Neo-Retro Gaming

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A comment on  my last Sunday post reminded me that there’s a lot about game design concepts that I take for granted. I took it for granted that Megaman 4 Minus Infinity was clearly a large-scale transformation of the original material. The response was “looks like Megaman to me,” which is both extremely right, but also extremely wrong. For reasons that will probably have to wait until I specifically address rom hacks.

For now, we’ll touch on a larger, more prominent field: Retro Gaming.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is no clear definition of “retro” gaming. In a general sense, it’s getting to the point where even Playstation 2 is considered retro. “Retro Gaming” as a concept is generally restricted to the 2D era, particularly what is considered the “golden age,” ranging from the NES up through 2D Playstation games. This is further divided into “soft” retro – the 16 bit up through the 32 bit – and “hard” retro – 8 bit and earlier

The simplest form or Retro Gaming is hooking up an old console and playing old games. For a fine arts comparison, this is looking at classical works – Greek and Roman sculpture, architecture, etc.

More prominent have been what would be called a sort of Neo-Retro gaming, which comes in various flavors.

The most obvious is the field of low-res gaming. These are modern games made in the visual/audio style of old games. They look like the retro games, but play like modern games. Meat Boy is a low-res game. The visuals are low-res pixel art, but the game play is fast-paced, fluid, and works on principles unique to more modern gaming. Fez is another example, making use of concepts which simply can not be done in actual old games. This would be the NeoClassical school of art – it looks like the Greek and Roman art, but the similarities are really on a superficial level. They are built with modern tools and techniques to perform modern tasks.

A style that is slightly harder to pin down is the field of Old-School gameplay. These are ostensibly modern games, with modern visuals and aesthetic, but their core game structure is like something out of the ’80s. In this case, it’s worth noting that the architecture is modern, but the rules are old. These are modern cars with manual transmissions, as opposed to a manual transmission built in the ’50s. Nostalgia and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Etrian Odyssey are examples of Old-School gameplay. They look modern, but they play like old games. In the fine art analogy, this is making use of Classical elements, like the circular arch, or the golden ratio. Admittedly, this is where the analogy starts creaking a bit.

Then we have Throwback gaming. This is when the system limitations of the retro era are applied – slowdown and/or vanishing objects when the screen gets too crowded, limited display palette (not to be confused with color palette), restricted control scheme, limited control responsiveness, etc. There is an appeal to these games, because hard and fast limitations can be a seed of creativity. For various reasons, it tends to be difficult to find a modern game that works as a throwback. On the other hand, they often appear as rom hacks, under the reasoning that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The fine art equivalent is someone using the tools available to the Greeks and Romans to make works int he style of the Greeks and Romans.

Finally, we have what I would call Post-Retro Gaming. This is very similar to the throwback, but uses modern game design concepts or philosophy. Retro Game Challenge is an excellent example of this school.  In RCG, we have a collection of classic-style games ostensibly played on a Famicom (NES): a Galaga clone with power ups and combos; the most badass pre-k educational game ever; a racing game with power slides; a shoot-em-up (SHMUP) that includes an integrated unlimited shield counterattack and multi-use power-ups; a Dragon Quest/Warrior II clone with recruitable monsters and weapons that use a slot-machine reel to determine accuracy, adding an element of timing; and a Ninja Gaiden clone with a rudimentary inventory/equipment system and resource management. Arguably, this is also the mark aimed for by Megaman 9 and Megaman 10, though some would argue that they gave up and simply made low-res games. Again, the metaphor breaks down. I guess using Greek and Roman tools to make post-modernist art?

The appeal of  retro gaming differs by the flavors.

Vanilla retro gaming is one part nostalgia and one part appreciation of the classic games. Some games stay with us because the nightmares will never go away, others stay with use because they were timeless.

Low-Res gaming is practical, as it allows for a small team, a low budget, and using what’s on hand. Additionally, there is an appeal to the low-res visual and audio style (among a select audience, at least).

Old-School gaming generally argues that we’ve gone soft. Doing poorly used to have consequences, and you had to earn progress.

