Thursday, February 24, 2011


But not an unexpected one.

I used to really be into computer games. I read the blogs, engaged in the debates, eagerly waited release dates. Back in those heady days of the mid-‘90s, Jeff Vogel was one of my heroes. His championing of both indie game design and turn-based top-down RPGs really appealed to me.

But even then, I never got very far in his games. I don’t mean I didn’t finish them; I mean I never finished the free trial versions. I don’t think I ever actually bought a copy of a Spiderweb Software game.

I was often curious why they never really seemed to light my fire, but I think I’m beginning to understand why. Via Carto Cacography I found this post, written by Mr. Vogel, on balancing combats in RPGs.

Now, it’d be easy for me to jerk the knee and point out that the word “fun” doesn’t appear once in this article, but it’s equally true that this isn’t really an article about fun. It’s about balancing combats. Still, if “there are fights that will almost never ever kill a player” and “the vast majority of the fights in a game will be this sort” I gotta wonder where the fun is. Clearly, it’s not in the challenge these fights present, since by definition, they’re not supposed to provide any. They’re simply the hoops you have to jump through to “collect experience to get strong and get new spells and swords and stuff.” You show up, smack the trash mob around, and collect your reward, so you can go smack around “bigger” trash mobs and collect larger rewards. So far, I’m wondering why we’re not just playing Progress Quest with a fancy story engine slapped on top.

I have to believe some people find collecting the goodies and growing their characters’ stats fun but that makes me wonder if I can build a fancy graphical shell atop a spreadsheet database with a thin veneer of story and call it a day. (Heck, there’s some indication that even that would be working too hard.) I’m even more perplexed when Mr. Vogel brings up challenging fights. It would seem to me that having a long string of fights that the player almost certainly wouldn’t lose, punctuated by brick walls that actually challenge the player rather than the PCs, would be a recipe for frustration. I’d assumed, up until now, that such games were designed to have a gently sloping increase in player challenge, and that apparent spikes were either me not thinking in the patterns the designers assumed most players would adopt, or fumbles in design. Now I see that such things are standard design practice.

Ok, I fully understand the value of combat as an infinitely variable puzzle, but you’re tossing most of the benefit away if you’re designing along these lines. If most of your fights are “trash mobs” that I should be able to power through easily, how is making me go through them any less a waste of my time than a maze? Sure, you may need a few scattered around I can fight in order to learn how the game works, or to practice new powers and new tactics on, but unless your interface is incredibly fun to use in and of itself, yeah, I’m going to get bored. And if you attempt to alleviate that boredom by suddenly tossing in a challenging fight, why would you be surprised if the result is players who are now bored AND frustrated?

(And if the fun of your game is in the story, please write a book. If you try to force me to replay an otherwise uninteresting fight a dozen times just to read the next chapter, it ain’t happening.)

If you’re going to make players wade through some trash mobs, at least respect the players enough to make the encounters interesting. Maybe give them a goal that isn’t about just killing things or put the fight in an interesting place. Or make the mob interesting in some way. Otherwise, it looks like you’re just dragging the game out with something less frustrating (but not much more interesting) than a maze.

If you assume your players are just going to reload from the last save point anyway, why do you bother including avatar death as a possibility in your games? Besides laziness? Seriously, fates more interesting than death are easy to think of. And most of them are a hell of a lot more fun than simply reloading the game from the last save point and grinding through content that’s already been trudged through before. This is the FPS version of not being able to find the key that lets you get to where the monsters are, and going round-and-round the same corridors, over and over again, pixel-bitching in what is supposed to be a game of frenzied action and excitement.

If your game is supposed to be about tactical combat, then make it really good, really interesting tactical combat. But if most of the fights are against trash mobs that I should be able to defeat just by showing up, you’re game isn’t about tactical combat. So please, don’t try to pretend it is by forcing me to occasionally jump through some tactical combat hoops.


Stuart said...

I think many game designers are replacing challenge/accomplishment as a reward mechanism with other things...

Ryan said...

This is why I pretty much don't play video game rpgs anymore, particularly if there is a level of mandatory grinding involved. My free time is too precious to fight the same weak sauce random encounters over and over again until I have the levels/gear to tackle the next tier of repeating encounters.

DeadGod said...

A spread sheet with a graphical interface slapped on it?

From a technical perspective, this is exactly how MMOs work. :)

Anonymous said...

I think you're aiming your disdain in the wrong direction. Jeff's not arguing that fighting 'trash mobs' is fun. He's saying that, as an experienced RPG designer, he's found that he needs to balance combat design in this way is necessary if he wants to continue to be an RPG designer - i.e. not go out of business. To do so he has to appeal to a reasonably broad base.

"The fans of role-playing games are a pretty diverse bunch. Some prefer stories. Some fixate on stat-building. Some want to beat everything easily, and others are irritated if there are no challenges. It's a pretty amorphous blob of interests, and nobody can satisfy them all. I just try to appeal to as much of the blob as possible."

Jeff likes the challenging fights. But here's what he's heard from his players (often, through email, over more than a decade of making RPGs):

"Very often, players don't like to be seriously challenged. They hate to lose. They hate to lose repeatedly. Sometimes, the temptation to just give up and have every fight on the default difficulty be easy peasy is overwhelming... But you still need to have tough fights, for several reasons. A game full of only easy fights against trash is monotonous and dull."

