Thursday, April 29, 2010
This article is written to hopefully describe the basics of tactical level turn based strategy and SRPG game mechanics, strategic depth, variety, difficulty, game analysis, and skill measurement. It has little or nothing to do with the plot, characters, or story of a game.
For the purposes of this article, a game is an activity made up of mathematical rules that involve individual measurable skills. The measurement of skill is the core defining element of a game. By measuring player skill, a game can be competitive between players, regardless of whether the game is single or multiplayer. There are different skills that can be measured or tested, such as reflexes, timing, memorization, execution, spatial awareness, analysis, strategy formulation, etc.
It's important to note that any type of skill is a skill, whether you like it or not. You can't call strategies or skills "not really strategy" or "not really skill" because you don't like them. Even if it's a type of skill someone loves or hates, it's still a type of skill. Games test different kinds of skills, especially if you're comparing different genres of games or multiplayer vs singleplayer games. Turn based tactical level games test different set of skills at different difficulties from fighting games or MOBAs, for example.
There are several fields of research into measuring human skills and abilities   . The field of game theory    studies the mathematics involved in game rules. By breaking down the game rules into mathematical skill based tasks with a given goal, a game can be objectively analyzed. While modern games are quite complex and difficult to analyze in this manner, it's important to keep in mind that it's possible.
An optimal player strategy can always be formulated within the game's rules given a stated goal. If a game has random outcomes or random AI, those can be factored into the strategy and accounted for by using statistical probability. I like to call the amount of choices or legal game positions available the game's depth or complexity. There are already mathematical equations devoted to studying game complexity, where board games have been analyzed down to every possible legal move.
The most common games to have their depth studied mathematically are classics like Chess and Go, as well as simpler board games.In a turn based tactical level game, there is not one standardized board like in most board games, but many boards with different configurations of game pieces, and differing game rules on top of that, so the method for figuring out which game is more complex or difficult is far more complicated.
It's theoretically possible to completely analyze a games complexity mathematically, as has been done with some traditional board games, but that's beyond the scope of this article. Even game developers don't go that far. Competent game developers use a mixture of data tables, mathematical analysis, play testing, and skilled player opinion to create balanced and skill based games.
In the absence of supercomputers that can analyze every valid move of a game, the most skilled and knowledgeable players will be the most accurate at understanding and analyzing a games rules and mechanics. A poorly skilled player risks misunderstanding the game systems and writing false information about a game, or giving a misunderstood opinion based on their incomplete analysis of the game rules. In addition, such a player is incapable of offering constructive criticism about a games systems because they cannot understand how it works in the first place.
The entire purpose of an objective game analysis is consistency. If everybody tried analyzing a game while altering its rules, every persons analysis of the game rules would be different and the concept of objectivity would be meaningless. The difference between glitch and feature can become blurred, though. Sometimes the difference is obvious, such as developer consoles and hidden god mode commands being intended for game testing, not as part of the default game rules.
Other pitfalls of game analysis include trying to moralize allowed rules as being unfair, cheap, etc. or trying to invoke developer intentions or other opinions. Intentions, opinions, and morality have nothing to do with objectively analyzing a games rules. There is no such thing as "artificial" difficulty or "actual" strategy. This is an imaginary term used to try to dress up a persons opinion as a fact. Opinions cannot be facts and it's important to make the distinction clear.
In an objective analysis of a game, all options (depth) available to the player is considered. Games are analyzed by utilizing every legal or legitimate game rule available to the player to reach the stated goals, usually reaching the end of the game and/or getting a high score. Restricting yourself or adding meta-rules onto the game that alter how it is played is a subjective analysis or a player restricted playthrough. This is typically done to patch up imbalanced parts of the game that reduce the amount of skill needed to score or complete it. If a game rule in an RPG allows stat grinding, for example, you may not objectively analyze the game assuming there's no stat grinding, as you've just altered the rules and are now trying to analyze a different game with different rules than the game coded into the game.
