May 1, 2013
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Greetings, and welcome to the newest RPGamer column, Indie Corner. This is not a weekly column, but will instead be a sporadic look at the indie RPG development scene. And again, it's not a typical column. Instead of directly reporting about indie RPGs, we'll be bringing in the actual creators to talk about development and other aspects of the RPG scene. Interviews, in-depth discussion, talk of inspiration, and other editorial content directly from indie devs will be highlighted here.

To start things off, we've gotten a few RPG devs to share how they feel about combat and battle systems. We talk about the most important aspects of a battle system, their inspirations, and what combat pitfalls they most worry about falling into and how best to avoid them. Today, we talk with AckkStudios, Sinister Design, Breadbrothers Games, Muteki Corporation, Zeboyd Games, Eden Industries, and Experimental Gamer.

Name: The Brothers (Brian & Andrew) Allanson
Studio: AckkStudios
RPG Project(s): Two Brothers (PC, OSX, Linux, Wii U, Xbox 360), Project Y2K (PC, Wii U, PS4)

1) What are the most important aspects of a battle system to you, both as a designer and as a gamer?

I think it's important for characters to retain their individuality inside of the battle system. It can be jarring having characters that are beautifully written, and then once in battle they basically feel like the same character with new animations and attack names.

2) What are some of the most influential battle systems you've encountered? Why, and how have they influenced your development?

Tales of Destiny 2, Valkyrie Profile, Mother 2, Xenogears, and Lufia 2.

Mainly because all these systems are fast paced, they require you to think rather than just react. I think for me, that's what I find most influential. If the battle system moves quickly and the game requires frequent input from the player, it tends to be more engaging. When designing Project Y2K I am really keeping this in mind. I want the game to feel like a turn based classic, but still keep the attention of all types of players, without sacrificing the strategy that is expected of an RPG.

3) What aspects of combat systems irritate you the most and how do you avoid them?

I would say that it's all about the variety of moves the player has at his/or her disposal. In a lot of RPGs I find myself only ever needing Attack, Fire 2, and Heal...with the exception of finding an enemy that is healed by fire every once in a while, it's rather lame.

With these three moves I can beat the entire game and ignore the catalogue of abilities that the programmers and artists slaved away at making. This makes the combat feel weak and poorly thought out. When I first begin playing an RPG and I can see that it requires quite a bit of strategy with ability variety, I can tell the designers put a lot of thought in to making the system worth exploring.

Links: AckkStudios Facebook, AckkStudios Official Site

Name: Craig Stern
Studio: Sinister Design
RPG Project(s): Telepath Tactics (PC)

1) What are the most important aspects of a battle system to you, both as a designer and as a gamer?

To me, the most important aspects of turn-based RPG combat are what I call The Four Virtues:

  1. Emergent complexity. It creates complex gameplay out of a comparatively simple set of rules.
  2. Clarity. The immediate consequences of various tactical decisions are made clear to the player.
  3. Determinism. The system is sufficiently deterministic that skilled play using a proper strategy will nearly always result in victory.
  4. Tactical tools. If there is some randomness in the system (which there will be in most cases), the player has sufficient tactical tools at her disposal so that skilled play will almost always trump bad luck.

2) What are some of the most influential battle systems you've encountered? Why, and how have they influenced your development?

Shining Force; Disgaea; Fire Emblem; X-COM; Advance Wars; all of these are poster children for combat with clarity and a diverse set of tactical tools that combine to create an interesting possibility space.

Although battles taking place in these systems take longer, I find that they manage to actually make combat tactically interesting. For a kid coming from a Final Fantasy background, that was a refreshing revelation.

And pacing is no response to this. If your combat isn't tactically interesting, who cares if it's fast-paced? "It's boring, but at least it's over quickly" is not a philosophy conducive to good game design. If you can't make combat interesting, your game shouldn't have combat; it's just wasting everyone's time at that point.

3) What aspects of combat systems irritate you the most and how do you avoid them?

My two bugbears are excessive reliance on die rolls to generate tension and an overreliance on obscure rules to generate complexity. Baldur's Gate is a great example of a game which commits both of these deadly sins. Excessive randomness and overgrown rulesets tend to undermine skilled play and obscure the mechanics which govern combat. You'll lose battles because the dice didn't go your way, you'll find yourself reloading when the enemy gets critical hits, and you'll just generally have your time wasted. I'm allergic to having my time wasted.

I avoid these problems by making my combat systems highly deterministic; relying on the interaction of a lot of clear, elegant systems to create a large possibility space; and relying on good AI to generate tension. This gives me all the benefits of constant, invisible die rolls without all the obfuscation and frustration.

Links: Sinister Design Official Site

Name: Ben McGraw
Studio: Breadbrothers Games
RPG Project(s): Sully: A Very Serious RPG (Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation Mobile (Vita/Android))

1) What are the most important aspects of a battle system to you, both as a designer and as a gamer?

