Game flow usually follows a straightforward path. In any Zelda game, you adventure, find items, speak to an odd character like Tingle, then adventure some more. The adventuring itself is compelling because it is great fun and the items you receive for adventuring often add a new play mechanic and unlock new areas for adventuring — it’s a very simple loop that has worked well for 20 years.
A game like The Sims is significantly more complex but the game flow is still easy to understand. The players micromanage their Sims in order to gain skills and keep their various meters high. In turn, they are rewarded with job promotions because they are skilled, socially relevant, and come to work with full stomachs and empty bladders. With the promotion money, players extend their homes, plant bushes and buy new furniture and electronics. This consumption results in a happier Sim who can make friends more easily, and spends less time bathing, sleeping, and eating – which leads to more free time to learn skills and ultimately more promotions.
The Sims works because the micromanagement is mildly entertaining and, like in real life, the drive to buy new things and build a bigger house can be intense. This flow creates something similar to the “just one more turn” phenomenon that is known to strike Civilization players until 3AM on many work nights. Spending the simoleans earned through micromanagement is also hugely entertaining, so the payoff is worthy of the excitement and makes the comparatively boring job of telling your Sim to pee, wash his hands, then go to bed worthwhile.
Then there are games like Rune Factory that have broken game flow. This is not for being too simple — Super Mario’s game flow is basically “run to the right and jump” and obviously succeeds. Rune Factory has plenty of complications but fails because not only do they not all feed into each other in a meaningful way, but each one alone is wretched.
The overall goal in Rune Factory is to fight and kill monsters in order to make progress in the plotline. On top of the action RPG fighting system that includes HP, Attack, Defense and all the usual trappings, other game systems include farming, weapon/food/item/alchemy forging/cooking/crafting/brewing, animal taming, house and hut expansions, fishing, mining, and relationship cultivating with both the people of your village and the monsters you capture.
Each one of these breaks down further — in order to woo villagers you must speak to them daily, keep track of items they like so you may give them as gifts, and also perform the tasks that particular villager likes (the main love interest really enjoys it when you farm). To create weapons and so on you need other items and often minerals you have to mine from caves that contain enemies. Each mineral you mine has a level assigned to it and higher level materials are more valuable…and so on.
This vast amount of complication is the only thing Rune Factory has going for it. I rather enjoy micromanaging dizzying systems and find most any kind of stat crunching to be blissful. If you also enjoy these things there is a chance you will have some fun with this game, at least for a little while.
After many hours of playing it dawned on me that the majority of moving parts were barely touching. Because the enemies are so stupid and unchallenging, crafting new gear to fight with becomes almost pointless. Because enemies die whether or not I farm a single thing, the farming at all is a waste of time besides for the mandated crop harvesting in dungeons. Because I am issued a pass to the next cave even if I ignore every single person in town, there is no reason for me to bother speaking to villagers, let alone every single day of the game.
Early on in the game it seems like the systems are mostly connected through money – doing most things will get you something you can sell. Only money stops mattering entirely after a few hours. I have some $1,452,986 and absolutely nothing to buy. Had the designers made enough crap to buy, Rune Factory could have been partially salvaged. Instead, you will save up the hefty amount of $200,000 once to extend your house and then never be short for money again. The money system that could have tied the game together becomes irrelevant three hours in.
The game could still work if the systems were individually compelling. Who cares if fishing doesn’t ultimately relate to the rest of the play mechanics if fishing is fun? Unfortunately, the crafting system is the only system close to not being horrendous. Calling it fun may be a stretch, but making a new awesome sword still titillates a nerd like me.
The key game mechanic, combat, is boring and repetitive. Each enemy takes a few sword swings to kill and most bosses can be defeated by simply standing in one spot and attacking (as long as you have a healing potion or two). Neutopia for the TG-16 has far better combat (I was tempted to say “the original Zelda…” but that game is a classic, so I went with a derivative Zelda clone instead). In a terrible design decision, the dungeons bar your entrance to the boss chamber until you destroy all the monster generators(think Gauntlet) within them. This means you can’t even ignore the boring battles.
Speaking to the townsfolk is fun at first and the prospect of ending up with one of the girls is intriguing, even if they are portrayed as normal people and not lingerie models (which is abnormal for a video game). That is until day four when they say the same exact thing they said on day one, two, and three. There are more lines of dialog in a silent film than in all of Rune Factory and it puts a serious damper on the social aspect of the game.
And finally there is the farming. Every game designer on earth should be forced to play Rune Factory to learn a very simple lesson: do not punish players then reward them by lightening the punishment. Zelda is fun when adventuring, then a new item makes the game more fun. This is the correct way to design a game.
For those of you wondering what hell looks like.
Rune Factory’s farming system is so painfully tedious the only point in getting better tools and leveling your farming skill is to make the farming system slightly less tedious. To clear a field you need to manually pick every shrub, break every rock, and chop every stump. Then you must plow every tile of earth, plant the seeds (which, thank Gaia, cover nine tiles in one button press) and then water every single tile daily.
This sucks and is the opposite of fun. The game eventually rewards you with tools that allow you to water three or nine squares at once. Farming remains tedious and eventually becomes as enjoyable as washing the dishes as opposed to taking the LSATs. Take notes, designers, the proper progression in a game is the following:
Fun -> More fun
Mind numbing tedium -> Slightly less mind numbing tedium
The culmination of this pain occurs in the dungeons that force you to farm in order to face the boss. Again, the combat is easy and uninteresting and the farming about as much fun as sexual harassment training day at the office. To force players to engage in one to further the other can only be seen as a sadistic joke by the developers. Luckily, you can only farm and fight for so long each day before you run out of Rune Points and are forced to leave, sleep, and start a whole new day which always includes speaking to people, watering crops, petting captured animals and other torture.
And again, the game rewards leveling up by giving you more Rune Points which serve to minimize the repetition without making the game fun in any sense of the word.