In light of the upcoming version 1.10 of Brave New World, I figured now would be a better time than ever to finally write that follow-up article to the one I wrote about the nature of modding. This time, I'll be talking about game design as a whole, using inherent flaws in Final Fantasy VI that are addressed in Brave New World as key talking points. I'm going to state up-front that you don't spend seven years underneath the hood of anything without developing a resentment towards the people whose mess you're cleaning up, but I'm going to forgo my usual vitriol towards Squaresoft here in favor of remaining as objective as possible... and in the process hopefully imparting upon y'all at least something I've learned in the last seven years.
Intent is three-fifths of bad game design
We'll start on an easy point, but a very important one nonetheless. If you ask most anyone what makes Final Fantasy VI a bad game he or she will invariably respond by citing one or more of its three most infamous bugs: the Sketch glitch, the evasion bug, and/or the Vanish/Doom bug. Although all three of these are serious problems in definite need of repair, none of them are indicative of poor gameplay design (although a case could definitely be made for poor coding in the case of the Lovecraftian Sketch routine). They are nothing more than mere programming errors.
Let's make a comparison. On one hand, we have the above-mentioned evasion bug, which causes the physical evasion stat to do literally nothing due to an incorrect ASM pointer. On the other, we have the "stamina" stat, which does practically nothing due to being deliberately designed that way. One of these things is an honest mistake; the other is a bad idea.
If we examine the sizeable number of hacks available for FF6, we'll notice that those which fix the above-mentioned bugs are the most popular - and with good reason. But nearly none of them, Brave New World being the only example that I can name, address the fact that three of the four core stats in the game are virtually useless by design. And it's extremely easy for people, particularly those who view the game through nostalgia goggles, to fail to realize that repairing its bugs does not do anything to address its more fundamental underlying issues: the ones that are there on purpose.
Don't invalidate your own systems
Final Fantasy VI is, by both its narrative and mechanical design, a game where magic reigns supreme over all else. Of the above-mentioned core stats, the only one that functions to any worthwhile degree is magic power. Even Sabin, the game's resident "monk" archetype - a class known for being bare-fisted fighters with no magical powers to speak of - is ultimately reliant on his magic power rather than his strength due to his ultimate skill being a "magic" attack. And this isn't because the attack itself is actually magical in any way - it's flagged as such solely because the game's physical damage formula does not mechanically allow for a physical attack meaningfully more powerful than the ones that Sabin starts out with.
At their core, games are basically a series of interlocked mechanics designed with the intent of being fun to play with, or failing that at least mildly interesting. One of the biggest mistakes that a game can make - and one that this game is particularly guilty of - is allowing poor design choices to render one or more of these systems moot. In this case, the decision for physical combat to be useless in the face of magic negatively affects every other mechanic that ties into it, which is quite a few of them given that damage formulas are, understandably, a core component of the game.
Let's look at equipment for example. Armor isn't in a terrible place because defense actually does work in FF6, so there's at least a reason to want to put the stuff on (even if 90% of the time it's just a matter of picking the option that automatically equips whatever has the most defense). Some armor can also boost stats in addition to providing defense, but we really don't care unless they include one of the two "god" stats: magic power or magic evasion. So while we can definitely see the effect of useless stats in play here, it's really not as bad as it could be.
Weapons, on the other hand, feel the burn hard.
As one might expect, when the only meaningful form of combat is tossing around fireballs and lightning bolts, it really doesn't matter what the hunk of metal in your hand looks like or how strong it is. Unless it's boosting that almighty magic stat, it might as well be a moist towelette for as much good as it's going to do you. Like other characters of his ilk, Sabin wears "claw" weapons meant to reinforce his role as "he who punches things". But his special "punch stuff" attacks - even the ones that actually do physical damage - don't actually consider what he's wearing on his fists at all.
For an even worse example, we look to Cyan: an unfortunately-named samurai and perhaps the most maligned character in the original game because, unlike Sabin, his special skill is all physical damage. Since his ability is sword-related, it does actually require that he be holding a sword in order to function, but as with Sabin these skills all have their own set powers and function the exact same regardless of whether that sword is a legendary Hattori Hanzo or just some cheap garbage he bought on the Home Shopping Network. Upon defeating one of the game's penultimate bosses, you are bestowed with the most powerful katana in the game. And while that sword may do a good enough job of feeding into that all-important reward/pleasure zone in the player's brain, it's functionally identical to the one Cyan had when you met him.
