When the CRPG genre first became popularized they were influenced by Pen and Paper games like Dungeons and Dragons in party creation. Here players would build their own party out of the available classes such as warrior; mage, priest etc then go questing. The integration of PnP mechanics became synonymous with this style of CRPG.
This past decade however we’ve seen a sharp decline in class based rpgs in lieu of epic storytelling and less personalization. The recent trend of CRPGs is either the Bioware style of customizing one person only with a party of pre-created characters or just having a one person party such as with the Elder Scrolls series or The Witcher.
Interesting enough where the CRPG genre moved away from this style, the JRPG genre moved in. In the past both Final Fantasy and the Dragon Quest series have experimented with class systems with different iterations. In the last few years the class system had a resurgence on the DS thanks to the Etrian Odyssey series. Last year three different rpgs were released on the DS each with their own interpretation of a class system: Dragon Quest 9, Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light and Etrian Odyssey 3.
Personally I love class systems as they offer both customization and personalization. Today I’ll be examining the important elements to take into consideration when designing a RPG with class mechanics. For this entry I’m going to reference Dragon Quest 9, Etrian Odyssey 3 and Final Fantasy as they are the most recent examples of class systems.
1. Balance: There are two sides of balance in class based rpgs: Balance between the classes themselves, and balance with the challenge of the game.
One of the problems in my opinion with older RPGs is that even though they offer the customization of different classes, the classes are so rigid in their abilities that you are forced to take certain classes to stand a chance.
In most class base RPGs the player has the choice between popular PnP archetypes: Fighter, Mage, Priest and so on. A fighter for example would never be able to use healing spells, and a priest will never learn offensive magic. The problem with designing the classes so rigidly like this is that it forces the player to include certain classes to stand a chance.
Now some gamers can make the argument that you don’t need to include a mage or a priest to give the game a challenge. However I would argue that if the player has to handicap themselves to make your game challenging then that is bad design.
Looking back at the three games, each one found a way to avoid this problem. Both DQ9 and FF allow you to swap classes while EO 3 splits weapon type and similar effects across the different classes, such as close range fighters who can inflict elemental damage with certain attacks.
With balance across classes, the designer has to be careful about not creating useless classes. For example let’s say we have five different classes, each one does the same type of damage. Now if one of the five does three times the damage compared to the other four and has better abilities, why would you pick any of the other four at all?
The more classes you have, the greater the chance of having copycat classes or inferior ones. In FF while the abilities are unique to each class, many classes have limited use outside of a specific battle or specific purpose. Once you unlock a class that has the best attack stats it doesn’t make sense to switch to another if you are just using your weapons.
EO 3 created unique classes that were as far away from traditional archetypes as possible. None of the classes felt like copies of others and the variety of skills meant you weren’t forced to take one class to get through the game.
Balance with the game is tricky. In traditional rpgs the designers know what type of party composition the player has at any point in the game and can create bosses and encounters around that knowledge. In a class based rpg however the designer won’t know. The player could have a party of nothing but mages, or all warriors. The challenge is that the designers need to create battles that are still challenging but at the same time should not brutally punish the player for not including a specific class.
This is where things get complicated as with a variety of classes it can be hard to design this. For example in EO3, I am replaying it right now with a party that has no dedicated spell caster and a healer who also focuses on damage. At this point I have no clue if I am signing my death warrant with this composition.
I wish I had a simple answer on enemy balance but I don’t. This is one of those cases where I don’t think it is possible to please everyone. One element that would help is making all enemies susceptible to debuffs and status ailments, including bosses. If you have a game where the bosses are immune to status aliments (for example most Final Fantasy games) that right there forces the player not to use those classes in their party.
2. Customization: Like balance, when it comes to customization in class based rpgs there are two sides to look at: the initial classes themselves and growing the class in game.
Simply put, you want variety with your classes. If you have a warrior, Viking, gladiator and pirate class and they all do the same kind of damage the same way then you are doing it wrong. One of the many ways I love the EO series is that the designers seem to make it their mission to get away from the traditional RPG classes.
