Welcome to the Electron Dance Advent calendar. Each day will bring another post from the archives.


Have you read Vault the Grave posted on 23 October 2014?

Quite a lot of Electron Dance articles start with irritation, particularly at indignation. So I’d get indignant about indignation.

I’d had enough of people who liked to bash AAA games for small things. My take was: Jesus, this game does so much and you’re going to point at this tiny thing and declare AAA game design broken? I saw the Watch Dogs “grave vaulting” example being shared around on Twitter and I lost my shit.

I wrote Vault the Grave to convey WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PPL without actually saying that. There is a tragic end to this story. Whenever some wants to laugh about silly AAA design, they remember the grave incident then link to my article. You know, like Polygon. Somehow I keep being linked but no one gets the memo.

Go read it!

From the comments:

  • Random Internet Person: “It’s not more weird than tugging a virtual puppet through a dollhouse cemetry is in the first place.”
  • Amanda Lange: “What if Ludonarrative Dissonance… though it certainly is a THING, never really mattered?”
  • Victor Breum: “I think it is right for these things to be ridiculed and called out, because they make the game worse.”
  • Mike Grinti: “But big ridiculous games, even when they’re not even the best big ridiculous games, have value and artistic merit.”

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8 thoughts on “Countdown 2016, 4: Fish in a Barrel

  1. So this is the first I’m hearing about vault the grave, somehow

    and it sounds like it’s a pretty good GLARING EXAMPLE of what I consider one of the bigger issues of AAA, which is that most AAA games are primarily made by people who don’t care as much about the whole as they do their individual jobs.

    I wouldn’t expect anything different from these individuals, but it does feel to me that many Big Games are a blend of successes and failures from different perspectives with those successes often undervalued or ruined by taking them out of context or putting them into the wrong context.

    Vault the grave is a generic vault system that works well for the entire game + a level designer putting graves in a graveyard + someone (maybe a generic AI pass system?) flagging the grave (prefab, probably) vaultable + a cutscene involving you in front of a grave + when the cutscene ends, someone had to put you standing somewhere relevant to the cutscene — i.e. right in front of a grave + in QA, nobody noticed or nobody mentioned or nobody cared to fix or nobody remembered to fix the entire ‘vault the grave’ issue.

    Basically every piece of this Vault The Grave fiasco, taken separately, is successfully executed:

    – the vault system works fine throughout the game (I played a bit but only enough to vault like 10-30-ish times, and not the whole game of course, so I can’t say this for sure). It could have been done manually, or maybe a little helper was written to flag everything with a certain hitbox height? Either way, everything that seems vaultable is eminently vaultable, which is what you want out of a ‘vault everything’ control scheme

    – the cutscene — especially out of context of whatever shit the player’s been doing the whole game and more importantly in context w/ other cutscenes — is probably emotionally effective on some level? And the place it places your guy right after the cutscene is pretty well done! Look at that angle! You’re definitely AT that grave

    – and the graveyard looks like a graveyard.

    Anyway, sure, demonizing one moment in a game and deciding ‘AAA is broken’ is maybe a bit scapegoaty and not helpful, but maybe it wasn’t about That Moment for a lot of people: it was about the deeper issues illuminated by it, the undercurrent of frustration @ weird AAA fuck-ups that had at long last found its outlet.

    Or maybe there is no deeper issue and/or everyone was just hopping on the ‘mock AAA for its latest mistake’ bandwagon for the hell of it, who knows ;p

  2. Uh oh, it’s droqen using a pseudonym!

    “made by people who don’t care as much about the whole as they do their individual jobs”

    I get what you’re trying to say here, but at the same time it does seem tar a lot of people with the same brush and devalue those people who have devoted insane hours to a product which could not have emerged from a small team. And looking after your individual job is a pretty important thing, not something to be treated lightly. I can’t see someone making their own life a misery over something this minor.

    I’d rather interpret this kind of flaw as a decent price to pay for such gargantuan projects. Massive teams are an abomination in most companies, but without massive teams certain things cannot be achieved. Without AAA there would be none of this high-end stuff. Regardless of its suicidally conservative nature… there is no substitute for it.

    And given that neither you nor I were there I’d rather give them the benefit of the doubt and even assume it just didn’t crop up during the testing process. It is not a functionality break (in fact the problem is because functionality DOES NOT break) and many players didn’t even bat an eyelid. The player has been given the power to vault anything they damn well please. Plenty of blood has been expounded on the electric page about how players should be allowed freedom and not funnelled through Hit X For Next Moment. But some look at this and cry foul – but what’s the alternative? Is the game going to force the player to inhabit their role by removing the vault option or at least obfuscating it? Isn’t that also a dick move in not trusting the player?

    It’s not the first minor AAA issue I’ve seen that’s been turned into a “Gah! THIS!” retweet. It won’t be the last. Giant game with millions of moving parts made by a thousand souls isn’t perfect: headline “practically no one shocked”.

  3. I’m meant to be sleeping rather than awake and also am not sure why I wrote my real name rather than droqen! Not my intent to use a pseudonym, just sort of did it by reflex, oddly enough.