Throwbacks seek to capture the magic of the old games while presenting new settings. All the familiar rules and visuals of vanilla retro, but with new layouts. They want to recapture the magic of the Turbo Tunnel, but sadly, that infamous level is written into their muscle memory.

Post-Retro is an attempt to have it all. You have the Low-Res aesthetic, Old-School rules (perhaps softened a little), and the verisimilitude of a throwback, all with the lessons learned of modern game design. Post-Retro comes from a fantasy world in which the old systems never really retired. Games made for a bygone era, they are a lament for what could have been.

There is good to come from each of the Neo-Retro styles. They each have something unique to add. They are specialized tools, designed to highlight certain aspects of the Art of Games.


Story Structure

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Because I’ve already spoken on narrative structures, the title probably deserves clarification. For my purposes, narrative structure is the shape of the story – how it’s told. Story structure, by comparison, is the form of the story – what makes it a story. A story needs to be built around a narrative structure; any story can be analysed according to any story structure.

There are a potentially unlimited number of story structures, but the two most well-known structures are the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Three Act Structure.”  As had been previously stated, these are structures that can be applied to any story.  Therefore, a story structure is only valuable as an analytical tool. “A man goes to the fridge to get a beer” is a complete story. You can break down the actions, from him deciding he wants a beer all the way through him returning to the couch, into the Three Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey. I state this because many people think a story structure is a guideline to building a good story. Following a story structure, especially slavishly following a story structure, only guarantees that you have crafted a story. It is natural to tell stories, and one can instinctually tell whether a story exists. Story structures are good for analysis and interpretation – nothing more, nothing less.

As has been previously established in my musings on art, interpretation is key to experiencing art. Similarly, analysis is integral to forming a coherent interpretation. Therefore, story structures are quite useful – in their proper place.

The Hero’s Journey has been addressed by many people far more eloquent than I (banana), and I’m not sure I’m really qualified to add to the conversation, but the worst I can do is make a total ass of myself and be wrong on all counts. So on we go!

As you likely already know (especially if you read the links), the Hero’s Journey (AKA the Monomyth) was popularized by Joseph Campbell, breaking the story down into 17 distinct parts.  Dan Harmon cut it down to 8, because he’s twice as good as Joseph Campbell.

Many people get frustrated with the Hero’s Journey because, as already noted, it has a tendency to be used as scaffolding to build, rather than a tool to analyze. For the sake of absurdity, let us apply the 17 steps of the Monomyth to the guy getting a beer:

1. Call to Adventure – The guy is thirsty.

2. Refusal of the Call – If the guy wants a beer, he’ll have to get off the couch. The couch is comfortable. Besides, his show is on.

3. Supernatural Aid – A commercial comes on.

4. Crossing the First Threshold – The man gets up.

5. Belly of the Whale – The man steps away from the couch – it will now take effort to return.

6. The Road of Trials – The man’s kid left his toys all over the floor, the kitchen tiles are cold, and the beer’s hidden behind a watermelon.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess – The man grabs a beer.

8. Woman as Temptress – The beer needs a bottle opener. It might be easier to grab a swig of milk from the carton instead.

9. Atonement with the Father – Rifling through the drawer, the man seeks out the bottle opener.

10. Apotheosis – The bottle opener has been found, and the beer is liberated.

11. The Ultimate Boon – Still in the kitchen, the man tastes the sweet nectar, the fruits of his achievement.

12. Refusal of the Return – It’s not that bad standing in the kitchen. Besides, he has his beer.

13. The Magic Flight – Seeing as it’s 11 AM, it might be best to not be caught.

14. Rescue from Without – The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” shouts his wife.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold – The man returns to the couch, more aware of his kid’s toys.

16. Master of Two Worlds – The man is back at the couch, beer in hand, and the commercials are just ending.

17. Freedom to Live – Life is good.

While, in theory, my slavish adherence to the Monomyth has made a rather compelling version of “Guy goes to the fridge to get a beer,” it’s still about a guy getting a beer. Also, were all those steps really necessary? Do we care that the guy was comfortable on the couch watching his show? Did we need the ordeal of procuring the bottle opener? Arguably, the story was made worse by insistence on hitting every beat. Especially when equal time is given to each step.

