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November 18, 2019
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Expanding Midgar – Simple Solutions for Satisfying Postgame Content

by Joshua Hallaran on 06/26/19 10:58:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Like many of us, I’d been a little cynical of Final Fantasy VII Remake in the years since its announcement. I never doubted the production values, but it remained to be seen whether the heart and soul of the original would be retained over 20 years later.

Then E3 2019 took me from hopeful sceptic to rapid fanboy! Characters are just as I’d imagined them, cutscenes are dynamic, environments are easily recognisable, combat is a perfect blend of action and strategy, and the game so far strikes an impressive balance between familiar and fresh. As someone who loves the PS1 classic, I don’t think I could’ve been happier with this showing!

But for all my kudos, I do have *one* lingering concern: the episodic structure of Remake. In the original game, the opening city of Midgar takes around 5 hours to escape; yet Square Enix have said that their first entry in the Remake series takes place entirely within this one location. On the surface, that implies a very short game; however it has also been said that every part of the Remake will be a full experience, comparable to other Final Fantasy titles in length. While this massive scope may seem exciting on the surface, my game design alarm bells immediately went off at the prospect of stretching a 5 hour, meticulously paced opening into a 30+ hour full game.

Obviously, numerous additions will have to be made to the main narrative, but I’m not here to speculate about those possibilities. Instead, I wanted to write about some of the simpler methods that could be used to extend the overall game time, without interfering with the story or requiring significant extra development. Specifically, I’m talking about postgame content; ways to add to the game’s value *beyond* the core narrative (and without intruding upon it). While I’m filtering it through the lens of Final Fantasy VII, I believe these basic concepts can be applied when designing end/post-game content for almost any RPG. So with that out of the way, let’s mosey!

I’m using the term ‘endgame’ to refer to content that is available prior to battling the final boss, and the term ‘postgame’ to refer to activities that take place after the credits roll; after the ‘campaign’, so to speak. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, postgame theoretically means content that takes place just prior to the party leaving Midgar. This puts the game in a rather tricky position; we need a way to add value to areas that have already been explored, yet we cannot progress the story any further. You could say that we’re stuck in the transition between Act 1 and Act 2.

Assuming that saved progress is carried over between games ala Shenmue and Mass Effect, this is another caveat that our design needs to consider. Given the unavoidable gap between the release of Parts 1 and 2 of the Remake, some players (like myself!) are likely to over-level themselves in the interim, destroying the difficulty balance of future entries. The simplest solution to this would be a level cap, so the player cannot go beyond, say, level 30. However, that still leaves the problem of over-levelled Materia (granting access to high level spells and abilities) and an overflowing wallet. That means we need to provide content that gives the player incentive to spend their hard-earned Gil, and encourages them to grind a little, but not too much.

So, assuming that mindlessly grinding to level 99 is out, how can Midgar provide eager fans with postgame content that’s both significant and satisfying? Well, I’m glad you asked!

I want to begin by considering how we can create a structure for the player’s postgame activities - one which won’t feel like padding or menial filler. Now that the player is left to their own devices, we need to put a new spin on the core gameplay loop.

Let’s say that the player discovers an optional boss; one which proves too difficult for them to defeat. This may prompt them to re-explore Midgar in order to find the best grinding spot, so that they can power-up. Along the way, they may talk to NPCs; many of which – let’s imagine - have been given updated dialogue to reflect recent events. Not only does this help make revisiting these areas feel more worthwhile (providing town content to offset the constant battles that characterise most RPG end/post-games), but, in our example, it also points the player towards a secret. They learn that a new, black market shop has opened in the slums, and is selling powerful Materia – containing spells that the player hasn’t seen before. Spells which may give them the edge against that optional boss! However, they come with a hefty price tag, and that means the player needs to make some money…

Now, the player has a sub-goal to work towards. They’re still grinding against enemies, but rather than trying to raise their stats to some random higher level, their aim is to gain a new ability - which will in turn unlock new strategies in battle. The player is specifically working to earn something which will pay off for them in tangible, exciting ways (e.g. by defeating that optional boss).

