Decided to top-post my own comment from Rant of the Moment: Difficulty Curves since it ended up not surprisingly being long and grandiloquent on the subject. For context, Stephan Messier wrote, with respect to why game developers might not want a “Skip Combat” button:

The developer is essentially devaluing the content they spent thousands of dollars to produce, only to accommodate (potential) player preference.

My reply was of course a gentle “read the original article” prod, with bonus hyperbole:

This was actually one of my points: DA:I (and just about every other modern RPG) has a “Skip Dialogue/Cutscene” button. You can use it as often as you want. The developer is clearly devaluing the story content they spent thousands if not millions of dollars to produce to accommodate player preference. Combat is actually “cheaper” to produce (a game engine can just spit it out indefinitely and it’s largely a giant number fight from a bunch of spreadsheets with some random number generators) than good story with good voice acting. Why does story deserve a Skip Content button devaluation but not Combat?

Unsurprisingly this drew an incensed response from a new pseudonymous follower named “Birdu Gilbert” [spelling included]:

This is moronic. Utterly moronic. You project your thoughts in game developpment so hard that it hurts. No, combat is not cheaper to produce.

You seem to not understand that combat (and gameplay to a wider extent) is not given automatically by the game engine. The game engine allows your game to give an existence to your models, but the chore gameplay isn’t a genuine product of the engine. Animations have cost, introducing features (locking system, camera, HUD) has a cost. But also the core gameplay is one of the aspects which keeps changing from the start to the end of a developpment.

It is basically what makes the game appealing. The story comes after in the priorities of game-design. A developper will first cut off the voice-acting before touching anything to the combat. It is the aspect that requires the most attention, because it aims to be fullfilling and challenging. Visual Novels are built around their stories, RPG are built around their mechanics. What is appealing in a DMT system (door, Monster, treasure) is the constant possibility of finding new objects usefull later. And as simple it can seem, the alchimy requires plenty of testing and plenty of attempts (which means also failure) to reach the right balance. If the game can be easily broken, the players will stop playing midway because of the lack of challenge. If it is too hard, players will drop it quickly and it will become a niche game.

The real feature which benefits the story in video game are the different choices which change the story, but these choices must come with a sacrifice from the player (accessing to a better ending in Dishonored requires stealth, or specific actions are needed in Deus Ex to access to further options/more dialogs) to be coherent with the game mechanics. Tactics Ogre is representative of what a game should ideally offer when it cares for the story, actual choices and a rewarding gameplay.

The voice-acting that you seem to care about very much, is just make-up. It is just icing on the cake that is mostly optional. If you play a game for voiced cutscenes, you chose the wrong medium.

It was in fact intentional hyperbole, but I’m afraid it’s far from “utterly moronic”. As you seem to be unaware: I do have an idea from whence I speak: I am a software engineer and I have studied video game budgets (on purpose; as a matter of trying to build a business/business plan). I agree with you that combat system development is not easy, as you have largely argued (and for which I’m grateful as a software engineer in that solving difficult problems present me with a generous salary), but it is cheap from a budgetary/accounting standpoint. The combat system in a game is a fixed cost. A good combat system can be used as easily in a single game as it can in multiple games. Franchises share as much of a combat system as they can to better minimize fixed and sunk costs over the lifetime of a game engine. Sure, such things are typically iteratively upgraded over time, but they don’t ever escape the accounting category that is fixed costs. The software engineers and systems designers building your combat system, if managed sustainably, are themselves fixed costs to your studio… Change over the course of development is in fact cheap, because if you are doing it right, you aren’t changing the number of developers over the course of the project, only refocusing and reprioritizing them over time. Those are fixed costs, and yes it’s not entirely accurate economically to categorize all fixed costs as cheap, it’s a perfectly valid approximation of the truth for use in hyperbole.

But even budgeting for a single game for a studio that doesn’t expect to be in business after that game ships: a well built/balanced combat system typically works equally well in running three combat experiences as it does three million. Thus just in terms of investment dollars to gameplay hours output (assuming as most of the current videogame criticism industry seems to that gameplay hours are in fact the metric to optimize), that combat engine is a fixed cost. Need more hours of gameplay? Have your players grind through very similar combat experiences for hours for some incremental currency or particularly unlikely random drop… Sure there may be incremental variable costs such as art work, level design, etc to keep this grind interesting to players (although Bejeweled, Tetris, and even Destiny are great examples that no, not really, if your core “combat” loop is shiny enough), but I’d argue all such variable costs inevitably, if managed correctly, should be categorized and budgeted as “Story” costs more so than “combat”. However, even if you disagree with me on where the blurry line balance is on those variable costs, that still doesn’t invalidate the core assertion here that the combat system of a game is dominated by fixed costs versus gameplay hours.

Good, well done story content, on the other hand is hugely dominated by variable costs that can quickly inflate a game’s budget for every hour of story-filled gameplay hours: writers, artists, musicians, voice actors, level designers, etc. None of that is cheap and all of that is going to be the primary concern for the game’s accountants and budget. Most of it is stuff that is of quickly decreasing value to the player as it repeats or is reused (whether within a single game or across a franchise). We’ve yet to unlock the secret to procedural storytelling (if we ever will, barring something unforeseen such as true high functioning artificial intelligence). We’ve yet to find a story loop anywhere near as satisfying to a large number of players as a basic Match-3 or Rock Paper Scissors can be, even with the most minimal of “icing on the cake”.

Finally, I appreciate that you feel that combat is the priority of game design: for some kinds of gamers that’s a valid opinion. But there’s more kinds of gamers than just you. Combat systems are not even “core” to game design, they are a useful tool in a belt that should be full of tools. That belt should hopefully be full of a lot of tools, because games should be the most inclusive of media. That fact that you speak of Visual Novels as if distinct from games speaks volumes of how our opinions are unlikely to agree. Visual Novels are games. Visual Novels are often great games. I’ve played “Visual Novels” that were better RPGs, both in terms of the implicit CRPG connotation of your post (your cute belief that DMT is the end-all/be-all of RPGs as a genre), but also in the original denotation of “role playing” and better inhabiting a role that isn’t your own. I would not be surprised were you to play said games and to have a different opinion, but clearly we are different types of gamer with different goals in our gameplay.

Thanks for playing, my new pseudonymous friend.