Dragon Quest 9 marks the first time that a non side story DQ title was developed for a handheld. With that change in platform the designers have added in a few tweaks to the standard Jrpg formula but it feels that the more things change the more they stay the same.

For the uninitiated DQ 9 is the ninth game (duh) in the long running series that has achieved immense popularity in Japan but has not reached the same status in the US. The game mechanics in past DQ titles basically go down the “Jrpg checklist” which I’ll talk about later on. The story unlike past DQ titles is more inconsequential then most Jrpgs. The plot can be summarized with “bad stuff happens, find magical items to make things better again”; the light story does give justification to allow the player to create a custom party using the job system.

A job system allows the player to define party members with different professions that determine their abilities and skills. Personally I love job systems as I enjoy creating my own custom party. In DQ 9 you begin the game with 6 vocations (aka jobs) with more unlock-able later on. The vocations fit the usual RPG trappings with warrior, priest, and mage and so on. What is special however is how the vocations work in DQ9.

Each vocation has its own base stats and five skills that you can pump points into. Four of them are weapon or equipment based with the fifth unique to the respective vocation. Placing points into the equipment skills will give you either bonuses when using the equipment or an ability to use in or outside of combat. While the fifth skill will give you unique abilities and permanent increases to attributes related to the vocation. Each character you create can become any vocation and the character will level up each vocation separate from the other ones.  The twist comes from the interplay of abilities between the vocations.

Spell caster vocations will unlock spells as they level up but they are non transferable between vocations. However any abilities either for equipment or the class specific skill will transfer between vocations. The exception for equipment is that the character must equip that piece of gear with the new vocation to use those skills associated with it. What this means is that the player can mix and match abilities with their characters to increase the utility of their party. For example you could give a priest the ability to steal items like the thief or the martial artist the ability to take damage intended for a weaker target like the warrior. The only thing that is stopping you is the time required to level up your characters in each vocation which sadly leads into my problem with DQ9.

Earlier I talked about how DQ9 follows the Jrpg rulebook to a tee and one of those points is unfortunately unsatisfying combat. Thankfully the designers have at least changed things up to allow the player to see monsters on the field instead of the ubiquitous random battle system seen in past Jrpgs. However once you get into a fight you’ll realized that it’s the same thing done before. 


The problem is that the majority of the spells and abilities you get are useless in the grand scheme of things. Regular enemies are easily dispatched with the basic attack command or if you have a spell caster, whatever your strongest spell is at the time. Buff, debuff and aliment causing abilities are not needed for normal fights and the hit rate on some of the abilities are so low that it doesn’t make sense to use them in place of a regular attack. The times where these abilities are the most useful is of course during boss fights but even then the same rules apply. Aliment causing spells have an even less chance of happening which means you’re just trading blows with the boss for ten minutes.


With combat being the most used system in DQ9 having the gameplay built around it, the game really suffers from it. Earlier I talked about how you can unlock additional vocations with side quests however these quests are some of the worst designed quests I’ve seen. What you need to do in most of them is to kill a specific enemy with a specific skill under a specific condition. The problem is that some these conditions make no sense towards the profession in question or to general tactics in combat. One requires me to use a martial artist skill to power up a sword skill that is normally used on dragons to kill slimes… what? These quests take the concept of grinding from MMOs to a whole new level as at least with MMOs you don’t have to change your profession to complete the quests.

Granted these quests are completely optional but it ruins in my opinion one of the best features of a job system, being able to create your own party from scratch. When I played the Etrian Odyssey series I have the majority of the classes available from the start, each one being unique. In DQ 9 while the new vocations do add new abilities they don’t seem as unique as the ones featured in the Etrian Odyssey series. I feel the problem comes from how four of the five skills available per vocation are interchangeable and there is only one skill that is unique. With combat as bare bones as it is there is no real reason to not keep a standard RPG party of warrior, healer, mage at all times.

To be fair to DQ 9 the problems I have are not solely stuck in DQ9 but are problems with most mainstream Jrpgs. This is why I prefer the lesser known series like Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey as they have greater depth in their combat systems compared to other Jrpgs. There is more to DQ9 then what I’ve mentioned here, such as the alchemy system and randomized dungeons to find but in my mind they can’t fix what is already broken.