While it’s a simple design, this kind of structure is a very organic and satisfying approach to an entertaining postgame. Without needing to create brand new story beats or complex cutscenes, it provides a framework for the player’s efforts, and helps them to succeed in a way that feels far more engaging than mindless grinding. Following the trail of breadcrumbs, finding the hidden shop, saving up their money, buying a new Materia, and mastering its magic to overcome a powerful boss – this creates a story for the *player*, in a way that’s quite different to the main game’s linear, narrative-centred progression.

On the topic of bosses, I believe that this is one of the best types of postgame content. Without a narrative structure, the postgame is largely dictated by the player, and so we want to provide objectives which they can work towards – ideally in their own way. RPGs have a long tradition of super bosses with unique abilities; significant challenges that require creative strategies, and force the player to use every tool at their disposal. These types of battles are important in the postgame, because they provide players with a lofty goal; a wall to be overcome, in a way that would break the narrative’s pacing if it was mandatory.

And conquering these challenges is not only satisfying for the player, but can also be a unifying experience for a game’s community. How often have you seen players commiserate over seemingly impossible battles? I still regularly see people bring up memorable encounters such as Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts, Red in Pokemon Gold and Silver, and even the Weapons in the original Final Fantasy VII!

The important thing is to design encounters which provide a crafted challenge to the player, and offer multiple strategic solutions, rather than encourage mass grinding. In my mind, there are two ways to approach this; two ‘types’ of bosses (which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive). Some foes create interest through their unique abilities or creative attack patterns, while others can be engaging because they allow the player to use their toolset (items, abilities, equipment, etc.) in interesting or unrestricted ways. Put simply, some bosses are interesting themselves, while others are interesting because of what they allow you to do.

For a few examples of this philosophy in other RPGs, I’d recommend looking at the optional battles in Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix (arguably the pinnacle of super boss design; built for strategy over stats), the Wild Arms series, Chrono Cross, the Shin Megami Tensei series, Pokemon Black/White 2, and Final Fantasy V/IX/X.

In terms of Final Fantasy VII Remake specifically, I don’t imagine that the optional bosses would be important characters or have any real story significance. Zangan (Tifa’s old martial arts teacher) is the closest thing I could think of, as his fate was left very ambiguous in the original game. Most the pre-existing bosses in Midgar are robots, so a human opponent – and skilled martial artist at that - could be a very nice change of pace. But so long as these encounters put their own spin on the combat, and focus on fun, depth, and a tough but fair challenge, I believe they can keep players engaged for many extra hours – just as they have in a plethora of past Square Enix games.

While it may be some years before fans return to the Gold Saucer theme park, taking a page from its book could provide a simple, but significant, addition to Midgar.  Somewhere in the cyberpunk metropolis, the player can find a rundown arcade with a handful of machines. Like the Gold Saucer did in the original, this Arcade would allow players to replay mini-games.

Of course, the success of this would depend on how mini-games are handled within the main story of the Remake. But, if nothing else, the motorcycle sequence could be a lot of fun to revisit – especially if it featured a series of brand new levels that re-use existing assets. And hey, if the developers wanted to get really bold, they could create a turn-based arcade game with graphics from the PS1 original! But that’s just me spit-balling…

One of the issues with many RPG postgames is that every activity revolves around combat. So, while not a massive addition, this would be an excellent side activity to break up the monotony of constant battles - *without* needing to create significant new content. Having spent many hours in the Gold Saucer when I first played Final Fantasy VII, I know just how effective this type of content can be!

The amount of work this addition would require is really dependent on how NPCs are handled in Final Fantasy VII Remake. But adding new, postgame dialogue to the citizens of Midgar would provide extra incentive to revisit previously explored locations. Rather than dashing through town on the way to their next battle, new dialogue would encourage players to slow down and re-examine their surroundings. This type of addition may seem a little superficial, but it works in tandem with other postgame pillars (such as grinding and secret-hunting) to make retreading old ground a more well-rounded experience.

