Monday, October 17, 2011

Realism vs. Games

I have been known to say that "the more realistic a game is, the less likely I am to enjoy it." It's not always true, though, so I decided to give it some thought and really figure out where that correlation comes from. It's not like I make up catchphrases just to have something to say. Like stereotypes, even though each case has to be treated individually and granted respect or ridicule based on its own merits, it does have some real basis.

It's not the realism in games that turns me off. Realism is, at its core, completely unrelated to the game itself. A game is a game regardless of what it looks like, and its merits and detriments are mostly based off the gameplay. The graphics can affect gameplay, sure. You want to be able to tell what's going on. I'm not saying that all first person shooters could be rendered in wireframe mode and still be just as compelling.

Crysis isn't a good game because it looks pretty. Half-Life isn't a bad game because its graphics are outdated. These things are completely separate from what makes a game enjoyable. Half-Life's hallways and overall construction is mostly devoid of detail. It was a hardware limitation at the time--too many polygons and the computers wouldn't be able to run it. But the level layouts were still compelling, the enemies were interesting, the story was great, and most importantly, the gameplay was superb.

Half-Life wasn't just "a good game for its time", it's "a good game", period. It still is, and it always will be.

That being said, the reason that realism correlates to less enjoyable games, I think, is because the developers spend way too long trying to make the game realistic, and not long enough making the game fun. They have the wrong focus.

We play games to do stuff we couldn't do in life. Games must sacrifice some elements of realism to make the gameplay more interesting, or else why even bother calling them games? A game that religiously adheres only to things that could happen in the real world is more of a chore than a game, and has nothing interesting going for it that would draw me in to play in the first place.

Call me old-school, but given the choice, I'll take my core gameplay over pretty moving pictures any day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Illusion of Choice in Final Fantasy XII

There were a few different topics that I wanted to talk about regarding Final Fantasy XII. Party limitations and the license board were two major ones. When I sat down and really thought about each one, though, I realized that they were all just masked examples of the same thing. They were all illusions, making it look like you have a choice in how the game progresses, but all really guiding you down a surprisingly narrow track.

Recently I asked a question on Gaming.SE regarding how the damage calculation works in the game. I was treated to this gem of a quote in the comment of the accepted answer:
"I do think there's significance [in weapon choice], but not enough to force you to confine any one character to any specific weapon class. The game's not hard enough nor particular enough for it to affect the experience. Just do whatever you want."
What it boils down to is that the differences between the classes of weapons are mostly irrelevant. You have the choice of using whatever weapon you want, but in reality, all the damage equations and statistics just don't matter. You can make a decision, but it doesn't affect anything. That is the running theme in Final Fantasy XII. The game is still fun, but it's not open. Final Fantasy XIII was fun too, and that game is like watching a movie.

To get to the rest of the illusion, let's consider the character progression mechanic. First of all, there are six playable characters in the game, and you can have up to three of them active for combat at any time. Right away, you are given the choice of which character to use. But that seems mostly irrelevant right off the bat. They have their own unique stats, sure, but any of them can be built to perform any function, if that's what you want. Since every character can learn every ability available in the game, whatever differences they start with at first are quickly washed away as they all become mostly the same with maybe some subtle differences, such as what weapon they are wielding. Which, as we already addressed, is a non-choice in the first place.

Ah, but why not specialize, you ask. Why not have one character learn all the healing and status magic, and have another character learn all the black magic, and another character focus on using the best weapon? The answer is because you can have all the characters do all those things. The license board system looks like a giant grid with countless options for advancement in any direction you want. And if the license board was the only limiting factor, that would be completely true. You could focus some characters in one thing and other characters in another thing.

But the license board is not the only limiting factor. Just because you unlock a license to be able to cast Fira doesn't mean you can cast Fira right then and there. You still have to buy Fira from a shop. And the shops don't stock Fira right from the get-go; you have to make plot progress so the shops open up and sell higher quality spells and gear to you. It's not just true with Fira, it's true with weapons, armor, magic, technicks, and every other thing in the game that could get progressively better. The license system is merely a way to let you choose what to unlock first, not the let you choose between long-term character development options.

