Robert Steinman
May Editorial: Number Crunching
Robert hates numbers! Find out why!
05.31.11 - 12:42 AM

The knight stands vigilant, the flicker of his torch sending shadows into a dancing fit on the wall. He knows he heard something, but he attempts to assure himself that it could have simply been a rat or a rush of air. His back stiffens as a figure rounds the corner. The shadowy outline appears human, save for the long arms dangling lifelessly at its sides. A foul stench fills the corridor as the beast's mouth opens, but no sound accompanies it. The knight unsheathes his sword as the figure shuffles towards him as if unaware of the blade. The knight takes two quick steps forward and arches the blade through the air to avoid striking the walls around him.


"You missed."

"What do you mean I missed?"

"I'm saying you missed."

"The thing was standing still and didn't put up any resistance. I had +15 to hit. The sucker was even flatfooted. How can you say I missed?"

"Sorry, Rob. That's just the way the numbers worked out."

These were the kinds of arguments that filled my Dungeons and Dragons games back in my early childhood. Everything seems to be in my favor, and yet things don't work out the way I planned. Numbers are a part of nearly all roleplaying experiences. They represent a character's abilities and dictate probabilities for things occurring in the world. But numbers are a fickle thing. What may seem certain one minute can suddenly turn completely different despite what the numbers tell you. In addition, they only make sense when compared to other numbers. How does one properly convey a sense of danger and peril with numbers? Moreover, how does one properly explain damage in real world terms? How does 2 HP of damage compare to 10?

My first game of Phantasy Star came long before my first D&D game. I found it bizarre that my character's damage and likelihood to hit were all represented by numbers. I never knew the fundamental similarities between pen and paper RPGs and those on consoles and computers. I remember thinking, "Wow, this is a lot like Phantasy Star," when I played my first game of D&D. To be fair, numbers are present in nearly every video game (and not just when it comes to the programming and code behind the scenes). Simon Belmont clearly has a health bar, and Dracula's minions each have a certain attack power that can damage Simon in a clearly visible and numerical quantity. A more present day example would be Kratos tearing through the armies of Zeus in the God of War series. Each of Kratos' attacks do a certain amount of damage, and the enemies all have a number representing how much punishment they can take before they fall. Even Mario's jump can be represented as a basic physics equation of initial velocity compared to total distance traveled. Mario can't make some jumps without assistance, creating a set of variables that contribute to his overall success. Numbers are everywhere in video games; that is inescapable.

The difference between these more action-oriented examples and those found in many RPGs is that Kratos doesn't have a chance to miss. Kratos' abilities in battle come directly from my abilities as a gamer. His movements and attacks on the battlefield come from my inputs on the controller. When I tell Edgar to attack an enemy in Final Fantasy VI, however, I don't have any other input than to tell him what to do. Edgar's attack rating, damage, and any other effects have already been determined before the battle even begins (though, in fairness, I can use buffs to better his abilities mid-battle). If Edgar misses, it's not really because of anything I did. The strategy and input from the player comes in the form of pre-battle planning and tactics. There's nothing inherently better or worse when it comes to the action-oriented argument vs. the standard RPG affair. It mostly shows the difference between two genres.

The best RPGs, in my opinion, give the player vital information in the form of numbers to better make decisions on the battlefield, in the command room, or in the brothel (looks like I've been playing far too much of The Witcher 2 lately). Final Fantasy Tactics tells you how much damage you are likely to do and the chances of actually hitting the enemy before you attack, giving the player a chance to strategize and figure out the best course of action. This is the kind of RPG gameplay that I adore. I can use the numbers and percentages to my advantage, which helps bring out my natural abilities as a gamer rather than a number cruncher. Character advancement and numerical representation of successful skill and ability use are wonderful illustrations of how numbers can be properly used to convey rather abstract concepts.

Even with this kind of system, however, a game can quickly turn the numbers around to frustrating effect. Simply put, the numbers need to make sense. I should never be put in a situation where I'm questioning the numbers or wondering how things are happening. The VATS system in Fallout 3 was designed to bring the RPG elements from the previous games into the more action-oriented and twitch-based setting. Percentages flash on the screen to give the likelihood to hit, but the game doesn't always follow through with these values. Missing four times when I have a 95% chance to hit is not only infuriating, but it's also statistically unlikely.

Suppose we have a 5% chance to miss. Firing four times, we have a chance of missing all four shots equal to:

0.05^(4) = 6.25 E -6

Needless to say, that's an exceptionally small number. And yet these odds can happen repeatedly in games like Diablo and the aforementioned Fallout 3. I feel like throwing something across the room when this happens, mostly because the numbers are not only screwing me, but it's clear that something else is going on behind the scenes. It implies that I'm either the unluckiest man to walk the earth, or that the numbers are not a fair representation of what is happening on screen. Worse yet, it immediately takes me out of the experience. I don't want to play a game anymore if this kind of thing happens time and time again. I want my gameplay experience to be based around skill and thought rather than numbers being calculated in the background that I have no control over.

All this is prelude to my biggest problem with numbers in video games, and that's artificial difficulty. There comes a point where the numbers and calculations behind the DM Screen completely overwhelm my abilities as a gamer. No matter what I do, there's no way I can overcome these types of obstacles. Two recent examples come to mind: the damage threshold system in Fallout New Vegas and the leveling structure in Borderlands.

