If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read. You may also wish to read the previous article. The featured image also doesn’t make any sense unless you see it in full, so here it is.
Like the battle system, pacing can make or break an RPG. It’s a very common gripe, especially for those new to the genre, that older RPGs have slow pacing. Take almost any Dragon Warrior game for example: you almost have to stop and grind to get the best equipment available at every single town in order to survive the next dungeon. In today’s story-focused RPG scene, that’s unforgivable. Now, to someone like myself, who grew up with such a structure, today’s “rush through the gameplay to get on with the story” is intolerable. Yeah, the story’s great (though to me, it usually isn’t; try playing Live-A-Live or Rudra no Hihou if you want a story with some actual depth), but I feel like I’m not getting any time to play the game part of the game. If I want a good story, I’ll read a book. At the time of my writing this, my gaming backlog is at 97 (144 if you count games I have to go back and finish with other characters, etc.); my backlog of books is 3 (6 if you count books of Sudoku puzzles). I think it’s pretty evident that I’m more interested in games than stories, especially when I’m playing a game. Again, I love a good story in a game, but it’s just the syrup; make the ice cream good first before you concentrate on the topping.
The toppings contain potassium benzoate…
Ranting aside, pacing needs to find a good balance, but it’s so much more than that. Pacing also needs to be consistent; I don’t think anyone likes breezing through a game, only to hit a brick wall final boss out of nowhere. Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai is a great example of a final boss that just stomped my stupidly over-leveled party. I also had to double my levels from where I’d fairly easily beaten the final boss of Dragon Quest 8 in order to stand a chance against the post-game boss gauntlet; that’s a lot of grinding. Likewise, I’ve heard many complain about struggling through a game only to sneeze at the final boss and have it die. The three of you out there that have played Guardian’s Crusade on the Playstation will recall a fairly challenging game whose final boss repeatedly spammed the everliving crap out of an attack that had a hit rate of approximately 15%. Big, floaty, spiky thing that breathes black smoke at nothing: my anticlimax.
There are two typical types of difficulty curves that work well in RPGs: an exponential curve and a zig-zag. The exponential curve is the ideal difficulty curve for any video game; it starts out easy and gets gradually harder as the game goes on, continuously challenging the player’s growing level of skill. The zig-zag, also intuitively named, is when there are particular dungeons or bosses that are more difficult than others, giving the player some challenges, but a nice stroll afterwards to give him or her a break. Of course, the curve designed by the developers might not necessarily reflect the player’s experience. In every game, video or otherwise, the more you play it, the better you get at it; practice makes permanent and all that. The thing is, when RPG elements are involved (like, say, in an RPG), the characters themselves also become better at the game. You might be able to anticipate the player’s proficiency with a game at a certain point, but maybe the player decided to grind a little longer, making an otherwise difficult section very easy. To a certain extent, it’s up to the player (and the player’s patience) to decide the difficulty curve. Some players might even do low-level runs through a game, beating it at a level much lower than the developers had anticipated. So, while it can be argued that an intended difficulty curve can be made quite irrelevant, for the purposes of this analysis and the games involved, we’re going to assume that the player is following the suggested level structure.
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria is probably the worst example of pacing in any RPG I’ve ever played. I had to stop and grind for days on end at times, and for something with only a few chapters, lots of cliffhangers, and a heavy focus on story, that’s a very poor design choice. Part of the problem was the aforementioned broken battle system, which I found myself circumventing by over-leveling. The final boss was especially ludicrous because his defense was so incredibly high that only your main character could damage him more than 1 HP at a time, and not by nearly enough to make up for an entire party of 4. To make matters worse, you don’t even get that main character until right before you fight him, so the character in question has absolutely no chance to build up to make up for your other party members being completely useless. Of course, you can get that member in your party, or so I’ve heard, by making it all the way through the optional dungeon and defeating a large number of optional super bosses, each of whom are even harder. I wouldn’t know; by that point, I was so disgusted with the whole thing that I just wanted to end it as soon as possible.