In fairness, using the Hero’s Journey as a tool for analysis is itself fraught with peril. Taken to the extreme, the Hero’s Journey means that Everyone is Jesus in Purgatory(Warning: Link to TVTropes). This should not discourage the use of a valuable tool – it should be an admonition toward moderation. Any interpretation can be applied to any work of art – what matters is whether the interpretation fits. The Hero’s Journey is excellent at decoding allegory, as well as developing analogies. But it is only a tool. It is one way to connect the dots, but not the only way, and not the best way. The Hero’s Journey will connect every set of dots into a dog, but not every set of dots should be a dog.

The Three Act Structure is a more general approach, as are any X Act Structures. Arguably, the Monomyth is a 17 Act structure. Because it’s more general, it has more flexibility, but that also means it has a greater potential for abuse. When crafting from an act structure, the inclination is to separate everything into equal parts – the story suffers because the important stuff is crammed into a tight space, while boring and unimportant elements are stretched. Because three acts means three equal parts. While this may be mitigated by a theoretical perfect number of acts properly defined, it simply serves to reemphasise the point previously made – story structure is a tool for analysis, not for construction.

From the Intarwebs 07/08/12


I’m still alive. Just needed to recover from an exhausting week. A little disappointed in myself for letting the schedule slip, but c’est la vie.

An epic Megaman 4 hack – Even if you’re not interested in romhacking, the video is crazy. Download the patch.

A mural illustrating all 120 stars from Super Mario 64.

Fans of a webcomic on hiatus decide to Rewrite History – The internet can be a crazy place. In this case, Crazy awesome.

Yet another Neo-Retro video game. Seems to be quite polished… if deliberately old-fashioned in ALL aspects of game design…

Consuming Content

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I am in the habit of consuming a prodigious amount of content.

Before expanding on this idea, let’s begin with a definition or two. By “consume content,” I mean “to actively engage a sensory input with one’s intellect.” Put simply, this is the distinction between hearing and listening. Content is sensory information, but organized in such a manner that it is itself a unit (in a logical sense), generally with a discrete and recognizable “source.”  A source can be a TV screen, a conversation, or anything else which can be tied to the production of content. Content can be engaged on several levels, from a general overview to a precise analysis. Someone can hear a song (not consuming content), can listen to the song (consuming content), or can analyze the melodies, harmonies, chord progression, and/or individual instruments (consuming content on a deeper level).

Everyone is capable of consuming content from multiple sources simultaneously, but the wider the net is cast, the shallower one’s consumption ability becomes. Therefore, at a certain point, one is no longer effective at consuming any content, leading to the neglect of one or more sources. Aside from this hard limit, there is also a comfort limit.  It is assumed that most people are comfortable engaging one or two sources at a given time. As a general rule, it is considered polite to engage 1 or 2 sources when people are involved. This is by practicality, because, as stated, the more sources engaged, the less depth available to any given source. No one appreciates a shallow engagement. Such encounters lead to one being considered “aloof” or “disconnected.”

By personal estimation, I have found myself capable of meaningful engagement with as many as 4 or 5 sources, but tend to find my comfort level is engaging 2-3 sources. This may appear to be signs of a data addiction, but that would come from a misinterpretation of the phrases “consuming content” and “engaging sources.” The phrases are roughly synonymous, with consuming content being the general term, while engaging a source refers to a specific action, rather than the general activity. While driving, engaging a single source would be paying attention to the road. Engaging two sources would be watching the road and listening to the song on the radio, or holding a conversation with a passenger. Engaging three sources would be watching the road, talking to the passenger, and listening to the radio playing at a low enough level that it doesn’t compete with or overpower the conversation. I am confining this discussion to mental engagement; the physical engagement of interacting with devices provides an unnecessary level of complexity for this discussion.

Like memory, content consumption can be divided into short-term and long-term, as consumption is directed directly toward short-term memory and long-term memory. Depending on the nature of the car conversation, consumption may be short-term(chatting about the weather) or long-term(talking about  your mutual future). Listening to a song on the radio can similarly be short-term(enjoying the song) or long-term(analysing the song). Watching the road can be short-term(watching for traffic, signals) or long-term(memorising a new route). As can be inferred from the examples, long-term consumption tends to require a deeper level of engagement.