FF offers a decent variety with their classes with each one given a unique buff further differentiating the various classes. In DQ 9 you start off with a few initial classes and through side quests you can unlock further classes.
When it comes to growing classes over time, this is where I’ve seen RPGs have trouble. First off if every class has the same upgrade path, that can be just as bad as having each class start the same. In FF every class has the same pattern for upgrading and there is no additional choice for the player. This eventually renders the class system moot once you have your preferred classes fully upgraded.
DQ 9 is the worse of the three in my opinion. When you level up in DQ9 you’ll receive skill points that can be put into one of the skills of the class. Get enough points in the skill and you’ll be able to use abilities related to that with other classes. The problem is that it isn’t customization when you can give a character every skill in the game.
Granted most gamers are not going to spend the hours on end to get to that point, but the point of customizing a character is to create something unique, not a clone of every class. Improving your character by deciding which skills to improve first at least offers some choice compared to FF.
EO 3 gets it right in my opinion. Each class has a list of skills unique to it for the player to choose. Putting one point in a skill will give you that skill to use, put additional points to enhance it. This allows the player to improve their character in a variety of ways; most offensive characters have skills dedicated to one of the possible weapons the class can equip.
Later on in the game you’ll unlock the ability to give your characters a sub class, which is giving them an additional class’s list of skills to use. The reason why this is not a problem in my opinion compared to DQ9 is that the player is still limited, they can only take one sub class per character and you only have so many points available.
In my opinion in terms of worse use of a class system to best I would go: Dragon Quest 9, Final Fantasy and Etrian Odyssey 3. In case you haven’t noticed I am a huge fan of the Etrian Odyssey series. I like how there is no “one way” to play the game and how even with the game being on the hard side, it still is fair.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, as mentioned at the start I haven’t seen a class based RPG on the PC in sometime. Personally I’m not a fan of PnP mechanics which is why I avoided the Neverwinter Nights series. I’ve started to kick around another game idea for a class based RPG set in a randomized world, still I would love to see someone attempt a modern take on the PC just like what happened on the DS with the Etrian Odyssey series.
It seems these days that Square Enix likes to try something new with each new game in the Final Fantasy brand. FF 12 combined MMO style game-play, 13 had the whole role system and with Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light for the DS, they’ve combined both old and new school design.
The story is the same song and dance we’ve seen before, the world is in danger and only four people can save it. For people who have been overwhelmed with long cut scenes and massive melodrama of the console Final Fantasy games, HoL is a breath of fresh air in that regard. Like the classic old school rpgs you’ll name each chosen one at the start and be thrown into the adventure. However once you start playing, you’ll see the changes Square Enix has made to the formula.
First is the action point combat system. Action points or AP for short govern what you can do in each round of combat. Every member of your party can have in reserve a total of five AP, different commands cost varying amounts of points. For example using an item cost one point and casting a basic spell cost two points.
One command that doesn’t cost anything is “boost” which when used will store an additional point of AP for that round. Other then boosting you’ll recover one point of AP at the start of each round of combat and you’ll get all your points back after resting in an inn. Potions can also be found or bought to recover AP in a pinch.
By itself the AP system doesn’t seem all that interesting but when combined with the crown system it changes things. The crown system is just a fancy name for a job system. After the first boss the heroes will unlock crowns that give them special abilities (don’t ask me why, just go with it). First each crown will alter the attributes of the person; hats that revolve around spell casting will improve those respective attributes and lower the ones that affect melee damage.
Second each hat comes with a passive buff that goes with the job, for example the bandit class offers a greater item drop chance in combat, or the wayfarer class improves the potency of items. Lastly each hat comes with abilities which the party member can equip to use in combat. For example the white mage hat has an ability that raises the healing ability of the next healing spell cast and makes it affect the entire party.
