Writeups.org is mostly about comic books. But we gladly cover other materials – such as movies, TV series, animation, novels, wrestling, musicals, gamebooks… and video games.
There are unique complexities regarding the latter. We’re here to discuss them.
Quick word of warning
It’s an “under the hood” article, so it gets rather technical and involved. Light reading, it’s not, but if you want to read about arcane design decisions, the quantification of fiction or fixing system-warped narratives… and other abstruse bits… do go on.
RPGs with customisable characters
Much of our video game coverage is about CRPGs (Computer Role-Playing Games) and MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs). In these one creates their own character – or extensively customises them.
As a result there isn’t really a “default” character. Though sometimes you can find a reference to canon characteristics, hidden somewhere in design notes for the sequels.
Furthermore, in games with extensive customisation there is often little or no background for the character.
This creates a minor bind. The Player Character is the ideal window into the game setting, as they can breathe life into a setting overview. The usual writeups.org format is also based on profiles for persons. But in such games, no set Player Character exists.
The sample character approach
To address that, our usual approach is :
- Create our own Player Character using the game’s customization options (including mods).
- This character is the canon character for writeups.org purposes. For instance, when writing about Non-Player Characters and their relationship with the Player Character.
- This Player Character is fully fleshed out in terms of background and personality, though we signal what is original fiction (this specific character’s background) and what is in-game canon to prevent any confusion.
- This makes the article more engaging — including the parts where we discuss the setting.
- The exact quotes may be tweaked to reflect the style of this specific character, rather than be an exact transcript from the in-game lines.
- There might be some minor embellishments/customizations to reflect what this specific character would do or can do. But these will always be signalled as such, and do not significantly alter the game’s events.
So for instance if I want to write about the Everquest 1 MMORPG, I’ll pick my half-elf ranger, in order to provide 4 things :
- A primer about Everquest.
- An example of DCH game stats for an Everquest player character.
- Additional data about aspects of the setting that are particularly relevant to this specific character.
- The background and characterization for a character I made up, which I guess would be… fan non-fiction ? Something like that. It’s about a fan-made fictional character but covered using non-fiction writing, and used as a vehicle to convey information about a game and setting.
About “semi-defined” characters
In some games there is a canon character, but it is possible to customize them to a significant extent. The Mass Effect games will always feature Commander Shepard as the Player Character, but most player will customize Shepard who could thus be of any ethnicity, gender, origin, morality, skills set…
The original Fallout will always feature the Vault Dweller who leaves their Vault under set circumstances, but could be a man or a woman, could have any sort of background within the Vault, various skills and perks selection, etc.
For such “semi-defined” character, we provide a sample Player Character as above. But there is less need for original creation when fleshing the character out.
About “blank” characters
“Semi-defined” characters that the players are encouraged to customize are different from characters that were intentionally left blank. For instance in Half-Life one doesn’t customize Gordon Freeman. He is a set character with a set appearance, a set range of abilities, etc.
Yes, he never speaks and his background is minimalistic. But we *can* talk about Gordon Freeman without having to make anything up. It’s not a very deep character profile, but none of the difficulties about customizable or from-scratch characters exist.
Games without much narrative
Other games are 99% gameplay – for instance most brawling games, or tactical games à la XCOM. These are processed depending upon how much material is available, but generally the profiles are going to be mostly about game stats.
RPGs with branching or semi-branching plots
Many video games try to reinforce the illusion of choice in their storyline, such as :
- The so-called “open world” approach with a world full of stuff that can be explored at random.
- Morality-based systems (often with a “good” and an “evil” approach to situations).
- Relationship tracking systems (often a measure of how well different Non-Player Characters like the Player Characters based on the player’s decisions, changing their behaviour).
- Stories that genuinely branch between a few completely different endings based on plot decisions, success level, etc..
- Minor consequences systems, where a final montage reveals what happens once the story is over based on the player’s decisions (for instance a village may have been saved and prosper, or may have been left to be razed).
Thus, different playthroughs of the same game could lead to different stories, perhaps radically so. Especially for, say, prominent Non-Player Characters who may live or die depending upon player decisions.
