Thursday, December 1, 2011

Timed Hits Part 2: Fight, Magic, Item, Cycle All Your Stats and Powers Into One of Hundreds of Different Templates, Run

Note: This is Part Two of "He knows WAAAAAAAY too much about Timed Hits", a series on how to breathe life back into RPG combat systems. Part One is here, Part Three is here

So, the question remains: How do you break up the monotony of the FIGHT/MAGIC/ITEM/RUN paradigm of RPG combat? Last time we looked at the addition of timing elements, and complete conversion to action gameplay. This time we'll take a look at how you can increase player engagement from within the "classic" turn-based RPG system. This essay focuses on how to increase the available choices open to players, while the next one will be about crafting challenges for the player that force them to innovate within the space you've given them.

How do you overcome boredom in RPG combat? Give the player more to think about, more to do.

This one is so basic that you'd be excused for thinking I was padding my list by adding it. But it really can't be overstated - finding ways to increase player choice, and making those choices more meaningful, is the cornerstone that's kept interest in the turn-based RPG alive. Every designer looking to work in the genre must figure out how to approach these issues if they hope to make an engaging game.

Repeating: For combat in a turn-based RPG to be successful, the player must be presented with varied, interesting decisions that evolve and change as the game progresses.

(I know that RPGs have long been seen as the domain of "story," and, certainly, some of my very favorite video game stories have been told in this genre. But there is nothing inherent to the turn-based RPG that makes it an ideal vector for good storytelling beyond the willingness of the people making them to try telling one. As that willingness has spread to other genres, turn-based RPGs have remained, if not as culturally dominant as they once were, at least still relevant. So, there must be some aspect of the games, beyond their narratives, that keeps them interesting to players.)

Characters as Trees (And no, I'm not just talking about Exdeath)

In a turn-based game, battles are reduced to a series of discrete decisions. These individual choices are the core of the combat experience, and they MUST be interesting if the player is going to be engaged.

Once again, we're starting from that ur-RPG, that basic building block from which so much innovation has been constructed: Dragon Warrior.

In Dragon Warrior, there's only one tree that choices are being pulled from, and it's very simple - the one representing the player character's combat actions. In any situation, you choose either Fight, Magic, Item, or Run. Magic and Item have sub-choices, but those choices carry the cost of using up resources (MP or the items themselves). This tree expands when new items or spells are obtained, and the values for some of the decisions can be altered by new equipment, but this is the basic structure through which the player responds to every challenge in the game. Further, each choice is an optimal response to a particular situation - Fight is ideal for dispatching weak opponents, Magic is needed to destroy strong opponents quickly, Item for emergency healing or the occasional rare buff, and Run when survival is uncertain. The strategic element of Dragon Warrior, then, is not one of devising real plans, but one of assessing the danger level from turn to turn and choosing which of the four basic responses is most appropriate.

Once you begin to add other party members, things become more interesting. Every active character in an RPG party is a separate decision tree, sometimes only distinguished by the odds and numerical effects of their basic commands (Bob's Fight command does more damage but hits less often than Mary's, say), but usually also featuring unique commands that allow them to fulfill specific battle roles. A typical "White Mage" character, for instance, will have a tree featuring a fairly weak Fight command, but will compensate for this by having a much more complex Magic sub-tree, allowing the player to make more nuanced decisions about what type of healing or support they want to give their party via this decision.

By presenting the player with not one single decision tree, but multiple trees being cycled as character turns come up, we vary the gameplay experience (Hopefully. Early RPGs often fell into the trap of giving "Fighter" classes an extremely simplistic tree in exchange for a reduced need for healing and an increase in the power of the "Fight" command. Useful in-game, but not tactically very interesting. Later games often give the Fighter a selection of different types of strikes to use, each with different costs and effects). In a static party, though, even these multiple trees can only get you so far. To keep things interesting on the player side, we need to vary the trees/characters available.