By the time you get to a new area with new gear and magic to buy, you have already acquired enough licenses so everyone in your party can use everything you have available now. Everyone in my party can heal, everyone in my party can use black magic to take advantage of an enemy's weakness, and everyone in my party can use basic attacks to deal adequate damage. Switching out characters is a mechanic primarily used if I don't have time to heal to get someone with a fresh HP bar in the fray, not as a strategic switch of active abilities to take advantage of a tactical weakness.

The world around Rabanastre, the starting city, seems enormous until you start exploring it. There are seemingly countless exits and places to visit, but you quickly realize that all of them are blocked off. Except one. The world looks huge, and there seem to be tons of places that I will eventually get to visit, but for now, I appear to be on a guided track, with only one thing to do and one way to do it.

That's not a bad thing. It's standard fare, expected, and embraced. I am still enjoying the game. It's just a little bit of a let down that I can't grind up and overpower my enemies quite as well as I can in other RPGs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Complete Information

Strategy games are a real cause for game design woes. In this article I'll be talking specifically about the subset of strategy games where you control multiple units, and the positioning of allied and enemy units is crucial to strategic success or failure. This is a relatively broad category, and can include games such as Frozen Synapse, Starcraft 2, Advance Wars, and Final Fantasy Tactics.

Even more specifically, I would like to talk about the concept of fog of war in such games. Fog of war, defined simply, means that you can only see what your units can see. Alternatively, other games allow you to see everything on the field regardless of proximal allied units.

Many games have fog of war (Starcraft 2), many lack it (Final Fantasy Tactics), and some switch back and forth between levels or modes with and without it (Advance Wars, Frozen Synapse). Is fog of war useful for creating more strategic depth, or does it add needless frustration and force the player to resort to trial and error tactics? The answer is: it depends.

An insightful thesis, I know. The plan here is to outline when fog of war works, when it doesn't work, and why.

Whether it's good or bad, fog of war changes the way you have to play the game. It completely alters what viable strategies look like. For example, in Starcraft 2, high-level play revolves around scouting what your opponent is doing and reacting to his actions. If you can't see his base, you don't know what to prepare for, and it's mostly a guessing game. If you have a scout out, skilled opponents will actually delay buildings until the scout is dealt with, so that they can continue to hide their plans. Scouting is a key strategic focus.

If you could see the entire map at all times, these kinds of tactical plays would be removed. It would change the focus of the game from scouting and reaction and strategic choice to simple manipulation and action speed. That is not to say that micro-manipulation is unimportant in Starcraft 2 as it stands, but simply that it is not the only thing to consider. Starcraft 2 is a game where fog of war increases strategic depth.

Advance Wars is a good example of a game where fog of war decreases strategic depth. In order to fully understand why, we must first examine the main source of enjoyment that comes from strategy games in the first place. A good strategy game is one in which you can analyze the position you're in and come to a reasonable conclusion about an optimal or at least adequate play that will increase your position and thus your chances of winning.

In Starcraft 2, very often the best play involves scouting your opponent for information in order to guide your subsequent plays. As such, information is only partially hidden in Starcraft 2. You can uncover any hidden information through the course of well-rounded play. With no adequate scouting units in Advance Wars, the same kind of intelligent play is not encouraged. Information in fog of war levels is completely hidden, with the only possibly way of uncovering it being to incur substantial loss.

There is once level in particular I remember in Advance Wars that was a great example of fog of war ill at work. The enemy had hidden artillery across a narrow bridge. There was an alternate way around, but it was long and would require many turns to traverse. Since the level had a time limit, the obvious choice was to attempt to cross the bridge. Unfortunately, that only ended in your entire army getting obliterated by the artillery. You lost the battle, but now you knew for next time that there is artillery there.

