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Breath of the Wild, and upgrading the fun out of the game.

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Tl;dr at the bottom

Mechanical Obsolescence

I think Breath of the Wild is an incredible game for a decently long time into the game, but when I get a certain distance into the game, I start to lose interest. For a while I’ve wondered why I just can’t maintain interest late into the game as much as I can on my 15th run through of the Great Plateau, and I think I’ve come to an idea of what I’ll call “Mechanical Obsolescence”. Which is to say, Breath of the Wild has a lot of really incredible mechanics that are really fun to play around with and engage with, but as you progress further and further into the game, it slowly eliminates the need or desire to interact with these mechanics in favor of more streamlined approaches that are less rewarding.

I think it’s helpful to think of situations in a game like BOTW as small puzzles that you need to solve. I want to kill the enemies in this camp. I want to cross this ravine. I want to go to the top of that snowy mountain. I want to kill this Hinox. All of these are things that you want to do, with obstacles of varying degrees keeping you from doing them. In the early game, your resources are very limited. When you go to fight a Bokoblin camp you may have only one or two weapons that will break very fast, so when your weapon breaks you suddenly need to think on your feet and go grab a new one, or figure something else out. When you want to climb a wall, you need to scope it out, find some resting areas, and then climb up and it really feels like you’re on a journey, setting out to find whatever is at the top of the mountain. These situations all require at least a little amount of thinking, or “puzzle solving” in order to find the right solution, or idea as to how you overcome the challenge.

This is great as well, as BOTW has incredible world interaction. You can chop trees to cross gaps (well, that one time), use chuchu jelly as bombs, catch your weapons on fire, use lightning to deal extra damage to metal, and so much more thanks to the chemistry engine. It really encourages dynamic gameplay and playing around with your environment to see what you can do.

Once you begin to get the runes, paraglider, armor sets, etc.. however, the game slowly gets more and more streamlined. These unique situations where you think on your feet in combat or have to scope out areas to climb effectively are diminished. Suddenly it just feels like you’re going through the motions rather than actually thinking about and engaging with the world around you. Why use chuchu jelly as a makeshift bomb when I have 20 Lynel swords. Why use a raft to cross a river when I have cryonis and paraglider. etc…

What made me realize this effect was Eventide Island, which a lot of people give critical appraisal to already. But I think diving deeper into the nature of Eventide Island gives light to where the real fun is in the game.

Eventide Island

For anyone unfamiliar, I’ll give a really brief rundown of Eventide Island. It’s an island that you can come across in Breath of the Wild that, when you step foot on it, removes all of your weapons, armor, items, etc… from your inventory (and returns them after you complete it). You are completely naked when you start out. This basically creates a small microcosm of the game that a lot of people have already talked about before, where you progress from tree branches as weapons, to actual weapons, to having a decent grasp on what’s going on. But the large idea is that you are having to scrounge around for what you need and engage heavily with the environment in order to get what you need from it.

I think this is the part that sheds the light on the real core fun of the game. On both Eventide Island and the Great Plateau, you are scrounging around for things that you need, with immediate danger surrounding you. As you gain materials and a footing, you can take on progressively more difficult challenges, which keep you expending resources, which in turn means you have to keep searching for more. This keeps the player’s engagement with their environment very high, and I feel, keeps the fun very high. Compare this to later in the game when you have access to a large variety of problem solving tools, and this environmental engagement takes a sharp dive.

Normally, if you were to complete Eventide Island without having your inventory wiped, it would be a cakewalk for many players as they are already pre-equipped with a lot of the armor and weapons needed to take on the threats of the island, but since it is wiped, the challenge can be tailored and dialed in to be just right, so that there is always more danger lurking around the corner due to the designers knowing the possibility space of what the player is capable of on the island. As you progress through the island you make use of environmental hazards, sneak up on enemies to get sneak attacks, and do other things that you may not have done in a while, as you haven’t really needed to.

Upgrades aren’t bad, they’re just complicated

This isn’t to say that upgrades are bad, meaningful upgrades are inherent to RPG design and are really great rewards for players. The issue however, is that these upgrades feel great at first, but are actually harming the underlying gameplay loop of the game, without the game introducing any new challenges or mechanics to overcome that require use of these new upgrades. They only let you overcome challenges that were more interesting to overcome before you had them.

I think the overall effect of all of these upgrades that you get is that you are never challenged in the game to really think about a situation and how to go about taking it on. As you gain more items, armor sets, and abilities, the world does not compensate by having more difficult areas. You get everywhere by paragliding; sailing over content, potential fights, potential hardships (such as crossing a freezing river or pit of lava). When you do get into fights, they are often very straightforward, unless you go out of your way to be more creative. You just rush in with your weapons, use them until they break, and then pause and select a new one, and then go back to just straight attacking until everything is dead. When you want to go to a more dangerous area such as an extremely cold or hot area, it’s largely a no brainer as to what you do, just equip whatever armor you need and carry on. These situations become more and more prevalent throughout the game the further you go on and it really feels like it’s wasted potential, as these mechanics create such great dynamism and interactivity between the player and the world in the early game or more limited areas such as Eventide Island, that are largely just diminished and nonexistent in the later game.

So what could we do about this?