Earthbound is a fantastic example of adding postgame dialogue, as the player can take their time re-exploring the world after the final boss is defeated. And Wild Arms 1, while it has no postgame, regularly changed NPC dialogue throughout its entire adventure; an approach which successfully encouraged players to re-engage with NPCs, rather than having one conversation and never looking back. Much like those games, Midgar has a bizarre and colourful cast of residents and reprobates, so seeing more of them would likely encourage many players to get chatty after the story’s end.

These conversations could even lay some extra groundwork for events in future instalments – perhaps someone saw Don Corneo fleeing Midgar, or heard about Hojo resigning. And if the developer’s wanted to go the extra mile, a handful of optional cutscenes could be available too; for example, Barret saying goodbye to Marlene, and Aerith to her mother (this would be especially significant in my mind).

Of course, the challenge with a modern AAA RPG is that all of this requires new voice acting and animations, where in the original it could be done with little more than text boxes. However, it’s still on the simpler side of content, and I believe this kind of ‘farewell tour’ can be extremely effective. So much so that, in my upcoming game, I give players the opportunity to chat with several important NPCs before the credits roll. It’s a limited selection of people, gathered in a unique setting, but the concept is much the same. As a small developer, I chose an approach that made sense for me; so even if you can’t rewrite the whole world, there are many ways to evoke the same feelings on a smaller scale. 

But people are only half the equation; in a city as artfully designed as Midgar, the environments have just as much personality and emotional attachment. Ruins can be especially evocative, and so I think allowing players to wander the wreckage of Sector 7 – in some form – could be a really clever way of re-using assets, while also providing a semi-new environment that is already meaningful to the player. While there wouldn’t need to be any cutscenes or NPCs, it could potentially serve as a simple, makeshift ‘dungeon’ – now featuring new treasures, and all of the most dangerous enemies in the game (consequently serving as a great grinding spot that is exclusive to the postgame).

If there’s a location in your game that gets damaged or destroyed, allowing players the option of revisiting it can be very powerful. It makes the game feel more connected and tangible, as the ruins are still an active part of the world. But then on the flip side, RPG worlds tend to be fairly static – if you can visit a city at the start of the game, chances are high that you can revisit it, unchanged, at the end. So being able to return to a once bustling city that has now fallen silent - to stand where that memorable NPC met their end, or remember when that new character joined your party - allows the player to truly feel the loss of the location, in a way that’s more personal than a cutscene.

As an aside, this is another technique I have applied in my own work. I feel there’s something inherently engaging about transforming a peaceful location (a safe space within the game) into something distorted and dangerous. Furthermore, my game’s a sequel; and so in addition to all of the new locations, I allow players to revisit the majority of areas from the first game too. Some are simply more dilapidated, while others have undergone significant changes; but the flow of time is evident everywhere, and it’s my hope that this will have an impact on returning players. While this is a very specific circumstance, it’s an example of a slightly different spin on the same concept.

Of course, it may seem strange writing about this topic when the *core concept* of Final Fantasy VII Remake is revisiting familiar places and old friends – it’s a remake! But given the episodic structure, I’m really trying to think of this (in design terms) as its own, separate game – as well as the first entry in a series that may take some years to be completed (and which could be someone’s first exposure to Final Fantasy VII entirely). In this post, I’m essentially trying to imagine what I would want to see and do 30-40 hours into the game. And while much of this would be supplemental, I feel the overall gains would be significant – allowing players to maintain the illusion of Midgar’s world for just that little bit longer.

The heart of any RPG is its playable characters, and concluding the story in Midgar leaves the party in an interesting position. Based on the original story, the Remake would end shortly after acquiring an important new party member – and not long before meeting an optional one. So let’s discuss how they could play into the postgame.

In the midst of storming Shinra HQ, the character Red XIII joins your band of misfit heroes…but that gives him very little time to shine before Remake (theoretically) wraps up. So if players are going to get to grips with the Cosmo Canyon canine, it would have to be after the ending. Consequently, I think he might be the real star of the postgame. Given how unique each party member’s play-style seems to be in Final Fantasy VII Remake, adding someone with a brand new arsenal of unique abilities could really help to keep things fresh – especially while grinding. So long as he isn’t too limited or inaccessible, that is.

