Brief Thoughts on Difficulty in Pokemon

It is often regarded as a flaw in Pokemon that the player can beat the game by over-leveling one insanely strong Pokemon.  (In fact, trainer compositions in later games sometimes reward this.)  If the player plays these games “fair” they are usually quite difficult. (1)  If, on the other hand, the player only uses one Pokemon in every single fight, it will quickly grow into a behemoth that can curb-stomp any opponent in the player’s way.  Type differences do not matter when you have a 20 level advantage.

A common take on this design feature is that it is poor design.  Players who wish to play optimally feel compelled to suffer an inferior play experience.  The game played this way lacks a lot of the fun, variety, and charm of the series.  The player will knock out opposing Pokemon in a single blow, meaning no new Pokemon can be captured.  The excitement of learning new moves will be drastically less frequent, and the player will only see one set of moves throughout the entire game.  And so on.

But I question the assertion that this is bad design.  I think it serves a number of purposes.  Firstly, it serves as an organic “easy mode” for newer players.  The fact that a four year old child can play and enjoy Pokemon by using only their cute starter that turns into a cool dinosaur is not a mistake.  Yes, this cuts out monster capturing, but that also means a player does not need to master the nuances of those systems in order to complete the game and get what all the fuss is about.

Furthermore, I argue that it is actually good design insofar as it reinforces the themes of the series.  You can get to know a lot of Pokemon, master their strengths and weaknesses, and build a team out of them, sure.  Or, you can just be super best friends with your favorite one, and the two of you can take on the entire world together and win.  That is perfectly in keeping with the themes and core fantasy of the series.  This is not a design flaw.  It is a well-considered feature, and should remain in the series.


1. In the earlier gens this difficulty came in the form of long, exhausting gauntlets of trainers and wild Pokemon.  The game alternated routes full of hostile trainers with huge teams and caves with a uniformly ridiculous encounter rate.  In more recent gens this difficulty comes from fiendish gym leader battles that subvert common weaknesses of their type.  In Alola it manifests as game systems designed to intentionally frustrate the player and waste their time.

Respecting Your Player’s Time

(NOTE: This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Guelstie Project blog.  I’m republishing it here now that the original host is indefinitely out of commission.)

“Here’s a note to developers regarding what we hope will become an industry-wide policy: if your game has some good parts, try to put them at the […] beginning.  It takes us ten hours of dismal labor to earn enough money to buy your game, so please commence the entertainment early on.   If possible, pack something fun right into the box, for instance a balloon.”

Erik Wolpaw

I think all hardcore JRPG fans have had a similar experience: You sit down to play one of your favorite old games, filled with excitement. You get nostalgic pangs watching the opening. You hum along to the iconic music. You greet the main character like an old friend.

And then, a few minutes in, you hit a roadblock. Oh, right, the tutorial. Forty-five minutes of mashing the “skip dialog” button later, your enthusiasm has been dampened a bit. And then you remember that the first dungeon is fall-asleep-at-the-wheel easy. Another half hour of slogging.  Spam the fight command. Skip through all the expository dialog. Sigh as the game seizes control for a lengthy explanation of how skills work, even though you already know.

After a couple of hours, the enchantment is gone. You realize that item crafting and character customization won’t be available for twelve more hours. That’s the whole reason you wanted to replay the game! With a heavy heart, you turn it off. You tell yourself you might come back to that save file later on, but you know you won’t.

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The Underrated Importance of Self-Restriction

(NOTE: This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Guelstie Project blog.  I’m republishing it here now that the original host is indefinitely out of commission.)

“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”

G.K. Chesterton

The Dinner Party

A friend of yours who is attending culinary school has invited you to a dinner party. You’re excited, because you know that he is especially skilled at making desserts, and you haven’t had a chance to enjoy his work in a long time, so you can only imagine how much he’s improved.

You arrive with a dozen other guests, and before long dinner is served. Imagine your surprise when the appetizers make their way to the table: tortilla chips and queso blanco, hand-battered onion rings, sushi rolls with caviar and gold flake, little smokies in store-bought barbecue sauce, deep fried cheese curds and battered, fried chicken wings in a spicy plum sauce.  It seems like a lot for just the appetizers, and there are so many different kinds of food here. They don’t seem to go together, and the quality varies a lot. When this is brought up to the host, he brushes it off.

