Purity (01)

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.

5 thoughts on “Purity (01)

  1. Blah. Not only did wordpress decide to f up my img tags overnight, it also added a bunch of unnecessary line breaks… Thanks for the heads up. Fixed.

  2. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Dwarf Fortress, if you’ve ever given it a shot. Talk about complicated gaming at it’s worst…

    Not 100% germaine to your post above, but any time I hear about game mechanics and simplicity, it immediately comes to mind. Such an involved, interesting game. So completely impenetrable.

  3. I watched a friend play it and listened to his algorithmically-generated tales of derring-do, but never tried myself. So I cannot comment directly on it’s design or it’s purity, but it certainly is an accomplishment and fills a niche no one else has come close to touching.

    Unless you are talking about graphics or using the modifier ‘not’, I don’t think you can put Dwarf Fortress in the same sentence as ‘simplistic’ though.

    Just as netHack and the like inspired generations of commercial game designers, I expect Dwarf Fortress (and Minecraft… and so on) to influence the mainstream in a few years.

  4. Dwarf fortress does have a lot of “dressings” in the form of ancillary mechanics and text descriptions.

    Everything is modeled down to very fine detail, including the thoughts and feelings of every dwarf, which internal organs are in front of or behind other organs for when a spear hits something, and when mud, rain, or blood gets tracked around a fortress by dwarves who have been fighting goblins in the rain.

    That the decorations and dressings to the gameplay are mechanical doesn’t keep them from muddying the main mechanics.

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