Why Streamlining is a Dirty Word

The videogame business is one of the largest financial markets in existence. As a result, major publishers are focused primarily on one thing: profit. Allow me to say, there is nothing wrong with that. This is not some soapbox speech about the dangers of greed. However, there is a very distinct downside to the profit-mindedness that dominates the upper management of the video game industry. There is a common saying that “100 failures are paid for by 1 success”. Anyone who works in the industry can attest this. As a result of this reality, companies try desperately to get that ‘1 success’ more than once. They will take a game that had strong profit margins and capitalize on such a success. This means: sequels, trilogies, serials, episodes, DLC’s, expansions, and more games.

For the fans of a successful franchise this is, more often than not, a welcome outcome. They get the refreshing opportunity to keep playing a game they love, but with a new paint job; and maybe even a new engine (though experience has proven that unlikely). I will be the first to admit, this can be the greatest experience for a gamer. I personally have played through every Half Life game and expansion more than three times a piece. That type of gameplay and replay value is unparalleled. So for most, new content for an existing franchise is great news.

There is however, a dark side to the franchising process.

I own all but one of the Command and Conquer games.

I have logged several days of play on all of them. All of them save one, the final installation, Command and Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight. A little more about CNC4: CNC4 was the first serious alteration of game play to the tried and true formula of the series since its inception. I am not someone who is resistant to such changes. When game developers become complacent with their ‘tried and true’ formula you can get the same game experience repackaged with nothing new (see Call of Duty).The change in CNC gameplay shifted the series away from base building and the archetypical economy system of the previous Command and Conquer games, to a more agile, specific, and non-construction style of play. Wherein previous games it would behoove the player to build up a sprawling base with varying types of defenses (SAM sites, sentry guns, guard units); CNC4 removed that game element entirely. Instead, the player had one single MCV (mobile construction vehicle) and from that vehicle (which remains immovable when in build mode) the player builds all of their units, makes all their upgrades and attaches all their defenses to this one central vehicle. Additionally, the economy system in the game was stripped out, leaving only a population capacity number as the system of unit limitations. In CNC4 a player has a population cap, which grows progressively through the match (based on a number of variables); it determines how many troops on can have at a time on the battlefield (smaller units counting as 1, larger units counting as >1). In other CNC games, players were forced to mine resources for money, and spend money on units.

I have described the intricacies of CNC4 for a very specific reason, and it is not because I really love boring people with the idiosyncrasies of a cerebral game like CNC; I do so because the gameplay of CNC4 was bad enough that I did not play past the first few missions in the game, and have not played it once since the week I bought it. The gameplay shortcomings are a direct result of what I refer to as streamlining, which is what I mean to address in this discussion.

Streamlining: is the process through which a game is developed in such a way that removes higher level game play complexity, in favor of a simpler, more understandable gameplay that appeals to the largest number of people. This is becoming a practice that is more and more popular as game franchises become larger. Now that Call of Duty has once again shattered is previous media release sales record with the sale of Black Ops, companies see the profitability of a simpler game that everyone wants to play.

Streamlining is a dangerous issue, because it sends a clear message to the fan base from the publisher: “we are moving in a direction that will net as more money, and it may be at the expense of the hardcore gamers enjoyment.” That may sound harsh, but it is the reality of the situation. Developers and publishers will streamline games if they feel it will increase the popularity of the game, and they do so with the knowledge that gamers who are more dedicated to the franchise will purchase it out of loyalty, even if the gameplay experience they want isn’t there. This is an indirect abuse of that segment of a fan base that is, in my eyes, an unacceptable business move.

(Warning: for those of you put to sleep by the in depth CNC4 explanation before, there is more to come).

Returning to the example of CNC4 I will demonstrate how streamlining damaged the overall game play of the game, because before I never really explained why the changes were so bad. Unlike many people, I don’t make judgments without good reason, and I certainly don’t share them unless I can support them.

