Skill Checks vs Minigames

I’ll tell you a little secret. I don’t particularly like mini games in my computer RPG’s. I actually don’t think they add anything to the game play. If I wanted to solve little puzzle games I would exit the game, fire up my browser and go to one of the many sites that aggregate flash games. I’m pretty sure I could find something more stimulating, engaging and fun on any of these sites than what passes as mini-games in most modern RPG’s these days. If I wanted to mush buttons in response to on-screen cues I would play Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Dance Dance Revolution or, I don’t know – Indigo Prophecy.

I’m not saying all mini games are bad. For example, I totally didn’t mind the Pazaak card game included in Knights of the Old Republic games. I consider it an exception to the rule, mainly due to the fact it was optional. You actually never had to play it in order to advance the plot. The game designers did not shove it down your throat forcing you to master it. If you were not into it (like me) you were free to ignore all the Pazaak dens and politely refuse all offers to play a game from NPC’s.

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Not only that – the game also had a nice collectible element to it, which allowed you to build up your deck by finding or buying new cards. It added a new layer to an already excellent role playing game. Personally, I was more interested in the unfolding story to waste my time playing it, but I enjoyed the fact that it was there.

I remember that Final Fantasy VIII (the only FF title that I played btw) had a very similar collectible card game going on, and I totally didn’t mind it either. I have nothing against optional mini games that you don’t actually have to play if you don’t want to.

On the other hand, I abhor mandatory mini games. Some RPG’s such attempt to use them in lieu of skill checks which I find silly. For example, Oblivion has the lock picking game you must play every fucking time you want to… Well, pick a lock.

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This is not really a puzzle game. It is more of a skill based, reflex building game. To open the lock, you need to push the tumblers up and lock them in place. You get visual and audible clues as to when you should lock a tumbler, and if you attempt to lock it at the wrong time, you will break your lock pick, and more tumblers you already cleared will fall down. You have to actually learn how do do it in real life by trial, error and lot’s of practice. Your character has a security attribute that can be used for lock picking but this game makes it irrelevant. Some people get so good at this mini game they can pick hard locks with level 1 characters:

Why does the game even have that security skill? In Morrowind (Oblivion’s predecessor) lock picking was based directly on your security skill. If your skill was low, you would only be able to open low level locks and you would fail a lot As your skill increased, you would get better and better. If you spent a lot of time and money training that skill you eventually became ultimate lock picker. For example, one of my characters was able to pick the lock on Vivec’s chamber in a single try.

This was great. I felt that there was a gradual progression there and my character became more powerful over time. In Oblivion you don’t get that feeling. When you first start playing the game, you suck at it you waste most of your lock picks. Eventually you get a hang of it, and you can usually open even the hardest locks with a single lockpick. Oblivion ties lock picking to player skill rather to the character skill.

This brings up an interesting issue. What is more satisfying: mastering a difficult skill yourself, or watching your character master it and observing the results? A lot of people will probably pick the former, but I actually get more kick out of the latter. Why? I really suck at eye-hand coordination things. I find them silly, annoying and distracting. That’s why I usually pick RPG games over arcade button mashers, platformers and reflex based stuff.

I get a kick out of the story, the plot and interacting with the in-game world. I like to see the sights, talk to people, read the little bullshit books and immerse myself in the fluff. I like the combat aspect too, but games such as Oblivion give me so many choices when it comes to that. I can be a brutal warrior with a big War Hammer, a stealthy Rogue who will sneak attack people in the back, a ranger type guy shooting people full of arrows while running backwards, a mage pumping enemies full of fireballs or a summoner guy having skeletons and daemons fighting for me. Besides, combat is largely based on the skills and equipment my character is proficient with.

That lock picking thing though? I don’t feel like learning it. Why do they make me actually train this pointless, absolutely irrelevant, useless skill? That’s not fun. That’s work! The only satisfaction I get from mastering the lock-picking game is the fact that I can finally move on and enjoy other parts of Oblivion without agonizing over wasting the precious, hard to get lock-picks.

