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Looking at Mass Effect 2 design decisions and why they work
by Dolgion Chuluunbaatar on 10/24/10 02:53:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(this post was first published on my blog The Doglion)

I like Bioware. I like them because they consistently make games with well thought out designs. When you play a Bioware RPG, you can expect good to exceptional writing, a logical and consistent game world, lots of content and relatively high production values. Bioware is a game company like your favorite restaurant. You can trust them to deliver a good product that you will enjoy because you can trust them to stick to their strengths. 

What you can't expect from Bioware are rash and revolutionary concepts. They're like the Christopher Nolan of the game companies - never on the cutting edge of the artistic aspect of the medium, but consistently getting better at refining their classic strengths and moving forward with each creation, step by step. 

This isn't a review of Mass Effect 2 with regard for the first one. I haven't played the first, so I'll just focus on ME2. Of course by now, everybody knows that ME2 is a great game, that it isn't a classic RPG, but a hybrid with a strong focus on action. It is also clear that it is a very cinematic game. I just want to ponder and point at some things that I thought are worthy of a mention. 

So the ME games are science fiction. It annoys me that they'd designed the alien species basically using the common method of stereotyping human personality types. Krogans are brutal hooligans, asari are hot chicks, salarians are geeks and so forth, and of course almost all of them have bodies in roughly human shape. It's also disappointing that they all speak English when it says in the lore that the human species joined the intergalactic community far later than the other species. I understand that this is because for most gamers it's more enjoyable not having to read subtitles and to avoid weird grunting noises as voice acting. But I liked that aspect in KotoR. It made me feel more like this really was a different world and that humans are just a part of it. It would've underlined the theme of the clash of cultures/species. 

It is to Bioware's credit though that they fleshed out those stereotypes to a very large extent, making up very believable philosophies for each race, their social hierarchies, customs etc. This is very visible for example in Grunt's loyalty quest (The Rite of Passage), or Tali's loyalty quest when she gets exiled. I was fascinated by their struggle with the Geth. The history of each race is also very interesting to read up on in the codex, for all those who can muster the patience to actually read it. The lore doesn't just feel like slapped on top of the missions to give it some context, but it does feel like a space adventure. 

The characters in the team are also all very interesting and fun, especially with the inclusion of romance and occasional disagreements between them. It humanizes them. 

We see here a slight improvement upon Bioware's strength of creating interesting characters with their own opinions and personalities. What they really have to get a standing ovation for is the original world they created. I think dealing with the very fleshed out lore of D&D and also the Star Wars universe taught them a thing or two about what makes a game world interesting and complete. It's interesting to look at Jade Empire from this point in time, because it shows Jade Empire as sort of a middle point in their gradual path to creating highly polished, original games. 

The next thing that works well in ME2 is Commander Shepard. I played as the male version and it's just beautiful how well he works for this game. For one thing, it works that he's always called by his last name. This is made possible by his position of commander. You wouldn't call your boss by his first name, right? This allowed the team to actually use voice acting consistently throughout the game. It makes sense that he's the official leader of the team by rank, appointed by the Illusive Man (a reeeaally great character too by the way).

In older Bioware games, you'd never really be the official leader, but always sort of the go-to guy/girl. This in turn made the other characters in your party look more like inferior followers. Bastila the bad-ass Jedi, who can turn the tide of entire space battles with mediation? Sounds like she's really powerful, but still she looks really weak just running after me, the low leveled dude who doesn't even have a light saber yet. It doesn't help much that she constantly tries to justify that situation ("I can feel the force is with you", when I as the player don't feel any force in me at all) in the early stages. It felt more like Bioware didn't find a more elegant way of putting that I'm the hero, not she.

With ME2, they did find this elegant solution. Shepard is a commander fighting for a clear cause, appointed and brought back to life by the Illusive Man himself. Nobody really questions Shepard's rank and understandably so. Another subtle difference is that Bioware did away with my ability to control the other party members directly. Now I can only give orders to them, which is in line with the concept of me being their boss, but it also underlines that I the player amShepard. I can only control him. 

