Tag Archives: Game Design

Combat Design – Complexity

A large part of game design involves designing various systems – rules that determine how a game works.  I’ve already mentioned that combat needs variety – tactical and strategic choices – to keep combat interesting.  However the system of rules must itself follow a set of rules to make a good game.  The combat system must balance the choices provided with the complexity of the rules.

When I design the rules for Heroes of a Broken Land’s combat system I take following points into consideration:

  • Interesting Choices
  • Understandable
  • Approachable & Presentable

You need enough complexity to provide interesting choices.  If you combat system only allows a single action it’s not very interesting.  If you allow too many actions you confuse the player, or inflict them with paralysis of choice.  I’ve mentioned this before.

The game’s system of rules must be understandable to the player.  While many of the calculations and underlying logic of a game are always hidden from the player in a game, you still make rules generally understandable to a player.  For example, the exact damage calculation does not need to be exposed, however the general rules (damage is based on weapon type or a creature’s attack power) must be simple enough the player can understand and manipulate them.

Playing a game where the rules are too complex to understand is a frustrating experience.  In Heroes of a Broken Land the equations used in calculating damage are hidden, however the strength of a character can be simplified into only two understandable numbers: attack & defense.  Increased attack increases damage inflicted, increasing defense reduces damage taken, simple.

Games are also audio visual experiences. Not only must the player understand the system to some degree, the system must be presentable to the player.  Essentially this involves figuring out a way to showing the player the outcome of their choices in combat.  Fortunately RPG players are accustomed to seeing numbers thrown at them, making presenting the outcome of combat simple: just show some numbers on screen.

If properly designed, following the above rules will allow even a complex rule set to seem simple.  That’s the goal of Heroes of a Broken Land’s combat – complex enough to provide interesting choice, but designed so that it appears simple and understandable.

Combat Design – Tactics & Strategy

Central to designing a combat system is deciding the strategies and tactics that are available to the player (and also the opponents).  Generally speaking strategy is how the player will approach the game as a whole: longer term thinking and planning.  Tactics are the more immediate decisions made in battle.

Tactical Choices

In some RPGs tactical choices also involve positioning units, however positions are fixed in Heroes of a Broken Land.  This means that the tactical choices in HOBL are the per-turn actions – attack, use and item, use a skill/spell or wait.

To make combat interesting your tactical choices must be varied, meaningful and interesting.

Variation comes either from each class having access to different skills as well as the ability to learn new skills.  Variation also comes from facing new opponents with new and different strengths and weaknesses.  Variation makes combat interesting, giving the player choice and allowing them to approach combat as they wish.  However too much variation can have negative consequences, too many options make it more difficult to choose, slowing down the pace of combat.  Too many choices causes paralysis of choice, a real issue game designers must face.  On top of all that, each option makes the game that much harder to balance, I’ll address balance again in another post.

Just having lots of options isn’t by itself good design, the options must be meaningful.  To be meaningful actions must have a useful effect on the battle – damage a monster, heal an ally or change the flow of combat.  Having 5 different ways of doing 10 points of damage isn’t providing meaningful choice. I strive to always provide a character with a meaningful action at each turn.

One example of giving the player a meaningful choice are the options available to a 1st Level Fighter: Attack and Bash.  Attack damages the enemy,  bash stuns the enemy for one round (but requires some magic points). The fighter is the strongest attacker available, so by not attacking and stunning the enemy the player does less damage that round that normally.  However the stun attack gives the player the ability to prevent damage to the party.  The result is the fighter has a meaningful choice or performing an offensive or defensive action.  Properly designed you will always have a meaningful choice to make.

Lastly, tactical decisions must be interesting.  The fighter’s attack vs. bash choice is also an interesting one: should act offensively or defensively?  Sometimes one action is the obvious optimal choice, but more often it’s unclear, making the choice interesting.  Similarly, a special action (skill or spell) requires magic points – a limited resource – but generally they do more damage.  This is always an interesting choice because the magic points should not be wasted, since they don’t regenerate between battles.

Providing interesting choices means ensuring there isn’t always a “best” tactical choice to make.  An uninteresting combat system would always have an single optimal action to take, removing much of the player’s freedom of choice.  I’ve played many a JRPG where mashing the A button was the best way to resolve combat.  I strive to always provide interesting decisions during combat.

