Horror vs the In-Game Store

As good as it gets?

Problem: Balancing game difficulty across ten or twenty hours of play in a way that enables all types of gamers to enjoy your game is hard. Games that get too hard will be frustrating, but games that are too easy are boring. There’s a sweet spot between those two that makes a perfect game, but the trick is that the entire scale changes from player to player. If you’re a game designer, one of your primary challenges is to ensure that your players don’t get bored and don’t run into difficulty cliffs.

Solution: Let the player buy their way out of difficult situations. Rather than just relying on maximum gaming prowess, you can let the player who is bored or the player that isn’t quite good enough to side-step a particular challenge by putting in effort somewhere else. Very often in horror games lately, this system takes the form of an in-game store.

For example, consider Devil May Cry. That game very quickly sizes you up as a player; you’re either hardcore or casual, and by the end of the first chapter the game knows which and can taylor the rest of the experience accordingly. It does this by throwing a huge difficulty spike at you in the form of the very first boss. The path from start to that first boss, which is a sort of giant lava spider thing, is pretty smooth and easy; there’s only two different types of enemies to dispatch and Dante is such a badass that just about any player should be able to make it. The boss, however, is incredibly difficult for a first-time player. Everybody I know who played Devil May Cry had the experience of hitting a brick wall when they faced the first boss.

The genius of this system is that there are basically three ways to get passed the boss, and depending on which you choose the game can safely label you as hardcore or casual. The first way is just to be a badass player from the first level–this clearly marks you as hardcore. The second way is to enable the easy mode when prompted; after you beat the first couple of rooms the game lets you know that you can tone the difficulty down if you choose. Players who do this are not in it for the challenge (and aren’t putting their prides on the line), so it’s safe to assume that they want a more casual experience.

The third way is to power up Dante before facing the boss by beating an inordinate number of enemies. It’s this third method which is key to identifying the type of player who is in it for the challenge but isn’t necessarily interested in having to do every single challenge flawlessly. By killing enemies you can collect orbs, which you can use to purchase power-ups at an in-game store (you also have the chance to power-up Dante between levels). For the first boss, a particular powerup–“Air Raid”–is extremely handy. But to buy Air Raid you need to fight a lot more bad guys than you would normally face if just progressing through the game normally. A player that does this is intentionally grinding; he leaves rooms and then re-enters them so that the enemies will respawn and he can fight them again. This kind of player is also encouraged to graduate into the flawless hardcore player by rewarding him when he uses variety in his combo strings (which Devil May Cry links to “style points”). The happy-to-grind player is also hardcore; they don’t want any hand holding but are willing to work around a particularly hard section by putting in extra play in other sections. The game store is key to capturing this type of game.

This system actually works very well, which is why tons of games use it now. God of War, Ninja Gaiden and other brawlers have similar systems, but so does Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 5, and Dead Space. The implementation in each of these last three examples varies, but the intent is the same: to give players a way to explicitly control the difficulty of the game without making them feel like they are being given a handicap. It also gives these games a way to reward exploration.

The problem with the in-game store is that, when it comes to horror games, the game mechanic can come into conflict with the game narrative. Demons leaving glowing orbs in the world when they die is pretty easy to accept, but snakes dropping gold coins? Or hulking flesh monsters keeping valuable weapons schematics in their back pockets as they lumber around their derelict space craft? Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense.

In Resident Evil 4, the store is an actual in-game guy. Though campy, I think that this implementation is the best; it makes narrative sense that different store owners, despite all looking like clones of each other, might have different stock. In Resident Evil 5, the store guy has been dispensed with and now you can only make purchases and level up before entering a level. For no particular reason (well, actually, to prevent the player from powering up too quickly), certain upgrades for weapons are not immediately available. As a in-game guy, this might make sense; the clerk can just be out of stock. As a sterile UI screen, it makes a lot less sense. Dead Space’s implementation also bothers me. If we’re to believe that Isaac is this awesome engineer, shouldn’t he be able to like, I don’t know, hack the store software and get the items he needs rather than having to loot the corpses of fallen scissor hand monsters? Maybe that was too Bioshock.

