Sunday, February 5, 2012

#1: Random Encounters in RPGs

I have been playing RPGs for a very long time. It is one of my favorite genres. Recently, I bought Final Fantasy V on the PlayStation Store and decided to play it for the very first time. I had heard that the game is one of the most beloved Final Fantasy games to series fans. After playing it, I have come to understand why. The job system allows for great customization of the characters, the story is amusing (not very deep, but interesting and a good excuse for dungeon crawling), and it harkens back to old school game design philosophies budding game designers can learn from. However, one of the well established tropes of this old school philosophy is one of the reasons this game is a hit-or-miss for many people: Random Encounters.

As I played through FF5, I noticed that I was becoming increasingly annoyed by the shear amount of random encounters in the game. It seemed like I could not advance very far without fighting another group of monsters of varying levels of difficulty. It made me think about other RPGs and how random encounters were killed sometime in the middle of the PS2 era. At first, I was thankful for the change, but then I thought about another example of random encounters, one that I did not seem to mind so much.

In September of this year (2011), Atlus released a remake of Persona 2: Innocent Sin for the PSP. Instead of updating it for modern gamers, Atlus decided to leave the game mostly unchanged with the exception of a few graphic updates. This meant the random encounters were left in the game. While my excerpt from Final Fantasy V would suggest that I would dislike this, I ended up loving P2 and now consider it one of my all time favorite games. I wondered why this difference would exist because random encounters are one of the few things that annoy me about old school RPGs. After carefully pondering this, I eventually found an answer.

It has less to do with the system of getting into battles and more to do with the rewards for participating in the system. In Final Fantasy V, the reward for winning a fight is experience, money, and ability points used to advance in your party's chosen jobs. The only real benefit to gain experience is a level up, which leads to an increase in stats, and while ability points advance the character's job, the advances eventually become so infrequent that it becomes less a reward and more of a “About TIME!!!” in the player's eyes.

On the other hand, in Innocent Sin, while the rewards are a little different. Depending on whether or not you won the fight through combat or persuasion (which, admittedly, also might contribute why the random encounters seem less bothersome) the player will be rewarded with either experience points or tarot cards that the player can use to purchase new personae. While leveling also gives the player characters an overall stat boost, it also unlocks new personae for the player to purchase and use. This both encourages the player to change-up their strategy (persuading one group while fighting off another) and makes rewards more frequent over all. Players are given new personae at a rate slow enough that they do not feel like they are constant trading out personae, but fast enough so that the player never feels like the game is beginning to hold out on rewarding the player. By the time this cycle of trading personae and growing in power begins to lose its charm, the game has already reached its final act and the player has become enthralled in the storyline.

The overall point of this is to realize that a game's overall quality is not determined by what mechanics are being used as much as how these mechanics are being implemented. The overall package must also be considered. To clarify, I think that both games are excellent in their own right and would recommend both to RPG fans. This was more of an analysis than anything else.

No comments: