Monday, December 08, 2008

Playing for the endgame

How many times have you heard people say that, in D&D 3.5, it doesn't pay to multi-class with a spellcaster because it would inhibit your ability to get 9th level spells? How about telling you not to take a particular feat because it will be useless after 15th level? ...or that you should take several sub-par feats because, at high level, they will be really good or allow you to qualify for an awesome prestige class or something? This sort of thinking downplays the importance of play at low level while emphasizing the importance of high-level play. It isn't just limited to game mechanics, but it is probably clearest there: the game mechanical choices you make at low levels are unimportant except insofar as they maximize your power later.

This sort of talk isn't limited to 3.5 (look at the AD&D monk)... much less D&D... or even tabletop roleplaying games. I see it on forums talking about Fallout 3 (my current obsession).

It isn't something I really understand. If I'm playing a game, I want to enjoy it at all levels. If my enjoyment of the game is correlated with my character's power (which is far from certain - and a whole 'nother post), then I want it to be spread out across all levels... not just concentrated at the endgame.

I suppose this might be analogous to planning for retirement. I know people who made themselves miserable out of college or law school, working incredibly hard and being generally miserable so that they could ensure their retirement fund. I can, in hindsight, see the appeal of this when it comes to one's career, but I don't think the analogy holds up when we're talking about a game. I really don't think that they were having fun at the time.

I do think, however, that there may be an important lesson that can be gleaned from such manners of thinking. I'm not sure what it is, though. Any thoughts?


Nick Novitski said...

Sometimes, the creators of a videogame add considerations like these, things that you can only later realize you could do differently, requiring you to expend anywhere from a pittance (WoW re-specs) to a full re-play-through (a great many japanese digital roleplaying games) to see all the content in the game. Typically this is done in order to lengthen the apparent game experience, either making your purchase seem like a better value, or in the case of subscription-based games like WoW, just keeping you playing for longer.

Or, there may be another, stranger goal. From an review this reminded me of:

Years before this — one year before Super Mario Bros., even — there was a game called The Tower of Druaga. This game was essentially Pac-Man with a human protagonist. And not just any human protagonist — a knight named Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh had a quest: to rescue a princess who had been kidnapped by a demon named Druaga, who lived at the top of a sixty-floor tower. Gil’s duty was to wander the tower, slaying slime monsters with his sword, blocking fireballs with his shield, and finding semi-randomly placed keys with which to open the semi-randomly placed door on each floor. The hilarious catch of Druaga was that a player could climb all the way to the sixtieth floor, only to learn that he cannot win the game because he does not possess the necessary “hidden treasures”.

The “hidden treasures” in Druaga are the alpha and the omega if you’re talking about kleptomania as videogame design. On each floor, the location of the “treasure” is different, as are the criteria for unlocking it. The player starts each floor in a different location, and the layout of the maze floors are semi-random (one of many recognizable templates selected at random) though the treasure will always be in the same place of its respective floor on each playthrough. Some of the criteria for unlocking a treasure are alarmingly complex: stand in a particular square, face north, press the attack button fourteen times, step one square to the left, face south, press the attack button three times, step two squares right, face west, press the attack button eight times (I’m exagerrating slightly), and a treasure appears in a remote square visible to the player.

Watching a play-through of Druaga on YouTube will yield only questions in the mind of the uninitiated viewer; chief among those questions might be “why would someone want to play this?” In this day and age where Druaga is remade with polygons, paid tribute in dungeons in larger RPGs, the subject of many online strategy guides, and stuffed into portable classics compilations which are kind enough to include a list of the treasure locations and requirements in the instruction manual, it may be a tough question to answer. The solution to the mystery is that the overflowing crypticism was the whole point of Druaga.

No, the means for obtaining treasures were not originally published in “videogame magazines”: this was 1984.

And no, there was no million-dollar reward for the first person to complete the game.

Hypothetically, someone somewhere at Namco imagined a future of videogames that weren’t all about numbers — they would be about seeing a quest through to its end. Only Druaga’s execution was a little underhanded. Not a single text window within the game informed the player that he would have to do idiotic things to find the treasures on each floor. Instead, there were some treasures that the player would get accidentally, slowly conditioning a kind of Pavlovian response that eventually wallowed in ticking despair. The player would mash the attack button furiously on one square of the dungeon, maybe pressing it three hundred times before the timer ran out and the game was over. Then he would make a tick mark in his notebook: “It’s definitely not that one square.” At least, this is how it would work in theory. Druaga failed to set the world on fire, probably because it came off as a little bit too moody and perhaps even mean-spirited. The idea was that people would find the locations of treasures and then communicate them to their friends, and surely enough, the people of the world surprised even the software engineers. Eventually, as more of the game’s iceberg came into view, people became able to “appreciate” the game; Druaga-loving communities would sprout up in arcades; men would become walking Druaga encyclopedias.

szilard said...

Dude. That's messed up.

Intruder_W said...

There's also an anime for Druaga.

I have no idea how that would work.

jamused said...

D&D has always been built to encourage that as a consideration: balancing classes by having them weak at low levels, strong at high levels. That's not to say that you would or should play a class that you hate at the start because it gets good months and years later, but you can't really avoid thinking about it. To take an extreme example, if the GM were to tell you that the campaign would stick to levels 1-3, with any characters reaching 4 retiring, how could you not factor that into whether you choose to play a wizard? It would be a consideration even in a high lethality game where you didn't expect the characters to necessarily survive those first couple of levels.

Chris Tregenza said...

The GM has a responsibility for letting the players know what sort of level they are likely to reach in the campaign.

Player can then plan ahead, knowing that if they take the pain at the low levels, their character will really kick in later on.