The Nexus Telegraph: Getting the message across in WildStar (before it kills you)
There are no two ways about it: A a lot of WildStar’s combat involves getting out of the way of something. Combat telegraphs have been reinforced as a major element of gameplay, and we’ve seen countless videos explaining how the telegraph system works in varying degrees of depth. And much like pretty much every other element of the game, this is a major issue for some people.
I can understand why this provokes a knee-jerk reaction. I mean, now you can see exactly what’s going to happen next and where you need to not stand, right? How is that still a challenge?
The answer is that there’s still a lot of challenge involved, and allowing people to know what’s going on around them ahead of time not only preserves the challenge but actually heightens it. And to talk about that, we’re going to need to step back and talk about lots of other games and the different sorts of challenge you can face in games.
Let’s start by looking at Space Invaders. It’s a simple game, and it’s also almost entirely based upon memorizing a pattern and a set of behaviors. There’s an optimal way to play, and playing sub-optimally has no benefit whatsoever. There are no random elements; you’re just a matter of cycling through the correct choices over and over. Doing something wrong leads to failure.
At the other end of the spectrum is Tetris. What little you need to memorize is trivially simple and gets absorbed within seconds. All you’re doing is testing your ability to adapt to new information. There’s no pattern, just a lot of things thrown at you to test your reaction time in the face of increasing speed and an onslaught of new blocks. Making the same set of moves every time will result in consistent failure.
I’m not going to say that one is better than the other. But there’s a reason you probably have some version of Tetris installed in most electronic devices in your home. Even though you’ve seen all of the novelty the game has to offer, it’s still fun to play because it’s not the same each time you play it. Classic Space Invaders is always going to be Space Invaders, and once you’ve memorized it or don’t care to get better at it, you’re done.
Put more simply, games can challenge you to memorize or they can challenge you to react to changing information. And over time, the more they aim for the reaction end of the spectrum, the more interesting they are in actual play.
Telegraphs in WildStar lay out a pretty direct set of information. You know that something is going to happen in that red area, and you don’t want to be standing there any longer. Simple as heck, right? Almost insultingly so. You can figure it out without the game holding your hand, thank you!
Except the game isn’t holding your hand; it’s just telling you that something will happen here. At low levels, it’s easy to see one spot pop up and avoid it. At higher levels, when there are several different overlapping telegraphs and you’re zipping about trying to get in some damage — with abilities that sometimes require you to stay put and sometimes allow you to move — having the game tell you “something happens here” is going to require an entirely different set of rules.
It extends even further with environmental effects. Walk over a mine and it’ll go off in a few moments, and if you time it right, your enemies could be caught in it. Except that this is the only way for you to know exactly where that blast will be centered. It’s a chance for you to synthesize several bits of information and show your skill rather than making you guess at what happens in that spot.
More-obvious telegraphs mean more things that require actual skill to avoid. The first few levels are fairly straightforward, most likely consisting of distinct zones, letting you perfect dodging techniques for general shapes and attack types. At higher levels you could easily have danger zones all over and find yourself thinking that the spores won’t fall too fast, that you can take your chances there instead of in the tentacle lash area, but you’d be rooted if you tried to use a big attack, so it might be better to use something weaker and stay mobile…
There’s documented evidence that seeing what happens next is not cruise control to easy. That video, if you haven’t seen it, is a section of Battletoads in which you are racing on a bike and get a little display telling you exactly what obstacles are coming up next. This segment is infamous for also being brutally difficult because even with the warning, you have only a fraction of a moment to get out of the way. Without the notifications, it would be not just harder but actively impossible.
No game should aspire to that level of face-grinding difficulty, but a game that gives you notifications can make for more dynamic encounters. You have more time and space to react, more opportunities to make mechanics play nicely together. The only real loss is that the UI gets a bit more obtrusive to tell you what’s going on, but when you get right down to it, I find that to be an acceptable break from reality.
Well, a reality in which you have wasp-waisted female robots shooting at plant-dragons.
Feedback is welcome down below, or it can be mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, let’s talk about UI mods, the pros and cons, and what WildStar can do once the doors are open and the vultures descend.