Dissidia and the Development Problem

One of the major problems with modern video game design is that it’s inbred. That is, you’ve got teams that make third-person shooters and nothing but third-person shooters, teams that make RPGs and nothing but RPGs, teams that make plastic instrument games and nothing but plastic instrument games. The obvious advantage of this is that a team with experience in a genre knows its ins and outs and (hopefully) won’t make rookie mistakes.

I think we lose something, though, by forcing genres into ruts like this. What would happen if we took a team that normally worked exclusively in shooters and told them “make a 2-D platformer”? What if we took a fighting game team and set them to work on a turn-based RPG? I bet the game we’d get would be a lot different that the normal fare in those genres, and even if it wasn’t, you know, perfect, that different take would be something that could be built upon. I think companies and fans are too inured to stuff that’s “just part of the genre” to consider what could be done if it, like, suddenly wasn’t.

Dissidia is kind of like that. Square-Enix makes its bread almost exclusively in JRPGs these days, and yet Dissidia is a fast-paced 3-D fighting game that lacks a lot of the elements we’ve come to expect as part and parcel of the fighting game experience after twenty years of Street Fighter. However, the game’s RPG roots are still very evident, with lots of RPG trappings. I can get behind this 100% — the technical side of fighting games goes over my head, but give me some numbers to crunch and I’m right at home. Some of the aforementioned trappings (like equipment) are pretty superfluous and are only there as a legacy of the home series. Others — specifically levels — are not.

In Dissidia, each playable character starts at level 1. As they win fights, they earn experience, and their level goes up. As they level up, their stats go up, they can equip more skills, and they learn new moves.

That last one’s the biggy. Although characters can equip up to twelve moves in total — three Bravery and HP attacks each for both the ground and the air — they start with only six or seven, and learn a new one every five levels or so. Just knowing a move isn’t enough, though — you also have to equip it, which costs a resource called AP. Once you’ve had a skill equipped for a while, you “master” it and the number of AP it takes to keep that skill equipped is permanently reduced, allowing you to equip more skills at a time — but this can take dozens upon dozens of battles.

What this means is that all Dissidia characters start gimped. At level 1 you have only the vaguest of ideas how characters are supposed to be played and what their priority is. As you play them more, though, not only do you start to get a grasp on what the character is all about, but new skills and abilities are gradually dribbled in, allowing you to add them to your mental cache of options only once you’ve internalized what you’ve already got. I have no idea if this is actually true, but I’ve always envisioned high-level fighting game skill as the ability to decide, based on a single frame, whether to use medium punch or strong punch, and I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around that. At my core I’m a button-masher and a move-spammer — I start out trying to use all my moves and vary my attack patterns, but the moment the going gets rough I panic and start using my best move over and over. Having to raise your own character is good for breaking that habit, though, because every time you learn a new move you’re so sick of what you’ve already got that you’re falling all over yourself to use it every chance you get.

The problem arises in the way you end up raising your characters. The good guys, at least, end up gaining most of their levels over the course of the main story, and the main story is structured as a series of vignettes starring each of the characters. That is, you receive a character, play through their story for a while, then are handed a new character.

This completely destroys the development flow.

You can’t make the individual stories too long… because if a player gets stuck on a character he doesn’t like for hours and hours, he might just quit in frustration. (Cecil and Tidus’s chapters seemed absolutely interminable to me, but I doubt I spent any extra time in them.) However, what usually happens is that you’re handed a fresh character and fiddle around with them in complete bafflement for a while. Then you learn a few moves and start to really figure out what they’re about. Then you’ve worked out the really good moves and are starting to kick some ass, and you feel like you could take on the world… and it’s at exactly this point, every time, that the game takes away your character from you and hands you another scrub.

I just don’t think the concept of individual character stories is compatible with the kind of character progression RPGs are known for. The last game that bothered me in this same way was Clash of Heroes for the DS… but in that game, by the time you were finished with a character’s story, they were more or less done developing. Being forced to play as a peon again after raising an army of titans might be galling, but at least you’d seen everything the previous character could do. In Dissidia, you often feel like you’re just getting started with a character when it’s time to move on.

This is to say nothing of the villains, who don’t get a story mode and have to be raised in quickbattle.

The solution here is already in the game, I think: Parties. In a party, you’re carrying around multiple characters at once, and only the guy in front fights most of the time. In the story, most characters have a friend running around with them most of the time anyway (usually serving as their assist), so it would be easy to give the player more options on who they want to control. If I’m playing (say) Terra’s story but I hate her guts, I should be able to switch to the Onion Knight or Cloud for a while and let her gain experience passively.

Or you could write an actually good story that doesn’t require each character to go on an individual journey of self-discovery. That works too.

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