As much as I love JRPGs, there is one problem that can somewhat drag the experience down, which is random encounters. Some people can tolerate more random encounters than me, most can tolerate less. I`m generally pretty forgiving when it comes to random encounters, but in really long dungeon with only a few different battles, even I will get tired of fighting the same battles over and over again. I will talk about some ideas I came up with for reducing random encounter fatigue for a game I am developing.

There is an alternative to random encounters that is sometimes explored but I`m not really sure if it has an official name. The earliest I can remember it being used is in the SNES game Earthbound, and more recently it was in Final Fantasy 13. The idea is that there are a bunch of enemies running around the dungeon and if you bump into one you will enter into a battle. Now this is a good system if, and this is a big if, you want to avoid battles. If you want to fight battles, or more likely if you find the boss too difficult you need to grind a level or two to beat him this is a bad system. Every single game I’ve seen that implements this system makes grinding very inefficient, because after bumping into all the enemies you have to leave and reload the area to get more enemies to fight.

Now you might say if the game is well balanced you won’t need to grin levels and a few battles will give you enough experience to beat any boss. Well the response to that some people are better than others at playing the game and no matter what somebody will need to grind levels to beat the boss. And this is okay. That’s the whole purpose of leveling up is to make it easier. You make the game exactly as hard or as easy as you need it to be. Fortunately I came up with a solution. I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder if this is not an original idea but I cannot think of a single game that uses this, so I will cautiously claim credit for this idea unless someone else can show an earlier instance of its use.

The idea is to allow the player of adjust the rate of random encounters or even turn them off. I wouldn’t recommend turning it off unless you are really hardcore, because most people will probably need at least a little bit of experience and gold to beat the bosses. But for people who want a challenge at low levels you can turn off the battles to give yourself that challenge. If you are having a lot of trouble with a boss you can briefly crank up the random encounter rate to grind a level. If you really love the combat you can leave the random encounter rate cranked up all the time. If you are deep in a dungeon and you are almost out of Health and healing items you can turn off the random encounters and safely make your way out.

Now up till now the idea is for this to be a Final Fantasy-esque  jrpg, with a small twist that you have several rows and you and the enemies can advance left and right across the battlefield. Of course giving people the ability to reduce or even turn off random encounters changes things a bit. A key part of Final Fantasy is preparation, buying the right equipment and stocking up on items, and then being slowly worn down by random encounters as you fight through the dungeon. Now that you can reduce and even turn off the random encounters the dungeons lose their edge. Now random encounters are not there to wear you down, they are optional battles to prepare you for the bosses. Really this game stands or falls on how interesting the boss battles are because that’s the only part that isn’t optional. I do have some ideas for making that interesting which you will see over the next couple of months.

Another problem is that with random encounters greatly reduced the game is going to be pretty short. Even with random encounters padding it out, I’d be lucky to for the game to be half as long as a Final Fantasy. One idea I thought of is to add a few puzzles to the game, which isn’t really that uncommon for a jrpg to have puzzles in its dungeons, which will add maybe a couple more hours to the game.

Also this adjustable rate of random encounters is only part of my plan to reduce random encounter fatigue, the other is to add more variety to the battles. As I mentioned in a previous post each row can have values which give bonuses to defense and magic defense for the units standing there. One thing which was really easy to do is to randomize which rows gets bonuses and to set certain limits on what the bonuses would be. Another is to randomize the type, number and location of enemies for each battle. Its not completely random there are certain rules so that long range enemies tend toward the back and melee guys end up near the front, but even within certain rules there is room for variation. I need to adjust that algorithm a bit but so far randomizing the random encounters to produce a wide variety of battles is showing great promise.

I believe the two things I mentioned in this post should go a long way toward alleviating random encounter fatigue, and possibly eliminating it entirely. Only time will tell if I am correct. I was planning on releasing a rough demo to demonstrate the core battle mechanics some time this week, but then I realized, even though its technically got some playable functionality, its still in a really rough shape. I really don’t have anything to gain by releasing a demo this early. Maybe in a couple of weeks. Maybe if I’m feeling brave I’ll post some screenshots or videos showing off the graphics I made for this game.

 

Since my about the author page is a bit lacking at the moment I’m considering adding a bit from this post to it when I get the chance.