Bioware also largely nerfed the "Good Guy - Bad Guy" meta game. In KotoR or Baldur's Gate, it was possible for example to play 80% of the game as a bad guy, but still the good-guy dialog options would be available. I mean if I played 80% of the game always choosing the evil answers already, does the game really think it necessary to present me with the good options at this point? In ME2, the good and bad dialog options are far fewer, but there are also some moments of good-or-bad actions, in form of the QTE mini game. What is great about them is that they are always believably Shepard's actions. You can basically be 3 character types:

  1. the kind and fair leader who always looks out and cares for his squad, but also is merciful to foes
  2. the kind and fair leader who always looks out and cares for his squad, but is ruthless to foes
  3. the hard-ass leader who demands everything from his squad, and is ruthless to foes 

Of course there are a lot of finer possibilities of role-playing, like in the romances, siding with a squad member over another, Shepard's stance towards Cerberus and some key decisions in the end of the game. Bioware learned that less can be more in this department, and the decisions that they do present you carry all the more weight. There are also a ton of more subtle decisions of role playing too, such as encouraging Miranda to go talk to her sister or not.

And yet another thing that I loved is the conversation wheel. Not having to read the entire dialog option text makes the conversations a lot smoother and helps with the cinematic feel of it. Also, it creates a genuine anticipation to hear what Shepard is actually going to so say, because you only generally know the choice you made. It is interesting to see how Shepard delivers a certain dialog choice. This sort of puts a distance between the player and Shepard, but it is a good one, because it allows the player to sort of get to know Shepard better, ironically strengthening the connection between player and Shepard. It's a lot like reading a novel, but being able to make decisions for the protagonist. 

On the other aspects, I think everything has been said in reviews that were publish upon release - that the gun fighting is nicely done, the special powers are cool and various and that the lack of inventory is nothing bad at all. It just kind of put me off that every mission I went to ended up with large gun fights. I would go to a planet to do a mission to recruit a new member or do a loyalty mission and I always knew that in some way or other, I'd end up having to shoot my way through hordes of robots or mercenaries. I haven't played the side missions though, so maybe those are different. 

So yeah, in conclusion I can say that Bioware did a great job of stream lining their game, taking out stuff that isn't necessarily contributing enough to the gaming experience in relation of the added weight, once again proved they have amazing writers and that they can create their own original game worlds too. Looking forward to playing the third game!

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Tim Tavernier
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Actually, there is a sciencetific way to say that Mass Effect 2 is actually boring and it's conversation wheel is actually limiting options to player.

Method 1: sales. Mass Effect 2 sold less then number one and that one didn't so hot. Also both suffer from the traditional "hype-spike" syndrome indicating no appeal to a wider audience thus signalling that the game as a game must be broken.

Method 2: Using analysis methods from Behaviorology, which is a Natural Science closely linked with Biology and Neurology. The explanation goes as follows: when people in general play games, their brains go into "game-mode", activating taught contingencies that is inherent to playing games: player control, player growth and player authorship.

Player control consists of the player need to have control within the game based on the mechanics of the game. Anything that breaks this control will become a negative reinforcer towards playing the game. Mass Effect 2 is full of this and even divides player control in such a way that the entire experience is inconsistent and incohesive. This is done by the repeating actions of "get on ship, get missions, do mission, get on ship". From a developer perspective this is handy, it streamlines design of the levels. But the player doesn't care about that stuff, they want a fulfilling experience (customer perspective always trumps developer perspective). Also the adding of cutscenes in the middle of "experienced gameplay" takes away player control. All in all, this makes the game very boring for the average core-gamer.

Player growth is something Mass Effect does to a certain extent but very superficial. Biggest bump in the road here is its cover-based shooting system. This system doesn't leave much room to learn new skills compared to the older more arcade-ish shootergames (including Modern Warfare 2 in certain extent). Simple mechanics that create many possibilities creates player growth trough improving skills and that works as a positive reinforcer, also the giving of more possibilities as the game progresses (Diablo 2 and WoW are great examples in this regard). Mass Effect 2 doesn't do this but actually piles on new mechanics (shallowy worked out) in hopes to distract the player long enough. Here's a hint Bioware: No we do not find scanning planets fun!

