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.
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 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.
Poison 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!