When I started futzing around with the very early prototypes of SNSSRPG, I started by dissecting the battle systems of a crapton of JRPGs that I had played over the years, including ones I liked and ones I …didn’t particularly care for too strongly, arriving at some simple basics for how a generic turn-based battle was constructed.
- It’s turnbased…sort of. Depending on what turn means and how it’s determined.
- You can always see your full party’s pertinent status information at all times, resulting in lots of numbers and bars covering the screen.
- Commands are primarily arranged in text-driven menu HUDs, comprised most commonly of Attack, Magic, Item, and Defend type actions (with sometimes other situational ones coming along to help).
- Battles are party-based, and typically the characters are assigned specific roles to play – either through base stat allusions, assigned classes, or other innate character-driven features.
- Tons of trash mob battles are waded through before arriving at a, typically story-driven, boss battle. Trash mobs can either be random or player initiated.
- Defeating mobs earns experience points which make the characters stronger over time.
- Primary magic-based characters are %*^& -ing useless outside of boss battles.
- No one uses Items as a primary tactic.
As one of the major starting tenants of SNSSRPG is to both pay homage to and parody the nostalgia of 90’s JRPGs, I had my platform to start poking at. Some things I’m just not bothering to change (EXP works, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel), whereas other areas have become soap-box-like tangents.
Turnbased is a lame descriptor
While most people won’t disagree that old school rpgs are turnbased as a whole, that term doesn’t actually mean all that much when you start to look at the individual games to which it’s applied. When I think of what the literal meaning of turnbased is, I come up with something like “I take a turn, you take a turn. I take a turn, you take a turn.” Classic non-digital-game turns and rounds. Once a starting player is picked, the order never changes. In many you can’t do anything during another player’s turn except stare at them and wish they’d hurry their slow-ass selves along so it’s your turn again.
But that rarely applies to video games without some kind of modification in place since you know, kinda boring. How do you determine turn order? Can turn order change? Can I do stuff while the other person/AI is taking their turn? If everyone’s turn is always statically determined, what’s the point of having different characters and stats and levels?
Even the most ‘turn-based’ systems use some kind of speed or agility stat to determine turn order (or initiative, or insert whatever word you want) so that turns aren’t taken in the same unending cycle for the entire game. In systems appropriating the Active Time Battles (ATB) of Hiroyuki Ito FF-fame, character-based speed takes an even more forward role in that it not only determines initial order, it can actively update and change the turn order mid-battle. Faster characters and enemies can take more turns than slower ones. Making a character faster during battle gives him more turn opportunities. Slowing an enemy does the opposite.
But what about player speed? Once it’s the character’s turn can the player take as much time as they want thinking about what they want to do? Does the timer keep running in the background? Do we not care about the player’s reflexes and it’s all about the character they’re controlling? If we do care about player speed, why the eff are more active and real-time-ish systems still using freaking slow text-menu HUDs (I’m looking at you Kingdom Hearts)? If the point of the turn system was to slow the action down and make it more strategic than twitchy, should player button-pressing-speed have a place at all? Does the enemy have ‘player speed’ as well? If we’re taking into account how fast someone can input commands via buttons, shouldn’t the enemy have some kind of method for determining its own input speed so we can balance it better?
It should come as no surprised based on my work history that I *like* strategy games, and typically prefer them over twitch/reflex based ones. Naturally I sway more towards the ATB style of ‘turn’-based gameplay, since that does make room for tactical decision making, provides a reason for having differing speed stats and character builds, and allows for the battle to change organically over time.
Also, while you might be able to trigger pick one of four text menu items quickly, the minute you open up something like the Item or Magic Menu, that’s just plain system-driven cruelty. “Sure, take the time to read this and use one of these really awesome options that’s at your disposal. Oh wait, you took too long reading and scrolling. You’re dead.” Some ATB-style games have a “Wait” system in place that once a menu is open, time is paused. Some don’t. Some let the player choose to allow wait or not (which I just find more game-breaking and gimmicky than anything, but whatever). So what’s a player to do? Slam on the Attack Button of course and ignore everything else 90% of the time. Done. Needless to say, I’m using Waiting. If it’s supposed to be more strategic and tactical, enable the player make those damn strategic and tactical choices, and don’t punish them for thinking. Blegh.
Character Classes and Roles
I think this needs its own post space later. Moving on.
Items are cool too!
Alright, so most older JRPGs have a ginormous unique item catalogue. They let you carry around 99 of each item all neatly stacked together, and allow you to have as many items in your little item bag as you like – could be 5 or 5000 – game doesn’t care. In all honesty, how often did you select that Item bag command? Was it during trash mob fights? For bosses only? When you did remember that the command was there, what kind of items did you use? Healing/Revive/Status Curing items? Offensive-based items? Support ones?
I’mma going to go out on a limb here and say that the answer to those are “Pretty much never. Occasional boss fight that I was unprepared for. Ermehgerd my white mage is dead and I need a revive/heal/remedy type thingy now!”