Another issue with this kind of upgrade system is that it can’t be relied upon for normal game play. The game designer must assume that the player will not upgrade his weapons, or that he will upgrade them in an inefficient way. The goal is to provide a workaround for difficulty cliffs, not a new minmax problem. Games like Fatal Frame 2, the upgrade system was intended to reward players who are good at difficult “zero shots,” but the end boss was balanced such that players who didn’t upgrade their camera in the right way could get to the end of the game with a bunch of useless skills. To fix that problem they had to move the last save point far away from the end boss and put a bunch of easy enemies in between the two so that players could get some extra level-up points after they had saved their game. I complained about this at the time–it was a hack necessitated by the way that their upgrade system works and by the design of the end boss, and it made the end of the game very frustrating.

But the worst offender has to be the Resident Evil 5 money system. Other than the upgrade gating, there’s no problem with the actual implementation: pick up funds by killing enemies or by finding them hidden around, and use those to buy weapons and upgrades. The problem is that, in the context of the game, this turns Chris and Sheva into grave robbers. Never mind the ever-present colonialism overtones that have sparked debate in the past (which I still maintain are unintentional–the game strives to avoid this linkage, but it often fails)–it doesn’t feel good to go into the ancient ruins of a lost civilization and steal golden statuettes in order to buy bigger guns. I’m not just trying to be politically correct here: for the protagonists, who are ostensibly working for an African aid organization, this sort of behavior is in direct opposition to their character. In fact, the narrative and the believability of the game’s world and story are hurt by this system.

So I’m beginning to think that the in-game store system isn’t a very good fit for horror games. It works well in games like Devil May Cry, where there’s not much need to get the player to suspend their disbelief and keep it there. But in horror games, working the store into the narrative in a way that makes sense seems pretty tough. I’ve yet to see it work smoothly; Resident Evil 4 is probably the best example, and even then the system adds to the game’s overall ridiculousness. Usually these games take place in extreme situations, so it’s reasonable to expect the characters to act in extreme ways. When they instead steal lost relics out of burial grounds or take a break from rescuing the president’s daughter to shoot a diamond out a rock, we are reminded that this is a game system and encouraged to think of it only as a collection and minmax challenge.

7 thoughts on “Horror vs the In-Game Store

  1. Hi Chris,

    (first and foremost excuse me for my very long post!)

    first I would like to give you a high praise for your entire Survivalhorror quest site, you’ve done a great work and I, who studied Media studies, really found here something to think about. Plus I was looking forward to read your impressions about Resident Evil 5 for such a long time that I finally gave up, thinking that you did not take it for a survival horror anymore. Happy to see that it’s not the case 🙂
    So let’s get to the story:
    I really found your last post about in-game stores extremely interesting. I much enjoyed it in RE4, but I thought it was really stupid in RE5, since it’s not realistic at all as you said and it also cuts dramatically the story and gameplay without trying to put any dynamic in it as in RE4.
    Even worse is that this time I felt the whole thing was forced and each time it lets me feel like an idiot player who is pushed to go to the shop get some crap after every level, as if I was playing Super Mario or a simple minded 80’s game (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Mario and I do know there is no in-game shop in Mario;-) just the feeling about that. As I said, it freed the whole thing from dynamic, believability and story-compatibility, whereas in RE4 I (really!) did not even feel what the game designers wanted me to do, I just though “I have to buy that weapon or else I’m gonna die!!” And this is exactly how it should be.
    The other stupid thing about RE5’s in-game store is that often you get to buy too quickly the “next” weapon, so the bad thing about it is you don’t take each weapon you buy for its real worth and you even don’t take it seriously, probably thinking “ok, I’m gonna get myself a better shotgun soon anyway”. It’s not anymore that “wow! I’m feeling so great, I finally got that XZABC25 gun I really worked hard for this, I’m gonna enjoy it for at least a couple of hours”. And the absence of this makes me sad.