Most RPGs with poor combat I can muster through with an interesting story, and those that have poor stories I can at least get into the amazing combat systems but with DQ9 I don’t have either. It doesn’t matter how many additional systems, side quests, online features or randomized dungeons your game has. If the main gameplay system is underutilized and not done well then the rest is just fluff in my eyes.

The main reason I bought DQ9 was because I was in need of another customizable RPG fix before Etrian Odyssey 3 comes out. After playing about 10 hours of DQ9 I decided to go back to EO2 and create a crazy party and attempt to run through the game with them and I can tell you that I do not have one standard mage, warrior or healer among the group.


Josh

P.S If there is a way to use any “gamer clout” I’ve earned to get an early copy of Etrian Odyssey 3 that would be sweet.

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Today’s entry is all about the action genre. In most cases the game play itself can seem pretty basic to the casual observer but having played the best examples over the last two generations there is more to consider when developing an action title.

( Note: For this entry I’m going to use the term “encounter” to describe a fight the player must complete to proceed in the game).

Develop a Baseline: A “baseline” for this entry can be defined as the absolute maximum situation that the player can deal with using their basic skill set. There is no exact science to determining this and several factors can be used, some of which are topics mention later in this entry. For example in God Hand the player can easily fight one normal enemy at a time but throw in another enemy and the player will need to step up their game. While in God of War Kratos can usually handle anywhere from one to six normal enemies at a time.

The reason why this is important is that by developing a baseline it will allow the designer to understand the balance behind each encounter with enemies and scale them to give the player a fair challenge without overloading them. A side bonus is that as a designer you can start to see how the various groups of enemies will play out against the player. Such as can the player deal with five un armed enemies, or three sword wielding enemies or three normal enemies and two large enemies?. Now creating an exact baseline is impossible, while the designer can see a lot from looking at the mechanics involved, player skill level is still the main factor and the only way to really gauge that is to play test the hell out of your game and even that won’t give you a perfect blueprint.

Another importance use of the baseline is to also determine the weakest parts of your combat system. The reason of course is to not design your encounters around these sections. Yes they will be challenging but it will be like trying to do jumping jacks with your hands handcuff. An example of this in action would be with Ninja Gaiden 2, in the first one Ryu is incredibly capable of handling enemies in close range but long range fighting was a bit troublesome. Ryu can attack enemies while zoomed in with a bow but that leaves you open to any attacks. He can also attack without zooming in but it is very hard to hit the enemies you want due to a lack of lock on and the camera.

Team Ninja was smart and kept the encounters mainly to close range with a few sections that required the bow. However with Ninja Gaiden 2 the very first level involves Ryu dealing with long range snipers while having to fight enemies close range. Then a few chapters in a boss fight were all about having to use the bow to attack him while the camera was never pointing in the right direction. Eventually this and a few other questionable decisions made me give up playing Ninja Gaiden 2.

Panic Button: The concept of a “panic button” has been in most action titles and is used as a way to get out of a sticky situation. The common themes behind a panic button in action titles is that most likely it will make the player invulnerable while it’s being used and is an excellent way of dealing with a lot of enemies, in Ninja Gaiden Black Ryu had his ninja magic attacks while Dante of the Devil May Cry series has demon form.

To have or not have a panic button mechanic is up to the designer however it is important not to balance your encounters with the panic button in mind. The reason is that if you design a fight that requires the panic button and the player has already used it, they will be in a lot of trouble.

Difficulty: I’ve talked about the concept and usage of difficulty levels in past entries and I feel that with action titles difficulty settings can be very hard to balance. The reason goes back to player skill, for some players “normal” could be easy for them and for others it could be too hard. Tweaking stats in action games in my opinion is not the right way to go. You’re not making the encounters harder for players but instead lowering the amount of mistakes the player can make before they will lose. If an encounter is annoying on medium, then it becomes frustrating on hard.

Ninja Gaiden Black in my opinion still ranks as the best action game to use difficulty levels. On every setting, enemy stats do not change at all, the blue ninja on “easy” hits as hard as they do on “very hard”. The difference is that when you are playing on “very hard” you’re not going to run into the blue ninja, but his bad-ass brother the red ninja who has more tricks up his sleeve.

