Creating Emergent Gameplay Through Choice in Character Skill Development

It is now incredibly common to imbue games of various genres with “Role-Playing Elements”. These elements are generally the addition of player choice in the development of a character’s abilities and skillset, yet lack aesthetic character customization. The RPG-FPS has emerged from this idea. Games like BioShock and Dishonored contain character upgrades that can be purchased throughout the game. These modern games are spiritual successors of 90’s RPG-FPSs such as System Shock, Thief, and Deus Ex. Yet the modern games seem to fail at something the older games did incredibly well: make player choice matter.

The System Shock 2 ExperienceSS2.jpg

System Shock 2 presents the player with a variety of different skill paths to follow. Small guns, big guns, hacking, melee, cybernetics, psionics, all are options you can go down from the start of the game. You might be thinking that BioShock is similar. You get a variety of Plasmids and other enhancements. You spend your hard earned Adam to upgrade them. In BioShock, however, what you choose to upgrade has hardly any impact on how you play the game. Upgrading Electrobolt vs. Incinerate will hardly change anything. You still use both in whatever conditions they require, one just becomes slightly more effective at killing enemies. In System Shock 2, your skills drastically change what you can do.

Walking down a corridor, low on ammo, a closed door stands before me. I’m good at shooting, I can use heavy weaponry, but I can’t hack open doors. If I could hack, I could open the door and continue to the next area. Now I must find the key. Enemies guard it, I could sneak past them, but I’m not too good at sneaking. With low ammo, every shot needs to count. The game has become very tense, my survival and progress depend entirely on a limited supply of ammo. Perhaps I’ll find more ammo, but perhaps instead I’ll find more enemies. If I was good at hacking that door would be open, but if I wasn’t good at shooting, I might never have reached that door in the first place.

System Shock 2 contains engaging situations created by the skills players choose and don’t choose. The way a player develops their character impacts how they must play the game. Many recent RPG-FPS hybrids simply don’t do this.

The Problem

The main issue I have with the modern RPGFPSs is that player choice have very little impact on actual gameplay. Their skill systems are full of engaging, fun to use abilities, but your choice causes very little change in gameplay. No matter what upgrades you choose in BioShock, the gameplay is fairly static throughout. Certain encounters or puzzles may become easier, but the way a player progresses through them is still the same.

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4 thoughts on “Creating Emergent Gameplay Through Choice in Character Skill Development

  1. I would phrase your core insight here as: when given a choice of playstyle, modern rpg-fps hybrids do not accommodate meaningful choices in gameplay. Choice of playstyle should cause the player to perceive a level entirely differently from their friend who chose to play differently. This is a complex time issue in game development, and I agree it has some lack luster solutions in modern games. In Skyrim, for example (which would lean more on the rpg side) if you fully level your Conjuration skill, you gain access to the Atronach Forge and a few new quests and characters related to the new area. However, a player who has played through most of the game as a warrior with no magic skill still can access this area if they grind that skill. The player can be everything. Choosing has no meaning if the other option isn’t closed. You may want to check out this GDC talk about creating meaningful choice in ludonarratives from Failbetter Games, which talks about how they navigate this issue in a game about choice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FfITxaXeqM

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  2. It seems like a lot of what you’re getting at here is this idea of players’ choices not just giving them access to a certain branch of story or character progression, but also losing access to other branches simultaneously. I tend to agree with you that a lot of modern RPGs struggle with this concept of disallowing players from exploring certain areas of systems or the story; some of this might have to do with design philosophy, some might have to do with increased development time. A side-story arc with unique characters and locations made in 2017 certain takes more time, money, and effort to create than does one made in 2000, if only just because of tech evolution. It’s a shame, really, but it’s hard to blame the designers; if you spent two years of your life on some system or levels or characters, you’d certainly want players to see it.

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  3. I agree with much of this article, and the disappointment that comes from a lack of meaningful upgrade choice. However, your blog post also brings up an interesting challenge: optimizing character builds. Your example set in System Shock 2, for instance, presented a scenario that rewarded specialized builds. It is easier to visualize scenarios that cater to specific specialty characters, but how does one account for a player character that has tried to branch out? While I agree that watered-down, meaningless skill choices are detrimental to an experience, one must also account for sub-par character builds or the kind that the devs never intended. Creating enough different paths to cater to as many skill builds as possible can also be tough.

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  4. You’re spot on about bioshock, certainly. I think that it’s rare to find games where your choices in upgrades actually effect your playstyle. I remember when I first played Bioshock Infinite, I was constantly wondering why enemies dropped guns. What is the purpose, given the fact that a player can upgrade one gun to its highest stats, and just play the rest of the game with it? I think one game that does it surprisingly well is Skyrim. Depending on which skills you upgrade, the way you play the game will drastically change. I know that I have trouble playing skyrim when I try to level a skill that I’m not used to; I have to learn a whole new style of play. I definitely think that kind of experience is superior to the pointlessness of different skills in Bioshock, and is on way that designers can better consider the effects of their designs.

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