There are many RPGs that add a new member quite late into the game, not always giving you much opportunity (or reason) to integrate them into your party. Having endgame/postgame content can provide this opportunity – especially if the new character’s abilities make them stand apart, or give them the edge in certain situations (such as in an optional boss battle).

Generally in this post, I’ve tried to speak in concepts and examples rather than predicting content. But this time, we need to get specific. The ‘great ninja’ Yuffie was an optional (and often ancillary) party member in the original game, who could be encountered in forest areas of the World Map. Given the requirements of modern cutscenes, and the developers’ expressed desire to explore story-beats in more depth, I don’t believe that any characters will be optional this time. However, in Yuffie’s case, an early meeting seems like an opportunity with a lot of potential; a sort of ‘preview’ of Remake Part 2.

Perhaps she could be caught stealing Materia from Midgar’s elite, and somehow rope Cloud into the whole mess as he’s passing by; forcing him to help her defeat some Shinra soldiers. Afterwards, she decides to temporarily tag along with the group, as she’s also trying to get out of the city. Context aside, this would be a brand new character for players to utilise in the postgame - a substantial piece of content that also wouldn’t interfere with the original narrative. If the player doesn’t do this side-quest in Part 1, then she’s instead encountered early in Part 2; much like the original game. Or alternatively, she could leave the party when you exit Midgar, and rejoin in Part 2 like normal.

With both Red XIII (a melee fighter) and Yuffie (a ranged attacker) on the team, I believe that combat in the postgame would be somewhat refreshed. Their new abilities and animations could help to keep players engaged for a much longer period of time. Obviously featuring Yuffie here cuts down on new characters in Part 2, but with Cait Sith, Vincent, and Cid still waiting in the wings (along with the potential for a brief stint as Sephiroth in the Nibelheim flashback), I don’t think that would be much of a problem.

While I wouldn’t normally recommend adding a brand new playable character in the postgame of a standard RPG (i.e. one which isn’t using an episodic structure), it can be refreshing to discover this type of content in the endgame – so long as there are enough combat and mechanical opportunities to support the new arrival.

But the biggest takeaway here is the focus on introducing new options to keep the core gameplay feeling fresh. The end of an RPG shouldn’t have players using the same rote strategies as they did in the beginning. Encounters should be opportunities for experimentation and discovery, rather than a monotonous, repetitive grind. Even if I’m at the 40 hour mark of Final Fantasy VII Remake and am just battling for fun, it can still be an enjoyable and engaging experience - so long as I have the right tools to experiment with.

So those are some of my simple solutions for fleshing out Final Fantasy VII Remake’s postgame content – based on what we know so far. I’m sure there will be numerous changes and additions to the main narrative, but so long as they can capture the spirit, themes, and personality of the original, I have full confidence that this will be a reunion worth waiting for.

And if you’re a fellow RPG developer, I hope some of these examples helped to contextualise the structure and content of your own end/post-game content! One of my favourite parts of any classic RPG is the endgame ‘clean-up’, and it’s something that can easily be glossed over (or filled with dull, repetitious activities). But just because the adventure is over, doesn’t mean the fun has to end! Fingers crossed that Final Fantasy VII Remake takes this into account, and makes the inevitably long wait for Part 2 just a little bit easier…

Thanks for reading! If you want to contact me for any reason (and please feel free), you can find me on Twitter @CriticalGamesAU, email me at [email protected], or visit the website for my upcoming project: https://www.8bitadventures2.com/ 

One final sidenote…Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix really got me thinking about this topic in regards to my own work. That game is a masterclass in designing significant, satisfying postgame content, which adds many hours of fun and value long after the credits have scrolled. If you’re thinking about this topic in your own game, I highly recommend examining the way it was handled in this title – especially in regards to using core or underutilised game mechanics in creative and complex ways. If you don’t have access to the game, there are numerous videos on Youtube which explore this content in great depth :)


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