Reading it here these systems don’t sound like a huge deal, but when integrated into the game they really stand out. There is a certain rhythm to combat with boss fights, as you’ll spend some turns not attacking to boost up your AP, or preparing a stronger heal spell for when the boss uses an attack that hits everyone. When not in combat you can switch crowns to change your tactics. The importance of the crown system cannot be stressed enough.
For example the black mage hat, reduces the AP cost of black magic spells by one point, which will allow that party member to use basic spells at the same frequency as someone using a regular weapon. After the first boss you’ll unlock two new hats with that procedure continuing with each new boss. The currency of the game also factors in to improving your jobs.
Instead of monsters dropping money in HoL, they drop different gems. The gems each have a gil (world currency) amount when sold, but their main purpose is to upgrade. When you go to the upgrade screen you’ll see an image of a crown with different gem slots, if you fill all the slots with the respective gems the crown will level up and you’ll be granted a new ability. As the crown goes up you’ll start to unlock some great skills, such as the black mage hat at level 3 gets the ability to put a reflect magic barrier around the entire party, which saved me during several boss fights.
Another twist HoL throws at you is managing your abilities and equipment. Each character in HoL can hold 15 items and 6 abilities each. 15 items doesn’t sound like a small number, but this includes any equipment, recovery items (which don’t stack) and spells. In HoL spells are in tomes which can be bought at magic shops, in order to have the ability you need to have the book in that team-members inventory to use.
The right equipment for the job is important in HoL. Some weapons have a magic attack + stat which make them required for your spell casters. Status aliments like poison and confusion can be blocked with specific accessories. Most importantly are element resist, certain shields and armor will resist specific elemental attacks. When you resist an attack it usually cuts the damage by half. That is huge when dealing with boss fights and can make or break the fight right there.
Weapons may also be associated with a specific element, hitting an enemy with their weakness can do double damage and the same resist modifier also works here. To help with the item limit there are storage areas in every town allowing you to save your equipment for a later time. I found it better to keep your equipment instead of selling it in case you need a specific element for a boss fight.
Like with items, six abilities doesn’t sound too limiting until you consider that each spell from a tome counts as one, along with any job specific abilities. You can switch your abilities outside of combat allowing you to tailor the abilities available for the current challenge.
All this sounds great so far, unfortunately the designers made one critical design mistake that could be a game breaker. After the first boss fight the party splits up for the first third of the game. From that point you will not have another four person party for a very long time, instead parties will be made up of anywhere from 1-3 members. The three member parties will always have a temporary member who you cannot change their job.
The problem with limiting the party like this is that it completely puts a hold on the job system. You can’t experiment with the different jobs when you have a limited party. Having one member stuck to a job also means that instead of creating your own combination you have to work around that limit. It also makes no point to upgrade crowns unless you absolutely have to because you won’t know how you’ll set up your party until the four heroes reunite.
A one person party is a giant no-no with a job system. In most RPGs as long as the only party member can handle themselves it isn’t a big deal. However when you have a job system with abilities limited to specific jobs, it cannot gel with a one person party. For example only one crown at the start has the ability to run away from combat, if you equip anything else you will not be able to escape from a tough fight.
Death in HoL means losing some of your gems which isn’t as disheartening as a game over screen. The designers almost make amends for the time spent apart with the twist that brings everyone back together. I’m not going to spoil it but fans of a certain popular Final Fantasy may see the similarities.
Once the party reunites and the job system works again, the game becomes enjoyable, you can finally start mixing and matching crowns to create your party, or if you want create specific teams for gem farming, progression and even boss fighting. The interplay of the AP and crown system delivers great game-play and I like how diverse the different classes are.
I do have one complaint about the job system that I want to touch on. While the game has variety with each crown, there is no customization when it comes to upgrading. Each crown upgrades the same way and you’ll always get the same skills in the same order. This feels like a missed opportunity to further enhance the job system by offering more customization as you upgrade the crowns.
