Challenge Accepted: Being better than you were
For the past decade or so, the term “RPG elements” has been thrown around frequently and with such fervor that you could be forgiven for assuming it’s the official brand of ball used by Major League Baseball. Really, what it means is that games have discovered and embraced character growth, the idea that the loser you’re playing in the first level will be able to flick battleships away with a minor hand gesture by the end of the game. Upgrade, improve, level up, get better stuff, leave the worst stuff behind.
Character growth is something that I could honestly spend months talking about, period, as well as discussing how growth ties into rewards (which I have talked about) and the many sorts of growth that are out there (which I haven’t, but I should in the future). But this is a feature all about challenges, and the fact of the matter is that character growth is kind of a bastard for challenges. Because you have to take it into account, and yet at the same time you can’t predict how players are going to use it in the slightest.
Let us start by acknowledging a bit of brilliance present in Super Mario Bros. – the fact that character growth is tied to health. Mario starts out at a point where one hit spells his demise. Get a powerup, and you can survive a hit, but you lose your powerup in the process. The result is that while Mario does experience growth, we don’t tend to think of it as such because it’s removable. You don’t reach a point wherein you can just never lose your fireballs, and the game is built around forcing different tactics depending on what level of power you’re operating on. (Not perfectly, mind you – the later portions of the game are relentlessly brutal without fireballs – but the concept is there.)
By contrast, once you learn to cast Fira in a Final Fantasy game, you don’t lose that knowledge as a result of bad luck. In most games you don’t even lose your experience. Character growth sends you perpetually upward, and the net result is that you only get stronger with time, not weaker. It’s why the go-to strategy for RPGs has long been “if you can’t beat the boss, go level up a bit.” Because it works, it takes minimal effort, and you can face the no-stronger boss with higher stats. That seems easy enough, doesn’t it?
The problem, of curse, is where you balance the boss. If you balance the game so that players progressing along the main course of the game should be at an appropriate level to fight the boss, then side paths will make most of the game’s content trivial. If you require the side content, then it isn’t really optional side content any longer. If you balance the boss lower than the average point you expect players to be… well, what are you even doing?
This is why MMORPGs are so concerned with the level cap and with the endgame. Balancing everything out is a lot easier when you know exactly how powerful players can be and assume they have reached a certain point just to be able to move through the content. But even that brings with it the problem of older content becoming less relevant as the upper bound is moved.
A variety of games have experimented with how to handle this. There are gated unlocks, for example – you can grind, but no matter what you do you can’t get any further than a certain point until you take on the next major challenge. The problem is that it creates a hard gate of skill which the player might not possess. Limiting your use of grinding means that players who can’t beat a boss will run into a situation that makes it clear they’ll never be able to beat this boss, they just can’t do it without power they can’t acquire. Other games, especially online ones, try to sync everyone’s abilities to a certain level of power, which keeps older content relevant but also makes the upgrades you’ve gotten past that point feel that much less important.
The other road – not frequently taken now – is to make the upgrade itself a massive challenge to get. This tends to be met with shifty eyes, however; the functional result is that if you’re good enough to get the upgrade, you no longer need it to clear the lesser challenge that can be beaten without it.
This is why I said that Super Mario Bros. has a bit of brilliance by having growth that works in both directions. You can become less powerful almost as easily as you can become more powerful, which means that bosses have to be balanced against several growth levels but don’t ever become trivial. Of course, the flip side is that even disregarding the actual problem in the game, it sure doesn’t feel like growth when you can have your power snatched from you at a moment’s notice. All you accomplish by hard work is avoiding losing what you have a little bit longer.
It also lacks the stickiness that persistent character growth has. Yes, in every sense of the word having access to the explosive handgun ammunition in Saints Row The Third was excessively overpowered. But not only did that fit quite nicely with the existing mechanics of the game, it also made players feel as if they’d really accomplished something. You worked hard, you earned money, and your reward was a pair of handguns that could make cars blow up more or less at a glance. Unbalanced? yes. But fun, which is why you’re playing the game in the first place.
Therein lies the double-edged sword of character growth. While it creates a balancing nightmare and can frequently wind up undercutting challenges, it also creates a tangible sense of reward for playing and is, well, fun. It’s one of the ways in which challenge often takes a backseat for the sense of accomplishment. Sure, there’s nothing actually challenging about wandering in circles in an RPG and fighting monsters who can’t hope to scratch you for hours, but if you’re having fun, does it matter all that much? You feel like you accomplished something.
Next time around, I want to look at when good challenges go south and an otherwise fair test of skill turns into, well, brutality and unpleasantness. The installment after that, I want to talk about meta-challenges, difficulties imposed not by the game itself but by everything surrounding it.