Reaping the Benefits of Procedural Content

When Chris Winters tells me I need to play something, I pay attention.  Now, you may not know Chris; he’s an excellent art director,but, he’s also an avid, passionate gamer, and when he really likes something, that’s worth looking into.  The topic of Chris’ latest recommendation was to go back into Diablo 3 after the 2.0 patch and expansion release, and it was definitely worth it.

I’m not nearly as much of a gaming fanboy as I used to be.  I don’t generally pay attention to release dates, for example, because my backlog is so large that getting a new game just puts it into a long queue behind other excellent games.  The Diablo franchise, though, has a special place in my heart, so my wife and I both got copies of D3 the week it was released, and I dove into it wholeheartedly.  Like most Blizzard products, this was a fairly safe bet, and we got our money’s worth, but the endgame just couldn’t hold me.  I think I was on the third difficulty setting, and the grind was both long and painful, and gradually, I just stopped firing up the game.

But, Chris is persuasive, so I picked up the expansion, installed it, and have now been playing it for about a month.  Like previous expansions, it added a new act and a new class; what really grabbed me, though, was the endgame overhaul.  Obviously, there were already a lot of great materials to work with – excellent art, a world rich with lore, diverse and complex character options – and the expansion pack team made the most of this through going back to one of the core gameplay philosophies of the franchise: procedural variation.

Content is expensive.  For designers and producers alike, getting the most out of a limited budget is a continual problem.  The Diablo franchise has always gotten around this by playing mix-and-match in various forms.  The equipment system, for example, generates random collections of attributes (and random stats for those attributes) by mixing packages tied to the affix system with additional modifiers.  So, you could get hundreds of versions of “Ascended Broadsword of Madness”, and they would all look the same on the character, but they could be of various levels with various stat packages and differing usefulness to different character builds.  Similarly, levels are built out of a palette of blocks and set-pieces which have a consistent visual style; after a while, you start to recognize the pieces, but the combination is never fully predictable.  This not only provides a lot of play time for the player, it also sustains that feeling of exploration and possibility that are so critical to RPG’s.

All of this was present in D3, but Reaper of Souls took this even farther.  In the Nephalem Rifts, the art sets are not consistent; you can segue from a hell-scape to a woodland by going through a portal; in fact, in some maps, they transition art sets while in one space (which would be crazy expensive to do with downloads but works because all the art assets are locally stashed on the PC).  Yes, you’re seeing the same pieces and fighting the same monsters, but the context is continually shifting, so it feels less repetitive.

The rifts are powerful in a second way, as well.  Because they have better drop rates for top-end equipment, it incentivizes players to earn the tokens necessary to go into the rifts.  Earning the tokens comes from going out into the gameworld and doing pieces of the existing campaign, and, of course, you’re earning XP, gold, and loot drops of equipment while doing that.  This indirection is a key tool for making a grind seem less grind-y.  Zynga used this to great effect in games like Farmville and Castleville; instead of telling the player to gather 256 mcguffins, they would give you a quest to combine 2 of X with 3 of Y, but of course each X requires 4 A and each Y requires 3 B and 2 C, and before you know it, you’re gathering 256 things, but it doesn’t feel that way; World of Warcraft uses similar structures, but largely by manipulating drop rates, and going in a different direction, given the crossover of WoW and D3 players, was probably a good thing.  By dividing the Adventure mode into relatively short “bounty” missions that lead up to a larger “rift” experience, the process of grinding the old content is no longer an end in itself.

Make no mistake: the endgame is a grind.  It always has been.  It is, after all, for that hardest of hardcore audiences that wants to continue to play the same game for almost endless hours.  You can run bounty missions all day to get rift tokens, run all of your rifts, and then reset the game and run the bounties all over again.  But, for players who are slightly less hardcore (like myself), it is also possible to run one act’s worth of bounties, get enough tokens to run a rift, and feel like you’ve made progress, even when you haven’t made any meaningful difference in your character’s in-game performance.  For me, at least, this is a key difference.  The content is largely the same, but the re-organization of it into smaller chunks, with the interlocking layers, gives the grind an illusion of structure, purpose, and direction.

In the meantime, if you want to just run through the campaign again and again, you can do that too.  While I was originally skeptical, the auto-leveling of enemies and the displacement of difficulty onto an explicit risk/reward slider actually gives players more valid choices for how to spend their time.  I’m still a fan of the progress/difficulty structure in Diablo and Diablo 2 that had its own self-balancing dynamic (the faster a player moved through spaces, the faster the game got harder, allowing your more skilled players to get to harder content faster, while slower players would end up resetting content between sessions, slowing down the difficulty progression), but the slider is great for advanced players.  You can pick your own comfort zone, and the carrot is still dangling out there to move up the tiers.

It’s a case of having your cake and getting to eat it, too.  The Reaper of Souls team expanded player options, while preserving the existing content and structures as a subset of the overall experience.  That’s quite a feat for an expansion pack of any game, much less one with such a rabid fanbase.  I’m not entirely surprised, of course.  One of the key players in the x-pack team was (and is) Josh Mosquiera (@joshmosq).  Again, you may not know Josh by name, but he is truly one of the best designers working today.  While I was at THQ, his team made a little game called Company of Heroes at Relic, and while Josh would be the last person to seek out the spotlight, you should pay attention.  When Chris Winters recommends a game, I take notice; when Josh Mosquiera makes a game, similarly, it’s worth looking into.

All Dressed Up And Nothing To Do?

