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Defining skill through mechanics.

I examine the use of game mechanics to define the skill level of the player.
Whenever we talk about games we can give a rough estimate to how complex the game is and how well certain types of gamers can learn it. It is far easier to learn Civilization 4 than it is to learn Dominions 3 for example, but there is another element of complexity that I want to talk about: game mechanics. When you play a game even if you understand it you can play the game at different levels of understanding. Many games that have multi system mechanics allow the player to pick and choose what to focus on and grow at their own rate, or a game that gives everything to the player at once but allows the player to learn as they go. In essence two different players can play the same game differently depending on the mechanics they want to focus on. For this entry I'm going to explain this concept and to start with here are the 3 broad categories I've come up with:

Basic: You're playing the game using the main system and that's it. No tweaks or ancillary stuff, a brute force method of playing really. For some games this is the easiest way to get through the main part of the game, for some it is the hardest.

Moderate: Now you're starting to thumb through those other systems, spending time outside of the main system to improve characters or see what all that other stuff is about. You are starting to see how the various subsystems connect and make use of them. You've found certain tricks in the systems or game mechanics that have worked their way into your routine. For most players this is where they end up eventually.

Advanced:With a firm understanding of the mechanics and systems you are now knee deep in stats and altering your character (or characters) for optimal efficiency. Yes this is the level of play where min/maxing comes in. It's no longer about just getting through each part of the game; it's about getting through each part of the game the best way possible. You know how to use most if not all the tools available to your advantage. Most often you will not reach this point on your own during your first play through without help from a strategy guide. You know the ins and outs of the game play and can safely say that you have either master it or come close to. This plateau is usually reserved for the hard core fans of the game.

Now a few points I would like to discuss regarding this categorization:

1. It is not wrong/bad to be playing at anything below advance play. In fact the game's main story or play through should be possible to win by playing the game at its basic level. Now we are not getting into the realm of difficulty during this discussion.

2. The complexity of the game has no bearing on these three groupings. A game as complex as Solium Infernum has mechanics that can be described as "basic" and even a game like Super Mario Bros has a mechanic in the advanced section. When I talk about these three groupings, the mechanics are relative to each other in their respective games.

Just to prove it here is in my opinion how this grouping works for Super Mario Bros:

Basic: Running to the right and jumping to reach the end.

Moderate: Using power ups and finding invisible blocks to find secret areas.

Advanced: Maximizing jump distance by getting a small running start even on one block wide platforms, also learning the art of making one block wide platform jumps.

Genres like shooters and plat formers make it hard to differentiate between the three as their systems are so interconnected to each other. There is one genre though that is set up so beautifully for this kind of talk: the Strategy Role Playing Game or SRPG.

The SRPG, a crazy concoction of strategy titles and JRPGs give players unit by unit control like in a strategy title and backs it up with managing equipment and stats of a RPG. Recently I started playing Valkyria Chronicles for the PS3 which is a great example but I'm not far enough in to start analyzing it however I do have one of the best SRPGS to talk about. Disegea: Hour of Darkness for the Ps2 was Nippon Ichi's first smash hit in the US. Disegea was excellently designed in my opinion and is the best example I can talk about for this entry. What made Disegea so fascinating is all the systems the player can muck around in besides the main one of squad based combat. Here are in no particular order the other systems you can play with:

1. Geo Panel system: Colored tiles can have unique affects depending on special shapes that can be placed on them. Also clearing the entire map of colored squares can give you a huge item bonus.

2. Dark Assembly: You can attempt to pass laws that can affect the game, anything from unlocking new bonus stages to making enemies tougher. There is even a law to increase the experience enemies will give by 3 times for the next map. You can also bribe officials to vote for you and if the law fails you can fight the vetoing senators to overturn them.

3. Item World: Every item in the game (and I do mean EVERY) has a randomize dungeon inside of it. These dungeons are the perfect way to level up your characters, practice the geo panel system and recover specialists. Creatures who once found can be moved to other items to provide a variety of bonuses. Also each floor of the dungeon you clean out will improve the stats of the item, turning bad-ass weapons into godly weapons.

4. Character growth: you can transmigrate your army into either more powerful versions of their class or into other classes. Changing classes allow them to learn skills usually unavailable to them and improving their version will give them higher stats. A good upgrade can see a level 1 character with as much power as a level 50 character.

5. Power level: this section is reserve for the advance play as you learn the most efficient way to power level as there are a lot of levels to up in Disegea.

The beauty of Disegea is that the game comes right out and tells you that you don't need to do everything mention to beat the game. They are there however if you want to get deeper into the mechanics or to take a break from the main game. Going back to my categories, basic is just getting through the game with a few required romps into the item world. Moderate is picking a few of those systems to play with and advance is going right down the list using them all to your advantage. Granted the post game features require a mastery of these systems but that is why they are there, to test the gamer into utilizing all the features of the game. The kicker is that for those that from the beginning use these systems, they will absolutely break the main game in their favor which the designers are fully aware of. Disegea is an example of where this works, but it's time to look at the other end of the spectrum.

Knights in the Nightmare for the Nintendo DS should have been a game play dream for me. The game has multiple, multiple systems to delve into. Game play that I haven't seen before in a game: it is a SRPG mixed with an arcade shooter. It features over 100 tutorial screens to show you everything about the game. So why haven't I managed to get through more than 7 maps of the game?

Going back to Disegea, the game was designed around having all these systems in place and allowing the player the choice to use them. In KiN every system is so intertwine with each other that you need to understand the majority of them to have a shot. The game also makes no concessions about what is important or not, hitting the player over the head with numerous systems. Here is a quick example; every class in the game has a different attack range, which depending on the setting of the world will be different. Only two classes can actually pick up and move themselves while fighting but each time you use someone or attack with them, their Soul level decreases. Once it runs out they are permanently gone from the game. You can raise their level up to give them a small increase or fuse two characters together to transfer soul points.

That whole description is something that you need to understand from the start or you will back yourself into a corner later on. The best part, there are still numerous systems to talk about which I still don't know all the tricks of the game and I actually read all 100 + tutorial screens. Somewhere hidden in KiN is an amazing game that probably could have won a few game of the year awards, but to actually play the game well I think someone needs to make a 4 week course for this. I'm honestly shocked that Double Jump Books never made a guide for this, although it wouldn't be a guide so much as it would be a tome of knowledge.

"Easy to learn, difficult to master" is a mantra of many of the best games out there. By breaking down your game systems in to skill levels you can tailor the experience to give players a way to improve and award those that stick with it, without punishing the newcomers of your game.


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