    Thid said, I still have one problem with your post, or rather one discussion matter:
    Your thought about grave-robbing (especially) in RE5 makes deeply sense, yet I still don’t see how it could work other than this way. We all know that in all adventure/RPG games (and Resident Evil and the in-game store definitely have something in common with adventure/RPG), our mission is to save an important person or a whole country/kingdom, and the game works the same way: it lets you collect money by killing enemies AND finding treasors in houses, castles, ruins you’re not welcomed to, thus those treasors are NOT yours, but still we do it (grave-robbing). Of course it’s not politically correct and against our principles and education, but how could we get the money to buy the magic/weapons/objets other than like that? Plus it’s always really excting to be an Indiana Jones and I do believe it always will;-) So in the end even if I’m someone who worries dramatically about story and reality, that shooting a rock and getting that sparkling crystal was really enjoyable to me throughout the whole (RE4) game.
    So I can’t wait to hear more from you and your readers about this matter.


    a devoted reader

  2. > marouen

    This doesn’t seem like an issue to me at all. The problem is that the grave robbing behavior is contextually inappropriate. If these characters were unscrupulous freeloaders at heart then their actions would be consistent with their character, but Chris and Sheva are never portrayed that way. Indiana Jones can get away with it because his goal is always to put his relics in a museum.

    So, if it’s not correct for those characters to be taking items out of the places they visit, the game developers should just change the context. Make the items used as money something that is otherwise worthless, like blood samples from fallen enemies or something. Or just give the player points for each kill, or let the enemies drop glowing orbs as Devil May Cry does. Now, these solutions might not be the right fit for Resident Evil 5, but the point is that there are many ways to alter the context and leave the basic system alone so that it’s no longer in conflict with the narrative.

  3. Hi Chris,

    your answer was very interesting, and I also thought the same thing about Indiana Jones, getting away with collecting relics for a museum (and a bit for himself too, lucky him;-)
    Although I have to say that you are probably the first you brought this question to mind.
    Whereas we did not even matter before about Link collecting all those rubis in poor villagers’ homes in Zelda, or even Leon “finding” those treasures in cupboards and selling them to the store guy in RE4 (what the hell is he doing? He’s working for the US president after all! Do agents act like that???…) and a lot more of honorable adventure/RPG characters who do the same, although their hearts and intentions definitely seem to be the purest, now here we are wondering if this is even acceptable and coherent with their story.
    That’s right, especially for RE5 (I believe it’s true), but isn’t this going to be more and more a problem since games are becoming more and more realistic and their story more and more lively and coherent?
    So I believe you will soon find yourself in trouble with medicine and pharma guys who are against blood traffic (your quote “blood samples from fallen enemies”) 😉 So there’s always something to worry about.
    Of course this is (probably) absurd, but aren’t you making an issue out of it after all?
    Actually a game like Resident Evil Remake (GameCube) solved this very well. Chris or Jill found very valuable rubis, gems or other stuff like that, but they just used them to open a door or a wall by putting them into a lion’s head or a special receptacle made especially for those items. They did not take anything home.
    So I’m really interested in whether we should go on collecting rubis/pesetas/gils/whatever in our games, even if there are enough new honorable, respactable, world-saving heroes we will identify with in the future.

    (as I said I never thought about this before, but you’re probably damn right with RE5 😉 …how could they!!…

    Last but not least, I think that buying better weapon and objects in a game does make us feel aware of the difficulty in the game, obliging us to buy them to be able to get to the next level. At least in the ideal case…

  4. I think the in-game store actually runs counter to the spirit of survival horror. Characters in horror movies typically defeat their opponents through strategy in opposition to direct conflict: using whatever is available in their immediate environment in creative ways, or uncovering their opponents’ particular weaknesses. The rest of their time is spent trying to avoid being detected by them. An in-game store just waters down the horror and breaks immersion.

    What developers need to do is develop alternative ways to deal with violent conflict. A direct attack may work in certain situations, but there should be more of an emphasis on avoiding detection through stealth, or on making stealth attacks, on providing environmental solutions to problems (electricity, gasoline, falling pianos, etc.), or on obtaining useful items directly from specific NPCs that the players have aided during the course of play. All of these have been utilized to some extent or other in many games, but there needs to be more of it. A physics puzzle, for example, could provide access to a side passage that allows the player to go around the opponent. Players wouldn’t have to use it, and should be challenged to find it and solve it, but it would reward players for their particular play styles instead of simply dialing up or down the ammo and health.

