Caring about the Player.
Hi, BI Forums
First a little disclaimer: this is a fairly large post, and I am voicing a few points of criticism. These are the opinions of either me, or a very limited group of people, so they may or may not reflect the opinions of the gamer at large. Still, I hope that this is a constructive contribution, and not a complete waste of either your, the readers, or my time. So, here goes:
I´ve had a chat with a couple of friends tonight, dissecting what they, as "normal" gamers (as opposed to milsimmers familiar with the Arma series) didn´t like about Arma, and what it would need to do to become a game they could enjoy. This is not about getting COD kiddies to play the game, this is about opening it up to another sophisticated, but not very well versed in military tactics, command, and depth audience: people who play games not just to pass time, but because they acknowledge them as an art form to be dissected and enjoyed in detail.
One thing that consistently cropped up was the following argument: "Arma is a game purpose designed to not have a player interact with it."
Summary of this argument is that the world in Arma is so open and densely populated with AI characters, and designed around these AI entities that trying to do your own thing as a player is more likely to break the mission, than achieving the mission goal. This is a point that worries me, mostly because I perceive this, as an avid fan of the series, as one of the major pluspoints of the game. The fact that you´re surrounded by dozens of AI, trying to achieve their own objectives alongside you, with you just being another cog in the machine, instead of the gun-toting super hero that saves the day, every day.
Another consistent problem is the perceived buggyness of Arma. Only one of my friends bothered with the campaign of Arrowhead, (the others were put off by the complexity of the game, and its insistence on not bothering to explaining the details to them: the tutorials are good, but they only go into the bare bones of what you need to know to succeed on the battlefield.) and he was put off by constant glitchings out. In "Good Morning T-Stan" the commander sometimes refused to move, or the AI squadmates got themselves killed off in scores. In "Coltan Blues" the guy with the code de-spawned, didn´t have the code on himself, or entering the code didn´t work. Intercepting the bombers failed, despite consistently shooting them down every time. He stopped playing at that point. I on the other hand found shooting down the bombers to be stupendously difficult, never shooting any of them down once, and succeeding despite of that.
He also played CWC and got kicked out of the army consistently, never knowing what he did wrong. My other friends have similar experiences with the series. What I´ve understood from them is the following...
Arma tries its utmost to make the player not matter. AI achieves your mission goals for you, sometimes even punishes you for taking action. The complex nature of the missions means player action cannot be easily anticipated by the mission designer: this leads to situations where the player doesn´t understand the outcome of a mission, despite himself thinking that he did everything right/different enough to get another outcome.
It is complex not just in its controls, but in the way you need to execute the missions. AI needs a lot of sheperding to be efficient, and the player is not taught at all how to effectively employ the AI teammmembers to greatest advantage. It took me TEN YEARS to learn how to use them, six of those years I played OFP/Arma DAILY, and I only learned trough trial and error because there were -no- tutorials on the advanced stuff in ANY of the games. Battlefield situations in Arma can become like those in real life: confusing, demanding and deadly: but contrary to real life combatants, the average gamer has zero experience in dealing with situations like that. There are no other games out there that teach the player how to approach Arma, and (understandeably) most of them have neither the time nor the patience to find out how to rule at this game by trial and error.
It also is hard for them to discern what they are supposed to do within a mission. Even if they do master the controls, find out how to locate their squad leader and read the briefings, situations become often confusing enough that players become headless. Even with map markers and objectives on, Arma often sets up situations that put the player completely out of their depth. Mission 1 of arrowhead is a good example of this: instead of easing the player in, it immediately expects them to jump out of the helo, and function as a warrior. You are supposed to watch out for your squadmates, keep track of your leader, navigate to contact, dispatch of the enemies as they cross your path and then follow a set of waypoints. People shoot at you, friendlies and enemies are all over the place... there is a lot to keep track of, and my friends mostly made it trough the mission with lots of retries and the afforementioned trial and error.
With the market you´re trying to tap into, BI (ie, a more casual gamer market), this won´t do. If the game is buggy, players will try it on the first day, get frustrated, and trade the game in the second day. If you don´t ease them in and -explain to them how to succeed- (best without being condescending), they will run out of patience, get frustrated and trade the game in. Then you need to provide a sensible difficulty curve, slowly introduce new gameplay elements, and give the players a consistent feel of achievement. This is where Arma shines! The odds are tremendous, and success is much sweeter in this game than is in most others. Build on this!
The market has changed since OFP was released in 2001. Gamers aren´t the nerdy types they were back then, who were willing to put on the time and the effort to learn a game, even if it tried to do its best to break them. We were used to games being serious challenges. But in the meantime, games like Half Life, Halo and Far Cry among others have changed the scene: today, games are more about fancy graphics and bombastic effects and cinematics, rather than a sheer gaming challenge. There are still games that, in terms of gameplay, are excellence: Portal comes to mind. Most of these games shine trough innovative gameplay, and not by being exceptionally hard. Indeed, games either seem to be of a pick-up-and-play type, requiring little training and pracice to succeed in (apart from high-speed PVP scenarios, but even there, matchmaking has lowered the difficulty curve), or a challenge to the mind, not the hands.
I don´t know how to adress the problem of the player not mattering in Arma games, since this has been one of the core things settings its gameplay apart. As for the easing in, though, progress has to be made, and can be made, I believe. An especially good example of how this can work is Valve´s system of "arenas". Look at HL2:Lost Coast, where they themselves explain how they show players new gameplay principles, and how to employ them in a safe setting, before putting them into combat. They also explain how they cue certain situations to the player, to prevent them from being unfairly ambushed. I´m not sure if this is possible in an open world setting like Arma (experience seems to indicate that it´s impossible, as stated by, for example, the devs of OFPR, who said that a big problem was players getting "shot and never knowing what they did wrong".)
I apologize for the massive wall of text, but I stand by my criticism. I believe A3 is a big chance for the game, the community and the company, but if done wrongly it can blow everything out of the water. The old guard could end up alienated by the futuristic setting, the intermediates disappointed by the lack of depth, and the newbs getting rid of the game because of it´s complexity and difficult accessibillity. I´m obviously painting a pretty dark picture here, but you see what I´m getting at. I also hope that I do not come across as crass, or condescending towards the effort and skill of the developers: if this is the case, I apologize sincerely, it was not my intention.
Hopefully this is taken as a constructive point, and that the discussion following will be polite and constructive too.