Iffy Design Choices

There’s elements in games that can overshadow the entire game.  For example, the levelling mechanic in Oblivion is discussed a great deal every time someone brings up playing the game.  I think this is a problem that’s highlighted by the fact that the game is a RPG.  After all, a game that attempts to tell a story over a fairly long game has more time spent with elements and simply more “parts” to the game.  Since JRPGs have game play conventions, you can predict how a typical game is “meant” to be played.   When you’re playing a game for 20 – 80 hours, a minor element in the game can be more annoying just due to expectations and the amount of time you’re dealing with it.  Of course, it may take 5 hours for something to get annoying, so it might help to look at elements that tend to have problems.

IT-HE.org has a walkthrough for Oblivion. In it, it's reccommended to make a custom job class (named here as "Loser") so you don't level up too fast.

Playing around with levelling mechanics tends to be fraught with issues.  Oblivion, for example, attempts to balance the difficulty of the world.  Unfortunately, this means that you can quickly level up in non-fighting related skills, and have end-game armor on bandits just due to earning money or hopping around town.  Illusion of Gaia is heavily on the “action” end of action-rpg, and it basically has limited healing items and limited enemies to fight.  You cannot go back to fight more monsters or gain more healing items.  Lagoon also has limited healing items, and a level cap.  Of course, unusual levelling elements can be fun, but many of these games are purely designed to make the game more difficult and are not designed to allow you to make the game more easy.

This is the exploration screen in Unlimited Saga. Missions tend to have time limits, so you have a hard limit on how long you can explore to try to finish the quest.

Limitations can be problematic in general.  Limiting levelling is usually aimed to reduce tedium and aimed to preserve difficulty.  Other games are designed to limit exploration.  This may be a time limit, or quests that close off, or things of that sort.  Romancing SaGa is designed to close off choices as you level up.  Valkyrie Profile has a hard time limit before the world ends.  Unlimited Saga has a hard time limit for sub-quest style missions.  This means, for example, that it can be nerve racking to pick herbs on a hill, since you have 40 moves to deal with monsters and find the randomized patches of herbs.  What’s the problem with these limits, if they make a different experience and add tension?  Well, first of all, there’s an element of mind reading to guesstimate what you should do with your limited time.  Secondly, some games simply have better choices for your time.  It can be intensely fustrating to find out that you have no reason other than curiousity to do option B, since it’s simply less rewarding.

Shirley from Tales of Legendia is a fragile character that gets captured a lot.

Character designs can break a game.  Wild ARMs 4 has a fairly hamhanded plot line about kids versus adults.  This means that your young hero can quickly get annoying, since he’s used for a lot of the “kids versus adults” plot line, and his voice acting is almost aggressively perky. Shirley, in Tales of Legendia, is a fragile character who gets captured a lot.  Much like Shion in Xenosaga, she’s intended to be endearing and adorable.  Unfortunately, when a character design falls flat, these attempts fail, and the character can be annoying.  This is a place where the length of an average RPG becomes an issue.  If you had 10 hours of a perky kid babbling at you, it might not be so bad.  Get up to 20 hours or more of cutscenes and game play with a character, and even a minor annoyance can be major.

Even if you know the game inside and out, you're probably going to take at least 45 minutes to get to the first battle in Dragon Quest VII.

Introductions are another place where a game can fall flat.  A forced tutorial, or a a long sequence to get out of the first town, for example, can get annoying, especially if you’re replaying the game.  Dragon Quest II, for example, forces you to spend a fair amount of time gathering your partners, and they’re stuck with a pretty wide level range due to that.  At the time the game was made, it was revolutionary to have partners, but from a modern point of view, trying to protect your low level mage gets old.  Star Ocean 2 has a fairly slow introduction with a lot of talking, and a forced sequence before you can get into more open exploration.  Dragon Quest VII is a long game, and the first area in the game has no world map fights.  Instead, you have to travel to a new area, and only then can you finally start fighting battles.  This is particularly annoying since there’s a fair number of steps involving walking around, going to bed to advance the plot, and exploring areas.

Shion, in the first Xenosaga game, annoyed some players, since her bubbly personality was at odds with her work on military androids.

Now, a lot of these choices are coming out of good intentions.  Cutting out grinding or changing the formula for how you get stronger in a game is an admirable choice. Making each game experience different adds replayability and shortens the game time.  An adorable character, or one with a strong personality can be the best part of a game.  It’s when these things don’t work or don’t work in a way that the player likes, that things go bad.  How can a game make this more tolerable?  One way would be to allow a way to make the game easier, if things aren’t working, or to tweak the difficulty very carefully.  Another way is to make sure that if someone takes event path A over B, they will end up with an equivalent strength and plot materials.  Provide feedback to the player, so they can tell that they’re making informed decisions about what they choose to do.  Letting a player choose their party or turn off voice work can do a lot for improving an annoying character.  Finally, when designing an introduction to a game, skippable cutscenes (to cut down on the amount of repeated conversations,) and minimal time wasting (to cut down on the time it takes to repeat the actions) helps.

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