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.