The biggest violation Mass Effect 2 does is in Player Authorship. The more Narratologic and artistic inclined ones will probably deny it but scientifically speaking, any type of story creating happens within the players brain. The game just sends out signals that the human body can pick up trough its senses and the processes those on the basis of it's genetic base and its thaught contingencies which is then transformed into cognitive patterns for communication purposes. That final end product is what we call story and was formed by the player, not the author.

The moral choice mechanic is actually a badly designed mechanic that only allows two options with actual benefit. Also the story options are far too limited. People can easily see that their not choosing something but are just selecting between the author's imposed narrative choice number 1 or 2. this goes against thousands of years of passed trough play-behavior where children are allowed to do whatever they want. Have cowboys with lasers? no problem! There's a reason why Animal Crossing DS or The Sims sold over 10 millions copies and this game didn't. This last bit is a big reason why.

In short, Mass Effect 2 actually has a lot going to discourage players of finishing the game. Now before someone goes on a tirade and say they love the game and so forth. What I just postulated applies to the 80% other types of gamers out there who's expectation and value scale haven't moved more to story-elements and production values to maintain a sense of "gamer" identity. And if you're on this are doing that (I know, I finished Mass Effect 2 and found if after 4 missions a very nicely put technical game but boring as hell).

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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On the player control issue: I agree with you, for Bioware this repetitive mission structure has been a step backwards. As the player, it is quite clear that this must've been the teams instruction from high up "The mission must follow this basic pattern and must contain this and this and this", and you can see how the mission designers struggled to bring SOME variation into the game by making the environments different, and the plots of the missions too.

On the player growth issue: I didn't expect any kind of detailed RPG system behind ME2. I basically accepted the shooting mechanics as what they are: a basic cover shooter with some fun special powers. I find that the cover shooting mechanic itself is flawed. Maybe more destructible environments would've helped (less corners to hide in indefinitely)

On player authorship: this is what Bioware has been doing since Baldur's Gate, and one of the reasons why I said you can't expect them to surprise like, say, Fallout could. Bioware is just not that kind of company. They take the safe route and polish the things they're good at - which to be fair, is the fleshing-out of designer perceived play paths (as opposed to player experimentation playstyle like deus ex would've allowed).

Tim Tavernier
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"On player authorship: this is what Bioware has been doing since Baldur's Gate, and one of the reasons why I said you can't expect them to surprise like, say, Fallout could. Bioware is just not that kind of company. They take the safe route and polish the things they're good at - which to be fair, is the fleshing-out of designer perceived play paths (as opposed to player experimentation playstyle like deus ex would've allowed)."

Yes sure, but that's stupid of them. If players clearly reject author imposed story-telling (which sales and science clearly indicate) then their design choices are poor and dysfunctional...which is the crux of your blog: that they aren't. You haven't giving any kind of proper counter-argument to this.

Which...probably will be very difficult for you since you probably do not know Behavioral Science (which isn't a bad thing ofc) so you will probably try to use your own experience as a measuring stick...which is your right, but as a counter-argument highly flawed and of course completely non-representative.

Ardney Carter
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Dolgion: I enjoyed Mass Effect 2. Here's are reasons why

Tim: You didn't enjoy it, science says so.

Dolgion: No seriously, I enjoyed it. I understand it has flaws too but I appreciate what it was trying to do and it entertained me.

Tim: No, no one can enjoy that kind of game. I have a degree in behaviorology so none of your personal experiences are valid. Just look at how much more money other games have made. This completely invalidates the enjoyment the people who did buy the game experienced.

Dude, do you even listen to yourself sometimes?

Tim Tavernier
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Dude, you can read right? read my last paragraph of my first comment. 'nough said.

