It's the Gameplay, Stupid
by J. Matthew Sloderbeck
I sometimes wonder how designers "plan" out a game's difficulty. Do they just make a conscious decision that Gallant Adventurers of Monster Elimination (GAME) is going to be so hard that the player's going to discover the secret of cold fusion before he beats it? Or is it the simple flip of a coin, where they look down on their creation and say, "Y'know, GAME needs more dragons -- let's put seventeen in the Final Dungeon, just to surprise 'em?"
I'm certain that designers have to carefully weigh the decision of difficulty against playability, as it's the final decision that can sometimes make or break the success of a game. Difficulty is more of a visible factor in action and fighting games, where the "twitch factor" can be unbelievably high. Watching the gamers who're truly gifted at playing such games like Ninja Gaiden, God of War, or entries in the Street Fighter and Dead or Alive series can be an awe-inspiring experience for those of us who appreciate just how hard these games can be, and how experienced those players truly are.
But what about RPGs -- how does a designer balance such a game between difficulty and gameplay? Let's count out the "impossible" boss battles that crop up from time to time when your party faces a foe that it's meant to lose to in order to further progress the story. Is it good to make a game very challenging for many, or even too challenging for some? Or should that difficulty be eased or lessened to make it more palatable for a wider audience, and perhaps create a focus more on end game content or replay value?
The RPGs of Yesteryear were limited by technology or by their own creators intentions. Sometimes these games are overcompensated in terms of difficulty to make the game "last longer." Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story are two examples. In the case of Tactics, the game itself seems to be flawed and sometimes skewed towards making the game very difficult at times, with its cheap tactics and powerful boss battles. That isn't to say that Tactics couldn't be beaten, but as random enemies leveled up with your own party, it made keeping a step ahead of your opponents challenging at times. Oftentimes the only way to survive a particular battle would be rushing the boss and hoping for a lucky break. Vagrant Story, on the other hand, found its difficulty raised through what was, in theory, an realistic system based on physical limitations: as you attack your opponents and create "chain combos" over multiple strikes, continuing said combos over and over would tire out the character you controlled. Only through the use of certain items could this "exhaustion" be reversed. But because of limited means and the abundance of enemies, combat could drag on and sometimes be almost impossible to win, requiring bothersome and time-consuming item management to the Nth degree. Then there are the games that are just downright hard. An example would be Shining in the Darkness, which combined first-person dungeon crawling through an enormous, multi-layered maze, while having enemies occasionally attack your party on a two-for-one basis. A good deal of back-tracking was necessary to move forward with the game's story, and you had limited funds for expensive items and equipment.
When games are too difficult, it leads to frustration on the part of its player base. These gamers put down good money for something meant to entertain them, and getting a game that focuses more on the challenge of the hunt than the prize to be won is doing those players a disservice. A game can and should be made richer and more worth playing without kicking the difficulty level into the stratosphere. There are plenty of older games to draw on as examples of this. Many games in the recent years have eased up in terms of difficulty compared to their old-school counterparts, turning their focus more to presentation and deeper content. Players can level their parties up as high as they wish (consider Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, where a character can go to level 9999), and games can add more difficult content for those who wish to make use of it (Final Fantasy IV Advance left the original story virtually unchanged, and added two new, more difficult dungeons to explore for those more-curious gamers willing to take the risks.)
In the battle between a game being too difficult versus not difficult enough, it's obvious that nobody wants an RPG to be a total cakewalk. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest proved that easily enough. A game with no difficulty, or one with a very limited difficulty, isn't what anyone wants. Part of the thrill of beating the game in the first place is knowing that you overcame the odds stacked against you. But in the end, an RPG should more about the content contained inside of it, and everything it offers to prolong the experience of the gamer. It shouldn't be working hard to make the final boss as much of a hard-ass as possible.
Haven't I Fought You Before?
by Josh Martz
I often find myself playing games and wondering, "why is enemy X even here?" Sometimes, there just isn't a point in defeating enemies due to the extreme ease in killing them, and this is a problem. Like many other genres, the player is expected to be faced with challenges that either test their intelligence, patience, or manual dexterity. Every so often, the experience is tainted with a severe lack in difficulty.
Developers definitely have to make sacrifices when making games. They have to make sure to balance all sorts of issues, one of the larger ones being between difficulty and enjoyability. This applies to all genres, not just RPGs, and all of us have undoubtedly played games of all difficulty levels that have been quite enjoyable. But why were those games pleasant? What aspects of those experiences determined whether we liked, loved, or hated the game?
I know personally that while many games can be fun when they are easy, it sometimes seems that more of a challenge can be not only a breath of fresh air, but also an even more enjoyable experience. This isn't to say that more difficulty equals more fun, but I'd rather play a game that requires me to use my noggin rather than performing the same menial tasks over and over again. Coming upon a boss in an RPG that beats me, while aggravating at first, only fuels my desire to overcome the obstacle and continue on.
The largest problem concerning difficulty is that many people have already been spoiled by ease in the past. I can't even begin to count the number of RPGs on the PSX that were pleasant, but were nowhere near as fulfilling as they could have been. This was because as the game progressed, not only did I realize that the game was easy growing, but my enjoyment decreased. Final Fantasy VII was a great game, but as I continued to play, it became more and more tedious to continue. While the story was what kept me going, I'd be lying if I wasn't disappointed with the last levels of the game. I never even sat down and levelled up, nor did I have the summonable Knights of the Round on the first time through, and it was still a walk in the park. While many of the current RPG demographic has a large place in their hearts for this game, wouldn't they have enjoyed it more if they had said, "Man, it took some doing, but I finally beat Sephiroth!!! This was how I did it, etc., and it was pretty ingenious, if I do say so myself!" I know I always appreciated it when I destroyed the final boss in any RPG in a stellar fashion.
Take Deus from Xenogears. He's got those four glowing orbs around him that contain four different bosses which each control some special attack of Deus, and defeating one disables that attack when you fight him. Some of those guys are quite difficult. A lot of the difficulty stems from the fact that you have limited HP, Fuel, and such things to make it through the different battles, so sometimes you had to pick and choose which bosses you fought. I eventually determined which two of the skills were the most devastating, and defeated Deus after killing the two sub-bosses. The extreme sense of satisfaction after beating that game was overwhelming. Not only did that game provide a challenging form of difficulty, it was complimented by the great story, interesting (yes, this is subjective, I know) battle system, and overall good gameplay. But just like any good story needs a thrilling climax, an RPG needs a final attack against all odds, with your party face-to-face with the ultimate enemy.
All fluff aside, this is what I want and need: an RPG that increases in difficulty, but never to the point where you can steamroll over enemies, while on the other end of the spectrum, it never becomes so hard that enemies just mercilessly pound you to death. I want bosses that provide a challenge to the point where, while it is possible to beat them on the first try, figuring out the appropriate way to beat them takes some learning. Obviously, this can only be done with a competent battle system, as many of them are just an exercise in monotony, unfortunately.
All in all, while difficulty isn't the most important aspect of a game, it can certainly make the game more enjoyable in the end. You don't want too many games like Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest hanging around, because, well, it was the epitome of easiness. But, you also don't want games like Unlimited Saga, because that game was hard to the point of pure irrationality. What we need is a challenge, not a handout.