Changing Tools for Changing Environments

Link Eyes

This gaming experience was a good reminder that we live in a changing world. A tool that is amazing today may not be that relevant tomorrow and a company that is here today, may be gone tomorrow. Predicting the future can be near impossible but there are things we can do to face it optimistically.

Sticking with the same thing is comfortable. Raise your hand if you are a fan of the phrase “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I know I am. I am even often a proponent of “If it ain’t broke beyond usability, stick with it, it could be worse!” But there is a time for change.

The world is constantly changing around us. Whether it’s the little changes like a new Facebook layout, or larger industry changes like the rise and fall of rental stores, figuring out when and how to adapt is key.

Games can be a great canvas to represent this evolving landscape. Some games do it subtly, others do it more abruptly, but the bottom line is that people do not want to be able to play through a game just clicking the attack button again and again. There is an expectation that developers weave enough challenge into the games that push the player to consider every tool in the toolbox, as well as a hope that the toolbox evolves throughout the experience.

Shin Megami Tensei 4 – A Changing Strategy

I was playing the RPG Shin Megami Tensei 4 over the weekend and I started to hit the endgame when it occurred to me just how much the focus of my strategies had changed throughout the course of the game.

I started off with a focus on attack skills. The way the battle system works, you get an extra turn if you hit an enemy’s weakness. This can be a game changer, so it’s important to watch your weaknesses and keep some variety both offensively and defensively. My early game strategy thus centered around having every member of my team learn as many different spells as possible so that when I found a weakness, I could spam that and kill quickly with the additional turns.

As I progressed, enemies got more buff. It was harder to pick them off without some more specialization in a specific element. At this point, I started to focus more on the defensive side. There are only so many skills that my characters can have at one time, so I started to step away from the pure versatility strategy to one of more focused elemental attacks. I had a single element with a passive skill to boost that element, and then nearly all passive skills to raise my resistances.

On top of this, there are skills that reflect physical and magic attacks which are fairly costly, but when used well can shut down most enemies in the midgame. Sitting on top of the defensive wall of resistance skills and these mirror moves, the midgame went fairly smoothly.

Cue endgame. In the last segment of the game, every boss has attacks of the element “Almighty”. This cannot be reflected and it is impossible to build defenses against. When enemies were strong enough with their Almighty attacks, my strategy was completely useless.

This forced me to reconsider the stat buffs and debuffs I had entirely ignored for the first 3/4ths of the game. Since there is no “defense” in the game, buffs were the key mechanic for shifting that mean damage inflow. So I went back to the drawing board, used some of my money to respawn some demons with buffs that I had previously ignored, and tried to work them into my strategy.

The Costs of Change:

Notice a little caveat in that last sentence though? That change of strategies was not just a mental switch. I had to “use some of my money” in order to redirect my strategy. Change is often a good thing, but it is important to address the cost of change as well.

I was pretty deeply rooted in that midgame strategy, and backtracking a little to take on something new was no cheap task. Demon summoning is quite expensive in the game. Beyond that, many of the midgame demons do not learn buffs because early demons can, so there is the assumption that early demons could be transferring these skills up. Thus to get these skills back in the rotation, I had to go pretty far back in some cases.

Additionally, since only one version of each demon can be stored in your demon database, I had to decide if I wanted my prior demons or current demons in my database. This means there was not a super efficient way to swap back and forth between each strategy as needed.

This means there was not a super efficient way to swap back and forth between each strategy as needed.

These costs are always something to keep in mind, so I will try to address them more as I get into real world parallels.

Changing World

This gaming experience was a good reminder that we live in a changing world. A tool that is amazing today may not be that relevant tomorrow and a company that is here today, may be gone tomorrow. Predicting the future can be near impossible but there are things we can do to face it optimistically.

Be Adaptable!

When I came to the stumbling block that shined light on my evident weaknesses in Shin Megami Tensei, I did not just lay down and die. I went back to the drawing board, reconsidered the tools of the game and revised my strategy.

It’s easy to find comfort in more of the same. It’s what you are used to, it’s what you are good at and there are fewer surprises, but often these surprises have lessons to teach. It’s somewhat cliche, but I’m going to turn to my good old friend Goltz and his poor lobotomized frog. Just as the ill fated frog hangs around for his impending doom in boiling water, so too we must consider how a stagnant life may render us blind to subtle decay.