Much of my life is directed toward consuming content. I am by nature analytical, so I often find myself consuming even trivial content, as my mind is extremely active. Without trying, I find myself deconstructing every book, movie, game, song, or other form of content as I experience them. To go back to my essays on art, consumption of content is actively applying and criticising interpretations, often at a rapid pace as new information presents itself. When I engage a source, then, it tends toward the deeper levels. As a benefit, I tend to have a modest understanding of my experiences, but I tend to be accused of overthinking things.

On top of the method of consumption, there is the sheer scale of my consumption. I place consumption of content in its proper role, but I have watched hundreds of movies and TV shows, and have a massive list of movies and shows to watch. I have played hundreds of video games, with hundreds more readily accessible at my fingertips. I have likely read over a thousand books, and have shelves full of books I haven’t read, as well as a list of books I do not own but intend to read. One of my primary roles at my full-time job is to consume content, interpret it, and reproduce it in a more digestible form for the sake oft hose that report to me,a s well as for those to whom I report. Additionally, I likely read several thousands of words each day, as I keep myself informed about the news and other points of interest.

With all this consumption, there remains the question: to what end? Why do I consider it worth my time to consume content at such a sustained level? It is understood that engaging film will bolster your cinematic vocabulary. What is often missed is that the cinematic vocabulary is meant to be applicable to life in an analogical sense – we watch movies in part for entertainment, but also because we wish to see the reflection of truth in our own world. Explosions may be fun, but we return to the value of art. I consume this content, rapidly applying interpretations to the content, so that I might find an interpretation that helps in my edification. Each point of data helps to develop a catalog of reference points and interrelations, both for my own personal use, but also for the sake of others – by sharing what I have learned and the connections and interpretations I have drawn, I can direct them to build off my success, to reach even greater heights. Similarly, I turn to those that have come before me in consuming content, so I may in turn benefit from their curation. We have a massive network of information at our fingertips, but, more importantly, we also have useful guideposts set along the way. A herculean task is impossible for one man. The wisdom of the crowds can come to resemble a swarm at times. But, with the help of good guides, an ordinary man can see far by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The Sovereignty of the Internet

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There is a lot happening around the world in relation to the internet. In a sense, everyone is trying to figure it out, to understand it, or to simply live with it. It is very possible, as history writes itself, that the Digital Revolution will be as pivotal as the Industrial Revolution.

Recently, there have been many calls for an “Internet Bill of Rights,” and even a push for a Declaration of Internet Freedom. This illustrates a striking point: There is a large faction of people who see the Internet as a Sovereign entity, independent of any country or nation. Currently, this is an ideal, as the practical truth is that the infrastructure of the internet is controlled in various parts by several countries. The people for a sovereign internet argue that this is not merely an ideal, but a necessity – if the internet is not open and free, it will not work properly. The internet transcends borders, so it is either subject to its own laws, or subject to all laws of all countries.

People have expressed particular distress at actions of the United states in relation to the Internet. The Department of State advocates a free internet to fight oppression, but sees no problem with suppressing websites which may be illegal under US law, or encourage acts against US law. The US seeks extradition of  individuals who violate US law while not on US soil, because it was on the internet. Politicians call the internet a lawless “Wild West” that needs law imposed upon it for its own good.

Aside from the fact that the Wild West analogy is an example of “You fail history forever,” all these actions are in fact consistent, provided you accept their core assumption: the US believes the internet to be a US colony. There is no inconsistency with supporting freedom, democracy, and opposition to tyranny, yet enforcing your laws on your own colony. There is nothing unusual about demanding extradition of an individual who committed a crime in your colony. If you see lawlessness in your colony, it is only natural to desire to impose order.

