Restricting player choices to make a better tutorial

I’m still working through the first few hours of tutorial in Final Fantasy 13, but I know already that it’s one of the most astounding feats of game design of anything that I have ever played.

At some point in the future, the game will open up. There will be airships. I will be able to decide which of the spiky-haired moppets will be in my team. I will even be able to decide where to go next. I know this because I read spoilers and game reviews.

As of now, I’m still in Chapter 4 (which is several hours into the game) and although I’m looking forwards to having more freedom later on, I no longer mind the railroading. Because, you see, I’m learning to play the (complex) game properly and the game is satisfied with nothing less.

To anyone who is used to MMO levelling, or even the typical CRPG, this comes like a bolt from the blue. But when you limit player options, that means encounters can be very very finely tuned to the characters, abilities, and gear which are available to the player.

How often do you fail an encounter in an MMO and think ‘Oh, I’ll go level up some more,’ or ‘I’ll buy some better gear,’ or ‘I’ll get some friends, guildies, or random people in to help’? What if none of those were options, but you knew for a fact that the encounter was designed so that you could do it with whatever resources you had right now? What if helpful tutorial tips introduced new concepts, walked you through using them, and then you had lots of opportunities to practice before hitting the really hard boss fight where you have to use what you just learned … or fail?

What if the penalty for failing was quite soft? In FF13 you can always go ahead and retry the fight again straight away if your main character dies.

What it means is that FF13 is very very determined to teach YOU how to play. It is very patient, it won’t give up, and it won’t offer easy modes that allow you to sidestep any key strategy. So if you are the type of player who often ignores buffs and debuffs in RPGs because you can usually just load up the highest possible dps and blast straight through everything – that tactic won’t work here. There’s a place for spikes of dps, and also a place for buffs/ debuffs/ heals/ tanks.

This is quite probably the gamiest RPG I have ever played. It is the game that will turn every player into a gamer, will teach them to understand the strategies and tactics, and will encourage them to switch paradigms on the fly like a pro. And I’m loving it. It doesn’t hurt that the battle system itself is a thing of genius. You have a lot of control over your group without needing to handhold each one of them personally, and it’s still fast paced and exciting.

Right now, I feel that  Square-Enix have achieved one of the nirvanas of single player gaming. A game that is tuned perfectly to the player, and continues to be tuned perfectly even as it adds in extra complexity. A game that teaches you how to play as you play, rather than leaving it to the game guides and blogs to fill in the missing content.  Where balance has ceased to be an issue.

Still counting the minutes until the next session!

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8 thoughts on “Restricting player choices to make a better tutorial

  1. I think you’re right, and that being able to limit choice and finely tune the experience for that character can prove as a great game introduction. I think it’s why the first few levels of Deathknights in WoW work so well, or why the Destiny questline in Age of Conan was so enjoyable.

    Sometimes a tailored experience is all you need to make your character feel heroic again, instead of being lost in the mass of players all doing the same thing.

  2. What, chapter 4 is still tutorial? Damn. I was having so much fun playing that I didn’t even notice! :D FF13 really does a good job in this regard.

  3. It definitely brings up questions about authorial intent, gamer agency, and teaching methods. More rigidly controlled games mean better storytelling, usually as well.

    It’s definitely a game that I’d play if I could, but I’d not want all my games to be that rigid. It’s great sometimes, and it’s good to hear these guys are getting it down (I’ve read it was a conscious choice to use this sort of iron-fisted design) and still making it fun.

  4. I just wanted to say..

    I couldn’t agree more!

    I’m just about the same point in the story right now that you are.. just getting into Chapter 4, and thus far the game has done a better job of teaching me exactly what to do, and how to go about it. At only one point did I frown, and consult the internet for some additional help — at the first eidelon fight. and it turns out I was doing exactly the right thing, I just wasn’t doing it fast enough.

    Also, I absolutely love the paradigm shifting mechanic, and it’s given me a ton to think about in terms of party roles, group behavior, and a fresh look at what we think of has the holy trinity template.

    Outstanding game design, and breathtaking visuals.

    I also don’t mind the rails.. but then I’m always the sort that only takes a few quests at a time because I like to finish what I’m working on before I tackle more.

  5. “It doesn’t hurt that the battle system itself is a thing of genius. You have a lot of control over your group without needing to handhold each one of them personally, and it’s still fast paced and exciting.”

    That’s the biggest negative review I’ve seen of the game thus far. I was actually mildly anticipating the arrival of my copy, and now I’m disappointed.

    These games are about two things: Plot and Micromanaging your characters. If you don’t get to micromanage your characters, why didn’t they just make a movie?

    I was never concerned about the “railroading”. Plenty of Final Fantasy and FF-like games have a long (dozens of hours) lead-in before you get to make any choices beyond dialog. For some reason people are saying that about FF13 like it’s new and different.

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