Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Should We Hide the Stats?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 4, 2014

James Cox has an article worth reading over at Gamasutra, “There is No ‘+5 Sword’ in Lancelot.” In it, he makes the case that the time has come to hide all the numbers in CRPGs. He even refers to this as “babying systems.” Yeah, that reference honked me off a bit, but his idea isn’t new, and it’s worth addressing. I don’t think he’s right, but I don’t think he’s entirely wrong either.

Almost as old as dice-and-paper RPGs

The first time I encountered the suggestion to hide the stats was, I think, in 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It was suggested that the DM not really tell the players how many hit points they really had, simply describe the effect of the hits, etc. I even tried it once. It was a very frustrating experience for the players. I never tried it again.

Humans crave predictability but are addicted to randomness

It’s not necessarily the stats that humans crave, but predictability. Not necessarily immutable levels of predictability – we like pleasant surprises, too, and at least the appearance of risk. Random is fun. We’ve found through experimentation that randomized scheduled rewards is far more addictive than non-randomized scheduled rewards. In other words, having a 1 in 10 chance of receiving a reward is far more psychologically compelling than an identical guaranteed reward every 10 tries.

It may piss us off on a conscious level (particularly when we’ve gone 15 attempts without a reward, and feel “owed” by the system), but subconsciously the pleasure centers in our brain are wired to derive more enjoyment out of it. That’s probably got something to do with hardwired survival instincts – we had to deal with the uncertainty of not always finding game in the same place, or not being guaranteed edible plants while gathering.

But while we have this instinctive compulsion for dealing with uncertainty, we have an overwhelming craving to make sense of it so that we can control it – or if not control it, at least to control our own interactions with it. We desperately attempt to compare and contrast – usually with inadequate data. Is spot A a better place for fishing than spot B? Does that change by the month or time of day? How much money does an “average” indie game make, so it’ll be worth our while to make it? If forced to defend yourself, is it better to use a 9mm handgun with more rounds, or a .45 handgun with larger rounds? Which casino has “looser” slots? Is this stock more likely to raise in value over the next year, or fall?  Will my team beat their rivals in Sunday’s game?

To do this, we often break the world down into stats. Numbers provide us some guidance. So although a sword might not have “+5” etched on it, we can perhaps perform tests or compare history and say, “Lesser swords are three times more likely to fail in combat, or become blunted after only a fifth as many shield hits.” While not necessarily accurate, the numbers give us some basis for comparison, and allow us to weigh options. So we humans will assign numbers – at least ballpark figures – even where none are available.

Real World = Too Much Data. Computer World = Not Enough

While our graphics and sound keep getting better in our games, we’re still a long, long way off from doing anything even close to simulating reality. Having done fencing and medieval combat in my younger years, I can tell you just how much data people take into consideration when engaging in a competitive fighting match. For a casual viewer, it might just look like the two contestants are just slugging it out (and maybe, if they are really exhausted, they kind of are…). But in reality, experienced fighters are taking all kinds of measures of each other, gauging their reactions, their tendencies, and their “tells” – just like poker – that might take place in a fraction of a second.

My fencing instructor once told me of a bout where he kept losing to a guy every time my instructor was about to score a hit against him. It was like the guy was parrying and counter-attacking in the blink of an eye. And, literally, that was exactly what happened. He discovered, with help from his coach, that he was actually blinking every time he was about to score a touch. It was a habit he’d developed one summer as a teenager when he got a job tearing up cement with a sledgehammer, but he didn’t wear eye protection. So every time the sledgehammer would hit, he’d blink to protect his eyes from flying particles. Years later, he had this same learned reflex in his fencing. His opponent had picked up on this (yes, you can see your opponent’s face through those big fencing masks. Not well, but you can see them), and was taking advantage of that.

THAT is the complex kind of world we have, and how combat *can* be. Even in less trained brawls or fearful, confused firefights, combatants are taking in a constant barrage of data, and trying to make sense of it all and take advantage of anything they can use. We live in the real world, and we can make split-second educated guesses about what’s happening, how things are going, and what our best course of action might be.

Even in the most graphically intense worlds available in gaming today, we can’t touch this. Instead, we have to rely on abstraction.  The stats we put on things are the way we pull together all those abstractions into something resembling sense.

But if we get rid of that abstraction for the player, without the “real data” that the abstraction was derived from for the player to fall back on, what do they have? How do they make sense of the game? What kind of feedback mechanisms do we have to provide to substitute?

Doable, but worth it?

I’m actually supportive of attempts to pull the numbers out of the user interface, though I certainly draw a line when it is implied that this is an “improvement.” I’d need to see a lot of proof of that. I think it can be done, and I’d be interested in seeing how RPGs adapt to it… but I think the amount of work required to make it “not suck” would be daunting. Without massive work on the feedback mechanisms, it’s not going to be “more realistic” – it’ll be like sending the players into the game world blindfolded and with one hand tied behind their backs.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I agree with you and think stats serve a valid purpose. Not required, but aren’t a bad thing.

    They allow the player to easily compare stats or weapons. Everyone knows that 10 Damage will be better than 8 damage. Can we really expect a player to pick between 2 seemingly identical swords without a clear way of seeing the benefits?

    Besides… does anyone really want to guess their health level? Unlike the real world, we don’t pain and it seems like it’d be a MASSIVE annoyance.
    I want to see my HP regardless of it’s “Realism”.

