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Archive for April 16th, 2009

Game balance is a tricky thing.  Psychochild has a good article up about it over here:

Balanced but not Equal

I’ve also been pondering the nature of Final Fantasy games and game balance.  In nearly every FF game, players have the option of outleveling the game’s difficulty, effectively toning down the challenge by investing time in lesser challenges.  (That’s also what WoW winds up doing as well, at least until the “endgame” where the core play changes anyway.)  Thankfully, the games are usually fun enough to make that sort of “grind” enjoyable, and it’s often incentivized with side quests.  Of course, this blows the designer’s carefully crafted pacing and balance out of the airlock, but one of the cardinal lessons that good designers learn is that the player’s experience (including the ability to do crazy things the designer didn’t intend) is paramount, not the designer’s ego.  Games should be about letting players play, not trying to force them into the designer’s vision.

In FFTA2, like its predecessor, there are some midgame/lategame abilities that can be learned that make for “broken” gameplay.  The prototypical example is the “Red Mage/Summoner with Doublecast and Blood Price and Juggler with Critical:Quicken and elemental absorption gear”.  It’s a rather “degenerate” combo that allows the player to use two units to take infinite turns and bounce around the map, blasting foes with elemental summons (powerful large area magic).  There are those who use that as an example that FFTA2 is “broken”.  A quick YouTube search will produce more than a few results to that effect.

I think it’s brilliant.

As Mark Rosewater of MTG fame might say, I’m a Johnny.  I love finding those sort of absurdly overpowered combos in a game, using game mechanics in synergistic and explosive ways.  It’s a bit of a metagame puzzle for me, plotting out the most interesting and effective way to completely dominate the game, or maybe just do something interesting that the good little hamsters on the designer’s wheel might not have thought of.

And who doesn’t like that at some level, anyway?  Games are many things, but close to the gamer’s heart is the desire for a power fantasy; the ability to completely bend the game to our whim and demonstrate power unheard of in our petty little “real” lives.  If we’re just actors in the designer’s little “movie”, especially if we don’t know our part, we’re not going to really enjoy playing the game.  We might enjoy the satisfaction of finally figuring things out and reading the designer’s mind, but that’s an entirely different psychological fix.

FF games allow for that sort of customized playing experience, especially in the Tactics games with their expansive stable of Jobs and abilities.  I love that they offer that sort of choice.  If I want to play the game “the purist way”, I can just suck it up like a man and beat my head against the wall until I develop a sufficiently thick cranium and neck muscles to plow my way through the challenge.  If I don’t want to deal with repeated failure and stupid “do it again, stupid” gameplay (thanks for the phrase, Shamus!), I can just go out and level up a few times and come back with more beefy avatars.

Of course, the trick is to balance things sufficiently that such game breakers don’t show up too early, and to give challenges to even the elite (hello, Ruby/Emerald Weapon, meet my Knights of the Round via WSummon).

To be fair, the FF lineage does have a penchant for “one shot” gear or items that can only be found if you don’t open a treasure chest when you can in the first three hours of the game and come back to it just before the final boss, or some other obscure set of procedures.  I’m not a fan of that sort of option, since it’s only available to those with a FAQ or replay OCD.  I’m most interested in the “toolbox” sort of design that makes all of the pieces available to players, and their skill or devotion at putting together the puzzle unlocks interesting gameplay, above and beyond what the “main story” requires for completion.

Bottom line, though, I do think that FF games strike a decent balance between allowing nearly anyone to see their lovingly-crafted stories (the quality of which can be debated, of course, but here I’m talking about gameplay access) and still offer challenge to players of all levels.  It does make for some “broken” combos, and some nonsense “optional bosses” that could have eaten the Big Bad for a snack, but when it boils down to gameplay, it’s about letting the player make choices in how they approach the game.  Those who want a challenge can try a FFX “no sphere grid” game (no upgrading the characters as they level up), and those who just want to see if Yuna and Tidus finally get over their angst  can just mosey on through the game, creating superheroes that can destroy the final boss with a glare.  That flexibility is a good thing.

(And, as should be noted, this does change between single player games and MMOs, where combos need to be kept reined in a lot more, given PvP and the inevitable whining pity parties.  Still, giving players different ways to do things and have fun playing is a good thing.)

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