The issue at hand, however, is that the “people of the internet” see the internet much like the original American colonies – nominally, they show allegiance to their colonial masters, but they have been in the practical habit of self-governance. The colonies police themselves, enforce their own laws, and in all practical aspects remain a separate entity. This came to a head when the ruling powers began imposing their will on the colonies in the form of taxation and laws, such as the infamous Intolerable Acts. This is all American History 101, placed into a different context. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Americans who consider themselves in part denizens of the internet are calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” or an “Internet declaration of independence.” Look at the list of grievances in the original Declaration of Independence. One more inflammatory than myself could argue that each and every grievance listed has a counterpart in this conflict between the US and the internet.

In Jefferson’s original draft, the Declaration included this phrase: “We might have been a free & a great people together; but a communication of grandeur & of freedom it seems is below their dignity. be it so, since they will have it: the road to glory & happiness is open to us too; we will climb it in a separate state, and acquiesce in the necessity which pronounces our everlasting Adieu!” He laments the irreconcilable differences, that the rift need not have been created.

Reconciliation is possible. Let us return to the ever popular example of “the Wild West.” Lawlessness in the Wild West came from the strong imposing their will on the weak, and law was enforced by the strong who stood up for the weak. The weak learned to adapt to the harsh new environment and became strong, and established their own laws and order. Once they had become a coherent whole, capable of some degree of self-government, they petitioned to enter the Union. There was no instance of the Federal government coming into town, shooting up the lawbreakers, and imposing their own laws on the people. That approach is absurd, because it is patently un-American. The laws come up from the people, and the ideals of the people are enshrined as laws. They are not handed down from an authority on high, to be imposed upon the people.

The ideals and principles of the people of the internet are not the same as those of any regional authority. They can’t be so, and they shouldn’t be so. Laws are relegated to the people on the local level because the realities of the environment are different. Water rights are much more nuanced in the Western United States, because there is much less water – it would be absurd to enforce some sort of national law of water rights, because the realities of the different regions mean that many, if not most – or even all – regions are poorly served by this national rule. The realities of the digital world are dramatically different from the realities of the physical world – it would be absurd to apply the rules of one upon the realities of the other.

There are principles, and there should be rules. But they should be grounded in reality, and they should come from the people. Americans hold very dear to their hearts that they should not be subject to the whims of a foreign and alien ruler on distant shores, who can’t be bothered to learn about the realities of their life. Is it so much of a surprise that the people of the internet, often steeped in the same ideals of the US, demand the same respect?

The Creative Drive

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Everyone has a desire to create.

On the basest level, this manifests in the subconscious – daydreaming, imagining, even actual sleeping dreams.  Some are more inclined to this act of creation than others, but it is present in all people. Creation, especially on the mental level, need not be a spectacular event – if creation extends even to the imagination, than the imagination of the different flavors as one decides what to eat, or anticipates what he has already decided, is a form of creation.

Most people, perhaps all, are not satisfied with the mere imagination. People want to take their creations and make them real. The artist and the writer want to transfer their thoughts to a fixed medium; the architect wants to form structures; the chef and craftsman want to create things of beauty and utility from raw materials. Most people, however, do not have an overlap between their drive to create and their profession. They create as a hobby – either because their talents are not marketable or because they do not wish to create for a living.

Professional and amateur are held in tension, and often considered to be opposites. As the words imply, the professional performs the art as a job, while the amateur performs the art for love of the art. Linguistic bias implies that drive is not a factor in professionalism, only talent. Amateur quality is considered poor quality, often making rookie mistakes, while professional quality is considered solid and consistent quality, at a bare minimum. Needless to say, amateurs can be perfectly capable or professional quality work, while many professionals are guilty of doing amateur quality work.

Drive is in fact the most pivotal factor in the art of creation. There is no correlation between the decision to work professionally and the levels of drive and talent, though a minimum level of both drive and talent  is assumed for the individual that makes such a decision.

Talent is composed of two elements – gift and experience. Gift is the inborn ability – any element of oneself which makes a given art easier can be considered gift.  Gift is unevenly distributed, and may affect an individual’s inclination toward a given art. Experience is available to everyone equally – some may gain it faster than others, and experience will manifest for different individuals in different areas – again, the experience is unique to the individual. Talent is then somewhere between the sum of gift and experience and the product of gift and experience – someone with no gift is, in theory, capable of matching someone incredibly gifted, given enough experience. A popular theory of experience is the concept of 10,000 hours – after 10,000 hours of an activity, someone can truly be considered “good” at that activity. While there is truth to the 10,000 hours theory, it perhaps overvalues experience while diminishing gift.  There is, in theory, a critical mass where the level of gift is inconsequential in the face of experience, but I am not certain that that critical mass is 10,000 hours. The point remains that gift does not separate individuals, it simply inclines them to take more easily to a given art. The best author is not necessarily the most gifted.

