Electron Dance
18Sep/1640

Arithmophobia II: The Numbers Strike Back

mountblade-gwaul

So I had this week's post Arithmophobia in my head for months as “write some words on how RPG numbers put me off playing” using The Story of Thor and Dark Souls as examples from different sides of the numerical wall. It was meant to be short, more about these individual games, but something happened on the way to the Publish button: I started to question why those numbers were important.

I had no conclusion so instead turned the ending into an invitation to discuss. And a lot of people got in touch, through the comments and on Twitter. This has been great and helped sharpen up my thoughts.

This post is a more structured take on RPG stats than the original Arithmophobia, touching on different aspects such as grind, feedback, accessibility and more. It was supposed to be short. Who would have guessed that evaluating the role of numbers in an RPG turns out to be a goddamn rabbit hole...

To show I’m not biased against numbers, I’m going to number every subsection. P.S. I also have a PhD in mathematics.

1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Numbers

I exclusively focused on character and item stats in RPGs. Many JRPGs have only a manageable handful but there are plenty of games that are absolutely drenched in them. I was honestly surprised to discover that Dark Souls had so many. And any game where you manage multiple party members means it balloons fast even with a modest quantity of stats. Mount & Blade had a expansive character sheet - one for every party member.

I also count item stats because each one is another number to consider. Dark Souls assigns every item an explicit weight value so you can figure out how much you want to carry. Some people swear by going full loincloth because the low weight keeps you nimble in combat. The stats give you a choice: nimble and vulnerable or slow and armoured?

As a developer, if you believe showing stats is a bad thing, there are two different roads you can go down. One of them is to reduce or eliminate stats and another is to change their representation (hide them). Unfortunately, I conflated the two options in Arithmophobia and the consequences for each are entirely different.

2: Everybody Loves Numbers

One anonymous respondent commented, “I don’t have a huge problem with this, but there’s certainly an accessibility problem. Ultimately however, I think humans are more than capable of understanding numbers. Numbers can often be less ambiguous than language, particularly after things like localization.” While it’s fair to say numbers act as a common language, I fear that my focus on them obscured the real problem.

Physics is a lot of numbers, but it doesn’t mean you understand physics. The numbers are the ambassadors for the RPG internals and their presence tell you immediately: oh this is one of those games, it’s got a system I gotta learn. This was first and foremost my initial motivation for writing Arithmophobia.

So many people have told me over the years I just had to play Dark Souls and, even though I’d read Matt Sakey’s excellent Dark Souls Diaries years ago, I had never quite twigged that it was a full-blown RPG system. I knew this game was “fearsome” but discovering part of its brutal magic was learning an intricate stats system was depressing. I’ve become very jaded with stats systems over the years. And the presence of all those numbers is immediately threatening to someone who is not an RPG fan. Raigan Burns of Metanet Software (N++) also shared my distaste of numbers.

However it’s vital to recognise it is not possible to say definitively whether this is a problem borne of presentation or system.

hylics-stats

If I play an amateur RPG Maker title and see four different character stats, my immediate reaction is that it is overkill. The game is not going to be long enough to give those stats significant meaning or punch. I had groaned when I played Mason Lindroth’s Hylics because each character had six stats - but it turned out that five of them were jokes without any impact on the game. Jon Dog tweeted, “Some games do get a bit carried away with the numbers though where it begins to look like a mathematical incantation.”

But suppose we keep the systems intact. If we suppress all the numbers, that would broaden the appeal of the game and remove the threat. But the system itself may still cause grief… and removing the numbers can make it worse.

3: Negative Feedback

Naturally, I’m not the first person in the world to have suggested that we could hide the numbers. James Cox wrote about it on Gamasutra a couple of years ago and Felix Plesoianu brought to my attention a rebuttal to this piece. Felix explained, “Numbers provide clear, unambiguous feedback not easily available otherwise.

Urthman commented that No Man’s Sky does away with numbers but is frustrating as a result. By dispensing with the numbers, people have to make guesses at how the system works and can become frustrated. Matt W also testified that Nethack has a lot of stats but “should have more, you basically have to look up weapon damage on the wiki to make decent decisions”. One of the main arguments for keeping the numbers present is entirely practical, they are a straightforward system of feedback.

“Without numbers, it takes me a much longer time for me to learn the game's mechanics,” wrote Alexander Nadeau. ”Without numbers, the maximum difficulty of really searching and figuring out how mechanics connect is very high, and random. I would never play an SRPG that hid the stats that affect turn order, damage calculation, skill affinity, etc.. It wouldn't be immersive or interesting. It would be annoying. Phantom Brave hid one stat in one release, and it was horrible. There's definitely a place for games that hide numbers. Metro 2033 was an absolutely fascinating experience.”

Josh Simmons was another proponent of numbers because “it's hard to maintain ‘complex’, ‘opaque’ and ‘understandable’ all at once.” This is a more nuanced look at the feedback problem, which Richard Goodness makes clearer, “Numbers are the simplest solution we've come up with because most people can at least compare numbers instantly. You know, like strength of 40 is higher than str 20, it's unambiguous. I'd say the problem isn't numbers but their use-- like how THAC0 is a terrible and unintuitive system, or how Pillars of Eternity has too many goddamn numbers.”

This reaction to Pillars of Eternity highlights that numbers do not automatically result in good, readable feedback. Some systems use big numbers to wow the player but, as Everdistant commented on Arithmophobia, if the stats are large, these big numbers prevent players from making quick judgements: “You can obviously know that more = better, but how much better, how that translates directly into your output, etc – all that is impossible to know when you’re dealing with, say, a 6458 strength warrior swinging a 130 atk sword.”

We could also ask: are these systems, descendents of D&D, actually the right fit for computer games? Is the reliance on numbers slowing innovation in RPG interface design? Do they promote systems which are only intuitive to those who love profile spreadsheets?

4: Like Tears In The Rain

There have always been arguments over whether the Game Master running a boxed RPG campaign should expose players to stats; in Call of Cthulhu the investigators (players) were forbidden from reading all of the rulebook to ensure players were ignorant about how the Cthulhu Mythos was implemented as a system. Hidden or not, RPG systems have generally remained complex and this has endured as D&D and its many boxed children offer systems meant to be reused, not adopted for a single campaign and then thrown away.

But unless you’re playing a MMORPG or a roguelike, the stats system is throwaway. When I asked whether a complicated stats system made sense for a single-player RPG, Felix Plesoianu countered: “If you play it for 40 hours plus, yes. Or if you reuse it for a sequel. Sure, you ain't gonna need it... or will you?”

Let’s at least agree, then, that the system complexity must be consistent with the system’s lifespan. There is no point having a 50 dimensional character profile if you can complete the game in a few hours, never to return. Like I wrote in Arithmophobia, I loved the bare bones Skill/Stamina system of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Sometimes you do not need more than a couple of numbers to capture everything you want to say. If you have a class-based system, I wonder if some games might thrive better with just a “core skill stat” than, for example, having to maintain lots of combat stats that you’re not supposed to care about if you’re a mage.

Players need time to become conversant with a new system and figure out how to exploit it. The more complex, the longer this takes. There is an evil twin to this rule. The more complex, the longer it takes to fully test and balance. A crude example is Deus Ex: Human Revolution in which a character with a stealth build is equivalent to playing on nightmare difficulty because the player is forced through boss fights. Despite giving the player choice to play the game their way, it is skewed towards the combat build. Dishonored is interesting in that it recognises that getting through the game without murdering everyone in sight (a stealth build) is actually pretty hard, and offers narrative compensations.

5: Love > Hate

Because figuring out the consequences of a custom-built stats system within the context of a campaign is difficult and time-intensive, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that many of the RPG systems out there have bugs, unintended exploits and stats that are just a waste of everybody’s time. For all the talk of “numbers as vital feedback” the mystery of the Poise stat in Dark Souls 3 became a god damn Kotaku headline. (I know, readers, I’m being unfair because it’s Dark Souls. But, hey, Dark Souls was unfair first.)

From where I’m sitting, weighing up the time developers have to spend testing and the amount of time players spend learning, then realising that well-balanced systems are similar to a flat difficulty curve… it can feel like a problem no one wants to talk about.

lonesurvivor-need-to-eat

But it’s games innit? Many videogames, by their very nature, are digital paradoxes. We could have a platformer where you press a button and jump straight to the exit, but there’s no fun to be had unless it’s deliberately difficult to get to the exit. And so, of course, we could have a game stripped of all stats, much like The Story of Thor, and a game with an automatic flat difficulty curve, but that isn’t as juicy if you’re into the stats metagame.