The integration of the main systems in HoL was expertly done and I have to give the designers credit. It can be hard enough to fine tune one system in a game, but getting several done right is no small accomplishment. HoL is an interesting take on old school design and I would like to see the designers improve the job system with a sequel.
The action rpg genre has been a favorite of mine since the time of Diablo 2. Din’s Curse is a well designed game and in several ways takes things above Diablo 2 and other action rpgs.
Let’s get the story out of the way, you were a useless member of society in your previous life and it did not go unnoticed by the supreme god of the world: Din. He has decided that you won’t be able to rest until you’ve done some good in the world. It seems that every village in the known world has made the same mistake of being built on top of a dungeon full of monsters, demons and of course shiny loot. Your task is to go into these dungeons and make the town safe again. Before we talk about the dungeons themselves we have to create a character.
Character creation from the outside looks fairly simple but its complexities are subtle, you have six professions to choose from, such as warrior, thief, wizard, etc. Within each profession are three skill trees, which you could say represent sub classes. The trees are made up of class defining skills shown all the way at the top and skills you can learn.
The class defining skills determine weapon and armor proficiency, any bonuses you receive from increasing certain attributes and anything special like receiving extra mana from enemy deaths. Learn-able skills are any attack, defense or passive abilities that you can use to survive the dungeons. Unlike most action rpgs skills are not set up as a tier.
You don’t need to learn “small fireball” before you can learn “large fireball” for example. Instead the only restrictions for learning skills are money and skill points. Skill points are earned at each level up and at any time you can redistribute your skill points as long as you have the money.
By setting up skills this way it allows you to pick the skills you want and focus on them instead of being punished by not getting your class’s ultimate skill quickly. This also allows each skill to be unique compared to the other ones in the same skill tree. With three different trees for you to pick and choose from there is a lot of flexibility in character creation.
One other option you have is to create a hybrid class, in which you pick any two skill trees from any profession you want to create your own class. If you want to be a warrior who also dabbles in necromancy, go for it.
Before you start your adventure you’ll have a chance at altering the parameters of the world. You can make the world easier or harder by adjusting the starting level of monsters among other things. Once you’re set the game generates the town, dungeon, quests and monsters you’ll run into.
In each town you’ll meet the usual suspects; Din along with other important town members will issue you quests. To save the town you’ll have to complete every required quest (some quests are optional). However things are not that simple and the next mechanic elevates Din’s Curse from the usual fare.
In most RPGs you are not in any hurry to do your quests, even if the world is going to end in 10 minutes. That is not the case in Din’s Curse; as you are exploring the world, time marches on. When someone says that the boss of the dungeon is preparing something it is really doing that and if you don’t stop the boss’s plans you’ll have another quest in the dungeon.
Sometimes the bosses may even send monsters to attack the town forcing you to stop what you are doing and go back and defend, if enough villagers are killed the town will not be saved. These events are just a few of the many consequences that can happen forcing you to weigh the options of exploring the dungeon or making a bee line for the quests.
Monsters in the dungeon are varied, some will split into smaller monsters when killed, and others will summon monsters to aid them. Like other action RPGs you’ll run into different classes of monsters such as champions and elites. Higher ranked monsters have buffs which are randomized as well. If you’re unlucky you may run into an extra strong, extra fast, life stealing elite which is not fun to fight. Of course bosses have the most buffs and at higher levels their list of bonuses can stretch from one side of the screen to the other.
Even the dungeon itself will give you trouble, cave ins can happen at any time and barrels can be set on fire to create an inferno in the dungeon. Traps are aplenty with just about any kind of trap you can think of is set up to give you trouble. To aid you each floor of the dungeon has a portal which allows transport between the town and back to the floor. Monsters will also respawn over time, especially on quest floors and a returned visit may have different monsters to greet you.
