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    On the nature of modding & game design...

       (1 review)


    Hello, my name is BTB, co-creator and designer of Final Fantasy VI: Brave New World. And like anyone with a job or hobby that attracts an audience, there are certain questions that tend to come up a lot to me in my capacity as a modder of video games... certain "frequently-asked questions", if you will. Today, I would like to take a moment to answer some of the most common/pressing of them.

    Why don't you just make an original game?

    Of all the questions modders are asked, this is easily the most offensive as it both belittles and completely misses the point of our craft. It's like asking someone who enjoys restoring classic cars why they don't just make their own. I'll talk about this in a bit more detail further below, but the short answer is that improving on an existing idea is an entirely different task from forming a new one and, more importantly, is no more or less valid a form of artistic expression because of it.

    Why did you change "X" thing?

    Game mods face a somewhat unique obstacle in that, unlike an original game, they are expected to justify their own existence. Design decisions are generally not scrutinized in a "vanilla" game to the degree they are in a mod, which makes a certain amount of sense given that players are actively looking for changes in the latter no matter how much its creator wishes they would treat it like the former. It's kind of like dealing with people who can't enjoy a movie because they're too busy comparing absolutely everything about it to the book.

    Modders take note: no matter how stupid, arbitrary, or poorly thought-out anything in a base game is, no matter how minuscule or insignificant, someone will question your decision to change it. I've had people ask me why I changed the names of certain enemies in Brave New World when their original names were literal nonsense words so unremarkable that nobody (including the person asking) remembers what they were. And you can fall back on logic or reason all you want to justify your actions, but ultimately the answer will be "because I didn't like what it was before and wanted to change it". And one of the most important things to learn as a modder is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    Why DIDN'T you change "X" thing?

    Contrary to the above, the answer to this one is usually, "I couldn't". Modding is frequently bound by the restrictions of the source material or by how deep into the code we are able to dig, and things that may seem to the outside observer to be an easy copy/paste job often aren't. Also, do assume that modders (or at least good modders) have put a lot of thought into their final product and have considered all of the potential implications of even a seemingly small change.

    That said, ask away - I've made countless changes to my mods based on player feedback pointing out something I just hadn't thought of, and at the very least you're likely to get an interesting piece of developer insight in response.

    Why would you mod a game that you don't like?

    As the designer of a prominent Final Fantasy VI mod, it often confuses people to learn that I am not all that fond of the original game. While some mods are created by people who are deeply in love with the game in question, these mods are rarely of good quality since their creators saw so little room for improvement. More often than not, they end up veering into bad fanfiction territory and/or falling victim to the philosophy of adding more stuff just to have more stuff with absolutely zero regard for how well any of it fits in or concern for existing content (AKA "Squaresoft Design Theory 101").

    This is not to say that good modders hate the games that they are working on; something obviously had to draw them in, after all. But I've come to realize that too much reverence for the game you're working with tends to prevent good or even necessary changes for fear of breaking from the traditional and familiar - this mentality is the reason I am often bitched at for fixing legitimate bugs and exploits. Good mods are ideally born from an attachment to an idea (or ideas) by people with a vision of their full potential and, more often than not, a certain degree of frustration toward their flawed execution that keeps them from realizing that potential. And this frustration - something generally lacking in people who are already happy with games the way they are - is what drives us to make a better game.

    On trial and error...

    So, this is neither a question nor a complete sentence and it pertains to game design as a whole rather than just modding, but it's an important topic to discuss here given the prevalence of "kaizo" hacks out there in contrast to an audience that is generally more accustomed to modern game design. For those unfamiliar, the term "kaizo" comes from the name of one of the earliest known hacks of its kind: a Super Mario World ROMhack that utilized extreme difficulty as a form of comedy, winding up as a sort of self-directed schadenfreude. This was an extension of the very first such games - a trilogy of Super Mario Bros. hacks called Syobon Action or "Cat Mario" - whose difficulty stemmed entirely from their "puzzle" elements which murdered the player in increasingly ridiculous ways for taking the most logical course of action, thus forcing a purely "trial and error" method of gameplay that (along with the racist sprite hacks of yore) has since gone on to stigmatize modding as a whole. The term is now used to describe any ROMhack of difficulty sufficient to warrant pure trial-and-error gameplay and tends to be freely (and often unfairly) used to describe mods that introduce difficulty of any kind.