That is horrendous design for a strategy game. In this case, playing based on the best information available in-game isn't enough to make an informed decision. If you make your decisions based on the construction of the level (which is what strategy games are intended to have you do), it leads you into the same trap again and again. You have to play with additional information only learned through failure to have a chance at success. It's spitting in the face of the core of what strategy games should be.

I am not saying Advance Wars is a bad game; it's enjoyable and the levels without fog of war are very fun and strategically deep. Imagine the same level described above without fog of war. You know the artillery is there all along, and you can formulate a plan to cross the bridge if that's still how you want to approach it. You will sustain losses, but they are calculated losses rather than arbitrary losses, and the possible strategic choices are increased.

What it comes down to is this simple concept. If the fog of war completely hides information from the players, it's probably a bad design choice. If players can only compensate for the fog of war through trial and error, it is removing strategy elements from the game and replacing them with thoughtless repetition. Only if the fog of war increases strategic options should it be employed. Fog of war should not be treated as a tool to increase challenge, but rather a tool to increase options.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dramatic Effect

I am prone to overreaction due to frustration. In fact, I don't take frustration very well at all. It's probably a big reason why I'm so picky when it comes to game design. Games that provide more frustration than enjoyment are bad, and games that provide more enjoyment than frustration are good.

The tricky part comes in because without challenge, there can be no enjoyment. If the game hands you every victory, you feel cheated. You didn't earn anything; you just had it delivered to you on a silver platter. But with challenge also comes frustration. Different players have different levels of tolerance for frustration. Those with high tolerance tend to like extremely difficult games, and those with low tolerance (like me) tend to like fairly forgiving games.

That's not to say that I don't like challenge at all. I just don't find the need to repeat portions of a game over and over only to get killed slightly further on each repetition, until I make it to the next checkpoint. I want a solid, steady pace, with regular progression and not too much mental trauma. The topic of challenge vs. frustration could be enough for its own full article, but I'll stop there. That's not the point of this article.

Since I'm so prone to frustration, and especially overreacting because of frustration, I tend to put games down in disgust fairly often. Sometimes I come back, and sometimes I don't. When I'm faced with "bullshit", as I so elegantly put it in my first article, I turn the game off and give myself time to cool down. I tend to rant in the meanwhile, and claim ridiculous things like "I'm never playing that game again, just based on the principle."

I have picked Final Fantasy XII back up, and enjoyed it a medium amount (it's no revolution, but it's entertaining enough). I had a friend assure me that in his playthrough of the game, he never experienced what happened to me. Since then, I've had the same thing happen to me again, and I turned the game off again at that point in disgust. I turned the game off a third time in disgust, but that was at my own stupid mistake, so I can't blame the game design for that.

So while I did go back on my word and pick up Final Fantasy XII and have fun with it, I do not retract my game design points from that first post. The mechanic they used (in at least two places, so I have to assume it could be around any corner) is terrible game design. It just so happens that other parts of the game are fun enough to balance out somewhere above the "worth playing" cutoff.

The main point of this article, after all that rambling, is this. Just because one example might be an overreaction or even blatantly incorrect, it doesn't disprove the underlying concept of the article. If you happen to think blue shells in Mario Kart are not a comeback mechanic, that doesn't prove that comeback mechanics aren't stupid. Comeback mechanics may or may not be stupid, but that specific argument just doesn't work.

I'm not here to argue the minutiae of my examples. Some examples may be better than others, but remember that these are primarily opinion pieces. I'm open to changing my opinions, and I tend to be dramatic for the sake of proving a point, but please do not attack a straw man.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Diablo 3 Beta

I was privileged enough to have the chance to play the beta of Diablo 3 for the first time yesterday. I had spent the better part of the last month hyping this game up in my head, consuming all manner of related media, watching beta playthroughs, making up builds, and everything else I could do to make sure that I kept thinking about the game. I was just starting to get bored of it when I had the chance to play.

