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Minor design decisions and immersion in Star Trek: Resurgence

I finally played Star Trek: Resurgence, which I’d had my eye on for some time. It’s an interesting game in its own right, but also significant as the first game from Dramatic Labs (a studio formed by Telltale Games veterans) and as part of a new wave of licensed Star Trek games during an exciting time for that franchise.

So naturally I’m here to ignore all of that and instead discuss a specific design decision that most people would probably ignore instead of fixating on. (What can I say? You come to my house, you get my bullshit.)

Okay, so. Resurgence is mostly a game about making choices. There are a few other flavors of gameplay including stealth/combat sequences, shuttlecraft piloting, walking around and investigating areas, a handful of minigames and QTEs, and so on. But the core is making dialog choices that have various effects on the characters and the relationships between them.

Correspondingly, those choices are the foundation of the game’s achievements/trophies. There aren’t any for, say, clearing a combat section without taking damage. None of them are skill-based (except inasmuch as you need to be able to complete all previous parts of the game to reach the particular decision the achievement is for) and I think that’s absolutely the right call. Those more-active parts of the game are for pacing and immersion; it’d be weird to turn them into things the player has to master for full completion.

What seems like a less-right call to me is that the achievements aren’t for passing decision points, but for making specific choices. Like at one point there’s a crisis, both your science officer and security officer have recommendations for getting through it, and you have to decide which one to follow. There isn’t a trophy for getting through the crisis: there’s one for following the science officer’s recommendation and one for following the security officer’s. Almost all the achievements are like that. (On PlayStation, there is additionally the Platinum trophy for getting all other trophies; on Xbox, there are additionally three progress trophies for getting through the three “acts” of the game.)

Now, that does mean that a player’s achievement list for the game becomes a reference for the choices they made, which is kind of a cool thing to have and to be able to share with other players (though the achievements have pretty explicit descriptions so the list is full of GIANT SPOILERS until you finish a playthrough). But the game’s website already provides a mechanism for this, and achievements are particularly poorly-suited to this goal.

By positioning all the alternative choices as items in a completion checklist, the game signals that you should see them all before you can consider yourself truly done. This isn’t as obnoxious as it was in Q.U.B.E. 2, because the game is at least about the choices and there is new stuff to see on a replay, though I still think it smacks of insecure design. But it does mean that anyone who replays the game to make other choices and get all the achievements renders their list useless as a reference for their “actual” choices–and it turns those choices from ones that allow the player to express something about their values to obligatory ones that are just checked off a list with no personal meaning. And the more effective the game has been at creating a real-feeling world and characters, the less interested I am in doing that.

(It’s the same reason I was so relieved to see that Resurgence didn’t have secrets or collectibles. Hunting through all corners of the map to find golden ships or research data would destroy immersion instantly; I was really happy I could just go where my character would go and not worry that I would be mechanically punished for it.)

Resurgence wasn’t a perfect game, but it did a better job than anything else ever has at making me feel like a Starfleet officer. I loved the scenarios it put me in and the opportunity to make decisions that best reflected Federation values and balanced protecting my crew with advancing our mission. I recognize that I’m more sensitive to this than others, but I resent feeling nudged to go back and make different decisions that will turn Resurgence from a world populated with people to a series of arbitrary levers to pull.


Convenience Features and Lazy Asceticism

It’s common for people to complain about a game getting convenience/difficulty/accessibility/approachability features they personally won’t use and which thus won’t directly affect their own experience. My mental model has been that this happens for several reasons. In no particular order:

  1. Status quo bias. If you already like something, change is scary.
  2. Status signaling. If more people can do something, that thing is less impressive.
  3. Gatekeeping. The more people enter a given fandom/community, the more the community changes to be like the mainstream, and the more the property will change to target mainstream tastes. (I haven’t written about this subject directly yet, though I’ve brushed up against it. My feelings are complicated and mixed: it frustrates me when something niche that I like reinvents itself to chase mass appeal, but there are also properties that I only fell in love with after they did that. Something to dig into another time.)
  4. Opportunity costs. If a developer spends time on these features, that will consume resources that could have gone elsewhere.
  5. The “intended experience”. I disagree with this one pretty strongly, but my attempt to frame it generously would be something like: Giving the player more ways to tweak the experience makes it more likely they will change it to a version significantly worse than what they could have had. (Sometimes this comes with half-hearted concessions for accessibility.)

For the first four of these, I can at least understand where people are coming from. I generally think they are not sufficient reasons to keep these kinds of features out of games (at least games that aren’t super-small and super-niche) but I can at least see the possible outcomes these people say they want to prevent. There’s something real going on there.

