The Alpha build of Magic Arena had very humble beginnings. There was no in-game way to purchase cards, no easy way to assemble the entirety of a deck. You got a smattering of rares, a couple of wildcards and had to slowly, slowly grind your way towards a deck as your rewards trickled in each day. So if you wanted to build an interesting and slightly complicated deck (as I did), it meant your deck was a wonky pile of rubbish with a lot of filler. Sounds awful right?
But the truth is that I played more Magic Arena in those dark days than I do today, where I have multiple, fully powered decks available to me. The very fact that I couldn’t automatically assemble the deck that I wanted, but instead had to work for it, made me more engaged with the content.
There was an emotional attachment I had with my God-Pharoah’s Gift deck. When I chose to start on that path, I was giving up the chance to build a different deck. I didn’t have any other alpha keys available, so this was my only shot. I had to come up with a plan to prioritise certain cards over others, and figure out what to use as crappy filler to round out my 60 card deck. As I played that deck, over and over again, it felt special. And when I’d essentially finished assembling it, weeks and weeks later, I felt a real sense of satisfaction at finally having it all together.
Now? If you spend the cash, you can have any deck you choose. There’s no grind. I don’t have any ‘pet’ deck that I am forced to play. I have complete freedom - and ultimately, now find the game less fun for it.
But not all games are the same, and not all experiences are equal. Freedom isn’t some dirty word in the RPG genre. Sometimes it's better if the consequences of your character decisions are easily reversible. Sometimes it's better to let people tweak and play around with everything to their heart’s content. Does this mean your character becomes an emotionless, amorphous blob? Does this mean you lose all emotional attachment and investment in the story and world?
Nah. You get Divinity: Original Sin 2, one of the better RPGS released in recent years.
This is an RPG that lacks even starting classes. From level one, if you’re willing to invest the points, you can combine any combination of class skills together into an unwieldy monster. There are hundreds of skills, stat points and non-combat options to invest into personalise your character. And from the beginning of Act 2, you gain the ability to infinitely respec that character however you choose.
This is a breathtaking level of audacity. It's not a point rebuy system, it's not gated by a consumable, it’s not restricted to skills or stats or even the social branches of thievery/persuasion, it’s a complete and utter 'respec at will'. Your character is an amorphous blob that can channel their talents into archery or transmogrification at the drop of a hat. But it works - to a point, anyway.
A system like this encourages is experimentation. It's not about finding the optimal build, it's about getting the opportunity to try out different things without punishment. You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to help you determine if investing in certain things is worth it, you just level it up, safe in the knowledge that trial and error will let you know. It gives you the hands on ability to tweak and change how you build your character to fit a given circumstance. It doesn’t force you to play another 10 hours to get a character you actually find fun.
Now, Divinity gates a lot of its skills and items to compliment these builds behind (in game) cash walls, so it's quite as pure as I suggest. But I think it clearly emphasises the difference between this mechanical idea: Flexibility and Modularity versus Rigidity and Optimisation.
Lets move to a direct head to head with two massively successful games from the ARPG genre: Diablo 3 and Path of Exile.
Diablo 3 very much cleaves to the flexibility side of the equation. Skills - and modified versions of those skills - are rapidly unlocked and free to try at will. Swapping them out to take a new one for a spin takes literal seconds. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even know that you could configure your skill bar exactly as you wanted at first (its hidden behind a menu option). You have all these different skills and abilities you get to change in and out - and you’re encouraged to do so every level as you gain more abilities and can combine them in different ways. Your character is fairly powerful from the very beginning of the game and its nearly impossible to become useless.
Path to Exile, on the other hand, takes on EVE Online as the premier spreadsheet simulator. Its constellation/skill chart is enough to give an accountant a nosebleed of joy. It's a game where you can be completely underpowered for the first ten hours of your playthrough until it all clicks together and the build comes to fruition. There is a limited point rebuy option, but it will only get you so far, and if you forgot to carry the one you’ve potentially stuffed your character up for a very long time.
In Diablo, if you run into an obstacle that you can’t deal with, you change out your build, no problem, and take another crack. In Path of Exile, if you run into an enemy that has resistances to your all-in build...you’re in way, way more trouble.
