I’d Rather Skip the “Skip Boss” Button

After my recent article, I didn’t expect to so quickly be writing another in response to a game site’s article, but here we are.

Rock Paper Shotgun spurred some Twitter attention this week when they published “Now Ubi’s opened the door, can we have our “Skip Boss Fight” button?” by John Walker. Walker wrote the article in relation to Ubisoft’s “Discovery Tour” mode for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which will remove story, quests, combat, and challenges and allow players to simply wander and explore the game world.

Walker states it’s odd that this addition is a big deal because he feels it shouldn’t be, and that “games should be delighted to include modes that remove all their difficulty and challenge, and players should cheer when they hear about it.”

I find the Discovery Tour an interesting addition to Assassin’s Creed and I can see a lot of value in the idea for some games, maybe even a lot of them (hear me out, dear gamer). The Assassin’s Creed series are set in different historical time periods, where historical fact is blended (though often bent and altered) with fiction to create an alternative what-really-happened-behind-the-scenes version of history. Yet there’s always a kernel of actual history in the games, particularly with Animus entries. You wander past a historical landmark in-game and you can read about that historical landmark with the push of a button. You can learn about Notre Dame by walking up to it. You can learn about devices invented in that time period. Origins seems to be taking another step and including cultural practices in ancient Egypt as well.

The addition of a tourism mode allows players who are interested in history and ancient cultures and practices to simply wander around and learn about these things without being hassled by guards or worrying about getting into fights or walking somewhere they’re not welcome and causing all kinds of trouble. I can see some benefits to the concept.

People interested in history and learning about the time period can do so without having to learn a game. Counterpoint, of course, is they could, and probably should, read a book for a better look at history than any video game is going to provide. But if a game can intrigue a kid or teenager to explore the game world, then move to books and reading for a deeper understanding, there’s a net benefit there.

Stepping away from historical settings, this mode could be interesting in some games that build their own worlds as well. As the protagonist is typically in their teens at the earliest, they have some life experience in their world. Having a non-combat exploration mode allowing you to interact with NPCs and learn about history, culture, and details of the game world would let the player get a ground level knowledge base before the storyline’s initial trigger than sends the proverbial poo to the fan. A tutorial mode could be suggested instead, but those typically get added as a required intro to learn how the game’s combat works.  An exploration mode allows players to try it if they wish and players who want to hop straight to story and gameplay don’t have to bother with a tutorial at all.

So honestly, I’m on board with the “Discovery Tour” idea until we see how it plays out. I do think it’s something that should be more of a focus for studios working with VR right now – allowing players to explore historical and modern landscapes and locations for a virtual vacation get away. Visiting historical places, learning about cultures around the world all from the comfort of your own home. Combine this with Google Maps one day and our VR options for cheap “world” travel becomes quite expansive.

However…(you didn’t think this was all agreements & unicorns, did you?)

Stabby-The-Unicorn-Pink-clean_800x

Okay, maybe there is a unicorn for gamers…

I’m not so sure games and gamers should be delighted and cheering to include modes “that remove all their difficulty and challenge” either.

What is the point of a Mario game where you push the directional pad to the right and hold the button until you get to the end of the stage? After all, you’d have to remove all enemies and all pits. No jumping, just hold a button until Mario reaches the flag. What’s the point?

What is the point of playing a Metal Gear Solid game where you just walk through the corridors of the base without enemies to avoid, without having to employ stealth, and with no bosses? It’s just walking through hallways until you get a cut scene.

What is the point of Ninja Gaiden if you just run through a level with no enemies and no bosses?

What is the point of Call of Duty if you just walk through combat zones where there’s no combat?

What is a puzzle game if you remove all the puzzles?

What is the point of chess if every piece can move anywhere you feel like putting them on the board? Sure, you can do that, but then you’re not actually playing chess, are you?