Just as the ill fated frog hangs around for his impending doom in boiling water, so too we must consider how a stagnant life may render us blind to subtle decay.

People often find success by jumping to brand new fields. In the corporate world, for example, many of the most successful people get there by some combination of bouncing from company to company and their own entrepreneurial attempts. It’s all about utilizing what you do know to navigate the unknown. That is adaptability.

It’s all about utilizing what you do know to navigate the unknown. That is adaptability.

As I mentioned above though, the costs are important to consider. Changing jobs often requires some combination of: Moving, HR shenanigans, relearning a culture, meeting a new set of people, and taking on new tasks. Each and every one of these could be very costly in terms of time, money or general value. Unknown costs often imply unknown risks, and this is something that needs to be weighed into the equation.

Adaptability is a hard one for me. I like stability… a lot. I really like looking at how I do something and analyzing how I can do it better, or how I think about something and if there is another way to think about it. This admittedly entails building on that comfort zone and not questioning it too much. I think this is something I can really work on so that if/when I need to adapt I am ready for it.

One more note on this. I don’t necessarily think there is something wrong with enjoying stability. Beyond the possible negative note above, there is a lot to love and value about stability. That being said, there is a fine line between contentedness and apathy that a path of stability can lead to. I don’t think anyone but yourself can answer the question: Am I content or apathetic?

There is a fine line between contentedness and apathy that a path of stability can lead to.

Learn To Cut Your Losses

I’ll admit, when I came up against Beelzebub in Shin Megami Tensei I came really close to beating him on my first try which gave me this false hope that my strategy could go the distance (I hope your picturing Hercules). This led me to banging my head against a solid wall (or squishy demonic giant fly thing?!) for a while.

You need to know when to cut your losses. Have you ever put tons of work into something only to realize that the entire thing was built on some wrong assumption or that new technology would make it all 1000 times better? Then, you have such attachment to what you have done that you try to make it work anyways, with workaround after workaround. I’ve been there.

I remember building this model for my financial statement analysis class. I was being diligent and trying to do my work really early to get a jump on it. When the project actually came around, the teacher distributed a model that was admittedly more aesthetically pleasing and (more importantly) what the teacher wanted us to use. I struggled so much with just scrapping the model I had made, but at the end of the day found solace in the fact that I had worked through and analyzed the moving parts that classmates likely had not.

I struggled so much with just scrapping the model I had made, but at the end of the day found solace in the fact that I had worked through and analyzed the moving parts that classmates likely had not.

The relevant costs in these cases are often sunk costs, so they should not weigh too heavily on your decisions from a pure business perspective. That being said, it’s important to consider what those sunk costs may mean to you emotionally. Sure from a pure NPV perspective they may not matter, but what if this is your 3rd project that you have started and is falling apart. There may be some emotional value in seeing it through even if the pure analytics say to give it up.

Read the Signs, Change Can Be Constant and Evolutionary

It’s not like Almighty attacks came out of nowhere. Enemies here and there start to use them in rising occurrence throughout the game. Even more of a hint is a similar trend that pops up in the other 3 Shin Megami Tensei games I have played (not 1, 2 or 3 of the same series, mind you).

Often the writing is on the wall. Do stock prices seem too good to be true? Maybe step back and consider the signs of a bubble situation. Is the department you are working in letting people go? Maybe start to consider transferring or alternative options. Very rarely do massive changes happen over night. If you look at various business models that have fallen (like local rental stores) the change was not overnight. Netflix was founded in 1997 and Blockbuster did not really start to collapse until 2005, and ultimately file bankruptcy until 2010.

Very rarely do massive changes happen over night.

Social media is a great example of how the world has changed even over the last 10 years. Any businessman will tell you about the importance of creating a personal brand and pursuing that strong presentation of brand consistently over as many mediums as possible. This idea of “social media” was a foreign concept 20 years ago.

One of the biggest costs which is somewhat unique to this category is changing too fast! SAY WAH!?!? Sometimes the world is just not ready for certain changes. Whether that is trying to introduce a new program to a corporate culture which is not ready to accept it, or if you are the Dreamcast, sometimes you just need to adjust how much you are reading the signs.