The vast majority of games have clearly defined rules and scoring systems that accurately measure player skill. It's typically only role playing games that tend to be extremely imbalanced, lack scoring systems, and are mostly useless for measuring player skill. Attempts to perform player restricted runs in such games may run into limited success because the games are typically not well balanced or designed to be skill based games in the first place.
Player skill is typically rated by level progression and scoring system(s). Reaching the end of a game is a binary score of 0 or 1. Scoring systems typically measure a mix of different player skills and games are often balanced around earning points. It is entirely appropriate to analyze a game's balance and difficulty based on the skills involved in earning a high score. Claiming that a functional and accurate scoring system is "irrelevant" or "empty numbers" is wrong. A well designed scoring system can very accurately display which player is more skilled than the other, such as in most Cave shoot em up games, for example.
In order for the skill measurement of a game to be perfectly accurate, there should be no way to reduce the amount of skill needed to score or pass the test without adversely affecting the score or result. If two players play an RPG that allows grinding and save/loading, and one uses those features and the other player doesn't (thus making the game more difficult), and the resulting score (or completion of the game) does not differentiate between the two players, then the game is not an entirely accurate test of skill.
There are two types of skill based challenges in video games. First, developer provided challenges, where the game reacts to the players actions such as rewarding a higher score or making the game more difficult. Second, player provided challenges, where the game does not react to the players actions. 'Choosing not to grind' in a game that doesn't punish grinding is a player defined challenge and thus isn't considered legitimate within the confines of the games rules. Stating "just don't use X" does not magically legitimize a games difficulty.
A game doesn't need a scoring system for its challenge to be accurate, as long as there's no way to reduce the amount of skill needed to complete it. There's nothing inherently wrong with giving the player something broken or unbalanced, as long as it also penalizes their score for using it. For example in Bayonetta, there's an accessory that gives you enormous firepower and makes the game an easy button masher even on the hardest difficulty, but the game sets your score to 0 if you use it. In shoot em ups, you can keep continuing after you lose your provided lives, but your score is reset to 0. Most RPGs and SRPGs lack scoring systems and allow grinding, making them inaccurate except in player defined challenges which alter the rules of the game.
A games scoring system does not have to be completely deterministic to still be a valid measure of player skill. Take Fire Emblems randomness for example. You might be able to finish a map a turn faster if you get a bunch of lucky 1% crits, but that does not make the scoring system illegitimate, just somewhat probabilistic on the upper end of theoretically possible scores. Generally the more you can reduce the skill of a game through patience and repetitive, mindless grinding, the less likely that game is an accurate test of skill.
The simplest example of a skill based video game with an accurate scoring system is the humble shoot-em-up arcade game. The player is typically given 3 lives and the goal of the game is to earn a high score and complete the game. If a player runs out of lives, they have the option to continue, but importantly their score is reset to 0, preventing poorly skilled players from constantly losing lives yet still earning a high score and completing the game. An analogy to SRPGs would be a game where grinding is allowed, but by grinding you increase your turn count, lowering your total score. Of course, most SRPG and RPGs have no scoring system yet allow grinding and other difficulty reducing loopholes, thus they are mainly useful only as emotional experiences.
There are significant and objective difference between scoring and achievements built into a game and player defined challenges. Games that lack built in scoring tend to be highly imbalanced and easy to trivialize, and the player is limited in what they can "not do" to alleviate this. It may not be feasible to salvage a game's balance or difficulty using player restrictions.
Developer challenges and scoring systems coded into the game's rules form the basis of organized competition. Many types of games would fail to function competitively if the legitimacy of difficulty or scoring system were removed. Player defined challenges can be a way to salvage an otherwise broken or easy game, but they tend to be less popular and harder to gather support for.
In my opinion, some people spend too much time going over player restrictions for highly imbalanced and broken games instead of playing other games in the same genre that are better balanced and designed for competitive skill measurement. For example, playing "final destination" Super Smash Bros instead of playing one of the many well designed and balanced modern fighting games available such as Street Fighter, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, etc.
In tactics games, some people would rather play restricted runs of highly imbalanced, sandbox grind games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre instead of balanced, challenging, and complex tactics games with scoring systems and better level design.
