Game Mechanics: False Choice

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Today, I want to talk a bit about game balance combined with what I call “False Choice” in video games.

To start off, I want to point out that I’m going to be using a single game, Final Fantasy Tactics, as my example game to criticize for false choices. As a preface: I really love Final Fantasy Tactics. I think it is an amazing game, and if you haven’t played it, I would suggest giving it a try. It is by far not a perfect game though. It has some really poor design decisions, and I’m very aware of these flaws.

Now that that is out of the way:

What is False Choice?

To explain false choice, let’s look at the jobs in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Wow! 21 Different Classes!

Wow! 21 Different Classes!

That seems like a log, but let’s be honest, how many of those are actually viable choices. Not viable because you can really beat the game with any combination of classes (you can, its not really a very difficult game) but viable in that they compete with each other.

A lot of jobs just are straight out worse than others, and some are only useful when they are using another jobs abilities. Magic classes, in general, are not that good because they rely on both MP and have to wait on their abilities to go off on timers. Not only that, but because of the way stat growth is calculated, you would be crazy not to level your characters in strong physical classes, due to PA growth varying among classes, and MA growth being the same across all classes (with the exception of some special classes and the Mime).

So how does this apply to your game? When you add something think to yourself: Why would a character use this ability instead of all the other abilities he has access to? Why would a person use magic when attacks do just as much damage AND don’t consume any resources?

Even if they don’t use resources in the way you generally think of (HP/MP/TP), they still take a resource that is generally overlooked in most game design: Actions. Remember, no one is going to use a skill, job, or ability if another one works better.

Status Effects

Status Effects are a specific area where you see the Action economy being ignored. Let’s look at an ubiquitous status effect as it is used in Final Fantasy Tactics.

FFT_PoisonPoison exists in so many games, but in so very few is it actually WORTH using. In Final Fantasy Tactics for instance, poison will actually do enough damage to equal one other spellcasting, after about 10 rounds maybe. And keep in mind Poison can MISS. What battle lasts that long? Just hit the enemy with Flare or another high level Black Mage spell instead.

What you want instead, are abilities like Mustadio’s Arm and Leg Aim skills. These skills can be used at weapon range (which you definitely want him using a gun) to add Don’t Move or Don’t Act to an enemy. Yes, they can still miss, but they effectively remove an enemy from the battle for short periods of time. They are an actual CHOICE, as they do something different than straight attacking, but aren’t inferior to straight attacking. Its a situational skill, but its useful.

Punishing a Player for Trying out New Things

Another issue where Final Fantasy Tactics is flawed and presents false choices is that the game actively punishes you for trying out different things. What do I mean?

Stat growth. Every time you level up, your stats go up based on which job you have equipped. This on the surface seems to make sense: if you play as a mage more, you should have more magelike stats, if you play as a knight more you should have more knightlike stats.

BUT, here is the issue: It doesn’t allow your player to mess around with anything. If they want the best characters, they need to stick tightly to a plan, and level only in the “best classes”. Want to try out the Bard job for a bit? Well, have fun losing out on several points of PA and tons of HP and MP.

So how does this apply to your game: Don’t needlessly prevent the player from dabbling with their characters. Choices are important, but any time where the wrong choices handicap you permanently is a terrible idea.

Have a skill allocation system? Make sure you either get plenty of skill points so that a few extra here and there don’t hurt OR include respeccing. Same for stat allocations.

Permanent handicaps suck. You get 75% through a game, find out your characters are gimped, and the only way to fix it is to reset the game and start over from the beginning. No one wants to do that. They would generally rather drop your game entirely than start over from the beginning.

Choice should create a different play environment, NOT create a worse play environment. Don’t include skills that aren’t as effective as other skills, don’t include game choices that handicap the players, and don’t include two thousand ways of building a character when only about a dozen are really viable.

Had experience with this problem in game design? Want to talk about it? Join the conversation in the comment section below!

 

23 comments… add one

  • Rob June 17, 2013, 12:28 pm

    Your point about punishing players is why Skyrim was the first Elder Scrolls game that I actually cared to play to completion. The previous games made me so anxious about stat growth that I played in bizarre ways to get the character I wanted. The road to burnout was short. In Skyrim, I could try out all the different verbs, even if some weren’t super effective until you further filled out their talent trees.

    • Nick Palmer June 17, 2013, 12:31 pm

      I still haven’t managed to play Skyrim. I liked Daggerfall, but wasn’t fond of Morrowind and Oblivion. Need to give Skyrim a try eventually but I’ve been painfully busy.