Walker is taking what I think is a good idea to extremes of absurdity with this notion. Even Assassin’s Creed: Origins isn’t offering up the game itself with no combat. The Discovery Tour mode doesn’t allow you to play through the story or do the assassin’y stuff so much as let you explore the game world as the character might before the Assassin Order begins – before there’s a moment that spurs one to action.

The idea of the no-combat, discovery/exploration mode works fine for open world games, especially if there’s other things to do. I’ve been playing Watch Dogs 2 and before I go off on a crusade to bring down Big Brother, I could easily go around the city and spend time getting familiar with it by doing the Uber- oops, sorry, I mean Lyft- oops, sorry, I mean Driver SF quests. I could do racing on the E-Kart tracks. I could find Scout X locations and take pictures. I could do a number of things before focusing on the story.

It just doesn’t work as well in non-open world games. Instead, I think we’re already in a good place with most games offering different difficulty levels. I started Platinum Games’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan on easy, thinking I’d play through it on easy, then normal, then hard if I was still interested.  I’d use level ups and power ups from lower difficulty to be better equipped for harder difficulties. I wound up playing on easy for two levels and not realizing I was then on normal for the rest of the game (I forgot to change the difficulty on the level select screen after the first two).

I’m assuming because the Discovery Tour idea doesn’t work in non-open world games is why Walker suggests the “skip boss” addition instead, allowing people to play through the levels of normal combat without having to fight a boss. But since you can already play on easy mode in most games where bosses are toned down quite a bit, I’m not entirely clear why it’s necessary to skip them.

I might test this with my mother one day and see if she can get through a few levels of a game on easy mode. She’s never played a video game in her life to my knowledge. Except Spider Solitaire. Don’t challenge her in Spider Solitaire, sucka, she’ll stomp your high score.

Mr T

I pity the fool that challenge my mama to Spider Solitaire!

“Bring on the Riff-Raff!”

While he starts off talking about removing all challenge and difficulty and is suggesting a “skip boss” option, what Walker actually wants is for games to be more welcoming and inviting to more skill levels. To make games more accessible to more people. A noble idea and one that I can’t see how anyone can argue against on its own. It’s been Nintendo’s core value for decades. But more on this idea later.

He then notes his previous articles that argued players should be able to skip ahead in games just as with books or movies, combat should be skippable, and you shouldn’t need to be good to play video games.

What film critic actively suggests movie goers should skip 25% of a film? What book review says to skip every other chapter of a book? Why are only gaming journalists frequently and actively encouraging the product they write about to be ignored in part?

The Lord of the Rings has not been edited to 1/3 of its length with the language altered to be easily digested by a 6th grade reading level (Scholastic lists it at grade 9-12). Oscar winning films for Best Picture aren’t being reworked to appeal to the Michael Bay fan. And really, who spends $20 on a Blu-ray just to skip 25% of it on their first viewing?

The crux of the argument is that simplifying games and removing all challenge would invite a wider range of audience and would ultimately make games better. Or, as the article states, “welcoming the Outsider in is always how society broadens and blooms.” But does it apply to video games?

Pleasing All of the People All of the Time

World of Warcraft started out as an MMORPG, a niche genre growing from popular titles such as Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Final Fantasy XI, but WoW largely removed the grinding aspect from leveling. Some might say they made the MMO concept easier with quests and all classes being more capable of solo combat, but what they really removed was the need to group for every aspect of the game. It was more a shift of design than truly making the genre easier at launch. As WoW became a cultural phenomenon, it drew a much wider crowd. The nerds from high school who played MMORPGs were there, but now they were joined by the jocks that stuffed them in lockers and played Call of Duty or Halo in college. Even casual mobile gamers started playing as well..

As the population grew diverse, so did the demands. Players wanted more raid content on a regular basis. They wanted harder raid content. But also more accessible raid content. They wanted larger 40 man raids back. Only they also wanted small 10 man raids. They also wanted more 5 man dungeons. For that matter, there needed to be more world content outside of dungeons. And how about more mini games? While Blizzard responded in various ways, it’s hard to say the modern World of Warcraft resembles the game that launched, The Burning Crusade expansion, or even the launched Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Blizzard began to develop the game to cater to everyone simultaneously and the game, for better or worse I’ll leave to other debates, changed a great deal and diluted from the focus that made it the most popular MMO of all time.

