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You're Done. Let The Computer Play

After only about a year and a half of the game being released, I finally got my hands on Final Fantasy XII - the solo-play PS2 game after the Final Fantasy that was a MMORPG. I guess FFXII still pretty popular, as it's the #8 most referenced game of GameFaqs. In any case, I'm loving this game, long after I figured I was bored of RPGs.

Expand: You're Done.  Let The Computer Play

There's one main innovation I can thank for that, and it's this "gambit system." This system essentially allows you to earn "gambits" which are individual conditions in which a character will commit to some action to a given target.
The gambit customization screen.
This is basically a kind of simple procedural program you can customize on each character. First, choose the action to perform on the right (e.g. A "Protect" spell). Then, on the left, choose a "gambit" that determines target and condition. E.g. "Self: Hitpoints < 50%". The order from top to bottom is priority in which these actions are executed - you'll never reach the bottom while the top action conditions are right. A little assistance is provided by not throwing remedies when they're not needed, but enough freedom exists that you can configure your characters to do stupid things. The game received a bit of negative buzz prior to release due to the gambit system. What kind of crappy game is designed for you not to play it? Then the game was released and that negative buzz largely evaporated. Why? Because not playing computer RPGs rocks.

I've always been a computer RPG fan, but lately I've come to realize a fundamental problem with them: They offer a very simple battery of choices that, once you've figured out the conditions behind them, no longer involve you. For example, the choices a RPG provides can be simply categorized into the following:
  • Inflict damage on foe.
    Examples: Base attacks, magical attacks, fancy skill attacks.
    Conditions in which using them is right: This is the default state when nothing else needs doing. The only complication is unique resistances of the foe.
  • Remove damage from self or allies.
    Examples: Healing spells, regeneration spells, wards.
    Conditions in which using them is right: Damage has occurred or will while the spell is in effect.
  • "Buff" self or allies.
    Examples: Shielding spells, damage-boosting spells, attribute increasing spells.
    Conditions in which using them is right: Always, ideally before battle has started.
  • "Debuff" enemies
    Examples: Protection removal curses, damage-reducing spells, attribute reduction spells.
    Conditions in which using them is right: Always, ideally as opening moves at the start of the battle.
What we have here is basically a cheat sheet to win nearly every computer RPG assuming unlimited spellcasting potential (which most CRPGs - MMORPGs especially - have) with the exception of "mob control."

(That's actually a pretty meaty exception - perhaps the best strategy considerations RPGs offer is in taunting, holding back on nuking, and mob control spells - but even those actions can be boiled down to a matter of conditions.)

Just looking at that list of actions, what is best built to play these games - a human or a computer? Immediately, you may notice that things which should always be in effect might as well be passive, always-active abilities for all the good the player is going to get out of them. In terms of challenge, these actions are something anyone can master once the basic conditions are determined.

Progress Quest is a humorous parody of computer RPGs where you just enter your character's name, race, and class and then the game plays itself.

So, human or computer? I'm not going to be a total cynic and say that Progress Quest got it right by putting the computer in charge. Clearly, it didn't - that's not a game. Nor is it right to say that people should do everything. I'd say that the complete answer is not one or the other, it's both.

What the human does is use their creativity to figure out which action corresponds to which conditions. At that point, computers can play these games so much more effectively by perfectly remembering which conditions are right for which action.

What's more, the monotony of repetitive action is left to the uncaring machine, as it should be. A human being is bored by the simplicity behind doing something once it has been decided. This boredom may well be the very core of the which the "grind" is born.

Even in a pencil and paper RPG, this is how it done: The player decides, the character acts upon those decisions. After awhile, the GM no longer needs to ask, the action appropriate to the decision is implied. (Actually, in a good pencil and paper RPG session, the GM is going to challenge the players to think on their feet and come up with answers outside of the RPG mechanic itself.)

In the end, Final Fantasy XII's gambit system is not a controversial feature provided by the game craftsmen geniuses at Square-Enix. No, it's more than that, it's a long-overdue evolution of computer RPGs, the understanding that the player's involvement has ended after they've decided what needs to be done in which conditions.

I hate to say it, but those MMORPG bot users (dirty cheaters that they are) were on to something. It's time for MMORPG developers to provide everyone with extensive automation support from within the game. Not enough for players to share scripts - otherwise a person gets out of having to make decisions entirely and therefore is no player - but enough for them to define their own strategies and then allow their characters to execute them.

The new goal in computer RPGs should be to eliminate the monotony behind executing already decided upon action. I could probably swear off a ridiculously high amount of existing ones based on the criteria of whether or not they could play better with a script.

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