Iteration Homework

In Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design, Rogers proposes a theory of “fun.” According to Rogers, fun is what you have when you take all of the unfun elements out of your game. Maybe is sounds intuitive, but for 99% of RPG Makers, it’s a mantra worth repeating.

Consider where Vidar was 3 months ago. The Ice Cavern mazes were massive, map-wide puzzles that required the correct sequence of slides and dashes, finding switches to open doors, and backtracking frequently. As a puzzle designer, I felt masterful. This stuff was complicated, often reused puzzle elements for new challenges, and was quite difficult but solvable.

The problem was, it wasn’t fun.

No seriously, where the f am I going?

No seriously, where the f am I going?

The player might make a wrong turn, or get hopelessly lost. The player never had an actual indication of where they were supposed to be headed on the map. Retracing your steps because you opened a door all the way near the entrance was cumbersome.

A good puzzle doesn’t make the designer feel smart, it makes the player feel smart. And so I scrapped the intricate Ice Cavern entirely and started making puzzles that could fit on a single screen. I filled the caverns with shortcuts back to the entrance. I made sure each puzzle had a clearly identified exit. And with these smaller concepts, was able to create something far more enjoyable.

Part of my goal in sharing Vidar with the RPG Maker community is to get makers to practice good game design, and for that, I’ve got some homework for you. Some iterative homework. This week, in addition to making your usual progress on your game:

  1. Play though 30 minutes of your game not in debug mode. You choose where to start. Did you ever feel frustrated you couldn’t clip through something? Did you ever feel like there were moments you were waiting too long? Did you spend the entire time playing random battles? Note these moments.
  2. At any point where you weren’t having fun, the player won’t be either – you’ve got a lot more invested in this game than they do! Make a list of all those moments, and brainstorm some solutions. It may mean adjusting the encounter rate down by half. It may mean cutting a planned feature entirely. No one says you have to implement the solution, but write down what it would be, and keep those notes safe.

 

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Balancing Act

Wall of text post today! Undoubtedly when you first start making your game, the heavy lifting of balancing your game to be a surmountable but enjoyable challenge is far from your mind. As it should be – get your game done first, then start making tweaks. But in order to avoid dramatic changes or problems with your game, it’s worth sketching out a few ideas at the start. Today, I want to talk about balance, and specifically, balance concerns that should you should tackle early.

These topics assume you’ve got a lot of basic RPG Tropes in place. I encourage you not to – I encourage you to challenge convention, and, where appropriate, ignore this list entirely because it doesn’t fit in your game.

Design

Development of your characters is intrinsically tied to game design and philosophy. If a character levels 5 times in a 40 hour game, without getting new skills, without a change in how the game is play, you’ll end up with a very flat game – which can be ok! If a character levels 40 times in a 5 hour game, remember that the character will steamroll anyone back in the first forest should he ever revisit it. So let’s ask the following:

  • How often do you want to level, and how many levels do you anticipate the party achieving (more or less) per broad section? Once you have that, break it down into specifics – I expect roughly two levels in this dungeon, one in this cave, none in this forest path, etc.
  • Assuming you’ve got a party, figure out their roles now. Do you have a slow tank, a HP-weak mage, a fast physical rogue, etc? Determine what stats each member has emphasized and weakened (assuming they do at all – maybe everyone is a blank canvas).

With these two questions, you should now be able to generally set some numbers for your party. Pull them out of thin air, and make a chart that looks something like this:

Balancing Act

Please don’t sue me, Square, they are common names!

 

Now, we’ve got some raw numbers. We can put those into RPG Maker’s leveling system and be comfortable with that.

But people don’t wander this world naked, no! They carry with them stat sticks – sometimes a dozen stat sticks! – that change all these numbers accordingly.  So at the start of your game, let’s also think about:

  • What kind of equipment is there? What does it do (generally speaking, each piece of equipment could obviously have idiosyncrasies)? Who can wear/use it?
  • How often do we expect an equipment change?
  • To what degree is the latest and best equipment “required”?

Balancing Around a Fixed Point

We do all of the above now because balance involves several moving targets – experience, gold, encounter rates, player stats, monster stats, drops, chests, time – and that is impossible without a fixed point of reference. The chart is our reference. If you have a Game Design Document, it goes in there; if not, keep it handy and refer to it regularly as a guiding principle.