Fortunately, Bethesda figured out that there are people like me out there, and created the Auto Attempt button which will try to pick the lock based on your security skill. The only problem with it is that it wastes a lot of lockpicks. And I mean, a lot. More than I would waste doing it the normal way. So you either suffer through the minigame and learn it, or you walk around perpetually broke because you are spending 200-300 gold for lockpicks every few hours.

To make matters worse, the persuasion mini game in Oblivion has no auto attempt button:

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Granted, this one is somewhat easier to master, but it doesn’t change the fact that I would just prefer to push a button and see if my character was able to rise the disposition of the NPC based on a speachcraft skill check. Again, I get very little sense of accomplishment from beating that little game. What’s worse, the game robs me out of feeling like I’m playing a really smooth talking character because the speachcraft skill is virtually useless.

For me, RPG games should stay RPG games. Designers should resist the urge to replace traditional skill checks with mini games. Lockpicking should be a skill check. Persuasion should be a skill check. Repair and modification of items should be a skill check. Any form of hacking or computer security operation should be a skill check. If you are a game designer, and you think you could add some flavor to your product by replacing an in game skill check by forcing the player to play some reflex/memorization based puzzle you should stop what your doing right now. You are doing it wrong!

Take that idea for a really awesome hacking/lockpicking game and make something like Pazaak instead. An optional game that just adds flavor to the game world, and allows players who don’t particularly enjoy it to skip it altogether. At least that’s my take on it.

What do you think? Do you enjoy mini games that replace skill checks? Do you find Oblivion’s mini games appealing? Or do you find them annoying like me?

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8 Responses to Skill Checks vs Minigames

  1. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You know, in Oblivion, there’s some magical lockpick you can get that will automatically unlock these things, and you don’t have to do the minigame unlocking thing. You have to do some quests involving some statue or other…I can’t remember…it’s been a while.

    For the record, I HATED the lockpicking minigames. I read up, found the quest line, did it (only time I liked the “levelled mobs”), got the lockpick and never did that stupid minigame again.

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  2. Ben UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Lockpicking in CRPGs has been suffering for a _long_ time. I remember programming macros back in the late 1980s to automate dozens of lockpick attempts in the game Wasteland. Somewhere along the line, some programmer decided that it would be fun to have lockpicking as part of a CRPG, and it’s been in every game since. Is it _ever_ fun? Minigame or skill based or a combination (Fallout 3 has a minimum skill to attempt a lock, then a minigame), they are all boring by the end of the game. The slight challenge they present early on is just likely to highlight a poor save system. I say, drop lockpicking from the games altogether.

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  3. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Seems to be like these mini-games is to please the console crowd. A lot of console games that I played have some sort of mini-games, like button mashing, sequence matching, etc.

    I’m somewhat partial to these, because it is fun the first few times. And subsequently gets super boring after that. The only upside is that you can potentially break any lock and gain access to any loot. But the really very bad downside is it becomes an action game, not an RPG.

    I guess as long as games are made for consoles, they will have some sort of mini-game madness in it.

    By the way, you forgot to add the card game in M&M7. That was quite fun to play too. And best part is it’s non-essential to the plot.

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  4. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I hate the social mini-game in Oblivion more than the lockpicking one, to be honest. First because the lock picking one is only optional, and second because the social game is plain unrealistic. There is no way any thief in his sound mind would try to boast or threaten an Imperial guard, for instance. And also, as Luke explained, because the “psychology” of the NPC’s has actually no translation in their actual dialogs.

    This said, it is not true to say that the relevant skills are totally unnecessary with these mini-games. The skills change two things:
    * for the lock picking, they change the probability that a lockpick will break at the end of the mini-game (the actual opening of the lock).
    * for the social game, they change the position of the quadrants to make it easier to “win” the puzzle.

    So it’s not irrelevant to be good, it is just that you can still “be lucky” or “help your character skills with your own (player) skills”. Is it wrong? I don’t think so. I think it is poorly done and brought in Oblivion. But isn’t it what all games do for the combat part, for instance? And nobody is complaining about this.