In the Myers-Briggs personality classification thing, I am an INTJ. Now people may not put a lot of faith in these sorts of tests, and yes I am a little skeptical myself, but the description they give for INTJ is pretty accurate. Depending on where you go on the web you might get slightly different descriptions of the types, but most of places I’ve read describe INTJ as “system builders” or are in some way interested in systems. Usually examples are given that INTJs are interested in things like computer science, engineering, language, law etc. because those all deal with systems. All those things are quite interesting to me to varying degrees but there is type of system that is the most interesting.

I am of course talking about video game. My favorite games are tend to be A) incredibly complex systems with many different variables to consider,  B) turn based to give me a lot of time to consider what to do and C) the characters you play as grow more powerful and you have some choice in what areas the improve in and what skills they learn and D) a minimal amount of randomness, a little bit is okay but it shouldn’t have any affect in the long run, and victory and defeat shouldn’t ride on random chance.

Now I do like to play games that don’t have these elements but those are the ones that I like the best. It usually leads to a situation where you can “break” the game. This is a situation where a some powerful weapon or armor, or some ability of the player, or some combination of these elements renders the player so powerful that none of the enemies stand a chance. The game is effectively “broken” because you can’t really lose unless you try.

Now some people think a well balanced game shouldn’t ever be “broken” no matter what weapons or abilities you get you should still face a challenge. I disagree, I think breaking the game is the reward for understanding the system. Balancing the game is just a matter of how easy is it to break, not making it impossible to break. If there’s doomsday weapons lying around at the beginning of the game and the game is broken with no effort than it is poorly balanced. But if breaking the game requires using several different abilities together in such a way that only someone who deeply understands the system would think of, that is a better game in my opinion. A game that rewards people for understanding the system, and the better you understand it the more broken it is. While really powerful weapons and armor are nice to put in a game as a reward for some quest, that alone should not be enough to break the game, it should only augment the game breaking strategies that the player comes up with.

Now as I mentioned INTJs are well known for building systems and I have made a few attempts at making games and am continuing to do so, and the games started out simple but are now growing to somewhat interesting level of complexity. As I am making the game I try to go by my own beliefs about what makes a good game, a complex system that rewards people for understanding it. If people come up with some combination of abilities that breaks the game and makes it easy, I wouldn’t be terribly upset, in fact that’s what I want. Although I don’t want it to be too easy to break the game. No single ability should be too powerful, but if people find interesting ways to combine abilities, that’s great.

I would say designing interesting game systems is probably some of the most fun I’ve had, aside from playing in those systems of course. Although I’m not a huge fan of making graphics for the game, or even programming the user interface for that matter. I wish I could just design the rules for the game and nothing else, but the other parts of the game have to be built or no one an play it.

 

As I mentioned in the last post I have been working on a game in game maker. The combat is similar to any turn based jrpg, with the main difference being that in this game you the characters can advance left and right across the battlefield and every character has a range they can attack. In general you have your tough melee characters go in front to take the brunt of the enemy attack, and the characters with magic or ranged weapons take potshots form the safety of the back rows.

Now the first problem I thought of with this battle system is that each side will advance toward each other and once they are within attacking range the battles will basically be the same as any other jrpg. Nobody will bother moving once they are able to attack the enemy. To deal with this problem I have come up with some ideas to encourage movement as much as possible.

First off, one of the player controlled characters has the ability to place mines. When a enemy enters that row at a later time, they will take massive damage. This is an ability that encourages the player to retreat rather than advance.

Another character has two related abilities, knockback and pull. Knockback, in addition to doing a little bit of damage, will move enemy unit back one row, if there is space for it to move there. If you are taking massive amounts of damage fighting several tough melee enemies at once, knocking one of them out of range while still doing some damage can make the situation more manageable. Pull does the opposite it takes an enemy from 2 rows away and pulls them closer, if the row is not full. This can be useful if there is some wizard dealing massive damage from out of range, and you can pull him close and deal with him on your terms.

Another thing I added to make battles more interesting is that certain rows will offer defense bonuses. This will work well with another ability one of the characters has, which is teleport. Using that the character can teleport to any row in the battle that is not full or occupied by an enemy. Since players and enemies cannot occupy the same row, if it looks like enemies will reach a row with a defense bonus before you, you can have the character teleport there and hold the row until everyone else arrives. Now this could be risky, because the character who can teleport is a spellcaster which mean he can’t take as many hits as some of the stronger characters. The magnitude of the defense bonus and the enemies being faced in this situation will determine whether this is a good strategy to use or not.

