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Zenimax Drops the Ball with ESO: Blackwood

The Blackwood chapter for Elder Scrolls Online is sending some mixed messages. Some of the design is impressive, yet that which is turns out to be pushed far into the middle of the main quest, and most of the introduction is visually dull or unimpressive. The dreary courts and plazas of Leyawiin and the smaller towns simply don’t provide much of a unique impression, which is admittedly difficult to do with dark, grungy, medieval European architecture. The unique, fantastical imagery of the Deadlands is obviously comparatively more impressive.

The architectural details and motifs of the interior in the Deadlands are not as sophisticated and aesthetic as previous designs, however, and rely on basic, plain, open spaces with detailing and small additive geometry such as pillars and trim to characterize most of it. The exteriors, on the other hand, are visually the greatest part of the DLC.

Usually I don’t mention the story or gameplay much, and only focus on visual design. But this DLC sticks out like a sore thumb, and the experience has ushered me to elaborate on the problems with Blackwood as a game.

The story introduction in Blackwood is surely by far the most unimpressive, begrudgingly boring adulteration of ESO lore in the history of ESO. Forget bringing back a throw-away character as the lead and guide of the main quest, and forget that she is hardly any more developed in this DLC than she was in the others. The very process is abysmal; it’s as though the writer(s) intended to check all the wrong boxes. We are introduced to a multitude of uninteresting and nigh irrelevant characters and discover a mildly sophisticated plot (pun intended) to frame the Dark Brotherhood as the assassins of various politicians in Leyawiin, which develops the initial exposition toward the greater plot. Half the time, the player is informed of occurrences in the plot by following their nose toward the next clue, which is a perfectly fine mode of exposition on its own, except that the characters mostly just regurgitate what to do and where to go, and sometimes talk about characters that the player has no connection to and may as well be omitted entirely. The supporting character, Eveli, seems to have no purpose more than providing needless, brain-dead commentary about the details of the current quest. I recall Stephen King advising something like “only write a sentence if there’s a purpose to it.” In addition to the supporting characters up to the introduction, she is largely a vehicle for story building and exposition, which is fine if it were put forth in addition to character development, for otherwise we would only need to read a piece of paper or a book in one of the levels, since the character itself would be needless –which she is, and which the supporting characters are as well. Indeed, I may as well seek out the World of Warcraft format of providing all the storyline in a logbook that the player doesn’t have to read, because at least then the developers are confessing that the storyline may as well be irrelevant to the quest.  It is only halfway through the main quest that everything, quite suddenly, becomes more interesting, with the development of the ambitions’ backgrounds during their training. So, clearly, there is present the ability to write something that at least feels worth following, yet we are given breadcrumbs in the beginning. Why?

Let’s compare this to one of if not the best DLC, as far as I’m concerned: Orsinium. In Orsinium you are immediately presented with an interesting scenario in which you engage in combat seconds after entering Wrothgar. The primary characters are presented in a sensible way, and in no time you are engaged in a fierce siege alongside the King of Wrothgar, the event of which begins to act as the vehicle for much of the remaining introduction. This is “show, don’t tell” done right. Interesting, unusual, interactive events occur in synthesis.

The gameplay designers seemed to have abruptly forgotten what gameplay is and needlessly fill the quest chain with petty circumlocutions concerning practically irrelevant details of the happenings of expendable or inconsequential characters, many of which the player hasn’t really met. The first few dungeons are filled with typical dull-as-dishwater enemies equipped with the usual unimposing qualities and artificial “unintelligence,” as it were.  All to string together an overly convoluted plot about a Daedric sect intent upon causing problems for the political elite in Leyawiin for the sake of introducing the greater plot regarding Daedric schemes. The problem here is that the story development is tied together with the game development in an incompetent way. Forcing players to undergo boring gameplay for the sake of plot minutiae –insofar as we can consider it gameplay— is never acceptable in game design. The first hour of gameplay is appallingly uninteresting; going into a stranger’s house to look for clues regarding characters that the player couldn’t possibly care about is one thing, but doing so for boring plot progression is even worse, because the player can’t even take interest in the story.

