The Devil of the Details

Words: 5352 Approximate Reading Time: 40-45 minutes

Last week I wrote about Cyberpunk 2077 and used it as a jumping off point for talking more broadly about how players get around the world. In that same vein, this week I aim to look at Cyberpunk to talk about another larger problem. This time it will involve the importance of the little details for overall player experience.

Having recently finished the game, I decided to collect a set of minor issues. I didn’t want to talk about anything big: no discussion of story, or the world as a whole, or the core gameplay, or anything that central to the game experience. Nor do I want to talk about bugs and glitches. Instead, I want to focus on little things that seem fairly clearly to be design decisions, and specifically design decisions aiming at small parts of how the player interacts with the game. I don’t pretend that the list I have come up with is exhaustive.

What follows will be a long list, and you – as the reader – may go through every bit if you wish, or read only a few entries and then read the conclusion at the end, or just skip straight to the conclusion if you prefer. What is key is seeing the broader problem of how messing up these little details can start to add up over time and really get in the way of the player experience.

The List

Here is essentially a big set of little issues that I ran into, framed as a series of questions. I will try my best to explain the basic concepts so that those unfamiliar with the game will be able to grasp the problem, but it may still be useful to have played the game first to properly understand the complaints:

Why am I unable to lock equipment so that it can’t be sold or dismantled? – Perhaps you’re holding on to a few different guns (since you can only wield three at a time), or perhaps a piece of armor has a mod on it that you want, and you’re waiting to get a perk that allows you to collect the mod before dismantling it. Whatever the case may be, being able to lock equipment so that it can’t be removed from your inventory until it is unlocked is a pretty basic inventory mechanic for many games like this. It’s the kind of thing you may not think about too often, but not having it really helps to show how useful it can be.

And while it is possible that you could instead travel to your apartment, deposit the piece of equipment, and then come back and pick it up later, that solution misses the point. Partially because it assumes that the player will necessarily remember to come back later, but also because it doesn’t really explain why as simple a mechanic as equipment locking isn’t there in the first place.

Why am I able to dismantle iconic weapons so easily? – This may, to some extent, be a bug. But if you’ve played Cyberpunk so far, you’ve probably come across these “iconic” weapons. They’re basically extra special weapons. They are fairly valuable for a few reasons, even if it’s simply because you want to collect them.

There are a few flags the game has set to make sure you don’t accidentally sell certain stuff. Some items can’t be sold period and just don’t show up. Other things can be sold, but a little confirmation menu pops up first to make sure you actually want to sell it. These are good safeguards. And iconic weapons fit into that second category.

But iconic weapons can be dismantled without bringing up that menu. So if you are, say, dismantling a bunch of blue weapons (i.e. rare weapons) for rare components, and keep pressing the button until you’ve gone through everything? Well turns out you’ll end up dismantling that iconic rare weapon, too. It seems almost like that flag was simply forgotten, but it also feels like something that should be pretty obvious to remember.

Why are the menus so annoying to navigate? – When you hit the pause button – whatever that may be on your setup – the game opens a menu with a cursor. That cursor exists regardless of whether you’re playing with a mouse and keyboard or a controller, and regardless of what menu you’re navigating. If you’re on a controller, you can use the directional pad in lieu of the cursor, but that ends up being more cumbersome.

But the real issue is that when you try to open, say, your inventory, you are then taken to a menu that contains a bunch of little tabs. It will usually start you on your guns, and then you can select different tabs to open up melee weapons, armor, consumables, etc. The issue? The tabs are fairly small, and there is no button shortcut to switch tabs. There is a button shortcut for navigating between different parts of the menu (i.e. inventory, crafting, map, etc.), but not within a given part of the menu. Given how much there can be, quick and easy menu navigation is important, and the cursor and lack of easy methods for getting to the submenu that you want just makes opening up the menu feel like a chore.

Why do I have to sell every single gun and armor piece one at a time? – Let’s say you’re running around killing or knocking out bad guys, and you’ve picked up a bunch of guns and armor pieces. A lot of it is junk, so you head to a shop to sell it all. What’s the process for that? You have to highlight each thing you want to sell using the cursor (see the above point) individually, and then hit the designated button to sell it. Doing it once or twice is completely painless, but having a full inventory of junk means that you have to spend about 20-30 seconds going through a bunch of equipment, and that assumes that you can just keep hitting the sell button over and over again without worry. If there’s a particular item you don’t want to sell, then you actually need to be even more careful, because the menu has a tendency to jump around on you if you aren’t at the very top or very bottom, so you could accidentally end up selling something you want to keep. Luckily, you can at least buy it back without any loss of money, but you will still end up being annoyed.