Which brings us to drive. This is the decision to do something – nothing more, nothing less. This decision is not a one-time action, however – it is a constant action, in the face of any adversity. Drive is shown when an individual stumbles, but does not quit, when an individual makes time for the art, rather than muttering about “finding time.”  Drive waxes and wanes, leading to the well-known concept of “writer’s block.” Similarly, those with more drive are more likely to commit to something long enough to see it through, and, by extension, more likely to reach the fabled 10,000 hours.

But, on a more philosophical level, what is drive?

Drive can be caused by intrinsic factors.  It can be a desire to prove something. It can be the recognition that this art is a means to a desirable end, be it survival, charitable, comfort, or any other end.

Drive can also have an intrinsic source. This is less understood, because it is less understandable. This drive can be the desire to prove something to oneself. Or it can be a recognition of the value of creation – much as art can elevate the one who experiences it, it can elevate the one who creates. And then there are those who simply feel they must create – there is a primal sense of something within them that must be made real. In this latter case, the author will not be able to explain why the art must be created, only that it must. This intrinsic drive is also considered a “gift,” though it is distinct from the earlier sense of gift.

There may be many reasons why one with drive has no inclination toward professionalism. It may be a matter of temperament – art serves no master. It may be a matter of principle – art is not something to be bought and sold; it demands to be experienced. It may be a matter of personal preference – I do this to relax; I couldn’t possibly relax if my livelihood depended on it. It may be a matter of self-deprecation – I’m not good enough to do this for a living. Or it may be one of an infinite variety of reasons. Samuel Clemens (i.e. Mark Twain) argued in Tom Sawyer that the very fact of an art being a profession diminishes drive.

There are in fact many elements which work against drive. People tend to have a poor estimation of their abilities, and claim incompetence – a very tall hurdle for those with little to no gift while they work to accumulate basic experience. People can temporarily subdue the drive through consumption – vicariously enjoying the creation of others. People can be discouraged by difficulty progressing. Of they can just be having a very bad day. There are easily as many excuses to not create as there are to create.

In the end, however, there remains the fact that people are inclined to create. The experience of creation, particularly seeing the finished creation, and the impact thereof, really cannot be compared to any other experience. The greater the art, the greater the internal sense of fulfillment, especially if the quality meets or exceeds the author’s personal standards.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

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This is a bit of a companion piece to Support Roles. While that focused on direct combat roles vs. indirect combat roles from the psychological standpoint, this focuses on the tension from a design standpoint.

In many games, higher difficulty settings, endgame content, and post-endgame content have a tendency to make encounters harder through “fake difficulty” – In FPSes, player characters are more fragile, snipers have catlike reflexes and unerring accuracy, enemies psychically know where you are, mooks can keep fighting after three .50 cal shots to the face, etc. In RPGs, the boss has infinity billion hit points, takes three actions per round, and switches between an instant kill attack, a total party kill attack, and an attack that does max damage. In fighting games, you have the SNK Boss – never flinches, barely feels your attacks, and his taunt is powerful enough to take out half your life bar. In short, this design philosophy is “Fight harder, not smarter.”

Sadly, “fight harder, not smarter” is a legitimate approach. Especially at the higher difficulty levels and post endgame content, where few players actually venture, the development costs of more refined difficulty is simply unfeasible. With the unsustainable budget bloat that plagues modern games, many noble endeavors fall victim to the uncaring knife of cost-benefit analysis. Developing a truly robust AI that can outsmart a skilled player is a lofty and laudable goal, but also a massive time and money sink.

The real shame of “fight harder, not smarter” is that it is often self-defeating. If the game is difficult because it’s cheating, The players abandon any sense of fair play – it becomes assumed that you need to exploit bugs and AI flaws to defeat the harder enemies.

