Saturday, March 17, 2018

Drive, She Said

Azuriel came up with an interesting analogy that found approval from Gevlon, which might be the first time the two of them have ever agreed about anything. The gist is that "action gaming" is more like driving to see a movie than it is like seeing the movie itself:

"The action of driving somewhere is much more involved than watching the screen – there are thousands of more individual choices and reactions necessary to drive somewhere safely. But is it more engaging? At the end of the night, which do you remember more?"

At first blush I thought this summed up the situation brilliantly. For many people, learning to drive is a complete pain; stressful, difficult and sometimes it seems to take forever before things click into place.

Once they do, however, there's a surprisingly swift and often sudden transition to thoughtless facility. Almost without noticing, you move from concentrating ferociously to the whole thing happening almost automatically. Even more so if you do, in fact, drive an automatic.

It's an appealing metaphor for the experience of learning to play a game that uses "action rpg" controls - usually a combination of hammering left/right mouse button and a handful of Function keys. The more I think about it, though, the less sure I am of its fundamental truth.

I should admit up front that I'm hardly in a position to judge as far as action games are concerned. I have never reached that autonomic stage, where my conscious mind no longer has to deal with the controls. I know exactly how that feels in driving, though. I can even pinpoint the specific moment when the transition occurred.

My brain in an action rpg.
I had two goes at learning to drive. The first time was when I was eighteen. Unlike  many teenagers, I had no interest in driving, but my mother was positively evangelical about it, believing driving to be an essential life skill. I let her pay for me to have lessons, mostly to get her to stop chewing my ear off about it.

I took my test, failed, told her I'd done my bit, then went off to a University whose rules dictated that students were forbidden to own or operate a car anywhere in the city. That suited me fine. I forgot all about learning to drive for a decade.

Ten years later, aged 28, I found myself going out with someone who believed it was a cardinal rule that anyone who rode the bus after age 30 was a failure. It was the 80s - what can I say? I didn't subscribe to that theory, then or now, but I did once again subscribe to not having my ear chewed off if there was something I could do to stop it. I took some more lessons, took my test and this time I passed.

Very soon after that the relationship ended. With no more motivation to drive, the day I took my test was the last time I sat behind the wheel of a car for about five years.

Fast forward to the early 90s and my first ever foreign holiday with Mrs Bhagpuss. For reasons that are now lost in the mists of time we decided to fly to Lisbon and hire a car to drive into Spain. I had, at this point, never driven a car for any other purpose than taking a lesson or a driving test, far less driven a strange car on the wrong side of the road in a foreign country. It was the 90s, what can I say?

It's all so much easier in the sky.
I took a few refresher lessons before we went, just to remind myself where the steering wheel was, and then off we went. It's quite surprising we're still around to tell this story, I guess. Actually, it's quite surprising I got the car out of the airport car park.

What did happen was revelatory. Somewhere on the long, straight, quiet multi-lane highway that runs along the south coast of Portugal into Spain, I became a Driver. I left Lisbon in a sweat of concentration and terror and crossed the border in a state of calm control.

Ever since then I have been able to drive. I'm not recommending it as a method - it's from the "throw them in the deep end and they'll learn to swim" school of thought, I guess - but it worked for me.

My action gaming has never enjoyed such an epiphany. When I play DCUO or Neverwinter I still have to concentrate on the controls. I never get to experience the game directly, only me playing the game. I'm comfortable enough with DCUO in particular that it's not offputting or unpleasant, but it's a good way from Azuriel's "just like with driving, I kind of zone out the experience when I’m killing enemies in Action games."

So, I can't really speak to the accuracy of the analogy from personal experience. But even if I could, I see another flaw: I really, really love driving. From the moment those pieces fell into place back on that Iberian highway I have found the process of controlling and moving a vehicle to be a pure joy.

I'm one of those people who sees every minute behind the wheel as an opportunity for entertainment and pleasure. I drive for the sake of driving. I go the long way just so I can have more of it. Almost every holiday we take is a driving holiday and while the scenery and the exploring are a huge part of the attraction, so is the opportunity to just get out there and drive.

A little trouble with the exhaust on that broom...
I can unironically affirm that for me driving to see a movie is often more engaging than watching the movie itself. It doesn't even have to be a bad movie for me to feel that the best part of the evening was the drive there and the drive back.

Given all that, how can I know how I'd feel about action game controls if I ever mastered them? Maybe, as Azuriel and Gevlon contend, facility would lead to ennui. Or maybe I'd just be so thrilled by the process I'd want to keep doing it and doing it and doing it...