If you play Real Time Strategy games, and you have played them for a while, you may have similar tastes to mine. Which is that I crave a game that will challenge my mind, I want a game that if I make a mistake or bungle a critical operation, the game is going to bend me over the desk and teach me a lesson in proper fucking. Now that’s not to say I want to play a game that if I look away from the screen for a moment, when I turn back my base is not a crater filled with freshly toasted Marine corpses. I find that most real time strategy games involve, well, strategy. CNC4’s gameplay changes remove very specific and nuanced strategic options, without most people noticing. For instance, the removal of an economy has disrupted the power of certain units and the balance of the game. Normally larger units would be more difficult to acquire because they were more expensive, which meant you had to find more resources ,  and in order to do so you would spread yourself out and wait to gather the necessary resources. (Notice that buying bigger guns will leave you economy stretched, as well as you units in order to protect your advancing resource gathering units). With the removal of an economy, player can sit still and crank out units as fast as their production queue can cycle, and if they don’t have the necessary population requirements  (meaning they have too many units to get a new units), fuck it: send some units in a suicidal attack at the enemy.

This eliminates any strategy that would involve: A) frugality and skillful resource gathering, B) the tactic of attacking an opponent’s resources gathers in order to cripple their economy and unit production (which is a very effective tactic in earlier games), or C) giving units special abilities that earn a player cash so that units can have multipurpose roles in the game, instead of blunt weapons of increasing size, power, and range.

If I haven’t beaten that horse enough, let me know.

Moving on to base building and defensive structures; now that CNC4 had removed those pesky ‘buildings’ that had plagued their games for so long they had allowed the player the freedom to willfully ignore any type of planning and strategy, and instead encourage them to throw as many units at a single vehicle as possible and whittle away its monstrous health total in order to win. In previous games players would be forced to make large bases with structures that had unique purposes such as power plants, troop barracks, vehicle factories, airports, resource centers, and defensive structures. Each of these buildings represented a vulnerability to the owner of the structure. If a power structure was damaged, sabotaged, or destroyed, it would compromise the base defenses (which require power) leaving a base defenseless. It a troop barracks was similarly destroyed, a player would need to rebuild a new one in order to marshal forces for an attack or counterattack. If the resource gathering center was destroyed a player would be entirely unable to collect resources, making the build of defenses, the repair of building, the recruiting of new units; utterly impossible. A death blow to be sure. However in CNC4 players have one central structure. They can see their enemies coming from a mile off, and none of their production or research can be halted unless the entire structure is destroyed. But hey, at least CNC4 is simple, right? It is worth noting that this reinforces bad behavior on the part of the player. In most CnC games, because a player has an expansive base, if an opponent is clever, they will attack from the front with a large force, and send a secondary force to the rear in the hopes that in the heat of battle they wouldn’t realize that you just destroyed their power generators and now the base defenses are offline allowing you to liberally apply live ordnance to their defenseless structures.

As demonstrated, much of the higher level tactics which experienced and skilled players exploited in order to attain victory are gone. Now it is simply a matter of how can you best maximize your build queue to shit out the best anti-tank, anti-vehicle units and go destroy the opponent’s base before they do the same to you. The endless back and forth with little to no progression bores me to no end. Not to mention the fact that the ‘mech’ units in the game are horridly overpowered, and can wade into armies of enemies lay waste to them single handedly. Your only hope at winning is building a handful of engineers (units that can capture buildings) to quickly repair and capture downed ‘mechs’ bringing them back into the fight on your side. Then using these newly acquired weapons roll up on the enemy like AT-AT’s on Hoth, slaughtering ground troops as they scatter trying to find a new pair of pants.