In addition to those there are the usual jrpg battle options, several types of healing spells, and attack magic. The more costly magic spells not only do more damage but will have greater range. There are also items to do things like restore HP and MP. And if none of those options are needed at the time, a character can always wait.

The combat system is basically done. I may need to add more abilities, or adjust the the ones I already have to cost a different amount or do different amount of damage, but most of the abilities I wanted are in the game and seem to be functional. I will need to do some serious testing to make sure all this works properly but so far the battle system works exactly as it is supposed to. A more serious problem is getting the user interface to not be absolutely horrible. And of course I’ll need all sorts of stuff that exists in the game outside of the battle, like shops and equipment and stuff like that. Basically I’ve worked on nothing in this game except for the battle system.

Last summer I screwed around a bit with game maker, and made a pretty crappy game, but I did learn a bit about how to use game maker so it wasn’t a complete waste. This summer I shall try to top my previous efforts. I am attempting, so far with a bit of success to make a jrpg. However it has a bit of a twist to it. I got the idea from reading this blog post about crafting a forum RPG ruleset.

The basic twist on this that I got from his post was to have the battle take place along a one-dimensional line, so in addition to normal commands like attack, magic and item, this game will also give you the ability to move left or right. Now how will this affect combat? Well depending on what weapon you have equipped this will determine how many spaces left and right you can attack, magic spells will also have a range.

So far this doesn’t seem too complicated, just put ranged people behind melee people and gradually fight your way across the battlefield. This is where various movement abilities come in. Teleportation spells will allow you to teleport behind the enemy and sneak up on their weaklings in the back, and they can do the same to you; certain abilities will allow you to knock back enemies or pull them closer; flanking will require you to fight enemies from both directions at once; some people will have abilities that are effective at different ranges forcing a choice on whether to put them in front or back. Even if movement is only along one dimension, there are many possibilities for interesting movement abilities which in addition to the normal complexities of a jrpg, will lead to a very interesting experience.

So how far am I? Not very. The first thing I did was to make a turn scheduler, because this is a turn based game after all. Basically everyone has a variable called readiness, which starts at zero. Every time the game steps through its main loop, it goes up by another variable called agility. When readiness reaches 100 they get a turn. Once their turn is over their readiness goes down, and the loop starts again until the next person gets  turn. Characters with higher agility get turns more ofter. Simple enough.

Next I made some rows, and gave the player and enemies the ability to move left and right along these. The rules are pretty simple, players and enemies can’t occupy the same row. And only a maximum of 3 characters can occupy the same row at the same time. After making the move command I quickly decided to make a wait command, so that if the enemies got boxed in and had no where to move it wouldn’t crash the game!!! The turn will only end if they do something, so wait is the fallback if no other actin can be taken, then it will do nothing and still end the turn.

After that I gave everybody an HP variable and gave everyone the ability to attack which will take down the HP, and when it reaches 0, the player or enemy will die. I even gave all the characters a range variable which will determine how far they can attack. And that’s basically it, attack, move and wait are the only 3 commands implemented so far. I am working on magic, but its not done yet.

So after I get a variety of magic, as well as implement an item command, that’s pretty much the core of the combat mechanics. I mean I might need tweaks here or there, as well as expanding the list of magic and items, but that’s the pretty much the main aspects of the combat right there. After I get that done I guess I can work on making a few more types of enemies and build the first dungeon of the game, then decide what to do next after all that is done.

I guess in the long term I will need some sort of leveling system for characters to grow more powerful, and shops to buy items and equipment, also I guess I’ll need to implement equipment. I’ll worry about those things a little later.

Edit: Now that I think about it that paragraph on attack doesn’t really do it justice. Suffice it say there are variables such as strength and defense which will determine how much damage an attack will do. You don’t really need the specific details.

The title might make you think this is about educational games, but its not. This is about a far more important question, can game developers force boys and girls to play together nicely? Everything I remember from elementary school says this is an impossible task, but maybe Nival can solve this problem, with their new game Prime World.