Because of the skill level required to play action games, the overall difficulty curve of the game should actually decrease the further the player gets, as their skill improves they should be able to handle fights easily. For example I had a friend over once who tried Ninja Gaiden Black on normal and couldn’t even get past the first boss fight. When I play NGB I cannot play the game on normal anymore after playing it on very hard because I find it too boring.

Weapons: Another detail that the designer must make a decision on. Most often action titles that are more about hand to hand combat won’t have additional weapons the player can use (picking up a pipe or a temporary weapon doesn’t count as it isn’t indefinite). In order to make a good weapon it must serve the purpose of adding utility to the player’s arsenal. There should be a reason to switch from an axe to a sword for example.

God of War 3 was horrible in this regard, Kratos has four main weapons and three of them are bladed weapons attached to chains. There’s no real purpose or reason to switch between them. Contrast this to Ninja Gaiden Black where each weapon has a different move set and purpose. Ryu’s dragon sword is different compared to the bow staff or berserker sword and there is a tactical reason to switch between them.

The reigning king on this matter should be obvious to those who have read my past entry on the genre is Devil May Cry 3. Not only is each weapon different from an aesthetic standpoint but they also have completely different combos and attack styles. You weren’t going to confuse the Beowulf gauntlets with Dante’s rebellion. Throw in styles that altered things further and the ability to switch between weapons in mid attack and the attack options became astounding.

The best defense … is still a good defense: Don’t let that popular mantra fool you, defensive options are important for any action game. There must always be a way to mitigate damage because trading blow for blow in any action game will get you killed. In my opinion there are two broad categories for defense: passive and reactive.

Passive defense are mechanics that allow the player to avoid damage with very little risk, such as evasive rolls, a block and jumping out of the way. Some titles make up for allowing the player to block by having some enemies have unblock-able attacks. With these types of actions the player will either avoid the damage or get punch in the face but it still gives them a viable tactic to use.

Reactive defense are mechanics that allow the player to effectively punish the enemy for attacking them, the best example would be counterattacks. These types of mechanics have a big risk/reward factor as using them correctly not only mitigates all damage but also does a sizable amount to the enemy in question. Of course missing the chance means the player is going to get hit with the full force of the attack.

The more defensive options the player has the better in my opinion, my idea for an action game features at least 5 different ways of defending from attacks. The reason that you want a lot of them in my opinion is that it will allow you to up the ante when designing encounters. Let’s say you have a “professional boxer” type enemy whose punches are so strong that he will break through your standard block every time. This will require the player to switch to another option to deal with those types of enemies.

One detail to avoid is only having one main form of defense, because if you design enemies or encounters to nullify that ability then you are basically screwing the player. In Bayonetta, the player has access to one defense option for the majority of the game and that is evading. To offset this, the designers reward players who have good timing with witch time, allowing the player to slow down time after dodging right before an attack connects. However later on in the game the player will encounter enemies who will not trigger witch time when you dodge their attacks and some sections that nullify it.

The big problem is that when you take away this feature Bayonetta’s combat system falls apart in my opinion. Her attacks rarely stagger enemies meaning that you rely on witch time to get in and attack them. Without it the game becomes frustrating to play. To be fair the game does allow you to buy an item that allows counterattacks but with a huge price tag means that most players will not be able to buy it until much later in the game.

Upgrades: Along with difficulty levels I’m not a fan of a lot of upgrades in action titles. The reason goes back to the difficulty curve that should be in action titles. The player should be improving their skills at the game to make the game easier, not purchase uber upgrades to trivialize the action. Another effect of this is moving important mechanics to the upgrade system to be used as a reward. This is a bad design decision in my opinion, you should not “reward” the player with vital mechanics that could have been used in the first place.

I hated God of War 2 for this issue, starting out Kratos lacks the ability to counterattack enemies and have to play through a good portion of the game before getting the upgrade. Ironically fighting a boss which the ability to counterattack would have made things a lot easier.

The best use of upgrades is to supplement the player’s skill and reward them with more options to use in a fight. In Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden Black, both games feature weapon upgrades but besides an increase in attack damage they mainly add new combos for the weapon. What this meant is that getting these upgrades isn’t going to make me a better player, but will give me more options to use in combat and work well with my existing skills. The key is at the start to give the player enough tools to survive and reward them with more options to add to their strategy,

Health: I haven’t seen too many discussions about the health system in action titles, most likely as the same model of having to find health items have been used since its inception. I feel however that there should be a change in this regard, recently Ninja Gaiden 2 tested the waters by having a portion of Ryu’s health regenerate after combat. In my opinion I’m in favor of a full regenerating health system after combat. The reason is that the designer will no longer have to worry about health placement or if a player will have enough health for the next encounter.

