Why do I like Learning Abilities from Equipment?

This is going to be more of a rambling post than I usually do. I just wanted to talk about a particular mechanic that a few games have used that, for some reason, I just really enjoy. That mechanic is where equipping a character with a certain piece of gear gives them an ability, and then they can master the abilities granted by equipment through earing ability points. Once they’ve mastered an ability, they can keep it even if they remove the equipment.

I’ve probably been thinking about this mechanic because I’ve been replaying Final Fantasy 9 over the last few days. Other games that use this mechanic include Lost Odyssey and Xenosaga (at least episode 1, I haven’t played the other two yet). Another related system is where you have one type of equipment dedicated to teaching you new abilities. Examples of this system include magicite in Final Fantasy 6 and Heraldry tomes in the RPG Maker game Forever’s End.
As an aside, these are all really fun games and I recommend any of them if you like JRPGs.

Anyway, I’ve been pondering over the last few days why I like this ability system so much. I think the answer comes back to an idea that I’ve been talking about quite a lot in the last few blog posts: Player Choice.

In normal RPGs, when you arrive at a new town, you get access to new equipment which is basically just the next incarnation of gear that you already have. It will have higher stats, but it will just fill the same role a little better. Sure, some games do avoid this, possibly by having a few different options that fill different roles. For example, one weapon for a warrior might make them better at taking hits for teammates, while another might improve their ability to cause damage. Also, if the developer took my advice, you might not be able to afford everything. Still, most of the time, getting new equipment is basically a formality.

The consequence of learning abilities from equipment is that at least most of the time when new equipment becomes available, you have to make choices. You can immediately switch to the new gear, giving up the chance to master abilities in exchange for better stats, or you can wait to finish mastering the abilities you were working on. Even grinding has some additional choices added into it because of this system. You’ll find yourself wanting to switch between equipment each time a character masters an ability so that they can learn another. It can also lead to rotating equipment between several characters because they can all learn a new ability from it, but you only have one.

This also adds a layer of excitement when you find new gear in a dungeon or as a reward for completing a sidequest. Normally finding rare equipment just leaves you comparing it to your old gear to see if it gives you better stats to make a character better at what they were already doing. Now, getting new equipment means learning new abilities, which can cause you to change your playstyle to incorporate these new options. In addition to all of that, there’s a certain enjoyment that at least I get from seeing how many different abilities I can master in a single playthrough. It’s like getting collectables, but with the added bonus that the things I’m collecting give me additional ways to modify my playstyle.
In summary, this system adds choices to the process of getting and equipping new gear, as well as to the process of fighting random enemies. These choices keep your brain active while performing ordinarily routine tasks, which keeps the entire experience interesting.

So, that’s why I find this particular ability system particularly addictive. Obviously using this system is not required to make a game fun, it’s just a particular mechanic that I happen to enjoy a great deal.

Regards,
Science Viking

A Good RPG Character is Defined by What They Cannot Do. No, Really!

I’ve written before about how to make a working game in RPGMaker VX Ace, but this time I’m going to talk about what makes a game fun.

When you’re thinking about a game you like, you generally aren’t thinking about the things that you can’t do. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, you usually think about that time in Halo when you killed two Hunters with one pistol bullet each, or in Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga when you ended a random encounter on turn one with Megidolaon. These are the moments that are memorable, but they are memorable because of limitations. Restrictions on your actions will generally not be what you remember from a game, but they are the reason why you remember the things that you do.

To illustrate this, I’ll use the case of Final Fantasy XII. Final Fantasy XII was released twice, once just as Final Fantasy XII, and once as Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job System (Quite a mouthful). These two versions were nearly identical, with the only difference being in their ability system. In both games, there is a License Board, and before you can use an ability or piece of equipment, you have to spend License Points (earned by killing enemies) to purchase the corresponding License. In addition, in order to purchase a License you must already have an adjacent License.

The point where the two games diverge is that, in Final Fantasy XII there is one license board, which is used by all characters. While the manual encouraged you to specialize, in practice it was more effective to have everyone learn the same abilities. By comparison in Final Fantasy XII: International Zodaic Job System, there are twelve classes (Called “Jobs”) each of which has a unique License Board. When a character joins your party you choose which job they will have, and they are locked into that one License Board for the rest of the game.

What makes this an interesting case is that pretty much the only change that was made between the two games is that in the International version, every character has been made less powerful. Instead of being able to teach every character every ability, now only some characters can learn healing abilities, only some can wear heavy armor, only some can learn effective crowd control magic, and so on. With this change, the characters need each other and are forced to work together. Physical characters can survive sustained attacks, but need White or Red Mages to keep them healed while Black and White Mages are too fragile to survive an enemy’s attention for long and need Knights or Samurai to hold the attention of enemies. This inter-dependency forces the player to make choices about which jobs to choose, how to develop each character, and how each character will act in battle. This relatively simple change caused the International version to be a much more enjoyable game.

A common mistake RPGs make related to this is the handling of money. Quite often, you will quickly accumulate enough gold, or gil, or shillings, or whatever, to allow you to buy anything you want as soon as you find a shop that stocks it. You might deal with limited funds at first, but quickly price becomes no object. The problem with this is that, when you can afford as much as you want of whatever you want, money is not a factor in gameplay. The purpose of money as a mechanic is to force the player to choose which items they will buy, and which they will do without.

In summary, while restrictions on choice are not what you remember about a game, they are the reason why you remember what you do. You remember when you can erase a group of enemies from existence with a gesture because you can’t normally do that. You remember when you brought down a tough enemy with a single perfect shot because you had to learn their behavior and position yourself carefully to make that shot. What you should take home if you are making a game, in RPG Maker or otherwise, is that it’s important to think about what restrictions you are imposing on the player and what choices you are forcing them to make, because really, that is what determines whether they love your game, or just pass it by.

Regards,

Science Viking

I guess I have a blog now

This is the post excerpt.

I’ve been a fan of RPGs for as long as I can remember, and I’ve wanted to make my own for pretty much all of that time. Recently, I acquired RPGMaker VX Ace and started learning to use it, and I even have a blog now. Does that mean I’m a real developer?

Not really, but it’s a start, I guess.

Please join me gentle reader, on my quest to learn how to design RPGs and become a real game developer. As I go through this process I’ll post my ideas and what I’ve learned, along with information about the games I’m working on.

Will this humble neophyte survive the perilous quest to become a real developer, or will I be forced, my spirit broken, to surrender and get a real job? Only time will tell.

Regards

Science Viking