Should We Know Our Own Strength — Or Any Rating — In Video Games?

Should We Know Our Own Strength — Or Any Rating — In Video Games?

On Friday,Madden NFL 13 revealed the ratings for every quarterback in the league, inviting the usual pointless discussion about who should be ranked ahead of whom and why.

It’s easy to laugh at meathead sports fans who take a great interest in Jay Cutler’s virtual throwing power compared to, say, Eli Manning’s virtual deep ball accuracy, as if these really do involve strategic choices. (They don’t. People play as their favourite teams except in multiplayer, where everyone’s the Patriots.) But sports video games are no more rating-obsessed than any other video game genre, role-playing games especially.

Think about it for a second. I don’t know what my armour class is in real life, other than probably 9 at the moment. Putting on a kevlar vest wouldn’t infuse me with some specific knowledge of its protection, except I had a reasonable expectation it’d stop a slug from, say, a .38 at medium range, whatever that distance is. The Louisville Slugger in my closet isn’t stamped with a figure noting its critical hit damage should I manage to sneak up on a robber in the basement.

Those kinds of things are fully knowable in most video games, however. Acquire loot in DC Universe Online and it’ll tell you precisely how much it’ll improve your might, your strength, and your damage while reducing your rate of attack and speed. It’s always struck me as a big third-wall breach in a game at least nominally predicated on acting out a role within an immersive world.

It’s peevish of me to suggest this, but if a role-playing game involves making decisions in character, one of the most common choices is made practically on auto-pilot thanks to knowing the ratings: does this thing cause or prevent more damage? Yes. Equip it. Never mind that I, or my character, would prefer to fight with a sword instead of a mace, or looks better in chain mail than plate. (This kind of meta-game choice isn’t completely unsupported. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim I have steadfastly refused to give my mage any armour, even though he’s fully entitled to wear it, and it hasn’t thrown my progression out of balance. In DCUO, I can lock my styles so I can get the benefit of an item while maintaining my character’s look.)

Knowing precise ratings can feel like a fourth-wall breach in games built on role-playing.

Still, should these ratings be exposed to us? What if we were aware of our characters’ abilities and equipment in a more generic way? Things like damage bars over enemies are fine; you have to have some sense of your foe’s health or reaction to your attack. Borderlands would divulge an enemy’s exact level (somewhat redundant, given a naming system that had clear ranks like “BadAss” and “BadMutha”) and pop a damage number up when shot him. But the game’s color-coding of items gave me a broad sense of their scarcity or quality that would often override a decision to equip a gun that maybe did incrementally more damage or had a faster rate of fire.

These sorts of clues could also be used to give you a sense of your own attributes. I don’t know how many hit points I have in real life, but I feel fully healthy right now. I’m not sure what my endurance is, but I can run a mile — slowly. Fallout‘s S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system is numbers-based, but the 1-to-10 nature of it gives you an idea of your qualities without exposing their effect on the dice roll too much.

Growing up, we had a hardass dungeon master who wouldn’t tell you anything. Many DMs our age would introduce NPCs like, “You meet Thag, a level 16 chaotic neutral barbarian who carries a club +2, +6 against undead.” Not this guy. In combat, he’d say stuff like, “You strike the bugbear. Doesn’t look like that hurt him much.” He’d make you spend turns counting treasure, too (which was really pointless, actually). If you wanted to know a magic weapon’s qualities, prepare to do research later on, or discover it through trial-and-error in combat.

We bitched about it, but looking back, it enriched the role-playing experience. My fighter used a short sword because I had come to trust its effectiveness in combat (under this DM anyway), not because I knew it caused d8+3 in damage or whatever. But in an ambush, when things really got desperate, I whipped out a hand axe that I had been told gave off a faint green glow. Turned out it was a vorpal weapon. I think the DM may have goosed the roll just to reveal that, at that time, but it was a thrilling end to something that would have been a lot more strategic and rote if we knew everything.