By removing that constraint the designer can start developing off the wall encounters and truly test the player’s skill. The problem with the current system in my opinion is that it becomes an “elephant in the room” in the sense that the rest of the systems and design have to be built around it. For example if a game requires the player to fight through twenty encounters in a row before getting a health item and the player doesn’t have enough health to finish #20 then they are screwed. This mechanic to me feels like a left over from the old days as an arbitrary decision to make the game harder when it doesn’t need to be.

In my mind the three best action titles so far would still be Ninja Gaiden Black, Devil May Cry 3, and God Hand in that order. Having played almost every major action title this year (still waiting on Dante’s Inferno to go down a bit further), I’ve yet to see one that could knock one of my top three off its pedestal. You should not need to dumb down your action game but give the player the right tools required to step up.

Josh

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(Note: The following entry contains massive spoilers for the opening of Half Life 2 as it is the only way to provide examples on this concept)

Going back to my entry on FEAR I briefly touched on this concept of sectional game design and for this entry I want to expand on it. To begin here is a base definition:

Sectional Game Design: To design levels as a set of different sections as opposed to a single theme.

Many video games have an overall theme that sets the pace of a level. From finding a mcguffin at the end, killing everything in sight or a simple turret defense level, each one of these levels is primarily made up of one mechanic or interaction. Sectional Game Design however instead removes that theme and instead develops a level section by section to deliver a different experience between each one. Currently the developer I’ve seen use this the most effectively (and the basis for this entry) would be Valve with the Half Life series.

In HL2, levels are not defined as in other games as having a clear start and an end that whisks you somewhere else. Instead the start of a level is shown by a 5 second caption. To get started, in my opinion the following are the classification of game play sections in HL2:

Shooter: The player fighting the Combine with their standard armaments.

Exposition: Player is listening to NPCs talk about events, there is no combat during these sections and the player has to wait for it to end before moving on.

Transitional: Player moving from one section to another, there is no fighting during this section and the player can take their time moving through the section. Secret caches of items could be found during this part.

Puzzle: Player has to solve a puzzle to get where they need to go. Sometimes there may be enemies here.

Event: The player takes part in a specific event doing something different that most likely will not be repeated in the game (Example: driving a specific vehicle, defending an area, etc).

What Valve did with HL 2 was for each level, the player is constantly going back and forth between these five sections. Now I’m going to break down a part of the first level of HL2 to explain this.

(Exposition) The player is listening to G Man talk and wait for the train to arrive.(Transitional) Getting off the train the player is free to look around the train station as far as the Combine solders will let them. (Exposition) The player is going through a checkpoint and gets pulled aside by a solder and gets taken to an integration room. Here the player meets Barney and after talking for a few minutes the player is told to find their way to a lab and gets pushed out the door.(Puzzle) Stuck in the room the player must stack boxes to create a makeshift platform to get out of the window. (Transitional) The player explores the courtyard and apartment complex of City 17. (Event) Walking into a raid the player is attacked by Combine solders and has to flee through the complex and onto a roof to escape. (Exposition) After being knocked down the player is saved By Alyx who then leads them to the lab to meet up with Barney and Kleiner. After talking the player is put through a teleportation portal; they end up outside and are told by Barney to find a way through the city. (Shooter) Armed with a crowbar the player can start attacking enemies.

There is more to the first level of Half Life 2 but I’m going to stop there. What I just described was most likely about 15 to 20 minutes of play time (unless the player spends a lot of time in the transitional sections). Noticed how many times the player switched to a different section and now picture how the rest of Half Life 2 can be defined like this.

There are two big advantages of sectional game design. First is the pacing, by keeping the interaction of the player constantly changing it makes the game space flow a lot better compared to titles that just have the player doing one thing for 30 minutes. Later on in HL2 there are some sections that are just a minute or so long but that it is still enough to keep things moving along.