Never offer a choice between fun and convenience
On the subject of equipment, we come to what is possibly the biggest design misstep in all of Final Fantasy VI: the Sprint Shoes. These were an item that, when equipped, would increase your character's abysmal walking speed to acceptable levels. Players would acquire them about an hour into the game, after which they were happily equipped and never removed because that hour was one spent watching Terra walk as if she had two pot roasts strapped to her feet.
The important thing to note about the Sprint Shoes is that increasing walking speed conveyed no combat advantages whatsoever. It did not help you get more turns, dodge better, or even help you avoid battles altogether (that last one is an entirely different can of worms altogether). Its only function was to make the game less annoying for the player at the cost of occupying an equipment slot that would otherwise be used for something that did provide a combat bonus.
It's telling that this is the only design flaw that was ever addressed in the deluge of re-releases that Squaresoft has put out over the years. Every other version of Final Fantasy VI provides a "dash" button to allow faster movement without the need for extra equipment, but curiously it does so without actually removing the Sprint Shoes, whose effects will stack with the standard dash just in case you needed to break the sound barrier or something. It becomes quickly apparent through such decisions that Squaresoft is more fond of Band-Aid solutions to problems rather than actual solutions, such as resolving the aforementioned Vanish/Doom bug by making "boss" enemies immune to being made invisible rather than addressing the mechanical problem that causes instant death attacks to ignore immunity when used on invisible targets.
(Needless to say, Brave New World adds a dash button to the game and removes Sprint Shoes. It fixes the Vanish/Doom thing properly, too.)
Just because something is long does not make it hard
To expand on the underlying problem with the Sprint Shoes, something that players and game developers alike have a difficult time understanding is that just because something takes forever to accomplish does not mean that doing so is a challenge of anything but one's patience. This is ultimately an issue with any game where your character grows stronger over time, as most any challenge can be overcome by "grinding" out more levels rather than re-evaluating your approach and adjusting your strategy. Good game design favors the latter over the former, and I won't elaborate much on that subject since my previous article already discussed my thoughts on "trial and error" gameplay at length.
That said, the answer to the "challenge vs. time investment" question lies within the consequence for failure. In a more traditional arcade-style game, such as pinball, the punishment for failure is "game over" since the entire point of those games is to see how many points a player can get before they die. However, that model doesn't translate to a game that's actually meant to be completed, especially one like Final Fantasy VI that requires several sessions to do so (unless your name is Puwexil). The consequence of failure in FF6 - or any other game with a save feature, for that matter - is time, and the "challenge" comes from whatever you have to do to get back to where you failed.
The above point is one of the biggest reasons why unskippable cutscenes, particularly those that precede a challenging encounter, are so vehemently despised by the gaming community at large, as they are the most extreme example of failing to provide any challenge whatsoever in the process of returning to the point of failure. It is thus of paramount importance in a lengthy, story-driven game like FF6 to not utilize save denial as a form of difficulty, since it ultimately inconveniences the player rather than challenging them. This is why Brave New World adds several save points to the game and would have added more had event space (and other coding issues) allowed.
Compare this to an action-oriented game like "I Wanna Be The Guy", where the only difference between difficulty levels is that the harder ones offer fewer opportunities to save your progress, thus forcing you to go back and repeat more of the game should you happen to fail (which you will). The "save denial" model works here since the game is a persistent test of skill. People who persist at the higher difficulty levels often see themselves becoming much better at the game as a result, since they are forced to practice more of the game for each failed attempt to progress.
Back to Final Fantasy, a common complaint that players have regarding Brave New World is that many bosses have a lot of health and take forever to kill. To an extent, this is warranted: bosses must be able to take enough punishment so that your own endurance is sufficiently tested and so that luck alone will not pull you through the fight. However, there is a very specific tipping point - that point being where the battle ceases to be dynamic and instead becomes repetitive - where real difficulty becomes "artificial" difficulty and an otherwise-fun boss devolves into a boring damage sponge.