Despite all my proclamations that I "needed" to get into the beta, the excitement had already worn down and, at first, playing the game seemed more like a formality than it did an adventure. After all, I had watched complete playthroughs with all five classes, so I knew where to go and what was coming every step of the way. I even taught a thing or two to the friend of a friend who was so kind as to give me a chance to play.

All that said, I still enjoyed my time with the game immensely. I was able to get two complete playthroughs in, with the Witch Doctor and the Monk. Some skills I was looking forward to (Zombie Charger) were disappointing, and other skills I had looked at skeptically (Grasp of the Dead) really won me over.

I can't really give it a fair comparison to Diablo 2, because I have spent countless hundreds of hours playing and mastering every aspect of Diablo 2, and I spent about 3 hours playing a tiny fraction of Diablo 3. My desire to get into the beta has subsided, but I'm looking forward to Diablo 3's full release even more now than I was in the past.

One thing that stood out in contrast to Diablo 2, even at low levels in Diablo 3, is just how versatile your combat experience can be. The first few levels are a bit repetitive because you have so few skills available, but it's mostly a masked hands-on tutorial and it does its job of introducing you to the new class. As soon as you unlock that third skill slot (which really doesn't take long at all), a world of opportunity opens. Even with three slots, I couldn't justify skills like Hex or Blinding Flash, because I was pressed for time and needed to focus on offense. In my release playthroughs where I can afford to be patient, I will certainly experiment with these skills as well. By the time you unlock the fourth slot, the options expand exponentially. Each new skill and each new slot adds to the possible combat options, and even after hitting level 30 and having access to everything, the number of (theoretical) viable builds is staggeringly huge.

Diablo 3 gives choice at every turn, and the action is much more active and engaging than it was in Diablo 2. It's more about timing and positioning and flow and strategic choices, whereas Diablo 2 was more about min/maxing and proper skill builds. Diablo 2 was a great game, and I still continue to enjoy it to this day. Diablo 3 is different, and each one has its own merits and detriments. I can say with confidence that I will play Diablo 3 for a very long time, and I will enjoy it from start to finish. And when I get bored (which I will, eventually), I can go back to Diablo 2 and play that and enjoy it just as much as I always have.

Even with only 8 or 9 skills available, with only 3 skill slots, with no runes to speak of, Diablo 3 gave me options upon options for how I wanted to fight. Once the full game is out, there will be no end to the creative possibilities.

I can't wait.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Comeback

I guess I have so much to say about game design because I'm so critical of games that I play. It's impossible to create a perfect game, it's difficult to create a great game, and it's dead easy to ruin a potentially great game with the addition of one simple thing. There are many of these little things that could completely ruin a game, but I'm going to really focus on one that bothers me the most: comeback mechanics.

These features are only an issue in competitive games, because without competition, there is nothing to come back from. In single player games of you vs. the horde, even if you are granted a bonus for being in a dire situation (such as the way limit breaks work in Final Fantasy 8), it's not really a comeback. It's a dramatic victory, which is fun, but not a comeback because you were never really against anyone in the first place.

As for a definition: a comeback mechanic is a purposeful advantage given to the losing player to try to keep the game more even. I know, it sounds like a bad idea already, but game designers are still including these in games today. The main reason is to try to recreate those dramatic victory moments I mentioned as often as possible. I even admitted above that those moments are fun, but they're not fun to everyone. They are fun for the winner, and they are fun for the audience, but they stand out as a huge sore spot for the loser (or, in the case of comeback mechanics, the victim).

After all, the loser worked hard to get in an advantageous position, and then just had the carpet pulled out from under him because his opponent used the dreaded comeback mechanic. The loser at no time had the option of using the comeback mechanic, because he was winning. As a result, comeback mechanics introduce uneven footing into the competitive environment, an environment completely reliant on every player having even footing.


