next 24 hours are now above 50%.”

One of the criticisms of older World War II era flight sims was the presence of an ammunition counter. Real pilots didn’t have them in most (any?) combat aircraft. They had to guess. Knowing the exact count wasn’t important – the difference between “six shots or only five” with machineguns isn’t all that critical.  But knowing whether or not you only had enough rounds for a single, quick burst or several would make a huge difference, and in the heat of combat it was hard for real pilots to lose track. Given the choice, I’m sure they’d prefer an accurate ammo counter in their planes. That knowledge would give them greater control. And that’s why – in modern aircraft – that counter is part of the head-up display.

Long ago, I tried the suggestion given in some tabletop RPGs to not reveal to players the exact damage that they had received, but instead to describe it and track the values secretly. I tried to be as descriptive as possible. I thought it would add tension and drama to the game. It did, but not in the way I wanted it to. My players hated it. It drove them crazy. The experiment didn’t even last an entire session. They didn’t want to hear, “You are badly hurt.” They needed to know HOW badly hurt.  As exactly as possible. I couldn’t just say, “You might not survive another hit with a sword blade.” They wanted to know – a strong hit with a sword blade, an average hit with a sword blade, or a weak hit with a sword blade? Because, you know, it changes everything. And from that, they extrapolated a number range in their heads.

Because from that quantification, they could then extrapolate. What about a dagger hit. What about a fireball? Most importantly, how likely was their character to survive another round of combat without healing?

Yes, quantification can be done without showing the numbers. It may even be a superior way to present the data in digestible form. Comparative charts and graphs exist for that very reason. But numbers provide detail in its most accurate form, and the further you move away from that, the less control over the situation you give to players.

Small Increments Usually Matter in RPGs

The heart of role-playing games is character advancement. While perhaps not exclusive to RPGs, it is a defining characteristic. When it comes to advancement, game designers must choose how big the advancement steps should be. This usually boils down to doling out small, incremental improvements frequently, or big upgrades rewarded much more rarely.

In real life, most changes are small and incremental. In fact, they are so small and incremental as to be unnoticeable in the short term. A person gaining (or losing) weight at a rate of 1 pound a week (a half kilo for you more enlightened folk out there) will not be noticeably changed over the course of a few days.  In fact, it’s impossible to measure accurately – that much change is “in the noise” with daily fluctuations. But if this is a consistent delta, after a year the change will have been extremely noticeable in the average person.

At the high end of competitive activities, victory is usually dictated by very narrow increments.  In the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the average difference in the two-man bobsled race between the gold medalists and the fourth-place team that took home no medal at all was a mere 0.3 second difference… or about 1/2 of 1 percent.

In D&D, a +1 advantage generally represents a 5% improvement (on a 20-sided die).  It’s not really noticeable on its own – over the course of a single combat, it will often not make any real difference in the amount of time it takes to drop an enemy. But it’s hard to describe the thrill you enjoy when you manage to land a hit ONLY because of that 5% margin. Or when the DM tells you that, because of your +1 damage modifier, you took the enemy down to EXACTLY zero hit points just before it was its turn to attack.

But the real value of that tiny incremental bonus is that its small enough that the game can provide several of them.  You might get a +1 incremental bonus for leveling up, and another one for donning those Gauntlets of Ogre Power, and two of them for wielding that brand new +2 battle axe you took from the hobgoblin chieftain you just defeated. That’s a total improvement of +4 – twenty percent – to just your chances of hitting, and those combined bonuses ARE very significant.

Video Games Don’t Do Subtle

Subtle – but significant – differences can be hard to recognize in real life.

Even with the extremes of modern graphics, video games are about 100x worse about showing subtle.

Has your character gotten stronger? Unless the on-screen visuals only show about five discrete states between scrawny and ripped, it’ll be hard to tell the difference with anything close to “realistic” graphics. And just how damaging is that bloody head-wound you just received?

