The recently announced PC re-release of Final Fantasy IX is headed to Steam later this month, and with it comes the news that the new version will have a No Encounter mode, allowing players to turn off random battle encounters while exploring the world. It’s a wonderful and long overdue feature that makes the game more user friendly and accessible for all kinds of players.
It’s also the kind of design choice that every developer should at least consider. The specifics will change depending on the genre – not every game (or even every RPG) has random encounters – but equivalent tools that give players more control are ultimately in the best interests of players and developers.
That’s really what this is about. In the case of older games like Final Fantasy IX, there will always be purists who insist that difficulty and tedium make for a more authentic experience, but the No Encounter option doesn’t really change much about Final Fantasy IX. Players will still need to fight monsters to level up their characters, so they’ll eventually need to turn the random encounters back on to prepare for more difficult boss battles. It won’t negate combat or the grind of levelling. It simply gives players more control over when and how they do it, cutting out the frustrating moments when you’re ready to move on but the game won’t let you.
The point is that challenge is rarely the primary appeal of any Final Fantasy game, and fighting the same five recurring enemies while lost in a labyrinthine dungeon loses its charm after the first few hours. Sometimes you just want to reach the exit and focus on directions rather than combat, and Final Fantasy‘s refusal to do that has made for many of my worst moments with the franchise. No Encounter mode allows players to reorient themselves when they get lost or grab that one last treasure chest they missed near the entrance of the dungeon. It also guarantees that you’ll always be able to backtrack to a save point so that all the levelling you’ve already done won’t go to waste.
It all makes for a more pleasant experience without sacrificing any of the elements that make Final Fantasy so beloved. Like many RPGs, Final Fantasy is a vehicle for a story, and the notion that players should have to suffer to proceed is a relic from the bygone arcade era. As Dragon Age frequently demonstrates, a story can still feel epic even when the combat is more or less automatic.
Features like the No Encounter mode encourage developers to spend more time thinking about their games and the effect they want to create. A blockbuster can be just as enjoyable regardless of the level of difficulty, especially in the modern era when so much time and money is devoted to cut scenes and polish and other features that have nothing to do with combat. Whether it’s giving players the option to skip shootouts in L.A. Noire or to skip to any chapter in Call of Duty: Black Ops III, giving players more choices delivers more flexible games that can appeal to a broader audience.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that every developer needs to scale back the difficulty or make fighting optional. Sometimes the challenge is the primary appeal and the obstacles are essential, as is the case in a game like Bloodborne. The decision just needs to be deliberate. With the No Encounter mode, Square Enix has taken another look at Final Fantasy IX and made a choice about what is and is not crucial to the experience, and I’d love to see more developers take such a lucid approach to development.