“I just had a lot of good ideas.” he says, “I considered cutting out some of this stuff, but I wanted everyone to be happy no matter what their tastes were. Don’t worry about it guys, dessert is going to knock your socks off!”

Then the entrees arrive, and they’re even stranger than the appetizers. Orange sesame chicken breast. Porterhouse steaks wrapped in bacon. Grilled vegetables in a brown sugar sauce. Powdered mashed potatoes. Sweet potato fries dressed in celery salt and hand-crafted vinaigrette. Also, cheeseburgers from a nearby fast food restaurant for some reason.

The worst part is, none of it is cooked properly. The chicken breast is raw, but the steak is overdone! The fast food cheeseburgers are stone cold from having sit on the counter while everything else was cooking.

The chef gets a little indignant at all of the questions people keep asking. “Sorry, I got overwhelmed trying to keep so many dishes going at once. I know the cheeseburgers are out of place, but c’mon, they’re your favorite!” he says to you, “You used to get those all the time when we were in high school.”

Finally, dessert comes out, and indeed, it’s magnificent: a beautiful crème brûlée that uses all of your friend’s talent and skill. It’s perfect.  Unfortunately, at this point only a few guests have even bothered to stay for dessert, and they are all stuffed; battling upset stomachs because of how rancid dinner was.

What a disaster.

Your friend is a good chef, and yet his lack of focus and inability to say no to any idea he could justify in any small way turned things into a huge mess.

Negative Space

It is an unfortunate reality that many JRPGs turn into messes just as regrettable as the dinner party I just described. Even those developed by big AAA dev companies with experienced designers.

By their nature, JRPGs are complex games with a lot of mechanics and moving parts. They are intentionally designed to capture sprawling, epic journeys, and they require complexity and depth to keep them interesting throughout their long play time.

However, this lends itself to a serious problem: JRPG designers tend to do way too much, and this can leave our product muddled, poorly made, or outright disastrous. This clutter can be lethal to a game’s immersion, fun and even player retention if things go badly enough.

So, how do we as designers navigate this thorny problem?

Perhaps you are familiar with an artistic term: negative space. This important concept refers to the shapes made by everything that an image is not. For example, if you have a painting of a tree, the negative space in that image would be everything that is not the tree. Paying attention to and respecting negative space is an important step in creating visual art.

I propose that negative space is also an important concept in game design, just as much as it is in visual art. Yet, many game designers do not understand this fundamental principle.

In the spirit of economy this subject presents, let’s boil it down to one statement:

In game design, what you don’t include is just as important as what you do.

What Does This Game Not Do?

The easiest way to explain this concept is to dig into an example. Instead of asking the usual questions when we examine these games, we’ll be asking one very important question: “What does this game not do?”

Chrono Trigger is considered by many to be the platonic ideal of the JRPG, but people frequently have trouble putting their finger on what makes it so great. A lot is made of things like the party combination attacks and extensive end-game sidequests. Chrono Trigger does these things very well, but other games include these elements and they aren’t nearly as effective.

My theory is that Chrono Trigger makes the best use of negative space of any JRPG. So, what does Chrono Trigger not do?

There’s no weapon customization. No flashy limit break attacks or complex abilities that create stacking status effects. There are no elaborate character classes with unique resource pools. No hundred-floor end game bonus dungeons. No massive bonus boss at the bottom who boasts a million hit points and requires the player to grind to maximum level to beat it.

Chrono Trigger has bog-standard JRPG equipment, spells, and character archetypes. End-game dungeons are challenging, but aren’t intended to give hardcore players an extra hundred hours of play time. The game designers realized that they had enough game complexity on their hands just by allowing every character to combine with every other character to perform unique, powerful team attacks.

Player needs for customization and variety are fulfilled by offering dozens of potential parties with their own strengths, weaknesses and flashy ultimate attack. It encourages the player to try out all of their different possible team compositions and play the game multiple times using different parties for a different experience. They didn’t need to add more to create a fulfilling experience.

Chrono Cross, the game’s sequel, makes much less effective use of negative space, and the game suffers greatly for it. Many people still like Chrono Cross due to all of the things it does right, but it’s worth considering how much better the game could be if the developers had exercised their discretion a bit more.

Imagine how much better the dialog could be if it didn’t have to be written generically enough that sixty different characters could all be saying roughly the same thing. They even had to use dialog filters to remind you of who was talking and what stock archetype they embody. What if the team hadn’t been stretched thin trying to come up with unique techs for such a huge roster? Perhaps there wouldn’t have been a need for the generic Elements system that makes every character of the same color type play almost identically.

