Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Game difficulty (Part 6)

When dealing with game difficulty, the RPG tends to be somewhat of a "special case" compared to many other games. In most games, much of the skill of the game and the prowess of the players comes as a result of their reaction time and finesse in using the game's control system in order to succeed. In an FPS, a better player is quicker at aiming and getting a headshot. In an RTS, much of the game revolves around the player's ability to micromanage their units in battle and multitask building, expanding and attacking.

In an RPG, the player's choice of skills play a very significant part in their combat effectiveness, and doubly so when it is not possible to change these choices part way through the game. In effect a significant portion of their skill level is determined by their ability to calculate how to maximse their character's effectiveness, typically by maximising their DPS - Damage Per Second. This isn't to say that player skill doesn't play some factor in determining skill level, and in MMOs there are definitely players who excel at PvP (Player vs Player) combat which requires the ability to quickly adapt to the actions of the enemy and counter them. This is somewhat different to the mostly ordered experience from PvE (Player vs Environment) raids, where the player (or group of players) must use their skills to deal with a series of scripted encounters where the computer controlled enemies behave mostly the same each time.

Another key issue is that even though there may be some skill involved in playing RPGs, this is somewhat undermined by the fact that RPGs feature a levelling system that means that lower level characters are always weaker than higher level characters. After playing for long enough, the player's character grows in power by levelling up, getting access to new skills and abilities that can eventually combine in order to help them prevail in situations that they could not hope to succeed previously. Thus the increase in the player's power comes as a result of perseverance rather than an increased level of skill of mastery of the game's controls. The player is given a sense of achievement and increased sense of power and prowess, despite the fact that their skill level in terms of handling the game's controls and understanding its mechanics may not have increased at all. There is a false sense of reward in that the player is given increased power through their levelled up character, when all they have done to achieve that increased power is simply to persevere with playing the game.

Even the most skilled player in the world cannot defeat Onyxia at level 1... or even level 30.

A significant number of RPGs don't require a large amount of active player skill in order for the player to prevail. Knowing which mechanics provide an overwhelming advantage or which abilities combine to deal significant blows to the enemy is much of the differentiation between player skill levels. Games with turn-based or semi-turn-based mechanics are still popular, although they have been slowly losing ground to real-time games for many years. Big name turn-based strategy games are sparse when compared to their real-time counterparts, and the closest you'll see to a turn-based first person shooter is VATS in Fallout 3/New Vegas.

However, this having a calculation/knowledge-centric difficulty is not necessarily a "bad" thing, but it is definitely something that people involved in dealing with the difficulty of RPGs must bear in mind. Many RPG fans like that their success in the game is not determined by the speed of their reactions, but how they can utilise the skills they have in order to succeed, using tactics to identify the weaknesses in enemies and how to use the powerful abilities at their disposal to overcome challenges. The potential problem for the designer is that the player can increase their skill level through reading a guide rather than the practice of playing the game.

There are potentially good and bad implications for this, but I will discuss those in a subsequent post...

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