This article was making the rounds for a while on Facebook: We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.  Several people I respect shared it, so I read it, and it seemed like a reasonable critique of contemporary film-making and the subtle evolution of sexism.  It’s probably worth reading, if you haven’t already, before going on.

In many respects, I took the argument at face value.  I believe that sexism is still prevalent in mainstream media; I believe that as we correct some of the more explicit and overt forms of discrimination (whether gender, race, sexual orientation, or other) that cultural force mutates, changing shape but still maintaining that energy; I get that Trinity is cool and strong and interesting in some ways, but then morphs into a supporting, traditional girlfriend.  The concept that strong, female characters still get pushed into the background behind the male protagonists rings true to me at a gut level.

The problem is, I actually saw How To Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie this weekend, and having done that, this critique seems misplaced.  It may be true in general, or in some cases, but the ways this article characterizes those movies is heavily distorted, consciously or unconsciously.  If you haven’t seen those movies, thar be spoilers below.

Starting with the character of Valka, to claim that the movie includes her as a token strong, female character is to miss the entire arc of the story.  Hiccup is missing at the beginning of the movie because he’s searching for something, his own identity and place in the world; at the end of the movie, he has arrived at both, as the chief and the standard-bearer for peace and cooperation.  What Valka represents, in this figure, is not just half of who he is; it’s the dominant half.  Yes, the competition of alpha-male supremacy is still at the heart of the film, but instead of the resolution being a chest-thumping triumph of masculine energy, what Hiccup achieves in the end is a synthesis of the masculine and the feminine – traditional leadership, true, but leadership that not only embraces  traditionally feminine values but elevates them above the traditionally masculine ones.  The conflict between war-mongering masculinity and empathic relationship-building is decisively won by the latter.

Valka is the pivotal figure in this journey.  The film signals in various ways that it is her influence that leads to Hiccup’s ability to bond with his dragon – a relationship of companionship rather than utility.  Rather than her knowledge of dragons being incidental to the battle, she is the one who unlocks Toothless’ ability to maneuver, and possibly his emergence as a higher version of himself (if Toothless is even a he, something I’m not sure is ever established), saving Hiccup, the battle, and the day.  When she was married, she did not feel bound to that institution, just as she rebelled against the common knowledge of the islanders, and when her husband appears, she does not automatically fall back into the role of wife.  Even once they are reconciled, Stoick turns to her for the deciding moment before engaging in battle.  She is neither useless nor peripheral, and reading her that way requires erasing both the specific events of the film and its larger treatment of traditional gender identity.

Granted, Hiccup is still the hero.  While Astrid breaks various gender conventions on her own, she is still secondary to him, able to lead the group only in his absence.  Valka does not become chief.  There are still plenty of conventional structures and positions used throughout the film, but the dominant theme of the film is about a shift from an older, traditional generation of leadership as masculine power to a new, younger generation of enlightened synthesis of the masculine and the feminine, with the feminine value system being the dominant one.  It’s not Andrea Dworkin, but it’s far from the “rote” depictions that Robinson accuses the film of using.

Similarly, Wildstyle/Lucy in The Lego Movie plays a much more significant role than Robinson gives her credit for.  “Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner.”  When Emmet sacrifices himself by jumping out of the think tank, Wildstyle takes control of the entire group of master-builders, organizing them around a plan of her own devising; then, she does the same for the population in general, seizing control of the means of production of media to put out a counter-message of individuality and resistance to top-down, hierarchical social control.  While one could argue that the adherence to serial monogamy is repressive at some level, Lucy breaking up with Batman before starting an official relationship with Emmet is hardly “turn[ing] to her current boyfriend for permission to dump him“.  She neither needs nor asks for permission.  She’s telling Batman how it’s going to be; he interrupts in order to protect his own, fragile ego.  Reading this moment as anything less than Wildstyle determining her own fate and destiny rewrites the event.

Again, while The Lego Movie is traditional in its heteronormativity, it disrupts the notion of heroism as masculinity in any number of ways.  The prophecy is made up; Emmet is no more destined to become the king because of his privileged male-ness than any other character is; instead, the film repeatedly emphasizes that everyone is the Special.  The feminine characters are just as capable of kicking butt as their masculine counterparts, if not more so; in fact, when Unikitty stops repressing her own feelings and embraces them, she kicks all kinds of butt, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to map that repression into cultural expectations of girls and women to be polite, conventional, etc.  And just as HTTYD2 represents a generational shift in gendered values around power and identity, The Lego Movie ultimately shows the dissolving of an older (white, male) model of power and opening up to a more diverse one.

While these movies may well trigger concerns about gender identity and the way it’s being presented in popular media (especially to children), and that experience of anxiety around these films may be entirely justifiable, to characterize these particular texts as lacking in meaningful roles for their strong, female characters requires a significant distortion of the texts themselves.  Yes, these are both movies about masculine heroes – and there are any number of bases to criticize Hollywood for its lack of opportunity and range for feminine leads – but they also both embrace diversity, self-definition, and the importance of historically feminine values.  Both of these movies are celebrating the opportunity to leave behind archaic, hierarchical power systems and doing so with characters that disrupt traditional gender identity in various ways, not just feminine characters embracing masculine roles and values, but the reverse as well.

We still have a long way to go, but to criticize these movies for not being progressive enough requires erasing the progress that has been made, and I fail to see how that helps move us forward.  If you have greater insight than I do, feel free to educate me in the comments.