JOYFULLY REWARDING PLAYERS' GUTS: COMPLETE PLEASURE (OR PLEASURING COMPLETIONISTS)

How to not annoy completionists as a JRPG developer

Joyfully Rewarding Players‘ Guts: complete pleasure (or pleasuring completionists)

This is my first article. I write and complain about JRPGs (both commercial and here on this site) and their design choices and mechanics, but not only that: I also dare to offer highly subjective solutions for the issues I mention. This is a rather long text and I'm not a native English speaker, so read at your own risk and don't be afraid to admit "tldr".

Today's piece is about completionism and how game developers should design their games with regard to players who "want it all". Other than what the title might indicate, this isn't a complete, but rather hand-picked analysis of the topic. Let's start with an example to show what this is about.

A deadly sin

After a long and arduous journey, I finally reached a special NPC. 13 spade cards can be found throughout the game. Handing these 13 cards to said NPC gives the player access to an optional boss and its tremendous drops. But wait: Why do I only have 12 cards? I must have missed one, but where? Don't tell me it was in this one dungeon... There was a switch right at the beginning that activated a waterfall deeper within the dungeon (I couldn't have known) and couldn't be deactivated (why?). It turns out there was a treasure chest containing my missing card in this part of the dungeon that would be flooded upon the switch's activation. Meaning: I was supposed to retrieve the card from deep within the dungeon before activating the switch at the dungeon's beginning. You can't even see the treasure chest anymore when the water flows. Thanks, harmonic (the developer). All my work has been for naught. I consider this a developer's deadly sin. Even though Deadly Sin 2, the game in question, is enjoyable, this incident nearly ruined my whole experience. Not only is this treasure chest (and thus the optional boss) permanently missable, the developer even baits the player into missing it.

When I play a JRPG, I try to achieve everything, as long as it's reasonable, which means I want to complete all extra stuff (side quests etc.). On the other hand, I won't play through a game again just because I missed some extra stuff during the first time. Sometimes I even quit partway through the game when I realize I must have missed something important. In order to avoid this scenario, I comb meticulously through every map. Nevertheless, if something is designed to likely be missed, it will likely be missed. To summarize, I want to enjoy everything a game has to offer without aiming for the highest degree of a "perfect game" (see Absolute Steve's Final Fantasy VII guide, section IX, if you want to learn more about perfect game challenges). It's a developer's job to make this possible or at least less difficult to achieve. While I don't need to collect 99 of everything, I want at least help as much people as possible in the respective game's world.

Golden rule

There is one simple, satisfying solution for the aforementioned issue: Important side quests and items shouldn't be permanently missable. Of course, there are exceptions, the most drastic one being that the (game) world is destroyed (or the player is teleported permanently to another dimension) somewhere along the line, but other than that, I can't think of a compelling reason to deny the player the opportunity to find and finish these side quests later, as long as the developer is careful when implementing one-time-only dungeons and points of no return. Just think about it: If a player finds one of the first side quests only during his last "sweep" before entering the final dungeon, he probably doesn't need the reward, yet he will be happy that he finally found - that it was still possible to find and complete - this side quest. Another great benefit: A game world feels more coherent and believable if all previously visited locations can be visited again later. If something simply has to be permanently missable, a developer could at least include a quest log or number the side quests, even though some players don't like to machine down a list of side quests. Another solution would be a notification - that there are still unfinished side quests - when the player is about to cross a point of no return. Maybe just notify - especially in open-world games - the player that new side quests are available; I'm so tired of scouring every previously visited location after every story event just to make sure I don't miss a side quest. Exploring and finding side quests is part of the fun, but please provide the player with hints so they can know when it's worthwhile to explore, especially related to previously visited locations.

It's important to understand that following this golden rule affects the entire construction of a game and many of the related design choices. One scenario I don't want to analyze in this context (instead see below with regards to endings) is when the developer wants to add more replay value by purposefully making story parts, side quests etc. permanently missable (which often times means decision-based mutually exclusive content).