Details about this game are scarce, but after visiting several different sites I managed to piece together a fairly decent picture, I like to think. Basically they give males a discount for playing male characters and females a discount for playing female characters, and it connects to facebook to verify the gender. So they “strongly encourage” shall we say, people to play as their own gender, and the characters of different genders will have different abilities, which will encourage people to form teams with characters of both genders.

Now there are a lot of different reasons for people to be against this idea. People play characters of different genders for all sorts of reasons, and having what basically amounts to a penalty for playing as a character of the opposite gender, has upset a lot of people. Since offering player choice should be highest concern of any video game developer I could never support a game that deliberately discourages player choice in this way.

Other than being bad game design its doomed to fail. The first signs of trouble for this plan was that within a couple days of this news being posted on gaming sites, I’ve already seen dozens of comments of people stating their intention to make fake Facebook accounts so they can still get discounts while playing as the opposite gender. If people really don’t want to play with people of different gender they will come up with creative ways to get out of it. I’ve seen children figure out creative ways to avoid the opposite gender and I’m sure teenagers and adults can figure it out as well.

Of there might be some unintended side effects of this policy. Normally when you play online games you don’t really know anyone’s gender for sure, but in this game you know a character’s gender is probably the same as the person’s gender. Expect all sorts of disturbing creeps to flock to this game, and harass girls. I mean, more so than in other online games. I understand creeps harass girls in other online games, but now that the developers have gone out of their way to make everyone’s real gender known to the public, its only going to exacerbate that problem.

Although I will never support this game, and I’m sure they are completely wrong with what they are doing here, I am interested because there is a small chance they might just have some success with their goals of getting boys and girls to play nice together. If this does work, teachers might learn from these game developers. Maybe all assignments that are done in groups, every group that has mixed gender can get an extra 50% on their final mark.

So if there’s any other issues, other than the 0bvious, that creeps and perverts will now harass women because they can’t hide their identities, by pretending to be men, like they sometimes do in other online games. Feel free to leave a comment detailing any other issues you have with this.

Before I even start talking about Fear 3, I should mention a larger trend which seems to be poisoning the entire FPS genre except a few specific games. That problem is that they are all pretty much the same. The so called “realistic” FPSs, with the same boring weapons, and you can only hold 2 of them at a time, and of course when you get shot your screen turns red until you take cover and then your health regenerates.

Now I know people see Call of Duty sales and want a piece of that, but it doesn’t exactly seem like copying CoD as much as possible is really a good idea. Now I’m no expert but I imagine if people like playing CoD, they will just continue to play CoD, and they do, they don’t have any reason to waste money on some crappy knock off.

So Fear basically gave up its greatest quality, actually standing out from a sea of generic FPS games, and decided to make its primary design decision was to abandon anything that set it apart from the crowd, and to make a cheap CoD knockoff. The biggest change from previous games in the series is that your health now regenerates like in every other FPS, rather than having to rely on a limited number of health packs to restore health. So of course any tension at all is completely lost, in exchange for fast paced action.

Another change is that rather than holding 3 guns at a time you can only hold 2, obviously because the generic FPS club must have made some rule that you can’t carry more than weapon at a time and Fear 3 wants in on that club. Now I prefer the “unrealistic” games that let you carry every weapon in the game at once, but even still the games that let you carry 3 or 4 weapons are usually okay too. For some reason the difference between 2 and 3 weapons feels really big to me. That’s the difference between hanging on to a rocket launcher or some other super weapon with very little ammo, even if I don’t need it anymore, and saving it for later; and dropping it in exchange for a gun with more ammo. Its just too limited to waste a gun slot on something that only has a few shots, if you only have 2 weapon slots.

Another thing about this game is that they really don’t want you to play this single player. Like Army of 2 or Resident Evil 5, this is part of another, thankfully less common, trend in video games is that the developers want you to play co-op and will make the game a hellish experience if you want to go solo. You can either play as the moronically named “pointman” or Paxton Fettel. Pointman is just generic FPS gameplay, with the slo-mo ability from previous Fear games. Paxton Fetel is a bit more interesting, he can possess the bodies of enemies.

