Railroads – Hearts of Iron
Paradox games are notorious for two things: their complex gameplay and the laundry list of DLC you’re semi-obligated to keep up with. While some recent games by the Swedish studio have trended towards being more accessible, Hearts of Iron remains one of the most micro-management intensive strategy games I have ever willingly played.
You’re not just strategizing your way through World War 2; you are orchestrating the industry, supplies, and infrastructure that make World War 2 possible. You could lose the war in a month, simply because it turns out your guys don’t have enough guns or supplies can’t actually reach your frontline. You spend hours on all these chores just to make sure you can sustain a war, only to find out if you did it right when it’s probably too late to fix anything.
With each new layer of added complexity I found my enjoyment of the game waning. Until railroads were introduced and the camel’s back finally broke.
Where once you just had to make sure to build generic infrastructure to improve your logistics, now you must manually draw railroads all over your nation to connect supply points together. On top also still needing infrastructure for other purposes. This means having to manage even more construction, as well as diverting factories and research to build trains.
Absent in this mechanic is any quality that would be “fun”. It’s just busywork; a pointless complication of a mechanic that already existed, for no greater purpose than to make it less streamlined. I haven’t been able to get into Hearts of Iron 4 anymore since this change. It guts minor nations who don’t have the resources to stay on top of this mechanic, while for major powers it’s such a humongous task that I can’t motivate myself to even bother.
Era-based progression – Tropico
Of all the city-builders out there, the Tropico series has long been a favorite of mine. The island setting and unique politics were always very appealing, as was its open-ended nature. You could take your island in any direction you wanted and face interesting consequences for those choices.
Then came Tropico 5 and its new progression system. Rather than letting players advance through the game their way by deciding what improvements to prioritize, now you were beholden to a linear progression system. You start in the colonial era with a pitiful handful of buildings available, then work through the same tasks every time to advance to the cold war. On and on until the modern age, where all the options finally become available to you.
Having nothing to work with in the early-game is not exactly a great encouragement to keep playing. Especially for returning players, for whom many rounds of Tropico 5 and 6 will feel largely identical every single time.
Besides it not being fun to have so little to build, this linear storyline also limits other appeals of the game. The factions are greatly simplified, for example, on account of many of them not being present during all stages of the game. Other mechanics are pointlessly complicated, like how each era has its own version of the pirate cove that plays basically the same. It’s just padding to make the building list seem more impressive.
Weapon management – Dynasty Warriors
Dynasty Warriors is a series enjoyable for its cathartic simplicity. Storm unto the battlefield and wipe out entire armies with your ridiculous combo attacks. It’s so cool. However, the games have long attempted to make this a little more complex by gradually expanding on its RPG mechanics.
Slowly the games began to add extra layers to its weapon system. You could unlock higher-tier versions of your character’s weapon, then later on these could have varying stats and little traits to make them more unique. Eventually, this went way too far. By Dynasty Warriors 8, characters now had to juggle between different weapons to exploit weaknesses, tripling the time spent on managing your equipment.
Also annoying was the steady removal of unique weapons. Characters that had their own iconic weapon types for years would suddenly show up in later games with generic alternatives. Only for their original equipment to then later appear as DLC. Most curious…
Since these games are hardly the most innovative, I’ve long been tempted to just stick with the older games. The PS2 games in particular exist in a sweet spot where weapon management has depth without becoming too obtuse. Also, they won’t charge you extra just so your character can have their special weapon!
Quest markers – The Elder Scrolls
This is gonna make me sound so fucking old.
Hey you younglings, back in my day you had to use your brain to do quests in RPGs. You had to listen to the characters for instructions, investigate clues, figure things out. Not like today when you darn whippersnappers get everything pointed out to you. Mr. Big Boy adventurer can’t slay no goblins unless the fantasy GPS tells them exactly where to go.
Jokes aside, as a fan of Morrowind and Fallout it has been sad to see where Bethesda eventually led these franchises. Though, to be fair, quest markers have since become ubiquitous in gaming. RPGs just love to fill up your HUD with little icons, telling you exactly where to go for every step of your quest. Sometimes even in situations where this makes no sense, like when your character wouldn’t logically know where something is.
Following directions or figuring out where to go based on landmarks makes navigating a game’s world immersive. It invites you to pay attention to the world, to look around and get familiar with your environment. With quest markers, you’re instead incentivized to hyperfocus on one direction. Travel becomes a chore to space out content, rather than an intrinsically fun activity.
Why not turn it off then? When quest markers are the default, developers have no reason to design as if they aren’t there. Designing worlds that are navigable through entirely natural ways and writing quests to account for this is hard work. Especially when you consider that most players will just keep the quest markers on.
I get why they exist, but it has had a tremendous effect on my enjoyment of The Elder Scrolls and games like it. Morrowind is a game that I find endlessly replayable. Every time I fire it up, I discover something new. Parts of the world that I missed; characters and quests, or solutions that I hadn’t thought possible. Skyrim is a game that I played through only once, because I get bored 2 hours in anytime I try to replay it. I always find myself walking the same paths, finding the same content, or getting hopelessly lost if I try to go without that blasted GPS.
Stickers/Spirits – Smash Bros.
Hunting for trophies in Super Smash Bros. Melee was one of my teenage passions. I loved to collect all of them, read up on their lore, and admire these detailed, 3D statues. Then Brawl came out and introduced stickers. Which seemed, at the time, horribly redundant.
It’s another way to collect little bits of Nintendo history, but now as 2D images and without any attached lore. They seemed kind of lame and I wasn’t really into the whole idea of stapling them to my characters for minor stat boost. And a damn shame I wasn’t, because this would become the franchise’s newest fascination.
