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RPGs, the Margin of Safety, and “Artificial Difficulty”
I’ve been thinking about the “margin of safety” lately since I’ve been watching the Summer 2012 anime title “Sword Art Online” and concurrently reading the novels this series is based on. For those of you not familiar with the series, it is of interest to an RPG fan because the focus of the story is an MMORPG that uses a complete virtual reality simulation. Making use of neural stimulation by means of a helmet that also cuts off all outside sensory input and output of the nervous system below the neck, the system provides a fully realized experience. While using the devices, players are in an extremely vulnerable state physically, particularly when it is revealed by the game’s developer that they are stuck in his online world as hostages, unable to log out of the game until the final boss is cleared by one of the players. If someone attempts to physically remove the device from the body of a player before the game is cleared, a strong microwave shock emitted by the device will fry the player’s brain. Additionally, if someone’s HP is reduced to zero during the course of play, that player will permanently die in the game world, and the device will fry them, killing their physical bodies as well.
Like Neo says, “If you die in the Matrix, you die for real.”
This creates a situation where players have to balance two strong incentives: the first is to advance in the game to clear it, and so escape their hostage situation. To do this they must face physical danger and risk death, which brings us to the second incentive: to survive. To have 100% chance of survival, the best bet is to never risk death at all, to never put yourself in any situation where you might be in danger. Of course, if you do this, then you have completely obliterated any chance you have at clearing the game and achieving freedom from the system. What develops in the series is the strategy of “margin of safety” that most players of all sorts of video games will be familiar with. If you’re going to go into a dangerous situation, then your best means of survival is providing yourself with the best margin of safety possible.
Of course, while we’re not in a situation where our lives are on the line when we play console games, players commonly use margins of safety to make their gameplay experience less frustrating. A margin of safety is simply a sound strategy that experienced players develop naturally over time.
Depending on the genre, complexity, and even age of the game, your margin of safety can take many forms. Let’s take early console RPGs (1986-1990) as familiar example. In these games, perhaps the most common example of the margin of safety has to do with character level. Everyone who has played a console RPG is familiar with the concept of “leveling up.” You fight monsters until the base levels of the characters in your party increase. When your characters’ levels increase, they become stronger, and it becomes easier and safer to defeat these same enemies. You continue to do this until walking around the world map is no longer cause for fear of your imminent death due to a random encounter. Another way you create a margin of safety is by constantly requipping your party with the best equipment available. This also increases your chances of survival. Like a boy scout, you know it’s best to be prepared, so you carry as many healing items as is feasible considering budget limitations and carrying capacity. You remember to keep your characters’ SP/MP/AP topped off by frequent rests, and perhaps most importantly, you save frequently, so even if you do meet your inevitable doom, you can always restore from an earlier point and not have lost all your progress.
As I have elaborated, there are a lot of ways to increase your margin of safety even in these very early console RPGs. The fact that you can generally do this in an RPG means that many video game fans consider RPGs to be simple games where every problem can be solved by grinding, leveling mindlessly until one is sufficiently powerful to wipe the floor with any monsters in the game.
Of course, many people fail to consider that most modern games include character upgrade systems and checkpoint or save features, meaning that games from all genres have borrowed from the RPGs’ system of game democratization through time invested. This may be a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not really here to talk about that trend now. I just thought I’d mention it.
The fact is, while it’s a common gaming stereotype that the solution to all gameplay difficulties in an RPG is to simply level up some more, thus increasing our margin of safety, if we stop and examine some facts, that’s not really true in many situations. RPG makers are crafty guys, and like the Dungeon Master of a D&D game, as the players they are both our friends and our enemies.
They are our friends because they have created an amazing and fascinating world for us to play around in and have grand adventures in. They are our enemies because their greatest desire is often to see us dead at the bottom of a well.
This is a basic truth that goes back to the very roots of RPGs. If you’re not familiar with where RPGs came from, I will give you a fabulous, oversimplified, but basically correct flow-chart of RPG history, so you can understand why this is so true.
Tabletop Wargames -> Dungeons & Dragons -> Advent -> Rogue -> Early US Computer RPGs (like Wizardry, Ultima, and Might & Magic) -> Early Japanese Computer RPGs (like Dragon Slayer) / Console RPGs (like Dragon Quest)
From this point on Japanese and US developed RPGs continued to influence one another substantially, and although companies and the gaming press in the US may wish to deny this fact, it is still true now. In a globalized world, no games really exist in a cultural vacuum, and JRPGs influence USRPGs, and vice versa. I am using these two game producing nations as examples simply because historically, they have produced the lion’s share of RPGs, but of course, this is true of any RPGs produced anywhere else too.
