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Developing the Battle System

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Alright, so I've decided to let the cat out of the bag a bit to those of you who read this journal (who, based on the number of hits, number few). Originally, the Fountaindale game project's combat system had no unique quality - it basically consisted of your run-of-the-mill computer RPG point-and-click interface, with weapons, armor, skills, and magic, and all of the other standard aspects of RPGs. Well, that's just too boring, and in the emerging market of indie games, it certainly won't help a game stand out from all of the white noise. Furthermore, indie games are supposed to tread new territory - places where the mainstream game industry is unwilling to go based on its risk-vs-reward calculations. In short, we needed something different and exciting.

The Use of Magic
Early in the concept development process, I had decided I wanted a robust magic system that enabled players to customize spells. Concept development went down several paths, but one idea in particular stood out: giving certain player characters (PCs) the ability to draw elemental properties from the surrounding environment, similar to a geomancer in some RPGs on the market. As I went down this road, I was able to eliminate standard elemental magic spells (fire, ice, earth, etc.) from the repertoire of magicians in the game. This got the wheels turning in my head, and I thought of eliminating the entire standard magic system and replacing it with something similar to geomancy, where PCs could draw out "magic" from either the environment or enemies in battle.

A concept similar to the one I was developing was already in existence in a mainstream game (Final Fantasy VIII), so I knew I couldn't simply copy it. Not only was the whole draw system a real drag (in my opinion), but it completely eliminated any kind of PC specialization vis-a-vis magic. An idea then popped into my head: give PCs the ability to manipulate the elemental stuff they draw out of the environment or enemies. Once a PC drew essence, it could have the ability to change its properties, make it more powerful, or do a number of other things to it in order to change its effects once it was used (on either an enemy or a companion PC). I'll explain more of this a bit later.

Eliminating Weapons
Following in the footsteps of eliminating the standard magic system, I was taking a look at the huge list of weapons I'd created for the game. Again, this list had nothing really original in it. So I extended the concept of drawing out elemental and other magical abilities from the environment and enemies into the realm of weapons. In my mind, if a mage can obtain everything needed in battle from the environment and enemies, why shouldn't a warrior be able to do the same? I was attempting to create some consistency in the entire battle concept, something that could span the entire spectrum of different character classes. So the concept of drawing some sort of "attack material" out of enemies was born. But I needed a physical object to hold whatever all this drawn-out stuff would be...

The Birth of the Twist Band
At this point, I felt like I was on the cusp of creating something truly unique, but the concept was still very lofty and unrefined. If I wanted to eliminate all traditional weapons, I needed to have something to replace them; specifically, I needed to create something that was customizable...something the player could quest for...something that could be upgraded, or that would grow in power, in order to give the player a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

The twist band started out as a simple "container" to hold the stuff that would be drawn out of enemies. It was originally a simple object that PCs would wear; this object would enable PCs to draw out and then use "essence" from the environment or enemies in the battlefield. In the simplest form of attack, a player would draw out "physical essence" from an enemy (which would be stored in this object), and then "throw" the essence back at an enemy to attack it. Well, that concept is quite rough, and a little too ethereal for actual gameplay. I still had quite a bit of development to do...

Away with Weapons...Why not Armor as well?
Now that I'd started down the path of eliminating all traditional weapons (swords, axes, etc.), I thought to myself, "If there aren't any weapons, there shouldn't be any armor, either." This is where the twist band concept really took off. By eliminating both weapons and armor, I was able to create a single object that held both offensive and defensive characteristics. Even further, I decided that the twist band could actually represent the characteristics of the PCs themselves. The twist band would be a physical extension of the bodies of the PCs - a separate object, but bound to the PC, inseperable for the entire game. Given all of these ideas, it didn't take long to come up with a visual concept for what the twist band would look like - as we all know, DNA takes the form of a double-helix; it seemed fitting to have the twist band object take the same shape...a double-helix that wrapped around the PCs entire arm - one side representing offensive power, one representing defense, and the entire object an external physical representation of the collective power of the PC.

Concept development for the twist band:

Refining the Concept
Armed with this new concept and having turned my back on virtually all of the mainstays of traditional RPG battle, I thought I had a pretty good launching point for developing a unique combat system.