    Also I suppose I could have put it less blamefully: this may very well be the only reasonable way to create such a gargantuan product. I would not generally expect a small team to be capable of putting together a thing as large and contentful as Watch Dogs!

    Even still, if the problem lies not with the size of the team but the size of the game, then my question is: why keep making games this massive? Is it worth it? I can see the merit in creating a gargantuan thing for particular purposes but Gargantuan Games have become STANDARD (in AAA), rather than well-considered explorations of design.

    Proposed alternatives off the top of my head:
    – don’t set the scene in a graveyard.
    – Change the design or position of the grave such that it is eminently unvaultable (taller, shorter, against a wall).
    – Don’t put a cutscene about the player character respectfully interacting with a grave or mourning over the dead when the player usually has little interest in respectfully interacting with any part of world or mourning anyone who dies in it (as defined by the control scheme, and all the goals/obstacles/tools presented to the player).
    – End the cutscene in an action sequence so when the player regains control they’re back in an action setting (then vault the grave makes sense but you can also just run the cutscene a bit longer and start the player somewhere else).
    – Take some control away from the player when they’re near the grave! If the character is supposed to give a shit, make the player feel the impact on the character’s emotions. Maybe when you’re near the grave it forces you to focus on it and your controls change (so you can’t vault of course, but maybe you can’t run or time slows to feel a bit sludgy or something too)


    I feel like it would be interesting to talk/think about Gargantuan Games some more sometime! I’m going to bed though.

  4. “…in QA, nobody noticed or nobody mentioned or nobody cared to fix or nobody remembered to fix the entire ‘vault the grave’ issue.”

    My bet would be something along the lines of: this was reported or otherwise flagged but was a victim of prioritisation. There were simply more important things to address, things that were more easily recognised as having a direct detrimental effect on player experience.

    When speculating on what this looked like from the inside, I think the more interesting question is how they institutionally can fail to see how players, the press and social media may react to it. I am sure that had the production team anticipated that this would go viral, they would have gotten it resolved.

  5. I can totally imagine someone from the ‘vault’ team noticing this and saying ‘haha, look at this, how goofy’ and then leaving it in for one of several possible reasons. It’s a funny consequence of the systems interacting!

    Meanwhile the narrative team was going for a particular tone but lots of other teams were not invested in that effort.

  6. I didn’t want to sound too cutting but your initial comment came across as dumping all over the people involved! I’ve been called out on this before so I tend to be more respectful these days. Off the top of my head, here’s my top three problems with AAA development:

    Large teams: like every project involving hundreds of people, keeping things coherent, on-schedule, on-budget is a Herculean task. They often fail to keep employees happy.

    Conservative nature: large budget means potential large loss, so AAA will only iterate on what worked before.

    Dead End problem: Early development ambitions often don’t pan out – cool systems can’t be made to work, team discovers it is not fun/has serious problems and cannot be fixed. Sometimes this will even end a project. Sometimes it is “saved” and reshaped into the mould of every game you’ve ever seen before. (The reason for what is sometimes seen as the false promises of early marketing. Let’s… let’s not talk about No Man’s Sky though.)

    These systemic issues are much, much less to do with individuals “dedication” to the almighty game cause, which is why I roll my eyes when I see the latest AAA meme go up because they’re often imply someone’s ass should be fired – as if that was all that was needed. Fire a person. Fire a team. And all these magic systemic issues disappear. (Culpability definitely accretes around the people nearer the top, of course, producers, project managers. And the money men.)

    Now when you ask why games have to be so big… indeed. On one hand, it’s nice that someone is making giant works like this. On the other, there’s a real sense that AAA is travelling down a narrowing tunnel and is getting stuck. Trying to reverse course is hard. Players have got used to certain feature sets and always expecting the next game to be bigger and bolder than the previous one. The quest isn’t long enough, there’s no multiplayer, and so on. I complained in a previous newsletter about the emergence of the so-called “monogames” which wants to dominate your gaming life for months.

  7. I wish I was more surprised at hearing there are people who react to stuff like vault the grave by saying someone (or several someones?) should be fired over it.

    I can see how it sounded like I was talking about the problem being about individual failures to bow down to the almighty Whole Game but that wasn’t really my intent — I wanted to point out how something that appears to be a failure is nonetheless often made of several individual successes, which is a big part of why these things appear in the first place. It’s really, really hard to deal with these collisions especially on a massive scale.

    The issue I take is when in a game such as W_D these Bad systemic collisions are not balanced out by Good systemic collisions (i.e. “EMERGENCE”)

    As much as I can, given my position as a developer who lives pretty firmly outside the realm of AAA development, I agree with your top three problems with AAA development.

  8. Inherent in all three of the Big Problems you describe with AAA development is the developer/publisher relationship. Projects get bigger, teams get bigger, investment gets bigger, all of which inevitably leads to more conservative decisionmaking, risk reduction efforts, and a spread of developmental bureaucracy. The irony, of course, is that the bigger an AAA project is, the greater the cost of failure.

    It must be hard for the individuals on AAA teams — surely it’s rewarding at times, being part of something larger, but the constant de-ambitioning and the sheer vastness of scope has to get exhausting sometimes.

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