    It's because of the above that Brave New World shies away from the "difficulty hack" label altogether, but it tends to draw arguments from players who (correctly) realize that it is, in fact, much harder than the original game. My personal take is that there seems to be some degree of resistance to the idea that the player should be made to think, that the game is a puzzle meant to be figured out rather than a mere interactive viewing experience. What some players label "punishment" is to me simply a part of the learning process. Learning involves experimentation, which by its very nature equates to trial and - more often than not - error. Brave New World was designed with the expectation that players would frequently die and be forced to rethink their approach to certain battles, but comparisons to games designed to make the player suffer are inaccurate and something that we wish to avoid.

    There seems to be a commonly-held notion that a good game should be easily beatable by a blind player ("blind" in the figurative sense, not literal) without failure and that anyone who thinks otherwise is one of those "Dark Souls" weirdos. There is little acknowledged middle ground between games requiring no effort whatsoever and those specifically designed to be unfair, which from my experience manifests primarily as an unwillingness to experiment. Again using Brave New World as an example, one of its major design philosophies is that the random encounter system should pose a challenge to the player's abilities to figure out how to deal with them quickly and efficiently, or else they exist for no other reason than to waste the player's time. A big part of this is a wide variety of enemy weaknesses and resistances so that no one attack or tactic is universally effective, thus forcing the player to adapt to each individual encounter.

    Sounds good, yeah?

    The result of the above design, however, brings to mind the cautionary advice of Mark Rosenwater against fighting human nature. It's become somewhat of a meme in the Brave New World community for a new player to complain that "X thing is useless because everything is immune to it", with that "X thing" usually being wind damage. And it's not that this statement is even remotely true (approximately 15% of enemies in Brave New World resist wind damage) so much as that players are so rarely forced to attempt different strategies in the original game's design and are very quickly discouraged from doing so at the first sight of failure. The unfortunate ultimate result of this phenomenon is a refusal to move away from "tried and true" tactics even when they fail, with players stubbornly attempting the same thing over and over again rather than trying something new (which, by the way, is the definition of insanity).

    In conclusion...

    And that's it for now. Perhaps in the future I'll do a "part two", but these are the questions that have been stuck in my head for awhile and itching to get out. Thanks for reading, and remember that modders are just people who perform a labor of love for no reward other than the hope that our work makes the world a better (or at least funner) place.

    (Or get us laid. That's pretty nice.)

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    The only thing I kinda disagree with is the "beat on the first try." I think the key phrase being "beatable," NOT "easily beatable." The issue is that so many games are designed around the notion of you having to lose the first time. This means that something like Final Fantasy X's Yunalesca fight and the infamous "Mega-death" is a bullshit maneuver (this is especially bad, because if someone has zombieproof on all of their characters, the fight is literally unwinnable without excessive grinding). But something like Seymour's "Banish" on Yuna's summons isn't garbage, because it's something the AI does in response to a player ability choice, you can redirect your strategy upon seeing it without it resulting in a death/loss.   

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    10 minutes ago, Augestein said:

    The only thing I kinda disagree with is the "beat on the first try." I think the key phrase being "beatable," NOT "easily beatable." The issue is that so many games are designed around the notion of you having to lose the first time. This means that something like Final Fantasy X's Yunalesca fight and the infamous "Mega-death" is a bullshit maneuver (this is especially bad, because if someone has zombieproof on all of their characters, the fight is literally unwinnable without excessive grinding). But something like Seymour's "Banish" on Yuna's summons isn't garbage, because it's something the AI does in response to a player ability choice, you can redirect your strategy upon seeing it without it resulting in a death/loss.   

    Yeah, I chose that phrasing very deliberately because of what you said here. One line that I cut because I didn't feel like it added to the flow of the article is that Brave New World can be beaten by a new player without a single death, it's just the exception rather than the norm. Bullshit like the MagiMaster casting Ultima when he dies doesn't exist, but the fight itself does require you to have geared up.

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    I totally agree. In games there basically agree two types of errors. Those which are obviously errors and therefore are easy to identify as such - and those which are not that easy to identify. For example in Lufia, if there's a tileset missing and as result a few room turn into total visual garbage, this obviously is an error and therefore in need of fixing.

