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.
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.
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