Jul 062010

In my review panning Alpha Protocol, one of the many issues I singled out for complaint was the disconnect between the reticule and the actual position hit by my bullets. I’ve received a few comments through various channels that reflect a belief that I simply didn’t understand how an RPG works. I think it’s pretty obvious that I do; most of these comments display a fundamental misunderstanding of my complaint. The point here is not that when my character shoots there is a complicated set of calculations that decides whether or not I actually hit where I was aiming. Rather, my complaints about this are complaints about the interface, because the meaningless reticule adds a needless layer of opacity to the RPG system.

Several games in the past few years have fused the role-playing game with various kinds of shooters. The 3PS/RPG hybrids Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol got numerous complaints about this disconnect between reticule and hit. Complaints about Fallout 3‘s V.A.T.S. system were significantly fewer, even though there is little philosophical difference between the systems. In both cases, firing your gun, or even throwing a grenade, is no guarantee you will hit, even if you’ve “aimed” properly. What differs about these systems is their transparency. V.A.T.S. keeps the player constantly informed of the probability that he will hit his target. The unskilled character is therefore aware how unlikely his targeted shot actually is. Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol, by contrast, hide this information. By long experience, players are accustomed to the idea that the on-screen reticule in a game really represents the place the bullets are going to go. Because of this, the reticule amounts to a kind of designer-enforced Dunning-Kruger effect, where the player perceives the character as highly competent despite his total lack of skill.

Of course, Fallout 3 also addresses this problem by consistently eschewing the reticule. Playing the game as an FPS is possible, but not recommended due to the enormous strategic and offensive benefits of using V.A.T.S. This represents one route to take for a shooter-RPG of any stripe: let the player select the target and the role-playing system dictate the outcome. However, the goal of these hybrid games is to fuse the visceral immediacy of the shooter with the more cerebral structure and character development of a role-playing game. The turn-based aspects of Fallout 3 had a tendency to act as a way of relieving tension. When a super mutant burst out of a nearby room, you could always enter V.A.T.S. and take a minute to think about it. Requiring the player to use the reticule, by contrast, would preserve the desired sense of immediacy.

So, what approaches would allow us to keep the reticule while transparently communicating the character’s ineptitude? One obvious response is to take accuracy out of the role-playing system entirely. The player could be given complete control over the aim, while the skill tree would instead affect aspects like recoil control, firing speed, or the quality and sensitivity of an auto-lock. The skill trees would therefore be supplementary to the player’s own skill at aiming. Going in the other direction, one could use waver to indicate the skill level. In Deus Ex, the crosshairs of the sniper rifle moved around like crazy at lower levels and became substantially steadier as the player developed this skill. This could be implemented for all guns in a shooter/RPG by centering the field of vision on an invisible point rather than the crosshairs. The reticule could then take a random walk around the center point, with the rate and radius of movement determined by the character’s level. One could put a measure of control back into the player’s hands by letting these parameters drop to a certain set level if the player holds his aim long enough.

Both of those answers preserve the conventional meaning of the reticule (i.e. “the bullets will go here”). One could, however, use the reticule itself to convey the systemic information. For instance, in the case of a bullseye reticule like the one used for pistols in Alpha Protocol, one could define the three zones of the reticule according to the probability of a bullet striking within them. So, the player would have a 33% chance of the bullet landing in the central zone, an additional 33% chance of hitting within the first ring, and a 100% chance of the bullet landing somewhere within the whole reticule space. As the player increased in skill, the scatter of the shots from the center of the reticule would decrease, leading to a change in the appearance of the reticule and making the system very easy to read.

The steady reticule that doesn’t really represent where the bullets are going to hit isn’t a very satisfying representation of the character’s lack of skill. Indeed, it isn’t a representation of this at all. This is a problem because the visual language of games, and specifically the visual language most frequently experienced by the audience these games are meant to attract, attaches a certain meaning to the reticule, which the probabilistic calculations of an RPG violate. That the calculations of an RPG are probabilistic, that the ability to hit where you mean to is somewhat out of the player’s hands, is not intrinsically a problem, and it’s certainly not something I object to. What I do object to is lousy interface design that intentionally hides critical information from the player. Resolving this disconnect (and others like it) will allow the action and RPG elements to coexist much more comfortably in these hybrid games.

  4 Responses to “The Dunning-Kruger reticule”

  1. The variable size reticule in several games serves this function pretty well for me.

    If you're running around like a maniac it's gigantic, but if you stand still and zoom for a minute it shrinks to a precise dot.

    Still, it's easier to represent this for ranged combat than melee…

  2. Whether I'm playing Fps or action RPG's like Mass Effect and Fallout the targeting reticule has always felt to me more of a statement of intent than anything else.
    Not as you suggest 'bullets will go here' but as 'I want bullets to go here'
    In some ways they are just doing their job too well. Real world human 'targeting' works the same way, you may intend a piece of paper to land in the trash when you throw it, but if you have low skill its just as likely to end up on the floor. Even if you know consciously that your aim isn't good and you are likely to miss, its mentally almost impossible to not try to 'aim'.

    But fundamentally you are right, it is frustrating, and it is poor design.
    A more detailed UI has its own problems however, the more overt it is the more obvious it becomes that you are playing a game, and that's not a outcome all designers may want.
    V.A.T.S worked well for me partly because it provided a fiction behind its conceit.

    I'm curious, just how many shots do you need to take down someone in Alpha Protocol?
    I think id be more inclined to forgive the system you describe if it took a more realistic approach and a single hit at least incapacitates a opponent than if they are typical RPG characters able to take a dozen rounds before flinching(whether that coke-head boss you mention is the exception rather than the rule).

    thanks for another interesting article

  3. Alpha Protocol has several bosses, including the cokehead, an older man, and a teenage girl, who can be shot in the face or (unshielded) head multiple times before they go down, after which they will engage you in a conversation, so "realism" isn't a particularly convincing justification for the opaque interface in that case. Ordinary mooks are also bullet-resistant, though a headshot will generally take them out (not always, though). Anyway, I don't feel like a data-rich reticule would be too obvious in a game where the conversation pauses so you can hit a button to choose your next line. Immersion isn't really one of Alpha Protocol's values, to the extent where I actually thought it might have been better with an unrealistic graphical motif (cel-shading, for instance).

    As for the meaning of the reticule, I would posit that FPSs or 3PSs where you have a guy dead center in the crosshairs and the first shot misses are very few and far between (with exceptions for games where sniping and rockets actually use a physics model). With recoil effects and such the subsequent shots might certainly go elsewhere, but for the first bullet the reticule is pretty absolute in any game I can recall. Anyway, regardless of what one consciously thinks later on while discussing visual semantics, in the moment the instinctive understanding of the reticule is as destination, not desire.

  4. I've never played Alpha Protocol–it looked promising, but after the bad reviews it got I don't have much interest–and the reticule in Mass Effect never really bothered me. In fact, I like the 'reticule bloom' the designers used–now employed in Halo: Reach.

    What bothered me about Mass Effect more was that some weapons (shotgun, sniper rifle) were basically useless compared to the AR even if leveled all the way up.

    By the way, my favorite reticule of all time has to be Battlefield: Bad Company 2. I love the way DICE determines accuracy by having the guns buck in your hands, and the little 'flares' that appear when you're dealing damage.

    *SHAMELESS PLUG* check out my column: http://www.examiner.com/x-56957-Milwaukee-Video-Game-Examiner

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