Heretical Statements In The Name Of Game Design, Part I   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  Last week, we covered a few fundamentals of game system design, largely independent from the characters; scope of challenge, standardized damage formulas, action management, elements, and a very brief stint on equipment were all covered.  In addition, all of these matters were determined for the game.  For the most part, this week’s post will cover more of the same, only more specifically in regards to the player characters, or PCs for short, where we start to tie together the plot and gameplay some more.

First, however, we must address the resource paradigm of the game.  Most RPGs have a variety of resources available, and in fact every single game can be defined as an interaction of resources on multiple ends to achieve competing goals.  However, RPGs are notable in that these resources are the more direct focus of the combat within.  For our purposes, we can assume there are two sorts of resources; active resources, which you spend to accomplish effects, and passive resources, which are not directly spent by the player but affected by outside actions.  In a standard RPG, MP would be an active resource, while HP a passive one.  Furthermore, all games have actions as an active resource, which will go later into why effects that boost actions should be tightly controlled.

And here is where I must go into a major point regarding the design of the RPG Maker defaults: by defaults, I do not mean the RTP, but the entire setup that comes with every blank new project you create in a RM game; characters, enemies, skills, and so on.  They are not well-designed for a game.  This is not to say they do not serve a purpose.  After all, they do let you see how varied effects are supposed to work in RPG Maker.  In that extent, to aid the people who have not made a RPG Maker game for the first time, they serve their purpose.  For the purpose of functioning as a well-put-together game?  They’re terrible, and provably so on the basis of the maker’s default resource paradigm.

In RPG Maker VX Ace, the default characters’ active resources are MP, TP, items, and actions, and your passive resource is your HP.  MP behaves about as one would expect, but the real issue is in how TP acts.  How one acquires TP is defined as such: A character at the beginning of a fight is given a random quantity between 0 and 25.  Ignoring this random factor, a character may gain 5 TP from using and hitting with a basic physical, 4 TP from guarding, and a quantity based on what appears to be the damage taken when one gets hit compared to the character’s maximum HP.  In essence, a character will gain, at most, 5 TP a round via actions in the player’s control.

BadDesign1

Poor Natalie is going to average two basic attacks for every technique, more likely than not.  God help her if she wants to use Claw Dance.

This is not the only problem, as you can see.  The real issue comes out in the skill distribution, something that I will cover later but deserves mention now for the purposes of demonstration.  Eric and Natalie, as fighter-types, each have five TP-costing skills.  These five skills all depend on Eric and Natalie repeatedly using basic attacks and getting hit repeatedly.  This, in effect, makes them very not fun to play as their utility lies in basic physicals first, and techniques that largely do more of the same thing second.  And then there’s the problem with mages.

BadDesign2 BadDesign3

Here’s a pop quiz: Which of these abilities on the left image will allow Noah to build up TP for any of the abilities in the right image?  Answers below.

Mages in RPG Maker VX Ace’s default settings face a quandary.  They have magic, which is largely their most useful ability.  At the same time, however, the only ways to build up TP for their TP-using abilities are those listed above: basic attacks, guarding, and getting hit.  Unlike the fighters, the mages have a reduced chance of being targeted to begin with, and their physical stats are abysmal.  In essence, they have to be ineffective to be able to facilitate the use of their TP skills, which then begs the question of why they aren’t using their magic to begin with?  So either the mage is useless, or the skills end up regularly pointless due to unusability.  Some logic brings forth why the defaults are a bad reference for design.

This goes back to my game and its defined resource paradigm–and to be precise, what it does differently.  Active resources include Stamina (ST), Exceed (EX), Items, and actions, while passive resources include HP.  Characters start battle with 0 EX, and stamina is maintained until restored at a rest point such as an inn.  Exceed is gained via varied attacks (basic and non-basic, with variance based on the ability or weapon used among other matters),  andtaking hits(Fixed value per hit)  Notably involved in this is the fact that while basic attacks do have their uses in building EX, they are not the only means by which to actively do so, and thus mages can use EX-costing abilities without the need to resort to nigh-ineffective at best basic attacks.  Furthermore, EX is not used to differentiate magic abilities from physical, instead being reserved for the sort of high-cost pinch abilities one would need to build up for, like Force powers in the Wild ARMs series.  Physical specials, just like magic, cost ST, thus allowing the physical characters to be able to access their skillset more than once every three turns on average.  For later reference, this does mean that skills will largely play heavily into a character’s capabilities.

