The first thing people usually think of when I mention “encounter design” is boss fights. Big, fancy battles in custom-made arenas, usually at the end of a dungeon. For a lot of games, they’re the only encounters that matter, and we’ve been trained to think of them that way.
In fact, if you’ve ever played an MMO, you’ve probably heard people talk about “trash mobs”, all of the encounters leading up to those boss fights (read: the only encounters that matter). There’s nothing to make them interesting or rewarding, there’s often no compelling mechanics, it’s just enemies that you have to beat to get to where you really want to be. Gotta do your chores before having fun. Gotta take out the trash.
This line of thinking has led to a lot of reduced complexity in encounters. We’ve so focused on the boss as the only end goal that it’s seeped back into game design itself.
Here’s a map of Molten Core:
Linear design with offshoot tendrils that contain bosses at the end, all spiraling into the center, for the Big Boss Fight at the end.
Here’s an earlier dungeon, from Everquest– Befallen:
WAY less linear, still offshoot corridors but there’s no obvious linear path through the place. In fact, people don’t even play it the same way they play Molten Core; it’s an entirely different dungeon experience.
Don’t believe me that the “boss fights are the only thing that matters” mentality affects the design side? Here’s (part of) Befallen in EQ2:
Kind of a big difference.
I do a lot of encounter design in my tabletop RPGs, where I have a bit more control over things. I take a lot of my inspiration from stealth games, where there are (ideally) multiple ways through an area and you can make your own path, figuring out who you fight, who you don’t, and how to approach each area.
I very, very rarely have boss fights. I think in a nine-month campaign, I had two, and I’ve had entire campaigns go without a single boss fight. Instead, all of my encounters are cranked up. If it’s a non-life-threatening encounter, it exists to whittle away my players over time, because I’m probably not letting them rest for a while. If it isn’t doing that, it’s going to tax them.
I think this has a lot to do with why I like stealth games so much. Every encounter is relevant, and how you approach it matters. There’s no such thing as “trash” in a stealth game. Even if you silently drop someone, you still often have to figure out if anyone else saw you, or what will happen if they find your victim. There’s little room for thoughtlessness.
If an encounter is just “trash”, if it serves no purpose other than to waste your time and offer no meaningful reward in return, I think that’s bad design. FFXIV vastly improved the fun of running dungeons when they added money drops to every mob, often in not-insignificant amounts as you get higher in level. I think they’ve failed in making treasure chests worthwhile, particularly when it comes to pulling encounters that aren’t on the linear path just to access the chest, but with any luck they’ll improve that.
Source: Digital Initiative