I've been reading various articles on Gamasutra and other sites about Final Fantasy XIII and found myself somewhat concerned about the "where's the RPG gone?" sentiment. I couldn't bring myself to buy it after all the negative press, so I waited a few weeks and finally rented it to see for myself just what had become of the series. I wanted to see just what RPG systems still existed and what had been taken away. I wanted to see if I would actually enjoy it or not.
I was initially puzzled by the fact that I didn't get any gil or XP from fights, though I found out later that the entire level-up process was merely gated and presented to players later on in the game, just like everything else you take for granted as basic core game systems. The concept of "gating" content in RPGs isn't new, though FFXIII has taken it to a radical extreme that leaves me with a somewhat bitter taste.
Through the gates (of content).
For example, the traditional RPG "gates" the power of your characters in a strict sense by only providing gear apropriate for this stage of the adventure and by reducing (or eliminating) XP gain from monsters that are too weak so you can't level up too much before progressing onward. FFXIII takes the XP gating to a whole new extreme by limiting how much XP your characters can gain at any given moment; or, more precisely, how much XP they can spend on improvements.
All of this wasn't really that bad for me though, since I've never been one to level up TOO far ahead of where I should be. Still, I like to level up and improve things, and I'm prone to back tracking and killing some extra monsters to give myself a little bit of an edge over the next challenge. It was in just one of these moments that I discovered what was completely lacking in FFXIII: attrition.
See, in classical RPGs, HP and MP levels carry from fight to fight. If you take 10 points of damage in one fight, you've got 10 points less for the next. Regular monster fights in the traditional RPG model aren't designed to be life-or-death struggles; the player is EXPECTED to win. There isn't an expectation of serious challenge when you run into your first slime straight out of the starting castle. Instead, these monsters are meant to whittle away at your resources. 10 HP here, 10 HP there, eventually you're running low on HP and healing items, and you have to make a decision: do you go back to town, or do you press onward?
This use of attrition is what makes RPGs a strategically interesting experience. You may not know how much further you need to go, you may not know if tougher monsters lie ahead. Every time you backtrack to heal, you fight more monsters, gain more treasure and XP, and become a little bit more powerful so you can progress further on your next attempt. The "attempt" in a traditional RPG is a trip from a town to a dungeon and back to town, "failure" means you didn't clear the dungeon, even if you never lost any battles. Most importantly, "failure" meant progress; you didn't clear the dungeon, but you did get XP and loot.
However, attrition has been eliminated from modern RPGs. In Dragon Age: Origins, in Final Fantasy XIII, even in World of Warcraft you heal to full automatically after each fight. There is no slow whittling down of health, no draining of supplies, no attrition. Every fight, therefore, is challenging only in so far as you might die in that fight. And death, in an RPG, is a terrible, horrible, never-to-be-repeated experience. You get nothing from death. You don't get XP, you don't get loot, and, in many cases, you even rewind all the way back to your prior save point, losing progress. Failure in an RPG, in the absence of attrition, is un-progress.
Of course, it doesn't have to be un-progress. In World of Warcraft, if you fail to kill a boss, you simply come back to life and try again. This sense of "re-try" failure has hit in full force in FFXIII: every time you get game over, you get to re-try. No progress, no loss of progress, just endless repetition until you happen to punch in the correct series of attacks or get the right set of random numbers generated to win.
The absense of attrition in an RPG eliminates the strategic decision of pushing forward or withdrawing and replaces it with a tactical (at best) or purely random (at worse) series of encounters, each entirely self-contained and disconnected from the rest of your overall adventure.
But it's not just RPGs.
Incidentally, I've noticed the same absence of attrition in many other games. Traditional RTS games, where you build up forces and win based on managing your units in the face of limited resources, have been whittled down to tactical games ("real time chess") where you control the same set of forces through a series of challenges. Win or lose, your forces remain the same; each conflict has no lasting effect on your forces or your chances for continued success. Dawn of War II is a prime example of this sort of RTS conversion, as your squad of four units remains a squad of four units no matter how well (or how badly) you play each mission.
First person shooters have also eschewed attrition, at least in so far as amunition usage used to apply limits to your tactics in shooters. Doesn't anyone remember when you only had 5 shots with your BFG, and you had to make each one count? When you picked up a clip of anti-personnel bullets on the Vaun Braun and you had to decide which of the Many to unload them into? When you were bearing down on a squad of X-Wings and you looked at your concussion missle counter, trying to guess whether or not you could take them down with your lasers alone before they blew up the shuttles you were escorting? Ammunition-based attrition, of going for the "easy win" now or saving it for a tougher situation, was an exciting and thrilling part of gaming for me.
So where has attrition gone? Is it simply a silly mechanic that modern designs have eliminated as unnecessary?
Or is it, as I feel, a source of interesting decisions in games? Is it wrong for me to wish for attrition to make a triumphant return in game design?