In games where comeback mechanics exist, the metagame is built around the comeback mechanic. Anyone who overlooks the comeback mechanic when designing their strategy is fated to lose. If you try to win, you will lose. You have to try to almost win in order to actually win. It's twisted and unintuitive, and you're probably having a hard time understanding what I'm trying to say. So let's look at two games that have comeback mechanics and how the strategy has evolved within those games to see what I'm talking about.

Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a game that was long-awaited after the success of Marvel vs. Capcom 2. Without getting too much into what made MvC2 great (which could be an entire series of articles on its own), part of it involved the absence of comeback mechanics. The players were on equal footing at the start of the game and at the end of the game. Everything that happened was completely reliant on player skill. If two of your characters had died and none of your opponent's characters had died, you were at a disadvantage. That's the way competitive games work; most of the game is the two sides vying for just a little bit of an advantage. If you win the tiny battles over and over, it becomes a significant advantage, and that's when you can go for the finisher.

It means that dramatic comebacks aren't common, but it doesn't mean they're impossible, as evidenced by this classic:

MvC3, however, made comebacks the norm. Keeping an advantage going is actually more difficult than coming back from two characters down. The comeback mechanic, in this case, is called X-Factor. X-Factor is available to both sides from the start of the match, and can only be used once per match. It gives you a boost in speed and damage and prevents chip damage. If that was everything to know about X-Factor, it would be a fine mechanic. The thing that makes it a comeback mechanic is that it gets significantly stronger and lasts significantly longer the fewer characters you have left. If you only have one character left, your X-Factor is so strong that landing any hit generally leads to a character-killing combo. It is completely normal to see a lone X-Factor kill 2 or 3 characters in a very short amount of time. All the positioning and strategy from the part of the battle with equal footing is completely obliterated by one broken mechanic.

"Oh, but why doesn't the opponent just counter with his own X-Factor?" I hear you asking. But it's not a viable counter. The one-character X-Factor lasts longer than your own multi-character X-Factor, and your opponent is still faster and stronger than you (just not by quite as much).

The metagame has evolved to always have a character who can take advantage of the highest level of X-Factor positioned last on your team, and to ensure that he is the last one standing at all costs. Essentially, the game has been reduced from the 3v3 tag battles of MvC2 down to a fancy song and dance with 2 opening acts to the main event. It's a blast to watch, don't get me wrong, but it's a broken mechanic ruining an otherwise fun game to play.

Mario Kart is another game with a comeback mechanics, and actually employs two of them. One is a little bit more subtle: whoever is in first place goes just a little bit slower than everyone else. It's hard to pull out into a huge lead, and it's easy to catch back up to first to make the game closer. So we already have a pretty annoying disadvantage to being in the lead, but that really doesn't even scratch the surface. The real danger to winning is blue shells. These items are dedicated comeback machines, and ensure that whoever happens to be in first place now is lucky if he is still in first place at the end of the race. When you use a blue shell, the first place player is knocked out of first place. It's that simple.

The blue shell specifically targets the leader and launches him into the sky, wasting a good few seconds of his time and forcing him to accelerate again from a dead stop. It specifically seeks out the person who has been performing the best so far and punishes him for it. The blue shell has encouraged such ridiculous strategies as specifically riding in second place for the entire race and taking the lead at the very end. That's not fun. In a competitive game, you should be trying to win from start to finish.

At the very core, competitive games should be completely reliant on the skill of the participants. If you are able to pull ahead in the early game, you should have an advantage to work with for the rest of the game. If you make a mistake in a competitive game, you should be punished for it. Comeback mechanics reward mistakes, sloppy play, and drama over skill.

If you're thinking of making a competitive game, please leave out the comeback mechanics. They are primarily frustrating and add a layer of stupid strategy on top of the layers of real strategy that you should be promoting.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Addicting Games

I think the topic of what makes a game "addicting" is extremely interesting. It is an important aspect of game design, but one that some professional game designers seem to be completely unaware of. Replayability is just as important in some games, especially competitive games, as any other aspect of the game. A mediocre game can be made an incredible classic by virtue of its replayability alone.