This partially goes back to the equipment locking thing, but it’s also the case that it would be really helpful to have a quick-sell button for getting rid of everything of a given rarity. Are you now so powerful you can exclusively wield epic or legendary equipment? Then common and uncommon – even rare – stuff is only going to be useful to get money. So why not be able to say “just sell all of my common guns”? At the very least if you end up accidentally selling something that you wanted to hold on to, it’s just a minor annoyance on its own, rather than a minor annoyance that is compounded by the broader annoyance of having to deal with the selling process.

Why must stacks be so awful to deal with? – If you’ve ever had to sell a stack of items in Cyberpunk, you’ve probably run into this issue. Aside from some parts of the menu just not working properly, selling a stack works as follows. Let’s say you have a bunch of grenades that you don’t plan to use. So you want to get rid of them to free up weight for other stuff. So you select the grenade stack, which then takes you to a little pop-up menu. The menu asks you how many of those grenades you want to sell.

Here’s where the fun begins. If you have less than an insanely arbitrary number (18), then you have to use the direction pad to add grenades, one by one, until you’ve maxed out the number. If you’re at that arbitrary number or above it, then you can use the right analog stick to select how many you want, which goes much faster. Alternatively, you can use the cursor to select a point on the bar, but given how large the cursor is relative to the bar, actually selecting the right amount can be tricky.

But this raises two questions. Firstly, why not just use the right stick for both, and then have the directional pad as a way of fine tuning the number if you want? Secondly, why not just have a button for “sell the whole stack,” so that I can just skip that part of the process entirely?

Why are epic item components the most valuable resource in the entire game?Cyberpunk has a lot of stuff you can do, both in general and as ways to build your character up. One of the things you can do is craft items.

Now items have rarities: from lowest to highest there’s common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary. Along with this, in order to craft items of a specific rarity, you need components. Usually you will need components that correspond to the rarity of the item you want to make, to the level above, and to the level below.

The issue is that epic item components seem to be absurdly rare compared to how much you use them. As a sort of example, crafting an epic gun might cost somewhere between 15-30 epic item components. Which may not seem like a lot, but those components cost 250 eurodollars (the currency of the game) apiece, are only sold in a stack of 50 at a time by any given vendor, and you can only get one at a time by dismantling an epic gun or piece of armor. So getting epic components is a painstaking process, even more painstaking than legendary components (which are supposed to be more rare and thus more valuable). Comparatively, crafting a legendary gun will only cost one or two legendary components. So you can run around with 20 of each type (epic and legendary), and yet that same number would mean you have way too few epic components, and an abundance of legendary components.

Why does upgrading have to cost so much? – If you have a particular gun or piece of armor that you really like, you have a few things you can do with it to make it more effective. One thing you can do is apply mods to it – assuming it has slots for mods – to increase its stats or give some special bonus. But another thing you can do is upgrade.

Upgrading basically increases a weapon’s damage or armor’s defense rating. This is actually a really useful idea, since it can kind of suck if you find some equipment you really like, but you have to get rid of it after you gain a couple levels and it starts being outclassed by equipment you find off of enemies. So upgrading, theoretically, should help you hang on to your favorite equipment longer and make it viable.

But the problem is that upgrading equipment seems to be pretty pointless. You upgrade by increasing a piece of equipment’s stats incrementally, in very small jumps. This, I would venture, is the equivalent of raising that piece of equipment by a single level. But if you’ve made a jump of 10 levels, you need to upgrade 10 times.

Which is where the real problem comes in: upgrading doubles in cost each time you do it. So after just a few times, it becomes so absurdly expensive that it’s not worth it. Especially so if you need to use epic components (see the previous query). And so I am left wondering what the actual point of upgrading is, because it seems like something a player would never end up actually doing once they realize what the costs are. It’s just easier to give up on your favorite weapons and armor and just wait until later, when better equipment will show up.

Could I get some kind of explanation about how to get experience points for the various skills? – I mentioned before that there’s a lot to do in the game, and a lot of different ways to play. You have guns, melee weapons, and stealth. And there are plenty of different ways to tackle most problems. That variation is actually quite nice, and one thing the game does is not only provide a bunch of “perks,” which are special skills that you can unlock, but it also gives you experience in those skill areas. Getting enough experience in a skill area levels it up, giving you special bonuses, such as additional perk points that you can spend.