    Sure, there is potential for casual action-RPGs and certain unique cases. But visible numbers are a very useful tool and I’d rather not cut them out.

  • ottomobiehl said,

    I, for one, enjoy the stats. I say James Cox should make/play whatever game he wants. I’ll stick to the games that let me see the stats.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, that’s the thing… in real life, we would probably prefer to see the stats if they were available. How sick am I? Am I sick enough that I really should see the doctor?

    And in real life, we could inspect the word carefully, see how it flexes, check its edge, its balance, and really inspect its workmanship when comparing it. It may still be a tough comparison, but there are a whole lot of things we can do to evaluate before trusting our lives to it. In a CRPG… maybe it’s not as cool to say, “It does 15% more damage and is 30% more durable.” But that’s what we’re trying to measure, and it’s extremely difficult for a game to provide us with that source data – not without dumping other stats on us (like how much it weighs…)

  • Trevel said,

    At one point in my youth, comparing the breadth of RPG games available, I claimed that the only factor that united them was character statistics. If your character(s) have strength, dex, int, et cetera, then you’re playing an RPG.

    I haven’t found a better definition.

  • David said,

    When I see “we’re going to hide the stats in an RPG” it makes me think of a deeply un-fun process where I have to go through a testing phase with all new gear in said game, working out how it compares to my existing gear by seeing how many hits it takes to kill some common enemy on average.

    If you want to hide the stats, you need to fundamentally design your game around it. You need to make every system give oodles of feedback to the player. The visual design of items needs to clearly convey their power, and you probably need to have relatively few of them so that clearly-felt differences are there. The animations for your character need to fluidly vary so that I can tell the difference between “low health” and “using an unfamiliar weapon type”, or between a lucky hit against a well armored enemy and an unlucky hit against a weak enemy.

    Seems tricky, and expensive.

    Plus, as you say, I probably *would* like to see stats in the real world…

  • ogg said,

    I don’t see a problem with the stats. A game without numeric precision of info might keep players from fighting to the ragged edge, which may effect the excitement. I wonder if some mad libs type procedural flaver text describing condition, weight, balance, when you examine an item might still add something though, at least I like game world relevant flavor text.

  • Cuthalion said,

    In the real world, we do track stats for everything. Suppose you were in charge of deciding whether a branch of the military would switch to a new assault rifle model. You’d probably be going through reams of stats on every possible aspect of the weapon and every test that’s been done with it!

    *still hasn’t read the linked article*

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Well, okay, in a sane world, that’s what you’d do, Cuthalion. But ever read about what happened with the M-16 here in the U.S.? It was all politics and cronyism. (To its credit, after many years they managed to finally turn it into a pretty good rifle, but… sheesh.) And now there’s the F-35…

    But yeah, your point still stands. 🙂

  • Maklak said,

    Don’t take my numbers from me. https://wiki.erfworld.com/Numbers

  • Xenovore said,

    I was thinking exactly what Cuthalion said. E.g. if I’m comparing ammo types, I’m looking at numbers: caliber, bullet weight, muzzle velocity, etc.

    I think there are some things that can be abstracted more in RPGs, but even then if I need to do fine comparisons, I want the option to see the numbers.

    Really, only in a very simplistic RPG could the numbers be fully abstracted away.

  • Modran said,

    In Monster Hunter, you have stats before the actual hunt, but nothing during about what you’re doing to the beast(s).
    And it really adds to the excitement. I’m clocking 180h currently, which is really high for me.
    But if they took away my health bar, the game would become exremely frustrating faster than you can say “What the-“.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t play Gratuitous Space Battle because, yeah, there were numbers and stats, but I couldn’t mke heads or tails of them. Was my new craft more efficient? Dunno. I did quit after just a few hours.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Evidently, I picked a terrible example. (Should’ve seen that coming, knowing the government. ;P)

    I think my position is similar to what The Coyote seems to think: in a given game, what is the player deciding on? Give them the information they should have to make the decision. What information (or how much) depends on whether it’s a game of chance, experimentation, strategy, or what have you.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Ok, I finally read the linked article.

    1. I don’t see the difference between what he’s talking about and an action-adventure game. It seems there are already a bunch of games like this, and he’s just looking in the wrong place.

    2. Runescape is a really bad example, because at least back when I fiddled with it, if you died, you lost a bunch of stuff. And I guess that’s intense for some people, but it’s a frustrating time tax for me. I want to know how much risk I’m taking beforehand in this case.

    3. He’s talking about hiding information to increase uncertainty and, thereby, excitement. (He’s also talking about withholding it to prevent distraction and increase immersion, but his mileage clearly varies from mine there.) This is something lost of games do. Card games are an obvious example — each player usually has a “hand” that no one else is allowed to see. But I’d say what he’s asking for is more like a slot machine, because your hand is hidden as well, and you’re playing against a machine. This is all fine and dandy, but it’s not what I play RPGs for.

    I play RPGs to build a character or party. That’s the whole game for me, from levels 0-100. Sure, there can be stories and stuff, and I want them in there, but that’s not the genre-defining trait. RPGs traditionally focus on stories and characters, but there’s nothing stopping action-adventure games from doing the same thing, except perhaps that, when you’re taking such a precise approach to building a character in an RPG, you get invested more easily.

    Keeping me guessing is fine, but not when I’m trying to build a character and what I’m guessing about is whether that character is being built.