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How Listening to Fanboys Helped Me
by Scott Sheppard on 07/20/13 08:10:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Originally posted on my personal blog.

I've been simultaneously playing Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics, studying their magic and battle systems. While doing so, I figured it would be helpful to check around and see if any other games included similar magic systems, you know, to see what worked and what has been tested in other contexts. As such, I spent a good few hours perusing around the internetz, sifting through the opinions of fans and critics of each game's battle system.

My study got real interesting real fast! There were some crazy heated arguments about the benefits and downsides of the Materia system in FF:VII. Because I like it so much, I initially wanted to just ignore the criticism and move on... but, as I'll tell you below, I learned that with a little bit of drilling into the arguments (and the power of science) I have a new appreciation for one of the easiest to implement and powerful tools in the game developer's belt.

Players seem to really love or hate the Materia system in FF:VII. There's just not much in between (though that may just be the vocal few that actually post on forums to discuss something they actually have an opinion about). After sifting through a number of Materia debates, I began to notice a common theme. The argument was that the Materia system made all the characters feel generic. This argument against FF:VII is common enough that if you go Google reviews about FF:VII right now, it will most likely be included in the first negative review you come across.

Tifa Not Barret

Well that made blink a few times! Because in my mind, the characters in FF:VII are anything but generic. Not quite understanding where that (seemingly fairly common) thought could come from, I decided to go a bit deeper into the rabbit hole to see if I could spot some collective voices that would be articulate and self aware enough to expound on the subject for me. What I found was not as immediately helpful as I would have liked, but did end up helping tremendously in the long run. These Materia critics would repeatedly compare the FF:VII system to some other system that they themselves liked more. Most commonly (and somewhat coincidentally, considering I happen to be playing both at the same time), the system they referred to was FF:Tactics.

Which stymied me even more! Because I'm playing both games concurrently, I can see how truly generic the players actually are in FF:Tactics. Aside from a handful of plot important characters, literally every single additional character is generated procedurally. The game randomly assigns a gender, pulls from a list of names, slaps on a zodiac sign, assigns a job class.... and that's it! This is not to say that the procedural system is bad in any way, in fact I think it's great. But on the argument of characters' generic-ness? Really!?

When the defining factor is something like "Mage" or "Archer"... that says generic to me.

Needless to say, I was a might bit confused. How could critics hate the Materia system because it made characters generic... then immediately offer FF:Tactics as a better (less generic) alternative? In the same sentence even.

It wasn't until I read this fantastic article by Tynan Sylvester on Gamasutra talking about apophenia and how designers could use it to let the player do some of the storytelling work in your game, that I made the connection! To quote his article directly:

OutletApophenia is seeing meaningful patterns in random or meaningless data. For example, look at this wall socket. What do you see? A face! And not just a face. But a face with a confused, perhaps pained expression. Why do you see that? There is no such personality here. But we perceive it all the same. It’s how we’re wired as human beings.

That ability to perceive personality and intent is a deep-seated human ability. It happens below conscious awareness, the same way you can look at a room and understand it as a 3D space without thinking about it. The only knowledge of the room you have is a 2D projection of it on your retinas. But some silent processor in your brain generates the perception of a 3D environment. In the same way, we effortlessly perceive minds and intentions. It’s why ancient peoples perceived spirits in rocks, water, sun and moon.

What these critics were attempting to say unsuccessfully was that they were experiencing a meaningful case of apophenia with their FF:Tactics characters. The generic FF:Tactics characters had become more real and unique after all the micro-adjustments inherent in the process of leveling up than the hand crafted FF:VII characters, even with no given plot.

Now this is really fascinating! The human brain is so powerful that it fills in all the emotional gaps left gaping due to a lack of "developer crafting." Our brain wants our characters to be real so badly, that when it does fill in those gaps the characters feel personal and intimate. So intimate in fact, that it's more preferable to let our minds do the dirty work than to have a character created for us from the ground up. In this specific case, we get the quality of a PSX era Square game where most of the characters are exactly who we want them to be. No fussing with emo Squalls or anything! All of the benefits, none of the downsides.

So what's the take away here? As a developer, it's very easy to want to craft something with a very strong fist. Tight control over the game's flow and story. Lengthy backstories and convoluted relationships. We make games to tell our stories! But that stuff takes an incredible amount of time and energy to create... and if FF:VII's apparently "generic" feeling characters are any indication... then maybe those hand crafted characters aren't going to be appreciated quite the same way we want them to be.