What does Chrono Cross not do? It’s a lot harder to answer that question.

Conclusion

I’m sure we all had a similar experience when we first found Yanfly or SumRndmDde‘s plugin pages and nearly stroked out from sheer possiblity. Suddenly the stark limitations of the basic program fell away, and we saw that we could do everything we ever dreamed. As a result, many of us are making projects that are hodgepodges of every mechanic we loved from the JRPGs of our childhoods.

That’s not a bad thing!

Taking inspiration from what has come before is a time-honored tradition among creative people. It inspires passion. It preserves good ideas while introducing new ones. However, it also carries the risk that we’re stuffing our projects full of things; just because they’re interesting, and not because they serve the larger purpose of the game.

Remember the dinner party from the introduction. Games work the same way. All of that food is tasty, but not all of it goes together. Choose an appropriate menu.

You need focus. Pick a feeling or idea your game is trying to get across and make every single part of it work toward that purpose. Don’t try to juggle so many elements that you can’t give each of them the focus needed to make them the best they can be.

Don’t forget about that neglected dessert! Even if the crown jewel mechanic is sheer brilliance, you need an audience in the mood to receive it. All of the other choices you make should serve to highlight key features instead of detracting from them.

Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at your own project. I know it’s time to do so for mine!

I make a point of evaluating my game’s overall systems regularly, checking for this kind of excessive feature creep. It can be hard to kill a feature that you love, especially if you did a lot of hard work on it, but doing so might make your game better. Your duty as a game designer is to pull the trigger. You owe it to your players. You owe it to yourself.

What good thing will you not do so that you can do something great instead?

The Loyalty Program Rant

privilages

“Ooh! You only need one more point to become a Medallion Gold Plus Club member!”

You’re in the checkout with your cartload of dry cake mix, eggs, vegetable oil, and Cheez Wiz (your wife’s birthday is coming up and you’re making her a Cheezcake as a special treat.)  The cashier scans all your stuff while you’re sifting through your filthy tupperware container full of pennies and nickels to see if there’s any quarters in there.  Once she’s finished scanning, she nervously asks, “Would you like to sign up for our Super Saver Rewards Club?”

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The Kokiri Forest: A Literary Analysis Fever Dream

Kokiri_Forest

I.

You begin Ocarina of Time in the World of Children.  All of the recognizable faces belong to children: they’re the only “real” people.  Hovering around each child is an omnipotent, immortal entity that provides guidance, helps you focus on what you’re trying to do, and constantly nags at you about what you need to do next.  The only other being is a wheezing, decrepit mountain of a thing that has some vaguely recognizable features, but has a strange manner of speaking and is always going on and on about old stories and the state of the world.

All of the children have a fairy except for you.  You are a weird outcast that is different than everyone else despite appearing exactly the same.  And then, lucky you, you get adopted.  However, having a parent doesn’t just mean companionship and guidance, it also means expectations: get up, lazybones, the world needs you.  If you’re going to do good in the world some day, you need to do some chores.

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The Last Jedi Rant [Full Spoilers]

Spoiler Warning: Full spoilers for both The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens.

I went to see The Last Jedi last night with my wife. I had modestly high hopes going into it; I was in the camp that really enjoyed The Force Awakens, so I was excited to see where they would go from here.

Unfortunately, I left the film feeling disappointed and conflicted. I didn’t hate the movie, but I definitely expected it to be better. I’m not much of a Star Wars fan, so the quibbles with the series lore didn’t bother me so much; but the film has some major structural issues. There is some promising stuff early on that unfortunately fizzles out by the end.

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Game Recommendations: Modern Classics

Welcome to the start of a short series, wherein I gush in a classy, informative way about games I love.  This is less of a commercial review and more of a thinly-veiled excuse to write short analyses, without trying to inflate them into ten thousand word leviathans I never finish.  (Official Unfinished Drafts Watch: 6)

I’ll be grouping these into categories, one per article.  Today’s entry will be about games from the last few years that renewed my optimism for the medium.

Final caveat: these are in no particular order and aren’t meant to be compared against one another.  I’m basically just going off the top of my head and then scanning my Steam library/the stack of games under my entertainment system to make sure I don’t miss anything important.  I probably will anyway.

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