Richard Goodness even said, straight to my Twitter face, that without numbers it’s not an RPG. And he went on: “One of the main hallmarks is constant, incremental progress. Monsters represent not only obstacles but also, and more importantly, resources which stimulate character development.”

Plenty of people thought the numbers were essential to making an RPG fun. Russell Damerell said getting the numbers up is part of the achievement. And Mattias Gustavsson wrote stats were “a deliberate creative decision, personally, I like numbers in my RPGs.”

It doesn’t matter if I say “oh bother all those pointless numbers are a waste of my time” when plenty of players find stat systems engrossing. But that desire for explicit numbers has another downside.

6: The Treadmill

Ever since the chimpanzees stood in front of the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, humans have been addicted to numbers going up. It’s that little buzz you get when you fell an enemy or, eventually, go up a level. Yesss, my preciousssss, you say looking at your XP.

Experience and levelling systems have been so powerful in motivating players, they’ve been adopted well beyond the borders of the RPG kingdom. Education is big into XP systems and there are no shortage of attempts to gamify our lives. I’d even argue the Quantified Self movement is trying to convert people into a set of RPG stats. Our brains love every action infused with a number going up.

In computer RPGs, the main consequence of this is grind. Grind is where we perform repetitive tasks for the purpose of raising stats. Sometimes grind is captured explicitly with goals like “kill 10 rats” but other times the players take it upon themselves to grind.

Players do not necessarily feel exploited by this and Oswald Hurlem wrote, “I agree that more RPGs could do away with numbers. That said I think grinding and leveling up can be rewarding and vital to a game.”

But Matej Zajacik explained it was a fine line: “I like numbers if I can feel the difference after investing a point in an attribute. If 1 point = +3%, it's nonsense.”

I suggested there was no grind in Dark Souls but it was always possible I was wrong. I remember Matt Sakey found it difficult to avoid grinding in his Dark Souls Diaries and words have been written about why it’s okay to grind in the game. Oswald also waxed lyrical about his own grinding experience because it helped with the bosses and his favourite Dark Souls memory was “replaying the Depths (to get Humanity) for about an hour while listening to The Beach Boys.”

But there’s a dissonance here that I find difficult to maintain. On one hand, there’s this argument that number systems are challenging and fun, like Alexander Nadeau said, “I play RPGs to learn their mechanics. Once I learn the mechanics, I push them as hard as I can. I break the game to see if the devs left anything under the surface.” But on the other hand, these challenging systems... result in players killing rats for hours, and the web is awash with questions about the best places to grind.

Game developer Aaron Steed commented, as I’ve argued myself, that grind is “the journey. When done badly you can’t see the destination and it seems like you’ll never get there. When done well, there is a plethora of sights to see as you make your way up the mountain. Grind becomes part of that journey.”

There is good grind and bad grind. What separates the two varies from individual to individual. In my case, if I know I might have to do grinding in a game, I am reluctant to get started. I’d prefer I levelled up gracefully as part of my assigned activities - but that’s obviously because I do not enjoy what stats do in games. I never had to grind once in The Story of Thor, but I still felt like I’d been on a great journey.

I do wonder if our videogame stat systems - and all the good and bad they entail - are the consequences of single-player videogames mimicking systems that were originally built to last years over multiple role-playing campaigns.

7: There Is No Alternative

I said there were two options if we decided to rid ourselves of the naked number.

First, we could eliminate the stat system entirely. There would be no numbers hidden or otherwise. Are these even RPGs any more? I do want to be that asshole who is points out “role-playing” wasn’t supposed to be about number chasing, especially in the original boxed RPGs. Unless you’re playing a roguelike, then I would be surprised that stat choices should be a key decision over, say, who will join your party or whether to take on a quest.

banished-inventory

But I also want to be the counter-asshole who points out many, many videogames are “role-playing” games today. From Gordon Freeman racing through the Black Mesa Research Facility in Half-Life to Passepartout in 80 Days. Some of these offer greater choice than others, but that old canard of “immersion” is another way of saying role-playing. We have “role-playing” games without numbers. Dark Souls just isn't one of them.

Wait, wait, wasn’t there another option?

8: The Alternative Option

Hit points don’t make a jot of sense. As you become stronger, you can take “more stabs”? What if I stab you in the eye? I’ve heard them argued as an abstraction to represent exhaustion that, once they fall to low numbers, you are incapable of dodging that killing blow. But then you also have a dexterity/agility stat which has nothing to do with hit points, right?

Grind makes some sort of sense. Well done, all those dead rats have improved your refle-- wait, how come your intelligence has gone up? Were you reading a book while stabbing rats?

Hey, what about that “death spell” or the super vorpal omega sword that will kill the demon boss in the Dungeon of Criminal Grime in a single attack? I’ll earn a 10,000 XP bonus for slaying the bad guy and that is literally amazing. Literally amazing for someone who scratched a demon’s leg after tripping over his own feet or read out a few runes from papyrus. Now I’m pretty buff after that! We could use abstraction to explain this, that the XP bonus represents the culmination of a long quest to bring the demon down.

But we’re still left with the idiotic cases where your so-called expert needs to level up. No One Lives Forever 2 was not an RPG but sported this awful stats system where superspy Cate Archer couldn’t shoot straight until the end of the game. This is after she’d already saved the world once.

nolf-2-hatori-san-stats

I have a real point here. Of course, it’s all some beautiful abstraction. W. Stubbs said on Twitter, “I just think numbers are a shortcut away from what would be everyday activities represented in a game - e.g. The GYM!” But a character stat system that’s perfect for a “videogame” can tie you in knots trying to explain how it maps to the real world, which is one reason why hidden stats are prone to frustration, because they don’t have neat physical analogues. Unless you invent a glowing meter on someone’s back to represent health because it’s the future.

Why not copy the real world and have skills get better as you use them? How about a system where the more you run, the better you run? The more you fight, the better you fight? And rather than having XP levels leading to distinct level upgrades, it’s a more gradual, sliding scale. In real life, if I run every day, I don’t get a sudden leg and lung upgrade after I’ve done X hours of running.

This kind of approach would make for an entirely different experience, and balancing would be tricky as levels would not receive the natural gating of bosses or finding treasure. It wouldn’t necessarily avoid grind because any system that has stats can still invite grind.

And, bugger, I don’t know if there’s an alternative to hit points. But we don’t have to get rid of every number… right?

No doubt someone is going to write a comment saying this has already been done and I’m late to the party.

Update 19 Sept: Well that didn't take long - Oblivion, Skyrim.

9: TL;DR

What was Arithmophobia about? Or what should it have been about?

There are many players, such as myself, who are put off by what we see as spreadsheet games. But games with attributes and stats have a strong audience, strong enough to make them financially viable, and to shroud or eliminate the numbers would change the nature of these games. They would not be the same.

I’m playing Dark Souls. I can’t avoid the numbers and I recognise dismantling them would make it a game called Not Dark Souls.

Are there other innovations out there, alternatives to the stat system? Possibly. But these would be different games, not equivalents. Would RPGs with numbers endure if an alternate model emerged? No idea. Did text-based interactive fiction die after 3D environments became commonplace? Nope.

Still, I never envisioned a holodeck future in which I'd be expected to pull out my character stats sheet.

Hellkite Dragon leaves Tap-Repeatedly

HELLO I'M HELLKITE DRAGON AND I LOVE NUMBERS

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Comments (40) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I missed the last article due to being heads down at work all weekend but now I get to comment on this one!

    So, random observations:
    1. I’m editing an ebook RIGHT NOW that talks about how the Final Fantasy games gradually did away with a lot of specialization in RPGs, which is related to some of these observations – look for that soonish.
    2. I agree with the observation that Legend of Zelda, lacking numbers and levels and such, is not really a proper RPG to my mind.
    3. The “skills that get better as you use those skills” is how Oblivion and Skyrim do things, but also with numbers. In Oblivion it lead to some awkward problems, like how I would just bunny hop everywhere I went to increase my Acrobatics score or whatever, only to realize that this was also increasing my overall level too and the game rescaled the monsters to match my bunny hopping prowess.
    4. Having numbers, but just obscuring them, rarely works in the internet age as players WILL suss them out and make wikis and then to be any good especially in a multiplayer world you have to require people understand those numbers after all. I saw this happen in, just for example, City of Heroes, where things used to be expressed in adjectives like “a strong boost to X” and players complained until they added a tootip to show the actual stats. A more extreme example is Pokemon with its hidden “Effort Values” and the hidden stats in Pokemon Go.

