Etna from Disgaea['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at customization in Disgaea.]

One of the primary appeals of roleplaying games is their customization. A player can shape her characters and the party as a whole to her specifications, which can support a wide range of gameplay styles. One player might want a hack-and-slash, action-filled game, and so build characters that are best at dealing and absorbing damage.

Another player might prefer a more slow-paced, bag-of-tricks approach, and focus on special abilities like status ailments or techniques that control the flow of battle. By incorporating this customizability, roleplaying games broaden their appeal. The more variable a play experience is possible in a game, the wider its possible audience.

However, customizability introduces a paradox. More customization provides a more varied experience, but it also introduces complexity. The old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons computer games have a complex character creation process that must be completed for each character in the party (as many as six). They offer pre-built characters, but in order to customize the party at all, a player must roll random stats, choose a name, gender, race, alignment, and class, create an icon, and possibly customize spells.

This has to be done for each character before play even begins. Purchasing equipment is also a virtual necessity before the adventuring can really start. Each of these steps requires the player to consult the manual for things like the function of spells or the power of weapons. To enable customization, a game must become more complex, which will scare away many of the players that the customizability would attract in the first place.

The trick to resolving this paradox lies in layering gameplay. A game can allow customization while keeping it entirely optional by separating the customization from the primary gameplay flow. That way, a player who wishes to customize can do so as much as she wants, while one who is uninterested can skip it entirely. One game which excellently demonstrates this technique is Nippon Ichi Software's Disgaea.

A Prinny confronts some GhostsPrince of the Netherworld

Disgaea is a game in the tactical RPG style first pioneered by 1990's Fire Emblem. The player controls Laharl, prince of Hell and heir to the throne, and his team of vassals and soldiers as he fights to gain control of the Netherworld and defeat various threats to his world. Battles occur on a grid, with each character maneuvering and attacking.

On the surface, the game is rather simple. Battle is tactical, with outcomes depending on the characters' strengths and the player's strategy in positioning and choosing targets. Some battles include "Geo Panels," which apply modifiers to certain squares and can be disabled by destroying their associated "Geo Symbols." Characters gain experience by battling, which makes them increase in level and strength. Equipment can be purchased at stores, and new characters can be created via the Dark Assembly, a sort of demonic parliament.

This is the "top level" of Disgaea's gameplay. A player could complete the game while barely ever delving any deeper. However, by taking on more challenges to customize her characters, a player can make her party even stronger than it would be through experience alone.

The first of these deeper layers of gameplay is the Dark Assembly. In addition to creating characters, an assortment of proposals can be passed, from "Raising Military Funds" to improving the contents of the store to opening optional areas. Each of these proposals requires a vote, which requires senators to like you. Senators' disposition can be improved by bribing them, but if all else fails, the player can pass it by force, which requires her to defeat all of the disapproving senators in battle.

This allows the player to customize the scope of the gameplay by changing the difficulty of battles and opening new, more difficult arenas. The Dark Assembly ties into the main gameplay by requiring resources: mana, which is obtained by defeating enemies in combat, combat power, which comes from experience, and bribery items, which can be obtained with money or in the course of regular gameplay.

The next layer of gameplay is item customization. Unusually for a roleplaying game, items in Disgaea are all slightly different, even within the same "type" of item. Two Short Swords will have different rarities, which in turn determines the number of "Specialists" that live inside the item. These resident specialists are randomly chosen, and modify the weapon's statistics.

Each item in the store may have different statistics because of this. By hunting around, a player can find the perfect weapon or other item for a character. This isn't strictly necessary to do well at the game; a Chain Mail bought at the store will usually be better than a Leather Jacket, so players can just rely on the rough ranks of the items. However, a player interested in customization can gain an advantage.

Item customization doesn't end there, however. Each item contains an "Item World:" a randomly-generated series of battle maps. By completing these battles, a player can level up the item itself, which increases its statistics. Additionally, some levels of an item will contain the item's Specialists, which can be "subdued" in battle. This doubles the bonus the specialist provides and allows that bonus to be transferred from item to item. There's even more to the system: items contain special boss characters that can be defeated to make them even more powerful, and new, incredibly powerful items can be stolen from enemies inside the Item World.

A player who is interested in getting the maximum benefit out of her items can spend more time in the Item World than in the actual storyline, subduing specialists, completing levels, and customizing her characters' items to any specification. However, the Item World is almost entirely optional, beyond a visit or two that serve as a sort of tutorial for the feature.

Beyond the Dark Assembly and the Item World are additional layers of complexity. Characters can be transmigrated to reset them to level 1 with increased stats. Hidden character classes can be unlocked by completing certain requirements. Secret unique "story" characters can be recruited through optional side-quests. Finally, the game also contains a "New Game +"-style feature that lets a player replay the game while maintaining each character's inventory and statistics.

For advanced players, there's a wide range of options for customization, but players who want a simpler game can simply ignore them. Indeed, the game itself advises players, "Don't worry, you can still beat the game with minimal knowledge." This combination of complexity and accessibility means that the game welcomes new or casual players while encouraging players who like to customize their gameplay.

Laharl from DisgaeaOn Being an Overlord

How can other games duplicate Disgaea's two-pronged approach? The first step is to have gameplay which is based on simple rules, yet offers the possibility of depth. This is the old "minute to learn, lifetime to master" trick. Designers should think about several interacting mechanics. Disgaea combines tactical positioning, character leveling, and special techniques for its basic gameplay, then complicates those with Geo Panels, a lift/throw maneuvering mechanic, and different types of weapons and damage.

The second step is to pick aspects of the game which can be optionally customized. If the core gameplay is designed with depth in mind, there should be various ways that players could be allowed to customize it. The key is to include default configurations and simple alternatives so that the customization can be ignored by uninterested players.

Finally, the customization should be tied into the primary gameplay so that it is not just a separate, disconnected "edit mode." The classic RPG way to do this is through experience, where playing the game provides a limited resource which can be used to improve and customize characters. Disgaea uses this method, as well as a couple of others. The Dark Assembly uses a social approach, where non-player characters must be persuaded with gifts. The Item World uses a side-quest approach, where separate challenges must be completed to customize items. Note, however, that even the Item World challenges use the same character statistics and gameplay as the main game.

Using this "layered" approach to customization, where players can delve as deeply into the game as they want, will attract players interested in customization and keep them engaged, while not alienating new or casual players with an overly complex beginning experience. This helps to resolve the essential paradox of customization, where greater customization requires greater complexity. By using the techniques demonstrated in Disgaea, designers can make deeper games that appeal to a wider range of players.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer (The Majesty Of Colors), and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at [email protected]]