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Weekly Discussion on RPG Genre's flaws [Week 3 : Attrition]

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Hi,

As a reference:
Week 2
Week 1

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[font=times new roman,times,serif]I've always been a big fan of the snes-era RPGs and thought about creating a series of discussions based around the flaws of the genre and how they could be assessed. [/font]

[font=times new roman,times,serif]The discussion itself should be based around the topic that has been selected for that week (obviously).[/font]

[font=times new roman,times,serif]Feel free to discuss either:[/font]

[font=times new roman,times,serif]- The Problem (helping identify the root cause of why this isn't fun)[/font]

[font=times new roman,times,serif]- The Solutions (either games you know who have found a workaround, or ideas of your own)[/font]


[font=times new roman,times,serif]Whatever you feel like discussing here, please make sure that you add sufficient explanation/arguments to your logic as I take this intellectual exercise seriously and believe others will too.[/font]

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This week's topic: Attrition.

During last week's discussion, it became obvious that we should discuss this. The general idea that RPGs need some form of difficulty, and that artificial difficulty (in the sense of tougher battles) would result only in grinding which, in some directions, leads to a lack of fun.

We've discussed potential ways to adress this, and one that was raised by the introduction (re-introduction should I say) of the attrition.

As a quick portrait, I'd like to quickly describe two important eras of jRPG design in regard to attrition:

1 - Late Nes / Early Snes era games (Dragon Warrior)

In this era, the party's inventory is fairly limited and items that allow to restore some stats are a few and generally hard to purchase. This arguably feels like Zelda: A Link to the Past (4 bottles of restorative items max).

In this era the focus is a lot about the journey. The game assumes battle will be relatively easy, but it expects you to make mistakes: spend more magic points than you should, or attempt to save on MPs but taking more hits than you should. The end result is that a bad strategy is punished by having to journey back to town and begin anew, fully stocked up.

Choosing when to heal is strategic.


2 - Later era (Final Fantasy Series)

In this era, the inventory size has dramatically improved and curative items are many and cheap.

In this era the focus is a lot more about individual battles though they are fairly easy too. Each battle resolves in the player having to use many curative items to restore to full. There isn't really choosing when to heal as you should always be pretty much full for the next battle although you'd certainly avoid spending a 100 hp regen item when 25 hp away from your cap.



So my question to you all is, how can attrition become a fun obstacle to overcome to add a layer of challenge not currently felt through battles themselves?

Feel free to supplement with games that use attrition in a different way.

Please note as well that I've restricted myself to attrition of combat, by lack of other references. If you know of other jRPGs that perform attrition in different ways (aside from damaging floor for example) feel free to discuss.

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All roguelikes (Crawl, Nethack, ADOM) use attrition (saving the healing potion for later) heavily. These are perfect example how it could work excellent way. But... These games work under assumptions of no free saves, when you are dead all saves are deleted. Is it possible to do it without disabling saves? Wouldn't such heavy restriction on resources usage lead to excessive (fun killer) number of saves a player is encouraged (forced) to perform?

Attrition alone can be done easily, it has been proven already by many roguelike games. But the tricky part is the save/load routine frequency...

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There's a series by the name of King's Bounty, where it's sort of like a tactical turn-based army verses army where your hero doesn't do much except cast spells, and you win the battle when all of the opposing units are defeated (vise versa for losing). Though your hero does effect your unit stats (5 attack, 5 defense means every unit gets 5 attack and 5 defense, basically, and the more Leadership points you have, the more units you can recruit) the main focus of battle is controlling your units.

Anyways, this game was STRICTLY balanced, such that if you lose too many units, you simply can't continue in the storyline (the king will give you some gold if you lose all of your units, but it's isn't really enough gold to get back on your feet right away). If you lose a battle (or lose any units that don't get resurrected), those units are permanently gone, unless you have the gold to purchase more. There weren't random battles, there were X enemies per area, and once you killed them, the only way to get gold was to A. find it, B. move on to a tougher area or C. find it in chests or do quests (which are limited as well). And what happens if you find a merchant that's selling really good units? Well, units are generally in short supply (the better ones, anyway), so even if you have 1,000,000,000 gold, you can't just "throw away" units all the time.

