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Taking Turns (Or Yes, It IS Your Job to Make Me Have Fun)
by Robert Walker on 06/02/11 10:09:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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It's been far too long since my last post, though I can't say that life has been boring in the interim. First off, I'd like to thank Gamasutra for featuring both of my previous posts, Computer Science Vs. Game Development and The Cost of Education, it's amazing that anyone cared about my random musings here, and I appreciated all of the conversation it spurred.

With life being so hectic as of late, I decided to go with another rant piece this time, I'll get technical next time. With that said, let's get to it.

Recently, I had cause to take a week off from work and stay at home for a while. In the few minutes of free time I had here and there I decided to do some retro-gaming, playing a few old turn-based strategy games and RPGs.

While playing, I came to a rather odd realization: I was actually enjoying the turn-based combat. Why is this odd? Isn't it normal to enjoy the games you play? Yes, it is, but this epiphany also made me realize that I have not been enjoying turn-based mechanics as they are so often implemented in newer games.

In many recent titles (read JRPGs) that contain turn-based combat, I find myself mindlessly grinding through fight after fight, attempting only to get through it so I can get to the next Magic McGuffin and continue the story. Yet, somehow, in these retro titles, I seem to enjoy the adventure, and combat is a bit more pleasurable to me. What is the difference between then and now? Well, not much, but it's the little things that make the big difference. For simplification of this topic, I'll discuss it in terms of the well known JRPG genre.

My first taste with turn-based combat systems came from a little title known as Dragon Quest. I was probably about 6 or 7 years old, and a friend loaned me the game, espousing it to be something new and interesting.

After the proper cartridge blowing ritual, I placed Dragon Quest (known then in America as Dragon Warrior) into my NES and was greeted with the simplistic title screen with its famous fanfare intro music. After naming my hero and pressing start, I was greeted by a king, pleading for my help in restoring peace to his kingdom. "He even used my name in his request!" I thought.

I ventured outside after collecting a few bits of treasure and began speaking to the townspeople. Wow, there were townspeople, and they had things to say! What kind of world was this I had entered?

This was no platformer, SHMUP, or 2D brawler (as so many titles at that time were), and while the view was overhead similar to Zelda and many other NES titles at the time, I found there was no button I could press to make my hero swing a sword or otherwise attack anything. This game was something different.

Upon venturing outside of the kingdom and taking my first couple of steps, BAM! "A slime draws near!" What do I do? Fight? Run? Cast a spell? Use an item? My child-gamer brain had no concept of fleeing from a battle, so the only obvious choice was to attack. Fight it was. "Rob attacks! The Slime's Hit Point have been reduced by 2," said the text scrolling across the screen, typo and all.

"Hit points? What are those?" I thought to myself.

"The Slime attacks! Thy Hit decreased by 1" the game responds before allowing me to input anything else.

"Oh no! That HP thing in the corner went down! Ohhh, I get it, that stands for Hit Points. It's like my health bar, only it's numbers. Well, two can play at this game."

"Rob attacks! The Slime's Hit Point have been reduced by 1. Thou hast done well in defeating the Slime. Thy Experience increases by 1. Thy GOLD increases by 1."

"Heck yeah, I'm awesome. I dunno what experience is, but I got some money!"

In my mind, the battle between myself and the slime totally happened, sword in hand and all. This was some new breed of game, one in which towns had life, and battles, while not shown on screen, were in-depth and awesome (to my 7 year old brain).

Apparently, the rest of the world thought so too, as this same system, very slightly altered since its introduction over 20 years ago, has been used in game after game after game. Sure, today it's hidden under fancy graphics and crazy sound effects, but this staple of the JRPG can be found everywhere.

So, what has changed that makes this system so enjoyable in older titles, but makes me find it repulsive in new games? Put bluntly, games got easier. No, this is not the part where I go "back in my day we had to make it through the whole game without getting hit, with no continues or save points, uphill both ways!"

I personally think making games easier and more accessible is often a good thing, but in this case, I have to say it has not done the genre well. Turn-based battle mechanics are essentially a virtual implementation of strategic counter-top game battle mechanics, derived from games such as Dungeons and Dragons, the Warhammer series, the Magic: The Gathering card games, or heck, even Yu-Gi-Oh. What makes these games interesting is the strategy needed to play them well. Not their depth or complexity, though those are a nice topping, but the strategy is the foundation of the entire system.

Modern JRPGs have gained battle systems that are infinitely deeper and more complicated than those in times past. There are huge varieties of monsters, enough stats to make me feel like I should be tracking my progress in Excel, and so many varieties of spells and attacks that it takes forever just to try them all out. But for all of this added content, developers have decided that in the name of "accessibility" it was necessary to give me a Win Button.

