Being Underpowered

As someone who plays a lot of role-playing video games, I often come across a particular question: “when should I be facing this enemy?”

Since a lot of these RPGs allow the player to go through at roughly their own pace, allow players to try and retry encounters with different strategies, and are often not linear in how players explore the world, this question comes up fairly frequently. Because if you allow players to explore the world as they see fit, they’re going to end up encountering enemies that are too strong. Not in the sense that the enemies are poorly designed or incapable of being defeated. Rather, in the sense of “this enemy is supposed to be for later.”

Now one of the things I love about games is when they allow players to ignore the “supposed to” part of that equation. You can go into a fight severely underpowered and come out victorious if you know what you’re doing. So putting in tough content that players can stumble across is fine. Players can choose whether they want to try anyway, or just ignore it for now and come back later.

But important to all of this is that there is a clear message of what the player is “supposed to” be doing.

And so I want to use this essay to talk about the importance of messaging encounters. In order for players to make decisions, they need information, and often that information may be lacking. It is useful for players and designers alike to think about what a common language would look like to communicate about what is expected of a player, while still allowing that player to make a decision for themself.

Player and Monster Strength

Imagine that you’re fighting a boss in a game. The boss is really tough. Your attacks seem to be doing little damage, the boss seems to be able to take out much of your health with one hit, and getting anywhere just takes forever.

So what do you do in response to these facts?

It’s possible that there’s a gimmick you’re missing. Maybe the battle requires you to use a particular mechanic that you’ve missed. Maybe you were supposed to come in with a particular item that makes the boss weaker.

Or it’s possible that there’s a strategic solution. Maybe you need to be more aggressive, or more defensive, or make better use of skills, or any number of possibilities. The point being that you’re supposed to be able to win, and the error lies in the fact that you’re not properly making use of the game’s systems.

But what if the answer was that you were severely underpowered? You’re doing everything right, but you basically can’t win because you didn’t spend enough time fighting weaker enemies?

Let us set aside the extent to which a game is designed around such systems. Our focus for now is simply going to be on how all of these concepts are communicated to the player given the systems already built into the game.

If the player runs into this problem, the player needs some way of knowing that they are too weak. Without that information, the player is likely going to keep trying and get increasingly frustrated because they believe that the problem lies in the fact that they are simply playing incorrectly – if they just figured out the correct strategy, then they would win.

Now important is if the game provides no information, then it is the game’s fault for the player’s frustration. Only if the game does provide this information in a way that makes sense does it become the player’s fault.

But herein lies the problem: there’s not exactly a good language that has been developed around this problem. By “language” here I mean some form of communication in the game that helps to convey roughly how stronger a player should be when facing a given enemy.

To take an example, imagine levels. Role-playing games often rely upon levels – you fight enemies, gain experience, gain levels, and as you gain levels you become more powerful. But in many cases levels may not be a one-to-one correspondence to power. A creature that is Level 5 in a game could be rather weak, or quite strong, depending on the game’s systems. And whether a Level 5 enemy is dangerous for the player could be dependent upon those same systems. Likewise, relative strength is not always going to be clear. In one game, a full party of team members as Level 8 might be able to easily destroy a bunch of Level 5 monsters. In another game, that same party might still require careful planning to get through the encounter.

I bring forth this example because levels would be the most obvious solution. Enemies have levels to denote their power, and as long as you are close to that enemy’s level, you should be fine. Of course, “close” is going to be a sticking point – in a system where the maximum level is 99, Level 2 might be close to Level 5, while in a game where the maximum level is 20, Level 2 might be dangerously underpowered. And so “levels” are a potential solution that only work if there is an understood language being spoken.

But I also bring up levels precisely because they are a way that some games try to communicate this kind of information to players. Japanese RPG games are most likely to employ these systems: enemies are leveled in such a way that you are effectively expected to be at particular levels against certain bosses. You know this fact because you can see the levels of those bosses, or the enemies surrounding them. Thus, if you walk into a fight at Level 30, and the boss is Level 40, maybe you should go back and kill some more enemies first.

And yet, even these systems are imperfect. Sometimes the game can be quite strict about those expectations – if the boss is Level 40, you better be Level 40 yourself. And sometimes the game can be looser with these requirements – sure, the boss is Level 40, but as long as you play smart you can beat it at Level 35. Which again makes for a language problem: what do the levels really mean? If they differ from game to game, then it doesn’t really matter – we always need to relearn whenever we pick up a new game, because we don’t have any real knowledge to draw from.

I’ve used leveling as an example because it is the easiest, but of course plenty of games don’t implement any kind of experience/leveling system. Instead, the player may gain strength in other ways – better equipment, some form of narrative ranking, etc. But as long as the player can encounter enemies that are too strong, the problem still exists.

And so it always brings us back to the question: how is the player supposed to know this? How is the game telling the player “you are too weak for this encounter,” and how is the player primed to understand that within the game’s systems? If the game provides no clues for the player – does not help the player realize that the solution to overcoming the hurdle in front of them lies in an entirely different direction than the one they are trying – then the game has fundamentally failed in one of its most important tasks.

Of course, these things only apply to games that allow for this kind of open exploration and encounters. In games which are linear, or where the player’s strength is constant, or even where enemies are always balanced to the player’s strength, these problems no longer matter. That does not mean that the solution to these problems is to make a linear game, or a game which allows for no character progression, or a game where enemies are always as strong as the player. It merely means that we only need to be thinking about this problem when it can occur.

Concluding Remarks

A game feeding you useful information – whether directly or subtly – can be easy to take for granted. Perhaps it was the case that you never really thought, for instance, that some games might use enemy levels to communicate how strong the designers expected you to be. Perhaps you often would spend so much time grinding that you never encountered the problem of being underpowered.

But when you do run into the problem, it can be extremely frustrating. And it is frustration that the player should not need to face. If the player is given help and ignores it entirely, that is on them. But if the game cannot or does not provide that help in the first place, it is not properly teaching the player how to play.

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