      • Rob June 17, 2013, 12:51 pm

        You’re in for a treat when you get a chance. Though the game still suffers from some false choice problems, you’ll find you have plenty of room to experiment and dodge the few lousy choices.

        If you’ve got a moment, what are your thoughts on bosses with status effect immunity? I always hate it when I come up with a clever way to fight, but boss design forces me to revert to lumberjacking through hit points. Have you seen any RPGs find a happy medium on the issue?

        • Matt June 17, 2013, 1:44 pm

          Final Fantasy has given one freebies by making “Phoenix Downs” kill all undead instantly, even bosses, so it’s a compromise for when that isn’t possible.

          • Dominik June 18, 2013, 6:07 am

            I almost forgot about that!
            In a way, it’s cool if there are problems that appear huge, but you can actually apply little tricks like the PD on undead bosses. In another way, it can obviously be a bit anti-climactic, but shouldn’t be game-breaking if it’s not a majority of the game.

        • Nick Palmer June 17, 2013, 1:51 pm

          The SMT games tend to still have status immunities on bosses, but they tend to have a lot on the buff/debuff that is really awesome.

    • Dominik June 18, 2013, 5:59 am

      I think TEV: Skyrim is an excellent example of the “false choices” topic:
      They removed so many consequences that it’s – in my opinion – not even fun anymore. The trick is balance.

      If you have a game where you make one tiny little gesture and it completely wipes out 80% of your options and isn’t worth it, that will frustrate players and you’ll end up with “better” choices.
      However, if a developer is so afraid like Bethesda is, and reduces consequences (i.e. reactions to decisions, ergo the gameplay itself) to a puddle of glue, making it impossible to be insatisfied and not become a demi-god, it lacks challenge and the feeling of realism. It’s not believable anymore, the world feels “fake”.

      Now, when you play an RPG, there are things to consider:
      a) Do you want to be able to play the game forever or does it have an end and multiple cycles?
      b) Do you make the game a game about decisions or not?
      c) How much reward:punishment ratio is healthy?
      d) How severe are the consequences?
      e) Can you still play the game as a thief instead of a warrior?
      f) Can the player even know what his choices will do?

      That said, a game like Baldur’s Gate is really unforgiving. You choose your class and you have to stick to it. There is little you can do about it and it can make you feel “stuck” at some points where you simply don’t feel that your character can survive the journey any longer. (However, it’s party-based, so it’s not really an issue.)
      Then you have games like “Way of the Samurai” where you die and you’re DEAD. No returning back to life. You’re just gone. That might sound harsh, but it actually plays out REALLY well, because the decision which’s consequence is death, is not THAT brutal: You get to play with all you’ve gathered, the story anew.

      Something like in the WotS series is not possible in a big exploration based RPG like TESIII: Morrowind, since many people would feel quite pissed off about having to explore everything again. Then again, you already know the map, so that is not that big of a problem; if you started again with your last cycle’s weapons, it’d be a fair game. The core problem is really that:

      Are there wrong choices or are there simply DIFFERENT choices?
      And if “wrong”: Does the player want to think, put effort into the game, concentrate, try hard and deal with the consequences, or does he expect the game to always give mercy and make him a demi-god?

      I just quickly want to remind of Fire Emblem, where dead characters stay dead. You can play the game with the consequences, just like in real life, but we want everything. We don’t like to make compromises.
      I think a good game designer knows how to make compromises balanced and appealing, but if the audience is spoiled, then only Skyrim will appeal to them, if you catch my message.

  • Blazed Soul June 17, 2013, 1:29 pm

    when i saw “false choice” i thought it was something like Etrian Oddyssey (NDS) where someone asked you “have you seen him?” you could answer yes or not, but if you want to anwer yes without knowin where he is the game only let you answer “no”, well reading this i learned a lot, in my personal point of view i like choices in the storyline that actually have an effect in the progress of the story or in endings (thats why i play lot of visual novels) but what about that kind of choices like etrian oddyssey? are good? bad?

    • ZzXx June 18, 2013, 4:23 am

      They are obviously bad, they are pretending to give the player choices, if you have no decision to make, you have no reason to select “options”, this is a big flaw in games like Dragon Quest, where NPCs asks questions to the player that have only one possible answer, while the other keeps you in a loop with a bullshit excuse like “I dont think you understood me” and asking the same question again, in other words devs are removing a big and great part of RPGs (choice making) and still have the players railroading.

