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

How to Make Abilities Interesting in an RPG

This isn’t a tutorial about how to make abilities in RPG Maker. I might make one of those another time, though the system seems fairly self-explanatory. What this article is about, rather, is how to make your abilities interesting.
The simple question you should ask yourself when designing an ability is: “When will the player use this ability? What is this ability for?”. It is quite common for a game to have abilities that seem interesting or cool, but that you end up never using because there is a more efficient way to get the job done. A type of ability that falls into this category quite often are instant-kill abilities. Most often, these abilities miss so much of the time that it takes longer to kill an enemy by waiting for the instant-death spell to hit then by using conventional abilities that just deal damage.
In order to understand why these kinds of abilities so often fall into this useful-but-useless category we need to think about balance for a moment. An ability that can end a fight instantly could easily be overpowered, so there has to be some kind of limitation to keep the player from using it for everything. However, in order to prevent these abilities from becoming overpowered, developers often either limit their accuracy, so they might work the first time, but they probably won’t, or make the most dangerous enemies immune to these kinds of abilities entirely.
The problem with this method of limiting an ability’s effectiveness is that now, you don’t want to use an instant kill on a regular enemy, because they have so little health that it’s faster to kill them with conventional attacks, and enemies that have enough health that instant kills would be worth it are immune to them. This is a case of the person designing the ability having thought that the ability is cool, but not about when the player should make use of it.
How would we fix this kind of ability? To start, we must remember that the player will naturally gravitate towards the strategy that is fastest and safest. Fastest meaning ending a fight in the fewest turns (players can be impatient creatures, especially with random encounters), and safest meaning the strategy least likely to result in a game over. If the player has a method of ending a fight that is either faster than what you’re offering them, or safer than what you’re offering, then they won’t use the new ability you’re designing, no matter how cool it is.
This might seem to imply that the player will eventually find a single strategy that they use for every fight, but that isn’t the case. Remember, in a good game, every fight is different. If the challenge the player is faced with in two situations is different, then the fastest or safest methods of meeting those challenges will also be different. Instead, when you create an ability, you need to make sure to create a situation where that ability is the best option.
To illustrate what I mean I’ll use the example of Persona 4 (Yes I know I talk about it a lot. It’s a great game, what of it?). In Persona 4, instant-kill abilities are not useless. This comes from three kinds of situations that the game puts you through. The simplest of these is that some enemies are weak against instant-kills, meaning that, against these specific foes, these abilities will hit the majority of the time. The second situation in which these abilities are useful is that there are instant-kill abilities that hit all enemies at once. This means that when you are confronted by a large group of enemies (a fairly common occurrence), you can open with a group-targeting instant-kill which will nearly always eliminate at least one or two enemies, making the rest of the fight faster and safer, but not eliminating the challenge. The final way in which these abilities are useful is that Persona 4 will confront you with single enemies with massive defense, massive health, and attacks that do incredible damage. These enemies are not immune to instant-kills. In these situations, the safest way to deal with the enemy is to use instant-death spells as soon as you can, since these are the only way to end the fight before the enemy brings you down.
Of course, there are also plenty of situations in Persona 4 where instant kill abilities are not the right option. If a group of enemies are all vulnerable to an element you have available to you, you can hit them all with that element, knocking them down and netting you some free attacks. Some enemies that appear alone are fragile enough that it is smarter to use conventional abilities to bring them down, or safer to use status effects to prevent them from attacking while you erode their health. There are even enemies who are completely immune to instant-death. What this adds up to is a game with a great variety of enemies and enemy groups, which each have different “correct” solutions. This variety of challenges, encourages a variety of approaches, and forces the player to think on their feet and keep revising their strategy. This in turn creates a complex and varied gameplay experience, which keeps the player entertained.
In summary, in order to make an ability interesting, you need to create a corresponding situation where that ability is the best option for the player. It is important create a variety of abilities, but to do so you have to create a variety of challenges to force the player to use these abilities. This interplay of new abilities inspiring new challenges and new challenges requiring new abilities pushes you toward a more fun, interesting, and challenging gameplay experience.

