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Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 22 Jan 2018, 21:52
by raevol
This is a brain dump I've been wanting to write up for a long time. Sorry if this is super rambley.

This is inspired by a lifetime of playing games, but more specifically by my recent experiences playing three particular games: Baldur's Gate, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and the Uncharted series. And then putting all of that in context with OpenMW.

So here's the thing. When you are playing games, there's usually a set of different activities you do, but there's generally only one or two activities that make up the actual gameplay. For Uncharted that would be gunfights and platforming, the game has two very specific gameplay mechanics. Puzzles is a third, it's definitely another thing you do in that game, but I'm not going to really address that here. In Horizon, the activities are fighting robots, and a second activity that could be noted is exploring. In Baldur's Gate the activities are combat and dialog. Seems weird to mention dialog as a "gameplay activity" but if you've played that series, you know it's true.

So here's the thing. In Horizon and Baldur's Gate, there's also a ton of side activities that the player has to deal with. In Horizon they are crafting, foraging/scavenging, dialog, trading, etc. In Baldur's Gate they are inventory management, trading, and clicking through seemingly limitless UI elements.

Uncharted is a bit different. Sure, there's picking up ammo, and swapping guns sometimes, and hunting down treasures if you are trying to get that trophy, but almost all of player time is spent on the core gameplay. There's no real inventory to deal with, there's no dialog choices, the levels are linear so there's not really much in the way of exploring...

Not obviously Uncharted is an odd man out in this set of games because it's not an RPG. But I think there's a key lesson to be learned here. Of all of these games, Morrowind is most like Horizon: Zero Dawn. But what's the critical difference, as far as gameplay is concerned? Hunting robots in HZD is fun, engaging, and immersive. And aside from running around and picking stuff up, it's the overwhelming majority of the gameplay.

So what are the core gameplay mechanics of Morrowind? It's really *not* the combat. Combat is almost an afterthought in Morrowind, it's a barely realized gameplay mechanic. I would say the core gameplay mechanics in Morrowind are exploring, which is fun, and inventory management, which really isn't fun. I can't imagine that I am the only one that feels like they spend way too much time in Morrowind with the inventory open, shuffling crap around trying to figure out what's worth keeping and what needs to be left to garbage collection. I don't enjoy this activity at all. Is it fun to find powerful and interesting items in dungeons? Or stealing valuable items from fancy NPCs? Absolutely. But is realizing that you need to dump a few racer plumes because your jump height is starting to suffer fun? No, that's an absolute chore.

And back to the combat. I've been thinking about what makes Horizon's combat so fun. Here's what I have come up with. First, because you're a little tribal girl with primitive weapons fighting big, burly machines, the combat has an inherent intensity because you always feel outmatched. Second, the enemies exhibit varied and interesting combat behaviors: they will charge in, they will run away, they will circle around for a better strike. Enemies in Morrowind either charge, or kite if they are a caster or archer. There's absolutely no variation to their behavior. And as a player, there's very little variation to your abilities when retaliating. Sure, you can swap around spells or switch weapons, and the weapons have different attacks, but at the end of the day all you're doing is flailing the same attack over and over, or lobbing the same spell over and over. The enemies have no particular strengths or weaknesses to exploit, the terrain doesn't afford any advantages or disadvantages, and there's no real strategy or tactics that can be employed on an instant by instant basis. The only real strategy is preparation before-hand.

So what's your point raevol? Why are you spending all this time bashing a game that you obviously love, since you've been supporting OpenMW for so long? My point is I think with some mechanics changes, Morrowind could be updated to be a really interesting modern game. Do I think these changes should be incorporated into OpenMW? Helllll no, OpenMW is supposed to be faithfully recreating Morrowind. But maybe someday, in a far future, long after the dehardcoding, I'd like to make a "raevol's mechanics overhaul" that implements some things. And here's what I'd like to see:

1. Min-maxing needs to be removed from the leveling system. Nothing frustrates me more than pouring hours into a character only to realize that I am 100hp shy of where I could be because I focused on the wrong skill as I leveled up. I know this is kind of a personal problem, but I can't even get up the motivation to play Morrowind anymore, because the only way I can play and be satisfied is to spend the first 10 hours or so of gameplay using alchemy to get my attributes all to 100, with endurance being maxed first.

2. Enemies need to have varied AI, varied attacks, and strengths and weaknesses. For example, nix hounds shouldn't just run up to the player and flail their paws: they should stalk, charge, pounce, and retreat strategically. Enemies should pose a real threat to the player, and the player should have to dodge, block, and strike carefully and skillfully in order to make it through any combat.