Side quests and items etc.:

This passage contains some examples of permanently missable side quests and such. Feel free to draw inspiration and think about whether you would have implemented these elements differently.

The aforementioned Final Fantasy VII is said to be the pinnacle when it comes to permanently missable things. There are entire guides dedicated to compile everything that is permanently missable in this game. Yuffie and Vincent, two party members, can be permanently missed, as well as many fights at Fort Condor. If a game is as large as Final Fantasy VII, permanently missable elements can, for a change, add to the player's enjoyment. When Final Fantasy VII was released 1997 (at a time when - fast - internet connections weren't as natural as nowadays and good JRPGs were rare), it took the gaming community many years to find everything this game has to offer. Since a hobbyist RPG Maker game made by a single developer won't reach these proportions, though, developers shouldn't try to emulate Final Fantasy VII. Its predecessor (Final Fantasy VI) also features a permanently missable party member. I won't spoil anything for those who still haven't played it, but if you ever encounter a timer in this game, let it run down as much as possible. My opinion: Party members that can be permanently missed (without any repercussions) shouldn't be included at all, unless it's a Suikoden-like game - which I won't play.

While not exactly being permanently missable until the game's point of no return, one side quest in Final Fantasy IX requires the player to repeatably leave the final dungeon and return to the quest-related NPC. Even though the official Japanese Final Fantasy IX guide illustrates this side quest, it was mostly unknown to American and European players until a few years ago. This is how obscure side quests should be implemented. In contrast to this side quest, I'm not a fan of speed runner trophies like the Excalibur II. Excalibur II is a weapon (for Steiner) that can only be obtained in a certain dungeon in a certain place within 12 hours of starting the game. In order to receive this weapon, the player has to rush through the game while using specific techniques and setups (and hoping the RNG likes him). JRPGs are about exploring and taking your time, so I don't support rewards of this kind, but I can't deny that Excalibur II was another unique design choice at that time befitting of another unique Final Fantasy game.

I'm still very fond of the first Wild Arms game. It contains one dungeon that the player has to leave while being pressed for time (countdown/timer). Dumb as my younger self was, I didn't grasp what this was about, for I could simply leave the dungeon using the teleport spell. Years later I discovered that the player can beat an optional boss and thus acquire an additional summon/skill in this dungeon - of course only when the timer runs (Lakria Legends, which is discussed below, did the same thing with regard to a permanently missable weapon). While I was furious about missing out on this, and even though I don't like being pressed for time while playing JRPGs, I can't help but admire that this was high-risk, high-reward side content. The aforementioned summon/skill was (only) really useful for the next couple of hours, which means even the reward was so well-designed that players didn't need to feel too bad about having missed it. This doesn't necessarily apply to the rest of the optional content, though. Two optional bosses can only be fought by chance: One while traversing the sea (excellently copied by Fable of Heroes I) and one while using certain teleports. Some players won't even know these optional bosses exist. Admittedly, the game at least hints at their existence. Nonetheless: If a developer designs something, he probably wants it to be findable. There is no fun (for the player) in designing an ultimate secret that no one can find.

Nostalgia, a JRPG for the Nintendo DS, suffered from many problems, the most severe being that two versions of the game were shipped out. One version didn't allow the player to finish the game, and the player could only determine which version he had bought approximately a few minutes before facing the final boss. In light of this, the following issue is nothing more than nitpicking. The game features a bestiary. Completing the bestiary is just about bragging rights, though it's still annoying that a short one-time-only dungeon contains a rare encounter likely to be missed. Wild Arms V shows how it's done right. Several games of the Wild Arms franchise allow the player to fight an optional boss after having opened all treasure chests within the game. While Wild Arms V features one-time-only dungeons, they don't contain treasure chests, which means the optional boss can't be permanently missed.