  2. “Why not copy the real world and have skills get better as you use them? How about a system where the more you run, the better you run? The more you fight, the better you fight? And rather than having XP levels leading to distinct level upgrades, it’s a more gradual, sliding scale.”

    I’ve actually thought about this. Regardless of what you plan to do with your points, you still have to do activity to get points, so why not make the decision first and then have specific quests that give you that upgrade? E.g.: if you decide to upgrade some magic skills, grab a basic staff/scroll, head off and do your quest that will help build that skill – and that quest will be specifically designed to develop your magic skills. The challenge for the developer is to make it feel meaningful – that the quest wasn’t just a fetch quest, but had real in-game application purposes.

    I wonder if “the more you fight, the better you fight” is a question of how to apply hit-boxes? I was thinking about a system that could feel wonky to begin with to replicate your amateur level, but the more you fight, and the better you the player got, the wonkiness went away and precision took over. That’s something that I admire about RPGs, the feeling of being such low-level and then via either a specific weapon or [stats that represent your invulnerability] rising to a virtual war machine.

  3. Amanda

    I got very sad when you told me about Oblivion because first I knew this but forgot and second I knew it meant I was going to get told this again and again (ha three times in total so far but you were first). Oblivion is known for driving players to grind through ordinary activity and I do wonder if this kind of system had just not received enough care and attention to improve it.

    I suppose one of my grievances is that I’ve never understood is that in games that expect you to fight physically (like Dark Souls) rather than theory turn-based dice rolls, the stats system interferes with the player’s own experience of level of adapting to the interface. This is most obvious in the terrible example of NOLF 2. That’s why I gravitated towards something that resembles your experience but it’s still disruptive. I guess this is a topic for Arithmophobia 3 :)

    When you say the Internet will figure out hidden stats, maybe that’s okay? My reason for wanting to dump stats was making it easier for non-stat folk to enjoy these games. Having a hardcore stat game hidden is fine. Solving grind even if you *want* to solve grind is probably impossible if players are open to harvest XP vs limited XP source.

    I have not played a single Final Fantasy. Is this recommended? Like in a Dark Souls recommended way?

    Warstub

    I feel like more could be done with a natural XP system and we haven’t seen enough experimentation with it. I’m reluctant to be too armchair designer with it, because as I’ve tried to put across above a stats system has so many ramifications that it needs to be tested to see what it does. See the Oblivion example from Amanda!

    I also feel like you that some of the fetch questing is just too blatant and cheap.

    Can anyone tell me how The Witcher works?

  4. Sorry, I didn’t mean to add fuel to a fire! Of course I figured you’d played that.

    Final Fantasy 6 is the best Final Fantasy. Definitely play it. Possibly play 7 for contrast, as many people think that one’s the best instead. Most of the Final Fantasy games are actually pretty easy, and have little in common with Dark Souls. The combat is all turn based, with a reliance on a speed meter that you can turn off if you don’t want your reflexes to matter at all.

  5. Really interesting posts and subsequent discussion! There’s lots to think about it and so that is what I will do. But a couple of minor points I wanted to remark upon…

    “From where I’m sitting, weighing up the time developers have to spend testing and the amount of time players spend learning, then realising that well-balanced systems are similar to a flat difficulty curve… it can feel like a problem no one wants to talk about.”

    My emphasis. I disagree with this statement although acknowledge that it is true of some games. The best of these, I guess, are concerned with numbers going up equating to the unlocking of a toolbox, giving players more options and thus interesting choices. The worst just make all the numbers go up and are just sad and awful and you want to talk to them at a party because you feel sorry for them, but you know they’ll glom onto you all night, so you don’t.

    Then there is the sort of scaling model used by Skyrim/FO3 et al, where periodically the enemies roaming the map will make a leap in toughness, and the game suddenly shifts from a cakewalk to a challenge. Difficulty in those games is mostly a product of DPS vs. HP, with the only real complicating factors being the number of enemies around and the environment you’re in, this has the effect of making a not very good combat system even worse. I suppose the advantage of such an approach over the aforementioned is that it breaks up the pattern and provides variation in gameplay texture and pacing. I guess it’s better than an arrow in the [REDACTED].

    Then there are the systems used by games like Dark Souls (you knew I’d get there, didn’t you), which have much more tactile gameplay. Difficulty in Souls is far from a flat difficulty curve IMO. Each new area does tend to involve a leap in difficulty, but that’s a product of unfamiliar enemy behaviour and environments more than numbers (the extent that numbers come into it: enemy HP means you need to land a few more hits for a kill, meaning you need to spend longer periods of time not getting hit yourself). Dark Souls’ initial areas tend to feature enemies or bosses which each exhibit just one or two types of attack of patterns of movement; as the game progresses, enemies feature additional attack types, elemental effects and the like. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Souls difficulty as fractal, but there’s a little of that to it.

    On Dark Souls numbers in general: personally I think that they are mostly there as a sort of vestigial limb, but they serve secondary purposes. They gate certain kinds of highly specialised equipment, which in turn encourages commitment to specialisation and a particular playstyle (a different loadout significantly changes your Souls experience; just try double-handing a greatsword if you’re reliant on using a shield, for example). They allow players who are stuck on a particular boss or area an alternative path to progression, too; I like to joke about the “git gud” stuff but in truth there are points in Dark Souls where I got stuck and decided to just have fun practicing fighting known enemies and harvesting souls. It is also notable that in Souls, XP and money are one and the same generic resource. This works thematically as well as allowing more expansive player choice.

    All of this is of course tangential, but you’ve gotten me thinking and bloviating now, damn it Joel.

    On Final Fantasy: although I’ve played half a dozen of them and completed three, I wouldn’t really recommend playing them – to you, specifically. They are enormously grindy timesinks, they don’t tend to feature a huge amount of variation considering the timescales involved, and the quality of the writing and characters is overstated. Horses for courses, mind, as numerous top-notch game critics think Final Fantasy VII is amaaaaazing.

    On the Witcher: I’ve barely played the 2nd and don’t remember the 1st, but I like the approach used in the 3rd. Experience is mostly gained from completing questions; killing enemies offers very little in comparison. The experience offers also tends to map to the amount of time invested or the… narrative complexity of the quest, I guess, which fits that “culmination of a long quest” pattern in the above post.

    When you level up, I think you gain a little health, and you gain one point to put into a skill. Skills must be equipped and you have limited slots, but you can have them at any time. I’d say that completing 3-5 quests is, on average, enough to gain a level. So levels are accrued slowly, and new abilities even more so. You tend to commit to a playstyle as a result of this spartan allocation of points, but I can see how, in the lategame, once you’ve hit the level cap of 30 and have an excess of ability points from occasional other sources, you could unlock abilities for two different playstyles and switch between them.

    Finally, as a corollary of the slow unlock of new abilities and points, you tend to think very little about numbers when it comes to your character build. Instead, you tend to think “my normal attacks are upgraded and I get the most benefits from wearing light armour; also, I should remember that these two of my spells have been upgraded and are thus more useful in these specific circumstances”. The game does demand a flexible approach and the use of different buffs because many of its enemies require different approaches, to greater or lesser degrees, and I think a focus on gameplay and your chosen areas of focus is much better than numbers, Numbers, NUMBERS!!!

    However, your weapons and armour are still represented in quality by increasing numbers, and there are many ways to add 2% to this and 5% to that, so it’s not entirely free of those systems. But god, do I like that levelling system: it’s one of very few RPGs I’ve played where levelling is pushed sufficiently into the background that you can *actually* focus on the experiences of combat, dialogue, exploration, and stealing shit from impoverished peasants.

  6. Proofreading fails:

    “Experience is mostly gained from completing quests

    “but you can swap them in and out at any time”

    I shouldn’t write long comments at work, really.

  7. “Hit points don’t make a jot of sense. As you become stronger, you can take “more stabs”? What if I stab you in the eye?”
    “And, bugger, I don’t know if there’s an alternative to hit points. But we don’t have to get rid of every number… right?”
    Well, I heard about this site today, so I don’t know whether you played Dwarf Fortress. Creatures in this game don’t have hp numbers, they have organs, bones, muscles, fat, skin, etc. You can get stabbed in the eye, lose a hand, break a few ribs, no hit points.

  8. If me and the enemies are getting more powerful at around the same rate, what’s the point of all the numbers? One is the grind (ugh), and the other is communicating to the player that they’re getting more powerful, even though the enemies are getting more powerful to compensate.

