Sunday, June 30, 2013

Classic RPG Combat - Objectives

This is the final post in a three part series.

My first and second posts rambled on about different combat systems and their resources respectively. Now we will finally tie them together: how do they work together to make a game that is both challenging and fun?

RPG Combat Objects

Ask the following questions about every battle that you are in:

  1. In what way do your choices effect combat?
  2. How do your tactics vary between battles?
  3. What distinguishes a boss battle from a regular fight?

I am going to select three games to answer each question. Obviously there are many more games with many more answers, but this blog series has already gotten really long, so please feel free to add to this list by posting in the comments!

1. In what way do your choices effect combat?

Chrono Trigger - Often in Chrono Trigger enemies will have specific elemental weakness that trigger debuffs. For example, dinosaurs are weakened by lightning attacks, and ogres with hammers lose their weapon when attacked with fire. This means that you must choose your party so that you have access to the magic types needed to beat select areas.

Final Fantasy 7 - You equip your characters with Materia that gives them magic abilities, your characters then learn these abilities over time. Because any character can equip any Materia, you get to decided which characters will learn defensive spells versus offensive spells. This means that you can custom and choose who will eventually fill the rolls of healer and DPS.

Fire Emblem - You must choose what characters to bring into battle, which characters to level up, and which characters to let die. The choices you make with every move impact more than just the battle itself, it will impact the course of the entire game.

2. How do your tactics vary between battles?

Mario RPG - Combat is simple, but the timed attack system offers variety with every battle. If you choose to pay attention in battle, your timed hits and dodges can completely make or break your chances of succeeding in combat.

Lufia 2 - In Lufia 2 you have two types of ability resources: a standard mana bar that drains down with use, and a SP bar that builds up based on damage taken. The fact that you can not always rely on both resources being available for every fight means that you will not always have access to all of your spells. This forces you to mind your resources and alter tactics based on their ever changing availability.

XCOM Enemy Unknown - Yes, XCOM is a tactical RPG! In the latest version of XCOM, different missions will take you on to different types of terrain. When out doors, my snipers dominate the field of battle, claiming the vast majority of kills for my squad. However when force to play in door missions, my snipers line of sight is greatly reduced, and I am force to use other character classes such as assault and support to complete the mission.

3. What distinguishes a boss battle from a regular fight?

Golden Sun - Most regular battles in Golden Sun are both quick and easy, where as bosses often pose a significant challenge. In regular battles enemies are dispatched with your first round of attacks, in stark contrast boss battles require you to cycle through your Djinn (summons that double as status buffs) in an exercise of both endurance and strategic planning.

Might of Magic: Clash of Heroes - All battles in Clash of Heroes are essentially a puzzle game. Boss fights vary the combat by completely changing the standard object of the puzzles. Against bosses you often have to target specific moving targets. In puzzle challenges you have to complete battles with a predetermined set of units in a finite number of moves.

Final Fantasy 6 - FF6 is full of little tricks to make boss battles distinct. At several points in the game you have to command three groups of characters at once on a tactical battlefield, forcing you to create balanced parties of characters that not only fight off multiple groups of enemies but also defeat and end boss. Additionally, they have fights like the Phantom Train, where the use of a phoenix down can defeat the boss with a single blow.

That is (finally) all I have to say about that.

Game on,
Tom

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Classic RPG Combat - Resources

This is the second post in a three part series.

In the first part we talked about classifying RPG combat systems. In this part we will discuss different resources used when in combat. In the third post we will tie this two subjects together and discuss what objectives are being accomplished by combining these mechanics.

Identifying RPG Combat Resources

In any game of strategy you have a finite number resources at your disposal, and it is how well you use these resources will determine whether or not you will emerge victorious. This analysis will speak very in very objective terms, treating characters as resources, no different from their spells and equipment.

  • Resource Points
  • Active and Passive
  • Learned vs Equipped

I will not be discussing items, this is because from a strictly combat context their use is no different than an ability with a finite number of uses, and their stats are only relevant to long term progression.

Resource Points

Mana is a very simple, very finite resource; tour party starts with full mana, and special abilities use up this resource until it runs out, and then you have to use special items or designated locations to restore your mana. The whole point is force you to conserve your resources, to challenge you to avoid using your most powerful abilities. This of course is only one way to limit your use of special abilities.

