Me to my brother: “hey, there’s another game beside Bloodborne that got 93 on metacritic.”
His answer: “Pillars of Eternity? Who cares. That game is born old.”
People on the internet: “I really hope this sells a lot and publishers take notice of this and see the very presence of a large audience that doesn’t want/need focus tested, dumbed down games.”
And me? Pillars of Eternity is an example of modern design that dumbs down the games we loved.
I was reading how Pillars of Eternity revolutionizes RPG rules:
Since I’m dealing with similar design issues let’s be polemic. The specific argument here is character creation. They try to fix the problem where you can potentially create a character that sucks. They say it’s bad.
Spoony summarizes well why it’s not, watch from minute 19:35 to 24:30, where he actually talks about point allocation, “you are a bunch of pussies and coddled babies”, “THEY THINK THEY ARE BEING RETRO”:
Of course I thought about that, and of course it’s not a new problem, and classic RPGs all tackled it in some way. Most of the recent D&D versions give you a number of methods to create a character, and you can definitely see a general trend going from early RPGs to the late ones. In ancient times it was all about the dice. There are systems where you roll everything. You roll for your age, race, class, statistics, profession and so on. This means it’s all random and the “fun” is just to roleplay whatever comes up. Even if what comes up is a beggar covered in rags and without a leg.
In a actual RPG with people this might be a little easier, but it’s not very fun if you play a computer one with a set content that requires some minimal competence (in doing the tasks). And so you see the trend in modern games. You don’t roll anymore the dice, but you use a “point system”. Where you can purchase improvements, maybe with an adaptable system where higher values also cost more points.
Is there a good solution? Nope, that’s the point. There’s never one better solution. A point system has the negative consequence of making every character the same. If I make a warrior then I’ll put the points in similar things, if I make a wizard I’ll go for high Intelligence. Since the point system is more “balanced” the result is in characters that have very little diversity.
It’s the reason for my system I went for a classical solution. I want to see a system that offers a lot of variance, and that also means that it should cover all types, from those that are awful to the walking demi-gods. I like a system that is potentially open to everything, more than a “game” system where all characters are just “game classes”.
That’s a basic difference between an actual RPG system, that builds a world. And a game system, that builds a game.
Pillars of Eternity went for the game system. Instead of having statistics that define a character for what it is (personality, aspect, physical and mental qualities), they decided to only use statistics that are exclusively combat related, and class-generic (which is their idea of innovation).
Instead of Strength, they have “Might”. Which is no actual Strength, like what you can lift and carry. Nope, Might is just a damage bonus, and it applies to all possible damage. So you are a wizard, your magic dart will deal more damage if you have more Might. Or “Intelligence”, that increases your area of effect or duration. Even if you use some melee skill.
Guess what? None of this is new. Blizzard, who would sacrifice all RPG substance for game-y purposes, has removed the stats point allocation in Diablo 3. The moment you remove the idea of numbers that define your character, you have essentially a talent system. Or a modular system where instead of putting together incremental bonuses you instead assemble modules of “effects”. Which is usually better received by players since you juggle “fun” skills, instead of meaningless +0.1 increments (and this is the whole axis that divides Diablo 3 from, say Path of Exile).
That happened to World of Warcraft too. Out goes the talent system where you juggled a myriad of incremental effects, in goes the system where you juggle an handful of skills/modules. Streamlining ALWAYS DEMANDS MORE STREAMLINING.
Pillars of Eternity solution isn’t smart or even innovative. It’s an half-assed compromise who had the only purpose of doing what Blizzard did, but without giving the impression they went that way (and so pissing off those who expect an actual RPG). It’s THE MEDIOCRE MIDDLE-GROUND. Where you are too scared of going “all in”.
The fundamental difference between designing a consistent system that builds a world, so all scales, all characters, from the crappiest one to the god-like immortal status. To a system that builds a “game”. Where the system only knows and builds “balanced” tools. Where every character is merely a combat-oriented device, and the only definition it has, and the choice you have, is what kind of attacks you want to perform. That is no different than deciding what kind of weapon to use or power-up in God of War. The “character” is no more. Streamlining cuts the corners. To cut your cardboard character they give you scissors with a rounded point so you don’t cut yourself and make a “bad” one.
The problem is that Pillars of Eternity doesn’t know what it is. It is legitimate to go for the second style of system design, but once you go there you should know what you’re making. If you decide that statistics have to be always balanced and only applying to combat, then BETTER games have figured out that at that point it’s good to abandon +1 increments to make players juggle more hefty modules that are directly more interesting. A character is no more.
Pillars of Eternity offers what is essentially a spell-making tool. Take this damage component, add this area of effect. But since you don’t have control on the actual spell (beside picking a class), you end up with a system where those fixed choices are applied to ALL “spells”. And in the end it means this point allocation really creates no concrete difference. No actual impact. It doesn’t give you control or choice on something that is actually interesting, since it’s just +1 bonuses applied across the board, and since everyone has the same numbers because the system needs to be “balanced”.
So the conclusion is that Pillars of Eternity first emptied the classic statistics system. Then kept it there, as a relic of old times, modified in a way so that it becomes a modular system, but not completely. It’s a partial fix that doesn’t fix anything. That doesn’t innovate anything. Because it only comes out from a type of design triggered by an identity crisis: of being a computer game that also wants to be a classic RPG. If they think character customization needs to be tightly controlled to avoid “bad” characters then you should have the courage to hand out the character and removing the point allocation, since it concretely does nothing at all and is only kept there as an illusion of control, while thinking players are gullible enough to not see it through for what it is.
Game designers who want to make classic RPGs even if they don’t know what they are. And so make copies that are empty, soulless shells, that have nothing of what make the originals good.
A copy, of a copy, of a copy. With the original image progressively fading. There’s AD&D, then there’s Baldur’s Gate, and then there’s Pillars of Eternity, who thinks “knows” batter than AD&D and so goes to “improve” it. Poor fools. There’s no AD&D left there, only an empty shell that, for the kind of game they make, is only baggage.
If I say all this it is because elegant modern game design is frequently starting to take shape around “afterimages” (it’s happening for Dark Souls-likes too). Only the last stage is remembered, vaguely. The one before is forgotten. So is lost the origin of those mechanics and their purposes, their history. The fact is: without memory you can’t expect to fix or improve anything.
A classic, Pillars of Eternity, is not. Being a classic requires memory.