Now for most of the game its a lot easier playing singleplayer as Fettel, but there are a couple parts that are ridiculously hard as Fettel. There are some enemies, that can’t be possessed by Fettel, and his only recourse is to shoot some weak, I don’t know, blobs of spirit energy at enemies, and its not very effective at all. And these enemies that can’t be possessed charge at you and can kill you in a few seconds. So when you get to sections of the game that have tons and tons of that type of enemy, its just ridiculous bullshit. This and so many other things clearly indicate they did not want people playing singleplayer.

And another thing is that the story is complete bullshit. Paxton Fettel is the villain in the first game and for reasons never explained he is now working together with pointman. And even stranger he came back as a ghost, for some reason. I mean lots of people get killed in these games, who haven’t come back as ghosts. Even the slightest hint of an explanation for why Fettel specifically came back would be cool. And even stranger is that Fettel is a ghost who can be killed by bullets somehow. I guess it makes him double dead, which is twice as bad. The story is just nonsense piled on top of more nonsense.

Unlike previous Fear games which were shown entirely in first person, this game has cutscenes in between levels. Unlike other games where your characters might have conversations to drive the plot forward, we are given something even better, long monologues by Fettel while pointman silently stands there like an idiot. Silent protagonists can work in games, but it usually hinges on not showing long scenes of people talking to them while they just stand there looking stupid.

So that’s all I have to say about this game. It a generic mediocre FPS. Although admittedly playing as Fettel and possessing enemies is kind of fun, once you possess them your back to the same generic FPS gameplay, so it doesn’t really improve the game a ton. Almost forgot to mention, previous Fear games at least had somewhat spooky atmosphere with weird visions and some long stretched without enemies to build up tension, but thats pretty mcuh all gone in exchange for more nonstop action. Only a very few spots in the game have anything approaching the spooky atmosphere of previous Fear games.

No doubt people will read this and disagree. If you do actually like the game I would be interested in what it is that you liked about it. The main reason for writing this is to refute an argument somewhere else. Jeff Dunn from the Escapist has written an article tearing down a straw man argument for why fans don’t like FF13. Get this, the reason fans don’t like it because it tried something new, and didn’t fit into the classic template of final fantasy games.

Now if you’ve ever played more than one game in the  Final Fantasy series this might seem like a pretty odd. Doesn’t every game in the series try new things? Some more than others. Final Fantasy 13 tried more new things than some games and less than others, but on the whole its pretty average in that regard, not some huge paradigm shift the article makes it out to be.

I could list every single game in the series and list the new things they tried, but that would take a long time so I’ll just go over a few games in the series, for more details about Final Fantasy games check out this series of articles I randomly found online, which goes pretty in depth into each game and should give you a better idea of how each and every game was unique ans tried things never done before in Final Fantasy.

Well I should start with FF2. Right from the start they were trying things not done in the first game. Gone were the set classes and instead every character could use every weapon and use every spell. And instead of just gaining experience and leveling up, each stat leveled up on its own. The more you used magic the better you got at magic. The more you used physical attacks the better you at physical attacks. and so on. Although they had some similarities the differences led to a very different experience in the first 2 Final Fantasies.

Final Fantasy 4 was the first game in the series where the player had no control over the abilities of the characters. In 1 and 3 you could choose the classes of the characters, and in 2 there where no classes but you decided which spells the characters learned. Taking all the control out of the players hands was a significant change, but its overshadowed by the real game changer of FF4, the active time battle system. No longer could you just wait around all day to decide what to do on your turn, now enemies would continue to attack you. The ATB system would be a part of every final fantasy in the main series form then on, with the exception of 10. Even though 12 and 13 have made some changes to the battle system its still based on the ATB system at its core. Final Fantasy 4 was a greater paradigm shift than anything 13 has to offer.

And what about Final Fantasy 8? Most people either love it or hate it, because it had a lot of really strange changes. Like 13 there is no MP. You have to first draw magic from enemies or special draw points, which will give you a stock of magic to cast later on. Or you could junction magic to your stats to increase them, with different spells increasing stats by different amounts. It was really weird. And you could summon GFs which are basically comparable to summons/eidolons/espers in other Final Fantasy games. However rather than just being instantly summoned and doing damage like in previous games,  it would take some time to summon and while this was happening, the GFs could be attacked and even killed.