Anyway, from my oversimplified game history lesson, you can see where console RPGs came from. They came quite directly from Dungeons & Dragons. If you like to have fantastic adventures, D&D is an amazing game. It allows you and your friends to experience a personalized heroic adventure created by another of your friends who acts as the Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master, with some help from source books for mechanics, weapons tables, and ideas, is essentially the creator of the D&D game that you as the player experience. It is his job to make sure that the game is fun for the players, but not so easy that it becomes boring. How do you create difficulty in such a game? You introduce an element of fear, a consequence for rash behavior. And thus character death enters into the equation. Most DMs seem to agree that the Dungeon Master’s job is to harrow the players as much as possible without actually killing them, because this makes the game much more exciting. Of course, even if you’re a DM who doesn’t ultimately want to see his players dead, sometimes the players just do stupid shit and you have to make them live with the consequences. In early D&D, death was basically permanent. Sure, the DM could intervene for you, but that removes the consequences, and mostly removes the only check a DM has against his players going crazily wild and abusing the system for all it’s worth. So death is permanent. When you lose a character, you have to roll up a new one to continue playing and start over again from scratch. Early CRPGs are mostly like this as well. Death is a real, serious fear, and usually permanent, or even if it is not, it has crippling consequences.
Of course, as the RPG scene developed, people began to get very attached to their characters and wanted chances to revive them if the worst happened and they kicked the bucket. Thus in D&D some harsh rules concerning player resurrection were put into play. I call them harsh because by today’s RPG standards (Pen and Paper, Computer RPG, MMO RPG, and Console RPG) they are harsh, but I’m sure they seemed pretty generous then. The circumstances when a character could be resurrected were very specific, time based, and often had permanent repercussions for the character (like permanent stat loss). Still, some chance at being resurrected is better than no chance, which is, I am convinced, why a lot of people go to church.
In any case, D&D creates the basic dilemma for the game creator: they must create something fun and exciting for the players to do while at the same time scaring the players into staying in line and making reasonable decisions due to fear of death. All RPG creators face a similar dilemma, although in their case, they create an automated system to carry out their intentions. They must make a game that is enjoyable to play and offers interesting things to do, but where death constantly hangs over the head of the player as a threat. Just as in D&D, the chance of death is the element of an RPG that adds to the thrill and excitement and challenge to the game. It is also the element that adds difficulty to an RPG. In menu driven turn based RPGs, the challenge of the game doesn’t come from play finesse or hand-eye coordination. It comes exclusively from problem solving, decision making, and judgement-based play.
Of course, even the best player overreaches herself sometimes, which is why as players, we develop margins of safety as a basic gameplay strategy so we don’t end up dying unexpectedly and losing progress. We level up. We buy new equipment. We make use of any systems available inside the game to make us more survivable. Naturally, this is the way you play a game well.
And the consequences are dire. If you die, you inevitably lose progress. Sometimes losing even the tiniest and most inconsequential bit of progress can be so frustrating to a player that they have to stop playing the game for a while to let themselves cool down. I sometimes get this way after losing two minutes of mundane play. It’s really retarded when considered logically, but it’s a knee-jerk reaction. I think we all have it. It’s funny when I stop to consider it, though. I rage when I lose two minutes of gameplay and can restore from a save, but I have spent hours playing games where if you die you lose absolutely all progress and must restart again from the very beginning, a veritable babe. It’s the old D&D situation again: if you die, your only option is to roll a new character up and begin again from scratch. If this happens to you often enough, you probably want to throw your console (or your Dungeon Master) out the window.
So RPG makers have this dilemma: they have to make an adventure that’s fun and interesting, they have to terrify their players with the real threat of death, and make good on it as necessary, but they also have to make sure that fun and death balance each other out, or rather that the game is actually more fun than it is deathy. I’m not saying games should be easy. I enjoy challenging games. I am always more satisfied upon completing a challenging game, particularly with strategies I developed myself, than I am completing a similarly interesting but ultimately easy game. I understand that the challenge factor of many games bars them from a larger audience, and since I want the whole world to enjoy video games as much as I do, I am fine with games having multiple difficulty levels. I never ever play any video games on easy mode, because I assume easy mode is for novices. I may be many things, including “terrible at all sorts of games” but I am not a novice. It’s not that I am magically badass at video games. I am good at some kinds of games and not very good at other kinds, but I enjoyed being challenged by all sorts of games. This is part of the joy I find in video games. I don’t expect everyone to be like me, and I don’t make any judgments at all about players based on the difficulty level they choose in video games. I just want people to like to play video games at a level they are comfortable at.