The problem is that you get experience by basically “using” the skill. Sometimes that makes intuitive sense: defeating an enemy with a handgun will earn you experience in the handgun skill, and so on. But some of the others aren’t as clear. And if you want to maximize how much experience you’re getting, knowing what you can be doing at any given moment is really useful. But without that explanation, you’re basically forced to try to puzzle it out for yourself.

Why do phone calls have to automatically pop up? – Whenever you’re exploring the world, you may pass by an area that has a side quest. When you do, you’ll get a phone call from the local fixer who will basically say “hey, there’s a thing I need you to do here, I’ll message you with details.” The phone call says that you can accept the call by pressing a button, but if you don’t press anything the phone call will activate anyway.

Which makes me wonder what the point is. Why not just have the phone call activate automatically after a moment, or just have the mission information come up through the message? Or at least allow the player to end calls manually or refuse calls? Especially since A) it gives a false sense of player autonomy, and B) calls occurring at the wrong time can very literally break the game.

Why can’t I mark all texts and notes as “already read”? – With all of the little “journals” (for lack of a better term) as well as the texts you can receive from various NPCs, if you’re not keeping on top of that stuff as soon as you pick it up it can start to get extremely overwhelming and create a bit of a hassle. Note, of course, that players who are genuinely interested in reading, say, all of the lore notes won’t run into this problem. But those who just want to play the game and experience the world itself will have a huge backlog of notes to read.

So it feels strange to not offer the ability for a player to just select all notes or text messages and designate them as “I’ve read this.” Instead, you have to manually select each one for the “New note” icon to go away. Which is a tedious process since navigating the menu doesn’t feel all that great, as I already mentioned.

Why are some breach hacks not solvable? – One function that the player can do is called a “breach hack,” which takes you to a little puzzle game. In the game, you are given a sequence of numbers/letters to line up in a specific order. The numbers/letters are laid out in a grid, and the puzzle part comes in by forcing you to plan out your moves: you start by selecting from the top row, and then whatever you select locks you into that column, so you pick from within there, which locks you into the corresponding row, etc.

Every now and then, though, you’ll run across a breach hack that isn’t solvable. To clarify: for some breach hacks there are different tiers of rewards, and you can try to get as many as possible within a single attempt. But sometimes the grids and sequences are set up so that some of those tiers are literally locked off. There is genuinely no way to solve them.

While this likely falls more within the category of a bug, what baffles me here is how this is something that wasn’t figured out initially: shouldn’t the game essentially be forcing itself to generate solvable sequences?

While we’re on the subject…

Why do breach hacks have a time limit? – When you do a breach hack, you see the grid, the sequences and their associated rewards, and a timer. The issue? The timer doesn’t start counting down until you’ve selected your first number/letter. Usually you get somewhere around 30 seconds to solve a breach, but you can spend hours figuring out every possible pathway as long as you don’t actually select anything.

Which leaves me to ask why breach hacks would have a time limit in the first place, if the time limit is basically pointless. It would make more sense either to give players no time limit at all, or to give them a longer one, but activate it as soon as the breach starts. Otherwise, you can simply spend a couple minutes (or however long you need) figuring out the path you want to take to solve the puzzle, and then take about 5-10 seconds actually solving it.

Why do eurodollar previews keep showing up in the wrong window? – When you’re getting ready to pick up an item, there will be a little preview window for it on the right of the screen, which will give you basic information about what it does, how much it’s worth, and so on. There’s also a smaller preview window at the bottom of the screen which tells you the name of what you’re picking up.

But with the game’s currency, the preview seems to be backwards. The main preview that shows up on the right will only say you’re picking up “1” eurodollar. However, the smaller preview at the bottom will tell you how much you’re actually picking up. Which means that in picking up most items, your eye is drawn to the right to get pertinent information, but with this one item you want to not look at that same window.

Why do I have to craft items one at a time? – I’ve already mentioned that crafting equipment and items is something the player can do, and it can actually be quite useful for various reasons. But there’s one huge hassle. Want to craft, say, 30 medicinal items, or 100 gear items that you’ll sell off, or a bunch of ammo? Then you have to craft each item individually. Which means selecting the item, holding the button that says “Craft” until the bar fills up (it doesn’t take that long, probably a second at most), and then releasing the button and pressing it again until the bar fills up, and so on and so on.