One might think that the popular activity in ESO is anything but the main chapter quests, be it PVP or raiding, and that may be true, but then what did players pay money for in Blackwood? Especially those that didn’t pay for the more exclusive editions and don’t have those extra perks. Blackwood is surely overpriced in terms of the other ESO DLCs as far as questing goes.

Zenimax Makes a Comeback with ESO: Markarth

The Greymoor adventure has had some ups and downs. The last commentary here highlighted some of the problems that prevented the introduction from meeting design expectations. Thankfully, there were a lot of impressive ideas that were fully realized in the Markarth DLC, which in some manner compensates for the prior portions of the Greymoor adventure that ended up being disappointing.

Upon comparing previous designs using Dwemer assets, it’s clear that the design team at ZOS has refined their usage of them drastically. Markarth itself looks decent, and the re-imagination of it seems to have (inadvertently) adhered to the criticisms made here; it’s more polished than the original in Skyrim.

ESO: Greymoor and its Shortfalls

I’m sure I’m being awfully opinionated here, although at the same time I have a sense that my experience is shared quite universally. What I expected in the introduction was a lot more than I saw.

Other ESO expansions had a certain touch of distinction. The Morrowind chapter had the splendor of Vivec City; Elsweyr had its grandiose, inspired designs; Summerset, despite also having a somewhat sluggish introduction, did not disappoint. Then onto Greymoor we go and it takes ages before I encounter a challenging boss fight –to their credit, there is a boss fight with legitimate mechanics.

The Solitude in Greymoor is hardly any more interesting or impressive than the one conceived in Skyrim. In fact the dimness and grunge of the lighting and texturing in Greymoor’s version makes it even more dreary. There was a serious opportunity to do something different. Because they are in a world in which Tamriel is different…I’m not the only one that thinks there was a dragon break that enabled the contradictions in the storylines brought about in ESO, am I? *cough*

Luckily there is at least some compensation for enduring a somewhat mediocre storyline that seems to reluctantly carry along a princess whose character and personality is lacking: very near the end of the main quest we see a stunning cavern holding evil Disney Land. The background skybox technique that was used magnifies the grandness of the cavern as well. These are useful touch ups.

All in all, however, it was far less impressive than it could have been. Hopefully ZOS figures out where they went wrong.

Stunning Architecture in ESO: Elsweyr

I could describe and thereafter scrutinize the craftiness and creativity of Elsweyr’s architecture, but it’s impressive enough that displaying a few images will do the trick. Level design in ESO has been a hit-or-miss dilemma, but this is surely one of Zenimax Online’s best works. Some of the scenic imagery here adds some serious visual value to the game as well.

Estimating Gameplay Entertainment and Intensity Values

Without some static and continually observable stimuli to document for empirical repeatability gauging entertainment value and gameplay intensity becomes far more challenging. Clearly those with the resources to record data on the matter with a high degree of reliability as far as their recording techniques go have the upper hand. However there are a few starting points and tools that can be used to get a better sense of what is more entertaining and optimally challenging.

An intuitive conception of what sort of notion is worthwhile as far as entertainment goes is inquiring whether the user has stopped playing the game prior to the typical length of time one remains attentive to a task that requires learning. In long-winded games, for instance, a user that stops playing twenty minutes into gameplay is likely not a satisfied one and most likely one who has not completed the game. The same user can play a different game for hours, and through data it can easily be shown that the characteristics and preferences of the player matter little as compared to the entertainment value of the game, measured in this case by the duration of play. Thus there is something to say about the quantification of entertainment as a value and there are some distinct indicators that can be adjusted to compliment gameplay as needed.