    Here’s another idea: locational damage on opponents. Give the player who enjoys combat the chance to take out more powerful opponents through a well-timed strike to the head, or the opportunity to literally hamstring their opponent from their hiding place under the bed. Locational damage combined with stealth gives even ordinary humans the opportunity to take out more powerful opponents without ruining immersion or having to ‘beef’ them up to appeal to action gamers. If the locational damage system is robust enough, I think a well-timed screwdriver to the neck could appeal to a hard-core action gamer every bit as much as a nice head shot with a sniper rifle. The key here is finesse: allowing the player to get good at the game using the tools that are available.

    Horror games tend to err on one side or the other: too combat heavy, or too combat restrictive. What I want is a game that allows me to choose between combat and stealth/puzzle-solving without hamstringing either function. Games that only provide quantitative changes to gameplay aren’t really providing players with alternatives; they’re just trying to ameliorate their own limitations.

    While not a horror game, Fallout 3 is a good example of a game that tries to provide gameplay alternatives, but that largely winds up funding an in-game bank. FO3 has stealth, lockpicking, computer hacking, bartering, and (limited) persuasion systems in place, but the only real, effective alternative to direct combat is sneaking by opponents. The lockpicking and computer hacking essentially get reduced to in-game banks that the player can access by spending experience points on the requisite skills: most of the locks and security codes protect stashes of ammo and health packs. The bartering system makes ammo and health cheaper, and the persuasion system is sporadic and somewhat limited and doesn’t obviate the need for combat. (You can’t, for example, negotiate with raiders and super mutants.) If the lockpicking allowed you access to less-used tunnels that were easier to sneak through without encountering enemies or access to particular items that were useful against those enemies; if the hacking gave you more access to a level’s security devices (cameras, locks, gun turrets, etc.); if the bartering system gave you access to additional items not available to less experienced hagglers; and if the persuasion system gave you at least a chance of talking your way out of most encounters with intelligent humanoids, they would have provided true alternatives to the ‘in-game shop’ mainstay that is used in most cases.

    Another alternative to difficulty levels might be to provide the player with access to different characters with different skills. These characters could appeal directly to the player’s play style and provide them with the kinds of experiences they are looking for. While these kinds of character options do exist in some games, the amount of differentiation between them is usually little more than cosmetic because the game doesn’t really support alternative styles of play. (Many of the differences amount to little more than differences in how much health they have, how much damage they do, or how fast they move. They all still depend on combat.)

    For example, a game that allows you to choose between a tough guy who has a gun and is good at fighting, a smart guy who can pick locks and hack security networks, and a young girl who is good at hiding and sneaking. All of these characters could try to perform any of the actions the game supports, but each of them would be heavily biased in one direction or another. The big guy just isn’t going to be able to sneak past most opponents, and the young girl just isn’t going to be able to kill them, but either one should be able to complete the game using their particular set of skills.

    The way I see it, the in-game store is just a poor substitute for real gameplay variety. It may be a necessary evil, given time and budget constraints, but it will never be more than an awkward and tacky add-on in survival horror.

  5. > Dave

    What you just described was highly interesting. Of course this kind of game you explained would just be the perfect game to play! But whether we’ll see something like that in the future is another question… Still I guess we (the players) and the developpers have to think about it. Sure the best solution is to take that in-game store completely out, since most survival horror games such as Resident Evil did without before, untill Resident Evil 4, and I believe they did not need it, though it sure was fun in RE4 (probably because it was new). In addition it was easy to compare the last Resident Evil games (mostly RE4) to adventure/RPG games, in addition all these games we are talking about are more or less adventure (I never played Fallout 3 but I’m pretty sure it is too). So a system like this one (in-game store) in a way makes sense, though of course it’s not absolutely necessary. (…)
    In RE5 it’s pretty clear that they put a heavy accent on action, so they thought it would be fun for the players to spend 10 hours or so blasting scary monsters with different kinds of weapons. And indeed they pushed it as far as they could with that weapon store, but for me it doesn’t stand in harmony with the survival horror “esprit”. You felt more like a mercenary rather than a “survivor”, and this is killer for a survival horror game. At least in Resident Evil 4 it was unconspicious and somehow belonged to the natural game system.
    Another thing I believe is the in-game store in RE4 and RE5 was an additional “occupation” for the player, so that the player is not only left looking around for objects/clues and shooting at zombies as only gameplay elements during the 15 hours of playing. Maybe it sounds stupid, but I enjoyed spending time in the store managing my weapon and ammo and also arranging the way I store them in Leon’s suitcase in RE4. It really was like something else to do in the game, not always the same two or three available actions. And yes, that would mean that a game like Resident Evil 4 (if it was without the in-game store, and if it wasn’t that new) and especially RE5 do not provide enough diversification. But thinking about it this worked pretty much like the saving rooms in those old RE games with the box, where you had the chance to come down from the zombie stress and manage the objects you carry with you and leave some in the box. Though I think this variation is much closer to logic and coherence in narrative. And above all it’s much more effective in a a survival horror game, where you don’t know what to expect once you leave that room and really need to take that deep breath!