The idea of item usage verses just straight up magic usage is much more interesting to me. One, there is actually a finite number of times you can use that specific ability before it’s gone, and maybe gone for good. Having limits on the number of these consumable abilities opens up a whole new realm of strategic choices and gives players a reason to think about exactly what item they’re choosing over another. “I only have 3 of these 5000 pt heals, and I need to heal my dude 4300 pts. Should I use the big one or save them for when I *really* need them and just heal using a 3000 pt one I have 8 of? Will that leave him too vulnerable?” You’ve also got a bit more control over the player’s access to consumable goods verses spells that can always been employed via regenerable MP. Items can be purchased infinitely from shops, dropped at varying rates from enemies, crafted at various difficulties, or awarded as one-time super unique finds. This opens up a whole new realm of possible tuning avenues – it’s not so bad to include one ginormously awesome game-breaking item if you know the player can only use it once, and not just recast it every friggin’ turn. It’s a single player game for gods-sake, allowing, nay, enabling the player to bend the rules occasionally in a controlled manner is just downright good-natured fun. We’ve allowed the AI to cheat for all this time, time to give the player a little big of that funness and not save everything awesome for the computer. It’s not going to go flip-tables in a huff or something being ‘unfair’.
Why not try and make Items in general a more central part of the entire battle system? What if players really had to use them in every day-to-day fight, and not just as back-ups for the occasional unplanned healer death? Why are they so heavily focused on healing and not provide opportunities for play along all the possible ability role axes? Why can’t Items provide just as many skill and command abilities as traditional spells, or even more? Wouldn’t it make stuff like rewards and crafting more meaningful if the end results were *actually* intrinsically useful and unlocked crazy abilities that normal command skills couldn’t? Resource management is a fun aspect of a lot of strategy games, could it work as well in an RPG?
The Soul-Crushing Nature of MP
While I have some sick fascination with item lists, I also kinda hate MP. Like….seriously dislike.
- I already have to keep track of three or more HP bars, each typically in the 1000s. Why do I want to keep track of another big bar per character?
- Big numbers are fun. Usually. Unless you’re requiring me to do mental math every turn on said big numbers, where if I’m off by one I can lose the entire battle because I didn’t save enough room for that one extra heal spell. And I had to do the math under time duress so, errors everywhere.
- While I don’t have direct control over the HP bar (enemies attacking and all) I do typically have direct control over my MP bar and how I spend it. Managing it is much more stressful since I could be the cause of my own demise, and it’s much more satisfying to be pissed at the computer than pissed at myself because I made a a stupid math error, or forgot how much “HEAL ME NOW” cost.
- Refilling the MP bar in most games is a tedious nightmare task. If you’re out in the field away from inns, you can only use items to replenish it (again, typically). However, those items are almost always stupidly expensive and rare. Leaving you to hoard your MP like crazy cause we all know there’s a boss fight coming where you will totally need it. Leaving your Magic Command useless in most battles and ignored during the majority of the entire game. Leaving your primary-magic-based characters sitting on their polygonal thumbs.
There are other things that annoy me about MP, but those are the main ones. So while I didn’t want to ditch the idea of magic and pay-for-use player commands, I did want to throw MP out the window. So I did. This also looked like a good potential area for items to directly play into too. Instead of one bucket that grows to ginormous sizes by the end of the game, why not a few smaller buckets, like, ones that don’t really go over 10? Subtracting anything from 10 is pretty easy on the fly, and easy to remember. And if there were different ‘flavors’ of buckets that could each be individually tuned, could that provide more interesting class roles and command combinations? What if it were relatively easy to restore these buckets, but it just took time and turns in battle, so it wasn’t such a double negative to use magic outside of boss battles and have primary magic-focused guys?
Where That Leaves SNSSRPG
So, that then left me with some kind of ATB-like-waiting-incorporated-menu-based system, one which allowed the player to assign specific roles to characters (again, more on that later), gave items a more central role in battle, and tried to incorporate some form of small-number resource management into the everyday battle experience verses traditional MP management.
Is it completely successful? I don’t know yet. I like the different ‘buckets’ (those being the Shards for anyone who’s looked at the demo), but there may very well be too many to keep track of. Making items more central feels more fun so far, but until crafting is finished and the actual item limits in I won’t really know for sure. At least using pay-for-commands during trash mob fights doesn’t feel as much of a waste to me anymore, and I feel like there are multiple battle paths emerging for those who prefer pure-item usage vs pay-for-command. Wailing on the attack button is still an option, but it doesn’t quite feel like the mandatory default one now. It still does need to be pushed farther of course, but I don’t think it totally sucks. The multiple buckets has also complicated the HUD some, but most of the UI is still first-pass land. There very well could be a better display method I haven’t tried yet.
In unrelated updates, SIEGE is this weekend, and it’s the first I will be missing since I started speaking at it 6 (?) years ago. I think it’s 6. Good lord. It’s still hands down of the best industry conferences out there, and I cannot fully express in words how pissed-off/mopey I am about having to cancel my plans to go. If you’re down in the Atlanta area, you NEED to do yourself a favor, get off your butt and head down to the Marriott Atlanta Northwest for the weekend. SIEGE consistently has freaking amazing speakers, panels, and workshops, and it’s intimate enough that you can actually, you know, see these people around later and get to know them while just hanging out around the conference floor. GDC is lovely and all, but IMHO it’s too freaking big and impersonal. SIEGE wins for me every year, hands down.
Andrew, Abby, Joe, Ben, Valerie, Ian, Katelyn, Harrison – I’ll see you guys next year. :c