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What should the final conflict of a game be like? Should it be the most dramatic moment of the game, or the biggest challenge?

Way back in the primordial soup of coin-operated videogames, people played for the challenge alone. The games ran on and on endlessly, until you lost. Somewhere along the way, someone got it in their head to make the game more compelling and less abstract by adding a story arc that could be completed. This is a great idea except that dramatic stories require careful pacing, which is usually wrecked when the player does something that doesn't fit the story. Like getting killed.

There are as many reasons for gaming as there are gamers. But if you'll allow me to divide everyone into a couple of arbitrary groups then I'll say there are people looking for some kind of heroic experience, and others are here purely for the mechanical challenge. And since dividing people into groups and labeling them is what you do on the internet, let's call them heroic players and skilled players. Yes, this is an excellent set of labels that everyone will accept and which won't instantly ignite an epic thread of nitpickery that leads to a full-blown flamewar. Also: I own a unicorn.

People looking for a heroic experience want to take part in some kind of story. They want to be the action hero and mow down the bad guys, do the big stunts, and engage in memorable heroic-type stuff. They want drama, excitement, and spectacle. And sometimes tits. On the other hand, skilled players want a game to challenge them personally, to test their strategy, their memory, and their reflexes as they do whatever it is you're supposed to do in this particular game. (Which probably involves shooting Nazis and/or space aliens.) They want the game designer to erect a smooth, high wall in their path, and then they want to defeat the challenge (and the game designer by proxy) through the cultivation of their own abilities.

A careful game designer can balance the experience to please both types of players right up until the climactic battle at the end, when he has to choose one type of player over the other. This final battle needs to be the moment of highest drama, or it needs to be the culmination of all the skills and challenges the player has faced up until this point. Suddenly the designer has to decide if he's ultimately building a reflex test or telling a story, because he can no longer do both at the same time. It can't be both because making the "ultimate challenge" implies something that is hard, which implies that it will take some practice, which implies bringing the narrative to an abrupt halt while the bad guy takes the player to school. The designer can wreck the drama with player death, or he can let the player walk right over the bad guy without much fuss.

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