If WoW vastly improved by drawing in Outsiders by the droves, it hasn’t been reflected in its subscription numbers. As these large changes were implemented and the focus started to shift, even adding in what is unquestionably a blatant Pokemon rip off in Pet Battles, subscription numbers dropped and have never returned to their peak levels for more than an immediate post-expansion launch. Blizzard no longer reports on subscription numbers at all. Granted, it’s not the bulk of their profit anymore and so it’s not as important, but if they were still worth bragging about, I’d wager they would be.

None of the major features in a World of Warcraft expansion that deviated from the original core have been high demands in other MMOs such as Final Fantasy XIV. It’s as though a genre has its core components and fans of that genre play the game for them. Bringing in Outsiders can actually dilute the game design as developers try to make people who are not interested in the genre happy, potentially at the alienation of their existing fan base.

Gaming Has Always Been Inclusive

“Gaming has always been inclusive. The idea that there was this Golden Age when all games were cripplingly hard, and only the Chosen were able to play, is bullshit. In fact, back in these imagined halcyon years was when games invariably came with cheat codes, god modes, all sorts of ways to subvert and play differently. And despite the outright terror that articles like this are harming their precious gaming, that the Outsiders are changing games to what the self-identifying Us perceive as “worse”, we’re currently experiencing a heyday for super-high-difficulty, super-challenging, extremely tough games, like we never have before.”

Wait… what was that first line? Gaming has always been what?  Inclusive, you say? Then aren’t we done here? Aren’t we good to go? Gaming’s always been inclusive, so why does gaming need to be changed to draw in a more inclusive range of players?  Checkmate, atheists!

Checkmate chicken

It was either this or a John Cena meme. Suck it.

Walker is right, though. There wasn’t a period where all games were cripplingly hard. The NES era had a lot of hard games, sure, but part of that was how new many of us were to the medium, just learning how to control these little people on the screen with our fingers on a controller. The other part was simply padding the game. Seriously, a lot of games on NES are extremely hard because:

  1. They’re directly taken from arcades which wanted you to die often to feed more quarters
  2. They want you to get more than 4 hours of play out of your $60 purchase. Otherwise, gamers (or more accurately their parents) would have been returning games for not being worth the cost and would stop buying new ones. The high difficulty was there to keep you playing.
  3. Nintendo was doing their part to combat childhood obesity by making kids frustrated enough to get sick of this BS and go outside and play. (Okay, I’m just making this one up…. or AM I?)
Tinfoil hat

#3 is totally true, I just know it! I swear! REALLY!

Walker is also right that there were cheat codes. Some of these were developer codes to test things that were then never taken out of the final product. Others were left intentionally as a reward to discover. And for the rest of the games, all the way up until PS2, there was Game Genie and Game Shark. However, it was always kind of a fringe aspect of gaming. You didn’t have Electronic Gaming Monthly and Nintendo Power telling you why everyone should have a Game Genie or that Game Genie cheat codes should be included with every game purchased, which is essentially where we are now.

Frustrating Boss Fights

 

I understand Walker’s sentiment of frustration with difficult boss fights, but I can’t relate to a desire to have them completely removed. I’m actually more in his camp in the MMO realm of things. I’ve never been a cutting edge content raider, preferring to enjoy the time raiding with friends. So long as we have a good time and make some progress for the night, we can finish a raid weeks, or months, later with a buff to help. In FFXIV, we even tend to spend our raid time farming previous expansion raids for mounts more than work towards tackling the hardest of new raid content.