This provides the player with the general idea that he needs to minimize losses, and each class has their own way of minimizing unit losses (Paladin: good at resurrecting units, Mage: controls the flow of the battle with spells, or you can just use spells to kill them, Warrior: drastically increased unit effectiveness and increased army size).

So when the player takes all of these game facts/mechanics into account, they'll realize that they're fighting a war of attrition - whether or not you're doing well is completely up to how your battles have gone and how skilled you are tactically as a player, and how well you make decisions and minimize damage taken from your opponents. If you play poorly, then it'll catch up to you, but if you play really well, then you'll find yourself with extra units, gold, and equipment, which will make the really hard battles manageable.

I suppose I'm saying, if a game is very well designed and thoroughly tested, then attrition will provide a sense of accomplishment for the player when they reach certain points in the game. Edited by Phil123

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no free saves


The idea of saving nodes restricts the ability of a player from saving the game. Inherently, this supresses the "hardcore" gambit of risk as everything you lose is just a tiny stretch of your journey as opposed to the whole. Yet, its more effective than the constant ability to save.


Attrition alone can be done easily, it has been proven already by many roguelike games


The somewhat sandbox nature of roguelikes makes it easy to start over and go a different path and live through that same experience again without any issue. In a narratively-driven such as a jRPG (which greatly differs from wRPG in that regard) that would amount to grinding through the same levels/story to get back to the point you were at which could be impressively more frustrating than the actual loss of user data as a result of player death.


if a game is very well designed and thoroughly tested, then attrition will provide a sense of accomplishment for the player when they reach certain points in the game.


Much easier said than done. Your post reflects on the practical implementation in an unrelated genre and assumes theoretical reciprocation to the jRPG. I'd be incredibly interested in how exactly you'd implement a similar system to the jRPG conventions. It may appear clear to you, but I think we're missing the key part to your argument here. It is easy to dismiss the problem to theoretical 'good design' but this is a wide concept which we're precisely trying to define here.

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It may appear clear to you, but I think we're missing the key part to your argument here[/quote]

The part of my argument that's important is that the player's resources (gold, units - in this case) were limited just enough such that the player actually gives a damn and tries to mitigate as much damage as possible, but said resources aren't limited to the point where the game is no longer fun. If I told you "rofl, you can't beat my game, it's too hard" and you beat it, you'd feel a sense of accomplishment as the player. In this game's case, the player is gently told "ha - if you don't play well, you're going to lose, not now, but 2 hours from now when you run out of resources" so when the player DOES play well, and they end up beating the game (or a boss, or achieving something in the game) they feel that sense of accomplishment. Yes, this doesn't directly correlate to jRPGs or other RPGs, but I just thought that their system was very well done, and that it would be a half decent example for this discussion.

As for actual RPGs, the way I see it, there's a few issues with attrition and the nature of RPGs. Here are some scenarios, issues, and possible solutions:

1. Character health/mana does not regenerate outside of combat -> if the player runs out of consumables, this means a lengthy trip back to town. If the player doesn't have enough money, they're forced to grind lower level areas until they have enough money or until they get stronger (common player response for a RPG - definitely a boring one, and I don't think this should ever happen). Possible solutions:

A. Monsters drop health/mana/restoration orbs when killed (very popular in action RPGs). Not enough to heal you to full every time, but enough so you can keep going.

B. Random spawns of restorative consumables on the ground (where you can pick them up and save them for later, or they automatically heal you). This encourages the player to explore, rather than waste their time grinding lower level mobs or going back to town for more items. (Hell, this actually reminds me of Halo, where your shields regenerate, but your health doesn't - the only way to restore your health is to keep exploring and hope you find a health pack).