3. The alchemy system needs an overhaul. There's a mod I think called Visual Alchemy? that's a great start, but there's some more things I think that need to be done: you should be required to be at some sort of bench or worktable in order to use alchemy (and repair for that matter). Players shouldn't be incentivized to carry around a full alchemy kit to make potions on the fly, because that clutters their inventory and slows down exploring: they should craft potions at designated stations (maybe even being able to build these workshops later in the game) and be able to store ingredients there. Also buffs should be reworked to prevent abuse, and the types of potions should be expanded: perhaps thrown potions or poisons for blades or arrows could be added.

4. The repair and enchanting mechanics need to be overhauled, in the same vein as alchemy.

5. The inventory system needs some real work. I understand that being able to pick up every rock and leaf was a novelty in 2001, but it's only proven to be a pain in the ass in 2018. I get that being able to move anything around and redecorate can be enjoyable, but the amount of busy work and chores that come along with it are so frustrating to me. I guess my biggest complaint has to do with the weight system: Every single unit of weight the player carries changes their movement speed and jump height. This is ridiculous! Again, min-maxing needs to be done away with. Movement speed is a quality of life issue for players, and if you are completely locked out of wearing armor or at least heavier armor because you don't want to have to slog around completely overburdened, that's a problem. But raevol, just boost your speed! No, that's not a solution, that's a band-aid. Think about the player's quality of life. I understand if heavy armor prevents the player from dodging or rolling or sneaking as effectively, but if it increases travel time? That's just a no.

6. The hot buttons need to be expanded. I'd really like to see Half-Life-esque weapon/spell switching. How do potions fit into that? I guess instead of being magically consumed from your backpack straight into your stomach, you'd have to pull them out and actually drink them. I think that'd make them a lot more interesting. I'm also a huge opponent of consumables, but that's not a hill I want to die on...

7. The "customizable" UI is a chore instead of a blessing. I'd like to see a well-designed and efficient UI, rather than a customizable one that requires endless fiddling and never seems quite right.

Anyway, I doubt anyone is going to read all this, so I'll stop here for now. Just some of my thoughts.

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 22 Jan 2018, 23:16
by tomangelo
I agree, Morrowind currently lacks in many aspects when compared to other games. From what I remember, main feature was exploring, which was quite good at its time, world was quite big back then. But after those 16 years it doesn't look as impressive as it was earlier, in the meantime other studios developed many interesting mechanics, some of them were just a lot better than Morrowind ones. There are also another parts of TES series who also changed these mechanics in some way.
Another thing is computers did improved much by this time, allowing to run more complex code with better AI or better physics.

Combat: back in these years there wasn't much complex fighting mechanics, it was usually "who has better dps/enemyhealth wins", Morrowind quite spiced it up with hit chance based on skill or different attacks (swing, push, of course they wasn't first with experimenting, they just didn't copied generic fighting mechanic). It was quite natural that unexperienced person with low skill and strength/agility doesn't hit so precisely and powerful as experienced warrior, might have some problems when trying to kill that little running mice, or that spear is better at pushing than waving around, after years we know that this system has some flaws that might be tweaked to make it more user-friendly, saving this "simulating" fighting mechanic.
Also enemies were simpler in their minds, it was "seek & destroy", I don't recall many games from these years when enemies tried to group, flank or make some another strategies, player also hadn't usually much chance to do much more than LMB-LMB-run-LMB-LMB-run-[...]. Morrowind was (I guess) just another game with such idea of enemies charging and spamming attack vs player. Nowadays there are bigger dev studies and better tools, gamers have machines with more computing power, so creating complex AI like in Horizon or Zelda is easier both to create and run.

Leveling kinda taught life, bad decisions drags behind you forever, and progress require hard working. :P
Yeah, it was turning off when you had like 78 points in some skill, needed 80 to get master degree on some guild, but you couldn't just train that ability because you first needed to upgrade Agility, then you first have to develop another skills 7x because you recently leveled up, so unlocking final quest requires from you to grinding long swords, alchemy or whatever by long hours so you could give these 2 points to damn Agility so you could train that one skill. I got annoyed by writing this :\

Inventory system was also quite ridiculous (and that didn't changed even in Skyrim), of course removing it completely and making a character that can carry by all day 100 different swords, axes, mauls, heavy and light armor, scrolls, rocks, cups, scraps, etc. would make it weird and too easy, but it kinda got away in opposite direction.

As a mod it would be quite interesting position, some who prefer original flaws would play original game, while non-nostalgic players would play with refined mechanics. But pulling it out of engine to make it possible to change by scripts might be challenging.