The idea of drawing essence out of enemies, manipulating it, and then using it back on enemies to attack is a good starting point, but it isn't enough to allow variance and strategy development in actual gameplay. Further, we needed more definition in exactly what was what on the twist band if we expected the player to actually understand what this thing was. So this is what we came up with:

One half of the twist band represents the inherent skills a PC will learn throughout the course of the game. As the game proceeds and the player fights in battles, the power of this half of the band grows; over time, the PC gains specific skills, some of which are shared by multiple PCs, and some of which are unique to each character (hard-wired character specialization). In addition, this half of the twist band represents the amount of power available to the PC to perform these skills. Basically, it's like mana, or skill points.

The other half of the twist band (the more interesting part) also has a dual role. First, and most importantly, it physically holds the essence a PC has drawn out of the environment or from enemies. Second, this half of the twist band acts as the "wait timer" in battle, which determines when it's a PC's turn to act. We are thus able to maintain at least some element of turn-based combat. (I won't go into the nitty-gritty details of how the wait timer works here.)

Drawing and Manipulating Essence
Now for some nuts and bolts. In combat, PCs are able to draw different types of essence from enemies. Different enemies will have different types of essences, and the types a particular PC is able to draw is dependent upon his/her twist band (again, hard-wired character specialization). Generally, essence falls into one of these categories:
  • Physical
  • Elemental
  • Status
  • Skill
Once essence is drawn into the twist band, PCs have the ability to manipulate it, as mentioned previously. Players can:
  • "Boost" essence to higher levels to make it more powerful
  • "Reverse" essence; reversing physical essence transforms it to have healing properties; reversing status essence does the same; reversing elemental essence transforms the essence into its elemental opposite
  • "Meld" essence to PC's twist band to give it offensive properties of whatever kind of essence is used
  • Give essence a "block" property to raise the defensive properties of a PC's twist band
  • Give essence a "purge" property to remove any melded or blocked elemental, status, or physical effect currently on an enemy or PC
  • Give essence a "weaken" property to lower the defensive properties of a PC or enemy against the type of essence used
  • Give the essence a "volume" property to give it a wide-area effect
The range of skills listed here virtually eliminates the need for standard magic, and it allows the player flexibility in exactly how to use the essence he/she directs each PC to draw.

Gaining Power
The ability to perform all of the manipulative skills above is gained as the player progresses through the game - not all are available at the beginning of the game. In addition, as stated before, not every PC will have the ability to perform all of these skills, and the types of essence they can use certain skills on is determined by their twist bands. For instance, only a couple of PCs will have the ability to reverse physical essence, and thereby heal other PCs. Determining which skills to give to which PCs, and at which point in the game to do so, will be finalized in the process of play-balancing and -testing.

In addition to the skills listed above, PCs gain power as the game progresses by building up the twist band's capacity to hold essence. At the beginning of the game, PC's twist bands can hold only one essence draw. As the game progresses, PCs gain the ability to hold more essence draws in their twist band, up to a total of four. These essences can be shuffled around and manipulated individually, giving the player the ability to build a complex "stack" of essence in PCs' twist bands to use.

From the battle concept development file:

I'm currently toying with a couple of extra ideas:
  • Combining essences in the "stack" - giving the player the ability to combine, say, a physical essence with some sort of elemental essence in the twist band could either open up doors to interesting gameplay, or it may be redundant with existing concepts.
  • Passing essence between PCs - there's the potential to design gameplay situations in which having one PC draw essence, then pass it to another to manipulate and/or use it could be beneficial, or in some cases, required. It would, however, be dependent upon enemy design. Making more complex battle situations would, though, likely improve gameplay satisfaction and would probably require the player to devise different strategies to defeat enemies, based on their observations of what can and cannot be done at different times in battle.
The Issue of Customization
In this day and age, character customization is vital to interesting gameplay. Most of the customization I've discussed thus far is "hard-wired;" in other words, the player himself/herself can't change it; the player's actions in the game have no effect on what the PCs in the party can do. In order to provide this vital gameplay element, we came up with the concept of a "crucible." The crucible is an object that attaches to the twist band itself (see picture above), and adds certain attributes to the twist band.