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I think there’s a few interesting ways that this kind of Mechanic Obsolescence could be avoided. One way of course is to just not engage with them / not have them in the game. This is the inherent problem with having upgrades in a game, as you want to have rewards for players that feel interesting and meaningful, but you also don’t want to undermine the content that you’ve created and water down the process of playing through it. Perhaps a kind of horizontal upgrade system, or one where you have tradeoffs for equipping certain armors and such.

One idea would be to limit the player’s inventory, or creatively clean it out when some criteria is triggered. Since the real core, fun part of the game is making use of what you can find around you for weapons, looking for insects and monster parts to make elixirs, scoping out ravines, cooking food for buffs, etc… if you could find some way to wipe or limit the player’s inventory without it feeling cheap, then you could consistently re-engage them with this core gameplay loop of interacting with the environment.

Take for example (a bit of an extreme example) of only limiting the player to 1 weapon, bow, and shield. Whatever weapon you have, that’s what you have. This could lead to situations such as finding a Hinox, determining that you aren’t powerful enough at the moment to fight it, and going out to search for a more damaging or more durable weapon. Maybe you would even want to make an attack elixir to ensure that you will kill the Hinox before your good weapons break. Regardless, once you end up killing the Hinox, your weapons will likely be very damaged and break fairly soon. This will put you back down to the level of having nothing again, which re-engages the player with the world as they once again search for decent weapons and such.

Taking this even further, what if you limited the amount of meals and elixirs the player could carry, so you can only eat meals on the spot, and can only carry one elixir with you. When you find a cooking pot it’d always be a good idea to cook a meal and buff up as you otherwise wouldn’t be able to carry one with you, and you can save elixirs for hard fights or tough environments.

Another idea would be special end game content that requires these upgrades in order for the player to even stand a chance at taking them on. An example could be an extremely cold area that requires both maxed cold resistance armor AND a buff from a meal or elixir. With this then, you would not only be giving real use to this equipment, but also be limiting the player in a way which allows you as a designer to dial in the difficulty of the area to present a meaningful challenge, as they know roughly what the player would bring equipped with them.

Diving deeper into this example of the incredibly cold areas, along with this limited inventory idea (1 weapon in each slot, can only eat meals at pots, can only bring 1 elixir with you), we have a few variables as to how the player could bring heat with them, and we know that they need 2 of them

  • Cold resistance armor
  • Cold resistance elixir / food effect
  • Having fire (through a fire weapon or wizzrobe fire wand)

Knowing that they need to have 2 of these 3 things, we could give interesting challenges that we know that they would have to face.

  • Option 1 : Armor and food buff, weapon is free. We know that they have less armor than they could normally have, and no helpful food effects as they need the cold resistance buff, but they do have an open weapon slot that can be anything.
  • Option 2 : Food effect and fire weapon, but free armor buff. They would have a food buff taken up once again, but this time their weapon is limited to one that can keep them warm. In exchange they can use any armor they want, such as climbing gear, electricity immunity, higher defence, etc…
  • Option 3 : Armor and Fire Weapon, but free food buff. Their armor and weapons would both be in use in order to keep them warm, limiting their defensive and offensive capabilities, but they could have any kind of food buff they want such as speed, sneak, etc…

All of these situations eliminate variables and give the designer more to work with in terms of creating interesting challenges for the player to overcome.

One example could be having frost wizzrobes as an enemy. For any of the options, bows are available, so if you bring fire arrows you could easily take them out. For Option 1, the player would have any weapon available to them to combat the wizzrobe, which could be a regular weapon or a fire weapon. The advantage to this is that they may not be able to fight a frost wizzrobe as easily as a player that brought a fire weapon, but they would make up for that by being able to fight other things without using up one of their heat sources. For Option 2 and 3, they would have an easier time fighting these frost enemies, but fighting others will use up one of their heat sources, which could cause a problem.

Having some kind of tough enemy that you would want to fight like a Hinox or Talus could give interesting variation to each of these. For Option 1, you would have any kind of weapon available, so the lacking firepower that you could get with armor or buffs could be made up for with a good weapon. For Option 2, you may lack damage in your weapon since you are bringing a specific type of weapon, but you can wear armor that can give you a damage buff to make up for it. And for Option 3, you could use a buff to get extra damage, while being more limited with armor defense and offence attack by your armor and weapon choices.

This could even give reason to come prepared differently based on what challenge you plan to take on. If you are going to be in an area with lots of frost wizzrobes, you may want to bring a fire weapon rather than a normal one, while if you are going to take on the Hinox, a better, more damaging weapon may be better. This could really create a feeling of gearing up for an adventure, and conquering harsh climates and areas that the game already does and promotes so well, while also building on it and allowing them to have these kinds of upgrades.

Tl;dr

Breath of the Wild has some amazing mechanics that really encourage player interactivity with the world and environment. As you progress through the game, you gain upgrades and abilities that severely diminish the problem solving required to circumvent these challenges, and the game becomes more streamlined and autopilot-y, as encounters require less and less thought put into them from having access to paraglider, armor sets, masses of healing, food buffs, and weapons at any time, runes, and champion powers.

I hope this makes some sort of sense and isn't just one massive ramble, and I would like to hear anyone else’s input on if they feel the same, or if you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about and love the late game of BOTW.

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