But why can’t we just pull up a menu to let us craft multiple items at once? If I want to make those 30 medicinal items or 100 gear items, why do I have to press the button 30 or 100 times? It makes crafting such an annoyance that it feels like it’s best to just leave it alone except when you genuinely need it.

Why won’t the game let me know how much how ammunition I’ll get when I craft it? – One thing you can craft is ammunition for your various weapons, which is useful. But while the game will let you do that, all it tells you is that you’re crafting a “case” of ammunition for a particular weapon type. But it won’t let you know how much ammunition is in that case. You can, of course, experiment by figuring out how much ammo you have at the moment, crafting some, and then seeing how much you get. But this isn’t something the player should have to be figuring out.

Why are valuable items classified as junk? – One of the things you can pick up in the game is “junk” items. There are a lot of things that fall into this category, and when you go to a shop one thing you can do is press a button to sell all of your junk. Most junk items will only give you a few dollars, but there are some valuable junk items that sell for several hundred eurodollars.

One perk you can unlock that’s actually quite useful is that all junk items you pick up will be automatically dismantled for parts. It’s a way to get some experience points for your crafting skill without having to do it manually, and it also makes sure you’re always stocked up on basic crafting equipment.

The problem? Those valuable items are also automatically dismantled. And when they’re dismantled, they end up giving you pretty basic components, definitely not commensurate with their monetary value. It definitely seems like either these valuable items should be providing more valuable components when they get dismantled, or should be classified in some different way so they can be sold. Otherwise, the perk feels kind of like a trap. Especially because you get no warning that those high-value items will also be dismantled and won’t give you something valuable in return.

Why can’t the map have more fine-tuned filters? – When you open up the map, you can set filters to determine what kinds of objectives show up. So you can select everything, or only have shops show up, or only have missions show up, etc. But the problem is that you can only use one filter at a time. So if you want to remove all of the shop icons so you can more easily find side missions, but you also want to see where the fast travel points are, then you have to switch between the filters.

Why can’t I set more than one waypoint to a non-mission destination? – Any player of open world games will know how important waypoints are to player navigation. And really important is that sometimes you may need to set multiple waypoints at once.

For example, a perfectly reasonable scenario: you want to head to a shop on the other side of the city. Rather than driving, you want to head to a fast travel point. So you open up your map, select the shop, and then select the fast travel point. Only selecting the fast travel point removes your waypoint for the shop. So you have to go to the map, select the fast travel point, then go to the fast travel point, then go back to your map to select the shop, then open up the fast travel menu, and then select your destination.

Given that the game already separates different kinds of waypoints and pathways depending on the destination (missions get a yellow pathway, shops get a white pathway, etc.), why not at least allow players to set one waypoint of each kind, rather than only allowing one mission waypoint and one non-mission waypoint?

Why are there so few outfits available? – For a game that touted the ability to customize your character, one major problem is that clothing options aren’t all that amazing. Not that there aren’t a lot of options, but you’re facing a major problem: different clothes have different armor stats. While it’s not entirely clear how much armor matters, the default position of a player is going to be that the damage reduction that armor points gives you is going to be significant enough to care about it. Which means a player is generally going to go with “what clothes will give me the best armor?” This will be true, of course, regardless of how the clothes look.

Which means your character often ends up looking rather stupid. So one way that you could, theoretically, get around this problem is by wearing an “outfit.” An outfit is a special clothing slot that doesn’t provide any armor, but overrides your character’s outward appearance. So you can wear whatever clothing items you want, and the outfit is what shows up.

Problem is that there aren’t many outfits in the game. There’s a suit you get early on, but in talking with other players and reading other comments it seems to be a toss-up whether you get to keep it or not after the mission it’s associated with. There are then a couple of other outfits you can find in the game, but the options are incredibly limited. Which raises the question: why not have more? The options that I’ve found appear to include a hazmat suit and a bodysuit. That appears to be it. It seems almost ludicrous that there would be so few clothing options like this in the game.

Of course, another way to avoid this would be to have armor attached to something else, and make clothing entirely about fashion, so that players can dress how they like without having to worry about how much damage they’ll take.

Although speaking of outfits…

Why does wearing outfits lock you from changing armor? – When you’re wearing an outfit in your special clothing slot, you’re not allowed to change any of your other clothing items. You can, of course, remove your outfit, then change your other clothing as you wish, and then put the outfit back on. But the fact that this process exists feels strange. At best, it appears to be a safeguard from breaking the game in some way: perhaps putting on clothes while wearing an outfit caused the character to glitch in ways that needed to be prevented. But even if that’s the case, the end result is that the player is given something else to annoy them instead.