The "damage sponge boss" issue is one where Brave New World admittedly struggles to hit the mark at times, and each new version strives to come closer than before. One major roadblock is a simple lack of space to make enemy AI as robust as it could be, and it's extremely important to note exactly what I mean by that. The key is variety, not just in how the enemy behaves, but in how the player should best respond to that behavior. An enemy with fifty different attacks is no more interesting than the one who only has five if the answer to all of them is just "hit it until it dies".
A good example of this is Guardian, a late-game boss that possesses the most health of any boss in Brave New World. However, it is rarely cited as an example of the aforementioned issue since Guardian is a "boss rush" fight that goes through several drastically different phases throughout the battle as it mimics the attack patterns of other bosses in the game. Contrast to a boss that either doesn't change at all or simply gets more powerful as you whittle down its health, which at its worst is a very common but far less-recognized variant of the above-mentioned unskippable cutscene.
You want to design more than a numbers game
I've got a guy, God love him, who has been one of Brave New World's biggest and most vocal supporters from its earliest days. And this guy, he loves his math. Like, a lot. Whenever I get to work on a new update (and often when I'm not), he is always there to throw numbers at me and to point out exactly which attacks on which characters can produce the highest ratio of damage over time. He even wrote out a formula to help him calculate these numbers on the fly. But with each passing version of the mod, there is more added to it that his "magic" formula simply can't account for.
And that's the point. You know what's fun? Games. You know what's not? Math. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that, a key point of good game design is doing your best to make one that can't be solved by a magic formula.
Once upon a time, I watched a man play through Brave New World. And this man was known for, among other things, his tendency to power-level his way through games (the above-mentioned "grinding" issue) well beyond the point of them providing any reasonable challenge whatsoever. And as I watched him play through the end of the game with a team of over-developed characters all pimped out with equipment that prevented enemies from afflicting them with status ailments, I thought to myself, "...this is quite possibly the most boring thing I've ever witnessed."
Status ailments are a staple of turn-based RPGs and the primary "X-factor" that can't be accounted for when looking at raw numbers alone. Anyone who's ever played Pokemon might recognize things like blindness, paralysis, and confusion as one of the biggest mechanics separating an interesting game from "hit the other guy until either he dies or he kills you". However, Pokemon is a rare example of a game where, primarily due to its one-on-one combat system, status effects were implemented and handled well. More commonly in games that possess them, they are either ridiculously overpowered to the point of being exploitative, or useless on the whole since they won't work against anything you'd want to use them against and they (usually) don't work on you since the game hands out ways to defend yourself against them like candy.
It's thus a very harrowing tightrope that status effects must walk in order to be a relevant part of game design without completely running away with it. One half of the equation is a simple answer: enemies should make frequent use of them against your characters and there should be no (or very limited) catch-all methods of completely avoiding them. The other half is a bit more tricky. In order for status effects to truly have a place in a player's arsenal, three things must be true:
One, there must exist enemies which are threatening enough that the player would want to disable them to make fighting them easier (or even possible).
Two, those enemies must also be durable enough that you can't simply dispatch them through direct offense in the same amount of time. Similarly, disabling them should not consume more resources than direct offense would.
Three, and perhaps most obviously, disabling your opponent should have a reasonable chance of success. This means that enough enemies must be vulnerable to status effects that players will consider using them.
With respect to that third point, it's important to consider exactly how disabling a given status effect is. In Final Fantasy VI, the majority of them are completely debilitating while the rest don't actually do anything due to either bugs or poor design. FF6 commits a particularly egregious sin by making many of its bosses vulnerable to the former type, thus making it an inexplicable example of both wrong ways to handle status effects. Rather, the statuses that stop your enemies dead in their tracks should only work on some regular enemies (about half is a good rule of thumb) and only in boss battles when there are several of them - and even then not on them all. By contrast, the weaker statuses should be resisted uncommonly or not at all, and ideally should be worked into boss battles where possible to make them more interesting.