On the elementary level a risk-and-reward system must be created in order to take advantage of the primitive behaviors which partially undergird game interaction. Thus there must be a clear way in which the player interacts that offers a risk or punishment mechanism and a reward mechanism. These systems vary greatly but the evident value of a game dissipates without one or the other. Imagine, for instance, a shooter game where nobody dies or a football game where nobody keeps score. Chiefly among the characteristics which influence the understood value of an interaction is timing. Various parts of the brain contribute to risk-and-reward and participate in recording delays in some manner, such as the frontal and parietal cortex, the amygdala and the striatum [1]. Generally, the greater the delay in reward the less of a response is given to stimuli acting as reward-predictors. However in the case of the amygdala, for instance, neuronal response varies based on the population of neurons and the probability of instantaneous reward. Despite the complications the primary obvious issue is the relevance of timing in a reward system and the variation of the response according to the duration of the delay before the reward is given. Any game whose rules force the delay between action and reward to last far beyond the duration of the activity should not be expected to have the same type of satisfaction as those that moderate the proportion of investment value to delay.

Alongside this ought to be taken into account the relevance of user-control and the degree of control, since this appears to have a relationship with entertainment value or compliance; data showed that, comparatively, a more user-controlled environment lead to greater compliance measures than an automated environment [2]. Providing freedom and efficacy within the constraints of a game should generally lead to a more engaged player. This includes such seemingly inconsequential details such as the choice of reward and operation of play within the rules of a game.

There is also something to say about the juncture between the risk-and-reward system and the level of intensity or challenge of the game, as dopamine may be relevant in relation to gameplay performance [3]. Perceived difficulty has been recorded to increase monotonically (consistent increase) with measured difficulty and there is a threshold beyond which the goal of the game in question is rejected by the majority of users [4]. Thus the best sure method of intensity optimization is experimentation with a group of individuals within the population of the target audience. The design objective is to maintain a challenging encounter and goal acceptance and a high probability of success while conceding some leeway when it comes to probability of success.

In most cases it is not possible for designers operating on a small scale to gather the resources to experiment with control groups of a population so as to optimize gameplay performance and entertainment value but there are various human-universal characteristics which may contribute to the creation of a foundation on which smaller-scale testing can occur.

 

Works Cited:

[1] Bermudez, M. A., & Schultz, W. (2014). Timing in reward and decision processes. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences369(1637), 20120468. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0468

[2] Nagle, A., Riener, R., & Wolf, P. (2015). High User Control in Game Design Elements Increases Compliance and In-game Performance in a Memory Training Game. Frontiers in psychology6, 1774. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01774

[3] Koepp MJ, Gunn RN, Lawrence AD, Cunningham VJ, Dagher A, Jones T, Brooks DJ, Bench CJ, Grasby.(1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. PM Nature. 393(6682):266-8.

[4]  Erez, Miriam & Zidon, Isaac. (1984). Effect of goal acceptance on the relationship of goal difficulty to performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. 69. 69-78. 10.1037/0021-9010.69.1.69.

Architecture in Level Design

The idea of architecture entrenched in physical descriptions is traditionally what is espoused in the practice of architecture in academia and the application of such ideas are attended to in practice, but the greatest benefit in relation to architecture that level designers have is their ability to escape from reality which affords them a far less limited description. There are still rules in constructing a level, but a level designer need not pay attention to rules which prevent them from designing constructive things in the real world. There is no need to pay attention to physics or restrict the mode of design to the set of methods possible in the real world. Therefore we need a more abstract conceptualization of what architecture is that is useful to level designers. A more useful definition is that architecture is the visuospatial characterization of geometric details over base geometry, which is collectively the most basic forms of geometry needed to visualize location.