One great detail that I like about Din’s Curse is that the monsters are not buddy-buddy with each other. Different species of monsters don’t get along and will fight each other before they go after you. The undead and living monsters especially hate each other and if you are not careful you may walk into a middle of a massive fight. One moment that made me laugh was when I walked in on the two bosses of the dungeon fighting each other, I just stood back and waited for one to be beaten before finishing off the other one.
There are a few issues with Din’s Curse that have to be mentioned. As it stands right now other then the dungeon fighting there isn’t anything else you can do, such as crafting new weapons. The town’s themselves are static and currently every quest in the game revolves around either collecting something or killing someone.
While things are randomized in each world I wish there were more world modifiers to deal with.
Other than your character nothing persists between towns, which on one hand gives the game a more personal journey but on the other does make your accomplishments in one town seem hollow.
The random world generator can also give you trouble. The big advantage of a RWG is that you don’t know what to expect, the problem with a RWG is that you won’t know what to expect. Sometimes luck is the greatest determination of success in Din’s Curse. If you enter a world that has all the bosses on the first few floors next to the town portals you’ll have an easy time.
On the other hand if the boss is 12 floors down and you have been cursed (lowers your stats by 20%) and every floor’s entrance is surrounded by enemies then things aren’t going to go as smoothly. To be fair to Din’s Curse this problem is seen in other games that have randomized settings and it is part of the charm. I’ve had my fair share of easy worlds and tough worlds and it does keep you on your toes.
The more I play Din’s Curse the more subtleties I see that make this above your usual fare. I like how you are free to build your own character how you want without being penalized for taking certain skills. The game has that one more play feel to it as each new world offers different challenges and rewards.
Currently you can buy Din’s Curse from most digital distributors or from the company itself, Soldak. Right now they are working on an expansion titled Demon Wars which adds more monsters, a new class and several improvements. You can pre-order it and can try it out with beta patches or wait for the full release.
I’ve been playing the beta for the last few weeks and things have been relatively smooth, however there are still some bugs when it comes to quests and balancing out the new features. Still for lovers of the action RPG genre that are waiting for another game that begins with D you’ll find a lot to like with Din’s Curse.
Infinite Space for the DS is another unique RPG; like Avalon Code the game has several interesting systems combined with a few design problems. While Infinite Space’s problems are not as damning as Avalon Code it is another lesson of what to watch out for when designing your game.
I’m going to skip the story line for this entry as I’m not exactly sure what is going on and for this talk it is not important. IS is a sci-fi RPG in which you control and customize a fleet of ships. There is a lot to customize in IS which is part of the charm.
Each ship in IS belongs to a ship type such as battleship or carrier. Each type offers several advantages and disadvantages, such as battleships have the most weapon slots but are the slowest to maneuver in combat. You can outfit your ships with different rooms which increase the attributes of the ship. This is similar to Tetris, each room is identified as a geometric shape, and if you fit the room into an empty space on your ship then that room will be installed. Some rooms have to be placed in designated spaces such as the engine in the engine area. Different ships have different layouts which will affect what you can and cannot install.
You will also pick out what weapon systems you want to install, each weapon has a different firing range which determines how close you need to be to the enemy to fire along with several other attributes. If you have a ship that can support fighters you can also assign different fighters to your ship.
The last bit of customization comes from your crew; the main characters you meet in the game can join your crew and be assigned to different posts. Each post will affect something on your ship; some members have special skills that when assigned to the first or second in command station will allow you to use them in combat.
With that said it’s time to talk about combat. As mentioned combat is fleet vs. fleet, a fleet can contain anywhere from one to five ships. I’m going to ignore the special skills and instead focus on the three commands you always have access to in combat: Normal, Dodge and Barrage. On the left side of the screen is a gauge that fills up during combat, the rate is based on the stats of your ships.
As the gauge fills the bar will change color to show what skill you can use, going from green to yellow and finally red. When you use a skill you’ll use up the parts of the gauge, for example using barrage which is red will use up the majority of your gauge.
When you issue a command, you are ordering all the ships in your fleet. You can see on the status window if your ships are within attack range with their weapons. In order to understand the problem with the design you’ll need to know what each command does.
