Its been happening for a long time now and probably in ways we never truly appreciated but I think we could be reaching the point where designs by convenience are starting to damage designs for experience.

The topic for today is “streamlining” if you watch enough developer interviews or upcoming game sequel trailers you may have already picked up on this.  When a developer takes frustrations or feedback about an original game design aspect and seeks to improve upon the design for a sequel or similar game style, they often call this streamlining.

The word implies a positive spin on what is increasingly becoming a word I associate with developers saying they are making us as players think less during the games we play. I think the term started with good intentions but somewhere along the way it began to be a buzzword to swap with “cut content” or simplified design either because they didn’t have the time or budget to include it.

Sometimes it works well and sometimes not so well. Comparatively Mass Effect 2 was streamlined from Mass Effect. The inventory management in the original game was a chore of sorting through increasingly mountainous piles of unwanted loot and checking if you wanted to sell it, trash it or equip it.  In Mass effect 2 inventory management was gone, in its place you could find upgrades still but they mostly came in short supply and did away with any thought to sorting through the trash loot. This for me was a sign of positive streamlining.

In contrast sticking with Bioware designed games Dragon Age Origins was highly regarded by me and Bioware decided to “streamline” the hell out of its sequel Dragon Age 2. Gone was the crafting, gone were the racial choices and gone were the variety of locations. This I feel is a sign of negative streamlining reducing the experience for the sake of budget or to appeal to the console market more, which apparently doesn’t have the time to do anything except click through the next conversation to move as swiftly on to chopping shit up while they choose to play a role playing game with their pre made character…

Now there is debate on the upcoming Deus Ex Human Revolution, namely this forum topic in response to a recent gameplay walkthrough featuring some extensive highlighting of all interactable objects in the game world as you play through it, shown here. The poll maker has his own you tube video which you can watch in which he makes some good points about what highlighting all interactable objects in a game environment does to a player’s experience.

In short he argues that if you find a hidden path or alternative route to your objective it makes you feel like you discovered it yourself. Where as if you see highlighted objects all over your game world despite its intention it takes away that feeling of achievement and reminds you that the entire game world has been designed for you and isn’t a place to explore and investigate simply a place to pass through in the quickest possible time following the signposts with as little thought or experimentation as you can manage.

I can recall an optional toggle to highlight all interactable objects in a game world when playing Neverwinter Nights games and while I can think of only a few occasions where I used it I have to say for the majority of the game I didn’t and I feel that my experience was better for it. If you get stuck and need some clues it’s a valuable tool which beats wandering around for long periods of time  stuck but to have it forced on you permanently is damaging the experience. However because it wasn’t always on it never felt intrusive and allowed me to experience the game world in a way that felt far more personal and less clinical.

Another example would be Relics decision to remove base building from the single player campaign of Dawn of War 2. The intention was to make you focus more on the units you were given command of and make the game more about combat strategy and approach rather than build queues and unit spam, as someone who struggles with too much micro management I feel it was a good move however the die hard rts fans who no doubt were good at micro  disliked it to varying degrees.

Streamlining is going to continue in all games and genres from the removal of health packs in call of duty to removing carry weight limit in Fallout 3.  I think its time we started challenging developers on what they consider “streamlining” because while its important to address game designs that feel awkward or tedious it’s also important not to reduce the gameplay experience down to the lowest common denominator.  Simple games can be great but complex games made simple because of convenience or through a desire to appeal to a different audience can often destroy the experience you already had and alienate the fanbase that loved your previous efforts.

As a PC gamer I can’t end this subject without admitting I am often aware of my irritation and resentment with how many of my favourite games on PC are being “streamlined” in order to appeal to players on a joypad, slouched in an armchair across the livingroom playing on a console. It’s probably a good example of why Flight Sims died out, their manuals and keyboard sized command lists took too much effort to learn for average gamers ,  its also a sign of where gaming is going when even if I spend more money on a pc I still end up playing a console game albeit perhaps with a slightly better resolution of textures… least they could remove the “press start” from the menu screen!