How to balance exploration and execution challenge

  • Irog
  • 05/24/2017 01:39 PM
Recently, I faced hitbox and maneuverability issues in a game project. So I decided to play an all time favorite to see how the development team handled those issues. The learning material is no other that The Legend of Zelda - A Link To The Past.

So I played the game as I always did: explore every cave, house and dungeon. Reliving the old experience was really fun and, this time, also very informative. The developers built a clever system to move link around and handle projectile collisions. On some rare occasions the system suffers from the same issues as I have. But I'm not going to describe LTTP moves and collisions here. No. No. I'll leave those technical considerations aside to talk about exploration and fight balance.

When you focus primarily on exploring all of Hyrule, you meet the fighting challenges with many items, bottles filled with fairies and potions, heart containers and protective equipment. So many of them that you can absorb a massive number of hits during the fight. This hit-sponge characteristic turns you into a sloppy careless sword fighter. To the point you'll miss out all the depth and tactical positioning decisions during boss battles. Even moving through dungeon rooms turns into "I'll just walk on spikes, I don't care". How could you avoid that? And, more importantly, should you?

Collecting equipment in Zelda has the same result as grinding in most traditional RPGs. But there is a key difference in how the equipment is acquired. In Zelda, you acquire equipment through exploration which is an intrinsic rewarding activity. In most RPGs, you acquire equipment through grinding which is an extrinsic rewarding activity. It is always good minimize the amount of grinding required for the average player to complete your game but you should keep enough exploration rewards to make your fights beatable for the less skilled players.

But this doesn't solve the sloppy fighting problem! No. And as you can see, none of the Zelda games has a difficulty setting. Why? Because the player sets its own difficulty by imposing challenges to himself/herself. Once the player has completed the game, a completionist will hunt down every secret while a fighter will avoid convenience items to raise the battle challenges. The appeal of a completionist run remains high as long as there are secrets left to discover so your game should have some well hidden secrets to please the completionist players. Once a player discovered most secrets, the joy of discovery exhausts and the fighter run gains more appeal.

On a playthrough I decided to avoid taking any item that is not necessary to finish the game. This made me realize how much tough went into crafting the enemy AI and boss fights. Those that behave consistently offer fair fights. You can learn their attacks and strategize around it: dodging the attack and strike back in a safe window of opportunity. So each time you lose the fight you improve your knowledge of their attacks and become better at fighting them next time. Those that behave randomly are frustrating because you can't build a good strategy. Winning against randomness rely heavily on improvisation, reflex and luck. (Yes I'm looking at you, darkness Lv3 butterfly above your randomly moving floor and spike blocks). Consistency vs random is not a binary choice. You don't want your fights to be timed key press sequence memorization or, on the opposite, lucky wins. You need the right amount of consistency so the player can build a fighting strategy and you need some randomness to make each encounter different.

Well balanced boss fights and a good amount of in-between dungeon exploration rewards are keys to great games. A nice addition is when you allow the players to fight the boss in the order that best suites theirs skills. Here, you collect the key item before facing the boss. If the boss turns out too tough, you can exit the dungeon with the key item and use it to reach new areas, find other items and enter another dungeon. Then return to the tough boss better equipped.


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It’s your actions.. not your strength, that would lead you to victory.

If you grind too much in any rpg it can make you a bad player against bosses. Even FF you can grind so much that you don't even need to think. Ys is a game where I'm prone to grind to slide the difficulty off the bosses.
Indeed, in RPGs you could grind to level 99 before facing the first boss. In item/exploration based system, each element that raises the player power becomes reachable only when he/she already own some other items. This makes it easier for the developer to know how powerful the player will be when facing a boss. And design the boss accordingly.
Then again, Monster Hunter existed.
I find that most people are in fact not at all interested in challenging gameplay. They want the tourist difficulty... just blast through while being overpowered, thats 'fun' to them.
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