Zynga is a company that gets it. I can't say I am terribly familiar with many Zynga games, but from what little I know, they stick very closely to the tenet that I am about to reveal. Addicting games offer something very, very simple: perpetual progress.

I am not going to suggest that Progress Wars is the game to end all games, and that anyone who begins playing it is going to have a sudden dearth of will to ever play another game again. I'm just going to use it as the most bare-bones example of my core point. You will gain a level in Progress Wars. You will be tempted to gain another level in Progress Wars. But it's nothing more than a crappy button. That's the whole site. You click a button, and you gain levels. You're not going to spend more than a few minutes playing it, but if you're like me, clicking the close button on that tab is one of the hardest things you're going to do today. You don't want to lose your progress. You want to keep going. It doesn't matter if you already know what's next, you just want to get there so you can feel like you've accomplished something.

The most addicting games really just come down to being clones of Progress Wars. They add tons of bells and whistles (and gameplay, I guess) so that you don't realize that you're really just playing Progress Wars. It's all just smoke and mirrors sugar-coating the same core concept. It's not a bad thing; I get sucked into these games all the time, even knowing all about this. In fact, I specifically seek out these kinds of games, because they are fun.

Here, I want to bring up a game that I consider to be a masterpiece of multiplayer gaming design: Modern Warfare 2.

Every single positive action you take in a multiplayer game of Modern Warfare 2 gets you points. You get points for killing someone, points for capturing an objective, bonus points for kill streaks and multikills and special kills, etc. You are constantly getting points in that game. But beyond Progress Wars-style points just for the sake of points, Modern Warfare 2 uses the points as a means to a broader incentive. Your points dictate your level, and your level dictates what items you can use in game. If you want a better gun, you better keep playing and accruing points so that you can unlock it.

But the game doesn't even stop there. Your gun comes bare-bones. You don't want a bare-bones gun, do you? You want to dual-wield, or have extended magazines, or have a better scope, or make your bullets go through the damn wall and kill enemies who can't even see you. If you want that, you need to use the gun. You get gun-specific points for performing actions with the gun that unlock more and more possible customizations for your gun. They even add aesthetic customizations that require a ridiculous number of difficult-to-get points, just so you have a really long-term goal to strive for.

You get to define perks, such as infinite sprinting, faster reloading, etc. These, too, have points associated with them. If you use your perk enough, you unlock a super version of the perk that does something even better than the original version.

You get titles and icons for performing specific actions within the game. Some of them come with perks or guns or levels, but others come with difficult and impressive feats. You can show off your titles and your level and your guns and your add-ons to the people you play with. There is always something new to unlock, and something new to strive for. And just when you get it all, you have the option to start over. You can un-unlock everything in the game and start clean from level 1 with only the basic items.

And people do that all the time. Unlocking things is fun. It's way more fun than having things. You always want something new, and something better than what you have. And, as Modern Warfare 2 proves, people are willing to give away everything they have already earned just for the shot of earning it again. It's like crack.

Even if you're getting crushed in a game of Modern Warfare 2, you can get a few kills, which gets a few hundred points, and you're that much closer unlocking your BFG of choice. You get rewarded even when you are losing, and that keeps people playing for a very, very long time.

This is the future of multiplayer gaming. This is the reason that I could not get into competitive Starcraft 2. It is not enough any more to merely be a compelling strategy game. Playing is not worth the risk of time wasted if you lose. I want to feel like I have accomplished something no matter what the outcome. I don't want to spend up to an hour of my time playing a game where I lose and that's the end and I have nothing to show for it, and neither does the majority of gamers.