World of Warcraft's class system contains a perfect showcase of unique resource management mechanisms.

Priests and Mages have mana, a resource the counts down. The warrior gains rage by dealing or receiving damage, making rage a resource that builds up. Rogues have both energy and combo points, making them a hybrid of both previous systems; energy being used up similar to mana, and combo points are built up by abilities similar to rage. Death knights use three unique pairs runes, each of their abilities takes a different combination or runes. Thus runes are consumed similar to mana, but the resources are partitioned into multiple buckets instead of one, creating a wonderfully dynamic down down resource.

Games like Lufia 2 have a hybrid combination of Mana and TP. In Lufia your mana counts down like any typical turn based combat engine, but your TP builds up as you take damage. Your characters then have abilities that are fueled by on resource or the other. This is similar to Final Fantasy VII, where you can replace the TP with the limit break system.

A complete departure from these is the super simple AP system from Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes or Light. In it all characters have only 5 AP points, one of which recharges every turn, and every action requires consumption of a variable number of points. If attacking costs one point, then you can sustain attacking indefinitely. However if you use a powerful attack that drains all of your AP, then you will be helpless for the next turn or two while you regenerate your AP. This system is elegant in it's simplicity, yet highly strategic in the short term versus long term cost benefit that it forces you to consider with every action.

Active and Passive Abilities

Everything we have discussed up until now has been about active abilities. This is where the player explicitly chooses an action for their character to execute. This is pretty straight forward and obvious, so we'll move on.

Passive abilities are taken by characters in response to other actions. A counter attack is a perfect example of this, where a character will attack in retaliation for being attacked. A fun variation of this from Final Fantasy: Tactics is Hamedo, where the character being attacked will preemptively counter attack before they are even struck. Another common passive ability would be to apply a debuff to something that attacks your character, such as poisoning them for example. Passive abilities do not only apply to the direct target of an action, passive abilities can also be used tangentially. In Final Fantasy VI, Shadow's dog Interceptor can block attacks made against other party members.

Combination attacks can also be considered passive actions. In games like Disgaea and Fire Emblem Awakening, characters standing adjacent to each other in combat can assist in attacking, thus dealing additional damage without consuming turns or resources. However not all combination attacks are passive, in Chrono Trigger the characters combination attacks must be explicitly selected and consume both player turns.

Learned vs Equipped

Many abilities are inherent to a specific character, while others are able to be selected by choice. Systems that offer you choice take two primary forms, the first being the choice equip specific abilities or items a la cart, and the second being a class system where abilities are inherited in bulk. Of course some games offer a hybrid of these systems.

Mario RPG is an example of the simple and straight forward character specific system. As Mario levels up he will unlock new his own unique new spells, as Bowser levels up he will unlock is own unique new spells, and so on.

Final Fantasy VII has an a la cart skill system. Every character has an attack based on their own unique choice of weapons, but their abilities beyond that are based entirely on their choice of equipped Materia. Any character can equip any Materia, so anyone can become the main healer or damage dealer.

Final Fantasy III and V have class based skill systems. Each character takes on a class that comes equipped with a specific set of skills. Knights attack with weapons, Monks attack with fists, Black Mages attack with magic, White Mages heal, and so on.

Final Fantasy VI has a hybrid system. Each character has a completely unique set of abilities that only they (and Gogo the mimic) may use. However they also learn magic spells from Espers (summons) that they choose to equip, thus allowing you to customize which abilities your characters gain later in the game.

Final Fantasy Tactics has yet another hybrid system. Each character has a class with a distict set of skills, but then the character may also equip a small handful of skills learned from classes that they have leveled up previously. This allows characters to cross class and take the best skills of one class to help offset the weakness of another. For example you may take a Knight that has limited movement, and then equip the Ninja ability of +3 movement to help offset their disadvantage.

To be concluded in Part 3...

Friday, June 28, 2013

Classic RPG Combat - Genres

This is the first post in a three part series.

In this first part we will talk about how to classify some basic combat systems. In the second we will talk about resources and abilities in combat. In the third and final part we will bring these together and talk about what objectives are being accomplished by combining these mechanics.

Classifying RPG Combat by Genre

At the top level there are basically four distinct types of combat systems. Below these four categories you can continue to subdivide the genre further, but for the most part that will only consist of grouping different permutations of specific mechanics; none of which are necessary for this analysis.