WoW has Mythic difficulty, normal difficulty, and LFR difficulty for their raids. Mythic is the hardest, normal is a challenge that can be overcome by a group working together with some practice, and LFR is…well, honestly it’s basically just an exercise in the simplest requirements and so long as you’re pushing attack buttons the group will probably win. It’s ridiculously easy and honestly takes all the fun out of raiding. Compared to Final Fantasy XIV‘s 24 man raids that still have some mechanics that can kill everyone, but are easy enough to accomplish with 23 strangers who aren’t in voice chat but mostly know what to do? There’s really no contest which is a more rewarding experience in my mind.

It’s this level of simplicity that I just can’t relate to nor understand. The desire for absolutely no challenge whatsoever, for no gameplay at all, no risk of any fail state. The desire to not even require the most minimal of effort and still be rewarded for it when playing a game. I can understand, and will fully support, multiple difficulties in games. I have no issue with Easy mode. If easy mode allows you to just hit attack a couple dozen times and you need to not get hit by one particular attack and the rest of the fight is negligible, that’s pretty straight forward. For me, easy mode can pretty much be “story mode” with no true challenge to the combat and everything tuned down somewhat akin to the cheat codes of yore. Just kick it to easy mode, kick back, and have a mindless night of fun.

I can certainly understand demands for bosses to be properly tuned. When a boss is “incongruous to the rest of the game” rather than a “comprehension test” of what you’ve learned and acquired, there’s reason to dislike the boss fight and push for, and expect, better design from developers.

But simply wanting a “skip boss” button?  That is the opposite path. That’s telling developers they don’t NEED to design games well. They don’t need to make interesting bosses. They don’t need to balance and fine tune them properly. Because if it’s broken, whatever, the player can skip it and they’ve got a deadline to meet.

It adds a new chorus to a very unfortunate song that’s developed in time:

If the game’s broken, whatever, we can patch it.
If the story’s incomplete, whatever, we can patch it (and charge money for the DLC later).
If the boss is poorly tuned and too hard, whatever, they can skip it.

Though, I suspect publishers (more than studios) will get the idea of an extra verse:
If the player wants to skip everything, whatever, we can charge them tons of money for it and mobile gaming proves that “pay to win” is a massively profitable business model.

I think that, more than anything, may be what gamers push back against, even if they don’t consciously realize it. They don’t want console/PC games to become even more bloated with microtransactions where pay to win is less of an option and more of an encouraged path. Games should not be designed to be so mind numbingly grindy that paying for item boosts becomes the only way to save your sanity.

Gamers, and particularly games journalists, should be holding developers’ feet to the fire for poor design and poor boss battles, not encouraging laziness via an option that tells both gamer and designer neither need really care about it.

Which brings us again to the point of journalists being good at games, and of gamers being good at games. My answer is: No, neither necessarily need to be. Just as there are gamers of all levels of skill, there can be journalists of varying levels of skill. But if a game is difficult, even on easy, that doesn’t mean the game is immediately bad and needs to remove ALL forms of difficulty to cater to every person in the world. It may just mean that game is designed for more skilled players and isn’t for you.

I mentioned in my previous article that I had replayed Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers on SNES recently and it’s pretty easy. If someone struggles with Battletoads, they might like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers instead. After that, they might like TMNT IV. I wouldn’t say that Battletoads should just have no boss battles. I would say someone should try a game more suited to their skill level and come back to the harder one when they’ve improved. With modern games and the multiple difficulties, it’s not even as necessary as it used to be to find another game.

Some games are designed for players who enjoy a serious challenge. It’s a niche and there’s nothing wrong with developers designing that game for that niche. It’s the demographic they’re making the game for and that’s who they want to play their game. That’s perfectly okay.

Games journalists are quick to lambast gamers for being upset over disappointment with games like the ending of Mass Effect 3. They’ll berate gamers for being “entitled” because the game didn’t cater to their wishes or that it wasn’t what they wanted. Yet here we are with games journalists insisting how developers should make their games.

It’s like demanding Hollywood to edit a film to only include what you want and edit out all the parts you don’t. It’s demanding an artist to remove birds from his paintings because you just don’t like birds. It’s telling Stephen King to change his books because the scary parts are too scary for your tastes. There’s always another option: watch a different genre of movie, find an artist you like, or read another book. Likewise, you can play another game that better fits your tastes and skill level.