    I’d be really interested to see someone “remix” a few classic RPGs to have “flat” difficulty curves, since that’s what they are in essence. They’d still need to find a way to evoke the feeling of growth, and not reward you too much for running away from every battle.

    Guaranteed some RPGs would suffer for it, but some would suffer less, maybe even retain much of its gameplay. Games like Zelda show that they can evoke so much of the feeling of adventure and growth from a typical RPG without nearly as many numbers.

  9. From my D&D days, I remember hit points being rationalised in terms of body positioning. The idea was that the more experienced you became, the more you were able to instinctively flinch and angle your body away from blows so as to minimise the chances of massive internal damage. The problem with this explanation is that while it does make *some* kind of sense with regards to professional warriors (it’s a bit like learning how to fall), the system breaks down when applied to wizards or — even worse — contemporary professions.

    The canonical example of this kind of thing is the D20 edition of Call of Cthulhu where successful academics and antiquarians became instinctively capable of withstanding shotgun blasts and monster attacks. Obviously I went to the wrong kind of graduate school…

    With regards to games signalling progress despite the use of a flat difficulty curve, isn’t that why some games will re-use early boss monsters? DA: Inquisitions opens with a fight against a massive demon and that same kind of demon re-appears later in the game as just another rift-guarding horror to be dispatched.

  10. Great article! Many thoughts! I feel a comment coming on, and it’s a big’un.

    I’m struggling with the idea of “argh so many numbers” right now as I’m making a Paradox-inspired Cyberpunk Megacorporation management sim. (Think Europa Universalis but set in 2070 and with like 5% of the talent and budget.) So I have this complex system (nations, companies, your research teams, overall company stats) and I need it to work convincingly together as a system otherwise the whole game is pointless. So, for example, when you fire workers you gain inefficiency to simulate company knowledge being lost. But 1) how do I tell the player about these facts without overwhelming them? If I tell the player the total ramification of each decision at every opportunity they’ll be swamped in tooltips. And 2) ok, so you gain inefficiency. Players will ask: what does *that* even mean?

    So my solution right now is to tell the player as little information as they need to make informed decisions, and to try to explain everything in succinct tooltips and give them enough warning if something goes wrong (eg. inefficiency rises too high) so that they learn what the consequences of these decisions may be. I think that has to be the solution to most “too many numbers” games: try to make the system comprehensible to the player in bite-size bits. They *cannot* learn the whole system at once, so you have to expect that they will not play optimally but that this itself is part of the play/learning process.

    Abandoning the D&D foundation:
    On the topic of RPGs doing away with 8 stats in favour of a “Main stat” and a few “secondary stats” – I really like this idea. It should make for better roleplaying, at least in pen and paper games. Just pick 2 things your character is good at, and 2 they’re bad at. They get +2 to their good rolls, and -2 to their bad rolls, or something. Done. Now you can model guns, Latin translation, butterfly analysis, whatever. The only problem comes when one stat might be somewhat close to another stat (“I make cakes so I should get a bonus to my “cook pasta” roll”) or when one stat is contained in another (“I have the ‘blacksmith’ stat but you have the ‘jeweller’ stat – which of us should forge the ornate bridle?”) I feel like these could easily be fudged by a GM in a P&P setting, but would become more complicated in a videogame.

    Computers are suited to numbers:
    I think part of the problem is that computers are just naturally suited to comparing numbers. Technically speaking, asking a computer “Is X > Y?” is one line of code. More complex systems are possible, but they will all boil down to some complex inter-branching versions of “Is X > Y?” and are harder to build. So I can see why CRPGs really doubled down on comparing stats: once they moved to computers it was in their DNA.

    The “use a skill to get better” model – a better example:
    One series that uses this model really well is the Quest for Glory series from Sierra. Same principle: when you stab something your melee goes up. When you climb a wall your climbing goes up. When you throw something your throwing goes up. There’s no equivalent to Oblivion’s “bunny hop everywhere” problem, and the game doesn’t have levels, just stats, so it avoids a lot of Oblivion’s problems.

    There is grind, though: the games don’t have a huge variety of stuff to do, so players will often spend an entire in-game day throwing rocks or climbing the same wall over and over. But this grinding I actually *like* (and I hate grind!) because: 1) it makes some kind of sense (throwing rocks for a full day will improve your throwing, naturally, but not your intelligence) and 2) each game has a limited time for you to finish in. In most RPGs, grinding is just a thing you do with little end in sight, or to get to the next boss. The limiting factor with grind is usually “Well how much of your life are you willing to waste?” But in QFG, grinding your throwing stat for a full day is an active decision, because you don’t have that much time to waste. It’s a strategic decision: “ok, I think I’ll need throwing more than magic, so rather than healing myself all day I’ll throw rocks all day.” So that feeling you mentioned – that grind should have a purpose and an end-point – is built in here. Plus you can usually just hold down the enter key to grind so it’s very streamlined.

    Alternatives to hit points:
    I like the idea of a “stamina bar” where combat becomes more sluggish the lower the bar becomes, and where wounds are modelled separately. Full stamina will allow you to dodge blows more easily; get hit in the arm and your max stamina will drop but your damage output will drop more; get hit in the eye and it’s an insta-kill. It would make for a totally different fighting rhythm, though.

    I also like the idea that we could do away with “hitpoints” and use “luck” or “fate” instead, so the more you level up the more the gods/powers that be/universe is interested in your progress, and the more death-defying things you will be able to do. How many movies have had a “Wow, an inch to the left and the arrow would have killed you!” moments for the main character?

    There was a game where your hitpoints was actually your “luck” points but I can’t find it now. Looked interesting. Also, this is something the Fighting Fantasy books did, though they still modelled health anyway.

    Fallen London:
    I also want to bring Fallen London into this because it’s a great game and seems really appropriate here. It’s a roleplaying IF game and it has stats, and the more you use each stat the better it gets (they go up even if you fail a stat check). The advantage is that you feel progress when the numbers go up and challenges get easier; the disadvantage is it does get very grindy at the high levels.

    The game’s at its best when the stats are just *there* but they support the story (or the fantasy of playing this character in the story). And it does have great story, which would be lessened if there weren’t also this feeling of an advancing avatar. But too often it can become a grindfest, where you grind stats to get better at certain challenges, or when you grind items to unlock a story path. I ground for a month to get my Zubmarine. I love my Zubmarine, and I’m glad I had to work for it (it would have felt cheap otherwise), but did it have to be *that* grindy? Numbers are great but should be used sparingly, because a lot of FL players are *not* playing to see numbers go up at all.

  11. Oh God I still haven’t figured out how to format my posts correctly. So embarrassing… :S

  12. Amanda

    I have Morrowind and Oblivion in my Steam library. I played Morrowind for a little while and, perhaps it is telling, it led me through all this stats set up and then I’d had enough of that. Unfortunately, because all I saw was setting up stats and no “REAL GAME”, I never ever went back. I have not yet played Oblivion.

    Something that’s difficult to do is keep abreast of the latest developments which is why I didn’t want to go too deep into RPGs as I just haven’t played that much in recent years! But I should probably do a Final Fantasy or two to stay educated. However, I don’t think I’m ever going to do a MMORPG or games like EVE, Destiny or Overwatch…

    Shaun

    You should know, Shaun, your rebuttal to this point was in my mind when I was constructing this grotesque netherwork of words. But the reason I completely dismissed your paltry 5 INT concerns with one flick of my awesomely powerful 50 STR wrist was that it does not eliminate the need for stats balancing: if the designers screw up and create scenarios where their players can paint themselves into a stat corner, then they’ve created Grind City at the very least. The unlocking toolboxes metaphor feels more like cover than cause: there’s no reason, obvious to me, why an interconnected system of explicit stats are necessary for toolbox unlocking.

    Dark Souls is a complicated beast in all this. I suspect the mechanical depth of the game only becomes truly apparent if you play more than once, and utilise alternate approaches. (Currently I am no good at using a shield; double-handling is my default…) But that goes back to my concern about how likely is a replay? Then again, does it count, provided you could your very own, exciting and personalised experience out of it? I have to say, as much as I hate all the stats in Dark Souls, they lend a certain desperation to the proceedings – without the XP/Souls chasing, it would gut that absolute terror of dying in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    The Witcher model sounds interesting! I bought a cheap-cheap copy early in the year, so who knows. Maybe I’ll do it after Mass Effect.

    FEATURES:
    * Stealing shit from impoverished peasants never felt so good

    P.S. I couldn’t possibly know which top-notch game critics you’re referring to there.