In other words, they have taken all of this new depth and complexity and told me: “Hey, if you’re not into this kind of thing, just press the attack button a few times and the battle will be over soon.” The problem with this is that it becomes the critical path through the game. Sure, I could go out of my way and explore all of the options and abilities and unique things the game has to offer to make the battles easier, but why? When the default option is so effective, why bother doing anything else?

The most blatant example of this I have seen recently is in Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system. Not only is it possible to get through the entire game with a simple sequence of attacks (do physical damage to stop the stagger bar from falling quickly, switch to magic to stagger quickly, switch back to physical for lots of damage and instant win), but the game has an “Auto-Battle” button, where it will select a mostly effective sequence of attacks for you.

This causes battles to devolve into nothing more than continually pressing the Win Button and waiting for the battle to be over. Pro-tip: If a player is spending most of their time attempting to skip through your game, you’re doing it wrong.

The existence of this Win Button actually causes this deep, thought out system to feel completely shallow and pointless, simply because there is no real reason for me to delve into the true mechanics of it. The game does not provide adequate incentive to explore further strategies. This failing is not limited solely to FFXIII, nor is it limited to only RPGs which provide an auto-battle mechanic, nor is it limited to the RPG genre itself.

This failing is prevalent in all turn-based battle systems where there is a default path that will cause you to win in most cases. By giving the player a tool which works in most scenarios, you limit their desire to fully explore the depth of the system you have created for them. And while they would probably have fun if they explored your system a little further, most players won’t explore because there is no reason to.

I do not suggest throwing accessibility out the window and harkening back to the turn-based combat systems of old. No, gaming has evolved, and with good reason. I would, however, suggest taking a look at what those titles of old did right.

Allow the player easy choices in the very beginning of the game, or, don't offer them any choices but the easy choices in the beginning. Give them the Win Button only long enough for them to learn the other important things about your game, then wean them from it quickly.

By the time the player is a couple of hours into your game, the mindless alternative for combat should be completely gone. Repeatedly bashing the Win Button should work well as the player gets acclimated to your world, but this tactic should result in lost battles and dangerous situations should the player continue to use it as the game progresses. There is no fault in making your game harder as it progresses, even if this makes it less "accessible." You'd be surprised at how many players will try something more than once, if for no other reason than the fact that they managed to conquer earlier challenges (in this case with the help of the Win Button).

In short, turn-based battles are a time-tested and very usable mechanic. So long as you don’t provide your player with any one particular dominant strategy, the battles can remain fresh and interesting, requiring thought and participation. But the second you introduce an easily usable dominant strategy into a system built on planning and problem solving, you negate the entire experience. It becomes no longer fun. To my fellow developers out there, I encourage you to take heed when trying to make these kinds of systems “accessible,” and remember where they came from and what makes them fun. Till next time, drop a comment or two in the comments section, let me know what you think.

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Dan Felder
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Nice, but this feels like an introduction to the topic. I'd like to see a deep analysis into how to design engaging turn-based combat. Sure, the I Win button is the wrong way to do it, but how about the right way?

Darren Tomlyn
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Hi Dan - LTNS. Have you read my blog any-time recently? I suggest you do if you haven't - it's changed considerably (now that I've actually finally fully figured out everything that's actually going on and causing the problems I see).

Darren Tomlyn
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This is actually similar/the same thing/a symptom of what Josh Bryce is also discussing here:

(As always, my reply is built upon my blog, which I suggest you read first (click my name)).

My reply in that thread also stands in this one too - that the basic written story of a game, should:

a) not be too boring or repetitive - (which of course depends on how long the game is designed to last for).

b) involve enough variety/power/choice the longer the game gets (to counteract point a).

Turn-based combat can be very powerful, if used and implemented correctly - to enable a player to write a story that uses the extra time it takes to happen, to enable behaviour that wouldn't otherwise be possible. Real-time games are of course about the opposite - having the player write a story based on their speed of thought and action/reaction. Phase-based systems can and SHOULD be used as a half-way house, to enable behaviour that wouldn't be possible in real-time, and yet without getting slowed down too much in regards to a full turn-based system. I have yet to see such a system however, since most phase-based systems merely use it to automate what the player could have or would have done instead... (A written story? What's that? We only know how to TELL stories round here...) :-/

Simon Ludgate
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I love turn-based games, some of my favorite games are the Fire Emblem series, Mission Force: Cyberstorm, and the original Fallout. All are turn-based.

