Friday, March 8, 2013

Game Ponderings: Demon's Souls and Hub and Spoke

Around when I realized I'd be hitting the venerable 800 posts, I've been thinking about what I've wanted to use this blog for. One of my conclusions is that I want to get more use out of it as a "work blog"--that is, as a place to think out loud about issues relating my studies. To that end, after the break, I've got a brief piece on Demon's Souls and the important of the hub and spoke in game design.

As I've said before, Demon's Souls' defining characteristic, the thing that I think it gets remembered for above all else is that it is a hard game. One simple way it reinforces this sense of difficulty is in the life/death system. This is a game where you die a lot, and there's only ever one checkpoint per level portion, and that's back at the very beginning of the portion.  More to the point, when you die, you come back as a spirit. You only get your fully human body back when you do something big, like use a special item or kill a boss.  Since you die a lot, you very rarely have access to your real body. The biggest consequence of this body death is that when you're a spirit, your maximum health is reduced to half its full value. Now, the game is designed to be perfectly playable and beatable at half your health. But it feels like a very harsh punishment, because you're always faced with the visual of your health bar being at half mast, so to speak. It could have easily just shown your current health, but because there's always that half missing, the game reinforces its main rhetoric; you look at that bar and go, "Man, this game is hard."

But while the game does what it can to appear very hard, it also mitigates that effect, so the player is never quite so frustrated that they quit. And one of the major sources of mitigation is the hub and spoke nature of the game. Once you get through the game's starting "tutorial" area, you reach an area called the Nexus. It's a home base, with a shop, item storage, a few random characters, and other folk that arrive as the game goes on--all pretty typical game design. In other words, it's the hub. Initially, there's only one place you can go from the Nexus: the Boletarian Palace. Once you manage to get through it and past its first boss (no mean feat) the other waystones become accessible, and you can choose to continue on in the Palace area, or start on any of four other areas. These five areas, together, make up the spokes.
The spokes, from the nexus, Starting at the very top left and moving clockwise, this shot shows the Tower of Latria, Shrine of Storms, and Valley of Defilement

So then: we've got the hub, which is the main base, and the spokes, which are the potential directions you can go in from the hub. Hub-and-spoke design is fairly popular in videogames. And it covers games of all types. Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, for example, uses a nested hub mixed linear system: you start at a main hub, where you can access each of the game's main worlds. Each world is its own hub, divided into five areas that you can do in any order. But it's still a very linear game, because you have to get past each of the five areas before you can go to the boss of that world, and you have to finish one world before going on to the next.
The hub for the first world in Crash 3: Warped.
The text-based 1980s Infocom game Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Heads Nor Tails of It has a hub available almost immediately after starting the game, where you can choose between any of the six main areas. Even Mario 64 can be considered in a hub and spoke sort of terms, with the main castle being the hub (albeit a fairly vast one), and each of the painting worlds being a spoke. In this case, it's another hub/linear hybrid, as many areas of the game aren't accessible until you have a certain number of stars collected or have defeated Bowser at one stage or another.

One of the painting/world entrances in Mario 64.  A painting is worth a thousand words.  Or about 5 stars, on average.

 Hubs can vary in terms of time and space--that is, when in the game you have access to the hub, and the sheer variety of things you can access from the hub. As far as time goes, Mario 64 starts you off in the main hub. Chrono Trigger, by contrast, has a hub that you reach fairly early--just after recruiting Robo--but the full extent of the spokes doesn't become apparent until you get the Epoch, a time machine and sort of mobile hub, from where you can access more or less any of the time periods or places in the game. In terms of space, the mobile hub is a common feature of Japanese RPGs in general, in fact, and is often some sort of airship, as in Final Fantasy 6. From the airship, you can change party members, recharge your health and magic for free, and travel to any location in the game that strikes your fancy. The spoke potential from here is huge: there's the main locations that you can enter, but technically, any walkable point on the main map can be considered a spoke--although this may be where the hub and spoke model breaks and just becomes an open world.  On the far end of this scale are games like Dragon's Age, where the hub is the option to camp while on the world map, and you get a chance to stock up on items, talk to your companions, and rearrange your party before going to a specific location.
Dragon Age's hub. It always seemed weird to me that your fellow party members just sort of stood there until you deigned to pay attention to them. Although it is a nice touch that Morrigan stands far apart from the rest of them, reflecting her somewhat combative nature.

As my remark about open worlds earlier suggests, I see the hub and spoke model as lying on a sort of continuum between totally linear games and open world games. There's an entire spectrum of spoke and hubs: on one end, you have games like the early Mega Man games, where you have a choice of what stage to select, but the bosses are designed so that you select in a particular order (and finding that order is both a source of frustration and an inflation of the game's length). On the other end, you have the Dragon Age model, where the hub is always with you as a sort of resting place, a place to catch your breath.  The advantage of the former is that you have a clear sense of where to go; the advantage of the latter is the sense that you have a wide variety of options available. In fact, I think that was one of the problems with Final Fantasy X, back in the day; you had a hub that unlocked eventually, in the form of the traditional airship. But instead of flying manually from place to place, you just had a menu of places to go, and even when walking, each area was connected to the next in a pretty linear manner. In other words, the game had traded its open world hub and spokes for a more linear one, and fans didn't like the subsequent narrowing.
This is from Final Fantasy X-2. It did a variation of FFX's hub and spokes, in that you almost immediately had access to all areas, providing a lot of options. The downside is that this limited another advantage of the open world-type hub and spoke, discovering new areas and exploring.

The hub and spoke model is a compromise between linearity and open world. It offers the player a sense of choice, and it offers the designer a modicum of control, in terms of when the player can access what.

To get back to Demon's Souls, the hub and spoke not only guides character progress, but also makes the game seem more fair. Unlike the sequel, (or so I'm told) Demon's Souls' individual worlds are fairly linear--there's a lot of sub-branches and different paths, but in the end, it's about funneling you to the next boss. And in the early portions of the game, there's a definite further funneling, in that some of the worlds are immediately easier than the others to tackle.  And there's also a bit of limiting in terms of the upgrading system--you need to have certain materials and a certain level of souls to improve a weapon, and you don't have access to the best weapons early in the game. So the game does place various limits on what you can do and when, and there's definitely some designer-based control in getting the player to do certain parts in certain order. In a game that seems designed to kill you repeatedly, total linearity is dangerous--if the player gets too stuck in one area, they'll get frustrated and quit. But if they have a variety of areas to choose from, they don't quit the game, they just quit the world, and try somewhere else for a while.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on Demon's Souls, there was a point in the game where I was feeling really frustrated. I'd finished the first area of the Boletarian Palace, but the second part was kicking my butt in a regular manner. I had this mental block up that if I couldn't handle the second part of the first world, then the other worlds were far and beyond my grasp.  But eventually, I realized that I could, in fact, beat the skeleton robot creatures (The wiki calls them silver skeletons, but they will always be skeleton robot creatures to me.), or rather, that they were close enough to the starting point that I could kill one, die, retrieve the souls I'd collected, and do that a few times over. And that gave me enough souls to do a few upgrades, which in turn opened up other paths. Once I realized the game was less linear and more hub and spoke, my options became more interesting.

Hub and spoke: all the options of the open world, but with the clarity of knowing where to go next. The only real substitute is a quest log, but that's a subject for a different post.

Later Days.

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