    Daniil

    Welcome Daniil! I’ve not played Dwarf Fortress but I had heard about the very body-centric approach to combat. But I’m not sure how well this works for an individual adventurer up against the evil hordes. HP turns your character into a sponge for punishment which can be fixed at a later point. The only other game I remember doing something similar was the original DX; if your legs were critically damaged you would end up crawling, for example. Then again, you could HEAL and be MAGICALLY REPAIRED.

    My concern with a replacement for HP is that the body is in no way a sponge and any sort of wound is extremely dangerous. Therefore, replacing HP with more realistic system – I mean, even shooters use the HP system – would likely be aggravating to the normal player because it removes tolerance for player mistakes. (This is the same problem of having a unbalanced stat system, that it may not be tolerant of players choices of their stats.)

    Priyesh

    Hello Priyesh! The “ideal RPG difficulty curve” being a flat line, which is a observation I got from Jonathan Blow many years ago, is actually only ideal. In practice, no RPG actually pulls that off because, God, I think the RPGs would really feel artificial then! Which is why they get away with it, because it doesn’t feel neat and clean, but coarse and lumpy. But still need to aim for the flat line, thought, because allowing the stat-based difficulty to pull away from the player of any particular build will mean either it gets too damn easy or gets too damn hard.

    That said, I think some of the simpler RPG systems do feel a lot more flat – you can feel the game is having a much easier time of predicting the ground ahead of your arrival…

    Jonathan M

    Ha, yes that HP argument failing with “contemporary professions” falls under that “kill 10 rats, raise INT” example!

    That’s interesting, maybe they do. I’ve not played many modern RPGs, due to a fear of learning number systems, so it’s quite possibly true. Dark Souls runs you past the Asylum Demon at the start, twice, but I’m not sure that’s to make you feel stronger.

    James Patton

    I fixed the formatting for you. (FYI WordPress comments take HTML style tags.)

    I think the solution to your sim problem is basically GAME DESIGN. :) That’s the problem with any numbers system that it gets out of the control of both the developer and player! But I would suggest a “first mission” type game which is basically a clever walk through the different aspects of the simulation which is interesting, but designed to slowly ramp up complexity. (Only add, do not take away.) Anyone playing a second game could skip it. THEN AGAIN I’VE NEVER DESIGNED ONE OF THESE GAMES.

    The other solution is lacing different tutorials across a campaign (the RTS method). I don’t know how well that works for a sim, though. And you still might want to have the option of skipping them…

    I think you’ve hit one of the nails on the head with computers being suited to handling numbers. Not because it’s harder to implement alternate representation but now there is no holding back on the complexity of the system. NOTHING WILL STOP US. There was a limit to the tabletop complexity, because no one wants to spend 5 minutes reading rules after each hit. One of the problems I have with some boardgames is that’s far too bloody easy to forget rules and things which could either save you or have killed you just get lost.

    I do think more could be done with a “natural” skill system, even if Oblivion botched it somewhat. I would like to avoid grind because I suspect “good grind” is difficult to pull off, versus “grind” which is easy :) QFG sounds interesting but maybe it would be better to say “hey would like to train for a day on this stat? Y/N” and when you say Y the day ends and the training is done. Replace bad grind!

    Ah, I’d forgotten about the luck system in FF. That was a strange one. It was possible to top your luck back up, but it was generally on a slow decline throughout. You wouldn’t automatically die from zero luck but christ it would make for a difficult game.

    I can’t believe you wrote a comment as long as Shaun’s.

  13. Dark Souls is a really interesting example here because as pervasive as they are in everything in the game, the numbers are entirely optional.

    Unlike RPGs where you literally can’t win if the numbers are against you, it’s entirely possible to beat Dark Souls with your starting equipment and without upgrading any of your stats. It’s super hard, but the whole game is super hard and while better stats and equipment helps, the real gate to getting past a boss or an area is the player’s skill.

    Thus the “fashion souls” thing where players choose their armor to look cool rather than for stats.

    On the other hand, the stats do make a huge, huge difference. Playing as a tank with very heavy armor, enormous weapon, and lots of poise is almost a totally different game than playing as a light and fast character. There are areas where switching to armor that maxes your poison or fire resistance is almost essential just to be able to get around, explore, and find stuff (while also demonstrating that you didn’t actually need whatever armor combination you’d been relying on up to that point).

  14. People surviving without upgrades and “fashion souls” just strikes me as the equivalent of speed runners. If you’re part of those 1% genetically predisposed to the game, more power to you. However, the 99% are left chasing stats! I don’t think focusing on 1% fairly represents the impact of game systems, more of its extremes.

    But I’ve found myself flipping between playstyles just recently: killing a Titanite Demon was only possible if I had speed, so shed my armour. Yet with the Gargoyles, I needed to take advantage of good openings regardless of the inherent danger – thus needed armour to soak up damage.

  15. Yikes, this was written in chunks last week so is longer than I expected :-S

    What a can of worms you’ve opened here Joel! Very interesting pieces (and comments). I know we’ve spoken about this topic before!

    “To show I’m not biased against numbers, I’m going to number every subsection. P.S. I also have a PhD in mathematics.”

    This made me laugh.

    Amanda, I like observations 3 and 4. Particularly 3!

    I haven’t played NOLF 2 but I know the feeling of not being able to shoot straight because of a low-level stat because Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines did exactly the same. The Last of Us did something similar as well but it wasn’t nearly as egregious. This kind of thing turns the game into https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAA0SnPkm2I

    I think the thing that bugs me with Demon’s and Dark Souls is that you’ve got this fantastic combat that revolves around managing stamina, blocking, dodging and swinging your weapon, parrying, movement and positioning, timing, reading your enemy’s tells, dual-wielding, using a shield, two-handed fighting, fighting light, geared up in heavy armour, using projectiles etc. You’ve got this forlorn, mysterious and intricate world begging to be explored, its denizens pushing you back as you carefully nose into different areas, as terrified as you are intrigued to find out what’s round the next corner. This is straight up all the cool stuff.

    But then you’ve got the stats and numbers which, yeah, gives you freedom to craft your character, but I’d be lying if I told you that my upgrade points were well spent. I mean, when I found out resistance was a bum stat, I was really pissed off. I’m not even sure I put anything into it, it just annoyed me on principle. Then there’s the stats that don’t really help your particular class, build or playstyle. Couple all that with the weapon upgrade system and how the different (finite) materials create different weapons that synergise with your stats and you’ve got a recipe for analysis paralysis and possibly frustration and regret because you hobbled your character for the rest of the game. I’m not sure being able to respec your character or recycle your crafting mats is in the spirit of the Souls games though!

    I know this all sounds like I want to min/max but, shit, the game’s tagline is ‘Prepare to Die’ not ‘Don’t worry, man, YOLO’. So the mere existence of stats mean I feel pressure to not waste the very things that I’m harvesting souls for, and that, for me, is distracting in a negative way. I want to get back to the cool stuff above.

    God, imagine if there was a F2P Souls game?

    So it’s at this stage that I kind of wish there was an option to just upgrade my character automatically according to my class and other metrics like equip burden, stamina use, gear loadout, attack style. Then we’re getting back to the ‘use a skill to get better’ model of levelling up (a model I like). Ultimately I just don’t want to be fussing over this kind granularity and minutiae, at least on a first playthrough or by default. The Souls games are difficult and unforgiving enough to warrant the fuss though.

    The timing of this topic couldn’t be better because Anachronox (which I’m still playing) does this really refreshing thing of replacing stat values with words, like so:

    https://i.imgur.com/iG93i87.jpg

    It’s a game after my own heart!

    Anachronox is very simple overall so this kind of approach doesn’t really amount to much more than ‘Okay, this weapon is excellent and that one is good’ and ‘This accessory decreases my speed from fair to poor’. Sometimes you might get an ‘excellent’ weapon that’s close-quarter, but then there’s a ‘good’ weapon that’s ranged and perhaps more useful. The game doesn’t need anything more than this so I really admire the decision to get away from abstract numbers. It humanises things. Having an ‘excellent’ weapon, is indeed excellent! In fact, I read this on the Anachronox Wikipedia entry from Tom Hall:

    “One of the things I hate about RPGs is, you’ve got, like, ‘here’s this thing and here’s that thing’ and it’s like ‘this is 52 and that’s 53’ I mean, what’s the difference? It’s like, OK it’s ‘a point,’ and the formula will come up to be like ‘two points’ and like, sure, that’s going to make a difference. So now I have to hit the guy three times…”

    Another thing I like about Anachronox is that each character has a world skill/ability (lockpick, tractor beam, yammer, punch, hack, decipher, etc.) and they’re used to access secrets.
    Some secrets require greater skill mastery to unlock or access so you need a better set of lockpicks or your robot’s software needs to be upgraded to hack certain control panels, or you need to talk to a character who’s practised in the art of yammering to get better at it. They’re hard upgrades that make sense thematically. It sure as hell beats a progressively higher number threshold that you’ve got to vault. It’s kind of like the Metroid way of unlocking the world.