What makes for good turn-based versus bad turn-based? It's simple: the number of choices you have to choose between during each turn and the number of turns it takes to "finish". The more choices, the better; the more turns, the worse. The three examples I gave have very wide options that players have to puzzle through on each turn, but the entire battle takes only a few dozen turns.

Take, for example, Master of Magic or Civilization. While I enjoy these games, they are "narrow and long" in terms of turn based gameplay. There are very few options available each turn, and these games tend to take many hundreds of turns to play out. The result in both is a small subset of strongly dominating game play strategies, such as Infinite City Sprawl in Civ.

Likewise, in RPGs like Final Fantasy, there are very few options available and, by and large, it filters down to just hitting the basic attack over and over. As you rightly point out, the desire to skip these with auto-battles is due to poor game design.

Conversely, in Fire Emblem, you might have 12 units to move each turn, with dozens of possible locations each one can move to, and several weapons each one can use to attack. Choosing which unit to move to which tile and which weapon to use for which target results in a huge choice tree. In addition to playing out the current turn, the player also has to plan for the immediate short term (what will the enemy's next move be? which of my units will be attacked? how can I position them to best defend?), the near short term (what will I do on my next turn? how can I position my units to best prepare for my next set of attacks?), and the long term (which weapons are about to break? what skills do I want to train on my units? how can I get the most xp for the best units out of these attacks?).

A good turn-based system is inherently based on providing gameplay that requires a lot of decision-making and planning. It doesn't mean that it's particularly hard or even particularly time-consuming, but the decision-making does mean that players have to do a lot more mental work.

Robert Walker
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@Dan - I agree. I want to spur conversation as to what makes turn-based combat good, but I didn't want to create a post that was "tl;dr". Maybe I will have to dig a little deeper and do a part II.

@Simon - That's a good distinction. I hadn't actually thought of breadth of choice vs longevity of encounter. One thing you bring into the argument that I failed to mention (for simplifying it to the cliche JRPG genre) is the way in which your choices outside of battle add to the depth of play. In Conflict (the game pictured as the title image), every unit has essentially 2 different attack options and 5 or 6 defense options that give the player the chance to take out stronger units with weaker ones, but does not allow this to happen very predictably. What matters more in this case is your movement and positioning of units outside of battle, which, outside of the realm of the RPG, is a major point to note. This brings to mind the thought that the depth of one's turn-based system need not be limited to combat options alone. Thanks for the input.

Joe Cooper
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Do dig deeper. This is a topic that comes up occasionally. The idea that turn based is inherently bad is a mental blockage that comes up a bit but plenty of people make turn based games and plenty of people enjoy the hell out of them. Some of my favorites are turn based, including some old FFs (4, 6 and 7). Invariably someone mentions that. But a deeper exploration of why things work and how ought to happen.

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem with turn-based games when using computers, is usually just a matter of bad implementation and application, again, due to the lack of recognition of exactly what it is they're trying to create in the first place - (a game, not a competition or a puzzle).

Real-time & turn/phase-based systems are one of the basic elements which games must apply and use, and therefore be created as. Single & multi-player, (whether co-operative or competitive and involving direct and/or indirect competition), and chance and (player) skill based systems are the others.

The problem, is that a game cannot exist in isolation of any of these elements, but they can be applied in many ways that are not necessarily consistent with a game at all. Competitions can use all these elements too. This means that just trying to discuss such elements in isolation, isn't really going to work. How such an element is applied can vary depending on what they are being applied FOR - what it is they are being used to enable - the BEHAVIOUR itself they are being used to support.

One of the main reasons WHY turn-based systems in games are not being used/applied or implemented in the best possible way at this time, is that the behaviour they are being used to support is not always fully consistent with the word game at all.

Without basing an examination of turn-based mechanics/systems and games that use them upon a solid foundation of the word game actually represents, trying to understand how and why they are failing to provide full and proper support for any particular game that uses such mechanics and systems will never work as-well as it should. Instead of starting at the top and then digging - we need to start at the bottom and build - since most of what we have at the minute hasn't been built correctly in the first place - the foundations themselves are wonky...

This is why, before I even begin to talk about all the problems I see in cRPG's - which encompasses mechanics and systems such as this, (and therefore will affect more than just that type of game) - I must first lay the foundation of what the words game, competition, puzzle and art fully and truly represent, both in isolation AND in relation to each other, in order for what I see and understand for myself that is built upon such meaning, to be recognised and further understood by anyone else - (and even then, it'll still be a problem - (welcome to the human race...)). (I'm currently working on the word puzzle atm.).