It’s not as though that’s hard these days. There are more games than any gamer can ever complete (even though we delude ourselves into thinking one day we’ll conquer our backlogs). Even if the popular game is too challenging on easy difficulty, surely there are other games in the genre that are more to the desired skill level to be more enjoyable.

Game room

“I assure you, I’ll play through every one of them eventually!”

Oh No, Gamers, You’re Not Off The Hook Either

Maybe we as gamers, and myself in writing this, are being too literal in our reading of Walker’s words. About 1/5 into the article, he states “‘Skip Boss Fight’ is a totem for my larger point here, and it’s a title under which I’d include Ubi’s recent announcement (despite their rather awkwardly trying to wrap it all up as wanting to be Edumacational). It’s the spirit such an option captures, and it’s one that I think the industry would do well to breathe deeply into their souls.”

Stepping away from the specifics of Walker’s suggestions – skipping content, skipping boss fights, skipping combat, let’s take the spirit of the idea for a moment: Making games more approachable for a wider variety of play styles/skill levels and making a wider variety of playstyle games.

In this regards, I have to say to you, dear gamers, calm the h*ck down.

Calm down

That’s a h*ckin’ cute pupper, so you gotta listen.

There is a rather unnecessary streak of elitism in gaming that we each individually need to get a handle on within ourselves. I play Uncharted on normal. My friend plays on hard his first play through. After we’ve finished the game, we’ve never focused on the difference of difficulty. We usually talk about the story. Sometimes I’ll mention a particular fight that was just brutal for me and I can’t imagine what it was like for him. I acknowledge he’s taken on a greater challenge with these games. He doesn’t think I’m less of a gamer and I don’t see him as more of a gamer. We just like different difficulty levels with Uncharted.

I may play through a Platinum Games game on Easy, Normal, and Hard where he may play through on Normal and be done with the game, despite playing Uncharted on hard. I don’t gain more Gamer points to get better than him as a result.

I’m most exposed to this elitism in MMOs where hard mode raiders look down on anyone else and think anything the developers do that isn’t catered specifically to them is a waste of time and resources. Seriously, guys, let’s not be the elitist jerk raiders of the gaming community.

So if a game designer wants to reach as many potential customers as possible and they decide they want to include varying levels of difficulty, don’t fly off the handle about it. It’s their decision. It can actually be good for the game, and for the community around the game.

Final Fantasy XIV’s team has said they design their raids from the hard mode down. The easier version removes a mechanic and lowers the amount of damage some abilities do until they feel it’s more manageable for a lower, average, skill level of players to do collectively without voice chat and without the familiarity of playing together. The rewards are a bit better for the harder mode and the hard mode raiders do that and don’t need to do anything else. The normal mode players typically supplement their play time with other activities for rewards and remain a bit lower than the hard mode level. It’s two separate lanes on the same road, that’s all.

That’s not to say every game must have multiple difficulties, either. Again, it’s perfectly fine for a developer to design a game aimed at a niche audience. If they want to do so, they have every right to do so. No multiple difficulties, no concessions, no compromise. If that’s not your type of game, you don’t have to play it and nobody should be criticizing the development team for their design vision.

Ghosts & Goblins

“Dark Souls is the me of the modern generation, ya punk kids!”

But gamers then have no right to criticize development teams who choose to add them, or create completely different games, either. “Walking Simulators” have just as much right to exist if that’s what a developer wants to make. If we’re going to say developers should be free to make difficult games, or violent games, or games with sexy women, then developers must be equally free to make games like Gone Home and Her Story without coming under attack for it. Sure, we’re free to debate among ourselves if they qualify as games by definition and we can certainly voice disagreement with them deserving awards, but they have the right to exist if the developer wanted to make them.