The easiest way to vary the trees available to the player is to switch characters out of the party as the plot demands. After all, in the context of the whole game, a character isn't just the sum of the choices they allow in battle, but a hopefully well-realized person with their own motivations (Final Fantasy V gives us an interesting inversion of this, where a new character replaces a party member, but keeps the former character's abilities and, consequently, their decision tree). At the same time, new mandatory party configurations force the player to adopt new strategies to take advantage of the shifts in the decisions available to them (This can be used for narrative weight, too. For example, the sequence in Final Fantasy IV in which the Dark Knight Cecil escorts fragile-but-powerful wizards Palom, Porom, and, later, Tellah, up Mt. Ordeals is both an interesting gameplay challenge - keeping your "Glass Cannons" safe until they can take out your enemies with their spells- and reflects on Cecil's journey from invading general to stalwart protector).

Still, by assigning specific decision trees/characters to the player, an avenue for player choice is removed, possibly hampering engagement. To redress this, we have to take a step back from the battles we've been focusing on so far, and look to party composition and character (tree) customization.

Uh...If we bring more than three people into the dungeon, it'll.... explode. Yeah. - Party Composition

By choosing the members of your party, you're making a choice about which decision trees are being presented to you in battle. It's now up to you to figure out which sets of choices dovetail, intersect, and overlap in ways that allow you to win battles with the lowest amount of resources expended. Some games do this by allowing you to choose character classes at the outset (based on various decision-impacting features, such as the class's cost to operate and the "bushiness" of their decision tree) and letting the character trees develop as a natural outgrowth of the class (the first Final Fantasy game, for instance).

Others give you a certain pre-set number of characters and ask you to form a viable party from these ingredients. This can vary from a small group of potential characters (Final Fantasy VIII's three-person teams formed out of six total party members) to a staggeringly large one (Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, which has three party slots that may be filled by any of the game's 300+ recruitable demons). The key to generating interest here is to create a variety of trees that are distinct from each other, but which interact in useful ways. A large roster of playable characters means nothing if it doesn't reflect an increase in interesting choices available to the player. In terms of combat, distinct characters are less important than the distinct decision trees they represent.

It's at this point that meaningful strategies can begin to develop, allowing a player to tune their party to individual strengths or to countering a particular challenge. The player ceases to reactively pick one of the choices presented by the game, but to begin creating their own.

Get a Job System! - Character Customization

Beyond choosing which decision trees to include in the battle, most games also allow the player to customize their characters; that is, use in-game systems to edit the decision tree each character represents. This can and has been done in a vast multitude of ways, but one pitfall that needs to be avoided is one of homogeneity. This relates to something I call "the problem of the optimal," something one of my favorite game writers, PC Gamer UK's Tom Francis, discussed recently in the context of his stealth game Gunpoint. To wit, if there is a clearly optimal solution to a problem, most rational players will choose it. Any choice presented to the player between an optimal option and something else is a false choice, and player freedom isn't really being expanded. In RPGs with extensive customization, this can be seen in character decision trees that narrow down and become extremely similar to each other (Final Fantasy 7 is the example that leaps to mind, where endgame characters essentially act as holders for the modular Materia that represent actual player choice in battle). If there is a "correct" character build, one that overcomes in-game obstacles most efficiently, most players will choose it.

The obvious solution is to establish game challenges in such a way that there is no single "optimal" build (more on this later). But it's also possible to constrain character customization in ways that still allow the player significant choice in their available combat options. Anyone who's spent any time with World of Warcraft or similar games will be familiar with the multitudes of ways designers have tried over the years to inject variety into the standard Tank/DPS/Healer paradigm (although competitive environments like MMORPGs are usually extremely aggressive in working out mathematically "optimal" character builds and punishing players who do not follow them - again, limiting player choice). In single player games, the Etrian Odyssey series on the DS stands out for including a larger-than-average set of distinct classes, each of which contains multiple specialized sub-classes based on which skills the player chooses to invest points in. In essence, you end up with a party of five hand-tailored decision trees, each focused on a different aspect of combat, each reflecting a conscious, engaged choice on the part of the player.

I firmly believe that enjoyable gameplay derives from a sense of player accomplishment, a feeling that I, as the player, was victorious because of the choices I made. By expanding those choices (while, possibly, quietly guiding players toward more useful options), the designer allows me to feel responsible for my victories in a way that a more game-controlled system wouldn't allow.

Of course, all the choices in the world are meaningless if the obstacles I'm overcoming with them aren't interesting and challenging. Next time, we'll talk about how the other side lives - how enemies and bosses in turn-based RPGs drive player innovation and engagement.

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