Concluding Thoughts

Okay guys, thanks for sticking with me there. Have you played Shin Megami Tensei 4 or any of the other Shin Megami Tensei games and had a similar experience? Between being adaptable, cutting your losses, and reading the signs of change, can you pick one that you think you are good at, one that you think is least important and one where you think you could use some improvement? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Thanks for reading! Game on and Learn on!

~Dylan

4 thoughts on “Changing Tools for Changing Environments

  1. fminuzzi

    I found Devil Survivor 2 required me to change my demons around a lot, which I had trouble doing even right until the end. When one guy can single-handedly take on huge groups, it’s hard to merge him into something that seems subpar. However, If you put it off by as little as four or five levels, he’ll need to fuse with someone many levels higher than himself to be close to your level. So your choices at that point are either to abandon him or fuse him multiple times with crazy things just so he becomes a decent level.
    So maybe I’m not good at any of those things. At least in games – I’m more used to having to scrap my work and start again. Not sure why that’s easier.

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      I think a lot of the magic with the Devil Survivors (and to some extent the SMTs) is randomly hitting on teams that just work amazingly unexpectedly. It is often hard getting rid of demons especially when you feel like a specific guy is amazing or a group has great synergy, but as you said, that tends to screw the team in the long run. But sometimes keeping them around gives them beautiful veteran moments! I had Black Frost for the entire game in SMT4 just because I got attached to him as one of the first guys with good resistances, and by the end he was very sub par but he still had his moments that he would surprise me.

      What was quite interesting to me is how different games play with experience escalation. Persona 4 for example made it hard to get levels. It really pushed people to care about relationships because that got you most the way to levels to get new skills. And then levels after the first 4 or so were ridiculously off the charts. That gave you a lot of incentive to constantly make new monsters because there was no progression. Where in SMT4 it’s not quite as bad, and they even have a skill where demons get more stats per level, so if you level monsters up they get better stats then the higher level guys. That is somewhat mooted by poor HP growth and probably worse skills, but I had fun leveling a pixie to 68 or something and seeing it have considerably higher stats than all of my level 90 guys, just as a fun experiment.

      Scrapping your work and starting over often overlaps quite a lot with the “cutting your losses” lesson… I guess the question is how long will you put up with a lost cause. Anyways, starting over is admiral in itself; I think many people will push a losing strategy until they give up, and that is that.

      ~Dyl

      Reply
  2. JackOfHearts

    Sounds like the game had some well-balanced structure to it that keeps the player engaged and problem solving all the way through the end. A lot of those RPGs, as you’ve noted in other columns, become trivial at the end because the designer has no way to predict how much time the player is going to spend in the middle of the game. If the player discovers every quest and reward and practices everything as much as the game allows, the end tends to be easy. If they skip straight there, it tends to be difficult. Unfortunately, a lot of play styles tend towards one side or the other, so it can be difficult to make the end game feel appropriately challenging.

    Looks like Shin Megami Tensei 4 (which I have never heard of… been out of video gaming for some time now) handled that problem pretty well.

    Reply
  3. connorbros Post author

    Yeah, it can definitely be hard to keep a balance, especially in the end game. I tend to do everything in games so it makes the end game story kind of chill. With Final Fantasy 10 and 12 and Xenoblade Chronicles I did all of the extras before I beat the game and it made the end game very anticlimactic (I actually haven’t even beaten Xenoblade yet because I couldn’t quite get myself to do it because I expected it to be anticlimactic and then ended up giving my Wii to my mom when I got a Wii U and I forgot to transfer my save!). So if they want to have a ton of end game extras I think they are somewhat relying on the gamer to either do them post game or be alright with an anticlimactic end story.

    But yes, SMT4 does attack this problem a bit more it a “change your tools” way and less of a “up your stats” way which is very cool. The one thing I was talking to Dust about related to this is trying to make sure that there doesn’t feel like a “thing to do” in the toolbox. We were discussing how buffs and debuffs sort of feel like “the thing to do” in the endgame which is a bit of a weird feeling. You still want there to be choice. But I think they still do keep a lot of choice in there around variety and amplitude of buffs. Also Dust and I had entirely different strategies for the game, so there is definitely some wiggle room. It’s just something to keep in mind, that there is still that element of freedom of strategy.

    ~Dyl

    Reply

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