C. When you're victorious in a battle, you receive a number of consumables that could be a percentage of how many you used. (Say, used 12 potions for a really hard fight, the player would receive 5-6 back in order to keep them exploring/fighting/biting off more than they can chew - but they wouldn't receive enough consumables such that they can spam heal themselves with items all day long)

2. Character health/mana regenerates to full outside of combat -> the problem with this when I see it implemented in some (keyword: "some.") RPGs is that this puts even more of a requirement on consumables than if your health/mana hadn't regenerated outside of combat. By starting every battle at full health and mana (basically, maximum strength or close to it), I guarantee you, 9 times out of 10, combat will be balanced such that it is much more difficult, and then you have the same issues as above, where you'll have to run back to town get more consumables, or whatnot.

Well, how the hell can you design a good system? Easy, by studying others'. I think BioWare did one hell of a job on Mass Effect 3. Basically, enemy strength is based off of your level, so there really isn't anything that is ridiculously hard because you're under leveled, or ridiculously easy because you're extremely strong. Enemies that are hard will be difficult regardless of level, enemies that are easy will be easy regardless of level.

In regards to attrition, you have an easy way to heal yourself and your squad mates if they die (Medi Gel). So how did BioWare limit the player's resources like the above game I referenced? Well, Medi Gel isn't the easiest thing to come by during a mission, and you can have a maximum of 5 (I think? it's been a while), so it's not like you can use them like candy. But here's the kicker, even if you run out of Medi Gel, you aren't done for. You still have your shields, and you can revive your squad mates if they die without Medi Gel (it just requires you being right beside them, reviving them).

That's another example, I hope I made it clearer than I did previously. I realize these aren't strict RPGs but hopefully someone can apply these ideas to RPG design and come up with some solutions that are better than the ones I listed above (because my solutions definitely aren't perfect). Edited by Phil123

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I like games where health is more of a meter you balance, alongside mana, rage, or whatever; they erode in some situations and grow back on their own in other situations. I don't particularly like healing potions, especially in turn-based games where using one uses up a turn.

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The part of my argument that's important is that the player's resources (gold, units - in this case) were limited just enough such that the player actually gives a damn and tries to mitigate as much damage as possible, but said resources aren't limited to the point where the game is no longer fun. If I told you "rofl, you can't beat my game, it's too hard" and you beat it, you'd feel a sense of accomplishment as the player. In this game's case, the player is gently told "ha - if you don't play well, you're going to lose, not now, but 2 hours from now when you run out of resources" so when the player DOES play well, and they end up beating the game (or a boss, or achieving something in the game) they feel that sense of accomplishment. Yes, this doesn't directly correlate to jRPGs or other RPGs, but I just thought that their system was very well done, and that it would be a half decent example for this discussion.


No disrespect intended, I fully understood your inclusion of this example and support it.


A. Monsters drop health/mana/restoration orbs when killed (very popular in action RPGs). Not enough to heal you to full every time, but enough so you can keep going.


Very popular in D3, but they have a different attrition factor known as durability. Including ways to soften the effect on HP is easier that way, at the expanse of an additional attrition meter. While it works for games centered around a single character, it can get cumbersome in rpgs with multiple characters as it adds yet another layer of complexity.
Not impossible to implement, just gotta be careful what you're taking out to make room for that.


B. Random spawns of restorative consumables on the ground (where you can pick them up and save them for later, or they automatically heal you). This encourages the player to explore, rather than waste their time grinding lower level mobs or going back to town for more items. (Hell, this actually reminds me of Halo, where your shields regenerate, but your health doesn't - the only way to restore your health is to keep exploring and hope you find a health pack).


Interesting, but works better with RPGs made out of procedural content. Nevertheless, I haven't seen that in any jRPG myself, so there might be something there.


C. When you're victorious in a battle, you receive a number of consumables that could be a percentage of how many you used. (Say, used 12 potions for a really hard fight, the player would receive 5-6 back in order to keep them exploring/fighting/biting off more than they can chew - but they wouldn't receive enough consumables such that they can spam heal themselves with items all day long)


The problem here is I think you're encouraging the player to heal, which, in and of itself, isn't necessarily fun. I think the key lies in having less healing, not more. A turn spent healing is a turn lost in battle, or a few seconds lost outside of battle. It is time not spent towards thinking about your strategy. Sure, occasional healing works, but there is a reason games such as Diablo 3 have moved away from their healing-frenzy loops. If anything, this mechanic encourages more healing, and as much as it can be a decent patch for the issue, I think it does encourage the problem rather than being a permanent solution.