As with all my other musings, I’m using the very specific examples of video games, but I’m reaching for a concept that is more universal. The rule of thumb for D&D combat encounters is “more, or bigger.” It’s a simple approach that a larger scale makes something more difficult. On a more abstract level, it’s how we get narrative structures like DragonBall Z (Oh no! This guy is going to destroy the earth! We must pool all our powers to stop him! We finally beat him, but at an extreme cost! Now there’s someone even worse! The last guy you fought was like an insect in comparison!).

And this is where there is an intersection. Shockingly, there are a very few examples where utility effects are used to make an encounter more difficult. Even worse, immunity to the player’s support effects is considered not only as a legitimate, but also a desirable approach to make encounters more difficult. When enemies do use utility effects, it’s generally directed to be annoying, rather than lethal. Poison spiders roam the forest no so much to make it more dangerous, but to punish you for not buying antidotes.

We then find ourselves treading a very thin line – utility effects need to be effective and relevant, enough to turn the tide of a battle, but not game-breaking. Enemies should be vulnerable to debuffs, but, as a general rule, not be incapacitated by these effects. Player characters should be similarly vulnerable, but not incapacitated by the same effects. Enemies should make use of buffs and healing effects, and player characters should be encouraged to do the same, but there should be limits and opportunity cost involved.

In D&D, this is addressed primarily through combat maneuvers and magic. Wizards seem to get a pass with utility effects, so that’s not really broken. Combat maneuvers are presented in a needlessly complex manner (somewhat streamlined in some versions), loaded down with flowcharts and formulae. Things make sense once it’s studied, and it is perhaps a balanced system, but there’s very little incentive to bother with the Byzantine rules unless there’s an in-character reason for attempting these maneuvers. A character specifically designed to perform a specific combat maneuver likely has a strong incentive to use that particular maneuver. Otherwise, it’s a “shoot the moon” attempt, giving up your normal action for a (narrow) chance of getting a big effect. As a general rule, given the average players and GM, combat maneuvers only come into play when a specialist uses them or when a monster gets them for free. While that may be perfectly legitimate in that you want your player characters to perform actions for character motivations, it ignores the fact that D&D, as presented by the rules in the book, consists in large part of a grid-based tactical game. The presence of utility effects is not enough on its own – there must exist incentives for the player characters and their antagonists to both use them. And this is one of the better examples.

In many games, the utility effects are actually overpowered, giving the player characters an unfair advantage – they were balanced on the assumption that most players won’t even bother. In other games, there are utility effects available, but they are worthless to the players, so the only player response is “punch the poison spiders in the face.” Neither of these approaches are satisfactory.

Final Fantasy X is actually a good example of utility effects given more meaning.  Especially in the early game, the system is like an overly complex Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, but this extends to bosses, as well – they are vulnerable to debuffs, buffs make the players more effective, etc. Unfortunately, in the late game, things pretty much devolve into “punch it in the face harder,” largely because there’s little to no evolution beyond the initial RPScLSp system. An example of a game where utility effects matter more and more as the game goes on would be Treasure of the Rudras (not released outside Japan). In the early game, you could get by on brute force, but the later bosses were simply too powerful.  If you managed to develop a solid set of spells and strategy, focusing heavily on utility effects, however, the battles actually became possible. Similarly, the enemies had no compunction with using utility effects on the players, and they managed to make the battles more difficult, rather than more annoying.

Returning to a narrative example of this concept, to emphasize the applicability beyond video games, we have One Piece. Right from the get-go, many of the main characters are phenomenally strong. As the story progresses, their opponents get progressively stronger, but the threat is rarely a matter of overwhelming strength.  Most of the tension in conflicts stems from unorthodox styles, fixing the match to give one side an unfair advantage, and otherwise presenting situations where you can’t simply punch the problem into submission. Conversely, some of the main characters are relatively weak, and they manage to defeat superhuman opponents through ingenuity rather than raw force.

While it may be cathartic to solve problems with moar dakka and bigger guns, it’s more satisfying when brains are applied as well as brawn.

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