Systems Design and Accessibility

or: Mass Effect is Hard.

This week’s regularly scheduled program has been interrupted by an essay about systems design, barriers to entry, and accessibility. Here’s why:

You might remember that last winter, we had kind of a snowpocalypse here in the Northeast. It’s already mid-May now, and we know what that means, seasonally (Link contains moderately NSFW audio). It also means I started spring cleaning last week, and during that project I discovered that, sometime during the disastrous winter weather, our attic leaked and we got some lovely mold. Mold which I am deathly allergic to.

Long story short, I had a bad week, and I never got around to finishing all the necessary research for my article on the long tail. Next week, hopefully! For now, fewer citations, more sinking slowly into a vat of warm nostalgia. Bonus: it’s about Mass Effect, RPGs, retro-gaming, and general game design. Something for everyone!

Enough exposition. Essay, begin!

The original Mass Effect is hard to play. At the very least, it’s hard to learn, and not very intuitive – insert obligatory apt Penny-Arcade comic link here. I think this is probably the series’ greatest weakness, even though it’s something I didn’t really notice beyond the first hour or so. I only realized how daunting the game must be when I stumbled upon a handful of “first time player, how do I play this game?” posts on Bioware Social Network. Also, when I bought it as a present for a gamer friend during the recent $5 Mass Effect Steam sale, she immediately texted me with “apparently I suck at Mass Effect.” Hmm.

I kind of wish I’d started blogging about Mass Effect when I first started playing. Isn’t that always the way though? I had a friend who decided to play through all the Final Fantasy games on a lark, and it was only somewhere around four that he thought man, I should really be writing some of this down. Hopefully, at some point in the future, blogging will be like taking the pills that prevent me from going insane: mostly automatic. But, for now, I have to rely on the foggy mists of memory.

The first time I started up Mass Effect, I couldn’t figure out how to go wherever I was supposed to go. I got stuck literally seconds after being dropped onto the first planet, humped a few cliffs, waded through a few marshes, and generally took about twelve minutes to go somewhere that should have taken me two. Petrified of missing something. I searched corners and crevices for hidden paths, when really all I had to do was walk over to that vista and proceed forward to receive my first serving of plot.

After the thing happened in the place, I pulled out my gun and shot the guys (spoiler free!). Others have spoken of the shooting feeling terrible and poorly implemented until you build your accuracy, but as someone whose primary experience with video game guns has been isometric RPGs and games about portals, I didn’t notice. I figured this was how everyone felt playing shooters all the time; it was certainly how I’d always felt. I leveled up my overpowered pistols, used my biotics, and quickly felt productive. Abilities on a hotbar? Simplified MMO interface. Map? Not the best map ever implemented, and the minimap was often grossly misleading, but I learned how to deal with it quickly. Inventory? Not that bad, with its most serious flaws not becoming apparent until much later.

What I didn’t realized was that I was leveraging years of RPG and gaming experience. Not being a shooter fan and being pretty old actually helped me; I could still remember an era when games hated you, and told you nothing. My first real console was a garage-sale NES, with a box of manual-less games. We only ever figured out how to play about half of those, over the five or so pre-internet years when that was our only gaming system. Dying a hundred times before you figure out what the heck you’re supposed to be doing is in my blood, and Mass Effect isn’t nearly that punishing. I also have played a lot of badly designed and deeply inconvenient JRPGs, So when you say “The inventory system is punishing” I can sit back with a smug look on my face and say “really? Have you played Koudelka?

Another thing that I learned from these early decades of gaming torment was how to blame myself. If a system seemed obtuse, a map confusing, or a boss fight too hard, it was probably my fault, caused by some inherent personal failing rather than some flaw in the game’s design. I took a bit of a journey back to that era recently, and what I found when I stepped out of my time machine was enlightening.

I recently tried to play Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura: a classic, Fallout-style WRPG. Spoiled by the conveniences and tutorials of modern games, I figured I could jump right in and start playing. Of course, my hubris lead to me not knowing how to move, use abilities, or even open and close the map correctly. To even perform these basic functions, I had to read the manual, which takes the form of a beautiful, in-character, 180 page novel. No I’m not exaggerating (well, maybe I am about the novel part – the book does not contain a conventional story structure centered around coming-of-age or anything like that. It is, however, legitimately a hundred and eighty goddamn pages long.) The manual has a preface. I don’t think you could get away with that today, but back then, that was the norm. Heck, a well-written, novel-length instruction manual was a gift, a thing to be treasured and re-read. I remember poring over the manual to the original Fallout. I remember a friend having to show me how to play Everquest, step by step, because if a friend didn’t show you how to do it you were basically screwed. Describing it now, it becomes clear that the good old days weren’t necessarily always all that good.

Gamers, especially RPG gamers, used to have a complex skillset that allowed us to deal with frustrating or poorly-conceived systems. That’s probably why I didn’t see the seams in Mass Effect the first time through. Also, I assumed that, at certain places, the combat felt bad because I was bad, but I’m beginning to suspect that might not be the case. A friend of mine, (the one who recommended Arcanum) tells me she keeps dying in the first five seconds of the final Noveria fight. I remember dying over a dozen times on that fight myself. I had assumed it was because I didn’t understand something important; admitting that it might be because the fight is poorly balanced for that point in the game and the appropriate tactics are insufficiently clear feels like heresy, but I’m starting to think it might be true. Especially when my friend keeps saying “this never happened to me in Fallout 3!” Well if you love Fallout 3 so much, why don’t you marry it? Ahem, sorry. Sorry.

I’m planning on starting a new Mass Effect 1 playthrough again soon, and I may have more design-related notes on the user experience after I have to relearn everything again. It didn’t seem that bad the first time, other than having no idea how to use cover properly and the universal Mako experience, but I do have one memory of frustration that remains sharp, months and months later. Hopefully it is also illustrative.

It was midway through the game, and my inventory was full again. I was standing in front of the dude on your ship you can sell extra items to and I just… exited the game. The next day Cataclysm came out and I just stopped playing Mass Effect and started playing WoW, knowing that the first thing I’d have to do when I came back was deal with that inventory, and I did not want to. It was a month before I came back.

Now, this is partially because I’m a hoarder. Hoarding is in our family, and I will consider it a personal victory if, when I die, my house contains less than a year’s worth of old newspapers. If I’ve got a nice suit of armor I’m using, and you offer me one that it worse, but has some special feature like being immune to toxin or resistant to heat and cold, I’ll keep that suit. I’ll probably never actually remember to use it, but I’ll keep it all right, until I get a better environmental suit, at which point I’ll keep that one forever and never use it. Still, even without my issues, there was too much sorting, too much fiddling, too much hesitation, too much busywork.

Dealing appropriately with that kind of stuff used to be something of a mark of honor. Getting through a badly balanced fight, or managing a punishing inventory, or remapping a hundred badly-designed hotkeys, all that stuff used to be proof that you were a real gamer. But kids today haven’t learned to put up with that kind of crap, so they don’t. And honestly, I can’t say I blame them. I’m not against complex systems, but you need to teach people how to use them. You need to make it easy and fun. And that is the one place where Mass Effect fails, sometimes.

It’s still worth it to muscle through, of course. Best series ever, and all. But Mass Effect’s barriers to entry may be why the series wasn’t spoken of in universally hushed and reverent tones until ME2. And that’s a cautionary tale for the ages, my friends.

2 Responses to “Systems Design and Accessibility”

  • Brand:

    Maybe, I will just marry Fallout 3! You have a WRPG to gush about I have my own. But I keep using it as an example because in terms of game play it is the game that I think is closest (of what I have played) to Mass Effect. I’ve also played a lot of Fallout 3/NV so I know a lot of the intricacies of the game. Now there are obviously major differences, but it is a good jumping board for me when talking about my issues with the game.

    I do think Mass Effect kind of just drops you in the game and only gives the most basic of directions. It would be okay if the game was very naturally intuitive, but it is not. Not, that being non-intuitive at first is necessarily a bad thing (Ex: Minecraft when you are mining, you actually have to hold down the right mouse button the whole time. It took me a while to be like Oh, I don’t have to click it repeatedly! When you think about it though, it makes so much sense. Much of your time playing the game requires this action. If you need to repeatedly hit the mouse button it would become a repetitive stress injury and wear out your mouse.) With a game like Mass Effect though, I do expect a little hand holding in the beginning. In concept, a game should not expect a player to know how to play it beforehand. Even though there are a lot of important gaming conventions (see red barrels vs green barrels) there are always new people to gaming and gamers new that type of game.

    Back to game manuals, I do think the days of huge printed ones are long gone. But it is very important to have a good manual in game. I took out my Arcanum manuals and gave it looking over. I really do think it and the first two Fallout manuals are some of the best out there. What I think Mass Effect got very right was the Codex that had all the universe background information (Narrated no less! Well narrated at least when it works…). For the life of me I can’t find any in game instructions on how to play the game, not that Mass Effect is alone in this, I had this problem with Fallout too. But sometimes there are things I just can’t figure out, or I clicked to fast and missed it, and don’t forget if you take a long break from the game. So, I think there are a lot of reasons still to have a full in game manual. I just feel that good tutorials are a games front line to get a player involved. Not enough hand holding the player my get aggravated, too much and the player may become bored. I do agree there just isn’t a need to put up so with so much bull to play a game. We are playing games to have fun right? Then I want to squeeze the most fun out of my play time.

    Also, you should still give Arcanum another try. It can be a bit much to get into. I remember this myself. It was my first PC RPG and I had no freaking clue how to do anything. It is a really cool game though that did a lot of cool stuff that we take for granted today in games.

  • GuardianAngel470:

    Hey CulturalGeekGirl, I’m loving your blog. Mostly for the ME stuff of course but also for the quality writing.

    In fact, this here blog inspired me to invest some time making my own and, coincidentally, the topic of this blog entry somehow overlaps with the topic of mine. Go figure. I swear I only checked here after I had finished my (very long) ME2 review (which was preceded by my long but not quite as long ME1 review).

    I am one of those newer gamers that didn’t really have to deal with old style game design.

    Two things about this blog entry. First, there is a way to play Noveria and not die a thousand times. Get out of Benezia’s line of sight. If she can’t see you, she can’t attack you and she doesn’t move. Then it’s just a matter of taking out her minions and traveling in a circle around her going counterclockwise.

    Second, I personally liked the way the inventory was managed when you spoke to shop keepers. Unlike when you just opened your pack as it were the shopkeepers organized the inventory into like items and by their power level. By that I mean all Incendiary Ammo IV’s were grouped together and each power level ran numerically from lowest to highest.

    One reason I never had too much omnigel is because I took everything I found and didn’t bother trying to reduce things from the equipment menu as that system lack a key aspect of organization that the shopkeepers provided: grouping by like items.

    Anyway, keep up the fantastic work, I’ll try and keep checking back here.

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