I'm playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the third time. I never finished it the first two times, and thinking on it a little bit further, I'm realizing that I very rarely finish "tactics" games that don't have "Shining Force" or "Dynasty" in the title, much as I love them at times. This includes console games like Final Fantasy Tactics (and Advance, I've yet to play A2), Disgaea, and Suikoden Tactics, but also PC tactics games like Fallout Tactics or the transcendent Jagged Alliance 2.
This week's Escapist includes an article about how rare finishing games can be. I think the author raises several valid points, but I'm particularly interested in how I personally fail to complete games of a genre that I enjoy so thoroughly. Tactics games usually aren't bad, and some of these are outright classics. The problem, I think, lies in the form the games usually take, particularly in how they dole out challenges to the player.
Most linear games offer a straightforward progression to the player: as they progress through the story, new strengths/abilities become available. The new enemies they face are stronger than the previous ones, requiring the use of the new strengths/abilities. This can be going up a level, getting a bigger gun, gaining conversational options, or learning a new magic spell. The new strengths/abilities act as both a reward for previous progression as well as a necessity for further progression.
Tactics games are generally more complex in terms of developing characters' strengths/abilities, and less linear than most games in terms of storyline. The progression of the characters is therefore detached from the progression of the game's storyline. It is entirely possible, in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, to build up a party of characters who will be virtually unbeatable. It's also possible to attempt to do simply the storyline of the game, and in so doing, have a terribly difficult time. The game can adapt its difficulty somewhat, but not overly much. Making the game more or less of a challenge obviously can prevent the player from being entertained.
But it's the detachment of the reward of new abilities that, I think, makes these games feel unsatisfying to me. The storyline is generally pretty perfunctory in tactics games, with the gameplay and character development being the main point. The character development (it a statistical fashion, not in terms of writing) becomes so important, in fact, that having a good collection of characters becomes the main point of the game. That is, figuring out how to use, or abuse, the game system in order to be more powerful than the game intends is the bigger reward. "Beating the game" really means "beating" in this case. Alternately, in the case of a game like Disgaea, making the most powerful characters and unlocking all the coolest stuff seems so imposing that everything else in the game becomes less fun - I've attempted that one twice and never gotten further than the fifth set of levels.
This is why Shining Force and Dynasty Tactics work well for me. Both are limited in their complexity: Shining Force by being rather simple, linear, JRPGs, and Dynasty Tactics by having strict turn limits, preventing excessive character-building. They're easier to complete, but I'm not sure that makes them better games.