I was going to make this a reply to Draevan13's blog post, "Why the Elder Scrolls ISN'T being dumbed down...much." Then I realized that, as always, it was far longer than I originally intended, and longer than his original post. So, I figured I'd just make my OWN blog and encourage discussion here, since it's only tangentially related to Draevan's post anyway. Also, I could write a damn BOOK and not feel guilty about polluting his comments.
(Btw if you haven't read it, you should. It's a very well-reasoned set of arguments about the simplifying and "casualizing" of the ES series, and is itself part of a longer set of intelligent dialogs about the subject. Without that, this post would not exist.)
Also, first blog! *blog dance*
This post concerns his claim that the removal of attributes in Skyrim is an egregious example of oversimplification in the game. I'm not so sure. If you want to know why, then, READ ON, True Believer!
Considering Draevan's claim, I tried to imagine the meeting where they decided to remove attributes.
Mr. A: "The previous TES games were just too hard for today's gamer. They sold OKAY, I guess, but not nearly as well as expected. We need to make the whole experience easier to breeze through for children with no ES experience. What was the most difficult thing in Oblivion?"
Ms. B: "The stat system was a mess."
Mr. A: "You're right. Obliterate it, start from scratch. The series is clearly failing and the only hope of success is a completely new untested system that scraps nearly every element of character-building from previous games."
This scenario seems unlikely to me. Who would go into game design thinking "make it easy," and conclude that they should completely eviscerate the stat system of the previous game and redesign almost from the ground up? Stats and attributes, after all, are not alien to even casual gamers. TONS of games use stats, even if they don't allow TES-levels of customization. I play Encore of the Night on my iPhone, the very definition of a "casual game," and even that has a customizable stat system that determines what spells you get and how you play. Or take Pokemon, generally a "kid's game," which players cracked years ago to figure out exactly who to fight and when in order to groom your Pokemons' stats just the way you want them. WoW has stats. Dynasty Warriors has stats. These are not "hardcore" games. Games that don't have stats? Starcraft. Mass Effect. Chess. Each has a different design philosophy, each is designed around the player making active decisions, instead of behind-the-scenes numerical paperwork in preparation for playing.
I also have a 7-year-old nephew. I'm sure he's a "casual gamer" by most definitions, and he lacks much of the critical thinking skills and experience necessary to play many games (or at least to play them well). But he plays Minecraft, and he's constantly looking up builds to make lighthouses and switch-operated gates and other complex things, and experimenting with the game himself. The average stat system is just a bunch of numbers, and he can do numbers. All you need for Oblivion or Morrowind is some scratch paper and enough fingers and toes to count on, and precious, precious time. Removing the math-y parts of character customization would have no effect on his ability or desire to play the game. The new system isn't designed for him, since he's a child and would learn the system just like anyone else did when they first started with Morrowind or Arena. It's for me, the Oblivion fan who was just too battered and bruised by that game's awful awful leveling design, and who has seen 37 different RPG stat systems but never an epic RPG with skills and *no* attributes.
Point being, I don't think a reasonable game designer looking to broaden their market has much reason to automatically latch onto "no attributes" as the solution. I'd be interested to hear of a case where the simple removal of all the number-crunching in a game made it more successful; sports games with player stats, racing games with customizable parts, shooting games with 3 billion gun varieties, JRPGs with their cascade of numbers assaulting you at all times, these are all extremely popular genres with great appeal to casual and hardcore gamers alike, yet they all reek of MATH. To believe that Skyrim's designers scrapped their attribute system to make it easy enough to reach an audience they weren't reaching before, I would first have to see a precedent that those designers could have used to come to that conclusion.
So let's assume that the designers weren't headhunting specifically to make the game easier. What else could they have been doing? What I imagine them asking is, "what is the core philosophy of this game, and of the series? What do we want to accomplish? What will everything revolve around when we're done?" And the answer to that is something like "customization." Creating the character you want to create, to do what you want them to do.
Attributes, to some degree, do limit the way you play. You have your inherent skill with something (say one-handed swords), then it's filtered through another layer of statistics that determines how well you can *really* do with that skill.
Say I wanted to RP a one-handed fighter who is small and not very strong, but uses unparalleled finesse and a stiletto knife to make up for it by hitting just the right places. In Oblivion, a terrible STR would make me a sub-par fighter, and my AGI wouldn't do jack. In Skyrim, my one-handiness is only determined by one number, my raw skill with the weapon in question, regardless of how I choose to explain where that skill comes from.
