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Balancing Turn-Based RPGs: The Big Picture

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This post is part of a series called Balancing Turn-Based RPGs.
Balancing Turn-Based RPGs: Party Members

You don't need to look further than a game like World of Warcraft to see that even the most experienced developers have trouble maintaining class equilibrium. In this article, which is the first of a three-part series, we take a look at balance from the perspective of a team creating a simple RPG, emphasizing throughout that a solid game design will make balancing your game significantly easier later on.

Note: Although this article focuses primarily on straight turn-based and ATB battle systems, many of the principles will apply to Action RPGs and other statistically-driven games.


Knowing Your Audience

For decades, RPG developers have scrutinized every aspect of their games, only to find that there is no pleasing everyone. Rule #1 of RPG development is to accept this and move on.

Yes, RPG gamers are a diverse bunch, and what might be fun for one gamer can be agony for another. However, that doesn't mean you can't make a well-balanced, crowd pleasing game. And one of the best ways to do this is to start by understanding the kinds of gamers who play RPGs. Categorized by type, they are:

  1. The Casual Gamer: The casual crowd is more interested in progression then challenge. Present them with a battle they cannot defeat in two or three tries, and they'll likely swear off your game forever.
  2. The Hardcore Junkie: There are gamers who want to be challenged at every juncture. They value the sense of accomplishment associated with overcoming heroic tasks more than story progression. Some, like those who play Dark Souls, are just gluttons for punishment.
  3. The Math Nerd: They'll crunch numbers, draw graphs and come up with advanced predictive models, all so they can fully optimize their characters. These gamers don't mind grinding experience, as long as it will help them to improve their character's stats.
  4. The rest of us are gamers who want to be periodically challenged at critical turning points, but prefer to sail through trash mobs. Gamers of this variety enjoy leveling and building powerful characters, but would rather be slightly less powerful than spend the majority of their time grinding out levels.

Determining the percentage of gamers that fall into each category would be difficult, especially in the current gaming climate. However, notice that the last type of gamer encompasses aspects of each of the other three. They enjoy the story, want the game to be at least somewhat challenging, and understand the value of optimizing their builds. While balancing your RPG around this type of gamer will still draw some criticism from the other three types, it's the best way to attract the biggest audience.

With that in mind, our mock RPG - entitled Final Trigger - will be targeted towards the fourth category of gamer. But of course, you're free to cater to whomever you want; just be sure that your game design reflects your initial vision.

Combine two classic RPGs, and what do you get? Final Trigger
Combine two classic RPGs, and what do you get? Final Trigger.

The Mile-High Approach to RPG Balance

Balancing an RPG may seem like a daunting task, but once you break it down into its constituent parts, it's really not so bad. Begin the design process by examining your goals from a macroscopic level.

Here are just a few of the many questions you should be asking yourself:

  • Should the average player be able to beat the game without doing any optional side-quests or non-progression related grinding?
  • How many bosses will the game feature, and how spaced out will they be?
  • How many dungeons will be on display, and how big is each dungeon?
  • Will players be able to save at any time, or only on the Overworld and at designated save points?

For the purpose of simplicity, Final Trigger will be relatively traditional. Our Overworld will consist of a huge sprawling map littered with relatively easy monsters. It will feature five dungeons of steadily increasing size and complexity, with each one culminating in a boss battle. In order to minimize the grind, we'll offer more experience for completing quests and slaying difficult monsters than we will for beating up on lowly wildlife. Trash mobs will still offer some experience, but these gains will be met with diminishing returns. Saving will be permitted anywhere on the Overworld, but only at select locations inside a dungeon.

In terms of overall difficulty, we'll strive to gradually increase the challenge, with peaks occurring at boss battles and lulls occurring shortly thereafter - something like this:

TimeVSDifficultyProgression

Enemy Types

Now that we have an overall idea of how Final Trigger will play out, let's dig a bit deeper.

RPGs generally sport three or four types of mobs. They are:

  • Trash Mobs.
  • Dungeon Mobs - These can be broken down into two sub-categories: Trashy mobs that are predominantly found near a dungeon's entrance, and more difficult ones located closer to the boss.
  • Mini-Boss/Boss Mobs.
  • End-Game Bosses/Optional Uber Bosses - Uber Bosses are typically tied to side quests, like the Emerald Weapon found in Final Fantasy VII.