Sure, there are plenty of big, un-subtle things that an RPG can show that are, in fact, better shown graphically than in numbers. New powers and abilities, especially. New force fields, fireball attacks… all those wild, wonderful awesome things that make pretty particle effects and cause cool new animations to occur. Particularly for high-action adventure against hordes of lesser foes and the occasional unique boss with his own unique and graphically awesome effects, that is enough. Players don’t have time to figure out the clever little nuances and stacked bonuses near and dear to the power-gaming table-top crowd. They are too busy dodging and swinging swords of more epic flameyness and lobbing their brand-new over-the-top explosive spells to worry about trying to end the combat 5% earlier to conserve mana for the final encounter (it all comes back in 30 second anyway).

For these kinds of RPGs, that would be enough, and in those cases, I agree whole-heartedly: Show, don’t tell, and hide the numbers if you want to. Maybe put them on a toggle for the true die-hards who want to account for every point of damage, but it’s pretty unnecessary when most of their foes are simply keeling over in one or two hits, anyway.

But in my view, that approach really restricts the kinds of things you can do in an RPG. A whole bunch of  great ideas get thrown off the table because they’d be too difficult or costly to show graphically. The canonical example is a trip attack that knocks enemies down. This one simple little attack could DOUBLE the animation requirements for a game, as every single character needs an animation to show them falling down, getting back up again, and then doing every reaction animation from a prone position as well as standing (taking damage, etc).

What happens? Well, in general, the cool trip attack gets cut and replaced by some particle-y firebally thing that’s far easier to develop visually. This has nothing to do with developers being “lazy” – it’s simply a case of having a budget of X and a schedule of Y and they somehow have to make game Z fit those constraints.

Numbers – and text – remain a powerful tool to communicate what’s happening in the game to the player.  Alternatives are – from a developer perspective – costly. Worth the expense? Sometimes, definitely.  But other times it remains the best tool for the job, and eliminating that tool just because it is so last year means hobbling the designers and imposing limits on the kind of things they can do with the game mechanics, and even the kinds of stories they can tell.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 23 Comments to Read

  • Menigal said,

    I’m with you on this one. Numbers are quite important for a “real” RPG and give you a clear picture of what your character is capable of. Or at least, they should.

    This brings up another stats issue: when a game has numbers, but they are essentially meaningless. I don’t mean that you simply can’t tell a difference between, say, 5 and 10 damage, but that comes into it. I mean numbers without a known scale, or that have such a range as to be meaningless.

    These are the games where you start at first level with 1023 hit points, and your puny paper sword does 565 damage. Or your strength score starts at 0, then at level 10 has gone up to 64. Is that a lot? What exactly does 1 point represent? Am I stronger than a normal person? Weaker? Was I suffering from some strange disease at level 1?

    I think my point, if I have one, is that it takes more than just having numbers to make them a meaningful part of the game. To me, numbers like this might as well not be there. They have no real significance, and these games might be good candidates for hiding the details and taking a few more steps down the action game path.

    Of course, I might be completely alone on this.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think you are absolutely correct, there.

    One of my biggest problems when I’m starting a new RPG (or, as often as not, an “old” RPG I haven’t played before) is understanding the meaning of the numbers. So I have a 21 strength? Is that GOOD? It it worth it for me to put another point into strength and make it 22, or does that do nothing for me? Will I get a chance to raise it later? Etc. Etc. Etc.

    That’s probably the biggest problem most gamers have with the “stats.” They represent a steep learning curve at the outset of the game, and players feel like they are committing to something they don’t fully understand. That, or they have to delay playing and having fun until they learn the rules, which likewise isn’t ideal.

    It’s a tough one. I feel there are no easy answers, in spite of numerous opinions on the web to the contrary.

  • juv3nal said,

    “Has your character gotten stronger? Unless the on-screen visuals only show about five discrete states between scrawny and ripped, it’ll be hard to tell the difference with anything close to “realistic” graphics. And just how damaging is that bloody head-wound you just received?”

    But in my view, that approach really restricts the kinds of things you can do in an RPG. A whole bunch of great ideas get thrown off the table because they’d be too difficult or costly to show graphically.

    Alternatives are – from a developer perspective – costly.”

    These are all good reasons why rpgs *still* need numbers, to be sure, but they don’t really speak to the larger question of whether or not rpgs should *aspire* to being numberless.

    In some hypothetical future, you could have middleware that automagically spits out different models/textures/animations for arbitrary degrees of granularity in buffness/injuredness with developers only having to hand-craft some kind of baseline model/texture/animation.