It also bears noting that no martial art I know of (especially not the self-defense ones) teaches that "the key to victory is working out everyday and just crushing the other guy with the biggest, slowest blows you can muster." They all teach outsmarting and out-maneuvering the opponent. In fencing (which I studied, and was rubbish at, but that's neither here nor there), there are few moves requiring you to overpower and flatten your opponent. In the case of fencing, in fact, you'd break your weapon before your burliness helped you in any way. Swords are sharp and pointy. You don't need to bench press a bus to put them through someone. But a stat system that relies on Strength and ignores Agility forces me to dance around and kill with pinpricks, when I should be able to pinpoint-stab my enemy and take them down with as few hits as possible. I should NOT, as a consequence of being a great fencer, automatically be able to lug around 500 pounds of gear.
As another example, say my character is naturally a clutz with low Agility. However, she's spent years stealing to feed her family and hiding from the guards, so she only feels "at home" when she enters the shadows and becomes aware of every move she makes. So, only when hiding, she suddenly becomes silent and graceful. Or, say I want my character to be an ex-vampire or half-ghost or some crazy thing, and therefore sort of magically gifted with not being noticed, despite having never picked a lock or used a bow in his life. Oblivion would stunt my Sneaking aptitude because of my low AGI, regardless of any random backstory I made up or how much time I spent sneaking. In Skyrim, I can become a master Sneaker and hide in plain daylight regardless of how I build my character otherwise. Crouch-walking everywhere doesn't magically make me better at shoving pins in locks or shoving arrows in heads, nor does doing either of those things make me better at tip-toeing.
If I want to be a half-Fire-elemental outdoorsy barbarian trader, I can focus on Destruction (Fire-based perks only), Alchemy, Two-Handed, and Speech, and excel at all of them. In Oblivion, this would leave me with a horribly diluted set of attributes: Charisma, Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, and Willpower - in short, nearly everything - must all be high to accommodate this play style, even though I only want to focus on 4 skills.
Here's a different kind of situation. Say at level 55, I get munched and become a vampire, but decide to just RP it like THE EVIL IS TAKING OVEEERRRR-RRRRAGH. I decide to focus on Sneak and Illusion magic, leaving my old life behind and becoming a Lord of the Night, preying on the citizens of Whiterun while they sleep. In Oblivion, I could certainly grind my skills up, but if I'd been a sword-and-board paladin before, my stats would be in no way conducive to my new build, and I couldn't do anything to change them except get arrested 300 times and game the leveling system to milk out more stat points. In Skyrim, it's just a matter of abandoning my old abilities and grinding the new trees. Granted, I may not have the perks left to really master the new skills, but if I chose to save some (I've personally had at least 7 perks in the bank since lvl 20 just in case I want to change my direction), or can scrounge together the 5 points to raise the lowest perk and ignore the fancy trappings above that, I can change my character focus. This leads to character development, and RP possibilities (and RP, I think, is decidedly NOT casual). Most games have character *progression*, where you gradually get better and better at your specific role, but almost never character *development*, where you can essentially change majors and redefine who you are because of some event in the character's life. Usually this is due to an arbitrary level cap, a completely immersion-breaking ceiling that sets the character in stone and prevents them from ever learning a new thing for the rest of their life after a certain point. Skyrim has (or had) a cap, but is nowhere near as strict with it as other games are.
(Disclaimer: recent patches have done away with this philosophy for the most part, allowing you to rearrange your perks almost at will and to break the level cap and max everything. First, these don't affect your experience if you don't choose to use them. Second, maxing all perks and becoming perfect is what you could already do in previous games, except it now takes much, much longer to do because you have to grind skills to 100 many many times, meaning it is necessarily NOT casual. They also fixed the Oghma Infinium glitch to make sure this isn't easy.)
Having said all that...
I don't think Skyrim's system is perfect. I don't think stats are inherently bad. Part of the fun of DAO, for example, was experimenting with different stat and skill setups in different playthroughs, making, for example, a Dex-heavy Rogue "tank," a high-Dex low-HP SnS warrior tank with good DPS, a Str-based Arcane Warrior Mage, and so on.
However, I think there's also a tradeoff for this. Imagine you're living in Skyrim. You just beat back a pack of wolves. You have a nasty bite in your leg, and it looks infected with Bonepox or some other filthy disease. You realize that you might do better in fights if you were better at dodging. In a burst if willpower, you ignore the workout your muscles should have gotten and focus your energies on your knees, making them more flexible. Your Agility has increased by +4! Your Strength remains unchanged, and will stay that way regardless of the miles you run and the mountains you climb and the trolls you conk out with the pommel of your sword, until you decide that you should be stronger.