Alte Macht (German for Ancient Power or Ancient Might) is a German series of RPG Maker 2000/2003 games. These games tend to make the availability of side quests dependent on the completion of earlier side quests (even though these side quests aren't built on each other), while being cluttered with points of no return. More precisely: If the player doesn't find and finish the first side quest, he will be denied access to all other side quests. And now imagine what happens if the switches for having completed these side quests are bugged...

In Lakria Legends, multiple Misao Awards winner this year (including game of the year), major side quest content can be missed if the player is careless or unfortunate - just because of one changed design choice. During the desert part of the game, the player is introduced to a crafting system. He can find crafting materials in the desert (working ores using a pickax) and use them to craft weapons in the nearby village if he has found the respective weapon or armor recipe. Originally, the developer planned to make the ores regenerative, but problems with the timer made him scrap that idea. The unfortunate consequence: If the player doesn't use his crafting materials right, he won't be able to craft a weapon that is required to recruit an NPC that is needed to access an entire optional island on the world map. The simplest solution I can think of would be the restriction that each crafting item can only be crafted once.

Oblivion Quest plays like a rather short dungeon crawler in which each set of stairs marks a point of no return. Midway through the game, the player can find a merchant who offers the best (and most expensive) buyable armor in the game. Two problems emerge. One: The player can't know that he won't be able to buy better armor (since he only finished the game's first half, he expects to be able to buy even better armor later). Two: The armor is expensive to an extent that most players won't be able to buy even one copy when they first meet the merchant. At least an enemy that drops significantly more money than other enemies can be randomly encountered on the merchant's floor. Still, the player doesn't know he only has this one chance to "grind it out" and equip his party members with the aforementioned armor. I like the idea of letting the merchant brag about how he is the only one that offers the best armor. The player could then decide if he takes the merchant at his word or dismisses his statement as showboating. This way the player has at least a chance to make an informed decision.

Passage of the Hollow Moon makes it a habit to spawn treasure chests somewhere in the wilderness after the completion of certain events, enticing the player to search every map in the game repeatedly for these treasure chests. This is a rather pointless and tedious, but nonetheless unique way to reward the player, although the player most likely doesn't even know about these newly spawned treasure chests.

"Permanently missable" isn't that bad if only a few lines of dialogue are concerned. In fact: This is where developers can truly shine. Story of Integra is my most favorite example: The dialogue before facing the final boss changes if the player has defeated the ultimate optional boss before. While players that haven't defeated the ultimate optional boss don't even notice what they miss out on, players that have defeated the ultimate optional boss are rewarded even more. I really wish more games would do something like this, the more so as I always beat the ultimate optional boss before the final boss (if possible). It's a whole other story, though, when entire cutscenes or multiple dialogue segments throughout the game are involved. In this regard it's a curse and a blessing at the same time that the player can fail to recruit Lyrion in Story of Integra, a funny "joke character" who really peps up conversations. Speaking of missable cutscenes: Galer: A Plague of Heroes features an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying mechanic. If the player enters a certain location without (!) certain characters, he is "rewarded" with a cutscene that shows what these characters do while being benched on the home base. I mean: They are benched there because I don't want to deal with them.

What's even worse than missing cutscenes? Right: missing endings.

Endings

JRPGs need a satisfying ending. The last impression a player should have after he has invested countless hours into a JRPG should be: That sucked. One of the first questions during development should be: How many endings will my game have and how can they be achieved? Implementing more than one ending means that many players will most likely miss all endings but one. Considering the abundance of JRPGs, it's unlikely that players will invest another couple of hours just to see another ending. In order to remedy this issue, you should ask yourself what kind of game you want to develop.

On one end of the scale there are games that use decision trees, though these games are more often than not rather (mere) adventure or visual novel games than classic JRPGs. If a JRPG featured a similar decision tree and advertised it accordingly, no one would complain about missing an ending. Games of this type are meant to be completed repeatedly, so players know what they get themselves into. I really prefer more play value to more replay value, but that's a topic for a separate article.

