Robert Boyd and William Stiernberg of Zeboyd Games have been working in RPGs for years. They are creative magpies, taking bits and pieces from the genre they love to craft their own original experiences with Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, and more. While each Zeboyd game draws from the RPG tropes they love, they also try to blend and improve upon them, looking at how what they liked about past games can best be implemented for a modern audience.
Cosmic Star Heroine, their newest RPG, is no different. It creates a turn-based battle system similar to what's found in the classic games they used to play, but it's filled with careful tweaks that they believe makes it feel more involved and intriguing. They were also inspired by genre classics in elements of story pacing, recruitment, a home base, and more.
Gamasutra spoke with Stiernberg to learn more about the games that influenced and shaped their new sci-fi/fantasy title, learning about seven RPGs that inspired the developers in their creation of various aspects of Cosmic Star Heroine.
It can be appealing to begin a game with exposition and explanation when you’re opening an RPG, as it gives the player a glimpse into the game’s world and the grand story they’ll be experiencing. The only difficulty is that, much of the time, characters and plot points are being delivered before the player has any investment in the world – there's simply no reason to care about the characters and story dumped on them yet.
“We were strongly influenced by the pacing of Final Fantasy VII's introduction," says Stiernberg.
Final Fantasy VII drew the player in with a quick shot of the world they would explore, hinting at it while also throwing players directly into the action. It was quick, got the player invested in the game’s battle system, and hinted at what would be interesting rather than bog the player down. A similar opening was used to start Cosmic Star Heroine with a bang. "It was a big inspiration for providing a brief, calm overview of the game 'world' (i.e. the 3 planets) in a cutscene, followed by an emergency situation where the player takes control of an experienced fighter (agent) to perform an exciting, fast-paced task right out of the gate," Stiernberg adds.
It also helped inspire the game’s protagonist. “The idea of taking an older, more experienced agent and fighter/explorer was something we really wanted to do ; there are plenty of RPGs where you start as a naive kid and learn how to battle over the course of the game. But games like Final Fantasy VII start with someone different.” says Stiernberg.
“We thought it would be interesting to take the main heroine and have her start out as an older, more experienced agent rather than a kid learning the ropes. That, way we could throw the player into exciting circumstances from the get-go.”
“I'd say that a big point for us early on was pacing," says Stiernberg. "We know that some of the games in the Japanese-style RPG genre have, of late, tended to have a lot of filler or areas of the game that drag (especially back when we conceptualized Cosmic Star Heroine many years ago). What we wanted to do was look at smaller scale classic RPGs that have stood the test of time, and ask ourselves why they felt like they held up over the years. Pacing was a crucial aspect of this.”
Having a grand story is all well and good, but if it overstays its welcome or is told inelegantly, players can lose interest. Zeboyd needed to hit that perfect balance in pacing for their story to stick, as well as keep the player engaged with the game.
“Less grind, less filler, less wasted time for the player was our goal. But not just in a way that keeps the player moving; but also to place areas of "break time" between tough or long dungeons.” says Stiernberg. “Give the player a break to explore or indulge in some story or world building, or gear up before bigger or longer dungeons.”
“Chrono Trigger is well known for its pacing.” says Stiernberg. “We wanted to apply a similar technique in Cosmic Star Heroine. Without going into too much depth, there's a flow to the game, where it starts strong and fast, then eases you into the world, then escalates the conflicts, then eases back a bit before the finale; this is interspersed with a varying degree of story/world building and exploration.”
Between time traveling , learning about Lavos, and battling the many dangerous forces that exist throughout the timelines, Chrono Trigger avoided overwhelming the player with any one aspect of the game, going back and forth at a pace to keep the player from feeling like the game was too focused on any one aspect. Zeboyd strove to create a similar mix.
“The point is to balance combat and exploration with story and 'breaks' from difficulty/strategizing, and to move back and forth between these so the player doesn't feel like they are grinding or spending too much time in dialogue/events/towns/etc," says Stiernberg.
The Phantasy Star franchise, despite its success, hadn’t seemed to have drawn as many developers to its mixture of sci-fi and fantasy, making for exciting new territory for the developers to explore.
“Another game that was a big inspiration was the Phantasy Star games. The idea of providing a science fiction setting with a mix of fantasy elements was something we really wanted to do,” says Stiernberg. “We leaned far more heavily on the sci-fi aspect, mostly because we were tired of doing fantasy and sorta-fantasy (for examples,their On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3/4). Also the Japanese style RPG market, especially among indie games, didn't tend to have very many turn based games of this nature in a sci-fi setting.”
