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The RPG Files: Bioware, Accessible Doesn’t Have to Mean Easy

By Christopher Coke on August 14, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Bioware, Accessible Doesn’t Have to Mean Easy

Accessibility: It seems to be the mantra for AAA RPGs these days. By itself, there’s no problem, being accessible is something all games should strive for so more players can enjoy them. The problem is, developers too often think more accessibility should mean less difficulty. Looking through my library of games, one studio stood out more than any other: Bioware. I ask you, outside of DLC, when was the last time a Bioware game challenged you?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Dragon Age: Inquisition lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending so much time playing The Witcher 3, or maybe it’s that the latest expansion, The Descent, just came out, but my mind keeps on wandering back to Thedas. I never finished Inquisition and there is still lots more for me to see. I’m know there’s many hours of gameplay left, but what I’m really drawn to is the story and playing through the conversations with my friends and enemies. Actually playing through those adventures and battles come second in my mind, which is a bit disturbing when you think about it.

Inquisition stands out in my mind for many good reasons, but one of the biggest is that the whole idea of “strategic combat” is really a bill of goods. Yes, there are situations where you must be strategic, but they are the rarity. For the vast majority of fights, you don’t need to do much more than hold auto-attack and let things take care of themselves. When you switch characters, it’s because it’s fun to play more than one class. Indeed, you can give yourself an advantage and set up some cool scenarios, but it’s not because you really need to. It’s easy to roll your way through, save the occasional big fight keeping you on your toes.

The exceptions most often come in the form of paid DLC, like Jaws of Hakkon. Usually the numbers get a bump: more enemies, more health, a handful of new abilities. Still, DLC isn’t a part of the main game everyone is expected to play and, frankly, doesn’t help the situation when the core games carry such a consistent theme.  

This has been a running theme with Bioware for half a decade. Looking back at Mass Effect 2, it was no different. Combat never presented much of a challenge outside of those sparse few boss fights. It was the same thing in Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3. Action seemed to exist purely to get your blood pumping, not to really challenge you to play well. Battles were the beats between beats, the action condiment on a story sandwich. In fairness, it worked out well for Bioware.

These games are major successes because they’re accessible to new players. They’re RPGs new players can come to and be drawn in by the story, gradually discovering mechanics as they go. That accessibility has allowed more people to experience these stories and then go online to rave about the choices they made. Battle sequences cause adrenaline to surge like a good, safe action movie, but they’re there to be experienced, not truly “overcome.” Beats between beats, the path to the next scene, the filler between Acts.

The thing is, it’s also a like catering to the least common denominator. There is an Easy difficulty setting, after all, so on Normal is it too much to ask that when a developer promises combat that makes you think, it actually does? What Bioware games have missed for years is what accessibility actually is: an easy introduction.

Accessible doesn’t just mean easy. It means easy to learn, hard to master. It means, “here, welcome in the door, now turn your brain on.” Once players are in, the game build up and ask more of the player as they go. It should expect players to learn and get smarter in meaningful ways that cannot be ignored to “see the story” (at least on normal difficulty). To Bioware’s credit, their games do build, to a limited extent, but they always seem to stop short of pushing players out of their comfort zone. You can do an incredible amount with your fortress but very little makes a difference.

The thing is, as a teacher, I have to be thinking about these same exact challenges. We call it the Zone of Proximal Development. If I want a student to learn and grow, I need to give them a task just outside of their comfort zone so they have to reach for it and apply what they already know. That’s the “zone.” When they reach it, the task scales up.

I ask you, is Inquisition teaching you to play better or just play different? Accessibility has stalled Bioware’s games on a plateau of “good enough” gameplay for years and years. It’s about time they dug their well a little deeper and challenged us all to play smarter. Just ask World of Warcraft how avoiding that part works out.

At least on normal difficulty, because normal shouldn’t be the new easy.

Quick Hits

If you haven’t yet, picking up EA Access may be the cheapest way to play Dragon Age: Inquisition. The game just made the jump to the $4.99 a month service, so there’s no reason to hold back if you’ve been waiting on a deal. While you wait on the download, our own Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer had a chance to catch up with Bioware’s James Ohlen on storytelling. Check it out!

On August 26th, Larian Studios will be turning to Kickstarter to fund Divinity: Original Sin 2. We loved the original game for its rich story, tough challenge, and interactable environment. Larian says that the “elementary systems” were built with the first Original Sin, so they can start building the game immediately and trying out lots of new things. Give it you support!

Bethesda’s case against Oculus will be moving ahead to trial. In case you missed it, back in May 2014, Bethesda claimed that John Carmack (former Bethesda employee) took their intellectual property with him when he was hired there. Oculus and Facebook attempted to have the trial dismissed but were unable to do so. Neither company is commenting, but we will have more on this as the story develops.

Since we’re talking Bethesda, you’ll be happy to hear that Fallout 4 doesn’t end when you complete the main story. There’s no level cap, so you can keep playing and exploring even after the main thread is done.

Lastly, our loveable Irish friend, Jonathan “Ardua” Doyle had some hands-on time with Sword Coast Legends and loved what he played. Give his preview a read and let him know what you think!

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.