My time with GW2, which is sometimes considered to use a hybrid of traditional and action rpg controls, gives me reason to believe it would be the latter. One of the main reasons I have stuck with GW2 so loyally and so long is the way it feels when I'm driving my characters there.

I find the controls wonderfully fluid and intuitive. I love the constant movement and especially the dodging. I fling my characters around as though I'm driving at speed - all the sensation with none of the danger. (It's also the main reason I so dislike GW2's implementation of mounts. It turns my elite sports cars into clumsy, awkward trucks).

Whether Azuriel's analogy has universal application or not, it's been very useful to consider. I'm now wondering whether, rather than veering away from games with action controls, I should steer into the learning curve instead. If I could push through the membrane that separates thought from action, would I find myself zoning out in boredom or riding the crest of an ever-breaking wave of exhilaration?

Okay, now we've gone surfing. Time to stop. Suffice it to say I recognize that it might be me that's missing out here. Whether I'm even capable of making the transition is another matter. And while we're on the topic of driving, how ironic is it that the one MMORPG whose controls I literally cannot master, even to the minimal level required to finish the tutorial, is The Crew?


  1. I guess that's the difference between you and I. When I drive, I never feel particularly comfortable enough to direct any meaningful amount of attention to experiencing my surroundings. My focus is the road, the cars in front me, which lane I should be in, how much farther I have to go, my speed, and a dozen other minor-but-extremely-high-stakes considerations. The whole experience is a chore inbetween my starting point and where I want to go.

    That's kind of a metaphor for gaming generally, I understand. But that's the Action game difference. It's hard for me to focus on the bigger picture and experience itself when I am hyper-vigilant for the correct enemy cue to dodge, or counter-attack, or use an ability. I don't feel that way with MMO combat in general, because the average mob does not demand immediate attention or perfect execution.

    1. It seems odd that our interpretation of the analogy differs and yet we share the same attitude to the two types of controls. I think that if I felt as "in the moment" when action gaming I'd probably love it, but I never do. It takes me entirely out of the world and into something that feels like trying to do research with someone shouting at me while hitting me with a rolled-up newspaper.

      Traditional MMO combat seems to allow far more room for error and far more time to think. People generally say it's more tactical, which can be true, but it's also just a better pace for me, I think. I do like Black Desert's action combat, but that's mostly because the game has mobs that are mere fodder for your whirling blades - that has a mindless appeal for a while. Generally, though, I prefer to do my thinking in between thrusts.

    2. Same for me. If I drive I can't even listen to the radio and don't really answer to anyone who talks to me besides "yes", "no", "I'll explain when we arrived". The day when real self-driving cars on sale will be the last day of me driving a car. I find it an utter annoyance (like cleaning the bathroom) that needs to be done. Any game resembles it is a no-go.

  2. In a more general sense, it’s the ol’ Boredom/Flow/Anxiety spectrum (where boredom for some can also mean brain-off relaxation, and anxiety for others can mean tense excitement.)

    Personally, I lean more to favoring the boredom/relaxation side with flow being as far as I’d like to go in my entertainment. Sadly, designers seem to like to favor an audience that prefers the higher excitement tension side of flow and difficulty levels end up tuned to that level.

    So then the only ways back to more comfortable happiness are sucking it up and going through the learning curve until it becomes more automatic... or simply giving up learning whatever it is, having deemed it not a worthwhile investment of one’s time.

    The discomfort during learning is very much a normal experience for everybody too. I’ve played the banners/buffbot warrior in GW2 group content for so long that it’s become super comfortable to press buttons on automatic and my brain has time to think more strategically long term and focus on other things like learning raid mechanics. I’m fairly notorious for not wanting to be off that class if I can help it - I like comfortable, thank you. It makes me happy.

    Ditto my dragonhunter main which I’ve soloed for so long that I can bring it into a raid and cycle through attacks completely on automatic without even thinking about individual skills. I think “I want to reach out and spike this with high damage from range” and my fingers have double tapped torch 4 already. Once, a long time ago, it wasn’t like this, I had to read my skills, experiment with them individually, practice chaining them together into a string of keypresses that would eventually result in dead open world mobs in a few seconds.

