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The Abstraction Of Skill In Game Design
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The Abstraction Of Skill In Game Design

October 20, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The other end of the spectrum:

100 percent abstraction. The first CRPGs and tabletop games fall into this category. Here, the only interaction the player has with the game is issuing orders to their party or character. From there, equations and the character's and enemies' attributes determine the outcome of the battle.

75 percent is the standard combat model for MMOs like World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Players can control the movement of their character as in an action game, but all combat and interacting with the world is abstracted by the game.

Players are still restricted to just issuing commands to their character and then watching how everything plays out, but at a quicker pace then the 100 percent titles, due to both parties performing their actions at the same time.

50 percent is where more action elements begin to seep into the design, as evident in games like the first The Witcher. Players can control their characters freely, and this has a greater impact on how combat plays out.

In The Witcher, they can time mouse clicks to form basic combos. Most of the design is still abstracted; the character's attributes, weapons and level are still the prime factors in how combat plays out.

Many JRPGs, such as the Mario RPG series, have also gone this route. Players can influence their offensive and defensive abilities with timed button presses during combat. Combat is still abstracted, with the stats and equipment of the characters the determining factor.

25 percent titles cover a very specific type of RPG. This category includes European RPGs like the Gothic series and has been popularized by Bethesda Softworks with The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3. In these titles, the player controls their character much in the same way as in an action title. Combat is real-time, requiring the player to dodge projectiles as they would in an action game, while targeting enemies with their attacks. Once the player makes an action, whether that is firing a pistol or trying to pick a lock, the game abstracts those results.

Fallout 3

In Fallout 3, once the player has their gun lined up with the enemy and fires, several factors come into play: the character's skill with the type of gun and the accuracy of the gun itself both determine if the bullet hits. Once the bullet hits, the enemies' resistances and armor determine how much (if any) damage is actually done.

The player has a variety of choices on how to handle situations, such as convincing someone to help them, or picking a lock. However, once the action has been selected, the rest is up to the stats of the character. For instance, the lock picking mini-game in Fallout 3 is not accessible unless the player has a high enough lock picking skill to begin with.

Before we talk about 0 percent on the chart, it is important to point out the similarities between the two 25 percentile groups. Both types of titles give the player freedom when it comes to movement and setting up combat. The difference is where the abstraction comes into play. Both of our example games, Fallout 3 and Borderlands, abstract damage based on the weapons fired and who is being attacked. Where they diverge is that Borderlands relies on player skill to the point of impact, whereas Fallout 3 is requires only that the player lines up the shot.

As we move to 0 percent on the chart, the lines between the genres begin to blur. Games like The Witcher 2 or the ultimate direction of the Mass Effect trilogy are examples of this. At this point, the traditional description of the genre is not enough to describe these games.

The Witcher 2 uses both skill and abstraction throughout its design. During combat, the player has complete control of the main character, Geralt. Whenever the player lands a hit, either by sword, item, or magic, the game will run calculations to determine how much damage was done. The majority of Geralt's abilities are locked behind the leveling system, such as adding more functionality to his spells, or the ability to counterattack.

Leveling up allows the player to choose which skills, or traits, to improve which will affect his abilities in combat. During conversations, the game will abstract the results of choosing different negotiation options like threatening or mind control. These skills will level up on success and increase the success rate for future choices. Combat is where the bulk of the gameplay is, while the interactions with the characters of the world determine how the plot plays out.

For a game like The Witcher 2, or with how Mass Effect 3 is shaping up, do we refer to them as action games with RPG elements, or RPGs with action elements?

By casting a wide net with their designs, developers and publishers are chasing the dream of creating games as close to 0 percent as possible. However, as designers move away from the extremes, they risk alienating their core audience.

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