    What then?

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    This is one of my obsessions in game design, I want to make some day a rpg where all numbers are opaque to the player. I’m agree with you too, but that’s like an exercise in design.

    I made a text adventure game a lot time ago with combat with zombies and with localizated impacts and dismembrable body parts. All numbers were hidden to the player, ALL, from damage done to player health, and it was a success. Of course the key to this success was a good load of feedback, you know, I let my player know when a critical damage was done, the amount of blood and visceras were considerable; and the body parts when has low health, they were hanging from the sinews, so it was clear what parts were more strategically interesting to hit next.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @juv3nal – I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to occur (it’s been promised for a long time now…), but if that happens then it will certainly reduce the limitations imposed by eschewing numbers / text, but not eliminate them entirely. It’ll just be a bigger subset. And that would be cool.

    But there are plenty of cases where just as in real life or in the movies, the subtlety or shading or hinting or other things get lost. We’re never going to get to that point. At least not until we develop Inception-style shared dream devices.

    I won’t say it’s not a good idea to strive for. Where possible, it’s usually best to show (or show AND tell) rather than just tell, and that should be a goal. After all, that’s the experience even tabletop RPGs were striving for – to have an experience take place in your imagination. The numbers were just a tool for creating and sharing that experience.

    @Ruber Eaglenest – That sounds like a very cool project!

  • McTeddy said,

    Well, screw that. I like numbers. Yes… there are some games that don’t need them and I agree that we should not place them where it is unnecessary.

    But to me, numbers have always been an important part of my decision making. Numbers allow me to compare one character to another… numbers allow me to see whether something hurts… and numbers tell me when I need to run like hell.

    Numbers represent data that a player can use to make better decisions. If I’m in a tactical mood, I need more data than… your sword hit him. I don’t want someone to hand me two swords with the description “Sharp-ish”… I want the data to know with cuts better.

    Numbers are not a relic of the past… but a tool that can be understood by everyone. Not all games need them… but it’s silly to claim that no game should have them.

    Action people… please for the love of god… stop telling me that thinking is bad.

  • Bad Sector said,

    In Mass Effect 2 your scars change depending on your alignment (paragon/renegade) and the progress is subtle. So far i’ve only played with paragon characters so as the game progressed my scars went away. The change was so subtle that i didn’t noticed until at some point when they were almost gone.

    Now, this subtlety might not be that good of an idea for all cases. For a while i thought that the scars simply got healed (Dr. Chakwas mentions the whole idea in some email she sends you at some point but in my first run i probably skipped it – also she mentions that by buying some medical stuff i can have it fixed) until i saw some screenshot from someone playing fully renegade and he was like Terminator in a bad day :-P.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Hmm. I don’t know. Video games are a visual medium – I feel information should be presented in a visual manner if possible, just like a movie should show me the setting rather than give a voice over description for five minutes telling me about it.

    It seems to me that a lot of RPG fans have a number fetish – like they are secretly harboring aspirations of being an accountant. I also understand that it is about control – absolute control. You want all the facts, all the numbers, every bit and morsel of information to dissect and analyze and produce the optimal answer from all of it. It speaks to the intellectual nerd in all of us. It puts a video game into the same realm of being as a chess game or a math test – there will always be a right answer – or a “best” thing to do at any given moment.

    But all that is really a throwback to the origins of the genre in table-top war games. Generals and commanders need that sort of information to make good decisions. They need to know the numbers involved, the ranges for artillery, supply chain distances, etc. etc. But an individual soldier doesn’t need those numbers. I should know. I was a front lines infantry Marine, much like the characters we control in RPGs, out there in front, engaging the enemies and scouting new territory. I kept up with the number of rounds remaining in a magazine, but that’s really it. In real life we don’t say – I’m using an M16 because it does X-amount of damage more than a pistol. Or I’m using a .50 caliber rifle rather than a .308 because it does +10 damage. No, we work in generalities, like most things in life. I can know that the .50 caliber is more powerful, but I can’t really quantify HOW much more powerful.

