The Inevitable Yawning Success: FFTA(1) and Flappy Bird

A week off due to the death of a relative, and I’m back.

I’ve been playing a lot of the old-skool Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Game Boy Advance in an effort to finally GET THROUGH THE THING, and in analyzing why I — and a lot of other people I talk to — fail to actually complete these games, I think I’ve hit on a common theme: at a certain point, the ease with which you win means the game ceases to have any significant risk, and you grow disinterested.

And now it’s time to mention Flappy Bird.

So let me start with a description of the design problem.

In Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, you get into a lot of fights — the game is structured around these battles. Each battle takes maybe 10-15 minutes, and some are harder than others, especially if you don’t take the massive array of variables the game has into account (laws, antilaws, races, classes, enemies, etc., etc.). Aside from wasting those 10-15 minutes, failure carries little sting, though it is probably enough of a sting to lose that time.

At a certain point, however, almost every FFTA battle goes from “I wonder if I’ll win this?” to “How long until I win this?”

This generally happens around when the last unit or two is present on the battlefield. Given the advantage in the game’s action economy (I’ve got more active units than them, they can’t possibly take out my units fast enough), taking out those last few units is basically an exercise in “Press A until you win.”

I recognize this vibe from the 4e D&D games that I’ve been playing for the last 5 years. This late-battle grind where you know you’ll win and simply need to play it out can be deadly to engagement. You check out. Your brain isn’t needed anymore. You get distracted, stop paying attention, and just slog it out for a few more rounds.

And I think reason this happens in FFTA is the same reason it happens in 4e D&D: balance. These games avoid binary results like instant KO’s and crippling status effects, and keep challenges around that can’t be overcome and destroyed with one or two moves (though FFTA has a few limited exceptions). The balance means that once the scales tip in favor of one side or the other, they still have to get rid of the last shreds of resistance before they can actually declare victory — even if those shreds can’t actually put up a viable fight. The conflict is won, and the only person that doesn’t know it is the game itself.

So, if that’s the problem — a few minutes of boredom while you mop up the enemy — what’s a solution? There’s probably lots of them, but the one that interests me today is one inspired by Flappy Bird.

yup

Flappy is amazingly frustrating. It’s a simple game, but its simplicity hides a challenge that is really quite great. It’s easy to play, but difficult to master. That juicy combo leads to its addictive nature: it’s SO SIMPLE to try again and try again that you can imagine doing better and better each time, if you just think about it, try it a little differently, calm down a bit…before you hit a pipe and go bonkers because you know what you meant to do and you know what your body did and ARGH.

And then you get in the zone and you start hitting the double digits and you’re like “Dang. Why did I think this was hard?”, but it’s satisfying, very, very satisfying.

It has the exact opposite effect of FFTA’s balanced combats. Instead of waiting 15 minutes for an inevitable victory, every SECOND that passes is a potential for marginal success or crushing defeat.

Now, these games are different genre, sure, and their core aesthetics are different — one doesn’t play FFTA for challenge, per se. But boredom can’t be permitted here at the end of a fight, either. And while the game can be made more fast-paced and more time-sensitive, at the core, you’re still dealing with a turn-based skirmish game that plays like super-advanced chess.

So how can FFTA appropriate some of the compelling failure of Flappy?

One way that it toys with a bit, that would be easy to extend, is the idea of goals in a scene other than “Defeat the Enemy.”

Imagine instead that the victory condition in most combats was “Vanquish the Leader.” Do that and the others surrender and the battle is over — you no longer have to play through the elimination of every unit. Heck, a simple “morale” system that allows a unit to flee would dramatically change that. And maybe the same is true for you: nominate one unit to be the Leader in your party, and if that unit falls, it’s all over for you, too. Your units may flee the battle as well. Without getting rid of FFTA’s complexity or forcing a time limit, you add tension to the game simply based on that target.

Or imagine a victory condition that had a turn limit (perhaps randomly generated). If, for instance, in Roda Volcano, if every turn went by and there was a chance of the volcano going off and ending the combat as a failure? That would add some pressure to every round, and keep the player focused on speed — gotta get out before everybody dies in a volcano, folks!

You could also steal from the JRPG’s venerable ancestor, the roguelike. While the FFT series flirts with character perma-death and semi-random unit generation, it doesn’t employ that randomness on a turn-by-turn basis. What if your moves had results other than “damage” or “miss”? What if every command had a chance to simply kill its target outright? It would certainly make those staff-swinging white mages left as the last unit more interesting.

Maybe take a hint from a limited aspect of the original FFT, and introduce “traps” that happen on random tiles (rockslide! quicksand! magical runes! and perhaps “treasures” that happen on others — buffs! items! healing!), hidden from the player. Even an out-gunned NPC might get the advantage back with an interesting terrain.

The idea in every instance is to introduce elements that make the character pay attention, because the circumstances could change any minute. While it would be kind of self-defeating to go the full Flappy, the idea is that there is constant change in the state of the game, constant guessing about what happens next, and constant fear in every unit’s turn. Every action has the change to alter the game to produce success or failure. Every turn is important. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Some of those ideas are probably better than others, but the ultimate philosophy of a hostile, changing game board has a lot of merit. Personally, for a small, local change, simply having the option in the menu to request surrender and the computer doing a quick check and maybe taking a random factor into consideration would be as significant improvement to simply walking forward and attacking over and over again until the last dude is dropped. If nothing else, that seems fairly easy to do.

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