Rather than attacking it, or anyone who enjoyed it, we have to take the same stance we demand of others: “This type of game isn’t for me, so I just won’t play it.”

Likewise, if a studio makes a game toned down and easier, that’s acceptable as well. How many Dark Souls fans wish more gamers experienced the game the way they do? What if there was a game similar to Dark Souls, but easier, that they could recommend to their friends? What if those friends beat the easier game and felt ready to step up to Dark Souls and managed to get through the game and love it? Haven’t you just brought a new gamer into the Dark Souls fold, albeit after a detour? Don’t you have someone new to swap stories with?

For that matter, if a friend beats a game on easy and you tell them how much crazier a fight is on normal, hard, or nightmare, isn’t that a fun story to share that they can still appreciate based on their experience and knowing how much is added to the fight in higher difficulty versus what they encountered? It might even make them curious to try harder content. It might make them decide to “git gud.”

A Difficult Conclusion (C wut I did thar?)

I disagree with the idea of adding the option to skip content, skip combat, or skip bosses. I just feel it’s too much of a request for the developers to design their games with the intention of players not playing their games and isn’t ultimately healthy for the industry or the games themselves.

Something about skipping content just doesn’t sit right with me. I know it has no bearing on my experience. I know if someone skips every boss, that won’t impact my experience playing a game. But I do worry about the message it can send to studios and publishers. I worry about people that may buy a game, enable invincibility and play through the easiest difficulty, then blast the game for being too short. And I know that sounds ridiculous, but it happens pretty often in MMOs. We get access to flying, skip all combat, complete quests, and then complain there’s not enough to do.

There’s not enough to do because we actively skipped the gameplay that was designed to be experienced! Yet it doesn’t stop people from complaining about it. That carrot on the stick is a powerful tool and game developers often have some understanding of psychology and how to employ it to get players to try “just one more time.” Giving away the cow for free on easy mode will remove any motivation to try a harder difficulty afterwards. There’s simply no reward, so most people will consider the one play through enough and if it was too short, the game may be dismissed as a bad game. This has a very real impact on the developers.

We don’t have cheat codes, Game Genie, Game Shark, or anything like it, but it’s been a part of gaming for just about as long as there have been games. I don’t see anything inherently evil with them still existing (so long as they’re not bleeding into multiplayer as then you’re starting to impact other players’ experience). Most likely, though, I suspect the idea of invincible armor and instant-kill weapons could become more appealing to add as optional DLC. After all, you had to buy a Game Genie separately back in the day, right?

I much prefer the notion of games having multiple levels of difficulty, with easy mode being very approachable for just about anyone who can pick up a controller. I’m even okay with the idea of modernizing the old cheat codes with that DLC or simply a toggle option to be invincible and just play through the game that way if someone so chooses. Even if they’re storming through the game invincible and able to 1-hit kill every enemy, at least they’re exploring the levels, seeing the enemies, and even experiencing the bosses along with the story more than outright skipping it.

While I may disagree with John Walker on a “skip boss” button, I can certainly understand why multiple difficulties to welcome a larger variety of player skills is admirable. I love video games and I want more people to enjoy them and love them as well, even if they aren’t as good as I am when playing them. I don’t think the multiple difficulties or removal of challenge should be demanded or pressured, but if developers want to explore these options, they should be free to do so.

After all, they’re creating the games. So long as they’re creating them the way they want to, and not because they feel they have to, I’d want to see gamers support them in spirit, if not necessarily with their wallet. Let them make what they want and let everyone voice their opinions on what they’d like to see, but don’t expect all developers to implement all ideas.

Journalists, if a developer doesn’t have a more accessible easy mode or skip boss option, don’t attack them for it. No one has to buy it.

Gamers, if a developer does have a more accessible easy mode or even a skip boss option, don’t attack them for it. No one has to buy it.

Sorry this is such a long article, but there was just a lot to unpack on this topic. If you disagree with me, that’s perfectly fine as this is just my opinion. If you want me to hear your opinion, leave a comment and let’s discuss it!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s