Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dialogue vs Combat (Part 2)

In my previous post I covered the issues presented by having a lot of dialogue. So now it's time to cover the issues with having a lot of combat. In the final part, I'll discuss the reasons both are important, and some options for balancing the two.

Periods of extended combat without something to further the plot or character development are in great danger of becoming repetitive to the player unless something is done to vary the experience for the player. I'm sure you've all experienced this from time to time - too much repetition makes for a boring game.

Dragon Age's prime example is The Deep Roads, with lots and lots of combat with very little plot between. Despite a couple of high points with a battle in a t-junction that just wouldn't end and a spider queen that decimated my party several times and forced me to switch up my tactics, the lack of narrative made it drag a little. Another example would be the tedious task of closing Oblivion gates in Oblivion, after the first few, you just ended up repeating the same thing over and over again.

Great, another Oblivion gate. Is there some kind of "Frequent Gater Program" I can join?

Another bugbear for designers when dealing with combat is the difficulty. For starters, there's the whole "levelled enemies/encounters" debate. For those not familiar with the concept, the idea is that enemies are also around the same strength as your character no matter when you encounter them in the game. While this gives great flexibility to the player in that they can choose where they wish to go, allowing them to experience the game in a different "order", it does have plot consistency issues.

Ah, yes. Glass armor wearing bandits. I thought we had dismissed those claims.

A player heads to an area where "an ancient evil" (or equivalent deadly cliche) poses a grave threat to the area and the entire town/city/state/region/world. Your adventurer fights and prevails in a hard-fought battle. Yet a few levels later, "grunt" enemies actually present a greater physical threat to the character because of the levelling system. Plus, unless the designer makes an effort to place in some battle with unlevelled enemies, that player may not get the feeling over becoming overwhelming powerful.

Again, I'll level some criticism at Dragon Age (Yes, I'm a rabid BioWare fanboy, but that doesn't mean I can't see faults in their games) for some of the battles near the end of the game when you were fighting "one-shot-kill" enemies. This didn't so much give you a sense of achievement that you had become powerful, but more got you thinking you'd just been sent to fight the darkspawn "B-Team". Immediately either side of a couple of battles where you were facing off against the "one-shot-horde", you had to deal with "regular" darkspawn that took a significant amount of effort to kill.

Are you done yet, Leliana? It's a little boring just standing around here.

Even ignoring that issue, the problem of balance is tough given the gamut of players. A quick read through forums for most games (and this isn't exclusive to RPGs) will find you reading posts both decrying the game as too easy and too hard. You'll have players who find the game almost impossible on "Easy", but others declaring it a boring cakewalk on "Nightmare" difficulty. Combat is inherently difficult to balance because of the dramatically varying skill levels of players, combined with their egos and desire to play a game on a specific skill setting. Some players don't like turning the difficulty down to easy because "they're better than that" and will endure hours of frustration or even stop playing the game for a while rather than drop the game down from one of the higher difficulty levels. Some will even complain about a fight being too hard because they've been defeated easily several times but haven't thought about trying some different tactics.

So there are (some of) the challenges faced by a design when presenting combat to the player. There are other issues I haven't covered (but if you feel they are particularly important, please tell me!) because it's a complex subject. That said, it is an area well worth studying, as interesting combat is probably the bulk of the gameplay of an RPG; if the gameplay is boring, the game is boring.

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