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Game Design In Theory

Small Numbers, Big Numbers

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YIIK was a disappointment.

I could talk all fucking day about how disappointing YIIK was. Many people already have written about YIIK–about how its story is fundamentally broken, with the writer and lead dev insisting that it’s a story about a man who learns from his mistakes, and the story itself happily telling Alex (its main character) that everything he’s done is perfectly acceptable, up to and including driving another man to kill himself (that guy then haunts Alex specifically to say that it wasn’t his fault).

But everyone’s fucking talking about that. And if I just talk more about that, well, better writers than me have already analyzed everything.

So let’s talk about something else that disappoints me about YIIK.

Small numbers are underrated in RPGs.

The pinball effect is in full swing in many games; whether it’s League of Legends or Final Fantasy XIV, it seems damage numbers are simply always going higher. FFXIV in particular starts with hundreds of points of damage per swing and keeps going upward, and League’s numbers are all scaled around 1000 HP being a reasonable starting point.

However, you lose some things with those big numbers. If a hundred points of damage is just enough to get you started, then what’s 50 points of damage? What about 150? And when you start really scaling up–say, in lategame FFXIV content–you’re starting to do thousands of points of damage with each swing, and (here’s the important bit) anything less than a thousand stops meaning anything. You’re still doing math with these absurdly large numbers–but it’s hard to say if one point here or there matters.

Contrast with Paper Mario. In the first two Paper Mario games, damage values start on the scale of 1 point. That’s it. Mario has 10 HP, most enemies do 1 damage per hit, some of them do 2. Time your defense correctly, and you remove a whole point of damage from that–which quickly becomes crucial to your early gameplay. Similarly, Mario does 1 damage per jump–and if you hit the button at the right time, you double your damage, against enemies that typically have only 2 HP. The numbers are small, and that makes it easy to understand that the impact of those numbers is much larger.

You know what else is underrated in RPGs? Scale.

But imagine, if you will, a game that captures the journey from doing 1 damage per swing to doing one hundred damage per swing. Imagine a game where you start at a point where individual points of damage matter and end at a point where you only start caring when a hundred slimes all attack at once. Imagine, if you will, a game that takes small numbers, and slowly builds you up toward big numbers, to show you how far you’ve come.

Now take that and bend it entirely out of proportion by completely fucking up your XP scaling and making battles as tedious as possible. That’s what YIIK did.

How To Ruin A Battle System, Step 1: Waste The Player’s Time

The first deadly sin the game committed was spending way too much time on minigames. The minigames were the main appeal, sure, but they’re all so goddamn slow! This complaint has been voiced repeatedly, but there’s a specific quality of the minigames that makes this a problem: The damage increase from playing a minigame perfectly does not correspond to a faster battle.

Look back at Paper Mario as a reference point. Timing a jump input correctly in Paper Mario results in a dead goomba. Full stop. The damage increase from that extra jump is exactly enough to wipe one (1) goomba off the battlefield. Contrast with what happens when you don’t time the jump right: You need 2 attacks to kill a goomba if you aren’t doing the action commands. In other words, in Paper Mario, doing your attack minigames right means you halve the amount of time you spend on each fight–and depending on how many enemies you’re fighting, you may take out the enemies before they get a turn!

In addition, (almost) all of Paper Mario’s attack minigames have a definite end, and all of them are scaled appropriately to how big the attack is. A regular jump is one button and it’s over in about a second.

Contrast with Alex’s basic attack, which can theoretically go on forever if you keep hitting the Spin Again zone. And, from what little I played of the original release, it doesn’t really matter if you get a perfect combo. You get told that you got 7 or 8 hits out of it, but the damage that comes out isn’t enough to mean anything. You can’t kill the most basic enemy in YIIK in one turn, not without burning precious hard-to-recover SP.

This violates a basic rule of battle systems: Don’t waste the player’s time! Even games that don’t use action commands follow this rule. Final Fantasy 6’s random encounters, early in the game, can be defeated in one “turn” by having each party member use a basic attack. No MP needs to be spent. These encounters are great for new players to learn how battle works, but more importantly, they don’t waste time–once you grasp how attacking works, you can end the encounter quickly, and if you’re clever, you can end the fight without spending any resources, not even health.

How To Ruin A Battle System, Step 2: Scaling Incorrectly

YIIK apparently outgrows this problem, however. It immediately gains a new kind of terrible flaw: The encounters don’t keep up with the player. According to some of the people who’ve played the game far enough to find out, you quickly reach a point where enemies simply can’t hurt you effectively–but, of course, damage values are completely out of whack, and certain enemies can only be killed with one party member’s attacks, so you still spend large amounts of time in each encounter. This is a different kind of wasting the player’s time–where the game starts as a slog that feels punishing, it ends as a slog that feels meaningless. This is most obvious in bossfights that are meant to be scripted losses–but which often aren’t scaled properly to the party’s level, leading to a situation where you one-hit kill things like the Alex Meteor but lose the fight anyway. This not only feels like a waste of time, it also breaks investment in the story–not that YIIK’s story was something you felt invested in, anyway.

In short: YIIK failed miserably at the things that a battle system ought to do. And that makes me sad, because it could have been an excellent game.

Update: 2021-09-23

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