One cannot complete their own player defined challenge and then declare themselves "better" than everyone else, despite nobody else having even bothered to attempt that particular challenge in the first place.
Strategic Depth and Difficulty
The content of a game (level design, enemies, scoring system, etc.) that forces the player to figure out a solution using the available strategic depth is termed the strategic difficulty. Just because a game has strategic depth doesn't mean that the developers take advantage of it to develop strategically challenging content that requires you to learn about and utilize that available depth. The more puzzle-like an SRPG/TBS is, the more its strategic difficulty. The more steps you have to figure out to reach the optimal solution, the higher the strategic difficulty. A game becoming more puzzle-like makes it more strategically difficult, not less, because the player must think harder to figure out the correct, most efficient, optimal solution. The less puzzle-like an SRPG is, the less strategy you'll need, because you can throw together whatever setup you want, completely ignore the strategic depth, and run roughshod over your opponents like in most console SRPGs, the most popular being Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and Disgaea.
Tactics games with RNG do not play out the same way every time - the RNG can be in combat outcomes, AI behavior, etc. Games that are deterministic like Advance Wars are closest to puzzle games. The time taken to solve a puzzle (like an Advance Wars level) should be taken into account when determining skill. There are more than enough tactics games out there that you'll almost certainly never run out of new content to play through if one starts feeling stale or "solved".
Single player game strategies can have a meta game as people work towards optimal solutions given a stated goal. Meta games are not exclusive to multiplayer games.
If there is more strategic depth than there is difficulty, that unused depth is strategically meaningless. SRPGs such as FFT and Disgaea are not as strategically difficult than the harder games I've listed elsewhere on this site because while they have plenty of depth, they lack in challenging content that asks the player to take advantage of it. When a person claims they want to "make up their own strategy and still win" they are probably saying they want a game that is less strategically difficult so their inefficient strategy still passes. This is especially true of SRPGs with no scoring system to encourage efficiency and strategy. The more complex a solution to a challenge is, the more difficult it is to figure out the strategy for it.
Even though games can be mathematically analyzed based on a given set of conditions or goals, perception of game difficulty is subjective. It's important to note the distinction because sometimes you'll see claims that difficulty is only a subjective experience.
It's best for developers to cater to a wide variety of skill levels in their games, so a wider variety players can play the game near their level of skill and possibly improve. When forming a review or analysis of a game, it's important to distinguish game design fact from personal perception of difficulty or character/plot elements.
To recap, the valid game moves or positions is the depth, the challenges the player must overcome and/or score well on is the difficulty, and the planning and execution by the player is the strategy.
A game can have a small amount of strategic depth, but still be strategically difficult, due to the challenging content that forces the player to learn about and use every bit of strategic depth to its fullest. An SRPG/TBS like Advance Wars Advance Campaign is strategically complex in spite of its relatively simple mechanics because each level is designed with a different precise and exacting optimal strategy that takes skill and calculation to formulate. Every unit on the board must be carefully considered and used perfectly. If an SRPG/TBSs levels need different complex strategies to be formulated for each battle, the game is generally considered more difficult. SRPG/TBSs with valid scoring systems are indicative of the developers putting effort behind creating a balanced and strategically complex combat experience.
In comparison, other SRPG/TBSs may have several non-standard systems attached in an attempt to increase the depth, but every fight plays out the same way with the same simple optimal strategy, making the game monotonous and repetitive with little brain engagement required. Adding on loads of gimmicky features does not automatically guarantee that an SRPG/TBS is strategically complex. If an SRPG/TBSs levels can be completed by following the same strategy every time, the game is generally considered easier. The same goes for pre-battle customization features. Having a ton of customization options does not automatically mean strategic depth or difficulty. If there are overpowered features or if the customization doesn't matter because the game is too easy/broken or doesn't take advantage of the features, the difficulty of the game is reduced. Strategic depth means nothing if there isn't strategic difficulty to encourage the player to utilize it.
