On Redundant Game Mechanics
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”
I always remember the first time I heard that quote, I was playing Civ 4, and I just stopped and thought, “that is the best thing about design I have ever heard.”
And yet, Games Designers constantly ignore this gem of wisdom, cramming in extra mechanics and bits that they’ll never be able to finish, building systems on top of older mechanics and established game ideas unquestioningly as a lazy shortcut. It is a real pet hate of mine, and it’s the reason I will argue until my dying day that Final Fantasy 13 is a much better game than a lot of people give it credit for and its ancestor, FF6, is…overrated (dun dun duuun unpopular opinion!).
Portal is a masterpiece of games design. There is nothing pointless in Portal. There’s nothing that doesn’t add to the experience, and everything works. We can all agree on that right? But I’m sure you’re now saying “Yeah, but get back to talking about RPGs because it’s easy for a simple, short puzzle game with two characters to be minimalist, but surely that’s impossible when you’re trying to make a deep, challenging RPG system with several party members and a 30 hour plus complex plot! And what do you mean, FF13 is better than FF6, you heathen!?”
Okay, so I’m not saying FF6 is a bad game here or that 13 is perfect, but FF6 does have some serious issues with redundant, messy and bloated design throughout which a modern games designer worth their salt would want to fix. Let me do some comparisons and explanations here:
OH MY GOD LOOK AT THIS RIDICULOUS CLUSTERFUCK ^
So we have stats. Lots of stats….all the stats… Strength governs how much damage a physical attack will do. Okay. Speed is how fast your ATB bar moves…okay, if slightly redundant due to it being very hard to make a character significantly faster than others outside of Haste status so a modern designer would almost certainly do away with it. Stamina is… how much HP you regain from regen status? NO, REALLY. There is a specific character stat for that!? WHY? Why would I ever waste time raising a stat with such a tiny niche role!? Magic is how effective magic attacks are and is the best stat in the game (balance? What is balance!?). Attack is…okay, get this, it’s how much physical damage you do! Oh but isn’t that what the strength stat is for? YES, Yes it is. “Oh but see, it’s how much damage you do with your weapon combined with your strength!” …Strength does NOTHING BUT physical damage calculation and I will never be in a situation where my weapons are taken away, so there is absolutely no purpose to having a separate value! Defence is how much damage reduction you have vs. Physical attacks…Er…except it’s NOT. Because the stats were such a clusterfuck of redundant values and there are so many stats that boil down to “how many hits can I take?” and most armours raise both phys def and m.def, nobody on the development team noticed that this stat does nothing and all attacks are treated as magical attacks!!! WTF, right!? (they didn’t fix it til the GBA port) This is why redundant design is BAD and why I get so angry at people harping on about how perfect this game is!!! Evasion is how likely you are to dodge physical attacks, so it gives you a % chance to evade damage completely; it’s effectively also governing how many hits you take before you die, but I guess there’s an element of gamble in there and you can choose whether you take a shield to raise it or instead go two handed for more damage output, so I guess I’ll forgive it… (it is still kind of redundant; you could get the same net effect by raising HP) though it should be noted, it’s not a true percentage because the value is out of 128, not 100 (wow, what?). Magic evasion is the same deal but for magic. I’m not sure why those things really need to be different stats. I mean, are there really circumstances in which a person would be better at dodging a fireball than dodging a sword? Are there circumstances in the game in which choosing to dodge magic rather than dodge physical attacks is meaningful? Not really. Pretty redundant.
Do there need to be this many stats? NO. Why? Because the gameplay is not nuanced enough to make compromising between different stats for specific character builds worthwhile or meaningful. Magic is considerably more damaging than physical attacks, especially late in the game, you can’t see what you’re fighting before you fight it, there are rarely areas where monsters with a certain bias toward magic or physical congregate, there’s no way of making foes concentrate their attacks on the person with the most effective defence vs. an attack type, and most foes use a mixture of magic and physical so raising all kinds of defence makes more sense than specialising in a single type. Most armour types increase all the defence values and so the most effective way to play is just to buy whatever the best new armour on sale is when you reach a new place, and if you’re playing any version of the game pre-Advance, concentrate on M.def. Oh, and addendum: FF6 has how many playable characters? FOURTEEN. You can only field 4 at any given time. Are there significant statistical or role differences between them to make that number necessary? NO. Does a party of any given 4 characters radically change your tactical decisions or playing style? Not really? They just will have some different specials. Are they balanced in effectiveness? NO, it’s widely agreed that some characters are a lot more useful than others, and since high magic is the key stat you’re looking for there are definitely certain characters who are better. Don’t field Cyan unless you think he’s super-cool and you don’t mind that he’s not an effective character.
