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Game design analysis

The usability of Final Fantasy XIII

Reinventing such a popular series of games will always lead to discussion, but what is clear is that FF13 marks the broadening of Final Fantasy; the balance between the ease of use for gamers that wouldn’t normally play RPGs and the die-hard fans.

If the intention was to simplify Final Fantasy, then I take issue with the some aspects of the games usability; here’s what it does well and what could have been improved.

What Final Fantasy 13 does well

Helpful “story review” loading screens

The ability to recount where you last were in the story is a welcome addition, particulary when the narration is even more character driven than in previous games. Upon loading the game you have the option to read through the last part of the story you played, immediately getting you up to speed with what to do next.

The story summary is brief, highlighting the main points of the previous cutscenes or major battle – while also highlighting any subtle points that the player may have missed.

In previous Final Fantasies coming back after a long break frequently meant starting over. It was often too difficult to remember where you left the story, the inclusion of recap screens are a great time saver, with the added benefit of hiding the long loading screens.

The FF13 chapter 3 story review screen.

 

A slimmed-down battle and inventory system

The battle system has a good emphasis on accessibility; spells require no MP to be cast and can be used as frequently as required and thus speeding up the battle gameplay. The emphasis is now on “staggering” opponents to create periods of high damage weakness. Player deaths are undone at the end of battles, and full HP is recovered after victory, removing the need for tedious item collecting and repeating health recovery.

As a result there is less emphasis on buying and selling so the equipment and item list has been trimmed right down. Armour has been replaced with a simple slot accessory system, which improves with character development. For the most part the most complex parts of character improvement such as weapons upgrading are relatively optional, left for those that wish to seek an extra advantage over their enemies.

A typical battle screen with Lightning and Vanille fighting a behemoth.

Good use of information

Too frequently missing a tutorial in past games meant losing out on how to to the information completely, leading to trial and error tactics to figure out the gameplay. Final Fantasy 13 does have these often confusing moments where information doesn’t immediately sink in, but the datalog goes some way to address this.

The ability to review information in the datalog provides the opportunity to go back and review anything that didn’t make sense, checking that any hastily explained tutorial information has been understood before going any further.

Although the battle scenes have speed up completely, it can sometimes be difficult to make important decisions about how to play quickly, easily reviewable “how to” help improves these moments explaining key points of interest in small, easy steps.

A history review screen detailing the Pulse Fal'Cie.

A helpful clue system

The well-trodden enemy weakness system as been revisited in this installment, allowing the technique “Libra” to automatically pinpoint weakness in monsters, empowering your AI controlled team mates to automatically attack using known enemy flaws.

Gone are the days where the strategy of how to win a particular battle is established through trial and error. All the clues about how to defeat any given enemy are within quick and easy reach.

With new emphasis on quicker fights, it can be easy to forget about the status of your teammates, one of the most useful reminders happens when the screen flashes when any of your characters are low on health, reminding you of the need to change tactics and prevent any causalities.

Examining a PSICOM executioner using the Libra screen.

The usability issues that could have been improved

Elaborate naming conventions

Just about every aspect of FF13s story and combat uses confusing names that don’t get the aim across. Above all else this game could have done with more plain english. Paradigms should be called Jobs, the Crystarium should be character growth or something similar. Eidolons are quite obviously summoned creatures, then there is the continued use of acronyms such as CP and TP, with the full explanation not making things much clearer – what does Crystogen Points mean to the average gamer without context?

The clearer naming conventions of previous games are known Final Fantasy staples that have been used for decades. Renaming them does not remark them as anything new, and simply mean that extremely important game functions only begin to develop meaning after hours of repeated use.

If more plain English was used in localisation, the tutorial feel to the game could have been reduced immensely, and the narrative could have been less focused on explaining gameplay elements; giving the player more power and confidence in the staggeringly long opening portions of the game.

Examining Lightning's pink coloured Crystarium.

Never ending tutorials

While the steps to complete a tutorial are relatively clear, the information attached to each in-battle tutorial could be explained better. FF13 attempts to bridge the gap by using colour to highlight key phrases, but the lack of clear terminology can make even this helpful presentation somewhat redundant.

Explaining how to play the game is important, so the steady flow of information within FF13 is managed well. But making the content of the game too information heavy for too long without making the player feel like they are masters of their own destiny can undermine the learning process. This leads to frustration and ultimately frustration means the game may not be finished by the intended target audience.

A very wordy Eidolon tutorial screen.

Flawed emphasis on speed

While completing battles in a timely manner improves the excitement of battles considerably, this brilliant idea is often undermined by elements that have not sped up – namely the results screen.

The information it contains is largely redundant when speeding through screens, particularly when key data could be displayed in a popup after battle, distilling a crowded, largely meaningless screen to an easily digestible summary of job points, and item drops.

The spoils screen should also not appear if nothing has dropped, as this means another frantic series of button presses just to get back to the core gameplay.

The battle over screen with rating review.

Numbers for numbers sake

The inclusion of stagger provides another brilliant way to weaken the enemy and increase damage, but the statistics under the stagger bar aren’t really required when the flickering orange bar relates the status of weakening the enemy perfectly.