2. Character health/mana regenerates to full outside of combat -> the problem with this when I see it implemented in some (keyword: "some.") RPGs is that this puts even more of a requirement on consumables than if your health/mana hadn't regenerated outside of combat. By starting every battle at full health and mana (basically, maximum strength or close to it), I guarantee you, 9 times out of 10, combat will be balanced such that it is much more difficult, and then you have the same issues as above, where you'll have to run back to town get more consumables, or whatnot.


I'm going to assume you're referring to the use of consumables "in-battle" rather than in-between fights correct? While this is a bit more fun, like I have previously stated, loosing too many mandatory turns to actions that are not strategically sound but only "necessary" IS boring as well.
Note that I am not against the player running back to town for items if he has messed up, I just don't think it should consume so much of the player's time in terms of resource management in and out of combat. As you're stating, this solution comes with the drawback that you're essentially taxing the player's actions with say, 10-15% turns spent towards using restorative items in combat (unless skills emulate that somehow).


That's another example, I hope I made it clearer than I did previously. I realize these aren't strict RPGs but hopefully someone can apply these ideas to RPG design and come up with some solutions that are better than the ones I listed above (because my solutions definitely aren't perfect).


Definitely. I think it just takes an extra effort to take the idea out of its genre's limits and apply it to a different game overall.

Thanks for your input Phil123, much appreciated.


they erode in some situations and grow back on their own in other situations


I'm intrigued. What kind of situations are you referring to specifically? It seems you're not limiting to combat necessarily, and as I said in my disclaimer up top, attrition out of combat is, I believe, an under-used element in RPGs. For example, I'd like to see a game with a cost of option of bashing open chests at the expanse of health. It gives the player meaningful choices and tangible input on their resource management.

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An issue with attrition is the effects are not directly visible. You know 1 hour from now if your decisions were good and allowed you to reach the end of the dungeon. A related issue is random encounters become very easy because their goal is to slowly wear you down. It's very hard to balance because the number of encounters is variable so you never know how many encounters the player will face before reaching the end. The player end up using basic abilities to save up enough resources in case something bad happens. That usually makes all combats Fight+Heal because it's more efficient to preserve resources for burst damage for bosses.

A solution could be to restrict out of combat healing to a specific amount and allow ways to regenerate this based on dungeon length. Out of combat healing would be done by spending "divine interventions" or something similar. It's a complete restoration of resources, but limited to 3 uses. It's restored when resting at an inn or throughout the dungeon. What this allows over potions is the controlled usage limit. It makes it so you will not always enter the next fight with full strength, so random encounters can be a bit more dangerous without being lethal. If a dungeon is set to trigger 12 random encounters, that means 4 encounters per restore(assuming 1 before the boss). They can be designed to consume 25% of the player's resources. Without it, they must be designed to consume 5% of the player's resources to leave some for the boss. That makes them tougher in the player's eyes.

Another benefit is decisions have their consequence in a shorter time frame. You get feedback based on how many encounters you won before using a full restore. Using one after 2 encounters instead of 4 is direct feedback to the player that something is wrong. Because it's a full heal, anything that happened before that point is irrelevant from that point on. This means the player only has to figure out what happened during the last 2 to 4 encounters to fix his strategy. Also, since it's a full restore to every character, it encourages the player to use offensive abilities. The most efficient strategy is one that makes all character lose strength at the same pace. If your healer is out of MP and your nukers are full MP, you need to heal up. If you nuked the monsters instead, it would have saved on the healer's MP and allowed you to squeeze in another encounter. This allows diverse strategies to be used by the player without fear of being out of offensive power for the boss.

For longer dungeons, some mechanism can be added to give the player new restores. It could be a shrine that regenerates 1 use once, but refreshed if the player exits the dungeon.

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No disrespect intended, I fully understood your inclusion of this example and support it.[/quote]

No offense taken ^^, I re-read my original post after what you posted and realized I wasn't particularly clear on what I was trying to get across.

