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The Point of No Return

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Around the time when I got my Nintendo DS along with Square-Enix's 3D remake of Final Fantasy III -- it's now cool to refer to Final Fantasy games without specifying the use of the Japanese numbering system, right? -- I experienced a gaming phenomenon more clearly than I ever had before. At that point I was already a couple dozen hours into the game and the finer aspects of its mechanics, character classes, and general progression of the game were all as well-known to me as they were ever likely to become. I approached the final dungeon with a feeling that I wasn't having fun anymore but I was close enough to the end of the game where stopping seemed absurd. After all it was the final dungeon and my characters seemed buff enough to handle whatever it contained. And they were.

They were buff enough for the first hour or two of that dungeon, anyway. After that I could sense a feeling of fatigue setting in amongst the entire party. Because what my characters were woefully unprepared for was the marathon of random battles, mid-dungeon bosses, and room-after-room in this dungeon that, all told, would take a player three-to-four hours to complete. And the time commitment wasn't a kind one. There isn't, to my knowledge, a single save point in the final portion of that dungeon. I ended up dying at the hands of one of the mid-dungeon bosses -- not only as a result of a lack of character preparedness for the long-slog, but as a result of sitting in the same couch for two or three successive hours dealing with random battle after random battle and eventually deciding: no.

A scenario like that may have been alright when I was growing up, unable to drive, and living in the middle of a rural nowhere. That kind of gameplay is embraced when it's an early Saturday morning in the middle of a Northern Michigan blizzard and the nearest friend is, at the least, eight-nine miles away. More importantly, though, is when a game like Final Fantasy III is one of a mere handful of games that a budding gamer has in his/her possession then that game will get play no matter how grievous its sins may be. When those young gamers get older and start getting more and more responsibilities and, in some cases, additional funds for acquiring a wider variety of games to occupy their time, the kinds of games which were once lauded for their difficulty and time commitment become the kinds of games that are actively avoided.

After that first attempt at beating the final dungeon in Final Fantasy III failed the game then enters a pile of games that I could play but didn't really feel like dealing with. It's a pile of games that gamers look at and worry more about the amount of time it may take to get to "the good stuff" or, more commonly, whether or not a gamer may have enough time to get from one save point to another.

The question about whether to play this game or that then becomes: will I enjoy my limited time with this? Sure, I could spend an hour each night just grinding and grinding to make my Final Fantasy III characters marathon runners instead of sprinters in order to beat that final dungeon the next time I had a four hour time interval of gaming that I wanted to devote to it... But is that really my best option for entertainment for a limited time span?

There is nothing fun about grinding in random battles to increase the levels of single-player characters. The reason that gamers grind is to ready themselves for some sort of reward. In Final Fantasy III that reward may be a new class/ability, a new locale, an advancement of the story, new equipment. That reward, coupled with a general sense of success at overcoming adversity, is the primary incentive for progress in any number of games. There is also a player's interest in "the unknown" -- the sense that if a player overcomes a given hump in a game that they may become privy to a new secret within the game world or some new game mechanic that will enrich the gameplay (which may be stagnating in the player's mind). I have not, in my years of gaming, found someone who was actually motivated by the presence of an enemy encounter isolated of any sense of reward.

The problem with a number of games, and this seems particularly true of RPGs, is that the closer a player gets to the end of a game, the less worthwhile those rewards become. By this point, the player already has his party customized the way he likes, the story already climaxed and is awaiting its resolution, and the player is generally safe in his assumption that there won't be any major changes to the core gameplay. These games also feel the need to make the final dungeon the longest and most difficult aspect of the game, even to the detriment of the pace and balancing of the game up to that point. And there is no time that a player wants to finish a game more than right before its ending. There may be gamers that take the final allowed moment of respite in a game progression to go back and finish every side-quest, explore every nook and cranny of the game's geography, and talk to every imaginable NPC... But these gamers shouldn't be treated as a standard case. The average gamer wants to beat a game, see its ending, and be done with it. And the average gamer doesn't want to have to deal with hours of random encounters to sufficiently build up the abilities of his characters just to finish the final leg of a forty-hour (or more) journey.

Can't we just make the final dungeon something fun? Is there a sect of gamers who considers additional length in a game that has ultimately come to its conclusion an enjoyable game design? This isn't a problem relegated solely to Japanese RPGs but, generally, they make the best examples for the phenomenon. The recent Legend of Zelda games, for instance, seem to start relying more on length and repetition in favor of concise and focused gameplay experiences; typically, this occurs around the fifty-to-sixty percent completion point of these games.

This is not an advocacy for a reduction in difficulty. It's an advocacy for meaningful difficulty. I think of a game like Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden games, EA Blackbox's skate, Rockstar's Midnight Club: Los Angeles, or even a game as simple in design as Bizarre Creation's Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2. where game difficulty is tied directly to the skill of the player. The only barrier in a player's continued progression in these titles is that of the player's abilities. Neither of these games are easy; in fact, I'd probably call both of them two of the most difficult games I've played in the last year but when playing them I feel like I'm actively playing and enjoying the game while having my skills be constantly challenged. I don't feel like I'm playing a segment of the game and preparing myself for some unknown challenge later in the game. The progression of the gameplay is measured through increasingly challenging scenarios where I am actually a better player of the specific game than I was when I started.

Let's avoid ever creating game experiences like Final Fantasy III's final dungeon. There's simply no viable reason to force a player into overcoming some epic gauntlet of mundanity after he/she has already come so far in the course of a given game. The difficulty of a game shouldn't be measured by how long it takes a player to grind or how many mundane activities he/she has to engage in to actually have fun. Or, in the case of Final Fantasy III, difficulty shouldn't just be an otherwise-easy gameplay segment that is made difficult due to a lack of save points or simply an extraordinarily lengthy dungeon. A long game is nice; no one complains about a great game offering an abundance of content and gameplay. It's the games that out stay their welcome where gamers start putting the game down and never picking it back up.
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I loved FF6 and I couldn't agree more. I'm not sure why some designers think that having the endurance to finish their game is a worthwhile challenge. If you wanted to accomplish something, you'd climb a mountain. I think it might be because the developer wants the game to be more than it is ( like a life-changing, emotionally-draining, blood-sweat-and-tears experience ).

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