In this case, we simply decide that a given playthrough is going to be the canon one for writeups.org purposes. All writeups.org profiles for this game are going to refer to this series of events as being the story, though what happens in your playthroughs of the same game may be quite different.
How good should the playthrough be ?
Since we have to establish a given playthrough as being writeups.org canon, the question arises as to how good this playthrough should be. Two extremes :
- A “blind iron man” playthrough where no information is assumed to be known to the Player Character unless they have clearly learned of it, and where all randomness is final (no save-scumming ).
- A “100% accomplished” playthrough where all decisions and random events align perfectly, as if following a highly detailed guide and save-scumming.
The answer is, inevitably, “it depends”. For instance, many older games assume that save-scumming, experimentation and successive runs are an integral part of gameplay.
There are “sudden death” or crippling decisions. And non-trivial parts of the plot that would be unlikely to be discovered without external information (from hint books for older games, or the Internet for more recent games). So a “blind iron man” playthrough may more resemble a very drunk man chasing chickens rather than a dynamic tale.
Meanwhile, more modern games may have something closer to “no genuinely wrong option” design.
My *personal* approach in cranking out writeups.org’s canon playthroughs :
- Very little left unturned. These playthroughs will not usually pursue obscure, absolute completionist material but will get all the sidequests done.
- Very high percentage of success. Not usually a “perfect in every way” playthrough, but often whatever is the closest without being boring. The idea could be summed as “the game was played multiple times until the story that emerged is one that left me feeling highly successful”, though in practise I also use guides and wikis and the like so I don’t have to play it too many times. Because time constraints.
- High difficulty. I will set the game difficult at the highest level I can reasonably handle. This is an important consideration when it comes to stats, for instance to evaluate how tough the monsters are.
- Highly efficient choices. I’ll usually go for what is most efficient in terms of character build, weapons/spells/power selection, equipment procurement, quest rewards, etc.. In part because it’s my nature, in part because I’m playing at a high-difficulty-level-for-me, in part because a lot of people play that way and the writeup will thus reflect their experience, and in part because I lack time to bang my head on particularly difficult bits such as boss fights.
- Near-100% ethical. No evil characters, no evil choices, and when that’s a factor no evil party members (which certainly impacts the writeups available for companions, though Morrigan gets a pass). The playthrough will often be as benign, altruistic and ethical as could possibly be achieved in the game.
- Generally-agreed-upon-order. For games that are “open world” or generally allow to tackle the content in any order, I will prefer what seems to be the most common progression in order to reflect common experiences with the game. Which also means no beelining for key hidden resources and the like, except for corner cases where it makes good narrative sense.
- The Easter eggs, now-terribly-dated cultural references, nerdy allusions to very different stories, wink-wink nudge-nudge expies will be downplayed in most cases.
- Heavily modded when feasible. Early on I preferred a stock approach to reflect the experience that most people will have playing the game but aah, screw it. However, “mod” is defined here in a way very much akin to the STEP methodology . Meaning that it fits in neatly into the game, is entirely compatible with the lore, and generally represents an improvement of the game rather than any change to its nature. So bug fixes, higher-res textures, seamlessly integrated additional material, image quality improvements, restored content and dialogues, additional bits of verisimilitude, increased immersion, ultrawide screen hacks, fixes to bits that are widely considered to suck : yes. The other sorts of things that fills mod sites like a clogged college shower drain: no.
Techno-babble and other hypotheses
Video games are full of undefined things. Machines or magic that work a certain way that is not detailed in the gameplay. Decisions by Non-Player Characters that don’t make obvious sense but move the plot from point A to point B. Aspects of the setting that are just there and are never explained. Items and creatures that just magically appear to accomplish their gameplay function then disappear, etc.
This is sometimes called “video game logic”. That is, stuff that requires a very specific suspension of disbelief to maintain immersion. It usually is the result of limited time and budget to make a game. People who have played lots of video games may no longer quite notice these “just so” aspects, and consider that it’s just the way video game stories work.
However, our profiles are written with the creation of new stories in mind – primarily in a tabletop role-playing game environment. In this context, people need to understand what is going on, how stuff works, why various setting elements are this or that way… The gamemaster can’t just do jazz hands and go “there’s no explanation, this thing just happened in an abstract off-screen manner” (or as French role-players say, “TGCM”).