He postulates why ME2 systems works, its his incorrect manner to only use his own experience that I point out. I just debunk it as a faulty way of doing it without dismissing his opinion, just the use of his opinion as a valid and representative measuring stick and give an alternative manner that is valid for 80-85% based on a existing science.

And my degree is in History, I'm just teaching myself Behaviorology from the book E. Fraley, Behaviorology: the natural science of Human Behavior. I greatly suggest this book to as much people as possible but with a warning, it's quite heavy with its 1500 pages and almost 100 dollar pricetag.

Ardney Carter
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I did read your post and the last paragraph is a pre-defense that seeks to justify your POV while completely missing the point of Dolgion's post.

You begin by stating "Actually, there is a sciencetific way to say that Mass Effect 2 is actually boring"...which is patently false since even according to your (seemingly baseless) statistics 20% of gamers do NOT find the game boring.

You later follow this up by stating "it's time Bioware got of their Hollywood-drunk asses and focused at making a better RPG experience with a engineer-mentality." This implies that those "20%" of gamers who enjoy Bioware and other's similar efforts at this particular style of narrative gameplay are not in any way shape or form worthy of developer time or consideration and companies everywhere would do well to focus on creating "real games". It's this dismissive attitude, and it IS dismissive despite what you claim, that I find irritating in certain camps of the community on this site.

I don't doubt that there are plenty of gamers who do not enjoy Bioware style games nor do I doubt that they make up the majority of gamers. But if there is a company that wishes to cater to the minority and they can do so while still maintaining profitablity, then they SHOULD do so. And those who enjoy that style of game should be free to analyze and attempt to identify the elements that make those games enjoyable to them without being told that they are "wrong" and that the companies that serve them need to drastically alter their process to be doing things the "right" way.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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I think your real gripe with the game is with the flaws of the gameplay mechanic, which I didn't mean to cover here at all. As said in the beginning of the post, I only wanted to point at some things in the game's design choices that I found worked well for the vision of the team - and yes, a game developer team needs to have a vision. They can't predict what everybody wants to play and make everybody happy, no matter how much science they study on the subject.

Overall, it is futile to try to base a game design concept on scientific results I think, since people have different tastes. There are games that pretty much appeal to 90% to 100% of people who tried them, for example Diablo. Why? Because Diablo exploits human hunter gatherer instincts and is polished and tuned to max that sensation, which is why people actually compared that game to crack.

ME isn't that sort of game and is modelled after a vision. It isn't in the teams interest to please everybody. There are people who will have completed every single boring sidemission there is here, who don't mind any of the tedious scanning stuff or the repetitive structure of the game at all. And that's fine. My discussed design decisions here are almost all in relation to the narration of the game and how they contribute to improve it.

Anyways, I can only use my opinion and so can only you, u know? This isn't a post on why ME2 is the best game for everybody of all time, I would never do something as arrogant as that, and a lot of your points would've been valid on such a post I bet.

Tim Tavernier
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@Ardney Carter

"This implies that those "20%" of gamers who enjoy Bioware and other's similar efforts at this particular style of narrative gameplay are not in any way shape or form worthy of developer time or consideration and companies everywhere would do well to focus on creating "real games". It's this dismissive attitude, and it IS dismissive despite what you claim, that I find irritating in certain camps of the community on this site."

No it doesn't and seeing your frustration, this is you projecting your personal context on my words. Never did I state or imply that those 20% are inferior. I specifically added that last paragraph because I knew that there are indeed people that like ME2 and what it does as a narrative experience and also why. Never did I say that developers shouldn't waste time on those minority's and never would I say such a thing because that would be wrong and hypocritical.