    It makes me think that RPGs are named wrong. Really they are strategy games. Players position themselves as a general leading a campaign and want hard logistics – “and yesterday”! The so-called “true RPGs” are still shackled to the war games idea of numbers. Instead of facts like a certain piece of artillery having “this range” and taking “this long to reload” and taking “this many soldiers to operate”, we get swords that do “this damage” and are “this fast” to swing and take “this much strength to operate”.

    I’ve never really liked the idea of perfect information. It rings false to me. Like I said, I don’t need to know a numerical representation of the damage my rifle does to an enemy. I just need to know how damaging my rifle is relative to anything else.

    We operate in real life by relative values – we can compare and see the differences around us, but quantifying them is usually impossible – yet we get along just fine. Again, I don’t need to know the enemy’s “hit points” – I can look and see how he is fairing from my shot. If he doesn’t go down, I shoot again and observe the results – I can either surmise that my weapon is ineffective, or that is it effective and I just need to shoot him some more. You get the point.

    And like Menigal said, you need a frame of reference for numbers anyway. It reminds me of when I used to weight-lift and strength train with my platoon. We could get hard numbers for a lot of things – how fast can you run 3 miles? How many pull ups can you do? How much weight can you bench press? But how could you compare those numbers? What about two people with identical run times, but one is gasping for breath at the end and the other isn’t? Who’s faster? How do you quantify that in a number? Or pull ups? What about two people with an identical number but one weighs 30 pounds more? Who is stronger? What about bench press numbers? I could bench 300 pounds while weighing 180 pounds, but my friend could bench 350 – but he weighed 280 pounds. Most would say I was stronger relatively than he was, but in a number RPG, he would have the better stats.


    No one is saying that thinking is bad. It could be argued that having numbers telling you exactly what is better and what is worse and by how much involves less thinking to make a decision than having to work with inferences and relative comparisons.

    Numbers encourage a slow, very tactical game of strategy. Like I said, more like a general planning a battle than a soldier in the middle of one.

    Numbers also, ironically, abstract the world far more than “action rpgs” do. Having all the numbers could almost be seen as unfair – the commanders in Iraq certainly don’t know how many enemies there are, or the exact damage an IED or rocket fire will do to a given target.

    Number RPGs are a chess board with everything layed out and visible. That pawn will always win the fight when it takes a piece. Real life and action RPGs are more like a chess board where you can only see your side and some of the other – but you have no idea the number of pieces in play, and that pawn will not always win the fight when it tries to take a piece. You are forced more to change your strategy on the fly, rather than planning out every move to the end of the match.

    No offense (I love old-school RPGs just as much as I love action RPGs or games with RPG elements), but RPG fans often come off as a bit elitist – like McTeddy’s comment on action people supposedly believing thinking is bad. So many elements of RPGs have filtered into every other genre of game – we have seen wide-spread adoption of things like stats, and leveling, and experience points, but RPG fans act like boys whose treehouse got invaded by girls. Instead of recognizing that those girls like a lot of the same things they do (why they came to the treehouse in the first place) – the boys focus only on the differences (i.e. cooties!) and tell them they are ruining the club and to GTFO.

    Anyway, it becomes a bit disingenuous to go around labeling things “true RPGs” and “not true RPGs”. Take “Dead Rising” for instance – clearly an action game, but it has experience points, 50 levels during which the character gets stronger, faster, more health, more skills and attacks, etc. It has an inventory, it has shops to buy items, it has healing and health items, it has a crafting system, it has enemy health bars, it has NPCs, etc. etc. It even has decisions to make and multiple endings. Yet somehow, due to a lack of the mythical “numbers” and the assumption of a fixed role – it is not a “true RPG”. Yet if every weapon were assigned a damage number and health represented by numbers instead of bars, and attacks made turn by turn with dice rolls, suddenly it would magically change into a “true RPG”.

    So forgive me if it seems the “club” admittance requirements change depending on how much the existing members like the applicant rather than on some empirical list that must be checked off.

  • sascha said,

    So for Luke Plunkett games haven’t been dumbed down enough already? He wants that every typewriting monkey is able to understand any game easily? Fine with me but please leave the RPGs alone! Because there are actually people who love numbers, stats and complexity. Same goes for strategy games. If you’re having an action game and you only have two bars that show your health and you’re fine with that, then it’s Ok but that’s a bit dull, isn’t it?