Making explanations up
Thus, our video game profiles will often include non-canon explanations marked as hypotheticals about how things work, why such and such decisions are taken, what actually happens in-universe when the game uses a highly abstract and game-ish representation, how things would look in-universe without the budgetary and time constraints that govern what the game actually renders, etc.
Again, this is to meet the requirements of tabletop role-players. These need a thorough understanding of what it would be like to actually exist in this fictional universe. And they have an unlimited SFX budget.
An example of this is the DooM weapons locker. There we do not stop at providing stats for the weapons that model the in-game action, but discuss how these weapons might work, how they might look like and what they might tell us about the setting.
Discussion of technical RPG aspects
Video games are a different kind of medium. Like tabletop RPGs, they rest on mathematical modelization. That is important when doing game stats.
Works using media such as comics, novels, movies, etc. all offer their own reality. But they do not codify it with numbers. Thus, we can approach these with our big tabletop RPG toolbox and weathered work coveralls, take them apart, see how they work and quantify that.
The way reality works in this story can be quantified without interference – assuming it’s sufficiently heavy on action (our tools aren’t meant for, say, comedy, drama or romance). Even when the story goes pretty far into codifying how its reality works (for instance the Mistborn magic) we’re still going to be the ones coming up with the numbers and probabilities.
Duelling toolboxes – the numbers
Video games, on the other hand :
- Are thoroughly quantified, since they run on computers. And the numbers are often readily visible for the players.
- Come with their own, highly studied gameplay that structures the whole experience in ways that do… not necessarily make sense from an outside perspective.
So we can’t quite work on the story with our analytical toolbox, because a video game is a story that is tightly wrapped within its own, different toolbox.
The numbers in themselves aren’t too high a hurdle. We know a fair bit about tabletop role-playing games, and a *lot* of the quantification in video games is derived from those. So reverse-engineering the numbers to see what they are aiming for, and compare that to the sort of numbers we use, is within our bailiwick.
Crunching numbers then leads to various judgement calls to express the game’s numbers as DC Heroes (and perhaps DC Adventures) numbers. Said judgement calls can then be explained clearly to readers.
It’s all a tractable problem. The only limitation is the amount of work we’re willing to put into it. And the reader’s tolerance for (appendixed) technical explanations that includes mumbo-jumbo such as “granularity scales” and “distribution curves”.
Duelling toolbox – the gameplay
Video games, for all their qualities, are still a narrow experience. The talk about “open worlds” and “emergent gameplay” is at this stage either a distant objective, or a way for marketing to drain otherwise cromulent words of their meaning so you’ll buy the damn product.
To enjoy a game, one first has to accept the logic of the gameplay, to immerse themselves in it. Without that it’s all but icons on a map, clicking on stuff to make the good numbers bigger and the bad numbers smaller, and nonsensical objectives such as collecting 10 rat ears from rodents that have, at best, one of those.
Once the player has made the decision to immerse themselves, the game instead becomes a story (well, an experiential story). But it’s still a very stylized story. The player knows why these things matter to them and why they are driven to complete objectives, but the *actions* carried in the game do not change.
The game is still a relatively simple, closed system that has its own logic and represents a narrow range of experiences. Hopefully they’ll be fun and engrossing experiences, but everything has to be programmed beforehand (and it’s all rather difficult and costly).
Thus, when approaching video game characters for writeups.org coverage we have to decide what to model. The simplified version of the question is, “do we model the gameplay, or the story underneath ?”.
The extreme version of the first approach is to use RPG mechanics to model exactly what’s on the screen. So for a brawling game designing ways to represent the combos, the various sorts of attacks, the life bar, the frames counts… so you can have brawl sequences that feel like playing the game.
That’s pretty much developing a whole tabletop RPG. And the question arises whether it’d be simpler to play the brawl sequences out using the video game rather than imperfectly emulate it in a tabletop RPG.
The extreme version of the second approach is “the video game is but a narrow and oversimplified window into the game world – I’ll read the novelization instead and use that as the master source”. But of course the gameplay is a critical part of a video game (unless the game is a visual novel), and completely ignoring it is bad.