Matthew Blankenship
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I don't think that FFXIII's auto-battle command is a "win button," and it's certainly not going to win the boss battles. I believe it to simply be a shortcut, saving the user from having to move the cursor and make many button presses to execute a basic string of commands. In classic JRPGs, an auto-battle command like this would be unnecessary since a character can typically only perform a single command on a turn.

Tyler Martin
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I have to disagree with you on auto-battle not being a "win button" in FFXIII actually. I played all the way up to Pulse doing exactly that for every battle except the battles with the summons as I recall. I do remember this giving me some trouble in the battle with Cid, but once I learned hiw attack patterns I was able to beat him with very little manual input. I just had to watch for his more devastating attacks and react accordingly when I thought they were coming.

I never did beat the game (my PS3 died a few hours into Chapter 11 and I didn't enjoy the game nearly enough to want to start over), but I'd say getting through the majority of it without really doing much more than mashing X and occasionally changing paradigms if needed is pretty telling. I also only used about 3 separate paradigms for that matter up to the point I stopped playing, one of which was definitely used the most often. The result was that I felt as though I really wasn't making many choices throughout the game and I was left feeling quite disconnected from the whole experience.

Keith Thomson
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It's really not that simple, and what the FF13 designers were doing isn't making a "win button" as much as it is doing what every developer seems to be doing these days and applying it even further. Before, you controlled all 3 characters directly, giving each one their own commands. Then, games started making it so you only control the main character and the others are controlled directly by the computer itself. You might have to do a bit of strategic work ahead of time, and minor adjustments, but you're only micromanaging one character.

FF13 shifts this entirely to the overall strategy of the battle. You can micromanage the one character, but in the interests of speeding up the battle, it makes this optional. You're the coach doing the play calling and rapidly shifting the playbook, not the person controlling every move of every player in the game.

If you were "mashing the X button and occasionally changing paradigms" is playing it wrong. You were probably getting low ratings for most battles by doing that, and that strategy probably wouldn't have kept you going for much longer. The object is to keep the strategy shifting to maximize your score in battle, since the mechanic of losing HP and keeping it off after battle is gone. If you didn't play through Pulse, you missed most of the battles where you absolutely must keep on top of the paradigms to win the battle even to the 1-2 star level.

Tyler Martin
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"If you were "mashing the X button and occasionally changing paradigms" is playing it wrong."

I love this notion that if I found an optimal path through the game (at least up until the point my PS3 died) which you didn't use or which the designers may not have intended, then I must be playing it wrong.

To address your concerns. I wasn't getting low ratings for most battles, in fact I was maxing my rating on just about everything. I also take issue with saying that strategy probably wouldn't have kept me going much longer. I was already about 2/3-3/4's of the way through the game and it had not only gotten me by but was utterly destroying everything I encountered. At what point should I expect a battle system to require me to make more than one, maybe two, meaningful decisions in the run of an encounter? Or perhaps a better question is, at what point should a game be able to expect me to handle more decisions without being overwhelmed?

Perhaps my tactics wouldn't have gotten me through the entire game, but even the few battles requiring a lot of paradigm shifts up until that point weren't something I'd consider hard. In fact, as long as you kept a commando in every paradigm the game was downright easy since you could use any paradigm for a large amount of time without worrying about the stagger bar diminishing too much. On top of that, the required paradigm shifts were generally quite obvious, especially once you learned an enemies attack patterns. I fail to see how requiring me to make more obvious decisions translates would translate into a more meaningful experience late game, or how it would somehow make up for the prior 3/4 of the game that left me bored because of how little decision making was actually involved on my part.

Simon Ludgate
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@Robert, It's interesting, when I think of "turn-based" I think of games with explicit "end turn" buttons rather than games who's action takes place in turns. When I think "turn-based" JRPGs don't actually pop into mind even though, as you point out, they certainly are turn-based.

Another interesting distinction between classic JRPGs like FF7 and turn-based strategy games like Civ or Fire Emblem is that, whilst in the latter the player and computer takes turns making moves, in the former each character and monster takes turns and the turns aren't necessarily in a strict 1-to-1 loop. If you have more speed, you can take more turns, for example. Moreover, although units are on the same team, they don't move at the same time; if it's Cloud's turn to attack but you want Aeris to do something, you have to "wait" or waste Cloud's turn in order to give Aeris a command on her turn.

Thus the decision-making process restarts on a unit-by-unit basis rather than a player-by-player basis. It's not just one turn for each of 3 units, it's 3 turns for 3 separate units. This makes the decision-tree much longer (more overall turns where decisions are made).

