Platforms and Pitfalls: Dominant Strategy Mitigation

Platforms and Pitfalls, one of the best game design podcast just finished a great series on dominant strategy mitigation. You should listen to them. I’ve had thoughts about each episode but never wrote them down or discussed them individually, so here they all are in one big chunk.

Dominate strategies aren’t necessarily the best strategies overall, but something that is a safe and easy that players can fall into to complete a game. They can be bad because even though they’re effective, they often allow the player to progress through the game in a way that doesn’t engage with many of the systems the way the desingers had intended, and is often just boring. So it’s important to find ways to make players engage with the systems you design to the greatest possible extent.

The first episode is about Repetition Mitigation. My first memory of a game that had any sort of mechanic to deal with this was Uniracers. You do tricks to get speed boosts, but just doing the same trick repeatedly stops giving you as large of a boost. It was fairly simple to work around, I think you only had to cycle through three different tricks, but it still opened up my mind to the idea.
I’ve never played Scribblenauts but it sounds kind of fun. Puzzles having multiple solutions makes me think of Stacking and each of its puzzles having three different solutions, especially when they make the point that most point and click adventures usually only have one. I definitely understand the increased design challenges but I feel like there is a lot of room for more games to explore taking this kind of approach.
I still really need to buy a Switch and play Breath of the Wild. I think your understanding of what the system makes you do is right on. It reminds me of trying to play through the original Legend of Zelda without picking up the sword. That play through made me realize how overpowered the sword is compared to all of the other items in the game. Being able to push a button and do damage whenever you want is SO powerful. I will never take it for granted again. If you’ve never attempted this, it’s worth trying for at least 30 minutes or an hour to see what it’s like.
I didn’t know that Smash Bros. did this but I like the idea. Same as Uniracers but a list of ten instead of three.
Skullgirls is a good game but I tend to play less combo heavy fighting games. That being said I really like Killer Instinct and its approach and its probably worth a whole blog post of it’s own. If you know a game well and can hit all the same buttons along with the other player that’s comboing you, it would be nice if you were able to punish them for it, especially since so much of winning in fighting games is about knowing what your opponent will do. I feel like Guilty Gear’s Burst and Skullgirls’ infinite prevention system work well enough but aren’t a very creative answer to the problem that arises in most all combo heavy fighting games. Even if it’s not an infinite, long bread and butter combos that are the same every time aren’t very exciting. Melty Blood that you mention in episode 15 does a good job of variance I think, for the reasons discussed.
The last game Cosmic Star Heroine is one that I’ve never heard of before but am definitely intrigued by and will have to play at some point. It made me wonder what the first RPG with a defend action was, was it useful in that game? I feel like it is only there because it’s the opposite of attack. I grew up never using defend in any of the 8/16 bit era RPGs I played. The only game that I can think of that has an interesting defend command is Breath of Fire 4 because it combined it with the watch command from Breath of Fire 3 which lets you learn certain enemy moves if you are hit by them. Cosmic Star Heroine’s system also kind of reminds me of the board game Arcadia Quest. Each player has three characters that each have a handful of attacks that can only be used once until you skip a turn to recharge them all. It does a good job of making you use subpar things because you generally want to push off resting for as long as you can.

The second episode is about Risk Encouragement. It reminds of a quote from a Magic the Gathering card that was something like “It’s not the quality of the trap that matters, it’s the quality of the bait.” I don’t know if that was the exact wording, or even what card it was on, but I’ve always remembered the quote. There is a lot I like about taking this approach to game design. I feel like it can add a lot of ‘fun factor’ to games that implement it well.
I really want to play Bloodborne, I need to get a PS4 though, I’m not sure of what other exclusive games there are for it I should look into. I also like that Rowan described soulsborne games as “at least being perceived as difficult”, which I agree with. At their core I feel like their levels are set up more like action games than RPGs and there is a whole generation of people who aren’t used to approaching a game with that mindset and especially don’t expect it from an RPG, but that should also just be a blog post of its own.
Final Fantasy 8 is actually the only game in this episode I’ve played. I think their analyses of these games are good and I don’t have much to add besides I should play Bayonetta at some point in time as well.
The dragon system in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is maybe my favorite risk encouragement mechanic in any game? I wrote about it some here, but essentially early in the game you gain the most broken ability in any game I’ve ever played. It’s a get out of jail free card for any fight that you think you might lose, or just don’t want to bother with. The down side is if you use it too much you have to new game+ start the game over from the beginning. The first play through, when you don’t know the length of the game, this can make every time you use it a very tense decision.