And another change is the stripped down equipment in FF8. There is a lot of variance in the equipment in the series. Some games let you have helmets, body armor, gloves, boots etc. Some only let you have a single slot for armor and one for weapon, and maybe an accessory. FF8 was the most stripped down with no armor at all or accessories, and only a weapon. You couldn’t buy new weapons but you could upgrade them if you had the right parts and found the magazine that tells you how to make it.

And really this wouldn’t be complete complete without mentioning FF12. No more battle screen where your guys stand on one side and the enemies stand on the other and you take turns walking over to attack them and then running back to your own side. No this game you fought monsters right in the dungeons with no transition to a battle screen, and you could move you character around during the battle. Some attacks had an area of effect, so where your characters where standing could make a difference. I mean FF12 was a far greater departure from the supposed Final Fantasy template than 13.

So that pretty much destroys the straw man that fans hated FF13 just because it tried new things. I don’t know what sort of template he thinks Final Fantasy games fit into but if it includes games as diverse as FFs 4, 8, and 12, then it must be broad enough to include FF13 as well. It just so happened that the new things they tried in this game mostly sucked. But before I get into that I should mention one change in the game that I did like. There is no MP for using magic in this game. There is an ATB gauge that fills up as in most previous games but its divided into several sections, and more powerful actions take more sections of the ATB gauge. So basically you have to wait longer for powerful actions. Its a new twist on the classic ATB system and I thought it was pretty interesting. So much for hating things just because  they’re different.

Now lets get into some problems. The straight line dungeons of course being they main issue people complained about. Unfortunately this problem has been a long time coming. Way back in the playstation era FF7 had far shorter and more linear dungeons than previous games. It wasn’t quite as bad as the later games and there was still a world map in between dungeons and towns to give some sense of exploration, but anyone who played the older FFs would notice a huge difference in the complexity of dungeons in FF7.

The problem got worse in FF10 when the world map was done away with entirely and all you had to explore was the dungeons, which were shifting to be a bit more linear. Really, FF13 is only a little bit worse than FF10 in terms of linear level design. Its not some huge paradigm shift its just a trend started in the PS1 era finally brought to its ugly conclusion.

So what other changes were made? Well buying items is basically meaningless. Stocking up on items doesn’t have the same impact as it did in previous games. There are far fewer items, and since you get restored to perfect condition after each battle, the items you do get are basically superfluous. Generally in FFs preparation is more than half the battle. With the exception of a few bosses you can skate through the games pretty easily as long as you are prepared, with the right items and equipment. The preparation aspect is completely destroyed in FF13. That alone wouldn’t be so bad if there was some areas of the game that were actually interesting, but there aren’t.

The combat is hopelessly dull, where you can autobattle most of the time and win without thinking. Any enemies that are tough enough where you have to spend some effort are only interesting the first time, and once you figure out how to beat them, its the same every time. Now you might say the previous Final Fantasy had repetitive battles, and you’d be right. The difference is that previous games the battles slowly wore you down. You tolerated the repetitiveness because it wasn’t about the individual battles, but about preparation and endurance. Now the only reason for the battles is gone, and they are just an annoyance that will never have a chance at defeating you.

This is turning out to be a lot longer than I expected and I could just go on and on, but this might go quicker with a quote from Sid Meier, “A game is a series of interesting choices.” So what are the interesting choices in FF13? There really aren’t any. This isn’t some new direction for the series to go, the combat is still built around the ATB system, and it has only minor differences from previous games. The only difference is that they stripped out all the interesting choices. No exploration, no wandering around towns talking to NPCs, and stockpiling items to prepare for a dungeon, no conversation choices, extremely limited choices in battle and in most cases autobattle is the ideal choice anyway. The leveling system is basically the sphere grid from FF10 only less interesting and more restrictive, which I scarcely thought possible.

I’m not one of those people who hated Fallout 3 because it was an FPS rather than a turn based RPG. If Square-Enix wanted to make some completely different gameplay for FF13 it may have pissed a few people off but me and plenty of others would have been happy with it if it actually had interesting gameplay. It did not do anything new, its just a stripped down version of the final fantasy core mechanics, and what was left had no interesting decisions. If they want to make a more streamlined game, okay I’ll give it a shot, but they’ve got to give me something, anything. Some aspect of the game has to have interesting choices.