"So, you might ask, why don't I just put in tough fights and really carefully balance them so that everyone can beat them in just a few tries? That brings us to the third observation, which is both subtle and vitally important.
Observation Three: If a fight has any chance of beating the player, there is a percentage of users who will NEVER be able to beat it. It took me a long, long time to realize this. Too long."

In fact, just reread all of the Observation Three section. You dislike the kind of fun these gamers enjoy. You don't believe it's fun at all. Okay, fine. You're not part of the blob that Jeff is aiming for, that he believes he needs to aim for in order to be successful in his business. He might be wrong about that, but if so it's for time (or market research), not comment thread arguments, to decide. I can only say he's been in business as an independent game designer longer than almost anyone else, so he must be doing something right.

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to note that almost all games of any kind, RPG or not, that involve combat follow this model. Shadow of the Colossus, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, Godhand, and Demon's Souls do not. They're notable (and wonderful!) for the exception. But almost all other games are, and it's not because game designers are morally lacking. It's because that's what most of the market wants. They might be wrong for wanting it (I personally tend to think they are; I like constant challenge) but that's as may be and it doesn't mean those games can't also be fun in their own way.

Jeff is also one of the last people in RPG design that deserves to be criticized for putting "mandatory grind" in his games. In the face of an industry that has been relentlessly simplifying the mechanics of its games for years now Jeff is one of the only designers who has retained, proudly, the classic top-down, turn-based, multiple user-defined-character party combat system and all the crunch that comes with it. There's a ton of depth in that system, tons of skills, tons of abilities, and tons of ways to win a fight. I've played most of his games, and I've always found them nicely challenging. Every time my party gets wiped it's always interesting to reload and try again with a different approach. And there's always more than one different approach! Come in from a different direction, use a different combination of spells, buff up first, switch to missile weapons, etc.

Plus the monumental length of the games, the near-total nonlinearity, the hundreds of totally optional little quests and hints and secrets tucked with care into every corner of every map, the witty writing that never gets in the way of the game...

If it's not difficult enough for you, turn the difficulty up one notch. I promise it will be plenty hard.

And yeah, it would be easy for you to jerk the knee and point out the word "fun" never appears once in the article. Thank goodness you didn't do that.

Jeff uses a synonym for it instead. "Pleasure." It's in the part where he talks about how defeating a difficult challenge is one of the best and most essential kinds of fun you can have in a game. I wish all of his competitors agreed with him.

- Jesse L

trollsmyth said...

Stuart: Ouch, yeah, I've been following that trend since the mid-
90s as well.

Ryan: Yeah, pretty much the same thing here. I got annoyed when I discovered that the combat was interfering with my ability to enjoy the story. When you don't enjoy the combat, CRPGs are really not the games to be playing anymore.

DeadGod: Yeah, and when the "choices" presented are basically just which hoops you want to jump through for maximum optimization, I'm very meh about the whole deal.

Jesse: Yep, I know this is the sort of gaming his customers want. Hence the title. This is a very personal thing for me, like if Rob Dougan decided he wanted to concentrate on that sorts of jazz that sound like random noise to me. He'll still have his fans who love the change, but I won't be among them.

I fully embrace my status as an aberration here, being an RPGer who thinks combat is the least interesting part of an RPG. And I fully recognize that the market love's 'em some dueling spreadsheets under a thin veneer of tactical challenge. I just don't understand it. The other games you mention, like Shadow of the Colossus make more sense to me, or the Diablo franchise, which gives you the frenetic button-mashing thrill of on arcade game.

...Jeff is one of the only designers who has retained, proudly, the classic top-down, turn-based, multiple user-defined-character party combat system and all the crunch that comes with it. There's a ton of depth in that system, tons of skills, tons of abilities, and tons of ways to win a fight.

That is very, very good to hear. I'll admit, I haven't touched one of his RPGs since the Avernum series, so it's good to know someone is still making games like this. Though I still think this sort of thing really isn't for me. The trash mobs punctuated by a real tactical challenge feels like a bait-and-switch. Though, perhaps, as you say, what I need to do is jigger with the difficulty settings. Still, there are simply too many other things that scratch my itches better. At the end of the day, dueling spreadsheets is easy to do, and I can lay my own veneer of themes and such on top that better fit my own preferences, if that's really what I'm in the mood for.

Griffin said...

I am of two minds about this. I do believe that grinding in the worst of the MMOs fashion is bad, yet I've never gotten that feel from a Spiderweb Software game and I've played and beaten more then half of them. So I think a lot of it comes from a word choice. I don't think I've met any enemies in Avernum or Generforge that I would call a 'trash mob' and most of the time I don't just breeze through them. A lot of time they are simply filling the same space as wandering monsters in D&D. A way to reduce resources. Though it isn't an exact 1:1 correlation.

I'll admit crpgs aren't for everyone. Computers can only do so much and haven't replaced the wonderful benefits of having a real DM there to adapt things on the fly. I will mention that I do believe there are stories you can tell in video games that you couldn't in books,, but there are several video game stories that would work better as books. So that particular comment was only a half-truth in my opinion.

However, I'm probably biased because one of the Geneforge games had a impressive emotional impact on me on one of the times I played through it.

trollsmyth said...

Griffin: I think my real issue with the genre is I simply see the combat as interfering with the parts of the game I think of as fun: exploration, building relationships, investigating mysteries. Honestly, I'd probably be happy with RPGs that behaved more like the Adventure genre.

However, I'm probably biased because one of the Geneforge games had a impressive emotional impact on me on one of the times I played through it.

That is awesome! Would you mind sharing more about this?