Behaviorolgy has a validity of 80-85%, which is more then psychology. When I say that there is a scientific way of saying ME is boring and why, then there is indeed automatically a margin of 15-20% that this is not true (for all my words using behaviorology...which I probably should have mentioned earlier). In my last paragraph I also give the reason why this is for those potential 15-20%. These are just observations poured within a theoretical framework that works but has a fault margin indeed (as do ALL theoretical frameworks). What you take from it as "implying" is your own intake on those observations and conclusions. Which I can certainly get, behaviorology is known of coming up with some very confronting and controversial conclusions (like abolishing all prisons because punishment doesn't work, free will doesn't exist, creativity doesn't exist and so forth)

The "people have different tastes" bit is also relative. Humanity as a whole has certain general contingencies, behavioral patterns that seemingly every human has been taught. These general things often baffles Anthropologists and Behaviorologists. After those factors like environment, culture, class position and so forth come into play and also here Behaviorology can put up some nice predicting numbers on how someone within a certain profession and degree and social class will react and behave.

The last paragraph in that sense was me finding an explanation of why that 15-20% is out side the general behavior, using my insight into identity-forming and elite-forming theories from my History studies. Yes, giving those people the same academic effort to explain potentially why they do it is implying inferiority...really? You know when you're considered mental insane by a psychologist? If you deviate 25% from the average on a certain scale. Statistically speaking, deviating 25% from an average isn't that hard. So you and Dolgion deviate from the what? That makes analyzing interesting! Why the deviations? Reasons, causes, processes...fascinating stuff!

@Dolgion Chuluunbaatar

Human hunter-gatherer instincts don't exist... this is behavior that is thaught from generation to generation to facilitate the survival of the group within a certain area. This specific behavior is only present in actual hunter-gatherer groups. We don't live in environments anymore were the passing on of such behavioral patterns isn't efficient anymore. Diablo just employs a positive reward system to encourage exploration and looting behavior (which is different from hunting-gatherer behavior with some minimal grey area's) within the game.

Henry Chiu
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I highly recommend a playthrough of Mass Effect 1 - that will help with perspective in relation to Mass Effect 2. Many of the design choices written about here were introduced with ME1 in 2007. Plus in my opinion, its the funner of the two games.

I agree with Tim's comments concerning developer perspective versus customer perspective. Mass Effect 2 seemed to me, to be the product of a very efficiently organized project management exercise. Its easy to see how, with the way the missions and stages are structured a game like this could be made quite swiftly assuming separate teams are working concurrently to create the different missions. But there's not a whole lot of "cool" or "wow" associated with it. There's several stages in the game, and at each stage you need to railshoot a few missions before moving on to the next stage. A lot of balancing occurred with the combat between ME1 and ME2, but the net effect was that while combat is more challenging in ME2, its also not as fun. I guess don't really see the need to nerf certain abilities and mechanics for a single player game.

Bioware does a great job with the stories - there's a lot borrowed from various sources but in general I don't have a problem with that. Even if they're making Steven Baxter references with Dark Matter affecting suns. And the only science fiction name more over-used than Shepard is probably O'Neil.

Stephen Chin
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On combat: ME2 combat felt more streamlined and focused (better, in that sense) but at the same time, it also highlighted that ME really isn't a combat game (combat got -really- repetitive for me, late game). Playing as a level 1 sentinel on insane, the early game was actually very fun and challenging. But by late, it was less about tactical play and more about just finding a corner to hide in and spam one or two powers over and over between shots. It felt to me as much due to basic AI and such as lackluster enemy design - enemies would charge me or take cover depending on type, and I'd have to push them back until they died. Enemies were hard only because they had lots of life and one-shot attacks.

On the aliens: I felt that ME1 did a far better job characterizing the aliens. ME2 felt like they took one trait and amped it up until that was the only thing they were. ME1 allowed far more leeway in what any individual was. Compare the treatment of the krogan and the crewmember. In ME1, krogan and Wrex were treated as tragic villains - used for their combat abilities and given more power than they were ready for. They were treated as angry not because any racial trait but because, as species, they were going extinct and no one wanted to help them. Wrex was the fatalist warrior-poet. In ME2, all of a sudden the krogan were all about being ANGRY and SMASHING THINGS to the lack of everything else. Grunt had little personality beyond SMASH and KILL. Same with the other species; the idea of asari not being 'just' dancers and mercs in skin tight clothing and many of them struggling to avoid that sort of typecasting in ME1 went right out the window and the -only- asari you found in 2 were... dancer or mercs.