Since our version of a balanced game is tailored towards progression, we'll be spending the majority of our time (let's assume 80%) fighting in dungeons, with about one-fifth of our time in combat spent indulging in a epic boss battle. The other 60% of our combat time will be divided between fighting weaker and stronger dungeon mobs. Theoretically, this distribution should appease the majority of gamers.

Our ideal time distribution would look something like this:

Percentage_split_time_fighting_mobs

Nice; now, almost all of our time is spent performing actions that move the story along. In fact, as long as we're only using the Overworld to travel to the next quest destination, even our time beating up on innocent squirrels is meaningful, if only because it gets us from point A to point B. Of course, players who want the option to effortlessly grind away on trash mobs are certainly welcome to - within reason.

Tip: Even if your dungeon mobs aren't meant to pose a significant threat to the player party, make sure they at least force them to burn through resources. Otherwise, players will grind on them instead of trash mobs, racking up tons of experiences and rendering our innocent squirrels nearly worthless.

Notice that in our distribution the same amount of time is spent fighting bosses as it is fighting Overworld trash. In order to replicate this distribution in-game, first determine the total amount of time you would like players to spend beating up dragons, giant ogres or whatever else you call a boss.

For instance, in Final Trigger, the first boss will ideally take three minutes for a competent party to defeat, and the last multi-phase boss a whopping twenty minutes. Middle bosses should increase in complexity, but for our example let's assume that the game's latter two bosses each take about 10 minutes to destroy, and the second boss takes 7 minutes (to make the numbers rounder):

  • Total Time Fighting Bosses = 3 + 7 + 10 + 10 + 20 = 50 minutes

To match our distribution model, we'll have to spend an equivalent time progressing through trash. Luckily, there's a ton of ways to tweak the time spent fighting easy monsters, none of which involve having to redo your entire Overworld map (that would be a major hassle). They include:

  • Reducing or increasing the random encounter rate (or spawn rate if you do not use a random encounter system).
  • Increasing or decreasing the average amount of mobs per battle.
  • Limiting a mob's ability to inflict annoying, time-wasting status effects such as Blind, Muddle and Silence.
  • Increasing or decreasing a trash mob's overall power.
  • Increasing or decreasing the party's relative power.

As you can see, there's a lot of room for flexibility here. For instance, a developer could conceivably populate the world with difficult trash mobs that occur less frequently, or easier trash that shows up more often.  Another alternative would be to increase both the party's strength and the average amount of trash mobs players fight at one time. It is this kind of design freedom that will later make balancing your RPG that much easier.

To illustrate this, let's assume that the average trash pack in Final Trigger takes about 30 seconds to defeat, meaning players following the Golden Path should encounter approximately 106 sets on their travels. However, during testing you find that trash packs only take 20 seconds to defeat, and you like it that way. Now all you have to do is increase the encounter rate and you've effectively re-balanced your game to match the distribution model.

Factoring in Death Rates

Our trash mob's ability to defeat the party should be relatively close to zero. As such, we haven't factored in time lost due to death. We also assume that players are incorporating some measure of strategy against trash mobs, as we do not advocate button spamming strategies.

Against bosses, we absolutely have to factor in time lost due to dying, otherwise what would be the point of calling them a boss? Since Final Trigger is a well-balanced game, players will never feel hopelessly under-leveled against a boss, but bosses will still require patience and strategy to overcome. Since we're trying to cater to the average RPG fan, it would be best if each boss featured a learning curve, but not one so sharp that players of average skill can only win when the random number generator is on their side. Something like an average of one or two deaths per boss sounds about right.

Therefore, in Final Trigger, players die, on average, 0.5 times against each of the first two bosses, once against the third boss, twice against the fourth boss, and 3.5 times to the end-game boss.

  • Average Deaths Per Boss = (0.5 + 0.5 + 1.0 + 2.0 + 3.5) / 5 = 1.5

We also have to factor in at what point during the battle the party wipe occurs. For simplicity, let's assume that wipes will take place halfway through the battle. Using this very simplified model, we determine that roughly 40 additional minutes will be spent engaged in boss battles:

  • Total Time Lost to Death (Boss Battles) = 50 * 0.5 * 1.5 = 37.5 minutes

Oh my! That almost doubles the amount of time players will spend fighting bosses. In order to maintain our delicate balance, we have to counter this by increasing either trash mob density or difficulty across the board. Increasing our party's power would work too, but then boss battles would become easier. See how difficult it can be to maintain equilibrium?

The lesson learned here is to consider every variable when balancing your RPG. Our simple example just illustrates a couple of these variables, but has hopefully put you into the mindset of thinking about RPGs in terms of intangibles.