There is a ratings-based game, recently released, that conceals players’ attributes. NCAA Football 13, in its Heisman Challenge, doesn’t itemize your player’s abilities. I don’t know what Jim Plunkett’s throw power is, I don’t know what Herschel Walker’s speed or “trucking” is. I just know that, reputationally anyway, those guys were known for those qualities. I don’t try to bull over a defender with Barry Sanders, not because I know he’s poorly rated for that, but because I know Barry Sanders was at his best when he was eluding tacklers, not breaking tackles. In the end, I’ve learned something about my player, or “character”,” in a more meaningful way than reading his ratings and comparing them to someone else’s.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with knowing the precise numbers assigned to your character’s qualities. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing your own strength, either. Discovering it can be just as rewarding as finding a huge chest of loot. So long as I don’t have to spend turns counting it.


  • Our DM is pretty much the same (minus the loot counting) and I’ve evolved from a powergamer (min-maxing everything) to a character roleplayer under his guidance. Must say I’m having a lot more fun when not so worried about the numbers. I’d rather think that my character fails because she’s having a bad day rather than because her dexterity wasn’t one point higher.

  • I really like the idea of hiding away a weapon’s specific attributes. I just started playing Skyrim at the weekend (yeah I know I’m slow, it was the Australia tax reduction + steam sale combo) and I think something like that could really work there. They do it for alchemy ingredients, right now I can eat an ingredient and identify one property that it has for potion making. Why could they not have extended such a system to items? Increase your smithing skill and you can see exactly how many damage points you do against different enemy types, increase enchanting skill to see what magic effects an item has. Is it too radical for those who are so used to picking up a Short Sword +2?

  • I had a huge, planned response to this, but as I put it to a close I realised the big reason we know these values right off the bat and deleted everything else I had written.
    Most games are for entertainment and aimed at a large demographic. In order to appeal to a wider audience, most developers want to make their game easily accessible, or at least without a barrier to entry. A game wouldn’t be as fun if the first thing you had to do, if you wanted to know how strong you are, was go over to a bunch of heavy things and try to pick them up. If that’s fun to you, it’s kind of fun to me, then I encourage you to play those types of games, those that don’t tell you your stats. However, in games, it is very difficult to put a standard towards “Yeah I can lift this bag, it’s pretty heavy, but I got it” it’s just not something that translates properly from person to person. There needs to be an understandable and easy standard, which is numbers. It’s important that these stats are known and this is one of the better ways of translating a character’s feeling to the player.
    For example, if I was really trying to lift a 100kg bag onto my back, yeah I could do it, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to stand straight (not trying to act tough, just using a generic example) and then if you asked, “How you holding up?” I might reply, yeah I got it, can’t really move that fast, but I got it. That doesn’t tell you more than I can’t move my normal speed. But by how much? 1/2 speed? reduction of 10 ft per round? It’s not clear and if the person I was talking to was trying to direct me, they wouldn’t have a clue at my capabilities, which is important when dealing with characters’ lives and deaths.
    The main point I’m getting to is that in games, we need a standard since we are NOT the character, as much as we’d like to be, they aren’t us. I can’t summon animals to my side in 6 seconds that obey my every command, I’d like to, but I can’t. There is also the fact that we don’t have their life experience. Using my current Druid as an example. He’s 27, level 8 Druid with 16 strength. He can carry around 76 pounds without an issue (light capacity). I have no idea what my strength value is in irl, but I know I could probably do about that without an issue. That’s fine, a measurable strength, but what about intelligence or wisdom? Currently he gets a +15 on Spot, including bonuses and intelligence, but how do you measure intelligence? How would a person whose irl intelligence would be 12 manage to translate a 19 in game form? It just isn’t feasible, the way around this? A numeric standard, but if you’re going to design an entire game with one standard for intelligence another for strength, another for constitution, it’s going to create a lot of issues and confusion and could make the game less enjoyable as a result. How to fix this? One standard for all.
    As for the items and should we know their stats, that’s a little different. For a non-magic weapon, our DM straight out tells us the stats after 24 hours of non-combat with the assumption that at some point, your character went to a tree and started whacking to find out the sharpness and the most effective way of fighting with the weapon. A magic item will get a use magic device and spellcraft check to find it’s properties, otherwise you’ll need to figure it out. I once spent in game weeks trying to figure out how a ring worked, turns out, point and say friend, the others didn’t like how I found that out. This is down to your DM and if you have suggestions for them, let them know and maybe they’ll implement them. We don’t know anything about our enemies until we kill them and have time to study them, much like real life. We are told “he’s looking a bit tired” or “he shrugged it off” to tell us an idea of where the AC is, but that’s it. It makes the game more immersive and let’s us use our knowledge of ourselves but nothing of the others.