There are a whole host of others numbers that could be removed from the in-game menus such as the ATB usage numbers on abilities when the size of the bar adequately explains the usage cost.

The poorly implemented weapons upgrade system smacks of adding in RPG trappings to a game where there aren’t many existing RPG archetypes, and as such it feels overly complex compared to the delivery of the rest of the game.

The bullet time view of a staggered opponent.

A simplier Final Fantasy?

Once you start to understand FF13s complexities it can become a very enjoyable game to play. But the time investment needed for even a basic understanding of how to play may put the less dedicated gamers that Square Enix are clearly after in this installment off completely. Generally this feels like a fresher Final Fantasy, with a robust battle system and emphasis on simplicity that will ultimately divide opinion.

Should simplifying a game for a wider audience mean that a lot of the principles that RPG fans regard have been removed? In this instance simplifying Final Fantasy by making it more linear has just moved the bottlenecks of usability elsewhere. Despite the refinements, this is still a satisfying game – just perhaps not as accessible as originally imagined.

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Video games

Present day communication in games

I’m not too impressed with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories so far as too many drastic steps have been made to the original, creepy ghost town. The Silent Hill I knew has changed beyond all recognition.

It’s saving grace is the inclusion of the phone, arguably updating the original game’s major oversight; we are now a generation of gamers who are always online, but most present day games don’t always reflect this.

Digital natives

We are among the first generations of digital natives, with smart phones and always on internet access it’s becoming harder to remember what living without the internet, or mobile phone technology was like. To those even younger than ourselves to which our reliance of technology is all they have ever known, the widespread absence of communication technology in gaming must be jarring.

There are a few notable exceptions of course, for all the debate the series creates Grand Theft Auto – particularly Grand Theft Auto IV, managed to present this aspect of our lives well, our tendancy to browse, our reliance on phones to communicate with others used as a primary way to stay in touch with the games key contacts. For the context of GTA4 ignoring massive aspects of our lives like the internet was just not conceivable, but there are a great many reasons why these devices are left out of other games.

Looking at some violent video game news online in Fahrenheit.

The survival horror case study

This brings me back to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In life we pump the computing equivalent of gigabytes worth of information into our minds daily, through watching TV, browsing the internet; in truth even by playing a game we add to this total. Most games do not reflect this; as the thrills of adventure in or this case horror rely on a lack of information, the steady drip, drip, drip of slow perfectly paced moments of story and realisation. It does not suit the context of most games to have the constant¬†deus ex machina¬†in the form of a mobile phone in arm’s reach. How different would the outcome of the original Silent Hill been if Harry was able to look up call the police, look up Silent Hill online, or simply gain comfort from knowing he was contactable by still being tied to the outside world inexplicably?

Shattered Memories does at least try to answer some of these questions. I was able to attempt the actions that I would have tried in a normal situation; attempt to call the police, then attempt to call home. Although the method of of communication in Silent Hill is still pretty linear it does at least attempt to open up the world a little more. The inclusion of the phone does mean that Silent Hill is a little busier than I’d like, with more people dotting it’s streets, with Cybil the police officer, and other notable characters contactable at a moments notice. If anything the phone helped to tie up the game events more; allowing for a GPS system that marks Harry’s location, and a phone reception indicator that was able to point out quite obviously the stranger moments of the game where Harry is disconnected from the outside world.

Trying to dial 911 for help.

Video games often deal with wilder themes than most other mediums, such as the supernatural and spiritual, and as such we tend to take the stranger moments of video games on board without giving it a second thought. A modern device is a great way to give the weirder elements of the Silent Hill some credence, this is continued with newer elements such as the smartphone’s camera confirming elements that the naked eye can’t see.

And despite the lack of communication, electronic devices can still play a huge role in games. Radios and phones are used extensively in survival horrors such as Silent Hill to make a very tangible link to the enemies fought thus proving their physical existence. Although characters like Harry can’t always benefit from the intended use of communication devices they are still his first port of call. Even then video game settings often represent a desperate hour of need, the breakdown of society or isolation for single player games, in which case relying on older methods of communication such as the radio suits the tone of the game.

Shattered Memories has shown that including a greater emphasis on our media-savvy minds doesn’t necessarily mean a detrimental effect to gameplay. While the psychological moments of the game are well-touted the braver steps towards the inclusivity of technology hasn’t made as much of an impact. So why don’t more games do this, and it is simply a matter of time before most games do?

Harry looks at the school poster mentioning that electronic devices are banned.

Will games ever catch up?

While lots of games have some way for multiple characters to communicate, it’s rare for games to look at how switched on we all are, the real life impact of all the time we spend at a screen in one setting or another. FPSs ironically perhaps present this best, using in-game military connections to maintain cross-character links, this combined with the fact that in-game communication is such a given, often without explanation we as gamers tend to look over this theme entirely.

The internet is such a huge part of our lives and most modern day settings are going to find our always online “life in front of a screen” mentality harder and harder to ignore. I’d like to see more games make a half-decent attempt acknowledging some of the most open communication channels we as a civilization have ever had.

If you can please take a moment to point out more of the fabulous games that do.