Games are in the unique position that the player can (and wants) to be involved in the creation of their characters' stories. Because the rest of the game is interactive, there's an inherent divide between hand crafted stories and the procedural gameplay. Maybe the best development path to follow is similar to what FF:Tactics has done. They created a world populated with a few hand crafted characters, and then let the remainder of them be whoever we wanted them to be. In one hand the developer still gets to tell the story they so desperately want to tell. And in the other, all those indispensable apophenia enhanced generic side characters flesh out the realism gaps within the story, down to the exact level of depth that the player wants. There's theoretically no limit to the imagination that the player can allocate to their characters... and therefore an unlimited supply of artifical (but more real) depth.

With development costs as high as they are, perhaps this is one gold-mine that truly can stare opportunity cost in the face and win.

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Darren Tomlyn
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What you have recognised, (though how specifically, I do not know), is that game and art are two different things, that just happen to be compatible.

Art represents the process of creation itself, (though from a more specific perspective - everything we create tells a story (of such a process)), and game, in this instance, represents the function of what is being created.

The fact that we confuse one for the other, here, even though for a lot of other similar functions it would be ridiculous to do so - (would you confuse the act of creating a microwave/house/car etc. for the process of using them? No, of course not.) - should tell you that there is something very fundamental going wrong...

(And there is - with our very perception of language itself, but I'm working on it...)

Ardney Carter
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Approaching the issue from a slightly different angle:

What if, instead of changing anything about FF7s hand-crafted characters as far as personality, backstory, etc. the developers had allowed players to handle the distribution of stats during each characters level up? If what we're arguing here is that the 'ownership' felt over FF:T characters was due to the way they were player crafted in their skillsets then perhaps that change would be enough to satisfy that particular brand of critic.

Scott Sheppard
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After reading my post after publishing it, I realize that I didn't come back to the Materia system again... which I originally had intended to do. This is very similar to what I had in mind.

Ian Richard
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While I agree with the core points of your article, I believe that the Materia concerns are a different matter. It isn't about random patterns that seeming tell a story. It's purely mechanical.

In FFT, my Archer is an archer. He shoots arrows to kill things. My mage casts magic and my fighter stabs his enemies. Each class has a specific purpose. A party of white mages is a very different experience than a party of barbarians.

But with materia, everyone can heal. Everyone can throw fireballs and punch things in the face. While the backstories may exist... from a mechanical standpoint everyone has the same feel. It doesn't matter who is in your party because it's always the same experience.

But again, I agree with your main point. I tend to get far more attached to my random characters in old RPGs than I do modern "Story" games. I see patterns of my Cleric failing to heal my thief and suddenly I see his disdain for my criminal lifestyle. I see his inner turmoil of whether siding with me goes against his noble religious beliefs.

I see my mechanic, Specs, successfully snipe a dozen guys due to lucky rolls. I see him differently now. A mild-mannered mechanic with a hidden warrior side that comes out during times of need. Sure, it was random coincidence, but Specs now holds a special place in my heart.

Sometimes, I'd prefer to live a story rather than listen the developers tell me one.

Scott Sheppard
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Good points here. I think it's interesting how only games can uniquely provide this experience of "living a story" as opposed to every other static form that only offers the "telling a story" experience.

Ian Richard
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What I find really interesting is how much of a story the mechanics tell. Yet, it's done so poorly in many modern games.

I find myself being lectured to by a character about being too violent, yet the moment a monster appears the AI Charges into combat without hesitation.

Or I am a scientist or random civilian put into a bad situation... yet I handle the gun more accurately than the team of genetically-perfect special forces I just slaughtered.

Am I really supposed to believe that Shepard is a good and peace loving guy because I select the "I won't kill you" option? Heck no... I just killed 500 men walking in here.

The mechanics of a game and the dialog can tell different stories. But in a truly great game, the mechanics blend with the narrative to reinforce one another.

Garret Bright
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The reason the materia system makes FF7's characters generic is that anyone can be anything at any time. You can turn your monk into a black mage whenever you want. More than that, it means you can have a character that is all classes simultaneously, breaking the strategy of building your character's specs. Really, all Square had to do is limit which characters could equip which materia. Only Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris get white magic, only Tifa and Yuffi can have steal, etc. It would have re-established choice and decision making into character builds.

