Sunday, November 30, 2008

Complexity requires challenge

I'm currently playing Temple of Elemental Evil, the second game by the visionary RPG developer Troika. It's a hard-core D&D based game, and surprisingly, probably the only D&D based game since 1994 (I'm told it was Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager) that's actually turn-based (what the hell's with that? Haven't these people played D&D?). I could get into a huge rant about ToEE and how great it is, and how sad it is that few played it, due to a seemingly non-existant QA process; but I won't, except to say that the game's been patched up like crazy by the community since then, and if you want to play a real D&D game, I highly recommend it. This article isn't a review of ToEE, though. This article is about game complexity and how it only really exists if there is a hard - but balanced - difficulty level.

Most games brag about "50 weapons", or "5 distinct races", or "choose from 36 different fighters" on the backs of their boxes. The reason they do that is because that's one way to highlight for prospective players that in this game, there are enough options so that you will be able to play creatively and so that it could have long-lasting replay value. Well, that's the idea, but it only ends up being the case if the game is balanced. If just one of those 50 weapons is significantly overpowered, then the total amount of guns in the game effectively shrinks to one. I feel that people are pretty in touch with that concept, but I think they may be less in touch with this concept with the need for balance in game difficulty.

Let's start with a game like Kirby Superstar for SNES (also recently re-released on DS as Kirby SuperStar Ultra). As far as platformers go, this one is highly complex. Kirby is a bit like Bo Jackson, in that he knows baseball AND football (except metaphorically speaking (for Kirby)).Y ou can jump AND you can fly, right out of the spawn gates. Kirby's main power is the vaccuum ability, where he can suck up enemies and either spit them out, or swallow them and get their power. Even if he fails to suck anything up with the vacuum move, he can spit the air back out as a weapon. There are somewhere between 10-20 of the acquireable monster powers, and each of them yields several moves. Oh and also, he's got a slide kick move. Also, he's got a health bar. So, if I saw this listed on the back of a box, my first reaction would be "Wow! You can do all that? Awesome!". But there's a problem - how the hell do you design a world that's a match for this unstoppable killing machine? HAL certainly doesn't have the answer. Kirby should be hated as a character for the same reasons Superman is - a world with an invincible protagonist is really, really boring. So yes, you have all these brilliantly animated, colorful, fun abilities, but guess what? You never have to use any of them. The game is dead easy - here, I'll write the pseudocode to beat any kirby level:

  • Hold RIGHT on D-Pad
  • If Kirby starts to fall, tap UP & RIGHT a couple times. Repeat until kirby is on solid ground.
  • If an opponent is within vacuum range, push B. Then push B again to expel the enemy.

That's it! In fact, the only time I ever get hurt in a Kirby game is when I'm frivilously using the complexities to do unnecessary silly combos and just generally act like a jackass. Why am I doing that? Because I'm bored to tears playing this game! Why am I bored, even though there's all this complexity? Because there isn't *really* complexity, as the above pseudocode shows - only the framework for possible complexity. Now onto an example where there actually *is* complexity, and therefore, room for creative play.

In Temple of Elemental Evil, the amount of special actions you can take in combat are staggering. You can try for a trip attack. You can "cast defensively". You can sprint (downside, you have to run a straight line). You can take a defensive pose vs. a specific attack type. You can start a grapple with an opponent. And that's just in-combat actions - the amount of character tweaking possible is beyond anything in 90% of RPGs. The list of variables goes on and on and on. Here's the kicker, though - you actually have to use most of this stuff to get by in the game - meaning, you cannot just cruise through, using one or two techniques ad nauseam. The game is hard, quite hard, but redoing combat and trying a different strategy feels fun, because it is truly the exercise of creativity when your ideas are put to the test. This game was one of the first strategy games in a long time that makes me stop and really think about my moves. It's that feeling in Chess, when you're holding onto the piece in its newly moved position, and making one last semi panicked sweep of the board for any figurative body-orifices your army may have just exposed to enemy pike-thrusts.

So, in conclusion, both Temple of Elemental Evil and Kirby SuperStar seem, on paper, to have complexities, but only ToEE really does, because of the lack of challenge in Kirby. This is however not to say at all "the harder the better". Certainly, a game can be too hard, and that can be just as devestating for a game, even if it did everything else right. But I didn't mention that for two reasons. Firstly, the focus of this article has been highlighting specifically the fact that complexity requires challenge. And lastly, when was the last time a game came out that was too hard? Could it be... 1994's Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager?

- Thanks to Anonymous for the Dark Sun tip

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Anonymous said...

Eye of the Beholder III was real-time, like all games in the Beholder series. I think the last turn-based D&D game before ToEE was Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, out in 1994.

Keith Burgun said...

Durrrrr... ATTEMPT TO SOUND SMART: FAILURE. Thanks I'll update it.

wing said...

Yes, you're right that Kirby is very, very easy. And I'd have to agree with you. Part of that is that Kirby is meant for a semi-casual audience that includes little kids. It does not punish you for using the pseudocode you mentioned, because it wants people who suck at hardcore platformers to be able to complete the game.

The specific Kirby game you mentioned is not the best at doing this, but many Kirby games do require you to use all your special abilities well in order to truely complete the game. The last Kirby game on the Gameboy was a masterpiece. There were, I believe, 6 powers and 3 pets which combine to form 18 powers, and you needed to use every one of them plus some puzzle solving skills to unlock the good ending. While in the normal game it's okay to lose your fireball power or whatever and still be able to complete a stage, if you want the good ending you'll need to figure out which powers you need to keep (and you lose it if you get hit) and where you want it and use them in creative ways to solve puzzles.

Games like ToEE, on the other hand, does not allow to you feel any sense of accomplishment unless you're really good at it. It's a game from a different era, targeted at a different kind of people.

I think it's not that you cannot have complexity without difficulty, but that you need difficulty to force the player to use the complexity effectively.

Anonymous said...

yeah, come to think of it, if Kirby sucked up superman and spit him out, not much would change.

Anonymous said...

Well written and interesting. Your introduction does digress (as you point out) and it does get a bit muddled...but as I read on, your writing gets very interesting. Great use of examples.

As a player of Kirby on GBA, I'll have to agree. I'll also say that any "cartoonish" game geared toward kids is going to be easier, no matter the degree of complexity.

fingers via

Anonymous said...

well that was a waste of time, no shit, and who cares.