Vay is another example of bad pacing. It’s very consistent throughout the game, but when the standard is spending several days grinding before each dungeon, it becomes tiring. The levels progress very slowly, and you have to advance quite a few of them in order to just survive. The old “grind until you can afford the best equipment” trick won’t get your levels high enough to survive, either. It’s a great example of a game with an excellent style and a well-written script (with some legitimately funny moments; a rarity) that was totally ruined by poor pacing. The battle music being reminiscent of a dance aerobics class from the early ’90s didn’t help to ease the strain of grinding, either. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon: Another Story had a pacing problem, too. You start out pathetically weak, getting ripped to shreds by the weakest encounter. Each of your Sailor Senshi are alone, so this becomes an even bigger problem. All of a sudden, you find two accessories that turn you into a goddess, rendering the former juggernauts a helpless pile of slurry. Fast forward to a later chapter, during which everyone has her accessories, and you’re treated to a boss gauntlet. These bosses are incredibly punishing, you cannot heal between them, and if you saved at the beginning of the chapter, you are unable to go back and grind to make them bearable. Enjoy starting over from the beginning.
Esper Dream 2 is not technically an RPG; it’s an Action-Adventure with RPG elements. However, it is one of the best examples of perfect pacing in a game with levels that I can imagine. There aren’t that many levels to begin with, they progress at a decent pace, and it’s never much of a chore to stop and grind. Part of this, of course, is that the battle system is fun; it’s basically an overhead Zelda with guns when you’re fighting. It’s a great example of how a good battle system can compliment pacing.
Legend of Dragoon is another example of a game that makes grinding more fun with its engaging battle system. You’re not just taking a mental nap while running back and forth, pressing the confirm button over and over again; you’re closely watching every character’s moves, timing the hits in order to deal maximum damage. It wasn’t just the battle system that made it tolerable, though; it had multiple goals to achieve. Most RPGs have only one secondary goal to leveling your characters up, and that’s usually acquiring enough gold to buy all of the best equipment in the current town. That works quite well, because it gives you a more tangible goal with more easily perceived benchmarks than just “get strong enough”. How do you know when you’re strong enough? Unless you’re playing a second time (at least!) or are using a guide with level suggestions, you don’t. Having those secondary goals makes progress a lot less trial-and-error. With Legend of Dragoon, you have the Additions to level up, and even Dragoon Levels to build up, which gives you more benchmarks, and that is fortunate, since money is very rarely a problem. Building skills, classes, money, or what have you makes grinding levels a lot more bearable, especially to the more neurotic, number-focused of us.
A good place to put a grind session is at the beginning of an RPG. Doing so causes the player to become acquainted with the ins and outs of the game. The experience is also still fresh exciting, so grinding is not yet tedious. Likewise, the end of an RPG, while a common place to put a grind session is a poor one. You’re at the climax – the thrilling conclusion – the last thing you want to do while the world’s exploding and raining demons is to stop and build your levels again. The best way to handle the rest of the game is to break the grinding up into little bits; short sessions separated by time spent exploring and dungeon crawling. Don’t make it an overwhelming chore, but don’t ease up and let the player become lazy and self-entitled, either; it happens even to me.
Now, there are other solutions to player boredom that have been explored over the years. A particularly interesting approach to pacing was Legend of the Ghost Lion. How to keep the player from getting bored with grinding levels? Remove experience points altogether! That’s right, Legend of the Ghost Lion doesn’t allow you to gain levels from battle; it hides them in treasure chests, so you cannot over-level. This keeps the game challenging throughout. This, however, poses the very problem it attempts to solve: the difficulty curve makes the game quite frustrating. The difficulty curve is well-mapped, but with the inability to grow beyond a certain point, it is inappropriate to the game in question. By the end, every single random encounter (which, if you‘ve ever played an NES RPG, you know is a frequent occurrence) is a knock-down, drag-out fight for your life. It’s good to have a challenge, but when every single battle is like that, it becomes tedious and tiring before you even reach the dungeon itself, not to mention that this is before the days of save points and heal points, debilitating you greatly by the time you reach the final boss. It’s challenging, sure, but not very fun; to me, fun should be the goal of every game.