    Numbers are not only good for RPGs, they’re also good for Arcade style games for you can earn millions of score points. Take the numbers away and what’s left that you won? Nothing!

  • Menigal said,

    Just a quick comment.

    How do people feel about a health bar sort of a system for displaying stats? People are used to the health bar, although it seems even that is “scary” to some people these days. A bar still shows relative values, and you almost instinctively know that an empty bar means 0% and a full bar means 100%. A few games have played with this over the years (skills in Arcanum, anyone?).

    Maybe that’s a better alternative for “light” RPG-like games. No one is faced with “scary numbers”, but the detail is still there. It’s like when you have to summarize data for a report or presentation, really.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m sorry… since you are right that I came off as an elitist prick…

    I’m just frustrated that the industry that I love keeps telling me that my way is wrong.

    I agree that numbers don’t need to be in all games… including RPGs. I’ve played RPGs without levels, skills, etc. I’ve enjoyed many of them. I might not have liked ME2, but I’m just fine with it existing because I can happily forget about it.

    But I’m sick of people telling me that “Old is bad… get with the times!” In the past two weeks alone, I’ve read articles about “Turn based is bad because it is based on old hardware…”, “Numbers are bad because they are based on the lack of visual technology.”

    Yeah, it originally was because of old hardware, but I still like it. I’m not asking for all games to follow my standard because I can’t afford to support all game development. But it would be nice if once a year, I get a game that kinda-sorta fills that gaping empty void.

    I’m tired… I’m burned out and good lord… I am bored. I am just upset when the girls invaded my tree fort they threw away my wargames, my dungeon crawlers, my flight sims, my tactical shooters and replaced them with a single box labeled “Cover shooter” with RPG scribbled on the front in Magic Marker.

    You know… I think I’d be happier if we just stopped using genres altogether since they’ve all melded together anyways.

    So in closing… Jay, I love you for making something that actually has a target audience other than “Everyone”… now just finish the damn game so I can fill this void! 🙂

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,


    Whoa! I didn’t mean to imply you were being anything at all. Perhaps my post came off as a little more angry that I meant it to be. I was simply trying to play devil’s advocate while campaigning for a bit more inclusiveness in what we consider RPGs.

    I still like stats too, and I agree we should never do away with them completely – I just don’t think they should be used to define what is and isn’t an RPG. And I think they need to be consciously used or not used so as to fit the purpose and pacing the designer wants from the game. If long term tactical choices and strategies based anticipating events far into the future is desired, then numbers should be used. If the game is more about a tense and fast moving personal story, I think the game would be better served keeping all that beneath the surface.

    I agree that we should try and stop using genres too. Like the Dead Rising example I gave – what genre is that? Survival horror? RPG? Beat’em up? Action? All of the above? (Probably.) Genre titles can limit creativity in designing a game if you try to stay in that box, and really video game genres are too broad anyway – not like movies – “Action Thriller”, “Romantic Comedy”, “Mystery”, “Western”, etc. Note that all those genres in movies and books refer to the STORY not necessarily the presentation or film techniques used. So games have a screwed up use of genre anyway – we use it to define gameplay instead of story.

    Really, we should just blame the industry though. They’ve made game too expensive to produce, thus making it impossible to cater to smaller audiences or take big chances.

    Perhaps we can be hopeful that the current “mainstream” audience they have to cater games to is being indoctrinated into RPG mechanics slowly but surely. I mean, you can already hear some shooter fans complaining that they won’t play a game if their character can’t “level up”. Just like we introduced younger siblings to table-top pen and paper RPGs by starting them on simplified board games like HeroQuest, perhaps the mainstream will start clamoring for more complexity themselves.

    Just think, 20 years ago, if you said “experience points” or “gained a level” or “improving my stats” the average person on the street wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Now, almost everyone knows those terms. So I think we can all take some comfort in that.

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    There is always a place where numbers a lot of useful, when comparing one armor or weapon to another. That rpgs that shows automatic comparison between what you wear, and what you pretend to put on. Really useful.

    I’m agree that numbers without a scale to compare, are almost useless.

    @Rampant Coyote, that game is done, however is in Spanish and in an obsolete platform, almost impossible to play today. However it was easy to provide that amount of feedback because it was all text and literature.