Player skill in SRPG/TBS is similar to chess and other board games - the ability to analyze a complex situation and formulate the best strategy, to know your opponent (in this case, a relatively simple computer AI) and form a strategy around their weaknesses, and plan for any contingencies. Unlike chess, though, there are few SRPG/TBSs with real time limits, and the player is usually allowed to reload or restart the battle. This gives the developers the opportunity to create puzzle-like challenges that a player may never be skilled enough to formulate the optimal strategy or solution on the first try, allowing multiple retries until they get it right.
The AI in most computer games is typically not good. Developers usually work around it by giving the AI handicaps (more units, stronger units, better positioning, etc.) that still give the player a challenge.
Claiming that an unskilled player can brute force their way through a relatively difficult SRPG is illogical. Realistically, brute forcing (that is, making random moves and hoping you eventually win) a relatively difficult SRPG challenge will range from a ridiculously long time to never. That is why even the best computers in the world struggle to brute force analyze and play games like chess or go. An unskilled player could no better win a game of chess by randomly making moves, even against a predictable computer AI opponent. On the other hand, in order to directly compare two players skill levels, the time taken to solve a puzzle or challenge must be taken into account, as the more skilled player will solve the challenge faster.
Similarly, claims that tactics or strategy game challenges are about how much time you have on your hands rather than your skill level are wrong. Certainly time is a factor in competition, but a sufficiently skilled player will not only complete a tactics game challenge with a higher score, they'll also do it faster than a poorly skilled player who spends hours struggling to complete a single level.
Strategic variety is an important variable in considering a games difficulty, as well. If the entire game can be won with one or two strategies, there isn't much to challenge the player and make them rethink their strategy between levels. This is especially true if that one strategy is simple in the first place, which makes the game feel monotonous and repetitive.
To determine if you have a relatively moderate amount of skill at SRPG/TBS games, complete a couple of the SRPG/TBS challenges located in this post. If you find your brain melting, you are probably not skilled at SRPG/TBS games.
Randomness in SRPG/TBSs is a factor that must be accounted for in a players strategy. Good players will account for the randomness and do everything they can to minimize it and guard against it, making it far less of a factor than to a poorly skilled player who frequently exposes themselves to luck. Sometimes randomness is poorly balanced and unfair, but this should only be judged by skilled players who are able to analyze the game at optimal levels of strategy. Save/reload abuse to get around randomness is considered a way to reduce the amount of skill needed to complete a challenge, where you would have otherwise had to handle the randomness as it occurred.
Replaying a level to optimize strategy based on new information gained while playing it is a legitimate feature of strategy games. There is nothing inherently unfair about it. Many hardcore genres like shoot em ups, racing games, action/arcade games, and puzzle games require hundreds of playthroughs to memorize and master to get world record level scores.
A tier list is a list of objects, games, or game elements rated in strength, usefulness or efficiency based on a stated goal or condition. If you do not state a goal or condition, a tier list is meaningless as nobody can tell what by measure the game elements are rated. Efficiency is an opinion and thus there is no "implied", "real", or "true" stated goal or condition for a tier list. Once again, an opinion cannot be a fact.
Types of Tactics Games
Wargames were the first type of tactical game to be developed, sometimes based on even older tabletop games back before personal computers. Wargames attempt to be as historically accurate as possible, with many combat variables, hundreds of historically accurate military units, and real life nations. Wargames are sometimes played at the operational level with battalions and groups instead of individual units, such as The Operational Art of War, which most resembles the old tabletop games.
Most recognizable Wargame examples in NA:
A tactical level Wargame with reduced strategic depth compared to full fledged wargame titles. The wargame-lite usually replaces the hundreds of historically accurate units and nations with a handful of generic units and fictional nations or factions. Most wargame-lite titles add unrealistic or abstract combat systems that separate them from traditional wargames. Wargames and wargame-lite games rarely have any kind of repetitive grinding or easy to abuse combat systems, making them a better indicator of tactical skill.
Most recognizable Wargame-lite examples in NA:
Simulation RPG or Strategy RPG (SRPG):
SRPGs primarily come from Japanese developers, and they are usually fantasy based with living creatures instead of military machinery. They typically take the standard RPG format and place it on a grid with more units. While some titles attempt to make legitimate challenges that can't be mitigated through grinding, save/load abuse, etc., the large majority of SRPGs simply use the grid based format as an excuse to tell yet another generic RPG tale. There's little point to playing most SRPGs unless you're interested in the plot and characters.