So, CNC4 has succeeded in appealing to a more casual audience by eliminating the need for an advanced understanding of military tactics. They have added some comically overpowered units to satisfy the megalomaniac in the common gamer. But is it a good game? Was the streamlining of gameplay beneficial? Well the game sold more than its predecessor. But after its first 2 weeks, sales for the game tapered off very quickly as a result of poor feedback and reviews. But as far as I can tell, in talking with longtime fans of the series, and in my own opinion: I have found nothing but displeasure with the latest CNC installation.

Mass Effect is an interesting case of streamlining a video game. Mass Effect was a truly interesting genre of game; it was one part team tactics game, one part Bioware role playing game, and one part third person shooter. The result was something that was unrivalled in polish, uniqueness, and scale. Mass Effect was a resounding success. Mass Effect won solid praise from critics and performed well in sales. It spawned a whole new universe to which Bioware’s phenomenal writers and designers could sink more time into. I admired and enjoyed Mass Effect unlike most games I have ever played. It had a phenomenal role playing basis, a character building system with many different options for players to experiment with powers and skills. A robust inventory/loot system like that of the Neverwinter Nights and knights of the old republic games that preceded it. A fluid and intense combat system with easy and quick teammate control, cover to cover running and gunning.

Mass Effect 2 had many of these things, but not all. Mass Effect 2 suffered from a streamlining process in the interest of making it a bigger hit than Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 shared with its predecessor: a story that is engrossing and clever ( I expect no less from Bioware), characters that polarized players (which is always good), a strong combat system with great cover systems, teammates who didn’t frequently run into my line of fire or get stuck on level geometry (which I can’t say for many games). But one thing Mass Effect was missing on the second go around the block was the finer points of the RPG system. Yes, you still assumed the role of Commander Shepard, the oddly androgynous, possibly bisexual, destroyer of Geth and worlds alike. You got the typical dichotomous Good (paragon) or Evil (renegade) choices. So yeah you were role playing. But the skill progression was culled down to 4 basic skills. Excuse me Bioware, but what the fuck? Isn’t that the point of class and skill specialization, to have party members have skills that fit a specified role? So you would have to mix and match party members to fit what mission you were on. No, in Mass Effect 2 you have a party full of people with a lot of these shared skills, as a result what you get is a party full of people who claim to be the jack-of-all-skills. So my play through Mass Effect had me using every character in my party. While my play through of Mass Effect 2 had me using Thane, Garrus, and Grunt simply because I liked those characters more than the others, and not because they actually fit what I was trying to do; because frankly it didn’t matter.

Not to mention that the inventory was ripped out entirely. Upgrades and weapons were now purchased with resources garnered from a mining mini game that was little more than an endless game of radar based whack-a-mole. Seriously? I know the Mako driving sequences in Mass Effect one were a little tedious, and the Mako handled like Shepard was in a perpetual state of drunkenness. But instead of the world exploration that existed in Mass Effect, allowing players some fun as they bounced and bombed around on different planets, they put in a system where you look at the same dull planet sphere that rotates. You stare at some sensors, at the appropriate time you click a button a pointless animation happens, your resource numbers are incremented accordingly, repeat that until you deplete the planet of resources or run out of probes. Oh and if you run out of probes, just go to a refueling station, buy more for a nominal cost, and return to rape more planets. Speaking quickly to the probes, why not just give me unlimited probes instead of wasting my time flying to and from a refueling station for probes that are so cheap that I never found myself in a situation where I couldn’t buy a full box of 30. Using these newfound resources you can upgrade the 2 weapons you have: with only a narrow set of possibilities, all of which can stack on top of each other, never having to compromise one or the other.

One of my favorite parts of Mass effect was tricking out Garrus’s and Wrex’s guns to meet very specific and deadly roles, so they could rip through enemies I softened up with my biotics. So naturally when I popped in Mass Effect 2, the first thing I did when reaching the Normandy, I opened my inventory to see what I had. I found that I simply had 3 weapons that were restricted to my class. Not only that but I wouldn’t get more than 2 different weapons of any weapon type (pistol, smg, shotgun, sniper, etc.).  Gone were the days when as an Adept I could stupidly wield a sniper rifle and rattle off completely useless suppressive fire so that Wrex could maneuver to melee range and give some unsuspecting Geth a primer course on the futility of krogan mating. It might have been an utterly idiotic tactic I used, but I was allowed to do it…

But isn’t that what a game is? I see a game as developers giving you a world with a set of constraints and saying ‘here go crazy’. Now it would seem that this philosophy has an added caveat of “go crazy, but don’t do anything stupid”.