  • Turn based
  • Tactical
  • Action
  • Puzzle

Admittedly modern technology has allowed many RPGs, specifically western ones, to significantly blur the lines between these categories. World of Warcraft's abilities are active turn based, while it's motion is action oriented, and it's modern raids are extremely tactical.

For the sake of simplicity, let's consider this a classical review that covers only console games from the 8bit through 32bit eras.

Turn based

Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy defined this genre over 25 years ago, and both still adhere to the fundamental design. Your characters line up on one side of the screen, the enemies on the other, and you take turns attacking until one side is defeated. This is by far the most common combat system in the entire RPG genre, and is used still to this day by the majority of JRPGs.

The two most common sub-genres here would be turn based or active time battle combat. This is the difference between having to enter your team's commands all at once, like the 8bit Final Fantasy games, or entering each characters actions as they are ready to take a turn, like the 16bit Final Fantasy games.

Another common set of sub-genres that are worth pointed out would be Active versus Passive combat. The simple distinction being whether or not combat is paused while you make action selections from your menus. Some games, such as Chrono Trigger, allow you to choose whether or not you want this enabled.

Side Note: The creative team behind the original Final Fantasy described the game as being their attempt to create a digital version of Dungeons and Dragons. I find this funny as D&D is an American invention and the FF combat system feels distinctly like ancient Greek warfare, where the two sides line up to attack each other. The irony being that America won it's independence from the British Empire very specifically by breaking these classic European rules of combat.

Common Complains: This combat system is often associated with very grindy game play. You will very likely experience a few thousand of these turn based battles throughout your time beating the game, and the vast majority of them will be won by clicking attack over and over again. Additionally, with this particular combat engine completely saturating the traditional RPG market, it has been noted that more recent games often lack any deep mechanical innovation.

Tactical

To be fair, Chess was the game that first defined this combat system. You have a series of units on a limited field of play, each unit constrained in its range of motion and actions, and you fight to defeat the other forces on that battlefield. Like chess, most of the time there are only two opposing forces and the field of play is a grid.

Fire Emblem is considered to be one of the most successful, influential, and defining game series of this genre. Fire Emblem is just a standard grid based tactical game with one major addition: it added the rock paper scissors mechanic to it's combat. This extremely simple addition to the game play added a level of depth and strategy to this genre that is still imitated to this day.

Another defining work in this genre was Final Fantasy Tactics. What FF:T brought to the genre was an abundance of customization, making combat driven around unique abilities that were not specific to characters but to classes. This then allowed players to heavily customize their armies, and to create a seemingly infinite number of distinct tactical combinations. (Yes, I know that Tactics Ogre came before FF:T and was from the same creative team, it just was not as commercially successful as it's successor.)

It is worth noting just how diverse the tactical combat genre is: Civilization, X-COM, Heroes of Might and Magic, all of these games are considered to be tactical combat games. Again, for this analysis I am just focusing on early generation console games.

Common Complaints: The tactical combat system is often a game defining system, as in combat itself will comprise the majority of game play. Battles will usually be very long; in contrast to turn based combat which usually takes only a few minutes per encounter, tactical combat can often take an hour or more to complete.

Action

More commonly referred to as action adventure, an action RPG has a combat system wherein the protagonists take up arms and freely walk around the map to attack their enemies in real time.

For the definitive example of this genre, we need look no further than the Legend of Zelda. Link takes up his sword and shield and walks across the world hacking and slashing his enemies to death. In this game the world and town maps are the the same as the combat maps.

Other examples of action adventure include the Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu) series. Key differences between SOM and the Zelda are that there are multiple protagonists working together in combat, as well as the addition of a more a traditional leveling system.

Games like the Tales series take a unique twist on action combat by separating the world map and combat engine, so that combat encounters are played out in a side scrolling battles more akin to fighting games. The Tales series could be described less as action adventure, and more traditional RPGs with action elements.

Common Complaints: The is the genre that termed the phrase "hack and slash." The majority of game time spent in this genre of games is comprised by walking up to other units and pressing attack over and over, and it grow stale rather quickly. Additionally, hack and slash combat itself is often criticized for being overly simple, requiring very little strategy or skill to win encounters.