Conversely though the characterization of Shepard got more nuanced. Playing as a heavily Paragon Shepard for instance in ME2 felt at times almost shockingly different than the same in ME1. ME2 Paragon choices allowed Shepard to do more tough guy/girl things while staying within the confines of a Paragon personality; it allowed the possibility that Paragon does not necessarily always mean 'nice' just more concerned about things like collateral damage. Likewise, Renegade became less 'jerkass' and more 'opportunistic'.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Sounds like ME1 did a better job of being an interesting science fiction story. I'll check it out.

The thing is, Bioware did bring some backstory for Grunt - he's a krogan raised in a tank, disconnected from his kinsmen. Samara is an asari completely into her codex of honor or whatever. It's just that Bioware defined the basic traits of the alien races to be some human personality type, then putting some twist on it (asari are hot chicks, buuuuut they live for hundreds of years and have 3 life states).

You know, it would've been much more interesting if the aliens were actually humans, in a far away future where humanity had colonized various planets, each planet causing the local human population to evolve differently. This could've had a much more believable impact on me and been a much more interesting premise.

Bart Stewart
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Great comments so far -- in fact, I'd say there must be *some* redeeming value in this Mass Effect series of games to produce such high-quality commentary.

One small thing I might add is that I'm in the group who felt a little let down by the elimination of character-defining RPG elements in ME2 versus ME. I like straight-up shooters just fine, but I can get those from other developers. I rely on BioWare to be one of the few companies producing high-quality roleplaying games... and I felt like they let me down somewhat with ME2 to cater to a less thoughtful, more actiony play experience.

I say "somewhat" because while BioWare took away a lot of character-defining RPG elements, they did increase the degree to which Shepard's dialogue choices defined everyone's character. I thought that was an interesting design element, and I hope they do it again in ME3. I just wish it hadn't been implemented in ME2 at the expense of my ability in ME to carefully and explicitly tailor the specific skills of each member of my merry band of marauders.

And as for the mining mini-game... sigh. In both ME and ME2 what we have IMO is a good implementation of a bad design. Personally driving over different types of terrain in ME to locate objects and minerals and bunkers and emplacements was actually fun until the scanning got repetitive and the bunkers turned out to be identical almost every time. Seeing new worlds was great; the problem was that this wasn't integrated enough with the main game.

But instead of improving this (which is all it needed), someone at BioWare decided to scrap it completely and replace it with a lethally boring "find the pixel" game. Why? In what way was that progress? Will ME3 do away with exploration as gameplay completely because some BioWare designer decided that not enough gamers like exploration (when in fact the problem was not with the gamers but with the designers of the exploration)?

Overall, I still enjoyed ME2. But does that mean it was a "good" game on some absolute scale? Or just that it had enough of what I like to fun for me as an individual gamer?

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Yeah Bioware is with Mass Effect moving on a more narrative heavy gaming experience, and few features are save from the feature cutter. Classic RPG things like inventory, character stats and so on are all not necessary for the vision that they have with the ME series.

Tim Tavernier
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"Classic RPG things like inventory, character stats and so on are all not necessary for the vision that they have with the ME series."

There you have it "their vision". As a customer I don't care about their vision, and with ME3 (which probably sell less then 2) the public will again also be more of this opinion.

The customer perspective always trumps the developer perspective, it's time Bioware got of their Hollywood-drunk asses and focused at making a better RPG experience with a engineer-mentality.

Tomer Chasid
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Repetition is a good thing, though their implementation in RPGs is not very easy to realize. If we think of it as a pregnant pause, a tool to let the player catch their breath, we can use repetition as a meditative exercise that keeps the player in the world of the game rather than the game itself. Players enjoy farming, collecting. They've come to expect it from RPGs, and to expect that it is up to them to decide how much of it they need to do and they don't have to do go to every planet to get resources in order to enjoy the game. I can see why that would be difficult for a developer to communicate explicitly.