Normal is a basic attack from every ship in your fleet, nothing more nothing less. Dodge puts your fleet in a passive stance; you’ll remain in dodge as long as you do not attack the enemy. If the enemy tries to hit you with either a barrage attack or special, the dodge stance nullifies it. However if the enemy hits you with a normal attack while you are dodging, then their accuracy will be increased, or in other words you’ll be hit by every weapon that is being fired.
The barrage command does three times the damage of one normal command. Most often one barrage command is enough to destroy one ship not counting fights with unique ships which are the boss fights. On paper all this sounds good as a” rock paper scissors” system, but how it was implemented in game is where the trouble is.
Because battles are fleet based, one side having more ships will inherently have the advantage. Almost four out of every five fights you will be outnumbered by the enemy fleet. What makes this troublesome goes back to the barrage command. If the enemy fleet is fully charge you have no choice but to use the dodge stance as getting hit by an enhanced normal attack is nowhere near as damaging as being hit by a barrage.
This removes the element of choice in IS as the biggest choice you’ll make will be either having a 50% chance of surviving vs. a 0% chance. If both fleets are fully charged you have to wait for them to use their barrage first because if you attack, the AI will most often follow up immediately with a barrage and you can’t lose a ship to take out one of theirs since you are outnumbered.
One element of the design which is troubling is that if you lose your flagship in combat, you will automatically lose and get the game over screen. It does not matter how many ships are left in your fleet, this is the only element of the combat system that only the player has to deal with, and the AI does not have this disadvantage.
Another problem is how the system is not really a set of counters. Normal counters dodge, dodge counters barrage, but nothing counters normal. Instead of combat being based on countering the enemy and maneuvering into range, it becomes a slug-fest of who can get their barrage to hit first. Most often luck plays the biggest factor in winning a fight, if you can get the enemy to waste a barrage and follow up with one of your own you’ll have a huge advantage.
As the game goes on the fleet advantage problem will go away, however it will take a while, to give a frame of reference I’m about 18 hours in the game and only have a three ship fleet.
I have two ideas of how to improve combat. The first one is to make barrage a counter to normal attacks, the best way I can think of is hitting a fleet with a barrage attack will reduce their gauge down to green preventing them from following up and at the same time countering a normal attack. This would remove the penalty of attacking first.
Option two would be to leave barrage out of the equation and instead create a fourth option to act as a counter to normal. We could call it “shields” like dodge it is a passive stance however it only blocks normal attacks and must be reapplied after an attack, to prevent it from being too powerful. That way we have some semblance of a “rock, paper, scissors” counter system.
With my ideas I would only try one of them at a time to see it would improve things. Since the AI would also use them we don’t want to continue to give the AI an advantage.
One of the challenges when developing unique systems is how the AI will handle it. In old school RPG design the system is usually basic enough for the AI to understand or the AI is given special skills to compensate. When you have something like IS which is not traditional the designers had to give the AI advantages in the form of outnumbering the player in fights. However by doing that it interferes with the balance and pushes things into the AI’s advantage far too often.
Because of how the attack commands play out combined with being outnumbered, the game stacks the odds against the player which is not good design. This is not the same as making a hard game like Demon’s Souls or Ninja Gaiden Black, in those titles the player is given the tools needed to survive and has to make the most out of them. In IS however it is like being given a knife to fight someone with a sub machine gun.
To further illustrate that point the game has several parts that have you including a NPC ship in your fleet, which just happens to leave right at a boss fight. Meaning that for a boss fight you will fight with one less ship in your fleet which with the systems in place is just kicking the player when they’re down.
As I mentioned at the start, the problems with IS don’t ruin the game or push the game down as far as the issues present in Avalon Code. Eventually once your fleet is maxed out the difficulty of the game smoothes out. Unfortunately you have a long way to go in game before that happens and I don’t know how many gamers would persevere to reach that point.