Bad design giveth, and good design taketh away
One of the less fun aspects of being a modder of poorly-designed games is that it often feels like taking a flamethrower away from a child after a lazy developer handed it to them and told them to go nuts. Remember that quip I made earlier about how Sprint Shoes don't actually help you avoid battles? Well, there just so happens to exist a well-known piece of "hidden" equipment in the game that does exactly that: the Moogle Charm. In what I consider to be a flat-out admission by Squaresoft that FF6's battle system was not entertaining, they put in a way to negate it entirely. And you'd be amazed (or maybe you wouldn't) at how many players are upset to see it gone in Brave New World.
I promised myself that I wasn't going to rip off Mark Rosenwater's Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons speech in this article, but at this point I need to bring it up. In his speech (which I highly recommend watching), Mark talks about the emotional impact that games have on players, and it's through that impact that they become fans. Players want to feel empowered, and nothing has the exact opposite effect on them more than taking away something that's ridiculously overpowered and shouldn't have been there in the first place. Some people will argue that if players didn't want to use it, they wouldn't, but I'll just cut right to the chase on this one and say that self-control is a terrible thing to balance your game around.
On a similar note, Mark also cites the process of film editing, stating "...no scene is worth a line and no movie is worth a scene. If it's not serving the film as a whole, it needs to go." And just as with films, the editing portion of game design is a very important one that is too often overlooked in favor of the "quantity over quality" mentality that Squaresoft is particularly guilty of. There are many things in Final Fantasy VI that are too overpowered for their own good and far more that do nothing at all, and players will complain about removing content if you take any of it out.
But you should. Everything in your game should have a purpose, or else it needs to go. "Less is more" is a philosophy that I live by, and as such it's almost always better to look at doing what you can with what you have than try to add more.
It's all about choices
The concept of "fun" in a game, or at least one that favors strategy over dexterity and/or stamina, can ultimately be boiled down to a single word: choice. Choice is what drives a game like Final Fantasy VI if it wants to be anything more than a 16-bit movie where you occasionally have to press "A" to progress. It's also where FF6 drops the ball the hardest, despite providing an illusion to the contrary.
Final Fantasy VI boasted the largest cast of characters of any JRPG of its time, each with their own unique stats and skills, and the possibilities to customize them through the game's esper system, not to mention its vast array of weapons and armor, seemed almost limitless. But the holes in this facade were already discussed at length earlier: stats do nothing, magic was the only thing worth focusing on, and the esper system allows every character to learn any spell that they want, thus rendering the cast entirely homogeneous. For there to exist meaningful choice in a game, there must be a difference in what you are choosing from. "Diversity" isn't just a corporate buzzword: it's the spice that brings games like Final Fantasy to life. And by restricting access to which characters can use which espers, Brave New World provides meaningful choices to the player that didn't exist in the original game.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but restrictions on the choices you make are what make them choices in the first place. If you were offered a million dollars with absolutely no drawbacks whatsoever, then it's not exactly a choice, now is it? The same would be true if you were given the choice between one of a dozen different options, all of which were equally terrible or useless. Final Fantasy VI, again, manages to do both of these things. I draw much of my inspiration from games such as the original Final Fantasy or the Might & Magic series, where you select a party of characters at the outset of the game and how it progresses varies wildly depending on that initial choice. And that constant, nagging thought of the "road not taken" is what lures a player back in to your game after they've finished it, and often times even before that.
"Replay value" is a term that gets thrown around a lot with regards to video games, and with good reason: you want to get the most out of that fifty bucks you dropped on them, after all. It's because of this that I for so long resisted the addition of a "respec" system in Brave New World, where players can wipe a character clean in the late-game and rebuild them with different espers. If a choice can be so easily undone, I reasoned, then the player would not feel their lasting impacts and the choice itself would therefore be meaningless. I eventually acquiesced on the condition that this process be made to cost resources - an apparent violation of my "time consumption is not difficulty" rule, but appropriate in this case since the investment of time would cause a player to rethink an attempt to rebuild their characters frivolously.
Partial information is a sin
What ultimately tipped my hand and convinced me to go along with the "respec" system was the notion that players were unlikely to replay a ROMhack like Brave New World as they would an ordinary game, and that new players would not know enough about the game as they progressed through it to make truly educated decisions about how to develop their characters. While I still don't entirely agree with this reasoning, it does segue well into my next point.
