I’ve gotten away from posting here and I hope to make amends in the new year. A particularly easy source of material is to just take what you are playing and pull a design lesson from it.
I’m aiming for thirty of these posts this year and as a way of sticking to the resolution, I’m numbering them. My holiday-inspired nomadic lifestyle has pushed me back to the DS as the platform of choice, and I picked up and have been hammering on two Japanese RPGs: Etrian Odyssey III and recent DS-game-of-the-year accolade winner Dragon Quest IX. Both are excellent examples of their genre, but one point is a salient difference between the two: mechanical purity. Etrian Odyssey is an example of what I’m calling mechanical purity. Reviews label it as a “hardcore” game and it most certainly is, even in comparison to Dragon Quest which is itself a hardcore game. But DQ (as I’ll label from now on – not Dairy Queen) spends a lot of game time on dressing: story is presented through animated cutscenes in the traditional manner. Enemies and characters are animated in both battle and overland. There is an impressive number of battle environments. EO on the other hand does not represent its characters in anything but portraits, monsters do not appear on the overland (even bosses are just spheres).
Because of this mechanical purity in EO, it feels like the player can understand the mechanics that remain with more certainty. For instance, there are three types of elemental damage in EO with identical types of attacks. It is much easier to narrow down elemental weaknesses in EO because characters are customized around very simple models for offense and defense. In DQ, the vast array of types of monsters and spells makes this much more of a guessing game. Both are impressive examples of systems design (a post I’ve had brewing for a few months that may see light of day soon), but one is simply more spartan in its offered mechanics.
Is one better than the other because of it? No, clearly not. People love the glossy presentation and bevy of features in DQ. DQ has reviewed better than EO, yet I prefer EO. The design lesson from this in a development scenario where you have an oppressively limited budget, a focus on mechanical purity can offer a bang-for-the-buck that allows you to compete with the titles that are throwing the kitchen sink at the player.
For instance, is your game about story? I’d say that neither DQ or EO are about story, yet one spent significant dev time on character design, animation, camera systems and all the other accoutrements of a story-based game.
Note the purity of EO on the right: 2D models, 2D effects, no PCs. Everything in EO is
about mastering the mechanical systems.