Regards,
Science Viking

[Tutorial] How to Avoid Using Conditional Branches by Using Event Pages

In this tutorial you’ll learn how to script changing NPC behavior over time. For example, having a particular character say one thing before you defeat a boss, and having them say something different afterward. You might be tempted to use Conditional Branches to do this, but you really shouldn’t, there’s an easier way. What we’re going to use is a variation of the system we used to prevent refilling chests.

Suppose you want to make a character say one thing before you fight a boss and a second thing afterward. The first page of the event would look like this:pages-tutorial-1

The second page of the event will look like this:RPG Maker VX Ace Screenshot

Notice in the top right corner under “Conditions” that this page will only activate if switch 001 is on. If the game has a choice between activating a page that has a condition and activating a page that does not have a condition, it will always activate the page that has a condition if it can. So, in this case, if switch 001 is off, it will execute page 1, and if switch 001 is off, it will execute page 2.

Now, suppose you wanted this person to have a third possible line of dialogue after you’ve beaten a later boss. To do that, you would make a third page that would look like this:RPG Maker VX Ace Screenshot

An important thing to remember about this is that, if there are two pages that each require one switch, and both switches are on, the game will run the page that requires the higher numbered switch. So, if page 2 requires switch 001, and page 3 requires switch 002, and both switches are on, then page 3, and only page 3, will be executed.

Now, suppose you wanted an NPC to simply vanish after a particular event had happened. You might be tempted like I was to use “Erase Event” to do this, but if you do, the event will be right back where it was when you return to the area. Instead, to make an event disappear, you make an event page that either has no contents or can’t be activated, and has no graphic associated with it.

To continue with the event we were talking about before, suppose you wanted this NPC to disappear after you defeated a later boss. Then, page 3 would look like this:RPG Maker VX Ace screenshot

Notice a few differences. First, since the event has no graphic, there will not appear to be anything on that square. Second, since I changed the trigger to “Event Touch”, it should not be triggered by anything. Finally, since the event has no contents, it should not do anything even if it were somehow triggered.

The last thing I’ll teach you is how to make an NPC teleport away right before your eyes. If we wanted this character to vanish when we talk to him after defeating the second boss, that would require two pages. Page 3 would look like this:RPG Maker VX Ace screenshot

Page 4 will look like this:RPG Maker VX Ace screenshot

This way, when you talk to the NPC after defeating the boss, they will say a line, an animation will play, and a switch will be flipped. As soon as that switch is flipped, page 4 will take over and the character will no longer be visible. This will cause the character to quietly disappear while the animation plays and be gone when it finishes.
This tutorial should give you enough information to make NPCs change their behavior or appearance without having to use conditional branches. Good luck with your games and have a nice day.

Regards,

Science Viking

Sometimes Annoying the Player is a Good Thing

You probably balked as soon as you saw the title of this article. After all, if the player gets too frustrated, they might abandon the game. Too many players abandoning the game could lead to bad word of mouth and people passing up your game without trying it. So why would I tell you to annoy your players? The answer is tension.

Remember, plenty of popular and well liked games punish the player quite a bit for failure. In Persona 3 and Persona 4 save points are scarce and a single random encounter that you handle badly can cost you hours of progress. In the Dark Souls series dying causes you to lose your souls (currency used to buy items and upgrade your character), and places you in a weakened state that it takes work to recover from. In any of these games, one mistake can cost you hours of progress. This seems like a textbook example of how to frustrate the player into leaving, and yet these are extremely popular games. Why?

Once again, tension. In Persona 4 if a tough shadow ambushes me at the end of a long dungeon delving session, I will be at the edge of my seat for the entire fight. In Dark Souls if I manage to accumulate a large number of souls, I’ll be looking over my shoulder every few seconds with my heart pounding until I manage to make it back to a bonfire to spend them. The adrenaline that you get in these situations adds a huge amount to the excitement of the gaming experience. The moments you’ll look back on when you think about the game will be the times you just barely avoided losing progress, or the times you just barely failed to avoid it. I’ve talked before about making the player make interesting choices, and consequences go a long way toward making choices interesting.