Obsidian sought to bring back the popular gameplay systems from Black Isle's notoriously difficult Fallout franchise in New Vegas, and the key "addition" to New Vegas following Bethesda's Fallout 3 was the reintroduction of damage threshold. Armor absorbs damage up to a certain level. Any attack below this threshold registers as 1 HP of damage. This can lead to an awkward situation in which I simply cannot kill an enemy because my guns lack the "punch" necessary to do any significant damage. I understand the desire to make the game harder and reincorporate fan-favorite systems, but it ended up throwing all my skills as a gamer out the window. I might as well have been sitting there with a calculator and a piece of paper trying to figure out the best weapon combinations to produce results. There's something to be said for this kind of gameplay, and I know that some people relish these types of system. I avoid these types of games, however, because the disconnect between my own abilities and the results on the screen are too jarring to ignore.

I can forgive New Vegas because at least it forces me to run around and find new equipment necessary to put down the game's tougher enemies. Borderlands, on the other hand, is completely inexcusable in regards to how it treats numbers. Missions are assigned a difficulty level based on your level. Fair enough; I realize that certain missions may be outside my stats at a given point. But no, Borderlands makes these missions practically impossible because you can't do any real damage (or absorb damage, for that matter) from a target until you reach a certain character level. This means that no amount of FPS skill can get you through some areas until you go out and grind for experience. Despite trying to represent itself as an action RPG, Borderlands crunches numbers in the background to create artificial difficulty. Why do my bullets suddenly do more damage as soon as I collect an arbitrary number of experience points? Is the potency of the lead directly proportional to my level? The enemies don't get any smarter; they're simply more powerful in terms of stats behind the scenes. My ability to find cover and line up shots will never be able to get me through these types of situations. The numbers have erected a wall that I simply cannot pass through given my character's current state.

The worst part about the types of systems found in games such as these is that I don't have to use skill to get past these difficult sections. The game wants me to go and grind for experience, that way my stats are able to overcome the insurmountable odds in front of me. Granted, there is some level of skill in how long someone can grind in an RPG before falling asleep from pure boredom, but my skill doesn't have any effect on the proceedings. Action games force you to get better before you reach the eventual conclusion. Even Diablo, one of my favorite game series, is not immune to this problem. The "skills" I develop and cultivate as I near the Lord of Terror's Pandemonium Fortress are not my abilities as a gamer, but strictly numbers that have a certain effect on my enemies. My ability to "click" enemies to death hasn't really improved during the course of my adventure. The choices I make in combat help me to survive and thrive in the world, but no amount of planning or foresight can get me past Duriel when I'm finishing Act 2 as a barbarian. I'm either going to have to grind for experience and loot, or get lucky. What's the statistical likelihood of luck, I wonder.

I primarily play RPGs because I love to develop and plan out a character. There is something immensely satisfying about selecting abilities and strengthening stats to better suit my playstyle. These decisions are not only a representation of my character's own maturation as he/she sets out on a quest, but also my own personal development as a player. I learn to understand the game's rules, and with that comes an appreciation for the various variables attached to the battle system, NPC interactions, random encounters, etc. There's a reason that customization and skill development have found their way into other genres, and that's because people like to see advancement. We understand that leveling Geralt's sword techniques in The Witcher makes him stronger and more capable in combat. Seeing the numbers rise from 5% extra damage to 10% fills us with glee, and tells us that we are getting better. It is part of human nature to quantify and categorize advancement, and this is part of the reason why we all love to play RPGs. This is a proper use of numbers in video games, and makes sense in the aspect of individual development and advancement.

It makes sense that the poor farmer's son (from a destroyed village, of course) cannot kill the Golden Dragon of Babylon without proper advancement as an individual. He's going to have to go out into the world and learn how to kill some rats before he can take on a creature of that magnitude. But the farmer's son and I have something in common, and that's the fact that we're both starting from scratch. We will both get better as the adventure continues. I will learn to understand the gameplay mechanics, and he will grow stronger in terms of abilities and skills. But if I'm competent as a player (or better yet, this is my second playthrough), shouldn't I be able to traipse off into more dangerous territory and be given the opportunity to succeed? Sure, it should be difficult to achieve such goals, but the rewards will be that much better for the player and character. It would be very difficult to beat the last level of Super Mario Bros. without ever having played the game before. It would not be impossible, however. Why do numbers have to create an insurmountable obstacle? I've seen level one characters kill King Allant in Demon's Souls. I can survive playing Mass Effect 2 on hard. In both cases the numbers are heavily skewed against the player, but that player's skill determines the outcome of the fight. Leveling up isn't necessary in order to achieve victory, though the option is still there for those who enjoy that type of gameplay. Why can't we see more of that in the genre?

Of course I'm not calling for an end to numbers in RPGs. I love to see numbers go up and abilities develop as much as the next gamer. But numbers and statistics shouldn't be the main driving force in a video game. They should help to dictate proficiencies and probabilities, but not determine the outcome of a battle before it has even begun. I don't want to spend my days calculating for maximum efficiency. I want the numbers to give me a basic outline, but to still have the ability to use my personal skill to my advantage. The best RPGs reward players for their individual skill and ability to develop tactics based around the variables present in the game. I want developers to make sure that the numbers actually and fairly describe situations and possible outcomes. Don't make me bust out the math again to prove that what just happened was a statistical impossibility.