Stiernberg had enjoyed being able to interact with that crew in Mass Effect, and felt that players would better connect with the game’s characters during moments of down time should they be able to talk to them as they floated through the stars.
“The home base space ship was something I was influenced in designing by the Mass Effect games," says Stiernberg. "Once we settled on a system of recruiting characters from the game world and adding them to the home base to deliver perks and fun dialogue, I thought it would be really, really cool to utilize the intervening instances of the home base ship between missions to allow the player to explore the ship and interact with the main cast and NPCs for new dialogue and tips about the game and world building as you went.”
The home base would provide an easily-accessible place to deliver missions and sidequests, keeping the player from having to wander the universe to pick up quests. “It's also a sorta-similar way that side missions are delivered; you have your main characters on the base, and at certain points they may make a request of Alyssa to initiate a side quest on their behalf.”
Some RPGs give players a continual supply of new abilities over time, but in many of these games, older abilities simply become obsolete, replaced by newer, more powerful versions. The alternative was to make an array of powers that will always be useful, but in doing so, the player would be ready for any situation all the time. To add that strategic element while making all powers helpful, the developers at Zeboyd wanted to have players select which powers to use.
Players can sometimes make mistakes in selection, though, hamstringing themselves. To avoid this, the developers would need a system to adjust their powers, which lead them to draw from systems like Diablo, allowing players to change their build when they needed to.
“I remember early on we wanted to let the player re-spec their characters. With our games like Cthulhu Saves the World, we let players choose which ability they may receive after level-ups, but there was never a chance to re-spec these at a later time.” says Stiernberg. “With Cosmic Star Heroine, we considered games like Diablo and other Action-RPGs, which let you re-spec, often by buying back points to do so. Rather than dealing in a point system, we wanted to keep it simple and let the player choose from any ability they get over time.”
“Eventually, we settled on an 8-slot system for abilities (and similar limited slots for Items and Programs). The purpose of this was to simplify actions in battle (so as to keep the game from overwhelming players) but also force players to strategize about what abilities to bring to battle. You can also see how the Diablo UI kind of influenced our own battle UI; a simpler, easy-to-see overview of the abilities you have on hand and which ones you can use, vs. which ones are locked out.”
'Defend' just isn’t often a useful ability in many RPGs. Oh, it’s still usually in there, but unless the developer makes a conscious effort to make it useful, by hinting at powerful attacks to avoid or giving it another function in the mechanics, it just doesn’t have much practical application. Stiernberg saw an opportunity to put it to good use when he tried Bravely Default, giving its use a great strategic weight in combat.
“In Bravely Default, each time you defend you get a Brave point," he says. "Actions that aren't Defend use a Brave point. The end result is a system that encourages you to strategize several moves in advance; how can you build up a character's sequence of actions over the course of several turns while also making Defend a useful command.”
“With Cosmic Star Heroine, we tried to implement a system where the player had to be cognizant of what abilities they had and when would be a crucial time to use them," he adds. "The Hyper system, where you have a powered-up turn at certain points, is a way to reward the player for thinking ahead.”
“We also employed the Defend command as a way to recharge Abilities. Normally, when you use an Ability, it is locked out until you Defend. The end result is that the player has to think about when they want to use useful abilities at critical times so that they aren't locked out; and when they need to Defend to recharge them. Combined with giving specific turns a powered-up Hyper Mode, and players are heavily incentivized to build their battle strategy around what abilities they have and when they can use them versus Defending. It's not the same as Bravely Default 'stacking up consecutive turns' but it influenced our concept of "stacking up" perks in battle based on turns and when you Defend.”
The developers wanted a complex system of powers and abilities for players to equip, rather than characters with set roles and abilities. This was another step the developers took to avoid falling into the trap of players just equipping their most powerful abilities and spamming them for the rest of the game. The developers wanted players to think about their battle strategy, and for that, players would need combat options.
"Final Fantasy V and Bravely Default, with the job class systems, both influenced Cosmic Star Heroine," says Stiernberg. "The idea of having a variety of options with basic skill sets that can be equipped with other class abilities into specific slots is something that provides a really interesting way of diversifying combat strategies without being too confusing or complex.”
By giving players many different options to consider and equip, the player would be more involved in combat and in pre-planning, keeping them engaged in the game’s many battles.