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 22 Jan 2018, 23:42
by Berandas
I believe there is already some old brainstorming topic like this somwhere on the forums and we're just repeating what has already been said, but I like this brain dump of yours. I also bear many ideas of how the world of Morrowind could be enhanced to be more immersive. Many things like this can by done by mods, but the engine needs to present the options first.

Combat is an obvious issue, combined with Ai and animation.
One thing that I liked about Stalker for example, were the special ways of enemy attacks (animals and mutants usually), <This might be a sort of a spoiler> for example packs of wild dogs could be driven away by loud shots (so you didn't actually have to fight them), that dog-cat-like predator with glowing eyes, which sometimes used it's psychic powers to pull away your gun, when you were aiming at their's face, the way how invisible Bloodsuckers were circling around it's pray to get the best chance of attacking it from behind, how those energy beings were pulling up objects int he air and throwing them at the player long before he was even able to see one. How that mutant grandpa used his psychic ability, with crazy loud whistling sound, quixky zooming your camera into his creepy face... Those were very simple acts, that actually made every opponent unique and also believable, no fire or frost damage, but an unique experience that accompanied every single encounter with them.
So imagine driving off some creatures with fire of your torch and stuff like that, not just dumbly smashing everything in your way at first blow. When you try playing a non-combat character, it completely changes the dimension of the game, sneaking in shadows, I even remember playing as a characted that tried not to kill unless really necessary, I was crawling deeper and deeper through dwemer ruins, using invisibility potions, scrolls, levitation, chameleon, so noone can see me, looting treasures, but then I found out that I'm really deep and won't have enough of those means to get out safely. I had to solve completely different problems, then just plain drinking of health potions and repairing my weapon.

As you mentioned, I also think the game needs more meta-games, for example the process of alchemy could be presented as some mini-game, where the player could actually do something to influence the process and result. (also making potions could actually take some time).
Or diseases - we have many diseases in MW, yet all work basically the same, you are notified about the sickness, it damages something, you drink a potion. Ta-da!
Having different diseases showing different symptoms, that would actually require the player to notice, having them reducing players stats over time if not cured and having different ways of curing them with variety of herbs, potions or balms. Of course you could probably end up by farming the ultimate magical scrolls instead of potions, but still this would add another piece of "realism" or "immersion".

Also puzzles and traps! What I really miss in MW is the lack of overcoming obstacles like puzzles and traps, they're present in a few mods, but generally everything in vanilla is about wiping out the monsters and use some levitation or water breathing here and there to get some sweet loot. This is mostly up to mods.

Changing the way of consuming stuff, having to actually hold the button to be drinking a potion, which would take some time, or reading a spell scroll by actually opening it...
These would need some engine support certainly.

Placing items on the ground could also use some options (when decorating a place).

And there are also all those technical performance and optimisation issues...

I guess we could brainstorm even more, but who's going to do all the work? :D
If anything, it needs brainstorming real solutions of how these things could actually work in the engine.

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 23 Jan 2018, 01:10
by tomangelo
Yes, everyone likes to talk about everything, but there must be someone to actually implement that. And this is usually harder part of it, with not so many hands in air.
Drinking would be simple animation of hand holding potion near a head/camera, maybe little wiggling as we drink in run, with simple "gulp-gulp" sounds (might be different sounds/animation when character is tired).
For scrolls there would be animation of dragging out the magic from scroll to hand, then throwing at target or at ourself.
Placing items - could be similar to what we have currently, but with possibility to rotate item and hiding UI windows when holding item in hand.

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 23 Jan 2018, 08:38
by raevol
Thank you for the input guys, good to know my ranting was worthwhile to some people haha. And @tomangelo thank you for the reminder of the historical context for Morrowind- I definitely knew that, but also definitely had forgotten to take it into consideration. You're so right! That's a reason that Baldur's Gate shows so much age with its mechanics now too.

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 23 Jan 2018, 10:19
by Berandas
tomangelo wrote:
23 Jan 2018, 01:10
Drinking would be simple animation of hand holding potion near a head/camera, maybe little wiggling as we drink in run, with simple "gulp-gulp" sounds (might be different sounds/animation when character is tired).
Okay, let's stick to the drinking feature, as you mentioned, it would require some animations, lets say these ones:
- character raching for their potion, opening it and putting it to their mouth
- looping animation of character drinking
- character closing the bottle and putting it away
- character throwing the potion away, when it's empty
All these on 1st person and normal skeletons.