Come Smash Bros. Ultimate and trophies aren’t even a thing anymore. Instead you gotta collect hundreds of stickers. They’re called spirits now, but they’re still just mediocre 2D drawings. They all have stats and little effects on them that you pick and match. You can grind yourself silly to level them up, or fuse them together to create new ones. It’s a massive, MASSIVE time-sink, which is sometimes infinitely more beneficial to your chances of success than being actually skilled at the game.
The fun of Smash Bros. is that its such a casual, party-style approach to fighting games. It’s accessible and fun, but with sufficient depth to make competitive play thrilling. All this leveling and stat management; having to sort through hundreds of boring stickers every time you need something specific. It’s such a bother. I can’t accept that they threw out the awesome trophies for this.
Kart customization – Mario Kart
In much the same vein, I similarly dislike the notion of customizing karts in Mario Kart. While nowhere near as complex as the spirits of Smash Bros. Ultimate, there is a key difference here. You can ignore the spirits in a casual round of Smash Bros. whereas you always have to deal with the karts in Mario Kart.
Having to click together your vehicle is not complicated itself, but all the different stats are a hassle to sort through. It’s so difficult to keep perspective on how every part compares to every other one. No way to sort them in any way to find what you need either. Even if there was, that wouldn’t change how annoying it is to wait for people as they min-max their vehicle, or to have to explain to a casual player what all of it means. Why bring all this technical BS into a goofy racing game? Just let people play a vehicle they like without having to worry if it has the right balance of speed and acceleration, or if the weight isn’t too skewed.
Evilities – Disgaea
The Disgaea games are renowned for the absurd depth of their RPG mechanics. The insane level cap of 9999 and reincarnations alone are plenty crazy already, but numerous mechanics are added on top to add even more progression. While a lot of this is fun, it can be too much at times. Take, for example, Evilities.
Added in Disgaea 3, Evilities are perks that can be unlocked and equipped to your characters. That sounded promising at first and maybe it would have been if they put in the effort to make these creative. Instead, most evilities are just generic stat boosts. Sometimes so minor that you’re unlikely to actually notice much difference.
This would just be a boring mechanic if that was all, but these Evilities are also monstrously expensive. They cost a fortune in Mana to buy, which you also need to create characters, upgrade abilities, and use the Dark Assembly. And you probably want to get Evilities first, because many of them give you boosts that become more useful the sooner you get them. You have to postpone the actual fun just so you can grind to get these upgrades as early as possible.
Also, keep in mind that Evilities are not shared. You need to buy and manage them for each individual character, which quickly becomes a chore as your roster expands.
I remember hoping that Evilities would turn out to be a one-time gimmick. Yet, while much better mechanics got dropped after their debut game, Evilities continue to stick around in Disgaea to this very day.
Linear difficulty scaling – TimeSplitters
The first 2 TimeSplitters games experimented with making their campaign missions bigger based on the difficulty you set the game to. The first title took this a bit too literally by just extending its maze-like levels, but its sequel damn-near perfected this idea. The campaign of TimeSplitters 2 was simply brilliant; as it added objectives, areas, and story beats depending on the difficulty you set any mission to.
Then came Future Perfect, which just… didn’t. No more variations in the missions, no extra objectives or challenges. Difficulty now only served to determine how much damage enemies could take and dish out in return. It’s passable, but also a massive letdown. To see a game shed such an iconic mechanic, just to replace it with the same solution that every other game uses.
Certain autoresolve – Total War
I wrote an entire article about this already, so let’s keep it brief. Autoresolve is a useful mechanic that allows you to skip fights that are too insignificant to be worth playing. The trade-off is that you sacrifice a degree of certainty. An exchange with odds that get worse depending on how strong your opponent is.
This punishes players who auto-resolve battles that they probably should have been fighting instead. Or it did, until Creative Assembly decided to do away with any ambiguity. Now when you play Total War, the game tells you exactly what will happen when you auto-resolve. Whether you will win or lose, which units will die as a result, and how much damage the rest of your army will suffer. Nothing is left uncertain. As a result… I now barely play any battles at all.
Campaigns become boring. The convenience of not having to go through so much loading is addicting, but afterwards the victory feels so hollow. In showing you its cards, it also becomes apparent how lenient the autoresolve results are. Oftentimes I feel like I would have lost about as much or even worse were I to actually play the battle. So even those even matches that would’ve been exciting highlights of the campaign get regularly skipped over.
It’s a rare example of a game being too transparent. When the game spoils the outcome of any choice, there is no excitement to be had in making them. That’s not ideal for a strategy game.
Losing points – Fifa Street
Fifa Street was a cool spin-off for the Fifa series, in which rules were more of a suggestion. It was fun getting to freely tackle the opposing team and style on them with all kinds of tricks. However, you do need some rules for a game to stay sensible. You can only remove so much until the game becomes unstructured bullshit.
This is what happened in Fifa Street 2. The fundamentals of football are that points are rewarded when you score a goal and the team with the most points wins, right? Well how about the rival team can just remove your points. Once a team fills up the gamebreaker bar, they enter a mode where they become almost unstoppable. Goals are all but guaranteed to score and any successful trick performed will detract points from the other side. And since tricks are easy to pull off even outside of this mode, “gamebreaker” is an apt name indeed.
Mechanics that can upset the balance of a game can be novel, but this is too extreme. The game is barely about football anymore as the victor is usually decided by who did the most damage in gamebreaker mode. It’s not particularly fun to use this mechanic either, whereas it’s infuriating to have it be used against you. Stick to the original Fifa Street.
One thought on “10 Game Mechanics That Ruined Franchises For Me”
Really great list! Currently playing through Skyrim now for the first time (my first elder Scrolls game, too) and I remarked to my friend about how cluttered the hud became. It got so bad that I couldn’t even tell which direction I was facing!
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