As a designer: I try to make sure there are no superfluous skills and that every single skill and ailment has a time and a place where it is by far the best option. I feel like battle systems that have abilities like "Blind" and "Poison" where you can successfully and efficiently go the entire game without using them have failed. Comparing Final Fantasy IV (whose main strategies can be described as 'Haste/Beat/Heal') to Final Fantasy X (which was the first in that series to really offer valid battle usage for every skill) was very educational to me.

Aside: I'm rather fond of FFIV, and it's "gimmick battles" are still an inspiration to me as a designer of RPGs. Nearly all the bosses had some interesting twist...but most mundane battles were, at the most complicated, "memorize the elemental weakness" deals.

As a player: Not being bored and not being annoyed. The diversity of skills and ways to tackle individual battles speaks to not being bored. As far as not being annoyed, I don't want to get into a battle every three steps. When I'm playing a game, there's a certain point where the rote battles stop being fun, and I just wish I can turn them off. Almost every RPG I've played has triggered this response, and one of the biggest factors in how much I like the game really depends on how much I like those battles.

I can still remember the map screen where the first Wild Arms and Lufia 2 burned out my battle joy. And those are two of my favorites.

2) What are some of the most influential battle systems you've encountered? Why, and how have they influenced your development?

FFIV's static party composition and lack of "fluid skills" (where you can move skills between players like with Materia, Espers, etc.), forcing you to go through certain areas with certain party compositions and as such certain skill combinations is something I love. Especially if you revisit an area with a different party later on. There's something fun about an area being a cakewalk with a mage-heavy configuration and then brutal if you revisit it with a bunch of tanks. That tickles me.

Lufia 2 (which is one of my desert island RPGs) influenced me battle-wise with its interesting Capsule Monster side-system. It was both simple to implement and surprisingly fun to play, with its somewhat economical yet visually rich implementation style. I still reference it when I'm thinking up how to script battle effects without breaking the bank.

The aforementioned FFX is influential due to its balance of skills and usage. It's of note that it's the opposite of FFIV's party-limitations-as-a-design-principle, but an interesting variant. Having all party members accessible to you at all times really enabled that "all skills always matter" mentality, and actively encouraged you to use everyone instead of, as is often the case with games that have a large pool of PCs and a small number of active party members, the "buff active A-team" and a "massively underlevelled b-team that you resent when the game forces them to be in your party".

I'm looking at you, FFVI.

3) What aspects of combat systems irritate you the most and how do you avoid them?

Mainly its button bashing and battle frequency being too high that irritate me. If your battles are filler that only exists to pad out your hour count, I consider that to be wasting my time.

To combat the grind syndrome, I'm personally setting the battle frequency low, but I'm also making a boss-battle-only mode (autolevelling if you play like that so you get more skills, etc.) and a no-battle-at-all mode, where everything just fast-forwards ala high-level Earthbound characters or Wild ARMs 3 if you actively skip combat.

Furthermore, if you fail a battle, you get the option to restart from the beginning of the battle, or back at the town without penalty. I personally don't ever want to penalize my players their time or effort if they choose to fight and lose.

Links: Breadbrothers Games Official Site

Name: Adam Rippon
Studio: Muteki Corporation
RPG Project(s): Dragon Fantasy Book I and II (PS3/Vita)

1) What are the most important aspects of a battle system to you, both as a designer and as a gamer?

As a designer and as a gamer, I prefer battle systems that put thought into the balance of speed and complexity. Go too far with speed and you end up with auto-battle or "hit-A-until-the-bad-guy-dies". Go too far with complexity and you end up throwing chicken bones and calculating damage based on the arc tangent of the bone placement. I prefer battle systems that move very quickly when you want them to, and let you drill down for exactly the right move when you need to. I think Dragon Quest does this very well generally (minus load times in some versions), where the skills menu is a rich cornucopia of interesting and well-thought out attacks, rather than just a pile of elemental spells.

2) What are some of the most influential battle systems you've encountered? Why, and how have they influenced your development?

Earthbound's boot-stomp of weak enemies is basically the best thing ever. There exists a certain point where enemies are outside of the mathematically interesting range for battles, so anyone outside of it should basically be discarded. Kudos to Earthbound for pioneering a wonderful mechanic; it's just a shame that almost no other game has adopted it.

Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy both utilized the Active Time Battle system, which for a long time I thought was the best thing since sliced bread, until I tried to adopt a similar philosophy in Dragon Fantasy Book II. DF1's battles were really quick for the style of game, and I wanted to preserve that speed in DF2 above all else. Sure, ATB will create a sense of urgency if you're not particularly quick, but if you're good all they really do is slow you down. I decided not to adopt that idea, and probably won't in the future.