Why is there no dedicated conversation button and dialogue interaction? – Those who have played Cyberpunk or seen video of it will already be familiar with how dialogue works. Rather than pressing a button to talk to a character and entering a dedicated screen and menu where nothing but dialogue takes place, things are much more free-form. You walk up to a character, and if that character has something to say to you (or you to them), then the game will give you dialogue choices.

It’s a system that seems cool in theory, but in practice – at least in Cyberpunk – it just ends up feeling incredibly awkward. Dialogue choices for your character can be slow to come up, severely interrupting the flow of conversation. Characters can often interrupt and talk over themselves, or pause for an uncomfortable amount of time while the game tries to figure out what the next piece of dialogue to play is.

And just as important is that the same button for selecting dialogue options is used for picking stuff up and interacting with other things. So come across a character you can talk to, but see something next to them you want to pick up? Perhaps, for instance, they aren’t talking quite yet, so you look away from them to pick up the item. Only at the moment you do so, the dialogue options come up and you end up selecting an option rather than picking up the item. This kind of overlap of controls is annoying, and while it doesn’t happen all that often, once it does it becomes hard not to think about it.

Or take the overlap of “skip dialogue” and the crouch button. Which means that if you enter a conversation crouched, you can’t uncrouch, so instead you have to either have to back far enough away to break off the conversation, uncrouch, and then return to the conversation, or else stare directly into the NPC’s crotch the entire time.

Concluding Remarks

This list has gone on for quite a while, and I must commend anyone who actually took the time to go through everything.

So what’s the point of all of this? I raise these minor details not to merely “clear the air” or “get something off my chest,” but to illustrate a larger point about the importance of details in games. That is, when designing things like menus, button layouts, mechanics, and so on, it’s extremely important to think about all of the little things that might cause annoyances for players.

Because think about the list that I’ve provided. Any one of these issues, on their own, wouldn’t be that much of a problem. Not that it wouldn’t still be annoying, but many players would be able to overlook it, since the nuisance was so minor compared to how polished the rest of the game would feel.

But once you start having this many small issues, they add up over time. A minor annoyance is one thing, but a bunch of them – especially when you encounter them fairly regularly – becomes something that’s difficult to overlook.

So I draw attention to these things to help us think about the importance of these details. As much as we often talk and think about games in terms of the big picture – the story, the core gameplay mechanics, the world – these little details and the attention that is paid to them is arguably just as important.

Because sometimes it doesn’t matter if the big things are done well if the rest of the game feels aggravating. It’s essentially a death by a thousand cuts. Even though you might enjoy the core gameplay, the game can still end up leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

I’ll note that I can’t say what the cause of these small design problems is. They could be deliberate: perhaps one or more programmers decided that a particular setup was the best way to solve a particular problem. Or they could be oversights – there was a plan that would have worked better, but these problems are the result of a mistake. Or they could be stopgap measures, systems created to be temporary because the team had so little time due to crunch and other issues. Or they could have been mistakes caused by different people without a single shared vision. And of course, no single explanation needs to apply to all of these at once.

But it’s also important that at the end of the day, whatever the cause, be it a deliberate decision or a mistake or something that is meant to be fixed later, they’re still problems now. And a player, at the end of the day, is only able to assess a game based on what’s in front of them. So if these problems exist now, it’s not possible to account for the intention of the designers, or the issues of crunch, or anything of the like. You work with what you’re given.

But it’s also worth pointing these details out precisely because we so often focus on the big topics. We should also pay attention and think more consciously about the little details. Quite often players who aren’t specifically trained in thinking critically and analyzing things can be left with only a vague feeling about a game. So perhaps you can say that the core gameplay and the story is good, but you still don’t like the game but can’t quite explain why. But one possible cause, perhaps even the most likely cause, is that there are all sorts of little details that you’re finding frustrating. In coming up with your impression of a game overall, understanding why you like or dislike a game is useful for a variety of reasons. So being able to identify those elements you like and dislike and put those likes and dislikes into words is important.

So in playing games, it’s useful to be willing and able to ask these questions. You don’t have to specifically go looking for things to be frustrated about, or try to think about what systems exist and how they could be made better. Instead, it’s about figuring out what does frustrate you, and being able to explain that frustration and the basis for it all to yourself.

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