    I’ve not played many roguelikes but Wazhack, a side-scrolling low-fi 3D roguelike, does some interesting stuff with weapons. In order to work out the strength of your weapons, you have to get them appraised by a blacksmith or increase your weapon knowledge talent (which allows you to judge which is the better weapon in either hand at the basic level, or be able to appraise weapons yourself at the highest). This is what an appraisal looks like:

    http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/wazhack/images/8/80/DeathStaff_WeaponAppraisal.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20131005202352

    Kind of unwieldy and not an exact science so you have to go with your instinct in most cases. The thing is, appraisals are quite rare so often the only way of knowing how effective your weapon is is to, y’know, hit things. Which makes sense. Your ability to use a weapon proficiently is also determined by how much you use it. There’s no levels as such, but a bar that increases for each weapon class. I find Wazhack’s opaqueness weirdly liberating. You just kind of get on with it instead of fretting over the numbers.

    On moving away from HP: neither Lugaru and Bushido Blade had health bars or hitpoints; they were both about landing decisive killer blows or, in Bushido’s case, crippling your opponent to have a better chance of landing a killer blow. It’s been years since I played it with my brother, but we used to love it. Lugaru is just fantastic though and entirely its own beast. Hard as nails but brilliant.

    Metro 2033 did some really interesting stuff with visual/aural feedback instead of numerical. I’ve got mad respect for that approach– games are certainly high fidelity enough for it these days. A lot of first-person games do that desaturated colour and vaseline smeared screen effect when you’re low on health (sometimes they add a dash of red, blood spatter and veins too to make it look EVEN MORE DEATHLY).

    I’m not sure how much you’d get from a Final Fantasy Joel. I played FFVI shortly after Planescape: Torment around 2007/8 and it didn’t do much for me. I certainly appreciated its ambition, scope, tonal shifts, variety of characters and, of course, the music, but the combat left me cold and I don’t remember particularly enjoying the dialogue or exploration either. FFVII and FFVIII were amazing to me back in the 90s but… that was back in the 90s when I was young and impressionable. Who knows what I’d make of them now.

  16. “I suspect the mechanical depth of the game only becomes truly apparent if you play more than once, and utilise alternate approaches. (Currently I am no good at using a shield; double-handling is my default…)”

    I’d disagree, having only played through DS1 once. I did start NG+ but I’m not very far in at all. I also never broke away from the longsword + shield combo that is the easiest way to Dark Souls.

    In truth, one play through the game will give you an appreciation of that mechanical depth, because if you do not learn the game then it is you who will be played.

    “I have to say, as much as I hate all the stats in Dark Souls, they lend a certain desperation to the proceedings – without the XP/Souls chasing, it would gut that absolute terror of dying in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

    I entirely agree with the latter (I don’t hate the stats).

    Re. “fashion souls” – I also fashion souls these days! I still pick from a selection that fits my build type, but I’ll go for something that looks cool over something more functional. This all comes back again to how the numbers in Souls games do matter, but nowhere near as much as your own experience and ability to act upon it.

  17. Sorry I’ve not been in the mood for responding to comments, ‘cos I been playing too much Dark Souls.

    Gregg

    On the subject of experts-with-stats, I also recall Deus Ex had weak aim as well (stick with the prod, huh?). I guess we might argue that JC Denton was on his first mission but, gah, my vision is augmented but I cannot shoot straight. Initial weak stats that hinder the player/game interface have the curious effect of making the game “easier to play” as it goes along. Maybe this is intended, but normally in physically demanding games, you improve as you go along and that’s the hero’s journey – here the game relaxes and gets easier! The early stages of NOLF2 feel ridiculously hard compared to the end.

    On Souls. Yeah, the combat is absurdly rich, and I’ve been avoiding the stats and numbers generally… but the Capra Demon sent me on a collision course with the complex weapon upgrade system – and I now wield a Raw Falchion. I’m still a knight dressed up in hardcore armour, of course, because I still take too many blows.

    I’m not sure what the alternative is to stats, of course, because you need all those Souls to count… somehow otherwise who gives a shit if you lose them? But a wiki seems like the only way to discover what exactly Humanity does (aside from the obvious bonfire work) because gaining and losing points of humanity is not something you get to play with unlike the normal stats with each level upgrade.

    And now I’m lost, of course, *deep* in the stats and scanning the wiki regularly on attribute development… and I think that’s wayyy dangerous. It’s very easy to destroy the unknown if you live in wikispace for too long.

    I think an F2P Souls game would be the end of the world.

    To be Devil’s advocate, one of the problems of offering an upgrade system which is more obviously Metroid is exactly that: it exposes game design. Now it looks like the game was designed to gate you and unlock paths in specific ways. Contrast this to Dark Souls where you have to pick your way through, hanging on by your fingernails, trying to figure which route is currently porous to you. Dark Souls is generally notorious for providing zero direction, of course: I didn’t even know where the hell I was going even after being told about the bells; there’s no HUD indicating objectives. I like this but gosh, the game can be overwhelming. So many choices. So many deadly choices.

    Reviewing the Wazhack example, the root of the problem seems to be that HP doesn’t make any sense. It’s a number that has no proper analogue – bodies do not sponge up damage and you do not get better at it. The idea that a weapon can “cause more damage” makes sense but only to a point (a sharp +4 point). In truth, I think most people playing RPGs have no clue how real melee combat actually works – I include myself here – from how handling a weapon can make all the difference, to how fragile and heavy blades actually are. We live in a suspended smoke cloud of Hollywood make believe, constructed with numbers.

    Most RPG systems are focused around how well you trade hit points with enemies – this weird artifice is what spawns the whole system. But maybe we need to admit that they are just interesting systems and are meaningless as representation? I can’t accept it’s the only way of playing out the hero’s journey. Perhaps I’m just arguing the faulty ludonarrative dissonance argument again: Nathan Drake is a massmurderer but no one reads the Uncharted games that way, they just have a bit of fun. The numbers are fun, who gives a shit if it connects with modern medicine.

    WE ARE STILL YOUNG AND IMPRESSIONABLE GREGG

    Shaun

    Maybe you’ll find this anecdote interesting.

    It was only through wikis did I realise that I’ve been missing out badly because I haven’t been using a shield properly. I tended to see a shield as an extra damage sponge and basically something that interfered with my controller work but shields can be remarkably effective saving your life and getting you into position for attack.

    Took on the stone knights in Darkroot Garden leading up to the Moonlight Butterfly and was amazed at how well my shield absorbed some of the blows if you’ve got it angled the right way – I just expected to be converted into paste. (The worst thing about Darkroot is, of course, the foliage and trees which suddenly pop in front of the camera when you’re low on health and you can’t see a goddamn thing as the death blow is prepared.)

    As I said to Gregg above, I’m deep into the stats now and I’m probably not going to make it out alive.

    (My strength isn’t that high, so it’s entertaining watching my avatar try to swing a great axe or drag a stone shield as she walks.)

    BTW, what is the point of playing NG+?

  18. Re: “The idea that a weapon can “cause more damage” makes sense but only to a point (a sharp +4 point). In truth, I think most people playing RPGs have no clue how real melee combat actually works – I include myself here – from how handling a weapon can make all the difference, to how fragile and heavy blades actually are.”

    You might be interested in this thought I had then:
    http://warstub.blogspot.co.nz/2016/07/video-game-ideamechanic.html

    RE: NG+
    Although the hitpoints of enemies go up, it’s a chance to increase your strength, keep all the non-story/plot related items, and pick up anything you missed previous playthrough. In Dark Souls, there is the case where Trophies/Achievements can only be completed on a third playthrough with the same character because certain items only appear once, you might need them to create more than one item for either your own interest, or the trophy/achievements. By the time you are doing an NG++ playthrough, you are (or should be) a more skilled player with a much stronger character, therefore won’t struggle so hard, and maybe have a more genuinely fun playthrough. That’s kind of how I see it, anyway.