Strategic Choices

Heroes of a Broken Land doesn’t have many strategic choices during combat.  The strategic decisions the player must while playing are in the town management and outpost alliance systems.  However the player’s strategies will affect their ability to engage in combat, which heroes are available and how they are equipped.

The strategic choices made are primarily related to party resource management, especially potion usage and magic point management.  Heroes of a Broken Land require players to be properly prepared to enter a dungeon, especially during the higher levels.  The combat system has been designed so that individual fights are not that deadly, but they are difficult to force you to use your resources  – potions and magic points in-between fights.

One unique feature of HOBL is the way party order affects combat.  Targeting in combat is based on party order – party members on one side of your party attack monsters on the same side.  Normally choosing your target is a tactical choice made each time you choose your action.  However by using party order to determining targets, this becomes a strategic choice made outside of a fight.

Additionally, monster levels are balanced to match a fully and properly equipped party.  So if you don’t upgrade your weapons and armor between dungeons you might find your party underpowered too.

I’ve tried to design the strategic components of Heroes of a Broken Land to be forgiving.  So if you make poor strategic decisions early on you will be able to correct and recover from those mistakes.  I’m sure you’ve played games where strategic choices made early on have potentially game losing consequences you only become aware of hours after you’ve made them.  That’s not the style of strategic choice I wanted in Heroes of a Broken Land.

Strategy is long term thinking – how you choose party members and how you survive dungeons (prepared with potions, save MP)

Combat Design – Pace

Combat is integral to most RPGs, especially dungeon crawlers like Heroes of a Broken Land.  Combat is so important the RPG sub-genres are really classified by their combat systems: first person vs. tired person, tactical vs action, real-time vs turn-based, etc.  So I wanted to talk about some of the influences and ideas behind Heroes of a Broken Land’s combat system.

A lot of combat design was decided when I choose which format of RPG I would make: party-centric, turn-based first-person dungeon crawler.  However, even within that space there are still many many choices you have to make when designing a combat system.  There were a number of major areas that I considered when designing this system: Pace, Balance, Strategy and Complexity, and I’ll be posting about each in time.  First, I’d like to describe the largest influence on my combat design.

Feel & Pacing

I believe the “Feel” of combat is the most important quality a combat-centric RPG has, and also the hardest to describe.  Ideally the feeling should be “fun”, but also parts “challenging” and “engaging”.  The feel really is the sum of every part of the game.  However I think the strongest influence to the feel of a game’s combat is the pace.  How fast is combat?  How long does a battle last? How many battles are there?

On one end of the spectrum are action RPGs, where a few quick button presses is all it takes to defeat an enemy.   At the far end are detailed tactical systems, where slowly position your party around a map.  While I enjoy tactical games a lot (XCOM and Jagged Alliance 2 are some of my favorite games of all time), I wanted a faster pace for Heroes of a Broken Land.  When exploring many large dungeons full of monsters, long battles would make the entire game’s too slow for my taste.

So I designed a combat system where individual battles provide you with some challenge, but each battle is meant to be resolved fairly quickly.  I wanted each full turn of combat (meaning each party member & monster act about once) to have an interesting outcome.  Meaning that something occurs that changes the battle and forces the player (you!) to not simply repeat their actions over and over.  This prevents combat from getting too repetitive, plus it forces you to explore you skills and new tatics.

It’s this idea that most of the statsistics and damage numbers are derived from.  I though about how long each battle should last, which determines how many hits an average monster or player can withstand.

Killing monsters gives you a sense of accomplishment, which influences how you feel about the combat.  If you take too long to kill a monster it slows the pace down and you don’t feel like you’re making progress.  If you kill them too quickly you don’t get any feeling you’ve been challenged so you get bored.  You need to find a balance.

I figured an average party of 4 should be able to kill a single monster of the same level in a single full turn.  Similarily a player should be able to withstand about 4 attacks from a monster, chosen because there are at most 4 enemies attacking you.  This choice affects how many HP and how much damage everyone does.  The result is you will have to keep your party healed regularly, but not too often.  You’ll be killing monsters fairly quickly too, but not so fast that they won’t get a chance to strike back.

Once I had decide this I simply needed to put a bunch of numbers (HP per level, average damage by level, etc) into a spreadsheet, and played around until the average damage was about 1/4 of the average HP.  Simple!  (Actually it’s not simple, but I’ll go into detail in a later post)

Personally I’m happy with the current pace of combat in Heroes of a Broken Land.

Try for yourself and let me know you think!