Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Hate Preliminary Character Creation

I don't like it when games forces me to make decisions about my character before I have any context to understand the effect of what I'm choosing. The decisions you make at the very beginning have long-lasting impacts that dictate how you'll be playing, when you don't have any grasp of how things work with this particular game. Several hours into some games, you might realize that you made a completely broken character, or you realize that certain playstyles are more fun than the one you chose. So I don't understand why games don't handle this aspect better.

Making these kinds of long-term decisions at the very beginning is like forcing a kindergartener to decide his career path and then making him commit to it for the rest of his life. At least you can start over in a video game, but it's not the solution to the problem. Morrowind was atrocious in this aspect; you had no idea how fast skills leveled-up until you'd spent a few hours playing, and by then you'd typically realize that you made some poor choices with your skills. At least Oblivion improved on this by giving you more of a chance to see things in action, and then giving you the option to respec if you didn't like it.

I just started a blind playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins, and they immediately forced class selection on me; I didn't know what I wanted to be without getting a chance to try each one. I have my usual class preferences, but you never know if a certain game will make one class more or less interesting than it usually is. Besides not even being able to decide my class, I didn't have a practical understanding of how the skills worked in gameplay, what race I preferred, the best way to use to my stats, so on and so on. 

And so I wound up doing an hour's worth of research, reading forums and guides, just trying to get a feel for how different builds and playstyles ultimately function in this game. 

I'm well accustomed to reading manuals before starting a game (Ultima straight up tells you to stop and RTFM). But even once you resign to researching the game, the guides and forum messages talk about things in terms of idiosyncratic game mechanics, which don't make a whole lot of sense until you've actually seen everything in action. You end up researching the research, or you just play the game to understand the research which you were doing to understand the gameplay. But it also detracts from the fun of discovering new game mechanics as you go along. Kind of ruins the mystique.

Which is why most games would improve by starting you out as a blank slate, developing your skills and playstyle as you go. This way, you get a chance to see how things function before allocating. You can see which skills are going to be used more often, which ones you'll be relying on most, which weapon styles are the most fun, and you give yourself room to change your playstyle. It gives the player a lot more freedom, and let's you focus on the gameplay instead of getting caught up in all of the preliminaries. Above all, it gets you straight into the game. 

It's harder to do this with a game like Dragon Age, though, which wants to establish different, unique intro sequences based on your background. They could still do this better, however, without forcing so many statistical decisions. It's one thing to ask the player their race and class archetype at the start, but there's no reason to make you pick specific skills and stat points before you've done anything at all. That stuff could easily wait, and would make it a little less tedious to experiment with different initial combinations. 

So that's one strike against DA:O, and several strikes against every other game that does this. It annoys me and I wish people had the sense to integrate the character creation / development with the actual gameplay more properly. Because it can really ruin the start of a great game.


  1. Disagree.

    For some, the whole "mystique" you described actually comes from having to stumble for the first few hours and figuring out how things work, even if it means ending up with an ineffective character. If the game is good, then you can always come back for a second playthrough (on a higher difficulty setting) with an appropriately more well-made character.

    Specifically for Dragon Age: Origins, every stat is given a tool-tip which explains its effect in-game extensively enough for the purposes of character creation (but not the entire span of the game). This is why that intro sequence is there - to give you an understanding of basic game mechanics. DA:O is not like Skyrim where you have no idea what your stats will until you've played for 15 hours, since in Skyrim your success depends more on your equipment and level than your stat/skill distribution.

    Basically, I think you're asking for too much hand-holding here. I can see the idea behind the complaint as valid, but I think it would only be applicable of DA:O literally gave you no indication at all of what your stats/class "sort of" translates to in-game. To me, anyway, it was enough to get my general bearings.

    1. I think you're either misunderstanding me, or I wasn't making myself clear. I'm >not< advocating more hand-holding (in fact, I almost take offense to that statement) -- I'm almost always perceived as the elitist jerk complaining about games holding your hand too much, or games being designed specifically to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

      I don't care how descriptive tooltips are, you just can't assess how useful, fun to use, or important certain skills, spells, or weapon types (among other things) will be until you've had a chance to try them out in the actual game. I wholeheartedly agree that a large part of the fun is in "stumbling around and figuring out how things work," but this can be accomplished without forcing you to make arbitrary decisions about how you want to specialize your character before you've had a chance to see the game in action.

      What I recall led to this exasperation at the beginning of Dragon Age (and which reminded me of other games like Morrowind) was not even being able to decide what kind of class I wanted to play, and then being asked to make specific decisions about how I wanted to play each class. I usually like playing rogue classes, but if I go that path, do I want to go with archery or dual-wielding? Will archery actually be fun or will be kind of a lame "hang back, point n' click" affair? I don't usually play warrior because those tend to be kind of boring, straightforward classes in most other games, but will this game make warriors actually fun?