  19. Shields can be great. This is a generalisation, but they’re most effective against regular enemies (and can actually be a hindrance against bosses if you allow yourself to get into the habit of turtling behind your shield). If you can find one with 100% damage absorption then against many standard enemies, you can take a hit or two with no health loss.

    They’re less effective against enemies that deal elemental damage, as they don’t block status effect growth or elemental damage, but they’ll still block the physical portion.

    Certain shields also have great elemental resistance (usually coupled with low physical absorption) and so can be great for certain bosses. Sometimes.

    The problem with shields is that panicking and hiding behind your shield can result in all of your stamina draining as you tank hits, then you get staggered, and take appalling amounts of damage from an enemy that capitalises on your vulnerability. They’re also much less useful against groups of enemies, of course. Essentially they are a crutch – very useful in many scenarios, but grow too dependent on it and you’ll struggle worse than ever when it is kicked away. If you’ve been focusing on dodging and positioning rather than turtling, though, I think you’re in a better position than most Souls newcomers!

    Wow apparently I really like shields, huh?

    The point of playing NG+ is:
    * Returning to earlier areas of the game (with slightly tougher foes) and seeing how your much greater skill stacks up against them (areas that took hours to get through take minutes, but if you get cocky basic enemies can still ruin you – it’s a lovely way of grasping that part of the Souls design philosophy)
    * Soul rewards are increased and unique items can be acquired again, so continuing to develop character builds and new top-level equipment is possible (this is something they supposedly went much further with in Dark Souls 2, which is designed to permit multiple NG iterations with endlessly rewarding build investment, but you’d have to ask Dylan about the details)
    * It is possible to explore whichever endings of the game you did not previously see (as well as see what happens when you interact with most NPCs differently; because their subplots are obtuse and concealed, there are usually still surprises to discover)
    * Revisiting areas, rereading item descriptions, meeting NPCs again, seeing bosses in a different light than when first encountered – the themes and ideas of the Dark Souls series are clearer a second time around. It’s quite easy to miss things entirely, e.g. what happened to New Londo? What is the significance of Darkstalker Kaathe (& did you even meet it?). These can be minor or major elements to the sparsely told story of Dark Souls.

    It’s not a world away from “why replay any game?”, I guess.

  20. Actually, I had another thought (and I know this is getting away from the original post…). With regards to combat and enemy as damage sponges and relating to my thoughts about how to change the mechanics in my article I linked, health damage is just a representation – so why not change the representation? If you change the red ‘Health’ bar to a green bar and relabel it ‘Stamina’ you would then essentially make combat more realistic by beating down your opponents stamina bar instead of the health bar. When Stamina is at it’s lowest, that’s when the enemy becomes staggered or open for a death blow. The combat stays exactly the same with the exception of no body hits, just swords against swords and swords against shields – each hit reduces stamina. Much of this is already available in Dark Souls to a smaller extent, but I would propose it as the main fighting concept instead.

    Even swords against swords / swords against shields would be hard work and, I imagine, in real life the person who dies has either lost too much stamina to defend or attack anymore, or a swing has left them open.

  21. I always thought the un-upgraded aiming difficulty in Deus Ex (and maybe NOLF2) was a statement about the realism of firearms in video games, that even most people with basic cop-level firearms training can’t run and shoot accurately at the same time.

  22. Sorry about my laziness for replying, I’ve been spending lots of time building the next Side by Side episode in Vegas. Of course, after I did all this brand new NLE learning I discover Sony has given up on Vegas and sold it all off to MAGIX. I’d look at Avid Composer if it wasn’t so entirely definitely out of my financial league. This Side by Side episode is practically finished, I rendered it once already – expect it this week.

    My good friend Warstub

    I just went looking for information about what happens IRL with sword fights, quite illuminating. Here’s Cracked on how swords are made and a Quora question on the length of battles. The impression I get is that type of swords/upgrades are kind of nonsense as is, to some extent, skill – it’s easy to make a mistake and just get killed. And the biggest killer is exhaustion. A duel is one thing, while on the battlefield you’d get exhausted fast and then run through by another opponent.

    Ho ho. I don’t know how much I want a realistic system anymore!

    That doesn’t mean, however, that an alternate system is a waste of time. People have spent years on RPG number systems with silly concepts like hit points and there’s no reason why another unrealistic system wouldn’t also be interesting. And a stamina-based system is closer to reality.

    As for your suggestions, I think the proof is in the pudding. We’d have to see how it feels as an implemented system, engaging or not, and whether there are problems of feedback and juiciness (oh yes).

    Thanks for the notes on Dark Souls NG+. I don’t know if I really want to do it, simply because I’ve not done the second bell yet and I’ve spent 30 hours in the game already.

    Don’t worry about going off on tangents. Tangents have happened since Electron Dance day one and I’ve even though I’ve threatened commenters with harm, the tangents continue. Matt W, the Tangent King, is still here. Uh, long live the tangent.

    My best bud Shaun

    I have noticed, while descending through the Catacombs, that I have a problem with shield use. If I wait for a skeleton to hit my shield, I lose a ton of stamina, which means I don’t have enough juice to do enough rapid slashes with my Falchion which is what that weapon is good for; so I wear myself down and risk being hit. So, yeah, it seems every strategy has its downsides. Eric just warned me this morning that I need to learn to parry. God damn it.

    I’ve beaten everything so far without recourse to summoning Solaire or… Lautrec (or other players for that matter). Unfortunately I know what Lautrec is going to get up to and I’m just going to let that plot twist take its course. Pinwheel was an unexpected pushover. But the second Titanite Demon down in the Catacombs is way beyond me right now.

    I will admit I am blown away by the depth of the game, even though when you look at “challenging areas” a second time, you realise how *small* they are. Absolutely blown away.

    I read Steerpike’s excellent Dark Souls Diaries a few years ago and unfortunately I know a lot of Dark Souls plot, the purpose of the game and it’s two endings. So now I’m seeing things fall into place like Lautrec’s arc – ohhhh that’s the guy who does THE THING I realised I after I let him out – as opposed to figuring out the grand story. I never intended to play Dark Souls, Shaun. I never intended.

    My fellow Urthman

    The stats of NOLF2 doesn’t make any sense, though, as you saved the world in the first game. You are no rookie.

    I suppose you could argue that with Deus Ex. I wonder how much of these games do we want to consider “realistic” vs “a system we tolerate”.

  23. Wait, did you threaten me with harm for a tangent? Or had you given up by the time I got here? I mean, there was the year-long period where you would shut down any thread when it seemed like I might be about to explain the paparazzi game, but that was different.

    About realistic combat systems, I kind of like the idea of a system which is all about picking battles you can win rather than winning the battles. Which might go well with a stamina-based hit points system; you could have something where you can defeat just about any enemy when you’re at full health, but if you try to take on a bunch of them in a row you’ll collapse and they’ll get you, so you have to be able to find a quiet and get your wind back. Or it could just be about getting the drop on an enemy. Probably this has to be a turn-based thing to avoide being boring.

  24. Shield combat strategies vary… most bosses they’re not super useful against in my experience, but against basic enemies they are a good way to stay safe whilst trading blows. E.g. if an enemy is staggered when they hit your shield, you’ve an opening to land a good hit and then back off to maintain your stamina. I’m sure there are a lot of possibilities I’ve not explored… when I played the first DS I stuck with one approach through the entire game so I’m no expert. DS3 I know better.

    You absolutely need to learn parrying. If and when you reach Anor Londo, you will have plenty of opportunity to learn. ^_^

    Congrats on beating bosses without summons. You should be proud! One of my proudest gaming moments was doing that with Ornstein and Smough, who are very tough bosses.

    Don’t worry too much about the Titanite Demons. They are cocks, they usually appear in tiny spaces so that the camera also becomes your enemy, they hit like trucks and have insane damage resistance. It is totally an acceptable strategy to either manouevre them into a position where they can be cheesed with arrows, or leave them and come back later, once additional soul levels and weapon upgrades have given you a bit more room for error.

    And yeah, it’s astonishing to realise how small most areas are, how quickly they can be run through, when you think back on how slow and fragile your first expeditions through those areas were. The Undead Settlement must have taken me weeks of practice and learning before I finally beat the gargoyles and moved on to pastures new (which, predictably, ruined me).

  25. Matt, I’m a pushover, we all know this. You could threaten to take away the website and I’d just say you know best, it was probably a good idea. Ah, THE PAPARAZZI GAME WITH THE HEAD SHOTS. Time to close this thread.