You can see a version of this in our Street Fighter profiles. The original take (Sean’s) was about emulating certain aspect of SF gameplay in DCH, and the second take (Tom’s) was more about the essence of the characters across multiple games while still trying to work in SF gameplay.
There could be a third take that is based on Street Fighter comic books and cinematics instead, unconcerned with game mechanisms.
The gameplay itself can make things harder for us. For instance :
- Skinner box gameplay, based on a steady stream of small rewards, as in many Diablo-like games and MMORPGs. There is no story there – just incentives.
- Gameplay dominance over the story. The game has refined its gameplay loops to a keen edge (well, hopefully) and the storytelling can only occupy the interstices betwixt these loops. This often implies painful contortions. There’s a story but it’s often mangled and clearly Not Important™, leaving the more narrative-oriented players wonder why they should care.
- Gameplay drifting away from the story. Or a less marked variation – the gameplay started as something meant to fit the story, but as the gameplay designers iterated to make it work as best as they could it drifted away. This often means that the cinematic sequences/cutscenes/novelization/etc. depict an universe that works differently than the final gameplay.
- Stapled-on formulaic gameplay. The game includes gameplay elements that have little to do with the story and setting, but are known quantities that worked in previous major video games (such as character levels, crafting, unlocks or action bars). They thus limit the expense, design time and risk of failure that would come from inventing brand new mechanics matching the story.
Such elements are going to push the needle toward “model the story” rather than “model the gameplay”.
Secret judgement calls by besuited hard men in a smoke-filled dark room
The approach that has emerged about how to treat gameplay is, at this point :
- Start by shoving the gameplay aside
- This means that we start modelling the action and the game stats as if we were dealing with a particularly well-made and faithful novelization, comic book adaptation, movie adaptation, whatever – of the video game.
- After all, the goal of these game stats is to be used in a RPG. Which has more in common in narrative themes with a novel or movie than with a video game.
- Then we isolate aspects of the gameplay that we can faithfully bring back in. Often it’s little things such as Genre rules, the specific way some abilities and equipment work, abilities or hindrances widely shared among the setting to make the numbers look more like those of the video game, power level and Hero Points scale considerations, etc.
- Once these have been worked back into our game stats, we discuss in optional sections ways to emulate other aspects of the gameplay people might want to experiment with
- Aspects of the gameplay that are irretrievably contrived are ignored as they present little value to creating new stories in the setting.
For instance, our profiles for characters in Bioware Star Wars video games are going to reimagine the action as if the story had actually been a full-blown Star Wars movie rather than a game. Then we work back into that all workable aspects from these video games.
A concrete example would be that the lightsabre duels do not occur as they do in Star Wars: the Old Republic (where you need to hit named enemies about 50 times to kill them) but as they do in The Phantom Menace (where it’s all about parrying, speed and mobility).
Another example is a version of Fallout 3‘s Lone Wanderer. There is a disconnect between the gameplay and the story. Thus, the DCH writeup for our sample version of the Lone Wanderer handles that as superhuman powers tied to the game’s main quest (also incorporating die-and-retry gameplay).
MMORPG – the WoW factor
Traditional MMORPGs can be particularly abstract and stylized. Thus, they present challenges for writeups.org-style profiles. By “traditional” I mean MMORPGs in the vein of Everquest, though nowadays more people would think of this style of game as being based on World of Warcraft
A lot of the work to reframe MMORPG action into something less video-game-ish is similar from game to game. Since World of Warcraft is by far the most well-known, here are our considerations about it.
Our other MMORPG profiles can point toward this material, as the considerations are almost identical. For instance almost all that follows applies to our Star Wars: The Old Republic profiles.
Scaling in WoW
In WoW, minor wildlife (say, a single wolf) from a endgame zone could easily destroy all life in a low-level zone. The world simply cannot work that way. The low-level areas are often important to the world and the plot, and yet a single soldier from a high level zone could be sent in and take control of them within a few hours.
This makes it very difficult to assess what are the “actual” power levels at play in the setting. Well, barring a research initiative based entirely on non-game material about the settings, such as the novels. The faction leaders and their ilk seem to be low super-heroic, but the question remains – compared to what ?
