Problems in Rarity or Secrets

For many people, RPGs scratch a completionist itch.  There’s strategy guides, for example, on completing various games with 100% of everything – and that means one of every item, fighting every enemy, opening all the chests, and seeing everything the game has to offer.  Some games offer rewards when you complete all the maps or fight everything in the bestiary.  Other games are infamous for having complex or annoying secrets.

One problem with secrets is that the average person does not understand probability that well.  If you read up on casinos, for example, you’ll hear the common comment that the average person assumes their odds are better than reality.  If you have a one in five chance to get something, many people assume you need about five attempts to get it.  Some games actually lie about your probabilities to get them to be closer to people’s assumptions.  This means that the average player will be frustrated quickly if the randomizer isn’t being kind.  In Dragon Quest IX, for example, there’s an item called the silver platter.  It pops up in low level treasure chests, and usually is found at the very start of the game.  If your luck isn’t with you, they also pop up in one of the very last areas in the game.  I am getting near that point in the story, and have not found a single silver platter.  They’re statistically pointless by this point, but it’s frustrating that they’re so oddly rare.

Another problem is that there’s a natural inclination to do something if there’s a positive reward.  Let’s look at Margulis in Xenosaga.  He attacks the party at one point early in the game.  This is a typical “You’re not supposed to win this” kind of fight, but it is possible to win it.  Just about every strategy for beating this fight involves statements like “This may take thirty minutes to beat him” or “Make sure you have a Stim item.”  In the long run, forcing yourself to beat Margulis just to get the rare item could be a lot less fun than just assuming you can’t win.  However, if you want to get that rare item, you’ll be stuck attempting to beat him.  Now, add in that he’s got a second even more rare item that could appear.

Margulis, all in all, is simply a challenging optional fight, much like getting all the Genji armor off of Gilgamesh in Final Fantasy V.  Let’s look at Final Fantasy III DS.  Final Fantasy III DS has an odd job system.  Each action in battle gives you points to leveling up your job, which max out at about 6 – 8 actions per battle transferring to points.  At the end of the next battle, you have a chance to level up if your points are high enough.  Excess points are saved toward your next level.  This means that if you do a great job against a boss, you’ll actually be less likely to level your job.  If you’re efficient and doing well in the game, you’ll lag back in stats and job levels, and actually have a slightly weaker character since your job levels give you bonuses when you level up.  This is particularly annoying since it’s never explained in the game, and it’s very different from Final Fantasy V’s system.

At one point in the game, you can steal a spear off of Odin.  To do this, you need a good deal of luck (since he’s got some very hard hitting attacks) and a job level of 71 to have a chance at stealing it.  The only other item of note is a protect ring.  Everything else in the game mostly gives you healing items, and you’d still need to be a high job level to get a good one.  In my mind, this basically means that thieves are almost useless.  You don’t need the job class for speed bonuses (since you can get that speed elsewhere.)  You don’t need them to steal the two interesting items in the entire game, since you’d have to game the system for them to be a high enough level to do it.  You can use them to unlock doors and deal with chests, but that doesn’t mean they’re handy as thieves in battle.

While the spear’s the best weapon for dragoons, you don’t really need it to finish the game.  There’s nothing interesting plot wise about it, and it’s merely just a very well hidden weapon.  So, let’s look at one of the most infamous weapons in Final Fantasy XII.  The Zodiac spear has plot ties to Final Fantasy Tactics, which is another game set in the same “world” as Final Fantasy XII.  A good example of how to find this spear is on the Final Fantasy Wikia.  To find the spear, you need to not open four chests, go to a specific place, and open that chest.  If you mess this up, you have a 1 in 1000 chance to find the spear in another chest.  Would the average player even know that the spear exists?  Probably not.  In fact, the International Zodiac Job System version of the game removes the requirement to not open the four forbidden chests.

For me, stealing items in Final Fantasy V is pretty tolerable.  You can be ridiculously powerful even without the most amazing equipment, and you can steal some great items.  Just about every boss has something great to steal.  I suppose my complaint with Final Fantasy III DS is that the stealing is usually pointless throughout the entire game.  Since the player has no way of knowing that there is something to find, it’s annoying that there’s something hidden there.  Final Fantasy XII is the same way, but it’s more annoying because the spear has a slight plot significance.

Xenogears actually pleasantly surprised me when I first played it. There’s a hidden cut scene in Aveh with a small amount of plot.  You’re not forced to find it, and you get no items from finding it.  I never helped the kids with their playhouse because I never triggered the sequence.  I did find Midori’s ring (though I picked it up later in the game.)  I never won Rock Paper Scissors, because I had a terrible time playing the game.  I never got the Trader card.  However, I never needed any of that to feel like I got everything I reasonably wanted out of the game, and I know pretty much how I could get those items – much like I know that I just need to beat Margulis.

I suppose the breaking point for me is when the solution to the puzzle is so obscure that I’d literally need the solution in front of me.  That’s not a challenge at all.

  1. Lx4’s avatar

    Great post! One of the most interesting video game related blog posts I have read in a long time.

    I have one comment however

    “…the average person does not understand probability that well. … If you have a one in five chance to get something, many people assume you need about five attempts to get it.”

    Then they would be assuming correctly. If the probability of an event is 1/5 we can expect it to happen once in 5 attempts.

  2. glown’s avatar

    FFIIIDS must be pretty different from the original, I guess. I don’t remember a weird job level system like that. I do remember that to get the “best weapons/armor in the game” you have to steal it from dragons that appear very very rarely in the final area and only sometimes drop the item you want. Spamming save states can make things like that more tolerable, but it’s still a major pain.

    Games that prettymuch require you to have a strategy guide or previous knowledge of its mechanics to do well are kind of annoying, and that’s been the main factor keeping me from the Megaten games. I played Nocturne recently and luckily my girlfriend was there to point out certain things (don’t open chests unless the moon is full, for instance) I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. Needing to be specific places at specific times with specific parameters to attain a secret item that is needed to fuse a secret demon – there’s just too much!

  3. jackal27’s avatar

    Dude! I’m loving this blog! Great articles and games I’ve never even heard of! Awesome! How do you feel about roguelikes or dungeon crawlers?

  4. Rav’s avatar

    I’ve played a fair amount of rogue likes in my day. I’m pretty terrible at them, since I don’t really have the memory span to, say, do a Nethack run. I can do the early game in TOME and I finished a game once in the Genesis Fatal Labyrinth.

    For me, I think a roguelike tends to use secrets as part of the puzzle. So ADOM, for example, basically kills tons of new players until they learn enough to survive, and then kills them again when they hit more difficult stuff.

    Thanks for the postive words! I’ll check out your blog too.

  5. Rav’s avatar

    Yeah, glown, they changed around the job system in the remake. The best equipment was mostly hidden in areas, as I remember.

    Megaten, from what I’ve played it, can be plowed through, but knowing what to do let’s you break the game. I guess it’s a bit like the SaGa series that way? I managed to finish the Persona 1 game for PSX just via fumbling around. I only needed a guide for the best ending and the last dungeon map.

  6. Rav’s avatar

    Not exactly, Lx4. While yes, you should find an item in 5 attempts, if the chance is one in 5, it’s consistently 1 in 5 for every attempt.

    So, take my example of those dang Silver Platters. I’ve tried about a hundred times to get one out of a chest.

    The probability, officially, is 1 in 5. Still haven’t managed to hit that chance yet.

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