Because of this, I don't think the solution to the JRPG auto-attack button is to give more options per character. This makes the turn-based mechanic both wide AND long, which is tiresome and tedious. In fact, I don't think the turn-based nature ought to be the focus at all. Keep the turn-based part simple, keep the choices narrow to compensate for the length of the encounter, and then add a different layer of complexity onto the choices themselves.

For example, Legend of the Dragoon for Playstation had a very simple turn-based mechanic just like other JRPGs, but each attack was a combo attack that required the player to push X or O in synch with a visual queue, basically incorporating the simple rhythm mechanic of DDR or guitar games into a JRPG. The more of the sequence you got right, the more damage you dealt, and the interactivity of it kept each attack interesting, not from a tactical decision-making standpoint but from a user skill input standpoint.

Otherwise, I think JRPGs would have to eliminate the character-by-character notion of a turn. Consider, for example, Atlantica Online, an MMORPG with turn-based combat. In this game, parties of up to 9 players or monsters are laid out in a 3x3 grid and each player activates up to 5 characters per turn, performing attacks that might strike multiple foes on the grid, such as a column, a row, or a cross. Thus the player faces both the choice of which characters to activate and which targets to attack and, most importantly, in which order to perform these actions. Combat becomes wide, but remains short because each "turn" consists of up to five attacks, limiting the duration of combat to a few back and forth exchanges.

Basically, my understanding turn-based mechanics can be represented by a table where each row represents one turn and each column represents a choice to be made on that turn. If there are too few total cells, the game is quick and boring. If there are too many, the game is tedious. Thus, you either have lots of rows but few columns, such as in JRPGs which, arguably, have one single column, beacause each turn you only make one choice for one character. Likewise, Chess is a one-column turn-based game. The alternative is to have a lot of columns but not too many rows, such as Fire Emblem, Atlantica Online, etc.

This notion probably helps illustrate why I have so many problems with Civ-style games: each turn is very unpredictable in how many decisions (columns) you have. Some turns you have a few columns, some turns you have a lot of columns, some turns you have no columns at all! Consistency, to a certain extent, adds to the flow of a game experience, so these sudden changes in "width" of the game must be jarring for the player. Moreover, Civ-style games tend to feature "column-bloat" where you inevitably get more decisions per turn as the game goes on, causing it to crawl to a halt, even if those decisions aren't particularly interesting ones to make anymore (such as construction in a city or instructions for workers). This is probably why automation for these tasks has shown up in recent incarnations of Civ, but if we apply the same logic of FFXIII's auto-battle to Civ's auto-build, we are recognizing that these "features" are there to patch holes in bad game design.

Robert Walker
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This is a very interesting take on the subject. I suppose, under this line of thought, that there could be some sort of ideal "sweet spot" for length of encounters vs breadth of choice. This may be something that old school games had in their favor, being limited to a small selection of actions while still trying to keep things fun and interesting. I suppose it's also a limitation of table-top turn-based games, in that they want to keep the rules and variety of action simple enough that they can be remembered and learned quickly. You've definitely given me food for thought here, I appreciate it.

Richard Terrell
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"In short, turn-based battles are a time-tested and very usable mechanic. So long as you don’t provide your player with any one particular dominant strategy, the battles can remain fresh and interesting, requiring thought and participation. But the second you introduce an easily usable dominant strategy into a system built on planning and problem solving, you negate the entire experience. It becomes no longer fun. "

Basically, this isn't a post about turn-based design. It's about interesting choices, and balance.

I just finished a few articles series on these ideas. The first link defines turn based gameplay. The second is a series on interesting choices from the Sid Meyer talk. And the third is a detailed series on Pokemon, the best turn-based RPG battle system.

Keith Thomson
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I actually dislike ATB systems like Final Fantasy uses and the plain turn-based systems that still manage to hang on, and prefer newer time-based turn systems. The Grandia series is the best example of this, but Radiant Historia, the Mana Khemia and Legend of Heroes: Trails series all are excellent examples as well. All of these are turn based, but rely on calculating the time things would take and the manipulation of the timeline to add depth. Final Fantasy Tactics also had this to a degree, but had less manipulation of other people's turn orders.

Mike Engle
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I dunno, having recently re-played FF1 (iPhone) I'm not really convinced the decisions were any deeper in early turn-based RPGs. A lot of those early games were pretty shallow.

Additionally, attrition-based gameplay (most early RPGs) tends to be less compelling than having each fight be individually more lethal (thereby having more important and interesting decisions,) and healing the player between fights.

@Richard, in his defense once someone's covered interesting decisions and balance there isn't a lot left to discuss regarding turn-based game design. They're pretty core concepts.