But for that last one, “intended experience,” I’ve always been a bit confused. I’ve usually chalked it up to a lack of empathy, with people not realizing these features are for someone else and just because you wouldn’t use or benefit from them doesn’t mean nobody would. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking - what if the problem is actually that people don’t want these features because they would use them?



Steam Deck and new AAA games

When I bought a Steam Deck, I wasn’t too concerned about its specs or compatibility with new stuff. As a rule, I don’t exactly rush to play the latest AAA releases. But sometimes I want to play a newish big-ticket game that happens to be significantly worse on Steam Deck.

Sonic Frontiers was one of those games. It’s perfectly playable on the Deck and the graphical issues didn’t get in the way of the experience I wanted, but they did make me laugh when I saw that there was a photo mode.

I do love it when games allow for creative expression that you can capture as persistent play artifacts, but it’s hard to get excited about setting up photo ops when the platform I’m on means the resulting image will cap out at 720p with limits on draw distance and texture quality and possible glitches.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen often enough that it would be remotely worth buying a new gaming PC or current-gen console, but it happens enough to be annoying. It’s another reason to hope that the Steam Deck keeps doing well and becomes a widely-targeted platform by the AA and AAA studios and not just the indies.


The right game at the right time

So, The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog was pretty good. But playing it also awoke my long-dormant Sonic fixation and made me want to spend more time with those characters.

The problem is that as a rule, Sonic games are not the kind of game I want to play these days. They tend to be built around mastery challenges, which was great for me when I was learning perseverance but not so much now at a time when I’m uninterested in friction and failure. I just want to chill with Sonic and friends, but Sonic games have no chill. (Yes, there was one RPG, but it was terrible.)

But! It just so happens that the latest mainline Sonic game, Sonic Frontiers, is an open-world game apparently taking some cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It has tons of chill!

So I picked it up and am loving it. I’d expect it to be divisive - games that branch out from the formula in crazy experimental ways are normal for the Sonic franchise, but this feels like a more radical departure than usual. And it certainly has flaws, as expected for the first installment with a new structure and gameplay approach, but it hits me in just the right way for what I’m looking for. Some reviewers call the open world empty and desolate; I find it peaceful and calm. Some complain that the platforming segments are isolated and decontextualized; I like that I can approach them on my own pace and schedule. Some complain that the most-traditional elements of the game, the cyber space levels, are so short; I like that they are so manageable and I can generally achieve all of their objectives after just a few tries and then switch to whatever other kind of gameplay I’m in the mood for.

I think this is yet another reason why it’s borderline meaningless to try to assign review scores to games as though their quality and enjoyability are objectively quantifiable, instead of just clarifying what kind of experience they provide. Frontiers is not an objectively great game, but it’s great to me, today. If I’d tried it some years back or even when I was just in the wrong mood maybe I would have dropped it quickly.

What games did I correctly dismiss years ago that I’d actually really enjoy today?


NFT discourse isn’t about NFTs

Here’s what frustrates me about the discourse around NFTs in games: it’s not actually about NFTs.

We’ve already had, for a long time, digital marketplaces for artificially-scarce virtual goods. There are many games where players can buy, sell, and trade their in-game goods, but to prevent counterfeiting and fraud the players need to go through a central server to do so. If the server is down or inaccessible you can’t do any of this, and if there’s real money involved the publisher-or-whoever takes a cut to pay for that server. Moving a system like this to an NFT-backed one would allow players to trade directly with each other regardless of central server availability and without needing to subsidize its maintenance.

This was a decently-well-known possibility for years, but no big publisher implemented it, because while it would have improved the player experience, it would have cut off a revenue stream. Taking a cut of every transaction pays far more than just the associated maintenance costs and can actually be the main way these games make money. No publisher is going to just give that away.

So when NFTs did catch on with publishers, it wasn’t for valid and player-friendly use cases in games where it made sense. It was for illegitimate cash-grab bullshit forced into games where it didn’t fit at all, or as the basis of a scam or pyramid scheme. And when those started getting big is when most people first heard the term “NFT”, and so it’s what they associate it with.

Players rightly deride these schemes, but this derision is now associated with terms like “NFT” and “blockchain” because the bad use cases are the only ones most people have encountered. So now if a game comes along with a good NFT use case (such as a digital trading card game that uses NFTs to make cards into unique and distinct entities that can be upgraded, traded, and sold player-to-player), it has an uphill battle because for most players it will be lumped in with the bad use cases and dismissed as just another scummy NFT game.

The problem was never the NFTs. The problem was the short-sighted player-hostile money-grabbing. But since that’s how a lot of people were introduced to NFTs, the conceptual well was poisoned. Once it gets in that state, the problem is self-reinforcing, because player-friendly publishers will mostly want to avoid tarnishing their games with this reputation, while player-hostile ones with nothing to lose will keep pushing for the player-hostile revenue streams.