Standing out in a crowd: The factors behind unique game systems in RPGs.

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

To say that there are a lot of RPGs in the market today would be an understatement. From JRPGS to CRPGs there is a lot of grinding to be had. The majority of RPGs out there keep their mechanics somewhat basic. The Dragon Quest series still uses the same turn based system from the NES days and everyone knows my thoughts on Bioware by now. While World of Warcraft has become the current standard of MMO based combat.

So why aren’t there more unique RPGs out there? Why aren’t we up to the six iteration of The World Ends With You by now? Well there are two good reasons, first is that unique mechanics are a harder sell to gamers compared to the same old. Second it is harder to design and balance a unique system when you don’t have a framework to go on.

I’m not a psychologist which doesn’t give me much to talk about point one, however I want to talk about the design decisions that go into making unique RPGs.

1. Balance: When it comes to balance in single player games most often it is used to describe the interaction between the player and the AI. The big question, do both parties abide by the same game system? There are times when you want symmetrical balance and times that you don’t.

In Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, while the game is on the difficult side it is fair in the sense that the same rules apply to both parties. Both the player and the enemies can increase the # of turns they can do in a round by hitting the opposing team’s weakness. Having the right composition of team mates can shut down the other team making the fight trivial. Now with that said the enemies do have some amenities in the form of unique skills for boss fights, such as powerful buffs or instant kills that the player does not get.

This is where balance gets a little asymmetrical. It does not bring the game down however as this becomes the challenge of the game, finding a way to get around these unique skills. An example of when things are too asymmetrical would be in the older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. In these games there are a majority of skills that are just plain useless and the act of inflicting status aliments does not work on any bosses but they do work against the player.

Another symmetrical example would be the Etrian Odyssey series, aliments are very powerful and both the player’s party and enemies can be affected by them. It is a change of pace to be able to silence bosses as oppose to other JRPGS.

Sometimes you can just say “screw it” to balance and design the most out there game systems that you can think of and it still works. Resonance of Fate features one of the craziest combat systems I’ve seen on the console platform. I did a five part analysis on it which you can find here so I’m not going to describe it again. The balance is asymmetrical on the player’s side. The player can jump over enemies, fully customize guns and set up to do insane damage which the AI cannot. The designers reel it in somewhat by making the enemies more powerful than the usual fare and the limitations of the heroic gauge.

In Final Fantasy 13 the designers created a “role system” that the player designates each team member a role in combat which affects their abilities and attributes, now I only played a few hours of FF 13 but from what I saw the enemies don’t abide by that system at all.

Sometimes asymmetrical balance can seem like both sides are playing their own variation of the same game. In Radiant Historia the enemies constantly outnumber the player’s team and are set up on a 3×3 grid; the player’s team is lined up on the right side of the board. The enemy can place down powerful buffs on specific points on the grid which they can stand on to receive bonuses which the player can’t. The player on the other hand can push and pull the enemies around the grid to set up combos and attack multiple enemies with a single attack.

This type of asymmetrical balance brings back memories of Starcraft 1 and 2’s three sided balance. In which each side plays the same game but does it with different units and tactics.

2. Rule Breaking: This is a tricky system to talk about. Rule breaking refers to having mechanics or abilities in game that effectively break the unique rules the designer set up.

Going back to Nocturne, those boss abilities that will increase the # of turns would be an example of rule breaking. Another mechanic in Nocturne is being able to add abilities to your team mates that will remove their weakness.

Most often the concept of rule breaking occurs in RPGS that feature symmetrical balance, if both sides aren’t doing the same exact thing it’s hard to distinguish something that breaks the rules. There are two sides to this; if the rule breaking occurs on the AI’s side then it can be considered a challenge for the player to overcome.

However if the rule breaking is on the player’s side then it is more about “gaming” the system and is most often used by expert players. One example from Resonance of Fate is how once you select a party member their active gauge counts down during movement, if you end the turn early and quickly select that same member again you can then attack the enemy with a full gauge.

SRPGS are famous for having these types of loop-holes for expert players to find. The SRPGS from Nippon Ichi each have their own way for the player to flat out break the game by finding ways around the basic rules set up and the designers did that on purpose.

3. Programming: While I am taking courses on C++ for game design, I did do programming back in high school and college and have developed a great understanding of computer logic or how the computer will interpret commands different from a human. To put it bluntly, the easier the system in a game the easier it is to program and AI for it. The more unique your game systems are, the harder it will be for the AI to understand and use it.

Imagine if the Resonance of Fate designers gave the AI the same abilities as the player, with heroic actions and trinity attacks. They would have to redesign the AI to understand these concepts and to use them effectively. That would require a hell of a lot more time and money as oppose to just letting the player use it and boosting the enemy stats to compensate. There are ways to get around this by moving complex systems away from the AI.

In Nocturne the system is basic turned based combat with several options available. So to give the game a sense of challenge without complicating it, the designers gave the AI unique abilities that fall within the options both sides have. The real complexity of Nocturne involves resistances and abilities and these exist outside of the combat system and the AI doesn’t need to be programmed differently to understand them.

Another example of complexity without killing the AI comes from The World Ends With You. TWEWY is an insane game with multiple unique systems and dual fights for the player to control. The designers put all the complexity on the player’s end leaving the AI with just the task of attacking the player.

This is also where asymmetrical balance can help. With Radiant Historia it would have required more programming to create an AI that can understand and utilize combos and moving players around a grid, so instead of that the designers created different rules for the AI and players to abide by.

Being able to think about how the enemy AI will affect your design is an important detail to understand. Remember, no matter how crazy you create your mechanics you still need to worry about an AI and how it will interact with the mechanics as well.

Finishing this up, I realized that while I am focusing on RPGs, the same lessons can be applied to other genres. Action games always deal with asymmetrical balance as you have a unique protagonist dealing with hordes of enemies. In strategy games the use of a “super weapon” to wipe everything out could be use an example of rule breaking.

Figuring out how your unique game mechanics will actually play out in game and perhaps more importantly, how the AI will understand them is one of the many challenges of designing a game.