Back to our example. Given that about 90 minutes each will be spent fighting trash mobs and bosses, we can amend our distribution chart to the following:

Time_split_fighting_mobs

A Note on Difficulty

The jury is still out on whether difficulty settings within an RPG are a good idea. Some say that forging a bond with the Hero Party is difficult if they're too overpowered. Others would rather treat RPGs as an interactive novel, believing that difficult battles halt progression in its tracks.

Both sides make valid arguments. Make a game too easy and there's no sense of accomplishment. Too hard, and it's easy to lose sight of the story. Take Dragon Age, for instance. Here we have a game that was so difficult that by the time you actually defeated a dragon, you could hardly remember the motivation for doing so. Games like Dragon Age benefit from an Easy mode, but only because they're tuned towards extreme difficulty.

Final Trigger features a variety of increasingly difficult challenges, but is nowhere near as gut-wrenching as Dragon Age. However, some of the battles are formidable enough to warrant a discussion of whether difficulty settings should be implemented. The simple answer is: yes and no. Traditional difficulty settings tend to either ruin immersion by placing too big an emphasis on the story (Easy) or combat (Hard). In addition, each mode has to be individually balanced by the development team, often leading to some modes being clearly out of sync.

Conversely, the ability to switch difficulties in-game can make that one devastatingly hard battle a bit more palatable. In our upcoming game, Hiro Fodder: A Blue Hope, we took a modified approach to this option. For instance, before one difficult battle, players are given the option to use an item that would place the boss at a disadvantage, rendering the battle significantly easier. Alternatively, the player is allowed to leave one party member out of the battle, clearly making the battle much harder. The rewards received for defeating the boss would then reflect the decisions the player made.

By integrating choice as an in-game feature we managed to avoid static difficulty settings altogether while still appealing to the maximum amount of gamers. And if anything, our approach will hopefully increase the immersion factor. (Fingers crossed.)

Therefore, I would recommend to other RPG developers to think along similar lines.  Just by allowing players to balance specific battles to their liking, you will tilt the metaphorical pendulum in their preferred direction.

The Role of Story

Now, you might be asking yourself where story fits into all of this. From a high level perspective, designers need only ask themselves a few basic questions:

  • How many characters does the game feature?
  • Does each character possess a story arc that exists independent of the main story?/li>
  • How do characters interact with one another? Do personal relationships, romances, or rivalries develop?
  • What is the main objective of the game? Does that objective change halfway through (like it does in so many JRPGs)?

For instance, there have been fantastic RPGs like To The Moon that were essentially all story and no fighting. Final Trigger is not quite as focused, but (like its namesakes) it does feature deep characterization and an epic story. We've therefore concluded that devoting 15% of the game to critical story sequences, and another 10% to buying resources and speaking with incidental NPCs should be sufficient.

According to our chart we'll spend about 450 minutes, or 7 hours 30 minutes, in combat.

  • Time In Combat = 135 + 135 + 90 + 90 = 450 minutes

With our other percentages in mind, we can now create a straightforward chart that illustrates how much time players who follow the story will spend participating in each activity:

Task_distribution

For simplicity, we did not include the amount of time spent walking around, but you will certainly want to.

Our 10-hour romp through the world of Final Trigger has been designed with balance in mind. Now it's just a matter of maintaining that balance in practice.


Conclusion

In this segment, we covered how to approach RPG balance from a mile-high vantage point. We conceived a game, Final Trigger, that will ultimately satisfy the majority of our target audience. We also covered what developers can do during pre-production to make balancing their game a more streamlined process. By following these simple guidelines, it may save you from reconstructing parts of the game world later on.

In conclusion, I would like to review a couple of key points:

  • Remember that the art of RPG balancing begins before the first line of code is written.
  • Consider ways to balance your game with the bulk of your target audience in mind, knowing that pleasing everyone is going to be impossible.
  • Determine the progression of your game, and break it down into its constituent parts. Start with Story and Combat.
  • Determine the types and relative difficulty of each mob you will encounter.
  • Determine the preferred amount of time players should spend encountering each type.
  • Determine the role of story, and your ideal story-to-combat ratio. Write the through-line of your story before production begins.
  • Use the results as a basis for the balance you want to achieve.
  • Once the game is in an alpha state, begin running modeling sequences and make adjustments accordingly.

We'll cover the last point in the second half of our discussion on balance in RPGs by running a few simplified models. Hopefully, they will provide you with a strong basis of what you can do to achieve balance in your own turn-based RPG.

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