    If, however, a game has no properly working learning curve for its primary combat system, no one will scream for fixing that easily. A major problem of Lufia - and many other RPGs - is, well, there's a 20+ hours game, but you just won't learn anything meaningful about the combat system after the initial 2~3 hours anymore. In the beginning you learn about weapons, magic and special attacks and... that's just it. Like in the first three or so towns there's a dude standing in the local weapons shop who talks about combat with you. And in later towns there's just nobody because the game has told you everything it wanted to teach you and lacks the ability to further intensify the nature of its combat system.


    Recently I uploaded 2 (lets ignore the hard mode here) different Lufia hacks of RHDN. One which only fixes the undoubtedly bugs and translation issues (Frue Lufia), and one which additionally also fixes some not-by-the-book stuff such as a messed up combat learning curve (Spekkio Lufia). Which hack do I consider superior? And which one is way more popular?

    Recently I asked a streamer who finished Frue to also try the final endgame of Spekkio. And I basically got the result I expected that is a curbstomp. And for the exact reasons I expected, that is, he never ever had to deal with the combat system in any meaningful way. It just was enter smashing the whole time without the vanilla game trying anything at all to add more depths to its battles.


    Or the Master of the Ancient Cave who basically has the same problems as the Magimaster - just that you'll lose around TEN HOURS of play time when you lose to him for the first time. Both battles are fine itself in theory, but fail completely in its execution. They would be perfectly acceptable if:

    #1 There's an actual learning curve which lets you learn about the gimmick in question BEFORE you do the corresponding boss battle.

    #2 There's a NON-OPTIONAL possibility given to actually win on first try if you're just awesome enough.

    For those who don't know the Master is a giant jelly who doesn't attack and has to be beaten within three rounds. Unfortunately there's nothing else enemy-wise that even resembles that behaviour slightly.As even the small jellies just attack normally. So what do you do when you meet him the first time - after a 10 hour long run full of hard-hitting monsters? *cough* Gold Dragons *cough*


    Well, as it's a boss you'll assume that you won't kill it that fast and therefore you'll play it as safe as possble. And congratulations, you basically wasted all the chances you had at victory! All the hours to get through fucking 98 floors of a dungeon - wasted! A lot of people screams for fixing graphical bugs or messed up translations - but how many demand a fix for the Master battle or the Iris Treasures?!

    Well, the Iris Treasures, they are even worse than the Master... They basically are achievements, add no rewards aside from bragging rights, and are tied to an especially monotonous task - which can consume HUNDRED GODDAMN HOURS! It did so the first time I played as a child so no exaggeration here. You basically go through the same monotonous dungeon floors over and over and open the same monotonous treasure chests over and over for hour over hour in order to pray that these items despite their ridiculously low drop rate finally arouse our pity! Seriously, why do I get never ever asked to fix that?! If only I get the feedback that I let them appear too frequently instead. (To be fair, in my Kureji lufia hard mode they drop that ridiculously often that they actually are more of an annoyance than any achievement at all.)


    Also Lufia never ever - aside from the optional Ancient Cave - demands anything like tactical thinking. So if you have a heavy hitting boss with high agility, what should you do considering your healing? Should you just wait til the damage is done over and over again, and then finally consider healing? Or - as there are plenty of ridiculously overpowered healing spells - should you heal in advance so that the hard hits immediately feel way less painful as they get healed right away? Or you could try to lower the agility in order to get someone faster. Whatever you do... You should LEARN from your previous battles, overthink your strategies and tactics in order to not redo the same mistakes over and over. But for quite a lot of people a game like this really isn't more than an interactive movie which you just are supposed to win nevertheless regardless of how bad you as player perform.


    Especially final bosses, they are the final test whether you really did understand the combat system enough. They will question you everything you learned in your dozens of hours play time. They won't pull any punches. At least that it's how it's supposed to be. If they lack being worthy final exam tests for the players' skills, almost no one will ask any questions at all. However, a missing decent final hurdle is some kind of error, too, but unfortunately most casual gamers completely are unable to grasp these kinds of issues - that is, in its entirity. They want to win - of course, I get it, you'll get positive emotions out of winning, but what value does a victory have if it's not really earned? However, as long as you win - and please without actual trouble - it's fine and not in nedd to fix... An unlike the vanilla game where they more likely will pull themselves together (speaking of hard, but also fair difficulty), it's just too easy to blame the hack for your players' mistakes and just stick with vanilla - sadly.

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