Another solution has been to remove levels altogether and have the characters’ stats increase independently of each other. If you hit a bad guy, you get stronger; take damage, and your defense and HP increase; use certain spells and weapons to use them more effectively; dodge attacks, and your speed increases; etc. It’s an interesting concept, and somewhat realistic, but as you might recall, realism isn’t necessarily fun. Final Fantasy 2 was the first game to use this concept, and it was later used throughout the SaGa series (the first three of which are known as Final Fantasy Legend in North America). It was because of this system that Final Fantasy 2 is my least favorite of the games in the series that I have played (from the beginning, up to and including 9). While it is a unique idea, some stats are difficult to build, and the most efficient method to doing so becomes absolutely ludicrous. Take your party into an area with weak enemies, defeat all but one of them, and proceed to club the living snot out of your own party members. Interesting? Yes. Fun? Depends upon your definition; I enjoy being lit on fire for brief periods of time, and I didn’t find it fun. The SaGa series deals with this a little better, particularly in SaGa Frontier, the series’s seventh installment; stats are tied to different methods of attack, and using them builds said stats. Swords are tied to a few, guns to others, spells to others still, and there’s a bit of overlap, making it a more sensible option, but one that caters to how you use each character.
That’s for leering at my 8-bit cleavage, you stupid… Guy!
Chrono Cross also did the “stats leveling independently of one another” thing, but took a different approach. You cannot gain stats most of the time; the biggest boosts that come to you will be from boss fights. Defeating a boss also nets you another star, which caps out at ninety-nine; you can acquire a total of forty-eight per playthrough. While stars represent the number of summons you can use without staying at an inn, getting a new star also enables your characters to gain a new set of stat boosts, which happen after regular battles. They will grow for only so long before the stat gains stop, forcing you to wait until you defeat the next boss to grow again. It evens out grinding quite a bit and eliminates a lot of the guesswork involved in determining whether or not you’re strong enough for the next boss. Money is also rarely an issue, so grinding is something that happens in small spurts on your first few playthroughs and not at all in subsequent runs. The game is very streamlined in this regard, and were it not for a few drawn-out scenes – like a rock opera that actually managed to be extremely boring; how do you even do that!? – it would be one of the best-paced RPGs ever crafted.
Pacing is not only very important in an RPG, but much more difficult than in most other genres. For Platformers, Brawlers, Fighters, Racers, Shooters (both of the Horizontally- or Vertically-Scrolling kind and of the First- or Third-Person variety), and even Puzzlers, pacing essentially writes itself; it’s all action, and the difficulty curve is more the concern. With something slower and more deliberate, and with more diverse gameplay, like Action-Adventures and RPGs, you have more of a dilemma, forcing developers to think about how quickly the players will want to progress and balancing that carefully throughout the game.
Game Title (Alternate title: Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date
Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai. Hot B, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/23/1993.
Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon: Another Story. Angel/Bandai, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/22/1995.
Chrono Cross. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 11/18/1999.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King (Dragon Quest 8: Sora to Umi to Daichi to Norowareshi Himegimi; Japan). Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 11/27/2004.
Esper Dream 2: Aratanaru Tatakai. Konami, Nintendo Entertainment System, 06/26/1992.
Final Fantasy 2. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/17/1988.
Guardian’s Crusade (Knight and Baby; Japan). Tamsoft, Sony Playstation, 09/23/1998.
Legend of Dragoon. SCEI, Sony Playstation, 12/02/1999.
Legend of the Ghost Lion (White Lion Densetsu; Japan). Kemco, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/14/1989.
Live-A-Live. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/02/1994.
Rudra no Hihou. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/05/1996.
SaGa Frontier. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/11/1997.
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation 2, 06/22/2006.
Vay (Vay: Ryuusei no Yoroi; Japan). Sims, Sega CD, 10/22/1993.