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.

6 replies on “The usability of Final Fantasy XIII”

I’m a little over 20 hours in and I don’t think there’s a single thing in this article I disagree with. I’m not fond of the weapons upgrading at all. I’m really loving the game though. I just wish it didn’t take so long to introduce you to things. Having a fundamental component of the battle system (paradigms) absent from the first 2 hours was a pretty bad design decision IMO. Also, being as far as I am now, you’d think I’d be controlling more than 2 people at a time on a regular basis. Still, though, I am loving the game so far.

I’m assuming there will be another post about why the player was bound to arbitrary parties for 20 hours. I might have ruined the surprise! 😛 The game’s constant reliance on tutorials makes me realize what the developers really meant when they explained how they wanted to ape Modern Warfare’s style. They wanted to make a streamlined experience in terms of story and gameplay that added complexity and difficulty as the game went on. A tad grating to more erudite gamers, but I can see why they did it. Still, I’m enjoying it immensely.

Great article, Michelle.

Having a few work colleagues who are also going through the game, I noticed that Final Fantasy fans tend to fall into two distinct groups: those who enjoy the battles over the plot/characters, or those who enjoy the plot/characters over the battles. Where FF13 is concerned the former appear to have been bored senseless by the first 20 hours of the game, while the latter enjoyed the first 20 hours but stopped playing when the battles became too tough.

It seems as if Square tailored the game for FF newcomers rather than veterans. Understandable; the franchise has been around so long that it’s probably scared off a lot of casual gamers who might otherwise be interested in giving it a try. It’s also the first major FF game on the current generation of consoles, so it stands to reason Square want to capitalize on this and get as many gamers as possible interested in FF.

This is the first major FF game I’ve picked up since FF8 (only superficially tried FF9; come on Sony, get it on PSN!), so I’m not sure how it compares to more recent games in the series (popular opinion seems to suggest it improved on the best things in FF10 but kept some of the less desirable elements of FF12). I’m enjoying it so far (about 16-17 hours into the game), especially now that the battles are starting to open up strategically, but the linear progression and relentless pacing with zero downtime just serve to emphasize just how much the opening ten chapters feels like one big tutorial.

I appreciate Square’s efforts to actually teach players how to play the game efficiently, but they really need to find a way to do so in a more concise, efficient fashion.

FF is the holotype example of loading up a save game and asking “What am I supposed to be doing again?” I’m outside a town, I have weird weapons equipped and one of my party is dead.

This game pisses me off for all the reasons specified in this article. It’s a slimmed-down battle system that puts on airs of complexity at the worst times. I never feel like I get CP fast enough. Although battles aren’t random, there’s rarely opportunity to actually avoid them. The shuffling party and limited roles early on in the game. It’s making it difficult to keep going.

I think it’s funny how no one has seen any parallels between FFXIII’s bid for accessibility and the Persona series’ change in its 3rd and 4th installments. Whereas Persona 2 was a fascinating but unwieldy behemoth of variables and punishing boss fights intended only for those who knew what they were doing, Persona 3 was much more simplified. The story was linear, transitions were smoother, your allies’ decisions in combat were controlled by customizable AI, and there was a button that displayed your enemies’ stats and elemental strengths.

I was having a great time with FFXIII for a while. I totally got that Modern Warfare feel of constant satisfaction in constantly progressing forward, and I was having fun finding the best combination of characters and paradigms to deal with each possible team of enemies. But once my roommates got Red Dead Redemption and Super Mario Galaxy 2 I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to run through this hallway until I get to the next cutscene. I think I’d rather play a VIDEO GAME.”

I’ll go back and play it (since all of my friends already gave up on it), and I’ll probably like a lot of it, but there is one thing that I’ll never forgive – that you have to reset your party’s paradigm any time you switch in a new character. Assembling your paradigms is the crux of combat, and in a game that seems to want to cut down on superfluous micromanagement, the fact that your paradigms for each party isn’t saved seems unfathomably counter-intuitive.

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