FFT, however, you have to more or less stick with characters you've had during the whole game. If your dual wielding ninja crystalizes, you pretty much have to reset the game right there. I'd argue that sacrificing half an hour's worth of game time to save your ninja gives you a bit of emotional tie to him/her.

I think the main problem with this blog is that your prose switches between mechanics and the lore as if they're the same thing. Story-wise, FF7's characters are clearly more deep than your generic FFT character, but mechanically, they're shallow and meaningless.

Maxime Dion
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I don't believe imposing hard limitation on your characters would make for a better game. Instead I would propose something a bit similar to how Disgaea handle weapons where damage from gun is dependent on the user speed and accuracy. Materia would draw from different stats to be effective, like lightning spell would deal more damage if the caster speed stats is good.

To comply with this system I would then drop the numeric stats system and present the player with a simpler and persistant letter base rating system for each individual stats. Meaning that instead of a speed of 83 it would be rated "A". Then lignhing spell could have its base power multiplied by its coresponding stats multiplier. "D" would be 0.5, "C" would be 1, "B" would be 1.3 and "A" would be 1.5. Damage input equation would be something like ((SpellBaseDamage*StatModifyer)+(CharacterLevel*SomeModifier)+EquipmentBo ost)-(EnnemyMagicDefence*ElementalWeaknessModifer).

This way you can still equip every character with any materia but the user would quickly understand that unless they are fighting a boss who is weak against fire, giving a fire spell to everybody is just a waste of slot.

Joe Program
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An interesting comparison is Final Fantasy 10, which has authored characters and the sphere grid. For me, these characters feel different from a story perspective and a mechanics perspective. All the characters share the same sphere grid, but the cost of moving around on it is high and takes a long time. The player has to learn to play with their strengths and weaknesses. The ease of switching materia around at any time is one of the biggest factors of the mechanically generic feeling.

Christian Nutt
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This takes me back to Usenet, 1997!

I don't think I'll reiterate my argument from then here, but I remember this debate so well. I personally really like the Materia system, for whatever that's worth!

Scott Sheppard
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@Garret You're exactly right. I blended the lore and magic system without making a clear distinction between the two for two reasons. First, because it was a distinction I didn't understand until after reading through all the criticism. And second, because like Ian mentions above, I believe that mechanics and lore (I like your usage of the word lore instead of story... I'm going to adopt it if you don't mind) should be more intertwined than they generally are.

So great points, and thank you for helping clarify the core of the post. A third reason would probably be because I just didn't present the post quite as expertly as I wanted. :)

Garret Bright
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I wanted to clarify that I don't disagree with the general message of the blog, in that players like to fill in the gaps of a character's personality and that helps create a deeper connection.

Ian Welsh
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It's not the same thing, but a while back I was trying to figure out why certain RPGs left me cold, while I loved others. I came to the conclusion that, usually, the ones I loved let me customize my character, and the ones that I didn't like, didn't (or not enough.) For example, despite the technical brilliance of the Witcher series, I can never warm to Geralt (even with the amnesia allowing you to remake him, he's somehow always the same guy, at least to me). Yet, my characters in DA:0 and even DAII (for all that title's problems) were mine, even though in DAII, everyone called me Hawke. Getting to choose face, class and tone of voice was enough. I even loved Shepard (until ME3 when, there was too much auto-dialogue and forced emotional reactions, as to the kid).

In terms of apophenia, many peole have commented that in the new XCom you become very attached to your characters, even though they are extraordinarily generic, because their histories are unique, and because you can customize them.

No matter how brilliant and interesting a character you create for me, it's your creation. If I get to at least co-create him or her, I'll like him or her more. And randomness makes them even more unique. The stories I create with them are as important/more important than the stories you create.

The game that made me think about this was the latest Tomb Raider. They did a great job with Lara, but she's their Lara in all her reactions, not my Lara. And I don't care about their Lara. For that type of experience I prefer a book or movie to a game.

Paul Marzagalli
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Ian, that was always my primary criticism of ME3 - that it was way too late in the game to change the nature of how the player controls Shepard's interactions with the world. It was extremely frustrating. It does speak, too, to what Scott wrote above - that there are instances where players prefer to define their characters than have them defined. I absolutely preferred the Shepard of ME1 where I got to control most responses, even if they didn't amount to anything more than flavor than the Shepard of ME3 who acted out time and again in ways that I would not have chosen otherwise. It marred an otherwise astounding experience.