There is, however, one very important thing to remember when implementing a form of annoyance, and that is fairness. I mentioned Dark Souls specifically because the combat in that series is extremely well balanced. I die a lot every time I play Dark Souls, but every time I die, I know that I did something wrong, and I generally have an idea of what it was. This is important. The player will be far more forgiving of frustration if they can tell that they could have avoided it. Avoidable irritation motivates players to think about what they could have done differently, and makes them want to work hard to master the game.

 

Regards,

Science Viking

[Tutorial] How to make shopkeepers in RPG Maker 2003 and RPG Maker VX Ace

Note: This tutorial assumes that you know what events are and how to edit them, as well as how to make new maps and set up transitions between maps. If you don’t know how to do these things, I have a great tutorial to get you started on using RPG Maker here.

If you’re anything like me, your first attempt to make a shopkeeper in RPG maker went something like this. You created a small map to be the inside of the shop (using the interior tileset of course), made a shop counter, placed an NPC behind the counter and set them to have “Shop Processing” with whatever items you wanted them to sell. Your shop would look something like this:shopkeeper-tutorial-1

Then you run the game in playtest mode and tried to buy something from your shiny new shop, only for noting to happen. You check to make sure that the game is working, and everything works fine except for the shopkeeper. What happened?!

The answer, gentle reader, is that the shopkeeper is working fine, but you can’t get to them. By placing the counter in front of the shopkeeper, you placed an impassable tile between the player and the event they need to interact with. Does this mean it’s impossible to have a merchant behind a counter in RPG Maker? No. The trick to making it work is that the counter will actually be your shopkeeper. Click on the tile directly in front of your NPC.shopkeeper-tutorial-2

Right here. In the event editing screen give that tile shop processing with whatever items you want this merchant to sell, and make sure to set the event priority as “Same as Characters” and the the trigger as “Action Button”. You can leave the graphic blank so it will look exactly the same as the tile below it. When you’re done it will look like this:shopkeeper-tutorial-3

Notice the part I’ve circled in red. By default, the priority will be “Bellow Characters” which means you won’t be able to activate it unless you’re standing on top of it, but since it’s on an impassable tile, you can’t stand on top of it, so you won’t be able to interact with it.

If you follow all of these instructions, you should have the appearance of buying items from a merchant behind a counter. This is also how you create a merchant who has different lines if you talk to them from behind the counter. When they are on the other side of the counter from you, you are interacting with a different event then when the counter is between you and them. It also means that all this time you’ve been buying items from magic, item-selling counters and desks!

Regards

Science Viking

[Tutorial] Introduction to RPG Maker VX Ace

So, you just got a shiny new copy of RPG Maker VX Ace. You fired it up, opened a new project, looked at the page and thought “Wow, I have no idea what I’m looking at”. Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this tutorial I’ll walk you through how to create maps, how to set up area transitions between your maps, how to create NPCs, and how to put random encounters in an area. That should be enough to get you started on the road to making your own RPG. By the way, this tutorial does work mostly if you’re using RPG Maker 2003, but there will be a few places where you have to figure things out that I haven’t explained.

First start up the software, and click File–> New Project. It’ll ask you for a file name and game title. Just go with “Practice” for now. You can change it later. Your starting screen will look like this:vx-ace-intro-1

Before we do anything else, we need to make sure that our character doesn’t start the game standing in the ocean. We need to place some tiles. In order to do that, we need to switch into tile editing mode. To do that, click here:vx-ace-intro-2

If you click on the button I’ve circled in red, it will switch you into tile editing mode. Now just select a tile from the top-left corner and spread some of it around, like this:vx-ace-intro-3

Now that we have some land, let’s give our hero someone to talk to. To do that, we need to be in the event editing layer. Click here:vx-ace-intro-4

Now that you’re in the event layer, double click on a square that is on land other than the square where your hero is. A box will pop up that looks like this:vx-ace-intro-5

There’s a lot going on here, but we don’t need to worry about most of it right now. In the upper left corner, you can give your event a name. This isn’t a bad idea so you can keep track of what your event was supposed to do.