The third way they look at dealing with dominate strategies is through Updates and New Content. I’ve also never played any of these games. There have been so many games released in the last decade that I hear about and have intriguing mechanics, but I just never get around to playing them for myself. Hopefully in the next decade I can have more first hand experiences with new games.
At about 6:45 into the episode there is a quote about thinking more like a designer than a player. “But I wasn’t thinking as a player but more like a designer, it’s difficult to get rid of the idea that we wanted it to be played and the efficient way is usually the opposite .” Definitely something that all designers should keep in mind.
Diablo 3 has several aspects to study that are all interesting for different reasons. I remember reading articles about Diablo 3’s economy going through periods of hyperinflation. Economists found it interesting because there are very few real world examples of hyperinflation so a lot of how we think it works is theoretical. I’m curious if this type of situation could be replicated consistently by having random drops and both real life and in game currency auction houses?
I feel like seasons are a good way for games to stay fresh. Seasons make me think of new books or editions in table top war games. I play Malifaux and it actually gets new seasons as a tournament pack roughly every year or so. This just changes the the objectives used to score points and there is usually some balance tweaks made along side it. This helps shake up the tournament meta and keep it from becoming stale. But more like the seasons in Street Fighter V and Killer Instinct they also release new books that have new units and upgrades for each of the factions, as most table top war games do.
How long can you keep adding new content before you run out of design space though? Or before you get to the point where there is just so much content the game is a mess? The solution that Capcom has is that they can just make Street Fighter 6 and start over with 10-15 core characters and add in old favorites along side new characters and repeat the cycle until there is too much and they have to make Street Fighter 7. Miniature games don’t really have that option because people spend a lot of money and time on their miniatures and to say that X percent of someones collection isn’t able to be used in the game any more isn’t really viable. Wyrd has done a good job of mitigating this problem so far though. In the transition to second edition they removed all of the master’s avatars (which they had always had trouble balancing) and made them legal proxies for each faction’s emissaries, which are large centerpiece models any master can use. They changed the hiring rules a bit for third edition to give them more design space. A few units ‘died’ or got imprisoned or something to remove them from the story during the transition to third edition. They made cards so they have stats for the new addition but they aren’t default tournament legal unless the organizers decide to let people use them, which did upset some people. But once the second book for this edition is released it is fairly obvious that all of those characters have narrative ways to return to the story. I do kind of wish that there was a way for the game to exist without constantly needing to add more content but I understand that’s not how the business model works.
Looking at different ways that games deal with constantly getting new content would be interesting. Thinking about Magic, or any gacha games, lots to analyze there.
Their last point about new content making you change your play style just reminds me of how I didn’t like the Starcraft: Brood War expansion because I couldn’t just spam hydralisks any more.

Consistency Mitigation is the fourth episode. Magic and Guilty Gear are the only games of this group I’ve played. An interesting episode and the history of Magic is a great topic to go over.
Lost Dimension seems interesting, kind of makes me think of losing characters in The Banner Saga. It has very different mechanics but you end up with the same kind of effect because your story choices can make you lose characters and you don’t really have any way to know what will happen when the choice is made. It doesn’t have the strict rule that you could have any group of characters at any time, it’s a more curated experience than that, but there are only a few characters that are actually safe throughout the whole game. You can gamble on just leveling up a few characters you like and use them all the time but unless you know what will happen in the story you might get punished for putting all your eggs in one basket.
Unlimited Saga seems interesting and weird. It makes me ask a lot of questions about what systems you want a player to know about, what systems you want to get secret, and where the balance between is. I might try playing it sometime but maybe I’ll just read about it instead.
The only Guilty Gear I’ve ever really played was XX, Faust is an interesting character, the point about how boring the moves would be if they were toned down to be balanced when they are all available is a really interesting one because the extreme other end of the spectrum is it’s too good and you win, so exploring that middle area can be a lot of fun. Trying to push how over powered you can make something without the game falling apart, or how strongly you have to counter balance with something leads to a lot of fun for the player in a similar way that risk encouragement does.

The fifth episode in the series is interesting because it looks at the approach of just letting the players use those strategies and Meeting the Challenge head on.
I downloaded and tried Warning Forever. It is a intriguing experience even though I was kind of bad at it and didn’t try to hard. I will try to give it more time later. I would really like to design a multistage boss for a game that does something like this. It would work great for almost any genre I think from RPGs to FPSs.
Slay the Spire is another game I know of and need to actually play for myself. The bosses being brick walls for some builds reminds me of the end boss of Faster Than Light. You kind of have to know what it is like and plan a little all game if you don’t want to have a stupidly lopsided battle at the end. Unless you are super pro at the game, which I am not. Trying to not have this problem would really restrict the amount of design space you have for interesting bosses though, so I feel like you have to try to find a good middle ground design wise.
I need to get Bravely Default and play it eventually, yeah, I know by this point I have a long list of games to play. Breath of Fire 1 and 2 have auto battle, I wish the games would implement it better than just mashing attack though. Although asking why your game even needs an auto battle is probably a better idea. There is a lot of room for more creative solutions, or ask the big question of why even have random battles if they aren’t actually a threat. I’d like to make an RPG at some point that is mostly just minibosses and boss battles.

This episode is a great way to look back at all of the main points of the last various episodes. Going back and mentioning games from all of those episodes again works very well.
The discussion about not learning all of the moves for Rinoa’s combine brings to mind Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’s ultimate move you acquire towards the end of the game. It uses all of your sand containers to teleport around and kill all of the enemies. So if you are good enough you don’t want to collect more containers over the course of the game, so you can quickly refill the starting three and use the ultimate move again. This means you won’t be able to rewind time as often but if you are a decent enough player you can make the end game a lot easier. Or thin decking in any deckbuilder.
Quistis: Blue Magic in Final Fantasy games are usually really up and down as far as strength or usefulness of the different abilities. My mind also went immediately to Gau and how disparate all of his different rages are. Exploring more of how Quistis’ limit break works seems like a good excuse to play through 8 again.

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