A while back, I was talking in the comments of an article about how bad The Secret World’s combat was. It was the game’s real weakness and why most people stopped playing the game, but there is – very technically – more to it than that. One of our commenters, who agreed with the premise about the combat, chimed in to point out that part of the problem is that not all of the game’s missions actually required combat, which made the point that not only did the game’s combat suck, it was the only thing Funcom could’ve improved.
This doesn’t mean that from a design perspective it’s the only thing the designers could fix, literally; it means that the game’s mechanical systems were set up so that your stats, build, and abilities were based around only fighting stuff. And that’s kind of a problem because the whole point of games like this is to advance and become better at navigating the game’s stories and systems… and yet there were no tools for help the player get better at a good chunk of the game. So let’s talk about getting better!
If you’ve ever played a tabletop game, you are probably familiar with the fact that most of them have some kind of statistic to represent your character’s mental acumen. The problem with this is that no matter how smart or stupid the character is meant to be, they are still being played by an actual person. Your buddy Craig might think that he has a high Intelligence just like his Wizard does, but he bought GameStop stock last year. Thus, even though you are playing a character with an Intelligence far lower, you have to solve most of the riddles at the table.
This is a classic problem at a tabletop session simply because if you turn the session into a case of just rolling dice, it gets boring and a riddle is functionally the same as a locked door you lockpick. But once you move away from dice, you have to have the actual players figure things out… and sometimes this can be much, much more frustrating because the players are not necessarily professional riddle-solvers.
RPGs are, to a certain extent, based on the idea of tangible and measurable improvement over time. This isn’t necessarily raw power, since lots of games let you build characters whose primary abilities are social or otherwise useful, but it is still based on the idea that after a dozen sessions your characters are better at pretty much everything they want to do. These are the improvements measured by your stats.
Computer RPGs are no different, and the same is true of MMORPGs. From skill-based systems to level-based one, if you spend three weeks smacking something with ye olde giganticce hammerre, you expect to be better at doing so after all is said and done.
Now, this still has the same problem as above. If everything involves getting better by doing, then some things are either going to be trivial or impossible and there’s less personal skill involved. Imagine a game with jumping puzzles where jumping was just a skill you leveled up and you didn’t have to manually time and space your jumps. You’d have experts leaping all over the course like living pogo sticks and other characters struggling to make the first jump.
Thus, a balance is struck. The goal is that for the majority of an MMORPG’s gameplay, doing something more makes you better at it on a system level. But there are also things that are purely down to player skill. Leveling up from 10 to 40 in Final Fantasy XIV will gain you numerous abilities, significant statistical increases, and far more useful equipment, but it will not help you realize that you should hit more than one skill in combat, nor will it make you any better at jumping puzzles.
However, the key fact is that you should feel as if the time you’re spending is making you appreciably better at the things you need to do. The game does its best to tell you what skills you should be using in sequence, and it doesn’t make jumping puzzles a core part of its gameplay. No boss fight is reliant on being able to manage a jumping puzzle (and in fact, the couple you could cheese that way make sure you can’t).
But we see where the problem can arise. If you want to have puzzles in the game, that has to rely on player ability. Do you allow players to make use of character abilities to solve puzzles, or do you focus on making the puzzles purely a function of player skill? If your jumping puzzle can be cheesed with character abilities, you strongly incentivize players with those abilities; if it can’t, then the jumping puzzle awarding experience feels weird or frustrating because you’re advancing and getting better in something your abilities don’t correspond to.
To use the opening example, TSW would award experience for stealth-based missions, but the stealth-based missions can’t be made easier via your abilities. You were just as constrained in those missions and could not specialize in them. Rather than allowing you to customize how you wanted to take on missions, the game simply allowed you to customize how you took on combat, and everything out of combat was the same blob of non-skill-based gameplay.
That doesn’t feel great.
As mentioned before, there’s a line to be drawn here; after all, if you could just level your Riddle skill up and bypass every quest by pressing a button, it would negate the entire point of having puzzles in the game at all. It just means that you press a single button and then the game makes the thing happen, so you just tap E to disarm bomb/negotiate with thieves/kill lesser deity/solve riddle/weave baskets/pay respects. Every game requires a certain number of mechanics that are focused on player actions rather than just game input, something to ensure that two players can go into a fight with the same relative power but their player skill still makes a difference.
But there’s also an expectation that you will get better at solving problems over time, and that has to be respected as well. The more a game removes your sense of that accomplishment over time, the less invested you’re going to be. Oh, sure, I can reliably craft high-quality gear with a few button pushes in FFXIV, but it’s still a result of skill, planning, and leveling, instead of just watching a bar fill up in World of Warcraft without personal agency.
Is there a magic ratio for any given game? Yes, but it’s also flexible; first-person shooters rarely feature direct ability leveling, for example, so you expect to just get better with the tools at your disposal. But it’s worth thinking about when you play and being attentive to if you ever feel frustrated by a game. How many challenges are you being asked to solve through actions that are influenced by your character, your leveling, the intrinsic power climb… and how many are just totally down to the person behind the character? And how rewarding is the latter on behalf of the former?
TSW was definitely on the wrong side of that balance, though.