Puzzle

I would be remiss not to mention that recently there has been an influx of puzzle RPGs to the gaming market. Games like Puzzle Quest and Dragon Puzzle take the simple bejeweled style puzzle game and place in into an RPG as the combat system.

Far more impressive is Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. This game is a completely unique and innovative take on puzzle RPG combat. You move color coded units between the columns on your battlefield, and lining up units vertically will charge them, while lining them up horizontally will cause them to form a wall. There are multiple races, each with their own unique units, all of which have special skills, and level up as you play. Clash of Heroes was awarded game of the year by RPGamer when it was originally released for the Nintendo DS in 2009. You many now get this game on DS, PC, iOS, and soon Android; I highly recommend that you check it out.

Common Complaints: This is a relatively new genre, but the major complaint that I have heard is that it hard to find the intersection of these two target markets. Puzzle gamers do not enjoy the RPG elements, and RPG enthusiast want to hit things with swords more than they want to solve puzzle.

To be continued in Part 2...

Friday, June 14, 2013

E3 2013

This is mostly a tech blog, but in honor of E3 I am going to make this a game month. I will return to my regularly scheduled .NET blogging in July!

Microsoft

The internet is a blaze with just how poorly Microsoft handled the reveal of the Xbox One, and I have no interest in beating a dead horse. Yes, their price point is too high. Yes, their DRM seems extreme. Yes, they fucked up. No, they did not do anything to make up for it.

I actually like a lot of the ideas behind the Xbox One. I like the kinect responding to voice commands, I like the all in one media center, and while I disagree with always being online I can not lie and say that it directly effects me.

However the lack of exclusive games dries up any interest that I have in the "Xbone". Battlefield, Final Fantasy, Batman, Kingdom Hearts, and almost all of the other AAA titles will be available on multiple platforms. Project Spark looks really good, but I will play it on PC. The only exclusive title that really appeals to me the Panzer Dragoon "Sequel", Crimson Dragon; unfortunately that is certainly not enough to get me to pre-order.

Having had the privilege to attend E3, I would like to offer the following observation: Mircosoft's showroom was like a museum, you could look but not touch.

Sony

What amazed me the most about this E3 was not how badly Microsoft failed, but how much Sony succeeded. For the past few years it looked like Sony could do no right, and now they have turned that around almost overnight!

The PS4 is a staggering $100 less than the Xbox One, it will not be region locked, and the Vita will allow remote play for all PS4 games similar to the Wi U's game pad. These are all great features, and they are backed up by a broad lineup of games for the PS4, Vita, and PSN.

All that being said, they are still as devious as ever. Sony is trying really hard to down play their DRM that, while not as obtrusive as Microsoft's, is still very real. Also, the PSN will no longer be free, but it will still be cheaper than Xbox Live. I want to emphasize that Sony is trying really hard to dodge these facts, only talking about them in private press sessions.

The bottom line: Sony was obviously desperate to win this generation of console war, but their come from behind victory at E3 2013 just goes to show that if you try hard enough you really can accomplish anything. They have done well.

Nintendo

While Microsoft's showroom was a museum, Nintendo's show room was a candy store; and if Sony peaked my curiosity, then Nintendo captured my attention. If you have not figured it out yet, let me spell this out for you:

I think that Nintendo "won" E3, hands down.

I say this for one reason and one reason only: Nintendo brought the games! On the Wii U there is a new Mario World, a new Mario Kart, a new Donkey Kong, a new Smash Brothers, and a HD Zelda. On the 3DS there is a new Zelda, a new Yoshi's Island, a new Pokemon, a new Smash Brothers, and a new Mario RPG. It was literally Christmas come early; I started and ended my day in the Nintendo showroom, I wanted to play every game on that floor, and I loved every minute of it.

Admittedly I am a fan of all of these franchises, so perhaps I have a slightly bias opinion on the subject. However everyone must admit that Nintendo brought their A team, and that lineup dwarfed the competition. While Nintendo is undoubtedly "playing it safe", and admittedly there is nothing "new" in their arsenal, yet I can not help but be excited by the vast library of games that Nintendo has announced.

Summary

Hardware years are exciting, especially at trade show like E3, but I feel that they see to take away from the games themselves. While you could argue that Nintendo sat this year on the sidelines, I say that they brought the games, and that is all that I care about.

Game on,
Tom

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