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    And, Coyote, how do you going to address this issues at hand in your tongue in cheek game?

    An article about could be interesting. Although maybe the solution could simple, show the top level of a stat, that would mean “master of the universe”.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I was hoping to be inclusive, even in my initial defensive snark section. 🙂 I think what might smack of elitism is actually just defensiveness in fans of more traditional RPGs, who feel their style of game is under constant attack and mocked by opinion leaders, but actually by the game makers themselves.

    While my loyalty is definitely on the side of more traditional style, I feel I do appreciate both sides. I mean, I enjoy having something awesome happening every time I press a button, too. And I get intimidated by dealing with a wall of unfamiliar numbers in a new game, too. I just feel that there’s a lot to be done in the traditional style, and it’s nowhere near “obsolete,” just unpopular right now.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, Frayed Knights is as guilty of some of the things I’ve railed about as any other game. It’s far, far easier to criticize than to build. But I’m trying not to fight on too many different fronts at once.

  • Xenovore said,

    My take on having visible numbers in video games is that they are mostly unnecessary; computers are hella-powerful these days and can show things in far more interesting ways than with mere numbers.

    Seems to me that the primary reasons we continue to see them used are:
    • It’s easy. Developers can just throw some numbers on the screen and call it good rather than come up with creative and intuitive alternatives.
    • It’s conventional. Everyone else is doing it.
    • It’s nostalgic. Either we want to relive the good-ole-days of pen-and-paper D&D in the basement, or we want to relive the good-ole-days of CRPGs trying to be pen-and-paper D&D in the basement.

    At any rate, it really comes down to personal opinion.

    For me, “role playing” is immersing oneself in an alternate world and taking on a role that would not or could not be possible in real life. The game mechanics – the “numbers” – are only there to support that. And the less visible the numbers, the better, because that enhances immersion.

    For others, “role playing” is all about the game mechanics (the “numbers”) and has much less to do with immersion and actual role-playing. I call it “meta-gaming” or “gaming the game”; it’s typically what power-gamers do. They don’t necessarily care about the world setting or who their characters are, they only care about whether X is better than Y, and if X isn’t better than Y, how to make X better than Y, or get a hold of Y and throw away X. =D

    (Note that when I say this, I’m not just talking about CRPGs, I’m talking about all RPGs.)
    @ LateWhiteRabbit: Totally with you there – you nailed it! It’s like somehow you’ve been reading my mind! =)
    @ sascha:
    Quote: “. . . games haven’t been dumbed down enough already? . . . there are actually people who love numbers, stats and complexity.”

    I agree that games are getting dumbed down these days, but that is happening across the board – RPGs are hardly alone there. It’s more about “consolization” than anything else.

    And I don’t think removing visible numbers automatically makes something “dumbed down” or “easy”. Game-play can remain deep and complex without showing numbers. (And may indeed become *more* complex without visible numbers to help the player along.) The primary requirement is that the player receives sufficient feedback within the context of the game, i.e. some games do not need to be showing every single number every single second.

    Mirror’s Edge fulfilled the requirement very well with no visible HUD whatsoever.

    Quote: “If you’re having an action game and you only have two bars that show your health and you’re fine with that, then it’s Ok but that’s a bit dull, isn’t it?”

    As I mentioned above, Mirror’s Edge had no HUD at all, i.e. not even a single health bar, and that game was anything but “dull”.
    @ Menigal:
    Quote: “. . . bar sort of a system for displaying stats?”

    Absolutely; I’m all for it. For example, if the player is looking for his highest rated skill, it’s easier to glance over a bar chart and spot the longest/tallest bar, than to pick out the highest value from a set of numbers. Also, even if a player is a numbers-whore, typically he doesn’t need to see all the numbers all the time anyway. With a bar, the numbers are abstracted away but the player still receives the required feedback. Also, the actual numbers can always be (optionally) display over the bar, either on mouse-over or with a key toggle, or permanently…

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Video games are a visual medium – I feel information should be presented in a visual manner if possible,

    Numbers on screen IS a visual manner. And remember, some of us play text-only games! 🙂

    The perfect information available in a video game is unrealistic. But it’s not reality. It’s a game. Making strategic decisions and gauging success based on the changes of numbers is fun for some people. For others, not so fun.