3) What aspects of combat systems irritate you the most and how do you avoid them?

Honestly, what gets my goat more than anything else these days is poor UI design. This has been especially prevalent lately as RPGs have been moving to touch screen devices. Things like scrolling menus that don't work well, little poorly labeled buttons, or a ton of unappealing buttons strewn about all over the screen. I always try to keep things simple - visible stats on one side, a list of action choices on another. The action choices may lead to another list of items or spells. "Run" is an action, so I don't stick it over in the corner or tie it to a button. Also, if you're going to spend more than half of a game looking at a UI, it had better be lovely. So many games lately even skimp on the textbox textures, opting for a stone texture and a simple bevel. Even boring old white borders around a black textbox are more appealing to me, because at least that brings back memories.

Runner up - cool intro animations to mask the load times when entering a battle. When I encounter an enemy, I want to start killing them no less than one second later. Final Fantasy VII, Skies of Arcadia, just about any RPG since 1997, I am looking at you. I avoid this by just ensuring that everything needed to display a battle is loaded all the time - after all, they're pretty much the focus of the game.

Links: Muteki Corporation Official Site

Name: Robert Boyd
Studio: Zeboyd Games
RPG Project(s): Cthulhu Saves the World, Breath of Death VII, Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 & 4 (PC, Xbox 360)

1) What are the most important aspects of a battle system to you, both as a designer and as a gamer?

Speed and encouraging the player to make meaningful choices. Don't waste my time and don't give me a ton of abilities and then encourage me to only use a handful of them throughout the entire game.

2) What are some of the most influential battle systems you've encountered? Why, and how have they influenced your development?

Grandia - For showing how you can make a turn-based RPG still rely on timing. Also, for showing how you can make combat about more than just a war of HP attrition, but actually encourage meaningful interaction between allies and enemies.

Final Fantasy X - For making the entire party feel important despite only having three active slots.

Final Fantasy XIII - The overall game had numerous problems, but the battle system offers much food for thought with its elimination of long-term resource management, making individual battles feel like puzzles, and interesting controllable AI system via class switching.

3) What aspects of combat systems irritate you the most and how do you avoid them?

Long animation sequences and/or load times (which are easily avoided as an indie developer since you don't have the resources to make huge animations and your load times are probably lightning fast). Also, I hate it when combat systems try to mask gameplay depth with a bunch of mini-games and timed button presses (although I have no problem with these elements if they're additions to an already well designed battle system).

Links: Zeboyd Games Official Site

Name: Ryan Vandendyck
Studio: Eden Industries
RPG Project(s): Citizens of Earth (PC)

1) What are the most important aspects of a battle system to you, both as a designer and as a gamer?

Two of the most important aspects of a battle system to me have already been mentioned by others, but I thought I'd throw my two cents into the mix regarding those points. Adam mentioned the problem of "hit-A-until-the-bad-guy-dies" or as I like to call it, "Mash A to win". Without sufficient motivation to explore the depth of the battle system, battles become a meaningless (and mindless) death by attrition. For example, some Final Fantasy games have such long summon animations that I opt not to use those abilities, even if strategy would dictate it. I want to play my games, not watch them. So instead, I just slam the 'A' button until the fight is over, opting for increased damage per minute instead of the most glorious strategy. In other games, replenishing your MP (or similarly themed resource) is very difficult, with few items or means at your disposal to accomplish it. The result? Don't use abilities that consume MP. Just mash 'A' until the enemies are dead and save MP for the boss.

Robert and Ben both mentioned the problem of many games providing numerous options to the player when in practice only a few are useful. This purposelessly muddles the battles for the player and in a sense encourages you to forego experimentation and just stick to what works.

From both these points, I'd like to derive one key principle that I believe is very important to any battle system: there should be no consistently dominant strategy. Whether 'Mash A to win" gets you through battles so fast that you don't need anything else or there's a clear strategy that you can apply to most every battle (like the Haste/Beat/Heal strategy in FFIV that Ben mentioned), the result is the same: the depth and breadth of the battle system is trivialized. Although ensuring that a battle system is balanced in such a way that multiple strategies are viable may be easier said than done, I believe it's absolutely essential.

2) What are some of the most influential battle systems you've encountered? Why, and how have they influenced your development?

Although at first I was really irritated by it, I've come to really respect Pokémon's battle system. Having to distill a huge possibility space into just four actions is an insane exercise in strategy. The really interesting thing about it is that once you've done this, each Pokémon only has four abilities to choose from in battle. This forces interesting choices every round while eliminating the "choice paralysis" that occurs in many other games when you have dozens of actions to choose from! This has influenced my development in appreciating the value of having fewer, more interesting options rather than an overload of abilities from which only a small number seem viable. Moreover, there's no "Mash A to win" in Pokémon. Thus this system fulfills my key principle above of ensuring there's no one dominant strategy.

