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So, after the hype, praise and widespread love, comes an inevitable note of backlash. It was always that way with big games, wasn’t it, but it seems especially unavoidable when FromSoftware is involved. Ah, The Speech. Still the toughest enemy in a Souls game.
This time, however, the conversation isn’t about difficulty, although having seen what awaits in later areas of Elden Ring, I’m sure the discussion is in the post. Rather, it’s the user experience, or UX – an umbrella term for an ever-growing number of things designed to facilitate the player in and through a game – that has carried the brunt of the shading.
I refer mainly to this widely shared exchange between a group of developers, looking at Elden Ring and its high Metacritic score through the lens of their own work (one is a UX director for Ubisoft, another a quest designer for Guerrilla Games, the last a graphics programmer for Nixxes). Predictably, this caused unseemly stacking, which, as always, completely misses the point. It’s not a matter of jealousy or, as some idiots have seen it, an insult to Elden Ring and its players. I think it’s more of a kind of raising your hands in the air, an ironic gesture what’s the point; the kind of thing I do every time Chris Donlan posts something on Eurogamer. I also sense in it the acknowledgment that the things the developers have been led to believe will elicit better review scores and higher sales… don’t. Or at least are not as mandatory as the consensus would have you believe.
Needless to say, games should have a good UX. They should be as accessible as possible to as wide an audience as possible. But a game that is easier to understand for less skilled or less experienced audiences does not make it a better game; it doesn’t turn a Metacritic 85 into 97, or a three million seller into one that makes 20 million. But they make it more likely to appeal to more people, which, in theory, boosts its potential sales numbers.
No offense to anyone, a dev’s job on Horizon Forbidden West wasn’t to do a Metacritic 97 or an Edge 10. (I also doubt anyone at Guerrilla would look you in the eye and say he honestly thinks he made one, but that’s in passing.) Rather, their job was to make a game that could sell 20 million copies. And at the forefront of big-budget game development, that pretty much means following best practices to the letter when it comes to…well, a lot of things, and certainly things like UX and quest design.
So I can totally understand a UX designer’s frustration when a game hides its tutorial in a hole that, if my timeline is any guide, a lot of people, including a lot of experienced game developers, have completely missed and achieve one of the highest average exam scores of all time. I can imagine a quest designer going through an existential crisis when the difference between a player sticking to the critical path or taking a ten hour detour is a single line of skippable NPC dialogue in a game with no log of quest, and people are talking breathlessly that it’s the best game ever made.
But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? This is exactly why FromSoftware games have become so popular: the way they seem to thumb their noses at convention. They are built on the fundamental belief that players are capable of solving this problem on their own, and that a game is far more rewarding when they do. At a time when much of the industry’s output feels the same, if slicked back – the tutorials that make us hunker down in the low beams and enforce explanatory stealth killing of tall grass, the ubiquitous variants of the detective mode and objective markers and map icons; the pause menu difficulty switches, the loading screen tooltips, the protagonist VO guiding us to the next task or offering puzzle solutions because we stood still for 20 seconds – FromSoft games stand out. They were a breath of fresh air even before Elden Ring immersed us in one of the most beautiful open worlds ever created. The fact that Miyazaki and his team should now be playing in the same sandbox as most of the biggest sellers in the industry puts the “FromSoft difference,” if you will, into even greater relief.
I found it, the Elden Ring with the “good UX” pic.twitter.com/MBEbLPIonx
— Alex (@alexdnz) March 6, 2022
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None of this is meant to excuse Elden Ring’s UX. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in FromSoft’s games and even been baffled by his new game’s menus. If I had 100 runes every time I tried to close the map with the same button that opens the map – reader, it’s not – I would have been at max level 20 hours ago. The game gives me so much elsewhere that I put up with its weaknesses, but I think it’s only fair to call those weaknesses out no matter who you work for or what game you’ve recently shipped. And if you’re in the business of making games, I can understand that this sort of thing irritates you more. I’m the same. There are very bad writers who are much more successful than me. It’s a bit boring.
I especially sympathize with that perspective — that feeling of, oh my God, what’s the point — when I put on my consultant hat. Much of my work in this area focuses on what games should do during their opening hours. Is the game easy to pick up and understand? Does the player know what he is doing, where he is going and how to get there and do it? If not, how could these things be improved? Before I even arrive, chances are a developer has done a few rounds of user testing, seeing how players react to cues a game gives them and tweaking them accordingly. I doubt many developers on the planet would dare to drop a user test group into a huge and threatening world and trust them to figure it all out on their own. Maybe Itagaki, now I think about it.
The fact that FromSoft ignores the volumes of best practice advice the gaming industry has settled on doesn’t mean that Elden Ring isn’t worthy of its reception. It also doesn’t mean that this world’s Horizons are doing it badly, or that the developers are wrong to spend time on UX. There’s room for the two to co-exist, and frankly, I’m grateful that they both do. I found Gran Turismo 7 a wonderful palate cleanser while reviewing Elden Ring in part because of the clarity of its instructions: go here, do this thing, come back. I can enjoy a game with a perfectly smooth on-ramp, just as I can enjoy a game that models its early learning curve after a cliff. It’s all part of the game’s rich tapestry, isn’t it. If nothing else, I’m grateful that a new FromSoftware game has come out and we’re not all arguing over easy modes anymore. Progress!
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Article source https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2022-03-13-elden-ring-is-a-reminder-that-the-discourse-is-always-the-toughest-enemy-in-a-souls-game