Most recognizable SRPG examples in NA:
Final Fantasy Tactics
Super Robot Taisen/Wars
A tactical game that contains a sizable amount of strategic depth by the way of gimmicks and combat systems, yet rarely requires the player to utilize it to solve a challenge. Instead the player is allowed to develop whatever strategies they want and almost always win, provided their numbers are big enough. Usually involves copious amounts of repetitive forced grinding and a focus on abstract numbers instead of strategy. This type of game usually feels like messing around with an obscured graphing calculator instead of playing a strategic chess-like game. These generally require the least amount of skill and the most amount of patience out of any type of tactical level turn based game. Almost always features fanservice.
Most recognizable Sandbox examples in NA:
Disgaea and other NIS titles
Record of Agarest War and other Idea Factory titles
Other categories of turn based games include operational level games, which take place at the level of battalions and groups of units, such as Civilization. Lastly there are strategic level games, which take place at the level of armies on a multinational sized map, such as Risk or Romance of the 3 Kingdoms. The terms tactical, operational, and strategic are borrowed from military terminology.
Games that revolve almost entirely around grinding like NIS and Idea Factory titles have more in common with MMORPGs than SRPG/TBSs. As long as you put in enough time to get to level 9999 and put out millions of points of damage, you're going to be able to destroy whatever opponent the game throws at you, because in the end it's about numbers and battle calculations, not strategic complexity or brainpower/skill. In other words, you are spending hours grinding in a giant graphing calculator. There might be some strategic challenge in figuring out the fastest way to reach level 9999, but I'm not sure I'd classify that under the typical challenge you'd expect in an SRPG.
Let's look at some end game play of Disgaea. Yes there are other NIS SRPGs but they're very similar to Disgaea in core mechanics (grinding). Disgaea is a graphing calculator disguised as a game, where big numbers and grinding trump whatever customization and monster capturing the developers throw in on the side. It's not a "deep" game - that word gets thrown around about Disgaea all the time and it is wrong. It can't have strategic depth if all the customization and geo panels and other gimmicks are mostly useless window dressing compared to raw numbers. I sometimes see Disgaea (and Final Fantasy Tactics) fans trying a relatively challenging SRPG and breaking down whining about how unfair the game is because they don't have rudimentary skill at strategic games and they were just fooling themselves by playing games like Disgaea.
Some Disgaea footage:
Oh my god Uber Prinny Bael! This is one mean penguin. Once again the only 'strategy' is grinding until your numbers are in the bazillions then unloading attack(s) that deal 'millions of damage'. In this video the player just one shots the boss in one attack. And this is "the hardest boss in the game". Uhh ok.
The only strategy you'll find is how to reach level 9999 more quickly, at which point you can go kill that 'hardest boss in the game' in a blaze of million hit point glory. However I'd hardly classify finding the most efficient way to grind to be an SRPG-related challenge.
Now let's look at some some SRPGs that have functional strategic depth that's utilized by relatively difficult strategic challenges. A challenging SRPG must have a high amount of strategic difficulty that makes use of its depth. Sometimes just describing the strategy required for a mission is enough to give you an idea, such as Elven Legacy. I've written a number of guides for strategy heavy SRPGs that you can find here. Just by looking at the text you know there's lots to figure out for each mission on top of knowing all the standard SRPG fundamentals like unit management, XP distribution, efficient positioning, class strengths and weaknesses, etc. The more complex a solution is required for a challenge, the more minimum amount of words are needed to explain it.
Valkyria Chronicles  
Advance Wars   
Fire Emblem 5 
Check this article for some more advanced level tactical challenges.
Some games combine both strategic level combat and operational and tactical level combat and are highly complex. Civilization or Hearts of Iron, for example.
The most strategically deep/complex SRPG/TBS games tend to be realistic PC war games that have dozens of playable nations, hundreds of units, and many systems to be learned. Most importantly, you need to utilize all of that strategic depth in order to succeed at the game.