I've really wanted to play Mass Effect since it came out years ago and all my friends were ranting about it, but it wasn't until the other day that I was able to see it in action. It looked really fun, especially the battles and conversations, and the vast, complicated universe Bioware had created. I couldn't wait to jump in and discover all its secrets, explore the nuanced worlds, and experience the complicated story for myself.
Then my friend spoke to the shopkeeper, and the menu slog began.
You could customize the characters skills, his major statistics, his weapon, his weapon's special properties, his weapon's ammo, his armor, his clothing, his everything. My friend told me that it seems confusing to everyone at first, but eventually you get the hang of it and that's when the real fun of the game starts. But I knew from the instant he started scrolling through those numbers that I would never be able to play Mass Effect.
It's not that I don't like the RPG genre, I love it to death. For a long time they were my bread and butter, I harped upon them endlessly, until the day I was forced to face the horrible and brutal truth: I really suck at role playing games. I just don't have the attention span for them, and it's getting worse every game.
All that customization is really supposed to give you more precise control over the characters in the game, like driving a manual car makes it feel like you are an extension of the engine itself, and the protagonist is a blank slate to project your own personality and gameplay style onto. But really, how do such insignificant details do anything to improve the immersive experience? When there are so many numbers they start to lose their meaning, and besides alienating new players, they're completely useless and artificial as a gameplay element.
When I want to create a character, I'm not worrying about what color his eyes and hair is, the bone structure of his face, what his clothes and his weapons look or act like. I think about how he would react to certain situations, what his relationships would be to other characters, whether or not he'd be able to stand up in the face of peril and conflict. Those other details are nice as icing, and when you're watching your character run around the screen it's kind of neat to say "Hey, I chose that t-shirt!" but it's not very fulfilling.
As far as "customizing your gameplay experience," I have no idea how well the number jumble works in that respect, but I do know that there are much simpler ways to do it. In Zelda: OOT, my brother and I had the exact same statistics and items, yet the way we played was completely different. My brother would run head-on into battle and rely on his fairies and hearts to carry him through, while I would use every item at my disposal to stun the enemy before I would strike. These simple choices only took advantage of the natural elements already in place, and had nothing to do with the conscious decisions of stat allocation. In OOT, not only did these stylistic differences create a unique experience for both of us, but it also separated Link himself into two different heroes: the Link who is brash and courageous, and the Link who is slow and thoughtful. Even though we never got to see these personalities in action, they felt much more like extensions of ourselves than say, inFamous, in which you make conscious decisions to move your numerical "good bar" up and down.
And yet more games are moving in the direction of the algorithm orgy. Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness and Patapon, two incredibly promising games for the PSP, were both ridiculously bogged down with menus. Every single piece of equipment has a slightly different statistic, so when you buy a wristband you really have to make sure you're giving it to the right character! All this is frustrating enough when I'm playing it on a PC or Console RPG, but these are portable games! When I'm on the bus to school and I pull out my PSP, I want to be able to play it in short bursts, turn it on and turn it off quickly. But when so much thought has to go into what should be a simple experience, I quickly lost interest.
To be honest, sometimes I just want to play a game to have fun. I want to play an RPG for the story, and I want to kill things by pressing a button. Complex customization and algorithm memorizing may make a more entertaining game for some, but mostly I think it's missing the point of why we play games. When more thought has to go into how we want to play the game eventually than the actual process of playing the game and having fun, something has gone terribly wrong.