With the subject of resource paradigms out of the way, we now finally reach the subject of approaching our PCs from the gameplay side.  Having laid most of the groundwork to do this in the last two weeks (character work and base stats), it goes to no surprise that this is a much simpler task for that.  When determining the gameplay side of your PCs, two very simple rules will apply.  The first is to keep it fitting to the character: obviously you shouldn’t do something like make your armor-clad guy the most frail thing ever that will die from so much as being kicked by a monster (hi, Knight from The Demon Rush.  You are an example of this and only a fraction of why that game is terrible), but in the details, integrating plot-relevant abilities or fitting their stat build to their quirks are positive examples that don’t come up too often–one can look to the Wild ARMs series for this, particularly Wild ARMs 4, which does this not only for the PCs, but also the antagonists.  Such building helps further integrate the narrative and gameplay, which is always a benefit in the case of JRPGs.

The second matter is character variety, and this is another spot where once again, the defaults of RPG Maker VX Ace fail.  Ideally, you want notable variation between characters in a JRPG.  Games with a larger cast size such as the Suikoden series can get away with less variance between characters, as can strategy RPGs such as the Shining Force or Fire Emblem series,  but this is assuming a PC cast size of well over what could be considered normal in a JRPG.  So where do RMVXA’s defaults fail in this regard?

In function, while the defaults offer ten different characters, each with their own “class”, there are only four functional types of characters within the defaults: Fighters, Healers, Mages, and Hybrids.  Fighters rely on nothing but basic attacks, with the aforementioned inability to quickly access higher-cost TP abilities.  Healers have a set of skills dedicated specifically to healing and buffing allies, with next to no offense at all.  Mages have the generally-useful spells, but lack access to their TP abilities without greatly impacting their general usefulness.  And lastly, hybrids are a combination of two or more, either sporting both a viable physical attack and an actual set of usable spells, or sporting a spellset that covers both healing and offense.

Quiz1 Quiz2 Quiz3 Quiz4

Pop quiz the second: Looking at the skillsets and only the skillsets, can you guess which is which?

Now, how this translates across VX Ace is as follows: There are five characters that fit the “Fighter” model, one proper mage, one proper healer, and three hybrids, one of each type (fighter-mage, fighter-healer, mage-healer).  The problems with variety quickly become apparent as all of the fighters play functionally the same; one technique for every two basic physicals minimum, and even worse should one want the higher skills to see use.  When half your cast is not only the same, but also the least interesting style possible, there are problems.  And in reality, most players would want to play the same party for the entire time.

BadDesign4

Meet the Most Entertaining Default Party Possible.  This is not even an exaggeration.

When one would likely prefer 40% of your cast over the other 60% for gameplay purposes, there is a notable problem.  I could probably write a dissertation on the things that RPG Maker VX Ace does wrong with its defaults, but suffice it to say the point on character variety can be summed up as such: Make your characters functionally distinct in gameplay while attempting to ensure that no one character is far more or less interesting to play than the others in practice.  If this seems like a hard thing, just keep in mind that Wizards of the Coast took until D&D 4e to get this, and then forgot it when making Essentials.  It does not appear to be common knowledge, to say the least.

After the thorough breakdown of the VX Ace defaults, we are now finally ready for the actual stat allocation for the in-development game’s current characters.  Keeping in mind that these are extremely relative values for the time being, I will be rating each of the major stats on a six-point scale, with 6 being highest.  The scale is deliberate in this case; i find that in my attempts to allocate stats, whenever I pick an odd-numbered scale I suffer from a case of centration bias, gravitating towards the most central and “neutral” options.  If you find yourself seeing too many “average” values in your own game’s cast, try something along those lines to see if that encourages more varied distributions.  But enough postulating about statistical variance when there are characters to detail:

Leo: Our main character, and he’s a bit of a punk.  A very physical-oriented character, he’s more of a doer than a thinker, and I want this to show in his stats.  He largely remains physically above-average, with the exception of his speed which is definitely more on the high end, and his magical ability is comparably…bad and he’s a bit unskilled.  As such we will get the following results:

  • HP 4, ST 3, POW 4, ARM 4, PEN 3, MNT 2, WIL 3, FOC 5

Friedrich: Our first character to join the party from the beginning, Friederich is what you’d expect from a seasoned knight.  Old, tough, a bit more refined in his combat style than Leo, and he’s tenacious.  However, to balance things out, I feel he should be the sort who will -never- be good at magic, ever, and he has a bit of a shallow resource pool by comparison.  In addition, -slow-, which I can easily write off that as a byproduct of old age.  He’s not in his prime anymore, so things are going to be harder and harder.  Still a tough old geezer, though.

  • HP 5, ST 3, POW 3, ARM 6, PEN 4, MNT 1, WIL 4, FOC 1

Renaud: Technically he won’t permanently join until later, but Renaud does temporarily join up during the first dungeon.  First thing is first about him, he’s fast.  As in, speediest in the cast, without a doubt.  Our favorite reappropriator will be getting what I’d like to call the Gallows treatment, where he’ll have disproportionate HP to his actual durability.  This provides some minor cosmetic differentiation in stats.  He’s largely subpar at offense, though not a bad mage, and to counteract his high HP he’ll have bad and worse defensive stats.  His other high end, however, is Stamina, allowing him to take advantage of whatever bag of tricks he will eventually have.

  • HP 5, ST 5, POW 3, ARM 2, PEN 3, MNT 3, WIL 1, FOC 6

Alexis: He’s pretty straightforward.  Our favorite teen prodigy mage is about what you’d expect from a magic-user.  Most definitely on the frail and weak side physically, he makes up for it in being a very competent mage.  Mental prowess is a factor, as is will, affecting his magical defenses.  And lastly, I suspect he knows a few tricks to get around any possible costs of exhaustion related to magic.  A bit slow and maybe a bit scatterbrained, though.

  • HP 3, ST 5, POW 2, ARM 2, PEN 2, MNT 6, WIL 5, FOC 3

Valeska: Valeska, to say the least, has focused her rage and anger into sheer killing power.  This is reflected in her stats, where she sacrifices her other parameters in exchange for higher power and penetration–she’s the sort who believes that the best defense is a dead opponent.  Unfortunately, she is a bit slow, and her magical everything on the side of lacking.

  • HP 3, ST 4, POW 5, ARM 4, PEN 6, MNT 2, WIL 2, FOC 2

Kiri: Kiri was fun to think of.  She’s a tank with a twist–her nature as a dragon makes her particularly open to magic in general, and vulnerable to magic attacks in particular–as such, she has a higher WIL than would be expected of her, but anything that gets through deals double damage.  On top of that, her low ST less represents a lack of stamina, and more of the fact that she expends a lot more energy than she’d need to with her abilities.  She’s amazingly strong and durable fitting her species, but also woefully unskilled.

  • HP 6, ST 1, POW 6, ARM 4, PEN 3, MNT 5, WIL 4, FOC 2 (Special: MFR base 200)

Caecilia: Caecilia’s not a helpless princess.  While she’s not able to take a hit too well, she’s fast and skilled at getting through armor, and she’s not a slouch in magic.  However, I do admit that I altered her stats a bit to make her extremely resistant to magic–it filled a gameplay niche that was missing and isn’t necessarily completely out of the blue.  After all, she received a lot of training while growing up.

  • HP 2, ST 2, POW 2, ARM 3, PEN 5, MNT 4, WIL 6, FOC 4

And with that, all seven released characters have been given relative and approximate stat ratings.  Keep in mind that these don’t factor in equipment or skillsets, and are subject to change in the future.  Balancing isn’t something that comes easy to any game, and this is no exception.  Next week, we will be covering part three of character design: equipment and skillset enumeration, more of the fun parts of RPG design.  Until then, this is Epic Alphonse, signing out.

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Posted May 26, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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