Most JRPGs don't contain a complex decision tree, but only a few branching points that decide which ending the player gets. Penance is an example from this site. Early into the game the player can decide whether to pursue the good or the evil routes. This is ideal: You can complete this game once being the hero, and if you like it, you can play it once again being the bad guy (or the other way around). Just imagine how unpleased players would be if instead they had to find out after completing 75 % of the game that they have locked themselves throughout the game into one of two possible routes. Transparency is your friend here: Tell the player beforehand if endings are dependent on one singular (major) decision or on many small decisions throughout the game.

Character-related endings or ending bonus scenes are another variation of multiple endings. Whose character's ending (scenes) you get can once again hinge on many small decisions throughout the game ("romancing" a character like in visual novels) or on one singular (major) decision at the end. Even Final Fantasy VII included such a mechanic, though it only influenced the Gold Saucer dating scene in the middle of the game. One way to go about this is how these endings are handled in many of the Exe-Create JRPGs like Antiquia Lost or Asdivine Hearts. Whose ending (scenes) you get depends on which character trusts you the most. Trust can be earned (or lost) during the course of the game, but also by finding and using special items. Therefore, a skillful player is able to achieve all endings in a single playthrough.

Especially notable among all the variations of multiple endings mechanics is, of course, Chrono Trigger. Can't leave that one out when talking about multiple endings. For those who don't know: Chrono Trigger's additional endings can be accessed only on a New Game Plus save file. Contrary to his first playthrough, the player can fight the final boss at different points throughout the game. Accordingly, which of the new endings the player gets depends on when he chooses (or finds a way to) beat the final boss. I think this is one of the better ways to handle multiple endings, but I still would have preferred it if the game had already offered these endings during the first playthrough.

My personal love-hate relationship concerns games that offer a normal and a true ending. Since I want to do all I can, I need to reach the true ending. Whether love or hate prevails depends solely on the true ending requirements. There are so many ways to make true endings permanently missable during a playthrough that most players probably don't even know that certain games feature true endings at all. It would be ideal if the player was still able to fulfill the true ending requirements before facing the final boss. The prime example of how it shouldn't be done is, without a doubt, Cross Edge (Playstation 3/Xbox 360). Among other nonsense: When the player faces a certain pair of bosses, defeating the wrong one first locks him out of the true ending. During another boss fight, the player is only allowed to kill the minions - killing the boss locks him out of the true ending once again. There isn't any indication for any of that; these are just bullshit requirements. At least the game is quite famous for this, but fame doesn't equal fun. Give the player a fair chance to figure out the true ending requirements for himself. For instance, it's understandable and plausible that the true ending can't be achieved when the ultimate optional boss still roams free and threatens to destroy the world. On the other hand: If it's necessary to talk to some random NPC 100 times in order to reach the true ending, I will truly end the game by shutting it down.

To be honest: I'm a sucker for the one true ending, but at the same time I don't want to miss any ending the developer deemed worthy to include. Thus, I wish for features that allow players (after having finished the game once) to easily access/gain the remaining endings. Something like a movie center: This would have happened if you had done this and that. What about a New Game Plus option that lets the player jump directly to decision points? While I understand that developers want to preserve a certain "mystery" that surrounds (the inner workings of) their games, I - as a completionist - always prefer a not so mysterious conclusion. Apropos.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article inspires you to examine and decide in which (very few) cases permanently missable elements add to your game's value and in which cases they just annoy the player. Just considering how completionists feel and think enables you to develop better designed JRPGs. Most players will only play your game once, so make sure they are able to get the most out of it.

What type of completionist (if any) are you? Which experiences with regard to permanently missable stuff would you like to share? How would you design games in the light of completionism? Tell me and all readers in the comments, please. Thanks for reading.