On the new Thief and inspired game development

Thief XP system

It has been reported that Eidos Montreal have decided to scrap the XP system they had in place for the new Thief game, due to “negative fan feedback”. Two questions immediately can be raised here:

  1. This late into the development cycle, they’re going to scrap something as elemental (you’d hope it to be) as an experience points based progression system?
  2. They’re letting their game design be influenced by fan pressure?

In this last generation of video games, we’ve been seeing XP systems creep into all kinds of games even if it really doesn’t add anything to the game, even muddying the core gameplay on many occasions. Companies thought that even if the game really doesn’t need it, adding unlockable skills to be purchased with XP would add “depth” to the game, or at least be perceived to be more involving. The problem is that in so many games, these skill unlocks are just window dressing and it wouldn’t be much different if the game would automatically give the player new abilities at predefined points. But no, with XP the player can be fooled to believe they’ve actually earned something, and actively unlocking the next skill in line is more satisfying. It’s directly tied to the illusion of progress when grinding towards the next level. We’re so conditioned to feel better making progress that the thought of non-linear, unpredictable rate of progress is discomforting to us. When we play a game where we constantly are reminded that we are indeed making progress on the level ladder, we feel reassured. A consistently filling bar gives us motivation to keep investing time with the promise of another juicy level-up awaiting like a carrot on a stick.

It’s sad because when a game depends on such a system for player motivation, there’s something inherently wrong with the game itself. I feel it is being dishonest with itself, and to the player. There’s something to be said for games with a more pure and minimal approach. Games like Commandos or yes, the original Thief. Thief was originally conceived to be a first person sword-fighting game set in a dark medieval setting. When the developers had to tune down their scope, they found out that their engine lent itself to first person stealth gameplay much better. At the time, the idea of hiding and staying out of trouble was a novel concept, so they explored this new game space, genuinely aiming to innovate because they believed in their game concept. It is to Looking Glass’ credit that on their first attempt, they’d shipped a game that gets so much right. The first person game play with the right feel of leaning and movement speed, the genius use of audio, the immediately intriguing setting and much more. In other words Looking Glass were working from a place of genuine inspiration.

Compare this to the coming Thief game. Of course, actual judgment cannot be made until we’ve actually played it, be the signs are not encouraging. Eidos Montreal are in a much different place. They’re not looking like they’re truly inspired. They look like they’re just trying to make a Thief game as well as they can, accessible for what they think their target demographic wants. The fans don’t want an XP system for fears of it being merely tacked on? Then we must scrap it, they say. What if the XP system was actually really well done and would enrich the gameplay, rather than muddy the focus of it? If that was the case, then Eidos Montreal don’t have confidence in their own vision. What is more likely though, is that the XP system was indeed a much more secondary affair. That they would have then tried to float that boat in the first place is even more concerning. Which ever case it may actually be, it reeks of a cowardly mindset.

Don’t get me wrong. I like that another Thief game is coming out. I enjoy revisiting an older game like a Thief or a Deus Ex with a fresh coat of paint. The premise is inherently enticing. It’s Thief, you know? Sneak around in cool medieval castles and grab loot, use arrows and the black jack to creatively work your way and think on your feet. I’m not one to call for the industry to let old games stay history. But it inherently cannot be the same with this risk aversion, not at all, even though it promises to be.

But this modern AAA approach to game development rubs me the wrong way, and it isn’t in the spirit of the games they’re trying to revive. I’d rather see a developer try their hand on a radically new, but intriguing approach to first person stealth gameplay and possibly fail, than one that is too scared of their own target fanbase and market pressure. But that’s too much to ask these days.


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