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Game producers have been producing more difficult RPGs lately. I welcome the idea, but they seem to missing the point. Part of it may be the fault of those of us who wanted harder games, in that we didn't think to tell game designers how we wanted games to be more difficult.
I have seen a number of RPGs which were very difficult, but in the wrong way. With these games, you fight very hard to make it to an all-powerful boss that either takes you out in the second round, or who you never get to attack because you are constantly healing your characters. It doesn't matter what you attempt to do, no matter how creative, you still get whopped on because your characters just aren't strong enough.
Don Wang was right. Heroes do not stop to "level up," and no game should be so difficult that it forces a player to do this. I play RPGs for the story behind them, and I enjoy difficult combat. But no one enjoys impossible combat.
However, I do not believe that most players mind dying one, two, or maybe even three times against a single boss, as long as they beat him on the next attempt. And no one likes a game where the normal creatures require you to use your best attacks and best cures just to stay alive. This type of difficulty comes from not thinking about the player's point of view. I believe that there should be a golden rule of game design regarding difficulty - The player should be able to attain the strength to beat the next boss from the normal gameplay, without being required to go back and "level up."
Designers need to keep in mind what levels the characters would normally be at once reaching that point, and what they would normally be equipped with, and what abilities they would have. I can imagine that this is difficult to do, but if game design was easy, we'd probably all be doing it.
So then, how do you create more difficult games without breaking this rule? The key is strategic difficulty. Make the player think about how he or she should fight this boss, and reward them for their effort. In short, all bosses should have strengths and weaknesses, and while the weaknesses shouldn't be obvious, they shouldn't be completely hidden either. The player should be able to experiment with different styles of attack and using different abilities, and within, say, four attempts (more or less), be able to develop a working strategy that allows the boss to be defeated at their current ability.
This is the type of difficulty we desire, because it tests our creative and observational skills. It challenges us to find that weakness and determine the best way to exploit it. In this way, it allows for combat which feels more realistic in relation to the story. It feels like the characters were in actual danger, that they were actually fighting a more powerful foe, but that they defeated it by outsmarting it. Don't try to be smarter than the players ... try to think at their level. What weaknesses would they spot easily? What ones would be too difficult to find? And another one, does the player need to consciously determine the weakness to exploit it?
That last question gives you several other options. For example, the first time I fought the last boss in Final Fantasy VII, I was defeated due to low levels and unfamiliarily with his battle strategy. I fought him the second time, and with little change in my first strategy, I won. Later, I realized why. His attacks are based around powerful, debilitating techniques, but he is slow. You can recover well enough between his attacks that you can launch a few of your own. That is all it took to defeat a far more powerful adversary... taking advantage of the boss's relative slowness.
Just like being a gamemaster, as a game designer, it is not you against the players. You can win every time, because they have to play by your rules. It is your job to make sure the players have fun, and to tell a good story while doing it (I always add that one, because it is important to me). This means you must think creatively even in enemy creation. You can make a very powerful enemy, as long as you provide a way for the player to outsmart it. Final Fantasy Tactics is a great example of this; who you attacked when and with what made a big difference in the overall progress of the battle. It lived up to its title - Tactics - strategic combat that was won or lost based on your actions as a player, not the character's strength and abilities.
And at least, if you are going to create super-powerful bosses that require leveling-up, then make fighting them optional, like Ruby and Emerald Weapon in Final Fantasy VII.
This is the difficulty I want in the RPGs I play! I want you to challenge me, not the characters in the game. And this is what designers need to keep in mind. I know I will be thinking about this when I start making my own games (which shouldn't be too much longer ... I'm already learning).
Perhaps that should be a golden rule of game design in RPGs: challenging the player is what's important, not challenging the characters. I hope that game designers will take these ten words to heart, because I have better things to do with my time rather than level up just to defeat the next boss. Even though I am disappointed by easy games, I don't want to do that all the time.
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