So Diablo is better, right?
Not quite. In Path of Exile, you need to have the foresight to build a character that doesn’t immediately fold to a particular enemy type, or boss. Your character needs to stand up in the face of the entire game. They need to not only be powerful, but also robust and flexible enough to overcome the gauntlet of challenges that the entire game presents.
In theory, Diablo can present you with more diverse and difficult challenges that require you to be constantly updating your build. And in theory, Path of Exile requires you to plot out a character from day 1 capable of dealing with any challenge. There’s no way to actually comprehend the constellation sheet on a first do-over. The reality meets somewhere in the middle, but they’re clearly very different design philosophies.
So what does it look like when a game meets in the middle?
A couple of weeks ago my Co-Host and Path of Exile lover induced me into playing a title called Megaman Battle Network 3. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Despite James’ many protestations, this game from the GBA is definitely on the obscure end of the RPG spectrum despite boasting 9 titles in its series. My final feelings on the game were mixed, but what it absolutely nailed was its deck building and RPG systems.
Broadly speaking, Megaman BN3 is far more modular than it is rigid. You’re free to swap out the exact configuration of your deck constantly. And there’s an enormous level of variety in the sorts of cards available to you. Interestingly, there’s also a ‘difficulty of execution’ component here as well - the game has a weird action component to it. And I love this modular system to pieces.
When you play an unknown game from 20 years ago, information on how to optimise your build for the single player campaign ranges from unhelpful to non-existent. I didn’t even have any broader meta knowledge to fall back on - I had never played a game in the series and the deckbuilding is far different to anything I’ve experienced in Hearthstone or Magic. So I had to figure it out. And the game was challenging enough that I was forced to do so on some level.
I constantly changed cards in and out of my deck to deal with the different bosses and tough enemies. Whenever I got a new card I swapped it in to see how it functioned, and to get an idea of what niche it could fit into. And I tweaked and tuned it with upgrades and special cards that combined together in various ways. If I had been locked into a build from the start, like happened in Magic: Arena, I would have been miserable and upset as I awkwardly staggered through with a misshapen mess.
It doesn’t completely drop the benefits of more rigid systems, either. A couple of times you’re forced to use preset decks and required to demonstrate the execution of a different style. You also get locked into ‘survival’ encounters where your current build needs to defeat a gauntlet of multiple enemy combinations, which would put a highly refined but inflexible build to the test.
And for those with better ‘meta’ knowledge like James, it's possible to play the game building towards a perfect combo. There are many chips to find and swap out and lots of synergies to exploit - if you know what you’re doing. While I may have messed around with the options on offer, it wasn’t the only way to play - James built a highly refined synergy driven deck that he got to put together over the course of the game.
I found Battle Network’s overworld to be an incredible time waster. Its story and characters were terrible. Its UI was a clear artifice of the GBA era, awkward and annoying to use. But I can’t fault its fundamental RPG mechanics and how its able to play to both sides of the issue successfully.
So, at the end of all that, which is better? Disappointingly for you readers, that's probably the wrong question to ask. The different systems at play here appeal to different people and they’ve got their own sets of strengths and weaknesses.
But for my money, I’d far prefer my single player games to be more flexible than not. If you’re playing a complex RPG for the first time, its virtually impossible to get a grip on what you’re supposed to be doing. The most fun you can have with these RPG systems is to try things to see how they work in this iteration. Armour and playing defensively might suck in one game and be brilliant in another, but the best way for you to find that out should be in actually trying them in game, not spending hours trawling through forums.
There is definitely something to be said for the value of optimisation. But I think it's best suited in either multiplayer, or ‘post-game’ environments. Multiplayer is fascinating because you get to see different takes on complex machines and understandings bash heads in a ruthless drive towards perfection. Post game content is where the gloves come off for the game creators and they get to really push you through the gauntlet. Needing to have a good grip of the systems to get through that alive is far more reasonable.
No person is an island, I get that. But I enjoyed my struggles throughout the course of Battle Network 3 precisely because I had to figure it out myself. And instead of screwing me, the game gave me all the tools I needed to overcome its challenges provided I reach out actually and test them. Give me that over spreadsheets for my single player games any day of the week.