So, a while back (okay, a decade ago) Shamus Young wrote a post about simple self-balancing gameplay. I came across it while browsing some posts on his blog, and thought about it some more, and realized one crucial thing: it won’t work because it doesn’t get the key distinction between casual and veteran gamers.
The issue that Shamus is trying to solve here is that, especially in RPGs, the combat and gameplay mechanics are often complicated and obtuse, relying on a lot of previous knowledge or a major time investment to really grasp. But a lot of casual gamers — he uses “Grandma” as an example here — don’t have the time or interest in figuring that out. So the casual gamer chooses based on aesthetics and character, while the veteran chooses based on optimization … and then you toss them out into the same world with the same or similar enemies. How do you create that world so that both of them have fun? If you tailor the difficulty of your gameplay to the casual gamer, then the veteran will find things way too easy and be bored. But if you tailor the difficulty to the veteran player, the casual gamer will find it too hard and get stuck, get frustrated, and probably quit the game. You can introduce difficulty levels, but as Shamus points out people still don’t know what level would fit them, and there may be some psychological biases against playing on the easiest levels (not an issue for me, but it might be for some).
Shamus’ suggestion, essentially, is that in an RPG you can do this through the leveling mechanisms, which ends up meaning through grinding:
It just needs to provide a series of areas with steadily increasing challenge level, and allow the player to spend as much time in any given area as they like.
Sure, Francis will burn through the whole game in eight hours, and it will take Grandma three times as long, but each one will find the game offered the right level of challenge. Grandma will hang around each area and farm experience to the point where she is nearly eligible for government experience-farming subsidies. Her character will level up many times before she moves on. On the other hand, Francis will pass quickly through areas because he knows he can earn money, items, and XP faster in the next area. Sooner or later he will hit a point where the game naturally starts to push back, due to his low level. He will get to a point where his skill at optimization and mastery of the hotkeys cannot overcome his relative strength deficit, and he’ll have to slow down until he has a few more levels under his belt.
Everybody plays. Everybody wins. (Everybody except for the monsters, of course.) The system is elegant, intuitive, and automatic.
And … it won’t work. The reason it won’t work is that it trades time for difficulty; casual gamers are expected to simply kill things and stay in an area for a longer period of time, and so essentially to pull my TOR trick and win through massive overleveling. However, casual gamers aren’t that likely to want to spend that much time grinding in a game, for two reasons. The first is that many casual gamers — and this includes myself — are that because they have a limited time to dedicate to playing games. They have other things to do and other hobbies, and so in their limited gaming windows they always want to feel like they’re making progress. Simply adding levels so that maybe they can move on to the next area does not feel like making progress. One of the main issues I’ve always had with Persona 3 when replaying without simply loading in my high leveled character from my previous playthrough is that the grinding in the dungeons to hit the level you need to be at to take on the full moon boss is boring, and also takes quite a bit of my limited gaming time. At one point, for example — I think it was in FES — I ended up playing one evening just to level and then the next evening I could do the interesting things like advance the story and, especially, advance the Social Links. That model was tolerable. I don’t think Shamus’ would be anywhere near as tolerable.
The second reason is that in RPGs most casual gamers aren’t there for the combat, but are instead there for the story and the characters themselves. So they’re going to want to push on to the next part of the story as quickly as possible, because that’s what they care about. If the game drops a quest for them to move to the next area and continue the story, that’s what they’re going to want to do, and what they’re constantly going to have as their main goal. If the quest says that they need to gain 5 more levels to get there, they might grind it out … but they’ll be constantly consciously and explicitly reminding themselves that they’re only doing it to get to the next level so that they can advance the story.
So casual gamers aren’t likely to and are likely to be annoyed by having to do things just to build their abilities so that they can advance in the game. Ironically, the ones who are willing to do boring and repetitive tasks just to optimize their characters tend to be … the veteran gamers that have been doing that from the start. So, ironically, this system seems tailored so that the veterans will take advantage of the extra leveling, and the casual gamers won’t. This … is not what Shamus wanted.
You could help the casual gamers out by giving in-story or character reasons to do this, so for example by adding these all as quests instead of just as “kill some things”. The issue you run into is that while this might encourage casual gamers to do them and so get the max levels — so pretty much what I do in Dragon Age Inquisition, by making it a goal to clear each area before moving on to the next one — if those quests are interesting enough veterans who like plot and lore and characters will do them, too, and end up bored.
Both Persona 3: The Answer and Persona 4 (on Easy) managed to make this tolerable for me, through different methods. For The Answer, the dungeons were short enough that typically I was able to just keep running them and running until I could breeze through the dungeon without losing too many hit or mana points, and so was completely prepared to take on the final boss. So limiting it through non-“I just keep dying!” means can provide a way to ensure that veterans advance when they’re ready and casual gamers advance when they’re ready. This can still be repetitive, though, and it’s hard to find a trait to balance that. In Persona 4, on Easy — and yes, generally, with the top weapons and armour — if I simply explored every nook and cranny of the dungeon I generally had a high enough level to complete the dungeon my first time up, especially since I could generally use physical attacks only — again, best weapon — and so had plenty of SP for the boss battles, and exploring the whole dungeon wasn’t generally that boring. But this might bore veteran players.
Maybe Bioware’s “Casual” or “Story” difficulties are the way to go, with these difficulties constantly cheating in your favour. The issue here is to provide a balance between making the combat relatively painless without making it so that you don’t have to do anything. In other words, to turn it into a game where I win almost all of the battles by a narrow margin. This, however, is very difficult to do. I find that the strategic aspects of the Persona games work even on Easy — you still want to learn, generally, what you ought to do if for no other reason than to make things go faster and save SP and HP — and find that the FPS-inspired gameplay in Mass Effect works not too badly at that either because I still have to do things like take cover and shoot in order to succeed. And with those names there ought be no shame in casual gamers or people primarily interested in the story to say “I should select that one because its me”.
It’s still a tough problem, though, and one that impacts and depends on the actual gameplay far more than most people think.