I recently got my grubby mitts on a copy of Dragon Quest VIII, specifically the 3DS remake. DQ8 is the game that got me into the series and it is still my favorite title out of the main numbered Dragon Quest games. It has been a lot of fun revisiting the game and remembering all the things that made me love it. Additionally, playing the game as an adult and having a better understanding of game mechanics and design has helped me to appreciate some of the decisions made with this title.
There’s a point in the game where you visit a kingdom called Argonia and undergo a quest. When returning to Argonia a huge bazaar has opened up and begun selling powerful new gear you haven’t previously had access to. This gear is crazy expensive, though, and fighting enough monsters to make the gold necessary to buy all of those weapons and armor takes a pretty significant amount of time. The grind may seem frustrating, but from a design perspective the grind is there for a reason.
You see, after finishing things up in Argonia you unlock a major dungeon that effectively marks the halfway point of the game. This dungeon features a difficult two-stage boss battle against the first serious threat the party has faced, with a lot of abilities not seen before this point. All that expensive Argonian gear is important for winning the battle, but so is the experience you gain from fighting monsters in order to earn the gold you need. During the grinding my healer learned the spell which would allow him to heal the entire party at once – without that spell, I couldn’t have faced the upcoming boss.
It’s a basic method of making sure the player is prepared but it’s still pretty clever. As the player, you have no way to know what level your character’s should be in order to face the boss – the game “tells” you by giving you a ton of expensive equipment to buy first. By defeating enough monsters to earn the gold, you reach the level you need to be in order to face the boss. The game’s structure teaches you pretty quickly that this is the mechanically optimal way to progress through the game.
I love seeing games incorporate techniques like this to help players understand the game or to progress through it in the most effective way possible. So as I was playing Dragon Quest VIII and appreciating the way it communicated to me the ideal way to progress, I started thinking of other games I have played which work in a similar fashion.
Pokemon Red and Blue come to mind. When the original games came out, before Pokemon was a worldwide phenomenon and Pikachu a household name, you had a pretty complex system for kids to learn. 151 different Pokemon with 15 possible types in all different combinations, with each type having unique relationships to the other types in the game, is really quite a bit to process. The developers had to think of how to introduce this vast world full of creatures to the players, and how to instruct them in the way that the different typings relate to one another. Enter: the gym challenge.
Any Pokemon trainer who wants to take on the Elite Four has to earn badges from eight gyms showing that (s)he is worth their salt. Each gym is themed around a certain Pokemon type, so one at a time, you progress through the game learning about each type’s advantages and disadvantages. The game even subtly warns you that choosing your starter is effectively choosing your difficulty level: Bulbasaur has type advantage in the first two gyms as well as the last gym, and while not super-effective it has a great defensive typing for the third gym. Conversely, Charmander really only has a favorable match-up in one gym (two if you count that Koga’s poison-types tend to also be Bug types), and that comes smack in the middle after facing down three gyms with type advantage against it.
As you move through the routes approaching each gym, you’re encouraged to capture as many Pokemon as possible. Heck, “gotta catch ’em all” is a prevalent theme throughout both the game and the TV show. But it’s more than a catchy tag – it’s telling you how to beat the game. For most of the gyms in the game, you are able to catch a Pokemon with type advantage against that gym in the routes nearby. From the Pikachu in Viridian Forest before heading to Cerulean City’s water gym to having Vulpix or Growlithe in the route leading to Celadon City and the grass gym to Diglett’s Cave twenty feet away from the electric gym, this game encourages you to catch ’em all because that’s the way to pad out your team with the right Pokemon you need in order to beat the gym. The original Pokemon game is structured from start to finish to teach you how to master it so you can finally overcome the champion, Buttface. I mean, Blue.
Here’s the thing that is so interesting to me about all of this: these games could just give you the answers. An NPC could say something like “oh golly, you better not leave Argonia until you’re at least level 30,” or there could be a document Professor Oak hands you with the specifics of each type advantage. But instead of putting it in so many words, instead of just handing you solutions, the developer uses the structure of the game in order to instruct you and push you in the right direction. It is a more subtle form of tutorial that perhaps requires a little more thought, but when executed well can be more engaging. In the Dragon Quest example, if a character just told me that I need to be level 30 to go to a specific location, grinding all those monsters would be more frustrating because I am only working towards that singular goal. I’ve hit a wall preventing me from progressing until I do things a certain way. Instead, the game gives me an incentive to progress by giving me a secondary reward structure to focus on: gold. Levels are a side effect of raising the money I need but they are the primary thing I need in order to progress. In the same way, by focusing on catching all sorts of Pokemon in Red and Blue, you’ll inevitably catch one of the ones you need in order to overcome the next gym.
I’m curious to know if other games do this sort of thing, so I now turn to you, adventurers. What games have you played that use structure rather than text tutorials to instruct you on how to engage the game? Was that effective for you? Should games be more direct about teaching you or is utilizing the game’s structure as a teaching tool the optimal method? Let me know your thoughts on the subject in the comments below!
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nice write up, and I agree, more games should teach players about the game through well thought out and clever interactions instead of wall of texts. Mega Man X’s intro stage for me is one of the best examples of this. It throws a level at you, doesn’t tell you anything, but the way the stage is arranged, it teaches you everything about the game here, even how to wall jump. The most impressive thing? It doesn’t say a word.
This is an interesting read as my wife is buying me DQ8 on the 3DS this Christmas 🙂 Looking forward to trying it out!