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Playing through the Final Fantasy Legend series made me think about optimization in relation to game difficulty or game design. This could be applied to other places - think roleplaying scenario designs or character creation.

To define optimization, I mean a playstyle or character build or something of the sort that results in a clearly better result. This may be an unintended bug related thing.

Game designers tend to use a couple of ways to handle optimization of characters. Some games ignore optimization potentials or put in ways to delay access to optimized characters. Wizardry games, for example, have a high difficulty, but with time and luck, you can build incredibly powerful characters. Some games assume you are optimizing your characters. An example of this could be Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne and the Matador boss. This battle forces you to be prepared to handle the game systems and the weakness systems. Some games attempt to hide the systems or make optimization highly situational. An example of this could be the complex interlocking systems and randomization in SaGa games. In the Persona series, elemental weaknesses mean that you may have a powerful character, but they're still very much in danger in certain situations.

Since optimizing a character in modern games tends to involve almost obsessive puttering, why worry about it? Well, if the game ignores optimization, you may end up with highly unbalanced characters. If the plot then forces you to use a character for plot reasons, then the game may have an unintentionally difficult area. If the optimized stats are exponential or delayed, players may find out that they have to grind or change their character build to handle the game. Applying this to a role playing scenario, if the best character is a naked swordswoman, you're going to have a party of naked swordswomen running around. If this isn't the theme you want, then you need to plan how to reward playing the scenario the way it's intended to be played. On the other hand, if your scenario means that naked swordswomen end up spending most of the scenario mucking out stables, then people will feel like they're getting punished for playing a powerful set up and like they had no way of knowing why the plot's done that way. You can apply this to a novel too. If your character is constantly useless in conflicts or powerful in conflicts, and this character isn't the focus of the novel or boring, then the character focus isn't optimized.

If a game assumes you will optimize your characters, then it may require mind reading or prescience. This could range from the mostly harmless "steal items from all bosses" to the "if you don't have a knight with resist fire, you'll die or get the bad ending." In Final Fantasy V, you can get powerful equipment from bosses. If you forget to get the items, or have bad luck with stealing them, then you're a little weaker, but it's really not that bad in the long run. In Etrian Odyssey, certain bosses or areas require certain character builds. Certain character builds have certain skills that are far stronger than others. The one true way to do something is poor plotting. You may feel skilled for discovering it, but playing a different way only increases the difficulty. It may also feel highly non-immersive. A novel with a plot that has one and only one way of handling situations may feel artificial or - well - game like.

If a game tries to sabotage optimization or obfuscate it - well - Sabotaging can be annoying. Having a boss attack characters strongly for using defensive spells without warning may be a clever surprise, but it can also be infuriating if the player doesn't connect why the attack is happening. This happens in Etrian Odyssey II. In Final Fantasy V, Omega (a secret extra boss) is healed by some electrical attacks and hurt by others. Obfuscation can be equally annoying. Final Fantasy III has a skill point system that's never explained in the game. In effect, it amounts to a new Job Level the battle after 6 to 8 actions are taken. If you fight a hard boss in an optimal way, you'll get less benefits than if you do terribly since your job levels are entirely based on actions selected. If you're too weak at the end of the game, the best thing to do is to go to the first area, and guard while goblins gnaw your kneecaps.

In the end, optimization is a mix of breaking game systems to create a more powerful character. There's ways to mediate how powerful that makes a character, and sometimes they make the game more fun to play. Other times, attempting to prevent grinding or powering up a character results only in frustration. Understanding the subtle line between difficulty and letting someone brute force a solution is tricky. It requires a delicate touch to hint at a clever solution versus a brute forced one, and forcing someone to find the clever one can make the game less fun to play. Punishing a player for not picking 'your' gameplay style can also damage the fun of a game.

I suppose my distaste for people forcing you to play a more difficult scenario because they can is also why I dislike unpleasant plots. Forcing a player to pick an unpleasant or unpalatable or 'edgy' action to advance the plot runs the risk of having the player simply decide to quit. An example of this would be Etrian Odyssey forcing you to do morally dubious actions to advance the plot. Another example is the Infocom game, Infidel, where completing the game requires you to leave the character in worse shape than he started. Forcing a player to grind or face almost overwhelming odds doesn't break mimesis as much, because cleverly defeating a challenge or grinding to crush it doesn't require a change in the motivations or characterization of the characters. An example of this could be the tendency to make you grind for a while to handle new enemies as soon as a boat is available in Dragon Quest games. Obfuscating optimized options behind complex systems or memorization results in baroque cruft encrusting the gameplay. The roulette wheels in Unlimited Saga, for example, just seem to me to be a constant distraction from attempting to play the game. Sabotaging optimization is not so bad, since while it's still annoying, it can be a triumphant feeling to plan ahead and find your planning to be worth it. On the other hand, it can make the player play something far too cautiously, but that too can be immersive.

What do you all think?

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