    • and also “It’s always struck me as a big third-wall breach in a game at least nominally predicated on acting out a role within an immersive world.” I think you mean fourth wall there Owen

      • Third wall seems to be a valid alternative that’s been around for a few years at least (according to a quick interwebz scout) and depends on how the stage builders have numbered the sides of the set. Another explanation comes from the fact that visual media (such as comics and games) are 2 dimensional (a screen is still 2d) and the player/viewer peers in from the third dimension, or third wall.

  • I think this is a cool idea. What I really hate is with the majority of moral choice games that it tells you which option is evil and which is good, so you just choose what you want to be at the start and choose that. I want to make mistakes with character progression.

    When I play an RPG I just choose what sounds cool, who cares if it isn’t that effective. My friend just looks up the best stats online, then complains it is too easy. To me he has ruined the game for himself, effectively just using a cheat code.

  • I would be fine if they hide attributes… if they let us solve quests/do things in different manners. I remember the only quest I couldn’t complete in my playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas was one where I needed an explosives skill above x to do something (disarm bombs…?). Because I found this quest near the end of the game, I’d already hit max level, so I couldn’t level up that skill and complete the quest.

    • Oh are you talking about the bomb on the monorail at Camp McCarren? There are definitely solutions that don’t involve explosives skill.

      Plus of course failure is a valid option. Some interesting things happen when things don’t go to plan. I did an interesting playthrough where I never reloaded the game unless I had actually died. Failed some missions, but that’s part of role playing.

  • I guess the problem with games is you need some way to tell you things that cannot be conveyed the same way they are irl, like weight.
    I can pick up a sword (for example) and immediately say “this one is heavier than that one” or compare two items of protective clothing and be able to tell which one is better (thickness/type of material, build quality ect).
    But in games that information needs to be shown in some way, thus numbers.

    Maybe what could happen for some games is change how much and what kind of stats are told to something more realistic than arbitrary damage or armour stats.

    For the sword example just show it’s physical properties such as weight, length, material and type. Then have that determine how it will function.
    So if you have a light, straight short-sword you know it will swing fast, good for a thrust attack but have a short reach and hit with little force. A heavy long axe will swing slow but hit hard and have great reach.
    Material could determine how likely it is to blunt/break and weight.

    With armour have weight, thickness, type, material.
    So a thick steel plate would be heavy and slow your movement, be great against swing attack but have gaps that are vulnerable to thrusts. Maybe Elven plate is lighter. Chain is not as thick (less armour) but lighter and has better thrust protection.

    This way it is not just X says item A is better than B but has several factors to consider and you have to think.

    • I like the idea behind this type of system, but that doesn’t really help people who aren’t adventurers, which is part of the reason it is just numbers. I am a computer guy, I know processor speeds and the way RAM interacts with other parts of the system, put the specs in front of me and I’ll be able to tell you the better one. Put two swords in front of me with varying sharpness and weights, I’d just laugh and pick the one on the right since I’m right handed. Games take into account suspension of disbelief and assume your character has SOME experience as a person in their world and a want for adventure. I think this is the reason we are told a number and not the specs of the weapon, it makes it fairer and allows you to make an assessment based on the experience of your character and not just your own experience.

      • True but I figure that’s where tutorials and the like come in.
        Keeping with the medieval adventure game theme; at the start you could have an arms trainer who teaches you stuff like that, maybe he also gives you a Manual Of Arms full of info you can refer to.
        It would make it much more complicated and not as easy to just pick up and play but sometimes that would be nice.

        • That would be pretty cool, it would be interesting to see a game where you start, have nothing and actually have to learn how the world works. I would imagine though that it would be a huge barrier for casual gamers, not always a bad thing, and would be a rather difficult thing to get off the ground. If you know any like that, please feel free to let us all know!

    • Maybe some day what you’re talking about could be conveyed without stats. Maybe graphical fidelity will get to the point where you can see the differences in armour thickness, and physics models will show you the inertia and cutting power of differently weighted but similar looking weapons.

  • You know, I tried to measure my Charisma on a Vit-o-Matic Vigor Tester once. The machine burst into flames!

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