Playing through Tales of Phantasia is reminding me of one of the things that first sold me on the Game Boy Advance (and subsequently the DS): microgaming.
What's microgaming? It's the idea that a videogame player should always be able to accomplish something meaningful within a span of about three minutes of play. It's the concept that the game shouldn't require continuous play sessions of more than about ten minutes without an opportunity to save progress and quit.
Admittedly, Tales of Phantasia is reminding me of this in a negative sense. Its console roots show a little too strongly, and the play sessions between save points are closer to 30 or 40 minutes than to the standards set by games like Pokemon, Legend of Zelda or Fire Emblem.
What are the keys that make microgaming work? I have some ideas.
* The ability to save almost anywhere, and save relatively quickly.
* Discrete tasks; each task should be a meaningful challenge, but a self-contained one, requiring activity in only one area and using only one or two skillsets at a time. Larger tasks should be broken down into a series of these smaller tasks.
* Easy to understand geography. A player should be able to tell where they are in the gameworld instantly, and tell where they should be going next quickly. Mazes should be treated as a once-off discrete task and not a persistent challenge of the gameworld. Key areas should appear instantly visually distinctive.
* No long-term punishments; a debuff or negative state should last only for the length of the task it is incurred in. Another way of saying this is that a player should never be in a position where they are worse off than the last time they saved. (The LucasArts adventure game philosophy.)
* Microachievements: each and every successful action in the gameworld leads towards an achievement. Each monster defeated rewards you with experience; each race completed leads towards a reward unlock; each step taken expands the amount of the world map revealed. This makes even very short play feel meaningful.
* Wheel-hub game structure: rather than a linear progression of stages and objectives, have objectives all roughly equidistant from a single "home hub". Legend of Zelda tends to have a home village from which no single dungeon is very far away; Super Mario 64 had the castle. Pokemon meets the challenge mostly by having the key gameplay (catching and levelling up) work no matter where you are in the world. That way you're not becoming committed to a course of action when you start working on a challenge; if you feel in a different mood next time you power on the system, you can almost immediately move to a different challenge.
These are some of the things that have improved games endlessly for me, and are some of the things that have made so many GBA and DS titles so very addictive. And it leads me to the question - why aren't more games for consoles and PCs designed like this? What is there of value in making the player commit to a half hour trek between save points? What valid design objective can there be for an unexpected fifteen minute unskippable cutscene? (I mean, Metal Gear Solid was good and all, but at times it was less like playing a game and more like watching a Tom Hanks movie.)
Does anyone have anything to say about successful microgaming design, or why we should put up with its absence just because a game's for a non-portable system?