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    Friday, March 04, 2011
     Simulated Skill a.k.a. The "I Win" Button - Dan - 3:00:32 AM EST

Today we kick off a series of features put together by fett. He will be putting together a series based on some of the thoughtful discussions taking place on our forums, editing them into articles for easy consumption of the main ideas. Naturally, the original thread can be read in full, here: What is "consolisation" and why does it exist? Or Simulated Skill v Player Skill

One of the more interesting discussions in the TTLG forums lately was sparked by Subjective Effect's assertion that most modern games "get the Simulated Skill/Player Skill divide wrong." Of course we're talking about the "consolisation" of certain beloved franchises, but this is an issue that affects games across the platform spectrum. A parallel discussion in the Thief Gen forum compares the Simulated parkour elements of Assassin's Creed with the Player Skilled movements of Thief 1 & 2. The General Gaming topic spawned eight pages of discussion. It's a subtle, yet important issue that bears fretting over, as gaming becomes more popular. New gamers may enter a world in which Simulated Skill has replaced Player Skill altogether, and never know what they've missed.

"An 'I win' button is one that you press to carry out a Simulated Skill rather than needing to do a number of things in order to carry out the same action," says Subjective Effect. "Using a rope arrow in Thief 1 vs using the grappling hook in Batman Arkham Asylum for example. One requires considerable Player Skill, the other requires almost none.

"I get no reward for pressing an 'I win' button because it requires no Player Skill and so I get no sense of achievement from it. To give another example; 3rd person corner peeking in Thief DS. It feels like cheating because for a Thief 1 and 2 player, who had developed the Player Skill to deploy lean in the right situation, it was. Unified ammunition is another example; I don't have to concern myself with ammo management as much and this was a (admittedly more abstract) Player Skill you learned in the first game."

Possibly many gamers don't notice or care about the balance between Simulated and Player Skill. But anything that diminishes the consumer's satisfaction - whether it be a cop-out movie ending, a tie ballgame, or a loss of power over your game avatar (the Agent, as Subjective Effect calls it), means diminishing sales in the long run. Maybe the majority of consumers are too lazy to care if the game does all the work for them, but from an artistic standpoint, something substantial is being amputated from gaming, inch by painful inch.

"Consolisation" is really just moving the skill divide in favour of the Agent and away from us." says Subjective Effect. " It's designing a game more around "I win" buttons and less around Player Skill. It's not true of all console games, far from it (just look at Dead Space!), but it's the cancer that is destroying games because with cross platform development we'll get this skill leech on PCs."

These concerns among TTLGers were highlighted by some recent news on the Deus Ex:Human Revolution front:

"DE:HR's cover system is an interesting case in that it automates switching from one cover point to another with a key press (possibly with you being able to choose the cover surface you want to get to by highlighting it in your crosshairs), and it's something the latest Splinter Cell did," says Sulpher. "I can't really tell if I like or hate the system, because it works seamlessly and fluidly enough that you can concentrate on tactics instead of lumbering from pillar to post, but it's automated the 'crouch and run/roll/dodge/slide to next piece of cover' bit completely."

Manwe says this has largely to do with the constraints of console controllers: "Console games are simpler because you can't have the same control complexity and precision with a gamepad as with a keyboard and mouse. Gamepads were fine for platformers and action/adventure games but now they're trying to fit complex games like Deus EX, Thief or even fucking Oblivion on them. It's like trying to navigate the operating system of your PC with the remote control of your TV. It's just impossible. They don't purposefully dumb down their games just to annoy players, they are simply restricted by the controlers. Look at Deus Ex and the number of keys required to play it. Now look at the number of buttons on a gamepad. Without streamlining, you can't have the same depth on a console."

"It's a bit of a red herring anyway," says Wormrat, "because even an action that seems like Simulated Skill won't be an "I win" button as long as the game is sufficiently complex in other ways. Auto-aim, for example, is usually derided as simplification, but you could design some crazy fast and complex FPS that requires you to use your auto-aim powers skillfully, with the game practically impossible to play otherwise."

EvaUnit02 makes a good point: "One thing that's important is that you do not confuse consolisation with mainstreaming. Consolisation would be having to make compromises for hardware and control limitations of the lesser platforms. Eg you have a mainly first person game, but you implement a cover system that pops out into 3rd person... you're compromising for the lack of keys necessary for leaning above all else. Rainbow Six: Vegas is the epitome of this example. You need leaning in a tactical FPS like R6, but you don't have enough buttons.

Mainstreaming is essentially the "dumbing down" that Angry Internet Men get all huffy about, which they often confuse with the former. Examples of "mainstreaming" include hand-holding, Bioshock's navigation arrows, the "bread crumb trail" featured in Fable 2 and Dead Space, forced tutorials, non-existent difficulty, the platformers with unmissable jumps (which maybe automatic), etc. Prince of Persia 2008 immediately comes to mind."

"The real problem with consoles is the analog stick, the TV and a different gaming culture," says Koki. " Analog stick sucks balls for precise movement forcing developers to use shitty menus and the TV's pitiful resolution forces them to make everything huge."

Renzatic agrees. "People can make a billion and one compromises to try and make it work, but no matter what they do, it'll never be as smooth and natural aiming with the right thumb stick as it is the mouse.

"The good news is that this is probably going to be the last generation that uses dual analog. With the Wiimote, the PS Move, and the Kinect, we're already seeing the future of console controllers. With something like the Razor Sixense, which is basically a dual analog wiimote/nunchuck mix with 6 buttons within easy grasp of your thumb and index fingers, you wouldn't need an oldschool gamepad. Not even for platformers. It's the best of all worlds."

But will controller evolution alone help balanced Simulated and Player skill? Sulpher doesn't think so:

"The simple fact is that simpler games always found more of an audience than anything complex. Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake -- compare their sales to Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Descent. While we pride ourselves on the PC being the platform for more discerning and intelligent gamers, the fact is that those intelligent, complex games are more the exception than the rule even on the PC."

To open a whole 'nother can of worms, I'll leave you with Sulpher's comment:

"Player/Simulated skill is a nice thought, but consolitis isn't around just because of control/controller limitations relegating complex actions to a single button press. That doesn't allow for the stuff staring you in the face, like the fact that console/PC devs make things simpler for their demographics by lowering the overall intelligence curve of the game and make everything hugely obvious to players."

While there's more to the issue than the tired Console vs. PC debate, it does play a fundamental role in the balance between Simulated and Player Skill. But we'll cover that in the next article.

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