    Let’s come back to Dave’s description of the ideal game.
    I’m wondering, how does that persuasion system work in Fallout3? Are there dialogue moments where you have to choose the right thing to say or is there something like a “persuasion button” in the game??
    Anyway the very first thing that came to my mind during your whole descrption was “this really sounds like a stealth game” rather than a survival horror. I’ve never really played a stealth game myself, but I read and saw quite a few things about them to know what they are about. So I’m wondering if those elements once pushed to the foreground would really fit in a classic survival horror game (say RE, or Silent Hill, or Alone in the Dark or whatever).
    Another think that came to my mind was your idea of different characters with different skills. We already had that in Resident Evil Remake: Jill was able to unlock some doors, Rebecca had healing abilities and Barry I think was quite resistant. Maybe it would make the game a huge lot more interesting if we could choose the appropriate for each different situation, but I still believe this would dramatically diminish the feeling of fear and threat, compared to if you were playing alone, eventhough it sure would be fun. There’s a thing about most RPG games, and that’s you somehow always feel safe, since you’re always given that possibility to change between your characters (sometimes you even have 6 of them!!) so you’re always walking in a small group (I hope you’re not sick of reading me write about RPG games, it just that my wife an sometimes I have just been playing Final Fantasy XII and VII during the last half of a year, so I think they somehow left a mark on me, eventhough I never loved this kind of games;-). So even if games nowadays become more and more realistic in graphics and atmosphere, I’m not sure that I would be really scared if I stood in front of an ugly monster with two friends next to me.

    The most fantastic thing I read in your (Dave’s) post was the idea to alternate between direct attack and some stealth actions like creeping/hiding/using particular items or particular passages in rooms and so on. One situation you described was exactly like in the first boss you ever meet in Resident Evil 5 (and definitely my favourite boss in the whole game). There’s that disgusting monster guy with a lot of snakes or whatever around his whole body and that you don’t have to approach whatever you do. You could only move in a circle around a square room, and one part of your moving circle was a furnace room, where everything trapped inside gets completely burned. There were also a couple of explosive cannisters you could knock over if you were smart enough to think of it to cause him some damage if you shoot at them once he absorbed them (I don’t know why but he did). This was not necessary though. So in the end you had to allure him to that furnace room to put him into fire. But it was not as easy as said…
    So I think that balancing both (shooting) action and tactic playing with some stealth and adventure elements would undoubtedly create a great game where players sometimes have to think a bit and elaborate a plan to master some difficult situations… which definitely matches the survival horror core situation par excellence. And we certainly wouldn’t get bored that fast.

    Anyway now if Dave’s game was really to come out I would be the first to play it:-) sounds like a lot of fun!!

    I think an in-game store is always a bit interesting, if we just don’t meet them around every corner and above all if we don’t get the possibility to “buy all you can to shoot them all”, because this is really stupid. Maybe each shop should have only some tipes of weapon and in a short amount, and you shouldn’t be able to earn that much money in the game. There’s a lot of different ways to work this.
    It just depends in where you want to put the accent in your game (action, tactic, stealth, adventure…).

    Maybe someday…

  6. Well, I for once think that survival horror games should’t have any ‘shopping system’. In real survival horror games you supposed to FIND weapons as all other items. No stupid RPG like merchants and ‘before level’ shops! Remember Resident evil 0-3 ? or silent hill? even silent hill 5 is better thant resident evil in that aspect.

  7. What Dave described does exist: it’s Resident Evil Outbreak. You can choose among 8 characters, each a little bit different in health, strengths, items and style.

    Too bad it just wasn’t very good.

    None of them actually do any negotiating or stealth… but the more mechanics you implement, the thinner you are spreading your programming jam.

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