The whole idea is supposed to be thus: easy mode is for novice players who are not used to the inherent systems and logic of video games. It provides a gentle curve of difficulty to introduce players to the world and the system. In easy mode, the threat of death and game over is still real and apparent, because the novice player is bound to make tons of mistakes the experienced player would never make as they slowly learn how the systems work. By the end of the game, the novice player won’t be a novice any more, and is ready to challenge the game again, if they so choose, on a regular difficulty level.
Sometimes “easy mode” exists simply to allow players who are not interested in developing their skills for a particular game to play it and see the story. This is also fine.
I don’t find anything inherently wrong with easy modes, although it is frustrating to see someone playing a game on “easy mode” and then complaining about how boring and easy the game is. I have similar frustration when I hear people complain about the difficulty of a game when they’ve chosen to play it on “hard mode.” Hard modes are supposed to be very challenging even to experienced players. If you’re frustrated because they’re difficult, then that’s awesome, because it means that they’re successful at being difficult, which is the whole point: to challenge the player.
The thing about hard modes and difficult console RPGs in general, is that they have ways of narrowing, or even removing entirely the margin of safety that players create for themselves, thus making the threat of death much more terrifying and imminent. For me, this makes the game much more exciting, because it elevates the level of strategy I am required to use, also making the game more fun.
There are many RPGs where I can autopilot random encounters. The “Whack it with a sword until it dies” strategy is pretty effective in most situations. I have to pay some attention to my management of the game, keeping an eye on HP/MP totals, the average level of the enemies I’m fighting, and the distance to a safe zone like a save spot or a town, but it really doesn’t require my full attention. I can be thinking about making ravioli for dinner, or be under the effects of my allergy medication, and I won’t face a game over. This is true of a huge number of modern console RPGs of all types.
But then there are games where to autopilot even briefly is to court death. These are games where every individual choice you make in each random battle may mean the difference between living and advancing, and dying and gnashing your teeth in frustration. These are games which have reduced the margin of safety to basically nothing.
Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior I is a game like this. For basically the entire game, even if you are leveled appropriately and equipped with the best equipment that you can find or buy, random enemies will still always have a good chance of killing you, should you make a simple mistake like casting the wrong spell one turn, or suffer from even two consecutive bits of bad luck. On top of this, your margin of safety is relatively limited. You can carry only six herbs at a time to replenish your health, and for much of the game, the only heal spell you can use is relatively ineffective as you grow stronger. There is only one place in the game where you can save, in the starting castle, which means that every time you’re out trying to finish a particular quest in a different part of the world, you run the risk of getting killed and not having a save to restore. Dragon Quest balances this by allowing you “infinite lives.” The king is always willing to bring you back to life with full HP and MP, but he extracts half your money as payment. This is how Dragon Quest balances difficulty and fun. Although the game is challenging and death is always a real threat, you never actually lose experience or progress, only money.
Shin Megami Tensei I is also a challenging RPG where random encounters can very easily kill you. MegaTen accomplishes this similarly to Dragon Quest by making constant battles physically exhausting to the player. In MegaTen, in one random encounter step you can have as many as three chained encounters, each of multiple, difficult enemies. The game creates this difficult situation to force the player to realize that sometimes it is much better to negotiate (which is possible in the system) or simply run.
In games like these, sometimes the cost of the encounter outweighs the benefit of the encounter, encouraging yet another layer of strategy. Before you can even start wondering how to win the battle, you have to decide if the battle is even worth winning. In Dragon Quest I there are whole slews of enemies that it is best to simply run from, depending on your level. Even if you could beat them, it’s so challenging and the benefit so small in comparison, it’s best to run from them.
RPGs with a high difficulty level require a great deal of thought and attention to play. You can’t simply apply the steamroller level-up approach to dealing with them. You have to develop strategies that work, learn when to switch between them, and when discretion is the better part of valor. Most of these games also use one system or another to limit power-leveling. Power-leveling in these games is usually still possible, but often requires the use of even more complex or danger-baiting strategies, or is just mind-numbing due to geometric or exponential experience table requirements.
None of the difficulty I’ve talked about today is “artificial.”
It’s just, you know, difficulty.
If you always want to play easy mode on games, then I think that’s fine, but don’t expect every game to have an easy mode just to appease you. Some games are easy by design, and some are difficult by design, and some games offer multiple modes of difficulty.
None of this ease or difficulty is “artificial,” unless you want to argue the point that it all is, since it’s all dependent on arbitrary sets of rules in games created by regular human beings like you and me.
As the Master says, “It’s all made up anyhow. If the Chronicles of Narnia can have Santa, why can’t I have a gun?”