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Lessons Learned Watching Allie Play Dragon Age

Allie doesn’t play many action games. Her PS4 is mostly for Rock Band 4, though she also enjoyed Until Dawn. She’s now trying Dragon Age: Inquisition after hearing a lot of good things about its characters. Watching her play has been instructive. Here are some of the lessons I’ve taken away just from her first hour.

Oh, right, EA are assholes

The first fifteen minutes or so of Allie’s experience with the game was spent wrestling with her EA account. Despite the fact that she’s done nothing online or multiplayer with the game, she was funneled into logging in before it would let her play. This involved resetting her long-forgotten password and - for some reason - picking a unique display name which the account had not previously needed. Finding one that wasn’t taken took so many tries that we thought it might be broken and just reporting everything as already in use.

This is a terrible first impression and completely unnecessary. She was already logged in to her PSN account and if any online features specifically needed an EA account that couldn’t just be tied to her PSN account the game should have waited until she was actually ready to use them before making her jump through those hoops.

Every game should have a No Fail mode

Rock Band games eject you from a song if you make too many mistakes performing it. You can optionally turn on a “No Fail” mode which prevents this. You still won’t get a great score of course, but the song will at least let you finish. If you’re just trying to enjoy the music, this is a better option (and I think a case can be made it should be the default behavior).

BioWare games are known for their worlds and stories and especially the companion characters and the choices the player makes in interacting with them. They have combat, but people don’t play BioWare games for the combat. The combat is there to add pacing, stakes, tension and relief to the story. The combat is in service of the story - and yet it’s the only part of the game that can actually prevent you from experiencing the story. (It’s similar to the platforming challenges in Wandersong in this way.) It’s the only part of the game that you can really fail in the same sense as the Rock Band songs. It’s the only part of the game where a basically able-bodied and able-minded person might still not be able to progress if their skill level isn’t high enough. Consequently, it’s the only part of the game with multiple difficulty levels - you choose a difficulty at the beginning, but it’s explicitly only for combat.

Allie wasn’t drawn to Dragon Age: Inquisition for the combat. She came for the characters and relationships. She has no interest in its approach to action-flavored D&D-inspired speed chess or whatever. She was displeased when the game introduced the paused tactical view, when she had to assign skill points to combat abilities, and when she encountered the equipment shop. She’s okay with hitting R2 until the enemies are dead and combat is over, but that’s about as far as she wants to invest in this part of the game. So she used the one tool available to her to decrease the game’s mechanical focus on combat - she picked the lowest available combat difficulty, “Casual.” She did this so she could enjoy the characters and story that are the game’s unique selling points and what brought her to the game in the first place.

But even on “Casual” difficulty, it’s possible to get blocked off from enjoying those best parts of the game. Allie probably won’t fail a combat encounter, but if she does, I’d argue that the game has failed her and not the other way around. If the game presented a “No Fail” option like Rock Band, this bait-and-switch wouldn’t be an issue. Players who came for the story would get to experience it without needing to worry about a complex and uninteresting mechanical system getting in the way.

Standard game UIs are too complex for beginners

Dragon Age: Inquisition’s basic interface is quite familiar to veteran players like myself. Simultaneously walking with the left stick, looking around with the right stick, keeping an eye on the enemy radar in the corner, and reading the tutorial messages that pop up is something I’ve been doing for close to two decades at this point. It comes naturally to me and I know where to look and how to respond. But that’s because of years and years of practice, not because it’s inherently simple or easy. It’s analogous to driving a car - handling the steering wheel, the gas and break pedals, keeping an eye on your mirrors, all while watching the road in front of you and staying in your lane. This multitasking becomes second-nature, but it sure doesn’t start that way.

Allie’s one of the most skilled drivers I’ve ever met, but she has a lot more practice driving than playing 3D console games. When she started playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, the amount of information thrown at her and multitasking expected of her was not realistic. She moved around with the left stick but didn’t touch the right stick much and the camera dutifully maintained an increasingly-useless angle - in the first boss fight, it ended up behind a green cloud of magical energy and made it hard for her to see her party and the enemies, resulting in her losing about half her health. I don’t think she noticed the enemy radar, and any tutorial message that popped up while she was doing anything else might as well not have been shown at all.

To me, the screen was dense with useful information; to Allie, it was noisy. Novice and expert users have different needs. Allie had put the game on the lowest available difficulty, but that just changed combat damage. It did nothing for the complexity of the interface. Ideally there’d also be a “Casual” setting for the UI, which would do things like keep the camera behind the player character, highlight enemies more clearly, and pause the action to deliver necessary tutorials.