      In the end, your only option is to arbitrarily pick something and hope you enjoy it enough to keep playing, or start over and try something else. And I'm not the type of person to feel compelled to replay a game because I have literally more than a hundred games on my shelf and in my digital library which I've yet to play -- I'd rather complete a game and move on to the next one on the list than replay the game just to "get it right," or to "try something different." Only rare, exceptional games are worthy of that kind of time commitment, and when you're just starting out you don't know if a certain game will be worth a replay, anyway.

      If you're at all familiar with the way the original Gothic games handle stat allocation then you should easily understand where I'm coming from. Those are games that start you out with a blank slate, explaining even less to you about how mechanics work than Dragon Age does (ie, it doesn't hold your hand), so it has just as much (if not more) of that satisfying challenge/engagement from trying different things and figuring them out, but those games are also lenient enough to let you play around with different things before committing permanent skill allocations, so that you know what you're getting into and can make decisions with some degree of confidence. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls also fall into this same category.

      Restrictions, consequences, and limitations for character/skill development and the content you can experience are all welcome things in my book, but they're kind of annoying when they come off feeling arbitrary and/or preliminary.

  2. --------------------------------------------------------
    1st paragraph

    Okay, in that case there was an error in communication somewhere along the way. Its origin doesn't matter. However, in case it was on my end, you should know it wasn't intended as an insult. There's not much more to say about this particular subject.

    2nd + 3rd paragraph

    I think you're presenting something subjective objectively as defined by your opinion. As in, different people have a different tolerance or expectation of how much information they need before they feel they have been given enough - specifically here, the case is information about particular class talent/skills. You've disregarded one form of information about talents/skills in objective favor of another: experience using the skills/talents is always better than a tool-tip. Well, fair enough, but I don't think this is always the case *for me personally*, and possibly other people as well. It depends on which form of information you prefer, unless one form is actually more informative than the other because its information is more practical/useful. However, I didn't find that this was the case with DA:O.

    Going from the information I was given when creating my character in DA:O, I knew that the rogue would be the stealthy backstabber, the mage would be the spell-oriented magician, and that the warrior would be the physical tank. Okay, so that's not very much if you're looking for specifics, but consider that with this simple choice (pick 1 of the 3), you're already making a radical decision, since if you pick blindly you could effectively go from a character that excels in physical combat to a character that absolutely detests it.

    Going further, you find that the tooltips explain what "practical" in-game effect each stat directly contributes. It is not as detailed as Demon's Souls where you're literally told exactly what the numbers are, but you are given a strong indication that dexterity increases your ability with bows and makes it easier to hit/dodge, that willpower increases your mana, and so on. To me at least, this seems more than adequate.

    Skills (the 5 or 6 "ability" things like Coercion and Poison Making): well, what can I say. I found these pretty self-explanatory. I'm not sure if you were referring to these or the actual class-specific skills (like, Riposte for rogues, or something).

    Class-specific skills: well, you pretty much get a description of what each one does before needing to "buy" it.

    I think I misunderstood something along the way here. I say this because you use Demon's Souls as an example of a game with a "proper" system, even though Demon's Souls gives you no indication of what a certain playstyle will be like. This is made more annoying because of the fact that a certain playstyle may revolve/benefit greatly from a particular weapon that you may or may not be aware of, or supposing you are, said weapon may only become useful once used in a certain way, or only when your stats reach a certain height. In that sense, DeS is actually much less informative than DA:O. Personally I didn't find DeS problematic either but I'm heavily biased because I love that game to death.

  3. --------------------------------------------------------
    4th paragraph

    I have to disagree because it is my opinion that DA:O does a good enough job of giving you an indication of what the playstyles/skills/talents/etc will be like before you invest. However, since you are making the point that you have to arbitrarily pick and hope for the best, why do you make this point for DA:O and not, for example, something else where it's far more apparent? Obviously, two wrongs don't make a right, but what is it about DA:O that this specific complaint about it should be so extensive? I guess I'm trying to say that I don't see why DA:O specifically has more of a problem than some other game in this department (since I can think of a bunch of other games where I believe this complaint is more/applicable).

    5th paragraph

    Derp. Sorry, I'm not familiar with the Gothic series. I'll check it out though since you're recommending it.

    1. "I think you're presenting something subjective objectively as defined by your opinion. As in, different people have a different tolerance or expectation of how much information they need"

      - This article was always intended to be a subjective opinion piece, hence why the title emphasizes my particular point of view with "I Hate Preliminary Character Creation" rather than a blanketed, universal "Preliminary Character Creation Sucks" kind of title. I always like to use objective evidence/reasoning when supporting my opinion, but that should not be confused for me presenting my beliefs/interpretations as universal fact. If it sounded that way, then that's my mistake for not being clear.

      "Class-specific skills: well, you pretty much get a description of what each one does before needing to "buy" it."

      - Again, I find these descriptions wholly insufficient in determining whether I want to specialize my character in bows vs daggers, two-handed swords vs sword and shield, etc. For me, these kinds of decisions are always based on which is more fun (engaging, interesting) to use, which you can only determine through experimentation and first-hand experience. Tooltips only assist in informing preconceptions.