Let’s compare the character status screen in FF13:
Aaaaaah muuuuuch better! ^
So Lightning here has… THREE STATS. Whuuuuut!? “OMG so simple and dumbed d-” NOPE SHUT UP. This is elegant, modern design here! What does HP do? It’s how many hits I can take before I die. “But what about defence!?” I don’t NEED a defence stat because reducing damage and having more HP to lose have the exact same gameplay effect, but more HP makes understanding how many hits you can take much easier: person with more HP= harder to kill. Easy. There’s no bullshit having to work out if you should take the guy with more HP or the guy with less HP but higher defence and trying to number crunch what the significance of that is in terms of how many hits they will take before they die. There’s no armour, but some items raise HP or grant damage reduction. “Physical Wall: 5” means take 5 away from the damage of any physical hit you take. HP also governs regen, which will give you a % of your full HP score every x seconds; no need for a “stamina” stat! Strength is how much physical damage you do. When you upgrade a weapon, it raises your strength rather than raising some other extra value. Magic is how much damage magic does and it works like strength. Some weapons or items raise magic more, others raise strength more, different enemies are stronger against one than the other. Anything else isn’t listed as a stat until there’s some change to it. Everybody has the same default values for elemental and status resistances, so why list them unless you have an item that gives a significant boost? In this case, somebody has given Lightning water resistance of 20% with an accessory, so she’ll take 20% less damage from water element attacks than a character without that accessory.
Is it meaningful to have a character specialise in certain damage or defence types? YES. You can see what you’re about to fight beforehand and retry battles without losing progress, and certain areas contain enemies with particular elemental biases, but further than that, with the Sentinel (tank) role being a thing, you can effectively make enemies attack a particular partymember, meaning that building somebody up to be the “defence person” while other people are glass cannons is a viable move. Str and Mag being different stats also makes sense because they have largely different roles; magic is mostly used to stagger enemies; interrupting them and lowering their defence, while physical attacks are more often used to do damage, and there are characters who are physically focused (Fang, Snow), Magic focused (Hope, Vanille) and all-rounders (Lightning, Sazh) plus weapons that allow for high levels of specialisation or interesting tactical builds. There are six characters and they all have a distinctly different build and are useful for different 3-person party builds.. They’re not perfectly balanced (Fang is effectively the best character in the game) but there are plenty of viable builds (even ones without Fang) for different players and scenarios which play quite differently.
So what I’m saying here is that more stats doesn’t make your game more tactically interesting, varied or challenging. In many cases, a bloated system is more likely to limit what kind of challenges you can create and also your ability to fine-tune the balance of your system. It’s much better if the player knows exactly what their character is capable of and can think tactically about the challenge you have presented them with considering their party’s limitations and available tactics. All FF6 does is present you with a system that LOOKS complicated but is actually very simple because there are certain dominant stats and most items raise all the key stats and a party of all rounders leaning towards magic and spamming the same abilities over and over for the whole battle is your best bet; you might feel like you’re mastering a complex game, but you’re not; there’s nothing clever about just buying the most expensive equipment you did a bunch of grinding for. FF13 presents you with a simple-looking system that’s used to build actually quite deep and complex challenges, and limits your ability to grind with level caps and raised requirements for valuable item drops from characters with inflated stats from items, so that you need to understand and use the systems to win.
If you want to make good games, it’s important to build your system from the ground up instead of taking existing systems for granted and just throwing stats in there because that’s what RPGs do and then just kind of fudging some semblance of playability out of the vague mess.