Our game stats thus go for a mundane-to-cinematic power level with lead values for a veteran, talented adventurer being around 06 APs. The movers and shakers of the setting, such as Thrall or Sylvanas, can go higher to match their low-superheroic stature.
We pair that with a potentially high Hero Points total to explain why the high-level adventurers face such an immense list of challenges. The HPs allow for keeping the AP scale under control, so the big monsters and heroes remain vulnerable to war machines like ballistæ and cannons.
This is what is featured in multiple cut scenes, and is apparent in the numbers flying around during most missions where you drive a war machine. Level 80 Scourge zombies get blown up by low-tech tanks and mortars just as easily as Level 5 Scourge zombies do in early zones.
The choice of making the scale Hero Points-centric also matches the “chosen one” themes that are recurrent in WoW, where some people are just way more competent and heroic because the plot says so.
It is best coupled with a high genre — Action should work fine — so these HPs can have their full weight.
A rule of thumb might be to scale APs until level 20. Beginning adventurers would be slightly under the level of a generic shock soldier, but reach 05s and 06s in their key Attributes, Skills, Powers, etc. at level 20.
This tends to be the level where one leaves the starting zone. Since by this point cinematic combat power has been demonstrated and quests with heavy stakes (such as preventing the destruction of Darkshore at Malfurion Stormrage’s side) have been handled.
Subsequent progression for Player Characters is reflected by additional HPs – and Powers reflecting new capabilities gained while levelling.
In many ways, levels past 20-ish in World of Warcraft seem holographic. That is, it’s extra information used to create the illusion of an additional dimension, but this dimension doesn’t really exist outside of the onlookers’ minds.
Milieu scaling in WoW
Video games often present a world with a sped-up time scale (where an entire day from the point of view of the characters takes minutes or hours for the player), and with the uninteresting bits of geography abstracted out.
I’ve never been too sure of how WoW manages time, but it is a clear example of space compression. For instance there are large agricultural expanses around Stormwind City, but these are abstracted out since they’re not interesting.
Which in turn means, as some dialogue indicates, that going to Stormwind City to Goldshire isn’t a quick stroll down the road as experienced in-game, but a fair bit of commuting.
Likewise, Goldshire as seen in game is meant as the compressed, geisted version of a medieval burg with a population in the thousands. One assumes that inns actually have rooms to rent rather than being the pared-down common room we usually see in-game. Etc.
One result of the time and space compression is respawning. A large chunk of forest on a given branch of Teldrassil is controlled by harpies. But since what you see in the game is the model-like shrunk, sped-up version you get a few trees surrounded by harpies, who are going to respawn a short while after having been killed.
Likewise you’ll get impossible juxtapositions of biomes, where within a 30 or 40 metres you go from savannah to swamp.
This space compression affects DCH modelling, particularly when it comes to ranges and speeds. Perhaps less intuitively, it also affects the assumed level of stealth of characters.
Stealth and furtivity for all
The aggro range for most creatures are very low. You can be on grassy plain 15 metres away from a creature killing your kind on sight without it noticing your presence.
Of course, the space compression thing means that it’s not actually 15m away. And that the grassy plain may actually be more varied and complicated than the gisted version rendered in-game. Presumably there’s some kind of bush, knoll, ditch, etc. and/or it’s nighttime.
This is particularly noticeable during quests involving invading enemy perimeters. The Player Character can avoid most detection due to limited aggro ranges, and thus sneak into supposedly secure areas without much of a problem. If a guarded gate is wide enough, you might just stroll down its center and be too far from the guard on either side for them to see you !
What actually occurs in-universe is presumably closer to a special operation setup. The Player Character is stealthy, waits for the night to fall, has the gear and skills to silently climb walls, etc.. But this sort of thing is not normally part of the WoW gameplay and gets abstracted out. You just waltz into a smaller, very simplified version of the stronghold being invaded.
Since every Player Character does that, navigates heavily-patrolled areas without an alarm being raised, boards pirate boats without most people on the deck reacting, etc. giving everyone Thief (Stealth): 03 is a good general measure to represent the action as it would occur at a live, uncompressed spatial scale.