    To conclude, I don’t think it is the principle which is wrong, just the way it is translated into game mechanics in Oblivion (or Thief or any other RPG). I would not like that all PC RPG would replace all my actions on screen by a “dice roll”. I can do table RPG if I want that (which I do twice a month…).

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  5. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    By the way, to get a simple magical “unlocking spell” for free, just join the mage guild in Borma. The first quest is about steeling a book and the NPC just gives the spell away. It will work only on easy locks, but that will save a lot of lockpicks.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Steve: Heh, funny thing is that I read about it just few days ago. Googling the Oblivion lockpicking stuff was like one of the first things I did when I realized that:

    a. I suck at the mini game
    b. Lock picks are actually scarce in this game
    c. At low levels it is actually hardly worth buying them

    There is a mission early in the Thieves guild that makes you break into one of the guard towers in the Imperial City. I was out of picks, so I hightailed to Burma, and bought like 20 of them from my fence for over 200 gold. Then I went back to the Imperial City and proceed to break every single one.

    Then I made another trip, bought some more lock picks and wasted them again. Finally, I just decided to save my game, and load it when I break too many and somehow managed to pass the mission. I got 50 gold for the mission, and maybe another 50 in stolen loot. Totally not worth it.

    Nowadays I’m a bit better at it, and when I’m running low and I’m on a quest and don’t feel like taking a detour I just use the console:

    player.addItem a 15

    This plops 15 picks in my inventory. I know it’s cheating, but that tower mission was such a buzz kill that I almost quit playing the game at that point. So I’d rather cheat a bit, and have fun than frustrate myself until I don’t feel like playing anymore. :)

    But yeah, once I get around to it I will definitely pick the skeleton key so that I no longer even have to bother with the console thing. :)

    @Ben: True, but Morrowind had lock picking as a skill check and it was perfectly fine. You would just walk up to the door, press a button and it would either open, or not. Lockpicks were also plentiful and very cheap to buy in that game. It was a better solution IMHO.

    @Mart: Very true. I think I mentioned it in the other post but Oblivion suffers from what I call an Xbox driven UI design. The inventory screen is atrocious!

    I couldn’t figure out why they split it into so many nested tabs, an shown so little on each of them. As if they wanted to maximize the number of mouse clicks to accomplish every task. But then I realized that the UI was designed with consoles in mind. That inventory screen was made to be navigated with a XBox controller where you would click left-right to switch tabs, and up-down to scroll within them. It was optimized for that. The side effect is that it sucks for mouse users.

    @Alphast: Actually, I believe that the Security and Speachcraft skills are even less relevant than you think.

    I think that the security skill limits how many tumblers fall down when you break a lock pick. And it depends on the named level (eg. Apprentice, Journeyman, Expert) rather than actual value. So if you are an expert at security you get the same chance to pick a lock as a novice – you just don’t get punished for failure.

    In the social game I believe Speachcraft governs how many “points” you gain or lose from each quadrant. So if you are an expert your successes are maximized, and your failures are minimized. And I think it is also a 4 step advancement ladder, rather than a gradual increase. Which means that two Journeyman’s will get the same bonuses even if they are like 15 points apart in terms of their skill level.

    Oh, and ironically the easy lock picks (with just 1 tumbler) are the only ones I never usually had problems opening. :)

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  8. Justen UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    FYI, the security skill actually does have an impact in the lockpicking minigame. The higher your skill, the more smooth and consistent the pins bounce. Once your skill is really high they’ll almost always bounce slow and at nearly the same speed every time. The perks keep pins locked in place when you break your pick as well. That said, I still don’t really like the minigame. I play it on thief characters, but everyone else I either do the quest for the magic pick or I train alteration and use the unlock spell. The speechcraft game was kind of counterintuitive – if I know a character doesn’t like admiration, why would I ever try to butter him up at all? After I got in the swing of it I didn’t even really pay attention to it; I played it more as a visual puzzle and eventually got so good at it I coudl wihp through it in a few seconds. Even better is just a charm 100 + fortify merchantile 100 3 second spell. Completely bypasses the entire speechcraft system.

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