Despite level design being an escape from reality the machines that interact with the level are still human, and so the rules of being human still apply, which is why adopting the exploitation of phenomena discovered in neuroscience is appropriate. Intuitively architecture in this more abstract definition performs two interrelated purposes: telling the same story and doing so in a different way. It’s highly unlikely that a level designer will be able to build a novel template on which architectural detail can be added since there are not many different ways to lay out the foundational geometry that have not already been done before. One might even claim they have discovered a new template only to discover that it can easily be characterized and traced back to something that has already been seen. A church is the perfect example. The template is the same, the details are different. So structure in architecture should optimize the visuospatial characteristics of the template for the sake of evoking a desired response in the viewer as structural detail contributes to the phenomenon. So the difficult question that arises is “What makes better structure?” Paying attention to what visual stimuli are more capable of invoking a particular response or mood on the part of the viewer allows us to determine that architecture which is more influential in provoking a response along with visuals that coincide with a human notion of aestheticism is structurally better than architecture that is less influential in doing so. This doesn’t mean that architecture can’t be “ugly” in the sense that a level designer might want to invoke a dark mood or a sense of disgust, but rather architecture that is less able to do so and is aesthetically nonsensical is purely inferior to architecture that is not. In every case looking at the concepts behind the details give an intuition of what the human brain feels in most cases. Humans group objects based on visual characteristics like shape, color, and spatial distance [1]. Architecture can then be analyzed in a hierarchical way, in which structures contain substructures and the quality of those substructures combined with the quality of the larger structures provide a sense of quality of the whole visual construct. Those structures are the visual things humans group together. Two key principles to pay attention to are the orientation of symmetry and the harmony of ordered wholes. There are various kinds of symmetry but structure has to maintain symmetry somehow for the maintenance of proper structure, given that the human brain pays an elevated level of attention to symmetry [2]. The latter is something which I am in the process of figuring out, but it doesn’t seem to be the same thing as symmetry. The best description I can give to it is the geometric respect for natural order. You can find plenty of ugly buildings in the world but I have never seen a building which was built in a way which violates this principle, perhaps because it is in the very nature of humans to avoid it innately. There is a visual orderliness in the universe in anything which by its nature has structure. This may need not apply, therefore, to fluid, for example. A great violation of this principle may be imagined. Take a look at the Forbidden City.

Now, in your mind, for every set of fixed units in a cubic region, take any geometry that exists within that region and rearrange it in any arbitrary manner, through rotation, extrusion, decimation, scaling, stretching, splitting, et cetera in a manner totally different from every other region you have modified. This would be an ideal opposite of harmonious ordered wholes, which may perhaps simply be related to chaos in a geometric sense. The whole point of structure is the maintenance of visual order and in architecture it is done hierarchically. Since we have an idea of what not to do we have a sense of what to run away from and how to do it, which at least gives us an intuition of how to qualify structure.

Within a foundational structure creativity can be realized in how the designer applied innovation to what has already been done and how they manipulated the visual template in order to creatively maintain its structure yet give it a unique personality. Tōdai-ji is in a geometric sense built upon the same template as the Forbidden City, yet the two have architectural details which contrast them so much that they are uniquely distinct from one another.

Having covered how to roughly qualify architecture in level design we can focus on the specific ways in which the human mind can be influenced by the spatial and visual structure of architecture. Symmetry, for instance, can be used to highlight differences and similarities. A focal point in a symmetrical space can be used to orient the viewer in order to aid them in absorbing a scene wholly. Repetition of visual motifs allows simultaneous processing of the visual figures being repeated. There is also some work that may suggest that facades themselves influence mood, and perhaps if a relevant portion of the cortex that is stimulated is the same portion which is involved in the processing of human faces, there may even be a more grounded sense of what distinguishes aesthetic facades from unaesthetic ones. Some work has been done attempting to use machine learning for face recognition (SVM) in order to extract from facades those inputs that would otherwise be recognized in faces and assign to them particular moods [3], albeit this may not truly relate the data to the phenomenon through which processing faces occurs in the human brain the phenomenon of pareidolia has been studied for some time.

So it’s evident that architecture is a profoundly relevant factor in level design and can be used to further the very purpose of level design as an interactive art.

References:

[1] “Gestalt Principles”. Web. http://graphicdesign.spokanefalls.edu/tutorials/process/gestaltprinciples/gestaltprinc.htm

[2] Symmetry activates extrastriate visual cortex in human and nonhuman primates. Yuka Sasaki, Wim Vanduffel, Tamara Knutsen, Christopher Tyler, Roger Tootell. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2005, 102 (8) 3159-3163; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0500319102

[3] Simulating Paredolia of Faces for Architectural Image Analysis. Chalup, Stephen K., Hong, Kenny. ostwald, Michael J. International Journal of Computer Information Systems and Industrial Management Applications (IJCISIM) Vol.2 (2010), pp.262-278