What on earth is that? How does the traditional level-up process make *any* intuitive sense? Skyrim's system is a response to this. It is meant to be the answer to the problem, "how do we make the player's experience more natural and immersive?" Other elements of the game point to this design philosophy as well, such as the minimalist HUD that disappears when it's not in use, the door-less cave entrances, usable cooking pots, ability to physically examine items in your inventory, no restriction on which hand you hold stuff with, etc. This angle of the game isn't as complete as it could be (cooking doesn't actually do anything, examining items is a gimmick reserved for a small number of specific objects, left-handed power attacks are limited), but this was evidently their intention, at the very least. The point I'm trying to prove is a narrow one.
I think if you look at Skyrim as a finished product, you can work backwards and reasonably conclude that Bethesda is trying to simplify their series. However, I think if you take the opposite stance - start at the design table and assume that they were simply trying to correct the flaws of previous games and make the best one they could - then it's possible to follow their thought process and reasonably arrive at Skyrim. That doesn't mean they succeeded on all fronts. For example, the journal is so sparse, I often forget what a certain quest is about if I leave it alone for too long, and I just follow the marker like a sheep and do what the game tells me to; I find most quests and dungeons in Skyrim painfully straightforward and impossible to fail except by ignoring them; almost all dialog consists of "Tell Me" buttons or yes/no choices with almost no meaningful characterization for the player.
I think an altered attribute system could have accomplished the same freedom, or similar, that the no-attribute system has (the rapier example above could be fixed with a redesign of weapons or damage mechanics to circumvent Str). However, I think Bethesda took a chance with a complete redesign of a legendary franchise in an effort to constantly improve it, even though they were guaranteed income and support if they changed nothing at all. The drastic change does, in a way, feel a little like throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what becomes Game of the Year (everywhere) (again), but I think it's unfair to assume that it's Bethesda's goal to slowly and deliberately stupidify their games in an effort to gain a bigger audience. Sure, they could have altered the attribute system instead of trying a completely new mechanic, but...why? The one they made accomplishes their design goals. Their intention was to move away from number-crunching, and make a game with a unified design philosophy of immersing the player in the world. They tried something different from what other games in the genre (including their own) have been doing. If they didn't do that, you'd end up with Dynasty Warriors, or Call of Duty, or Madden; popular game franchises that make tiny incremental changes, and eventually dry up and either lose support from anyone BUT their most dedicated fans, or become the archetypical butt of "mainstream'd!" jokes.
Sorry for the length. I'm still interested in hearing counterpoints to this argument, despite what may look like some kind of a magnum opus on the subject. I'm a lit major, I can't help it. (ｰ ｰ;)
Btw, in the examples above, I'm comparing to Oblivion for the most part. This is because it's the most similar thing to Skyrim that's around (DAO or FF7 would make no sense as points of comparison), and the game that a Skyrim attribute system would have been based on if it had existed.
Also, I'm assuming that the player plays Oblivion inefficiently, and chooses not to max every skill and attribute to make an objectively perfect character, because I assume Bethesda would have fixed this flaw in a Skyrim attribute system. I fail to see how a system that WILL give you a flawless character if used right has more depth or is more "hardcore," while a system that (until the Legendary patch) limits your growth and forces you to choose your strengths is more simple or "casual." Morrowind, similarly, had a glitch resulting from the spell-creation system that let you go beyond perfect into the realms of Godly. Admittedly, abusing a glitch is hardly a reflection on the quality of the leveling system, but gaming the mathematical formulas and rules that underlie the supposedly living breathing world is *exactly* what Bethesda meant to prevent by removing or changing them. (Disclaimer: I do not support the removal of spellcrafting from Skyrim)
Having played Oblivion for hundreds of hours, I know very well that its attribute system is neither deep nor difficult, it's just a chore to cultivate properly. I want to explore for hours and meet people and find treasure and change the world, I DON'T want to pause the game every few minutes to compute my level gains. Oblivion is even worse than this, though; either you roll the dice and level whenever you happen to level and risk "bad" levels or lost points due to the interaction between skills and stats and having to choose only a couple; you pay attention and level efficiently and end up with a perfect, boring character; or you intentionally sabotage your own leveling process to within an acceptable margin of inefficiency to get a character that actually has strengths and weaknesses. Compared to this complete cluster, Skyrim's system of letting you run free in the world and train what you want, then only spend as much time leveling up as it takes to agonize over which neat skill enhancements you want, is a godsend. This is probably exactly the issue Skyrim's designers were thinking of when drafting the new system (as a reaction to fan reactions to Oblivion, the immediate predecessor), which is why I have used it as a point of comparison to argue that it was NOT the goal of the designers to make the game dumber.