      It's one thing to make an archetypal class selection at the start of the game; that much is a standard and acceptable part of RPGs. It's a much more complicated matter, however, when at the very start of the game you're asked to put points into branching skill paths that will determine specifically how you'll play that class. Some of those decisions just feel a little too specific and precise to be making so early in the game.

      "I think I misunderstood something along the way here. I say this because you use Demon's Souls as an example of a game with a "proper" system, even though Demon's Souls gives you no indication of what a certain playstyle will be like."

      - What I like about Demon's Souls is that it's an open class system. You can pick an archetypal starting role, but that doesn't preclude other options you may later encounter or deem valuable to your playstyle. When you're just starting out, you don't really know whether you'll want to use katanas, polearms, straight swords, rapiers, axes, or whatever, but the game lets you experiment with each one to see for yourself what you'll enjoy most before committing to that path.

      Even once you've decided on one particular type of weapon, that doesn't stop you from switching to something entirely different, depending on what interesting equipment you happen to find. Even still, there are ultimately consequences for how you build your character, meaning that certain weapons will be more or less effective depending on which stats you choose to level-up, but you have the opportunity to experiment and fine-tune your playstyle before being forced to commit yourself.

    2. "Since you are making the point that you have to arbitrarily pick and hope for the best, why do you make this point for DA:O and not, for example, something else where it's far more apparent?"

      - The answer to this one is simple: because I was playing DA:O at the time. The same principles which led me to be annoyed with DA:O's preliminary character creation are just as applicable to other games with such character creation systems. Even games I've come to love (such as the classic Fallout games) annoyed me at first with the amount of seemingly arbitrary specialization decisions they were demanding of me before I even started playing.

      Ultimately, I feel that character development systems such as the kind in Gothic, Bastion, Deus Ex, Borderlands, and Demon's Souls (to name just a few examples) can offer just as many options for customization and specialization with branching options, which prove just as rewarding (if not more so) than the kind of stuff you encounter at the start of games like DA:O, all while minimizing the amount of preliminary decisions you have to make about how you'll be playing the rest of the game.

      Some people may relish assigning all kinds of stat points to a character at the start of a game, fine-tuning everything before they begin their adventure -- it does have a certain appeal to it -- but I find it generally more appealing and satisfying to shape my character in the natural course of the game as I experiment and learn things, than feeling locked in with the choices I made before actually seeing the game in action.

  4. Aha, okay. Good points on all fronts. I think it's safe to say that at this point we disagree simply because of differing opinions.

    Specifically about DeS: the game isn't particularly forgiving if you make a bad decision, since each soul level requires significantly more souls than the last level once you get up there... like around level 100, it gets to the point where you're spending 100,000 souls just to increase a stat by one point. When you play on NG+5 or something and decide you want to do something different, it becomes very hard to actually level up significantly because enemies have become pretty tough and it takes a lot of souls to level up.

    I will say one other thing about it though - in the part where I said "you're presenting something subjective objectively", I didn't mean to point out the obvious with just "yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion, man", it was more-so that I got the vibe that you were saying "in-game usage of these skills is ALWAYS better than tooltips, regardless of the player in question." In hindsight, it doesn't really matter.

    Anyway. How do I format stuff? Is it bbc code where I simply use [brackets] for everything? It's getting a bit silly having to use all these lines and asterisks and whatever.

    One last thing: Yeah, Deus Ex is/was awesome. Your article on it pretty much covers it, so I don't have much else to say.


    Okay. But you're also weird. We're also apparently on a first name basis.

    1. I've been real busy lately and haven't kept a close eye on the blog.

      - On formatting: the comments section allows limited HTML, so you can use bold, italics, hyperlinks, and maybe a few others.

      - On Demon's: To be fair, by the time you're SL 100 you should have a good idea of what you're getting yourself into. For the first 30-50 levels, though, when you're just learning the ropes, you really can't go wrong unless you pump all your souls into Luck or something. At least, it's not a problem unless you're planning to min/max a PVP build capped at 120-125, but if you're doing that then you should already know in advance what you plan to do.

  6. Yes, but the whole having to know in advance thing goes against the notion that a game shouldn't expect the player to "commit without knowing" because if you don't know in advance, you effectively limit yourself regarding PvP because your character's stats will be wonky and not streamlined. Obviously this is not a problem if you start a new character, but that was presented as something to be avoided. I guess my point is that DeS isn't the most friendly game around, especially since you can't ever load a previous save to undo bad leveling.

    That's not to say that there aren't "reasonable" solutions, though. You can always get yourself soulsucked by a friend or by Mephistopheles (since she'll do it as many times as you let her if you reload your game). And then afterwards you can clone demon souls to quickly level back up the right way. So I guess I'm not sure what I'm complaining about.

    Anyway, good luck in your RL endeavors.