    Contrast this with the new class (necro scourge) I’m currently working on learning for Dhuum CM and it’s been mostly brain overload and tears. Hypervigilance is the watchword. I’m staring at my skills bar 80 of the time, keenly aware I don’t actually know what most of the skills are doing and what their cooldown timings are. My focus is riveted on which attacks I need to be pressing next, listening for and reacting to coordinated epidemic calls while struggling with target switching, maintaining an acceptable level of dps, and oh, not getting killed by raid mechanics - a lot of attention balls to be juggling at one time, and usually means at least one dropped ball at one’s current level of competence (aka barely.)

    Someone remarked that I was “overthinking” things, something that alternately wants to make me chuckle or hurl something at their head. It’s confusing the result with the method. Once you learn enough to get into a flow state, THEN overthinking stops and big picture enjoyment begins. In the meantime, there’s nothing for it but a lot of deliberate practice and tension/concentration/terror, assuming one is motivated enough to learn X, whatever X is.

    1. This is why I keep telling people how "easy" and comfortable it is to play a Berserker Staff Elementalist when really it very much isn't. I have been doing it so long, concentrating particularly in WvW in being able to roll right through zergs and come out the other side alive, that playing my Ele feels like driving a familiar car in good conditions on an open road. I understand that, to people coming fresh to the class, it's more like driving a loaner with controls that haven't been explained through the traffic control system of an unfamiliar major city at rush hour.

      The negative is that after many thousands of hours and with almost 20 max-level characters spread across all eight classes and most of the two sets of elite sub-classes, I can still only really play Staff Elementalist and Longbow ranger competently. Maybe necro/reaver at a push. I started to learn Frontline Firebrabnd last weekend and I pretty much ahd to go an have a lie down afterwards!

      Once you get that groove, though, it's incredibly comfortable and like you I enjoy that feeling. It's very much what I'm looking for.

  3. As is often the case, I find this whole discussion a tad perplexing. I have never found action combat to have a steeper learning curve. Indeed, one of the things I like about it is that it is so immediately intuitive.

    If an enemy winds up a big attack, you dodge it, just like you would in a real fight. Your ability set is usually fairly limited, giving every skill a clear role and an obvious purpose. It all just flows. You don't have to calculate or study anything. You just play the game.

    By comparison, in a tab target game, some abilities need to be dodged or interrupted, some can't be dodged or interrupted, some you can ignore, and it's never really clear which is which until you get hit by them. You're overloaded with dozens of barely distinguishable abilities, and it's usually not immediately apparent what the optimal rotation is. I don't think it's any harder, but it's certainly a lot less natural.

    When I play a tab target game, I spend all my time watching my bars and never get to enjoy the scenery or the ambiance. In action combat, I can feel free to live in the moment.

    1. "When I play a tab target game, I spend all my time watching my bars and never get to enjoy the scenery or the ambiance. In action combat, I can feel free to live in the moment."

      This almost deserves a whole post of its own. Watching the bars is just exactly what I want to do when I'm in combat. I don't want to look at the mobs or the scenery or feel the ambience. That's for when I'm not fighting, which in most tab-target MMOs is most of the time. Similarly, when I'm driving and "in the moment" I want to feel the car on the road, the movement of the vehicle, the grip of the tyres against the surface. I don't look out of the window at the view.

      The thing I dislike most about action combat is the necessity to watch for tells. I just don't. Since developers these days put circles all over the ground I can't help but see those and react but other than that I have no idea what the mob is doing at any given time. I concentrate on my character, my abilites, what I can do. In tab target MMOs that allows me to do pretty much anything short of end-game raiding but in action games it barely gets me out of the starter zones.

      The point, though, isn't really whether one system is superior to the other - it's that they serve very different demographics and psychologies. It's not possible to swap the two styles in and out as though they were like-for-like. By adopting an action gaming approach as a genre, MMOs are welcoming in one set of players while telling another they're no longer welcome. We need both types of MMOs and some hybrids and new versions too.

  4. "The point, though, isn't really whether one system is superior to the other - it's that they serve very different demographics and psychologies."

    This is how I prefer to describe it as well. I've discovered that cursor-combat is not a good fit for me, but other elements of action combat, such as the GW2 dodging, can be enjoyable. As well as for grouping for dungeons and raids, I prefer the common current "trinity" of tank, DPS, heals.

    I plan to never again try to heal in a cursor style targeting system, I've tinkered with that in a couple of games in the past, it's far from my definition of fun.

    1. I don't know how they did it but ANet got dodging 100% right. I was very apprehensive about it before I tried it out in beta but I took to it pretty much instantly. I find all MMOs without dodge a bit strange now and I've yet to find any that has a better version than GW2.


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