Now, we need to decide what our new NPC looks like. Double click on the tiled section under the word “Graphic” here:vx-ace-intro-6

A new window should open up that looks like this:vx-ace-intro-7

Choose a suitable appearance for your new NPC and click OK. You will go back to the menu you were using before.

Now the NPC has an appearance. You can choose under the panel labeled “Autonomous Movement” whether they will move or stand still. For now let’s leave that alone and instead give the character something to say. Double click on the first line under “Contents”vx-ace-intro-8

In the window that pops up, click on the first button in the upper left, labeled “Show Text”. You should see a window that looks like this:vx-ace-intro-9

Just type in what you want your NPC to say and click OK. When you get back to the original window, click OK again. Now, let’s playtest this, to make sure that everything worked. Click on the green play button here:vx-ace-intro-10

Create a new game and you can talk to your new NPC.

Once you’re done doing that we can move onto the next step. We’re going to make a dungeon. You should already be in the event layer, now just double click somewhere to place the entrance to your dungeon. Select a graphic appropriate for the entrance to a dungeon, like a cave entrance. Once you’ve done that you… actually can’t make the entrance yet, because you haven’t made the dungeon. You need to make a new map, and then you can create an entrance to it.

On the left side under the tile selector is a list of all the maps in your game. Right now there should be a folder labeled “Practice” and under that is “MAP001” which is the only map that exists right now. Right click on either of them (it doesn’t matter) and click “New Map”. That will bring up a window that looks like this:vx-ace-intro-11

In general, it is a good idea to change the name to something that you’ll remember. That will make it easier to find this map in the future. For now, just call it “Dungeon”. The next thing to do is change the tileset. Otherwise it will use the same tiles as the previous area, which is not right for a dungeon. For your tileset, select “004:Dungeon”. You should also increase the size of the map since the default is quite small.

The next thing to do is to choose the background for any battles that happen in this dungeon. Check the box labeled “Specify Battleback” and then click on the three dots under it. Choose a background that you think looks good.

The next step is to give your dungeon some music. Check the box labeled “Auto-Change BGM”, and select background music that you think is appropriate for a dungeon.

The last thing we need to do on this menu is to set up some random encounters. Double click on the top row of the “Encounters” window and select a troop. RPG Maker comes with some of these pre-made, which should be fine for this tutorial.

Once you’ve done all of these things, click OK. Now, place tiles on your dungeon the same way you did for the other map.

The last thing we need to do is make a way to travel from one map to the other. Go back to “MAP001” and select the dungeon entrance we were working on (remember, you need to be in the event layer to do this).

Under “Contents” go to the second tab, and the option at the top under “movement” will be “Transfer Player”. Select your dungeon and a map of the dungeon you made will appear. Just click on the tile you want, and that’s where the event will drop your character.

Click OK, and there’s one last thing you have to do. Look at the sections labeled “priority” and “trigger”vx-ace-intro-12

Priority can be “above characters”, “below character” or “same as characters”. The important thing to remember is that if the priority is “same as character” then you can’t walk through it, and it will be triggered by either walking up to it and using the action button (usually Z), or just by walking into it. If priority is set to “below character” then you can walk right through it.

“Trigger” refers to what needs to happen to trigger the event. The possible triggers we are going to pay attention to for this tutorial are “Action Button” and “Player Touch”. Setting the trigger to “Action Button” means that the player has to either stand next to the event while facing it (if it is the same priority as characters) or stand directly on top of it (if it is below characters) and press the action button to trigger the event. This is fine for NPCs and switches, but if the entrance to a dungeon is triggered by the action button and has a priority of “below characters” (which it has right now), then the player could walk over it without ever knowing it was there. The last thing you should do for this tutorial is to switch the trigger to “player touch”. That way your character will be transported into the dungeon whenever they walk over the entrance.

And, now you know enough to get started with RPG Maker VX Ace. Spend some time messing around and see what you can create. Tutorials are great, but you won’t really master the software without practice, so get to work.

 

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