I'd like to agree with Adam regarding his mention of Earthbound as well. Although actually I think in-battle Earthbound was less innovative that what it did in the world to prepare for battles. So the key features are the auto-win example Adam mentioned, and also how nearby enemies will join in the fight. Not only does this respect the player's time in simply foregoing uninteresting battles, it allows the player a measure of strategy in trying to set up favourable conditions for entering the battle. And again, to Adam's point, I think it's crazy how more games aren't doing this! In order to do my small part of righting this grievous wrong, I've included both of these ideas into Citizens of Earth.

Finally, I'd like to mention the battle system in The World Ends With You. Although having to manage two characters on two separate screens was pretty difficult for me personally, the sheer amount of stuff you can do controlling the main character with just the stylus is unbelievable! With the incredible diversity of options available to you in preparing your character for battle and the fabulous control you have over these options in battle, this game again fulfills the principle of not having a dominant strategy.

3) What aspects of combat systems irritate you the most and how do you avoid them?

Well I sort of answered this in part 1. It's irritating when any dominant strategy emerges that trivializes the battle system. In order to avoid this, I try to provide a clear motivation for using all of your abilities, and ensuring that the number of abilities available to a character hits a nice sweet spot of allowing diversification and choice without causing choice paralysis when confronted with too many options to manage.

Another thing that really bothers me is random battles. While it's possible that some people really like random battles, I'm guessing they're in the vast minority. Solution: don't have them.


Links: Eden Industries Official Site

Name: Dave Welch
Studio: Experimental Gamer
RPG Project(s): Boot Hill Heroes (PC, Xbox 360)

1) What are the most important aspects of a battle system to you, both as a designer and as a gamer?

Character customization and rewarding the player for clever customization. As a designer, I want the player to be able to discover their own custom strategies to win battles, rather than just the strategy that I force them to figure out. For example, some games have "puzzle bosses" where the player has to figure out the strategy set forth by the designer in order to win. Instead, I want the player to have the tools to create their own custom winning strategy, especially if it's one that I didn't even know was possible.

As a player I feel like I'm in the same boat as many RPGamers who prefer avoidable encounters over random encounters. I understand the purpose of random encounters and they have their place in some RPGs (like Etrian Odyssey). Here the point of the gameplay is managing your finite resources against an unknown set of encounters. But games that do not rely on resource management as an important aspect of the game design do not need to risk making the experience tedious by throwing out random encounters

2) What are some of the most influential battle systems you've encountered? Why, and how have they influenced your development?

Pokémon, for the same reasons Ryan pointed out. You have many potential moves, but you have to settle on four. This makes battles faster, by eliminating so many choices, but also forces the player to invent their own custom strategy for a character.

The Tales series, in particular Tales of Vesperia. I've never seen a game pace out battle mechanics so perfectly. Rather than explain every part of a battle from start, a new battle mechanic is introduced every few hours. So just when combat starts to feel lose its freshness, a new mechanic is introduced that makes it fun again. This also prevents overwhelming and confusing the player by explaining it all at once through some kind of tedious tutorial.

3) What aspects of combat systems irritate you the most and how do you avoid them?

In most RPGs, you'll go through many environments fighting hordes of random monsters from killer houses to repo men. More often than not there is no clue about the motive of these enemies. Do they want to eat us? Rob us? Do they work for the villain? Seems like RPGs, a genre that focuses on story, miss an opportunity to relate these random encounters to the overall story.

In Boot Hill Heroes, I thought the least I could do was have a quick introductory message to battles to explain the context of why you are fighting (even if it can be flimsy sometimes). But I've always wanted to see an RPG go further in this regard: not only giving motives to the enemies, but working that into the gameplay where you can win battles not just by clobbering your enemies with weapons but by addressing these motives. For example, feeding a steak to a vicious wolf or buying off a greedy thief. The trick would be to pull this off while still maintaining fun gameplay.

Links: Experimental Gamer Official Site

That's it for this episode. RPGamer would like to thank this wonderful gathering of indie talent for taking the time to chat with us about how they view battle systems. I've always found combat to be a make or break aspect of an RPG and agree with many of the statements shared here today. On one hand, I don't like getting into random encounters every few steps, but if those battles are quick and enjoyable, I'll be fine. On the other hand, I've played many a game with on screen encounters that were more annoying, took longer, and were even more unavoidable than random encounters. In the end, it all comes down to design and balance, and both sides can work.

As stated here today, there is way more to making a good battle system than simply avoiding one aspect like random encounters and there are many aspects that can ruin one. As many mentioned in this feature, making every character and skill useful is an important aspect to me, but so is keeping combat fast and engaging. Ideally these areas will blend, but it doesn't happen nearly often enough.

- Michael A. Cunningham

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