And that is the best way I can describe the difference between ME1 an ME2. The latter is idiot-proof, whereas ME1 fully embraced the idiots and clowns of the game community (embraced them and then promptly destroyed them). Now these gripes may seem like they don’t impact the overall game, and you would be right to think so. Hell, I think so. I played through ME2 three times. It’s a great game, and it saved itself from itself through all the ways in which it improved upon ME: the writing, conversations, combat movement, teammate AI, space travel, witty party banter, and atmosphere of the game all saw marked advancement. Overall, they successfully distracted my critical eye from the flaws of the game. (They could have just used shiny objects. That would have worked too).

I bring up Mass Effect 2 because it is an interesting case, it strides the middle ground of what iterative game development provides. It provides a wealth of refined mechanics and embellished stories. But it also provides a huge opportunity for developers and publishers to slim down a game so much, that they turn off their most loyal fan base because they have betrayed the ethos of a franchise. There are only a handful of examples where this has happened. But those examples are only in the past few years, and the number of these failed attempts at streamlining is slowly growing.

This leads us to the ultimate question:

Where is the line between fiscal decision making and truly good game development choices?

I haven’t found it yet. It keeps shifting with each new sequel that gets squeezed out every year or so. My head is not buried so deeply in the sand that I can’t enjoy a game that has modified and optimized a few game features, as in the case of Mass Effect 2. But I’m not blind enough to drool over a game that destroys the foundation of its namesake in the effort of appealing to a more ‘casual’ or ‘social’ buyer.

If you have other strong examples, or any feedback: throw a comment down below.

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4 thoughts on “Why Streamlining is a Dirty Word

  1. I like your example with C&C4(where streamlining basic elements of the franchise are bad), but what about RTS games like World in Conflict, Myth, and the Men of War series? All are games without base building or resource management. Are those elements required to have a good RTS?

  2. Oh there are definitely games that games that benefited from streamlined game play, unfortunately, the piece was already 3000 words. Adding another example and analyzing it, that would be too much. Haha.

    Speaking to RTSs: No there doesn’t need to be base building or economies to justify a strong game. Hell Beekman, you know about the game I am currently developing / designing, it doesn’t involve any economy. Games like Tom Clancy’s End War (which had its flaws) were very fun, very good, but contained no economy to speak of.

    I think the important thing to understand is this: if you are a game that offers a specific and complex experience to a dedicated user base (after more than 5+ title releases) you have to understand consistency. Command and Conquer was the pioneer of the base building / economy-based RTS. The fact they betrayed that with the pile of garbage that was CNC4 is just saddening, especially as a fan. Not to mention, I have it on good authority (from people within EA) that they made CNC4 knowing it was the last CNC installment, which really just kills me that they ended on such a horrid note.

    But all in all, yeah I should have put a strong example of streamlining to balance the good, middle, and terrible dynamic. Maybe I will.

  3. Just playing devils advocate. I recall several C&C games that feature single player missions with no base building or resource management.

  4. Oh there are definitely mission in CnC that don’t have base building or resource management on the part of the player. I assume you are referring to the Commando Unit missions. In those missions, notice that the NPC opponents still played with the base building/economic restraints that the game was built on. So all the same tactics applied, it was simply on the micro-scale of you one unit. Also those missions were small diversions, they never made up more than 10% of total time in the campaign. Not to mention the fact that you could skip those missions that involved that type of gameplay if you stuck to multiplayer.

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