Ian Welsh
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Don't know if you played DA: II - it had a ton of problems. But I fell in love with my (fem) Hawke when she made her crack about boneless women in Act II. OMG. So inappropriate, so funny, and yet so human--you see the things Hawke saw, it makes perfect sense to joke about them, to laugh, so you don't cry. Still, it was my choice to make her sarcastic and irreverent.

In ME3 I was offended by the boy. Truly offended. Millions, billions of people are dying and I'm spending time on this? That's not my Shepard. One quick attempt to make him come with me, maybe, but that's it. And then all the screaming about Earth, Earth, Earth, when my ME1 Shep was a pan-galactic - sacrificing human lives for the greater good, saying that humans are important, but human concerns are no more important than any other species concerns? She turned into someone else's character, not mine.

Paul Marzagalli
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I did play DA II, twice in fact, because the game at launch featured some brutal, story-affecting bugs (though I also thought the church blowing up was a bug, too). I missed the old-school dialogue approach of DA:O, but yeah, I did enjoy the general sense of control that I had over Hawke.

Your comment about the Boy is one that I saw argued about before, and the best point raised was this: imagine if you had that earlier level of control where you could just leave him after one try or not at all. Imagine that coming into play later when he shows up at the end, and how you might go, "Hmm...probably should have handled that one differently."

One of the reasons that I think the autodialogue got worse over the course of the ME series was, amusingly, because of the fans. A lot of the feedback was from people bemoaning that many of the dialogue choices were simply flavor, not EARTH-SHATTERING CONSEQUENCE.

Paul Marzagalli
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Many prominent RPG developers (Brian Fargo and Chris Avellone spring immediately to mind) seem to agree with the idea that mechanics = the story/player experience, not so much the characters or anything they write. I would say that there are audiences for both. There are players who do want that finely crafted story and those distinct characters, to whom the gameplay is just the method of discovering the story. I've heard a few different people say that recently about "The Last of Us" - they played it on easy just so they could get to the story. Bioware developed an entire mode specifically for those kinds of players. I am generally one of those players, where mechanics are just a means to an end of exploring a game's narrative content.

It's true that we, as players, supply much of the narrative thread in our own imaginations, but I would never want to discourage developers from pushing toward narratives with more strongly defined characters, even at the risk of "generic" mechanics.

Katina Ferguson
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I know the reason that I don't like the materia system is because it is a less interesting version of the Esper system in FF6 (which was totally awesome). The Esper system allowed character customization because you could assign an Esper for a team member to *learn* magic spells. Each fight contributed to a higher percentage of the spell learned until the spell was available for use. Eventually you could have all of your party learn all the magic attacks, but that takes a lot of time and even more investment in the game.

As for the character development and storyline, the characters in FF7 didn't really seem to interest me since a lot of the main characters were too similar and very generic(mainly emo and whiny). I guess overall, FF6 spoiled me into not appreciating FF7.

Scott Sheppard
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You know... I keep hearing that FF6 is phenomenal... I have just never played it. Perhaps I should change that. Is 3 RPGs at one time too many? :-)

Jorge Ramos
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I get why some would see that the Materia system makes the individual characters seem generic, being that most of the time is spent on battling random encounters, unless you happen to be speed-running. That said, Square at least did try to provide that differentiation in the form of obviously storyline and character development, but also in the form of the limit breaks. I'm willing to wager that those that cried the most regarding Aeris' death in FF VII were those (like me!) who spent the time to get her to where she could employ her final Limit Break, which effectively combined a full HP/MP restore with the starman from Super Mario Bros.

That said, I personally thought the Materia system was "simple, yet brilliant." The fact that there are combinations that could be done that create such exploits that would crash the game simply because the damage outputs/numbers calculated end up overflowing the PS1's pokey RAM amounts, is little short of incredible.

Scott Sheppard
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I'm currently working on a post about the creativity associated with the materia system, and why that works. Haters can hate the lack of connection to their characters, but the core aspects of the system are "brilliant" as you say. Stay tuned.

Paul Marzagalli
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Scott, you should talk with my friend John, who absolutely gamed the materia system to beat both Emerald and Ruby creatures. He would videotape his attempts and then use an old accounting calculator (the ones with no digital display, only a roll of printing paper) to add up the damage while watching the playthrough to discover how he needed to tweak his materia layout. Of course, that was *many* years ago, but I'm sure he must remember a nugget or two that would help prove your point.