03 APs also leaves room for characters with actual in-game stealth skills, primarily rogues.
Acrobatics (Climbing): 03 may also be considered for everyone – but World of Warcraft has a lot of areas that are impassable due to walls or even just tall fences and steep slopes, so having that Skill be there for most Player Characters might look odd.
We don’t need another hero
Another area that’s big on video game logic is the importance of Player Characters to the WoW world.
The writing direction is… not as tight as the remarkable art direction. One minute you’re an epic hero celebrated by thousands for saving everyone, the next you’re a faceless peón hired by a cheap charlatan to shovel excrement. Yes, that happened to Herakles too, but the context was very different.
“Video game logic” strikes particularly hard on that one since WoW’s a MMO. There are thousands of player characters running around on any given World of Warcraft server. Each of those exists in a strange Schrödingerian state where they all accomplished the exact same solo heroic feats, and yet routinely if transiently band together.
In a given Horde pick-up group, it is entirely possible that all 5 persons were the operative hand-picked by Sylvanas Windrunner during the war against the Worgen in Silverpine.
Since I favour solo gameplay, I’ll opt for the take where the Player Character currently under the spotlight is a big-time hero in *their version of Azeroth*. Furthermore, the quests riddled with lowbrow humour and now-dated pop culture references didn’t quite take place that way.
This is the same sort of continuity management as employed by Marvel, where the general events did happen but not necessarily exactly as chronicled.
This is also coherent with the compression discussed above. The actual world of Azeroth is way bigger, more complex and more populated than what is rendered in a simplified and scaled-down manner in the video game so it remains playable.
Hero points scaling
With our choice to make the levelling mechanics largely translate as Hero Points, a rough formula between HPs and level becomes useful.
Possible rules of thumb, based on the notion that the Player Character is a big-time hero rather than one adventurer among thousands of equally skilled mercenaries, are :
- A level 1 character has 15-ish HPs.
- A character at the level cap has 100-ish HPs.
- The “boss level” characters such as Thrall might have up to 150, though 120 is more likely since they’re also likely to have higher APs than Player Characters. We also assume that the power they display as raid bosses is exaggerated for gameplay reasons.
As of this writing the level cap is 100, so a formula would be a straightforward (15+(lvl * 0.85)). Back in the days of Classic WoW it would have been (15+(lvl * 1.35))
Mounts in WoW are purely cosmetic manifestations of a movement speed buff (and, eventually, flight). They do not take part in combat, do not carry anything, do not have to be fed or groomed, conveniently vanish and reappear out of the blue, etc.
This seems true even for the NPCs’ mounts. There are some opponents who as a gimmick are composed of a fighting mount and the rider, but that’s it – at least when I was playing. For instance Alliance cavalry dismounts in a puff of magical smoke when wading into combat.
More tellingly, people riding animals who are well-established to be combat-capable do not field these in battle. For instance, when troops of Sentinels of the Night Elves are seen, their giant panthers are not among the ranks fighting along with their mistresses. At best there will be some mounted officers and messengers zooming around the battlefield but not taking an active part in the fighting.
Since this seems well-established, it is best to write up WoW mounts in DC Heroes just like one would approach a motorbike or a skycycle. Especially if the mount *is* a motorbike. :-)
With the scale constraints of MEGS, pretty much all WoW mounts will have Running and/or Flight at 04 or 05. However, it is advisable to rejigger the scale a bit, such as :
- Movement speed for most humanoids is capped at 03 even if they have a 4+ DEX (though they can Push it as if they had Running: 03, without having to buy Running: 03)
- Running: 04 is used for the 30 to 100% movement buffs such the shaman ghost wolf form or ground mounts. This is a reasonable speed for a horse, as discussed in our Animals File.
- Flight: 05 would fit the 280% and 310% flying steeds (using the riding skill obtainable at level 70+ as of this writing)
Though these used to be a feature of MMORPGs — a full-scale Everquest raid would be a 72-person affair — the number of participants steadily diminished since the mid-2000s.
Still, calculations about those could use the World at War DCH system to treat the entire raid as a military unit and compute its AV, OV, etc.