Players make choices based on the information they have, and lacking that information, will be forced to do so blindly. Failing to provide players with the resources they need to make intelligent decisions will reduce your game to "guess how many fingers I'm holding up", which is rarely anyone's idea of fun. It's a less-extreme example of a "leap of faith" in a more action-oriented game, wherein players are forced to progress literally by making jumps that they have no possible way of knowing whether or not they will survive.
In ye olden times, RPGs would frequently come packaged with "feelies" such as manuals, fold-out maps, and various charts of information that could not be easily provided in-game due to technical limitations. Brave New World includes such peripherals, but in addition also modifies the game's shopping interface to severely limit the amount of up-front information the player is given about items. "Why", you ask? Because the partial information that was provided in the original is far worse than providing none at all.
Prior to the hack devised for Brave New World's 1.10 release which allows players to review all of the relevant information about an item prior to purchase, we initially deliberately provided none at all. The key is that in providing players only with partial information, they are not aware of what they are not being told and will make uninformed decisions based on what they do know. If a player is instead told nothing, they know that there is information they don't know and will (generally) choose to seek it out.
Put me in, Coach!
Speaking of characters and decisions that aren't necessarily permanent, we come to an issue that has plagued almost every game, or at the very least every RPG, that has ever allowed you to change your characters at will throughout. "Benchwarmer Syndrome" as I like to call it is a problem that it often addressed in games, but almost never successfully. The dilemma is simple: "how do I encourage players to partake of every character they are given control of instead of favoring a selected few while ignoring the others?" Perhaps a better question is "should I?"
Now, in a game like Super Mario Bros. 2, where your characters do not become any more powerful through continued use, this isn't a problem: you simply select a character for each stage whose unique talents best suit your approach. But in basically any RPG ever, the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker is a severe problem. Final Fantasy VI is a notable example due to its exceptionally large cast: twelve characters (plus two hidden characters, bringing us to a total of fourteen) with only four of them being controllable at any given time. Squaresoft's answer in the case of FF6 was to provide "leaked" experience to all inactive characters so that everyone grows more powerful regardless of whether or not they are actively used combined with a final stage that forces you to utilize all twelve of them concurrently. It's not a bad solution, all said and done, but it is a double-edged sword.
The inherent issue with leaked experience is that it equally encourages NOT using your benched characters since they will grow with or without your help and players tend not to use benched characters unless they're forced to. Other games have tried more innovative approaches, such as the "wagon" in Dragon Warrior IV allowing your benched characters to replace active ones at a moment's notice (a great idea in theory, but under-developed in practice) or Breath of Fire III's "master" system encouraging the use of your "B" team with masters whose primary benefits (stat gains) did not mesh with your favorite characters but whose secondary benefits (new skills) could ultimately benefit them. Notably, BoF3's cast was also half the size of FF6's with a much more favorable ratio (2:1) of total characters to those allowed in your current team.
Ultimately, we chose to forgo leaked experience with Brave New World both to encourage the varied use of a cast that is now actually as diverse as it claimed to be in the original game, as well as the fact that the way it utilizes espers to further develop characters beyond mere basic growth sort of has to be done the old-fashioned way of actually using those characters in battle. However, that's not to say that our answer is the right one. Unlike every other topic I've brought up thus far, I'm not offering a solution to this one: just thinking points. How a game chooses to handle this problem ultimately rests on the answers to many other questions, all of which this article has gone on far too long to get into now.
Above all else, have fun
At last, we get to the absolute most important aspect of game design there is: make the game that you want to play and have fun while you're doing it. My favorite piece of advice to give anyone in their creative endeavors is to stay true to your own vision, and others will follow. If you make your game trying to please anyone other than yourself, then it will fail.
To that end, it's readily apparent to anyone who plays Brave New World that it's a hack created first and foremost to amuse its creators. While we receive occasional frequent criticism for some of the jokes and referential humor it contains, what is never contested is how funny I thought a joke was when I wrote it. People can tell the difference between someone who is making a joke because they're trying to be funny and someone who makes a joke because they are genuinely amused by it. Understand the truth in that, and you will understand the key to winning peoples' hearts.
In the end, making a game is just like being a rock star: if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.
(And also, if you're really good at it, you get groupie sex.)