Thanks for your input Phil123, much appreciated.[/quote]

No problem, this is a pretty tough topic of discussion (but a very good topic regardless) because balancing proper attrition rates in RPGs seems like a designer's nightmare when you think about it.

I'm going to assume you're referring to the use of consumables "in-battle" rather than in-between fights correct? While this is a bit more fun, like I have previously stated, loosing too many mandatory turns to actions that are not strategically sound but only "necessary" IS boring as well.[/quote]

Agreed.

The problem here is I think you're encouraging the player to heal, which, in and of itself, isn't necessarily fun. I think the key lies in having less healing, not more. A turn spent healing is a turn lost in battle, or a few seconds lost outside of battle. It is time not spent towards thinking about your strategy. Sure, occasional healing works, but there is a reason games such as Diablo 3 have moved away from their healing-frenzy loops. If anything, this mechanic encourages more healing, and as much as it can be a decent patch for the issue, I think it does encourage the problem rather than being a permanent solution.[/quote]

Yeah, those are some very good points.

Using one after 2 encounters instead of 4 is direct feedback to the player that something is wrong.[/quote]

How would you implement this such that the player doesn't get the impression he's simply too low of a level and needs to grind out more exp? (Not that a bit of grinding is necessarily the worst thing in the world, I'm just talking in a theoretical situation).

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A related issue is random encounters become very easy because their goal is to slowly wear you down.


What if the encounters are not random though? Either fixed, or visible and quantified?


The player end up using basic abilities to save up enough resources in case something bad happens.


That is, assuming he has the luxury of doing that. The player must be kept in check to figure the weakest attack he can use while spending as little as possible recovery items after the fight. If you just use fight, you might need too many potions, but if you use fire 3, you'll need too many ethers.


A solution could be to restrict out of combat healing to a specific amount and allow ways to regenerate this based on dungeon length. Out of combat healing would be done by spending "divine interventions" or something similar. It's a complete restoration of resources, but limited to 3 uses


This seems loosely based off D&D 4e's long rest system and the action point reward (mixed with healing surges)?
When exactly would that number reset to full (leaving dungeon? resting in a town?)


You get feedback based on how many encounters you won before using a full restor

Would it be unecessary to add additional rewards? (5 encounters in a row without a restore means you get 125% Experience reward or something like that).

Overall, I like your idea as I think it is refreching compared to the full restore "cabin" mechanic. I've always been opposed to disposable items you carry around giving you so much power, but an actual game mechanic with conditions and limitations sounds like fun. I'm just a bit on the fence as to how it feels so arbitrary, but you've probably designed that on the fly so ;)


Quote
The problem here is I think you're encouraging the player to heal, which, in and of itself, isn't necessarily fun. I think the key lies in having less healing, not more. A turn spent healing is a turn lost in battle, or a few seconds lost outside of battle. It is time not spent towards thinking about your strategy. Sure, occasional healing works, but there is a reason games such as Diablo 3 have moved away from their healing-frenzy loops. If anything, this mechanic encourages more healing, and as much as it can be a decent patch for the issue, I think it does encourage the problem rather than being a permanent solution.

Yeah, those are some very good points.


By analogy, in Formula-1 racing (and other racing too) it is a very strong strategic element to determine after how many laps you should stop at the pit stop, as it determines the exact amount of fuel you want onboard, which influences the car's weight, etc. This is a strategic element. If you were to include pit-stop stops every 2 or 3 laps, it would just become boring, and attrition-intensive. It wouldn't be a racing sport, but mostly the addition of who has the most efficient engineer team to fuel up ;)


Quote
Using one after 2 encounters instead of 4 is direct feedback to the player that something is wrong.

How would you implement this such that the player doesn't get the impression he's simply too low of a level and needs to grind out more exp? (Not that a bit of grinding is necessarily the worst thing in the world, I'm just talking in a theoretical situation).


Well noted. I see the trap there too. The idea is really to get the player to re-evaluate his strategy and not re-evaluate the difficulty curve in regard to his party's strengths.

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