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The right degree of masochism in game design.

Continuing from my last post on accessibility, post game content can be an effective tool at rewarding expert players however there is more to it then just creating an impossible challenge.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

May 13, 2011

8 Min Read

When it comes to game design most examinations are based on the general content the player will experience in the game: the tutorial, level design, final boss etc. Today I'm going to talk about post game content or where the gloves come off.

Post game content is simply game content that is either unlocked after the game is completed or is an optional challenge greater than the last section of the normal game. One of the reasons why we don't see a lot of analysis on this is that most gamers will not get this far. This is for the gamers who want 100% completion and many games don't even include post game content.

One important distinction has to be made for this entry, harder difficulty unlocks don't count as post game content in my opinion as it is just the same game-play the player has done already but harder. There are two sides I want to examine: the challenges themselves and the possible rewards that go with them.

Let's start with challenge and the design mindset that goes with it. At this point in the game as a designer it's no longer about teaching the player about the game. This is the time for the levels and challenges that were considered too hard for regular content.

For example in the various Mario games starting from Super Mario World, there were sections left out of the regular game and saved for post game. In Mario World for those that managed to complete the Star World they would unlock the "Extra World" where the designers set up some of the hardest levels in the game. When Mario went 3D there were levels and challenges set up that the player didn't have to do to beat the game but were there for a greater challenge.

Most often gamers will find post game content in RPGs as that is the easiest genre in my opinion to set up this kind of content. The reason is that RPGs are about stats, if you know the possible stat values for a high level character in your RPG you'll know where to set post game bosses at to deliver a challenge.

Besides RPGs, Roguelikes are also popular with post game content. The Shiren the Wanderer series are known for their post game content. For a genre that is about a high degree of difficulty it is amazing how much they really hold back for post game content. In the last Wanderer game for the Wii, after finishing the main story an additional story unlocks along with several dungeons including a 1000 floor dungeon. No I didn't make that last one up there was an actual 1000 floor dungeon in the game.

Another aspect of this is really going all out with your level design. Alan Wake last year released two DLC packs that take place after the main game and I enjoyed them more than the regular content because the designers got creative with their challenges and level design. One of the reasons was that people who were buying the DLC were those that have beaten the game and already knew all the tricks up the designer's sleeves.

One of the challenges of designing post game content is how hard should it be. Going back to RPGs because they are stat based it can be easy to create something too difficult. In Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga the final optional boss has a skill that does more damage than your maximum health which is just a pain to fight.

You also want to be careful about how "one way" the content is designed around. In Etrian Odyssey the post game involves boss fights with dragons. Each dragon has a powerful elemental attack that hits your entire group and in most cases will kill everyone in one hit. The only way to survive outside of spending hours grinding out to the level cap is to have a defender in your party that can cast spells to null the damage each turn.

Both Digital Devil Saga's optional boss and the final optional boss of Etrian Odyssey are designed around having a set list of commands it will follow during the battle forcing the player into their own set routine to stand a chance. The problem that I have with this design is that it is no longer about challenging the player and instead about forcing the player to do one thing.

One the advantages of post game content is that it can be used a way of both rewarding and challenging your expert players without outright punishing moderate gamers in the regular content. In both Super Mario Galaxy titles, while the main challenges for the most part were easy the designers really went all out with the additional content such as the comet challenges which altered the levels in a variety of ways. One of the most challenging sections in SMG 1 was the purple coin challenge taking place on a planet shaped like Luigi's head.

Moving on let's talk about rewarding the player. There are two types of rewards that can be offered to the player. First are in game rewards such as powerful items. Many RPGs save the most powerful weapons, spells and equipment for rewards for going through the toughest sections of the post game.

Personally I'm not a fan of this type of reward because it feels like a hollow victory. If the player gets the best gear in the game by beating the hardest enemies in the game, then what is left for the player to use it on? One of the problems that I'm running into with Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together is that I’m not feeling motivated to go through it.

I've already gotten my dream team together and any new class unlocks from the post game would require more time spent getting them up to speed. Due to the game design there are no radically different units to fight other then the final boss so I'm not encountering anything that I haven't already seen before.

In my opinion if you are going to have ultimate equipment in your game then it should be available in the regular content. With the Final Fantasy titles there are always powerful bosses set up in the regular content that has the "ultimate weapon" for each character. Granted these fights in most cases are harder than the final boss and make the last boss trivial but I think that's fine to reward the player that way for taking down these enemies.

There are cases where having better equipment saved for post game can work out. If the post game consists of multiple difficult encounters then it can be worthwhile to have equipment as reward for the first challenges the player runs into. Going back to the Shin Megami Tensei franchise each game has several bosses hidden away for the player to find. Beating the early ones usually unlocks unique skills or demons that the player can use against the other encounters.

Moving on the second type of reward is challenge or achievement base. Going back to the theme I mentioned in the last entry, expert players can be rewarded with harder content. With Shiren the Wanderer the designers know that their fans want a greater challenge then the main game so they set up the additional challenges to test the player.

In Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne: While the game is on the harder side to begin with there is a massive optional dungeon set up for the player to explore. If the player wants to get a secret ending they'll have to go through it and find and defeat powerful optional bosses in the main game.

Going back to my last entry on accessibility, the post game can be used as a storage place for the hardest sections of your game. Whenever I play a game I really like I want to spend as much time playing it as possible and that means going through all the content. I am fine with designers making things easy for the normal game and really cutting loose for the post game.

Expert players like to see everything there is in a game and there is a certain ego boost for getting through really hard sections. Beating Super Meat Boy was more of a personal achievement for me then actually earning the achievement in game. Being recognized for beating these sections can be a reward itself, in the Shiren the Wanderer series, there is an achievement log that fills up with each ordeal you get through but the log only exists in the game itself as the Wii doesn't have achievements or trophies.

The use of post game content is a great way to still deliver a challenge to the players who want it without overwhelming those that aren't ready. For the truly masochistic you can always have difficult games with even harder content set up. While I was able to beat Super Meat Boy I failed at getting through the bonus world that unlocks after the main game.

Another distinction that I want to make is that post game content by default doesn't have to be made incredibly difficult or give a huge reward. In some cases you can reward the player with something different instead. The ultimate reward for beating the extra world in Super Mario World was a sprite change on all the enemies and a different color palette for the world map. With The World Ends With You, after beating the game you unlock a humorous side story taking place in a parallel dimension, but to balance things out it also features a super tough optional final boss.

I've yet to actually complete that 1000 floor dungeon from Shiren the Wanderer but if I somehow manage to do that I will be throwing a celebratory party.


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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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