Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When is it okay to be bad?

I have been inspired by Ziggyny's Final Fantasy experiment and downloaded a NES emulator and FF1 so that I can replay and relive Final Fantasy 1.  This game holds a very dear place in my heart as the first and probably most beloved of all the RPG single player games I have ever tried.  I remember the trouble this game got my brother and I into as we both wanted to play but the cartridge could hold only a single saved game - I accidentally saved over my brother's game once when he was halfway through and the crying and apologies that followed that little incident were legendary.  Thankfully I don't have to play it on the original NES system though and can play on an emulator where I can speed up the action when things get tedious and save at any point instead of only in towns.

Ziggyny is a lot more hardcore than me about going back to FF1.  He is playing a party of a single thief, which is certainly a trying and painful endeavour.  Thieves are by far the worst class in FF1 for a variety of reasons.  First, their special ability is running away from fights which is both bugged such that it doesn't work properly and is very weak even if it does work.  Being able to run away is fine and all but eventually you have to fight some really hard monsters and at that point you really need to be powerful rather than fleet of foot.  Unsurprisingly the parties that are powerful and can beat the hard bosses are also powerful enough to just beat all the random encounters too.  This leaves the thief as a good character when you have no plans to do anything of note and since adventurers in fantasy games have a tendency to do things that are important thieves have no value.  A single thief is much, much more challenging than a single fighter because thieves are useless and fighters are seriously overpowered.  In one particular encounter (Astos the dark elf) Ziggyny is looking at getting his thief up to level 26 to have a real shot at winning and might not be able to do it until level 28.  I went in with my solo warrior at level 12 and smashed Astos easily on my first try.  It is even more ridiculous when you learn that Ziggyny needs 270,000 XP to get to level 28 and I needed 20,000 to get to level 12, most of which I got just by playing the game up to that point.  He, on the other hand, needs to kill monsters over and over for ~25 hours just to have a chance.

So thieves are terrible and warriors are overpowered.  Question is, does this make the game bad?  I think that in general having a particular choice be really bad (or really good) isn't a problem given a few conditions.

1.  There must be a variety of reasonable choices.

2.  These choices must not make player vs. player play extremely narrow

3.  The choice must be something that can be unmade.

FF1 fails on 1 and 3 and since there is no PvP it can't fail on 2.  I think 3. is the most powerful argument against having really drastic power differences between various characters.  The game takes a long time to play and you can't change which characters are in your group after you first begin.  If you started a group with several fighters you would almost certainly find the game not that rough whereas if you started with several thieves you would find it extremely brutal and it would necessitate a lot of boring grinding.  An example of where having serious power differences is okay is a fighting game like Street Fighter.  There are lots of reasonably balanced choices with different styles and you aren't bound to any one choice for any length of time so having a character or two that absolutely sucks is no problem.  The player can try them, discard them, or continue to play them just for kicks but they never need feel like they made an uninformed choice that made the game overly hard or long, nor a choice that made the game trivial.

In any game where PvP is a large component it is necessary to have many comparable options.  They need not be identical but they all have to be competitive.  Rock/paper/scissors matchups are one way to achieve this but there are many others.  In those situations it is fine to have a few bad options but it is terrible to have a few overpowered options since those will be the only ones anyone plays, reducing the real choice players have substantially.  In a game without PvP having one particularly powerful choice still seems poor but it restricts player choice a lot less since many people will still choose a suboptimal route to experiment.  As long as many routes can be taken that succeed in defeating the game things are never too bad.  If there were only 3 classes in FF1 then having 1 bad, 1 good, 1 medium would be a disaster.  The only variety would be in how easy the game is.  If there were 15 classes then having 1 bad option would give the choice of a 'hard mode' while still leaving a huge variety of good choices.  6 classes, which is what FF1 has, seems like it is on the cusp between 'few' and 'many'.  I think the game would have been a lot better if the fighter were substantially nerfed and the thief substantially buffed but it isn't a catastrophe.  After all, the game *was* a hell of a lot of fun.

My proposals to level the playing field between classes:

Thief:  4% hit/level instead of 2.  Base %hit=15 instead of 5.
Fighter:  2% hit/level instead of 3.  Base %hit=7 instead of 10.
Fighter:  Base Str = 10 (was 20), Luck = 10(was 5), Int = 5(was 1)

There are a million and one other game alterations I would make to smooth things out even more but these would at least make the Thief a very heavy hitter and make the Fighter much wimpier in terms of damage output.  Doing this would actually have the Fighter fill the role of the tank who has a ton of HP and armour but doesn't hit very hard and would have the Thief fill the role of high damage dealer who is fairly weak on defense.  You would still certainly want a Fighter in the ideal party as the front line damage soaker but you wouldn't also want tons of them in the back row because they hit harder than anyone else too.  :)


  1. Since the average person is going to build an entire party and not just pick 1 dude I think there are a variety of reasonable choices. Any party containing either a fighter or a red mage will be able to play and beat the game at a reasonable pace. Black belts are actually the best if you spend enough time leveling them (and old school RPGs were known for having to level grind) so I'd say any party with a black belt is a reasonable choice too.

    Fighter, fighter, fighter, red mage is going to blow a random party away and thief, thief, thief, thief is going to blow huge chunks but I think most people just picking up the game and playing could be expected to pick a variety of classes and will actually get to play the game reasonably as a result.

    It's certainly a better design to make your switches and have the 3 melee classes be tank, dps, hybrid. Instead of how they are now which is awesome, terrible, and great when leveled.

  2. I'm not sure class balance matters at all. There really is no hard or easy in FFI, there is just how many levels you need to go up before you can win. The manual recommended some different parties for people who have never played RPGs, and for those who have, I would imagine the vast majority picked Fighter/X/White Mage/Black Mage where X was not a White or Black Mage.

    The thing is, I'm pretty sure you can win with one thief. If you can do that, then there is no wrong choice, and there is especially no wrong choice involving four characters. The choices that make the game exceedingly difficult are all obviously bad. No one thinks that bringing four healers is going to be a good group to beat up monsters.

    Balance can be very important, but I don't think Final Fantasy would be a better game if the thief class was good and fighters were a little worse.