I was thinking about something while I was writing my post about "points of no return" in games, and how they can be a positive thing. I've noticed that there are a number of former conventions in games that players felt were bad in theory, but when they were changed/removed, actually don't make the games better, maybe not even for the players that spoke out against them. As the old adage says, "Be careful what you wish for." Many of the things I'm referring to deal with increased sense of freedom and control, either in the gameworld or the meta-gaming experience. There are many conventions that when defined, almost universally sound negative, and pretty much everyone would ask for their removal, but when they are removed, unbalance the experience in some way. Here are some of the items:
- Points of no return / permanent changes to the gameworld/characters
- Save points
- Overworld maps
- Random (unavoidable) battles
All of these things, if you had asked people back in the 90s whether they were good, would have gotten a universal "NO", but now that we've all experienced games without them, what do we really think about them?
- Points of no return look bad on paper because they take away something from the player... indeed, they may end up making the game stifled, and that certainly isn't good. But it also keeps settings from getting old, and really makes the earlier sections of the game special and not simply a "more constricted version of the endgame", it makes players want to come back and replay the game, because the beginning areas are lost to them.
- Save points, instead of "save anywhere", certainly look terrible on paper. I was among the many who thought they should be abandoned and never look back. In fact, I still have a love/hate relationship with save points, and think a hybrid system would be nice. They force the players to play each section in one sitting and make the players have to replay more when they die. But some of these negatives also have their positives: they give specific goals to work toward and increase the thrill of the experience. They also provide distinct structure to a dungeon/section and act as checkpoints along the way. And as much as I hate to admit it, the threat of having to replay a section keeps you on your toes more than "oh, I can just reset and do this again". I remember having to play a section of Metroid Prime a number of times, getting farther every time... the thrill of finally getting through it was wondrous! I still think there are ways of splitting the difference. Save anywhere systems that have "refresh points" that refresh HP and MP still provide the checkpoint effect. A few games have "Save points" but with temporary "Save Anywhere" systems where if you have to stop playing the game, you can stop there, but not use it as a crutch for getting through a difficult section, I've always found this to have ALL the positives of the "save point" system, plus the ability to stop playing. But sometimes a good old "save anywhere" is fine, depending upon the user experience the developers are going for.
- Overworld Maps. From the beginning, I've always liked them, and I've found their detractors to be completely theoretical and never bad in practice. There are two alternatives which provide opposite but worse problems. The dot map is one alternative, allowing the player to hop back and forth, completely avoiding the in-between sections. Some say this "cuts out the fat," and concentrates the player on only the important locales. But interest is all relative. If you have ONLY interesting or exciting locales, then everything becomes kind of bland. It also destroys spacial continuity, as the player doesn't really get the feeling of going from one place to another, just hopping around. The other alternative is the polar opposite: make the player walk everywhere! Aside from "cutting out the fat", it fills the game with endless amounts of boring forests and plains fields. Certainly the developers aren't going to put much effort into it, so they rarely provide any real interest, and you're always left wishing you could just skip it. The argument for this is that it really gives the player a sense of the journey and the relative distance between locales. But it causes so many problems. Either it makes the world feel incredibly small and ridiculous (you can walk from one town to the other in 2 minutes at normal scale... Star Ocean 3, you can literally see the entrance of one town from the next), adds a whole lot of long boring walking that no one enjoys, or when too realistic it just stifles the setting and makes everything homogenous, "You couldn't possibly walk from a desert to a rain forest, so we'll just not have a rain forest area in this game." It's strange that we live in an era of these two extremes, where the good old Overworld provides a happy medium. You spend some time experiencing the journey between locales, but it's greatly sped up, and allows for large distances to be covered quickly. I worry that the biggest argument against the overworld is, "Boo! It's not to scale! The character is 1000 feet high!" which is a ridiculously small price to pay for the benefits it provides.
- Random Battles. Wow, was I against these. When I first saw some games with on-screen enemies, I immediately thought, "never again". But you know what? There's even some downsides to on-screen enemies. I think the biggest one is the feeling of guilt that builds up from constant avoidance, or the OCD feeling of having to do each one (depending upon what mood you're in). I find it very hard to pace myself with how many to engage and how many to avoid. If I feel like "I don't want to battle right now", and avoid all of them I feel like I'm being a coward and I worry that I should be getting more experience. But when I feel like I have to fight them all, I get bored and the game grinds to a halt. At least with random battles, you're not left feeling guilty or OCD, you never finish a dungeon feeling like you've cheated your way through it. But on the flip side, I love puzzle dungeons and navigational puzzles, and I HATE having random battles pop up in the middle, so I'm not a huge fan of random battles either. I really don't know what the solution is, but on-screen enemies certainly haven't solved the basic problem: that players hate battling enemies. Funny since the whole concept of a video game is based around battling enemies. I think the only real solution is to make the battle system as engaging and non-repetitive as possible, while keeping the endless cinematics and power moves to an absolute minimum. Whether the battle initiation is random or up to the player, the feeling should be one of "Alright, here we go!" not "I guess I have to... here we go again". It's possible to create a game with random battles that is engaging and interesting. But also, if you make the battle system interesting enough, players will actively seek out on-screen battles and not feel guilty for avoiding them, too. So the key is just really interesting battles. Very very few games achieve this. I think the other thing that games don't tend to do well is change the frequency of battles depending upon the interest of the dungeon. If it's a puzzle or maze dungeon, or something that's just really cool to explore, battles just get in the way. If it's a boring dungeon, battles can become more frequent. I think the only time I think this was dealt with was Skies of Arcadia, in which puzzle ROOMS were suddenly void of random battles (ironic for a game whose biggest detractor is its ridiculously high frequency of random battles).
Anyway, just food for thought on those concepts that may look good on paper, but have their problems in practice. Maybe the most unfortunate thing is the whole scale change and abandonment of various practices all at the same time. Suddenly world maps were completely gone from games, suddenly all games had on-screen enemies, suddenly points of no return were evil. I understand that any arts/entertainment medium has it's phases, but its a shame that everyone seems to always go the same direction. Maybe the key with these elements is to mix them up, instead of developers deciding "We don't do overworlds anymore" (Square-Enix), approach every game as a unique experience with its own unique set of elements. Instead of always thinking of the current game as "Everything the previous game(s) was and then some!" Realize that every title is a unique experience and not just an upgrade. For instance, I don't think anyone would look at the history of Final Fantasy and say that it's been a "general improvement throughout the years". There are all different kinds of experiences in a series or genre, some are better, some are worse, and everyone's going to feel differently.