Another advantage which I know sounds corny is that it gives a sense of scale to the game. The title really does feel like an adventure when you take out the concept of levels. When you are describing the game to a friend you’re not talking in terms of “fire level, ice level, etc” but instead you discuss the moments that happen like ” racing across the desert, last stand in a city, etc”.

So far I’ve spent the majority of this entry on Half Life 2, however there are other titles that follow this concept. Action Adventure games lend themselves well to this as they are already split from the genre title alone. The Legend of Zelda series splits the game play between over world and dungeon and then within the dungeons split things further into puzzle and action segments.

Credit goes to my friend Corvus (Elrod) for reminding me of Psychonauts, here the game is split between exploring the camp and then the minds of the people you run across. Each mind was designed to emphasize a different mechanic and personality. Within each mind the game play is further broken down with different sections or challenges the player will have to face, such as going from a platforming segment, to solving a quick puzzle and ending things with a boss fight.

Recently the Super Mario Galaxy series is another excellent example. In essence the game is just sections of platforming goodness made bite sized for the player to explore. Granted you could argue that we just have a bunch of levels but I would say that since the average galaxy takes about five to ten minutes (not counting retries) to finish a challenge does keep things sectional.

My next example comes from Out of This World (with the re mastered version available on Good Old Games /end plug). OOTW is pure sectional design, there are no breaks in the game play and the only real way the player knows that they have moved on is through the checkpoint system. While the game play is simplistic the atmosphere and minimalistic story make the whole greater than the parts. For OOTW I would categorize the sections as the following:

Transitional: Moving from one screen to another where the player is not in danger.

Puzzle: Player has to solve some puzzle, such as finding a way to open a door or kill a guard.

Shooter: Player gets into a laser fight with the aliens.

One important detail is that “Puzzle” in OOTW could be considered “Event” sections from Half Life 2. The reason is that OOTW is so short that the encounters and situations don’t repeat themselves giving the game a sense of variety in the challenges. My final example is both a good use of sectional design and an example of what not to do with it and I’m reaching into the way back machine for this.

Star tropics and its sequel Zoda’s Revenge was a two game series on the original Nintendo, the first one came out in the late 80s and the sequel was in 95 I believe. Both were classified as Action-Adventure titles and that is also how the game’s sections were defined. During the adventure segments, the game was played from a top down view similar to the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games. The player explored looking for information and hidden items to give them access to the dungeons where the action takes place.

The action segments still take place from a top down view but it is zoomed in, similar to the original Zelda or Crystalis. The player goes from room to room in the dungeon fighting creatures and looking for hidden paths and items. In the first Star tropics the player can only move and attack in the cardinal directions. This became challenging when fighting enemies who can move diagonal as well as the bigger boss enemies. For the sequel the developers not only allowed the player to move and jump in any direction but also allowed them to control their movement in mid air.
Putting both titles side by side, Zoda’s Revenge is more refined during the action segments thanks to the improved controls, however when we look at the complete picture, this is where in my opinion the original beats the sequel.

In the first Star tropics the adventure segments had a purpose and their own challenge for the player, such as the piano puzzle or finding your way through a maze. It was a way of challenging the player and giving them a break from the combat. In the sequel it started out the same way with the first two chapters but after that the adventure segments served little purpose. There were no puzzles or reason to explore, they were just there to fill a gap it seems in the game play or to pad out the game. What this amounts to in my opinion is that it gave the original better pacing and made the experience grander because of it.

The challenge of sectional design is that there has to be purpose to each section, whether it is used to give the player a break or set the stage for a fight. Looking at the games I mentioned it’s almost like writing a script for a TV show or movie scene by scene. Also you can’t have a section last for a long period of time such as for more than 30 minutes as it’s not really a section anymore. For example action titles that have the player fighting for 20 minutes then stopping for 2 minutes to solve a puzzle then going back to killing. The great part about Half Life 2 is how quick the game transitions between each section.

One final important detail to note, sectional game design should not be taken from this entry as the holy grail of game design. There are plenty of great titles that succeed by polishing and refining one or two game mechanics and go from there. Genres such as strategy and fighting would not work with this kind of development in mind and I feel that standard multi player games would be very difficult to develop like this.

For designers looking at improving the pacing of their games, breaking down their title section by section is a great way to see what works, what doesn’t and where things need to be improved and can turn a game from a linear sequence of events to a grand adventure.

Josh.

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