  • Ron June 17, 2013, 2:36 pm

    I think Fantasy is a maker of the team, they can create multiple Classes, then the game will be more diverse: D

  • Ben June 17, 2013, 4:18 pm

    Well said! I think this is a fundamental error in so many games. Even WoW had this problem in the early game, which is why they totally redid their spell system and now redid their talent system. They found it was difficult to create 50 talents per tree with three trees and make them all balanced. While this was great for the people who knew how to spot an advantage in a talent tree, it was horrible for the people who just put talent points into whatever sounded cool. I think the best way to think of skill balance is to apply a weight system to each skill. 1-10, 10 being the best while 1 is the worst. All skills should come out to weigh about the same. If you have 2 talents, one increases stats, while the other increases damage percentage, then they should each end up benefitting just as much as the other, whether one increases health, while the other increase damage. WoW is a great example of how stats and talent points had to evolve together to become eventually balanced. Not sure I am making sense any more so I will end it here. Good article though =)

  • Aeonspark June 18, 2013, 1:44 am

    When experimentation is punished, as with many RPG’s with stat/skill allocations, you’re left wondering why you have a choice at all.

  • ZzXx June 18, 2013, 4:14 am

    FFT is such an unbalanced game it made players start to question balancing and fairness in RPGs and Strategic games, it was so broken even people who never cared about it started to question the balance in the game.

    • Nick Palmer June 20, 2013, 9:27 am

      It would be easier to not care about the balance in FFT if it wasn’t such a good game in so many other ways.

    • the July 13, 2013, 12:42 am

      Or you just don’t know how to play it. Finished the game 7 times, not once did I have an issue with balance. There are part to balance in FFT that most people don’t even realize exist, such as the Brave and Faith factors and the zodiac symbols, for example. It didn’t get best game of the year 2 years in a row for nothing.

      • Nick Palmer July 14, 2013, 7:35 am

        The thing is, most of the balance issues are things that you notice the MORE you look into it. A game shouldn’t get less fun the more you understand it.

  • ShadowJ June 18, 2013, 5:44 am

    I understand what all the fuss is all about but False choice is an unavoidable, I admit it is fun to go through a game making the absolute wrong decisions for character growth and wonder why everything is so hard but you can’t avoid it (No matter how hard you try). False choice can be amusing and frustrating.

    Idea: Make a game with tons of false choice
    Thought: Do something Irrational
    Method: Destuction
    Quoting myself: “It’s not over yet. We are just getting started. [manical laugh]”
    Word(s) of the moment: False choice

  • SLEEP June 18, 2013, 9:16 pm

    Final Fantasy Tactics Advance fixed these issues, by overall reducing game difficulty. This increased the number of successful combinations, but took a lot of the tactical part away from Tactics, so it didn’t work out well!

    Balancing difficulty and choice are hard. A developer may balance for the power players, and based off their internal knowledge of systems, which leads to the game being too tricky for anyone who doesn’t understand the mechanics on the same level as the developer (who is… everyone else). For RPG Makers who are doing tactical games, I guess the takeaway would be to get some gameplay blind beta testers!

  • JoetheJRPGManiac June 23, 2013, 2:11 pm

    So just to clarify, do you mean skills that are weaker but different altogether or lower level spells with weaker effects(Cure 1, Cure 2) shouldn’t be included, either way great article.

    • Nick Palmer June 26, 2013, 2:03 pm

      Tiering spells don’t bother me as much. The idea though is that every skill should be useful at SOME PHASE of the game, and not be something you get and never use. Basically if you got Cure 1 after you got Cure 2 I would start to question why.

  • Xavion July 1, 2013, 9:29 am

    I’ve played FFT, and I agree with ShadowJ. I enjoy the frustration on how hard it is to win, and dislike Skryim, losing everything. In Skyrim, if you die because of a hard boss, you can reload the game and level up to get stronger, then kill him. You can do the same thing in tactics, but the boss gets harder as well. There is no escaping the inevitable,that you made the wrong choice somewhere along the road. So you restart the game, level up crazily outside of the story, then die. I like these games that are simple, yet complex. Its easy to play, but hard to know to play, to be a tactician, hence the name. Once you’ve died, you realize what you did wrong and try again. You repeat this, learning All of the wrong choices, and then get hang of the game. Then its gets boring and simple, because the challenge is gone.

    • Nick Palmer July 1, 2013, 11:00 am

      Actually, nothing scales in FFT but random battles. There are some fan made patches that change that though. FFT is overall a very easy game when it comes to the storyline unless you purposefully underlevel or restrict yourself a lot.

      The only real “exception” to the difficulty were some of the protect missions, but that wasn’t because of strategy but because of dumb luck and the AI for the person you are supposed to protect can be really stupid at times “HEY LETS RUN HEADLONG INTO THE ENEMY WOOOO”

      • the July 13, 2013, 12:45 am

        The 13 monk or 10 Red/Black Chocobo battles… insane at lvl 99.

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