    Your idea of “choosing battles” reminds me of is the double-take I had when I began to interact with first-person RPGs. First-person, as you know, is all about killing and maiming with using nowt but your bare index finger. But RPGs were often about positioning and turn-based strategies, whereas first-person is about your own physical skills with a controller or mouse and WHACK AS FAST AS YOU CAN. It seemed to me an unholy marriage – the RPG stats deciding how good you are + your own skill at playing the game. The stats, instead of defining your character and abilities, were actually just a measure of the handicap applied to your physical prowess. I suppose I should have put that in the article somewhere up above…

    Shaun, shields don’t tend to be great against those big knights and I was also surprised when they threw in a… tossing move. I was like, what, when did they start throwing me up in the air god damn it?!

    Taking out an enemy from a “sniper position” with arrows feels soooo un-Dark Souls. I just killed off that giant rat in the Depths with my Longbow +4. It was very unsatisfying. I’m actually taking a break from the game at the moment – as you can tell, I’m realllly into it.

  26. “Taking out an enemy from a “sniper position” with arrows feels soooo un-Dark Souls…”

    Don’t be one of THOSE GUYS! Epic Name Bro did a nice ‘Souls is Dead’ podcast where he talked about one the great community joys of playing Demon’s Souls was hearing about all the ways different players beat the final(?) boss. But once Dark Souls got popular and by the time DS3 came along, the loud voices began putting people down for using magic or anything that wasn’t melee. It’s true that Dark Souls is heavily skewed towards melee, but there’s enough mechanics – kick, punch, dagger, spears, archery, spells, etc.. – that you can play the game pretty much however you want and damn those who disagree. In the DLC I shot multiple arrows at the final boss from outside of the boss room, because after going in there and seeing how quickly I died, I just thought… ahh fuck it!

    https://soundcloud.com/enbsfx/poison-arrow-12

  27. AND YEA FLAMES ERUPTED IN THE COMMENTS

    I’M NOT SUGGESTING wait I would turn the caps off I’m not suggesting that all who arrow their way through Dark Souls should be strung up. I’ve internalised what Dark Souls means to me and although I use arrows they feel unsatisfying. I took down necromancers using arrows because it felt appropriate, hiding behind skeleton bodyguards. Generally, though…

  28. I usually use Italics for stressed written speech but the option wasn’t available. SO I HAD TO SHOUT instead.

    :-)

  29. I’m glad that you’re enjoying it so much, Joel!

    It’s true that cheesing enemies rarely feels as satisfying as doing it ‘properly’. I made peace with that long ago, when I learned to kill the first Titanite Demon by running out of his area to Estus, or when I killed the Capra Demon by lobbing firebombs over a wall and into his boss area after being brutalised by him thirty times. Sometimes you just want to get past blockages that are holding you up from newer stuff. ;)

    Also, it’s a joy to go back to enemies you struggled with immensely at a later point and discover how your added experience has changed your perspective on them. For all the crap Lost Izalith gets (not unreasonably) the return of some old friends makes it great for this.

    Regarding big enemies and getting thrown around, oh my friend. If you haven’t already you will soon begin trying to figure out poise, and then hyperarmour, and then all the invisible shit that From doesn’t see fit to surface.

    P.S. regarding Warstub’s comment about different ways to play the game – recently in DS3 I got invaded in the Catacombs. I eventually found the invader (who was using an item that made him fade out of sight at a certain distance) who hadn’t attacked me at all. As I got close to him he repeatedly activated the Emit Force miracle, bumping me slowly and helplessly towards the edge of a cliff. He was a total dick and it was marvellous.

  30. Warstub, I actually wasn’t commenting on your own deplyoment of capital-lettered weapons, it was just a joke that occurred to me about turning off caps :)

    Shaun, Eric told me last night just how much he hated the Capra Demon, it was this much *holds out arms*. And I’ve got that Titanite Demon stuck down a corridor in the Catacombs and it looks like trying to take out that guy without a long-distance damage transmission mechanism (bow) would be punishing at best – there’s no room to maneuver!

    (On Poise, I’ve got the Wolf Ring which has made recovery from attack sooo much better.)

    Any views here on Dark Souls 2 and 3? That is, worth thinking about playing *in the future*? *Some time from now* I mean. *Not this year*.

  31. Well, Dark Souls 2 is interesting if you want to look at just how bad level design can be, just how much of a step back a game can take when you leave it in the hands of someone else… All the same basic mechanics, but the overall design is a huge disappointment. The Dragon Aerie is interesting to see just how much missed potential there was though – as in, building the entire game around the Dragon Aerie, instead of just one small section. Dark Souls 3: play only if you really come to love the game and want more. I’m still playing 3, but that’s only because I have no money to buy anything else and am waiting for Horizon Zero Dawn to arrive so I can spend the money I don’t have on that!

  32. I can’t recall how I did that Titanite Demon in the end. I think what I may have done is run down there towards him to aggro him, then fled back to the entrance. If you kite him out far enough you can move in and out of cover and fire arrows off. You still need to dodge his lightning attacks, however… and I think Titanite Demons might take minimal damage from strike weapons (which I think arrows are categorised as, booo).

    I’ve barely played DS2 so can’t comment, but it’s near-universally considered the least of the trilogy. Dark Souls 3 is fantastic in my opinion but one thing is certain about it: it is much harder than DS1. If you can beat DS1 you can beat DS3, but the challenge is stepped up – faster enemies, more varied attacks, etc. The first DS3 boss makes the Asylum Demon look like a cuddly naptime pal.

    I was going to write you an article about the joys of DS3’s multiplayer elements, to be considered for ED, but the moment kinda passed without me having written more than 100 words. I have seen and experienced many hilarious, frustrating, stupid, emergent, friendly moments however.

  33. Hey Warstub check this out am I a wizard or am I going to feel like a fool when this posts who knows there’s no preview

  34. Bloody wizards.

    Thanks for the comments on DS 2 & 3. I am in a deep romantic relationship with Dark Souls right now, so when we break up it’d be nice to have another’s arms to fall into. Like life, like videogames, ja.

  35. I should get back to Dark Souls. I stopped playing when I realised 90% of the online stuff wasn’t working for me (1.2Mbps connection at the time) so I couldn’t partake in all that goodness reliably. I also got quite tired of my Monk/Cleric’s miracles which all felt really unremarkable and just not very fun– this coming from a Rogue in Demon’s Souls.

    Anyway, moving back to numbers and away from Souls Love. I was talking about Reigns recently and realised that one of the things I disliked about it was a story branch that gave me the ability to see exactly how my decisions affected the balance of my kingdom. We’re talking +2’s and -3’s and the like. I went from reading the questions and answers, stewing on the possible implications they had and whether they’d bite me in the arse later on, to skimming the questions and mostly choosing the answers based on the numbers attached to them. I get that certain decisions still come loaded with other unforseeable consequences but it felt like it undermined some of the mystique of the decision making and the charm and flavour of the text. To be fair, Reigns didn’t hold my attention for long anyway but this did kind of irk me.

  36. Gregg, if you remember when we played Reigns at Rezzed we could see the numerical consequences by default. I must admit, it was one thing I had to adjust to, not seeing the numbers. Not because of the quantity – we have the “small circle” vs “large circle” – but because of the direction of the change which is not always clear.

    I find Reigns quite cute but it does exhaust itself eventually. Although it may be randomly generated and there are hidden branches that lead to all sorts of interesting diversions, it feels more like the exploration of a finite narrative space that, once you’ve thoroughly explored it, you might be good to move on to something else. And you know me, I’m not that bothered about achievements and goals…

  37. Oh, I don’t recall the numbers at Rezzed! In fact, I hadn’t even noticed the “small circle” vs. “large circle” thing! :-) I’ve got to say though, I’ve not played much Reigns. I was really excited about it after Rezzed and picked it up around launch but it just didn’t hold my attention. Not sure why exactly. Hai had the same experience too.

  38. Joel: There is a winning ending to Reigns–spoilers, obvs. I haven’t played it at all but when Emily Short was discussing it someone linked that walkthrough. I took one look at it and went “My God, it is comically implausible that anyone could ever discover that on their own, that is more like something from MS Paint Adventures than a real live game anyone could play through.” Then I went back to playing Cave Story.

  39. Matt, I’d heard something about a ridiculously contrived winning ending but, you know, that’s not what I was playing Reigns for. It didn’t look like something that needed an ending – I saw it more of a roguelike. How far will you get this time? What will happen? I’m still playing off and on but it just passes the time. It’s not something I invest in.


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