Also some sounds:
- equiping the potion (already in the game)
- opening the potoin
- drinking (already in the game)
- closing the potion
- putting the potion back to your backpack (already in the game)
- throwing the potion away

It might also require to redo some of the bottle meshes, so you're not putting a plugged flask to your mouth. Let's say, simple modification of 15 meshes or so.

Okay, so those are assets, how about sticking the object into character's hand (both for normal and 1st person skeletons), is it possible to do this dynamically in the engine? You would need the potion to behave as a weapon, so it can be equipped to your hand and then used. AI also needs to be able to use that and react accordingly, so it doesn't result in everyone standing before you, drinking, while you're chopping them to death.

It would also require some markers (linear or radial) over the inventory icons, so you could actually tell, how much content there is in the bottle. And ofc some UI element, that could show this during drinking. (you could use the condition bar under the weapon icon, but that's too tiny and too far from your eye focus during the gameplay imo.

Now the game mechanic – each potion usually has some magnitude of the effect and some duration, let's say the duration would determine how long you can hold the potion drinking, in order to be recieving the flask's effect. Sounds fine, the mechanic is universal enough to be working with all mods and stuff.

Well, that would work for healing and magicka, but how about levitation or water breathing, it would be silly if you actually needed to drink the whole time underwater or in the air.
How about potions that have multiple effects with different duration, how would the mechanic behave and what effect would take the priority?
This system also makes use of cure paralysis potion impossible, unless there is a second character, putting the flask to your mouth...

So that's just from the top of my head, now brainstorm and iterate please. :D

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 23 Jan 2018, 12:14
by tomangelo
Well, paralyses healing potion doesn't makes sense anyway, unless it's some sort of telekinesis, or really strong willpower (maybe there are a lot of Jedi masters in Vvanderfell? :P). Let's say that's just another video games logic gem, I don't know how to make it reasonable without removing possibility to drink anything when paralyzed or underwater.

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 24 Jan 2018, 00:44
by raevol
The dirty details of implementing drinking potions would have to be hashed out, but I originally brought it up because of how they are handled with hotkeys right now- each hotkey only corresponds to one item, and when you press it, the potion is drank. In Half-Life, a hotkey pops up and cycles through a menu, and an item is selected with another keypress- mouse1. If consumables and weapons were selected the Half-Life way in Morrowind, when you click to select a potion, it would make more sense if it was "equipped" and then used with "fire" like a weapon. But I suppose it could just be invisibly consumed, and then the question would just be, does the hotkey menu close on each use? If not, how do you close it?

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 24 Jan 2018, 02:38
by AnyOldName3
Just putting this out there - I hate games with real-time consumables. They just interrupt the most interesting part of the gameplay. That said, I've never played anything where they're implemented the way I'd implement them. In real life, if you need to eat or drink something in a hurry, it doesn't force you to stand still while you do it. If you need to dodge something or run away, you still can (although it might be a little more awkward). Standing still, drinking a potion, waiting for an animation to finish, all while shit is going down all around you is not something I enjoy in games. I can walk and eat, so why can't the magical hero of whatever fantasy land I'm saving?

Re: Thoughts on game mechanics in Morrowind

Posted: 24 Jan 2018, 03:33
by raevol
AnyOldName3 wrote:
24 Jan 2018, 02:38
I hate games with real-time consumables. ... Standing still, drinking a potion, waiting for an animation to finish, all while shit is going down all around you is not something I enjoy in games. I can walk and eat, so why can't the magical hero of whatever fantasy land I'm saving?
I hate consumables period. I think they're a crutch. The idea is, you don't have enough health to survive an encounter, so the game wants you to evade damage to regain your health. Uncharted handles this perfectly- you evade damage, and your health restores. But basically every other game makes the amount of health you can restore an item you have to collect or purchase. And then arbitrarily limits the amount of that item you can have so you're not invincible. All of this adds busy work. I don't want to have to trek to a potion shop to buy potions halfway through my adventure through an exciting dungeon. If you want me to break off of combat and evade damage as part of the gameplay mechanics of the game, that's fine, that makes sense and is interesting. But don't make me do extra chores on top of that.

I think this mechanic comes from D&D, where the idea is after combat (or during if it's an emergency) someone in your character serves the role of healing damage you have taken. But even that is clunky and annoying- I've had to play the healer in the past two D&D campaigns I've played, and nothing is more frustrating than watching your partymates deal out damage and do spectacular combat feats, while you sit back and conserve spell slots for when they inevitably come begging for healing. It's not interesting for the player.

But to your point, if I did make players equip and use potions in "raevol's Morrowind", they would be able to run, jump, dodge, roll, and block while drinking them.