Since we finally finished Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (thanks everyone for your support!), I got to thinking about RPG design and what I would like to do next. That got me thinking about Final Fantasy XIII (the last major game I’ve played) and how I really liked the game at first but that enthusiasm slowly waned the more I played it. This is the result of my musings.
10 Things About Game Design that We Can Learn from Final Fantasy XIII
-Be consistent with the linearity-
There’s nothing wrong with an extremely linear game. There’s nothing wrong with a very non-linear game. There’s nothing wrong with any of the many gradiants between the two extremes. However, you need to pick one level of linearity and stay relatively consistent throughout the course of the game, otherwise you end up appealing to no one. FFXIII suffered this problem. People who like non-linearity complained that the game didn’t open up until 25-30 hours in. People who like linearity got bored of the game when it did open in the second half and in the post-game content. The result was a game that hardly anyone enjoyed more than maybe half of the game.
FFVI suffered the same problem (although it’s a much stronger game in general). Most people have a favorite half of the game. I daresay the drastic change in linearity (very linear in the first half, very non-linear in the second half) is a big reason.
-The player should feel like they matter-
The coolest things that happen in the game should happen as a direct result of the player’s control. In FFXIII, I felt like all of the cool stuff was going on in cutscenes and in text summaries, whereas in the actual game, nothing much happened.
-Switching classes midbattle is fun-
It was fun in Panzer Dragoon Saga, it was fun in FFX-2, and it was fun in FFXIII.
-More factors to consider are good but only if they matter-
Just having to deal with the HP of allies and the HP of enemies can get boring. The break meters in FFXIII looked like they would spice things up until you realize that 99% of all enemies are best defeated by filling up the break meter at which point they just because an HP bar that is split in two.
-Complexity for its own sake is detrimental-
FFXIII is filled with useless complexity. Feeding items to equipment to boost its XP rate and then feeding more items to it to actually give it XP is time consuming, lacks any sort of real strategic depth, and just isn’t very fun. It also requires a few pages of needless instructions. The whole system could have been simplified into a “Pay Gold to upgrade your equipment” system and the game would have benefited tremendously. Similarly, the LV-Up system – though cool looking - mostly served to waste the player’s time and provide the illusion of complexity without much actual depth.
Complexity slows things down. Slowing things down results in bored players. A brisk pace, on the other hand, can forgive many a fault. For example, Vay for the Sega CD was a thoroughly mediocre RPG in just about every aspect except one – it’s fast paced. And you know what? I really liked it.
-Pacing is Important-
So much filler. So many of the chapters in FFXIII could have been cut or abridged to the game’s benefit and replaced with actually interesting content.
-Too Much Information is a bad thing-
Push a button to see all of the monster’s info and get hints on how to fight it after you cast a reusable spell on it? Awesome! That is until you realize that this removes the vast majority of strategy and makes battles a matter of going through the motions. (The idea that RPG combat should be more strategic than matching up elements to elemental weaknesses is a discussion for another day).
-Games need direction-
Final Fantasy XIII feels like a game without a director. It feels like a game where everyone was doing their own thing and in the end, they just kind of slapped it all together. The visuals don’t match the story, the story doesn’t match the gameplay, and the whole thing is one spectacularly gaudy mess. There was a lot of things about FFXIII that were awesome in and of themselves, but they don’t work together as a whole.
-Constantly introduce new things to the player-
The moment that the player feels like the game is done giving them new experiences, that’s the moment that you’ve lost that player (unless they’re hardcore completionists). I’ve lost count of the number of RPGs where I’ve quit before finishing them, because my charaters aren’t getting any unique new abilities, the monsters are still using the same tactics as they always have, and I can see the game’s ending coming hours before actually reaching it. Discovery turns into work. Keep the game fresh for the entirety of the game.
-Illusion only works to a point-
Just about all games involve a certain degree of tricking the player. Sometimes this is a good thing. For example, a good horror game will trick the player into feeling like they’re in dire danger all of the time, when in reality, the difficulty level is carefully managed to keep the player from becoming too frustrated.
However, you can take this too far and FFXIII is a prime example. At one point, several hours into the game, I realized that the leveling up system only offered the illusion of choice, that I wasn’t making any real progress but just fighting the same things I had been fighting several hours earlier but with bigger numbers, and that the story wasn’t ever going to get any better. The illusion shattered and the game was ruined for me. I sold Final Fantasy XIII almost immediately thereafter.