    Having to make vague guesses based on imperfect information is, for many people, stressful and not fun. (Too much like real life!) Especially if there’s no interesting outcome available from making a ‘bad’ choice, but only “you fail, reload”.

    That uncertainty can work in a game’s favor if the design is TRYING to make the player feel uncertain and cautious…

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    One of the greatest justifications for numbers I read was (I think) in the Daggerfall manual, where it suggested your 1-100 main stats represented what percentage of people you were better than in that given stat. So a strength of 70 would mean you were stronger than 70% of people.

    This whole confusion of numbers is why D&D changed it’s AC ratings also, as most people will pick up the idea that a bigger number is better.

    Any game where you can get 9000 health though, I’d suggest has gone wrong somewhere. I always prefer small increases on a smaller scale. Final Fantasy would be my example here.

    Quest for Glory was an interesting case, in which each game allowed 100 extra points in each stat compared to the previous, so potentially at the end of the fourth game you could have 400 in each stat. The failing there was that there was often no real reason to have your stats that high, and certainly some skills and spells were perfectly usable far lower than that. This made your character potentially massively overpowered if you imported from the previous game.

    Fallout, on the other hand, had both good and bad examples. The main stats ranged from 1-10 and even told you how that ranked (“poor”, “fair” or “good” for example), but it also had a range of skills for which the incremental increases had relatively little feedback about how much better that would make you at that given skill.

    I think it would be an interesting direction if the Bethesda fallouts ditched the skills altogether, and just relied on the perk system. In a way this might seem blasphemous, but since you get a perk each level anyway, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the perks as more of a skill tree? It would certainly help to make all the perks worthwhile.

    Anyway, that’s my portion of late night rambling on the subject.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Interestingly, by my understanding the lower-AC-is-better thing came about because Dave Arneson was cobbling together rules from various other wargames, and adopted the AC rules from a naval combat system. And you know, the smaller ship is harder to hit…

    I was chatting a little online with Xenovore after his post, and noted how I’m playing a little bit of Might & Magic VII right now, and how fascinating the game system is… with all its numbers. And really, that’s the kind of thing I’d be afraid of losing with the fear of numbers taking over design. Yes, it’s a little confusing at first, but it’s also pretty deep and compelling. And fun.

    Not saying that other, mostly visual games aren’t / can’t be as fun. But I can’t see that approach yielding this kind of gameplay.

  • sascha said,

    “As I mentioned above, Mirror’s Edge had no HUD at all, i.e. not even a single health bar, and that game was anything but “dull”.”

    The example with the one health bar was more meant as a metaphor. Mirror’s Edge did alright for connecting actions to feedback but then you can’t really use such a game to compare to a game that would be less appealing without numbers. Take Oblivion or Fallout 3 or any of the RPGs or strategy games we know and remove all it’s stats. Wouldn’t that be dull?

    Call me old-fashioned but I love the numbers and stats in RPGs because they add intricacy. Intricacy in games is good (as long as it’s not intricacy related to bugs ;).

  • Xenovore said,

    @ sascha:

    Quote: “Take Oblivion or Fallout 3 or any of the RPGs or strategy games we know and remove all it’s stats. Wouldn’t that be dull?”

    With Oblivion or Fallout 3 I think you could hide 99% of the numbers and still have very compelling games, because it’s the world settings and the role playing that are most important. So for me, either of those games could be taken in the same direction as Mirror’s Edge and I think it could work very well. I mean, for me — in games like the Elder Scrolls, or Arx Fatalis, or Fallout 3 — I can play for hours and I don’t even care if I see any numbers (aside from perhaps health, mana, money, or ammo). Even in World of Warcraft, which is definitely more numbers-heavy, most of the time I just ignore the numbers.

    At any rate, what I was trying to say before is that RPGs — both CRPGs and tabletop — run the full gamut.

    At one end — the end I prefer — there are the RPGs where the most important aspects are the world setting and actual role playing.

    At the other end — the end you prefer — there are the RPGs that are abstract and strategic, heavy on game mechanics and calculations, really more war game than role playing game.

    Of course, there are all sorts of possibilities in between…

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