Each PC has one - and only one - twist band throughout the entire game (since it represents the powers of the PC). Crucibles vary in size and attributes, number many in the game, and are interchangeable. When essence in the twist band is used, it is channeled through the crucible attached to the twist band. For physical essence, the particular crucible attached to the band determines what sort of attack the PC will be able to conduct:
  • As physical essence is channeled into the crucible, an "essence weapon" forms. The type of weapon formed depends on the crucible; this weapon can then be used to attack an enemy. Once the attack is complete, the weapon dissipates.
  • At this point in time, we're using a fairly typical set of attributes to describe the types of essence weapons crucibles can form:
    • Blunt, Edged, or Piercing
    • Melee or Ranged
Again, the complexity of the system we end up with will be partially determined by how complex we are able to make enemies. Obviously, if blunt, edged, and piercing weapons have the same effect on all enemies, there's no point in having this sort of differentiation.

Further customization is enabled by inserting certain items into slots that crucibles have (the number of slots is specific to each crucible). Currently, we have two different types of items that can be attached to crucibles, although we may end up deleting one:
  • Animatia - this is quite an old concept in the life of Fountaindale. Animatia was originally designed to enable players to give elemental properties to weapons and armor. Chunks of animatia could be bought, found, or won in battle, and by fusing them to weapons, the player could give PCs' attacks an element-based property. By fusing them to armor, the player could give PCs increased defensive properties. While the way animatia are used in this concept is different from "materia" in Final Fantasy VII, the concept itself is fairly similar. For this reason, and due to the fact that this concept duplicates the "meld" and "block" manipulation skills listed above, we may drop this feature.
  • Attribute Stones - these are basically "power-ups" that add certain trait boosts to PCs - HP bonuses, skill point bonuses, speed boosts, etc. While not a unique concept by any means, the twist band system enables us to come up with unique attributes (such as auto-boosting essence, giving PCs the ability to draw essences they otherwise wouldn't be able to, etc.) Further, attribute stones' power can be raised as the game progresses (we're still working on how exactly to implement this concept).
Simply put, the player will decide which crucible he/she wants to use for each PC based on:
  • the strength of the crucible's essence weapon
  • the number of animatia slots in the crucible
  • the number of attribute stone slots in the crucible
  • whether the crucible produces a blunt, edged, or piercing weapon, and
  • whether the crucible produces a melee or ranged weapon
We have the ability to create a vast array of crucibles with different properties to give the player a plethora from which to choose the perfect fit for his playing style and strategies (some may increase the strength of elemental essence, while decreasing the strength of physical essence, for example).

Say Goodbye to Menus
Nothing I've written so far has anything to do with actual battle gameplay. How exactly will the player interface with this crazy system? When talking with the concept developers I've been working with, one thing we determined we really wanted to stay away from was the use of menus. Menus are boring and tedious, and a player's relative skill in a menu-based RPG battle is based on how fast he/she can maneuver through menus to select a skill. We wanted to move away from that; we want to create something that players can "get good at."

We're leaning heavily toward using mouse gestures to direct the gross majority of combat actions. Once a PC is selected, a mouse gesture over an enemy will draw essence; the type of essence drawn will depend on the type of gesture executed by the player. (Still, only essences contained within the enemy can be drawn out.) Once essence is in the PC's twist band, the player can use a separate set of gestures to manipulate that essence according to the PC's abilities. Once engaged to an enemy, still further gestures direct different attack moves. Based on our designs, once a PC is able to conduct multiple, simultaneous physical attacks (by first drawing several physical essences into the twist band), certain moves could be conducted in quick succession to produce more powerful results and special/hidden moves.

Different gestures will also direct non-physical attacks (such as using elemental or status-based essence) and healing/curative/defensive skills.

As part of the hard-wired character specialization, some PCs have special skill sets independent of the essence-drawing system (represented in one half of the twist band, if you remember from before). Were we to design specific mouse gestures for all of these skills, the number would probably be too great for your average player to remember. Thus, we probably won't be able to completely sever the tie to some form of menu-based selection for these special skills. However, we do aim to greatly limit the intrusion into the core gameplay of whatever menu-based UI we come up with.

Well there you have it - a good overview of the battle system we hope to implement. This is quite a long post, but for those of you that made it all the way through, I'd love to hear what you think. We're aiming to completely solidify the entire engine in the next two or so months in preparation for starting on the 2nd demo. So in short, we have time to add features, delete others, and simply distill the concept into something really great and unique. Comments welcome!
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