Tuesday, June 24, 2008

RPG Battle Systems

Yesterday I saw an ad for an Xbox 360 RPG with turn-based battles (something I like in an RPG), and it reminded me of some ideas that have percolated in the back of my mind for some time now.

Nobody cares about your stupid battle animations. They resemble cutscenes but lack half the justification: They offer pretty scenes but do nothing to advance the plot. I find them interesting to watch the first time, after that they just slow down the gameplay. This holds doubly true for "summons" animations.

I think a move should take (barring an introductory battle animation) no more than one second from the time the player picks his action from the menus. Yeah, you read me right, one second. We don't put up with this kind of crap in action games, why should we in RPGs?

In my more cynical moments I think the developers do this on purpose, specifically to slow down the gameplay. After all, how can your RPG meet the (legally required?) 40 hour minimum playtime if you don't slow the player down?

In any case, overlong battle animations break a cardinal rule of game design, and one of media development: "Don't waste the player's time," and "Kill your darlings". Long battle animations waste the player's time, keeping him from continuing the gameplay, and as for the second, I'll explain by quoting Samuel Johnson: "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly, fine, strike it out."

Game designers often make the error of thinking that what they've created looks so fine, that everyone will want to see it...over and over. Final Fantasy X exemplifies this mistake. Not only did they think their battle animations so fine that you could only shorten the summons ones, not eliminate them, they thought their cutscenes so fine that they made them unskippable.

At the other end of the wasting-the-player's-time and kill-your-darlings scale we find Puzzle Quest, which gets it right. Perhaps the limited space for the game and limited resources for development forced adherence to these principles, or perhaps the designers used their noggins rather than their vanity when crafting the game.

You won't find any battle animations in Puzzle Quest, except for the (very brief) lightning bolt that damages a party's health. Each move, not counting a chain of moves, takes no more than a second. Cutscenes last only a short time, conveying through speech balloons the minimum necessary to advance plot and gameplay. The game moves along at a fast clip, never wasting the player's time.

Your stupid semi-turn-based semi-action-oriented battle system sucks. If you the designer wish to give me a turn-based battle system, then do that. If you want to give me an action battle system, then do that. But don't give me some half-baked combination of the two. I find little more infuriating than having to pick an action from a complex menu while the enemy's action bar charges. I know that when his bar fills, he will instantly lauch an attack. No time spent perusing menu choices for him, no sir!

Final Fantasy VII has this kind of system. Your bar charges, then the enemy's does. You can't even begin to pick an action until your bar becomes full. The instant the enemy's bar fills, he attacks. Even Final Fantasy X sins a little here; though 95% of the time you can make totally turn-based moves, when you pick a limit break move it forces you to play a twitch-based minigame. I find this frustrating, especially as I age.

I prefer games that stay firmly in their lanes, like Puzzle Quest and Xenosaga and Dragon Quest 8 on the turn-based side, and Mass Effect, Final Fantasy XII and Crackdown on the action side. All three action-based RPGs handle their battle systems differently, but all have good arguments for them. None of the action-based ones try to mix in turns, and none of the turn-based ones try to mix in an action twitch-fest.

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