If you are always making progress, there is always a reason to play.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Final Fantasy XII

I am a year or five late to the party with this one, but I finally had my chance to play Final Fantasy XII last night. This game was so bad that I was inspired to create a blog just to discuss exactly what this game did to invoke my ire. I will continue to add posts to this blog, as I have been meaning to make a blog for a while, but this game really gave me no choice but to get off my lazy ass and really get on with it.

For those of you tired of my rambling and just waiting for me to get to the point, here it is. I will not be playing Final Fantasy XII again because it committed the greatest sin that a game developer could allow: bullshit.

But let's take a step back. I don't want to dive face first right into the bullshit. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. Instead, let's start by telling a story.

This is the story of a gamer who has heard terrible, terrible things about the combat system in the only game in one of his favorite franchises that he has not yet played. And no, Final Fantasy XI does not count as a Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy XII was the only real full-on single player epic Final Fantasy game that I had not yet touched.

I was critical of the combat system, because that was the main thing I heard people griping about. It's slow, sure, but this was the beginning of the game, and I only had one party member. Final Fantasy VII's combat system was slow too, when all I had to work with was Cloud and his basic attacks. At least in VII I got to actually tell him to attack each time instead of saying it once and juggling my controller while I waited for the battle to be over. But once I got more party members, I was sure that it would improve.

I was introduced to the licensing system, whereby you have to not only buy new weapons but buy the privilege of using them, each using separate currencies. It seemed a little odd, but what new Final Fantasy game doesn't introduce an odd new leveling system? Again, I was able to work with this. This game still had the potential to be fun.

After a few hours of gameplay, I found myself in the Giza Plains, where I was quickly introduced to many new classes of enemies. Hyenas and rabbits went down quickly and without any danger. Big owl/bear things were slightly more troublesome, but with two characters in my party now, healing between battles was a breeze. There was one enemy (who I would affectionately have referred to as "legs" had I any affection for this game) that posed a bit of a challenge, but really didn't give me too much trouble.

Put simply, at this point, I had been lulled into a sense of security. The game design so far had been leisurely and casual. When I saw another new class of enemy off in the distance (to the south, even, with my current quest being the vague "go south"), I did not think twice before engaging.  I ran up and stabbed him with my sword...and his health bar did not move even a single pixel.

That's fine, I thought. I'd just run away. I turned and started running, holding the "flee" button. Then I died. From full health, in a single, devastating blow, I was reduced to a corpse. The game prompted me to change party leaders, but that hardly helped, since my other character died immediately thereafter.

Teaching lessons to the players in video games is part of good game design. The player will make mistakes, and it is the game designer's job that early in the game, those are corrected and the player is able to carry on with improved knowledge. The problem is, I didn't make a mistake.

At no point in the game did the designers give any indication that such a thing could occur. Even after immediately realizing the battle was unwinnable, there was no chance to escape. It erased more than a half hour of progress since my last save point. I'm the kind of gamer who will save every time I walk past a save point, even if I just saved, because losing progress in this kind of game is akin to being punched directly in the balls.

There are other games where it is okay to lose your progress. In The Witcher 2 (another game I didn't finish but for entirely different reasons), every time I lost a battle, I learned something about the enemy that would help me next time. My character progress was set back minutes at the most, and my player skill had increased. These battles were well-designed because they increased my personal versatility and losing them helped me stand a better chance of winning them next time. This is very different from the experience I had with Final Fantasy XII. I lost a half hour of progress, my character stats and accumulations were lost, and I was no better off as a player than I was beforehand. There was no design advantage to putting an enemy that difficult in that location. It was purely frustrating, with absolutely no benefits.

It was bullshit.

I have a lot of games to play, and not a lot of time to play them. If a game can be this unforgiving and poorly designed early on, I don't want anything more to do with it. Final Fantasy XII is now tied for last place on the list of Final Fantasy games I've played, with Final Fantasy II (Japanese numbers; no I'm not talking about your precious Final Fantasy IV), which did the same thing to me ten years ago.