The Rhythm Of Battle

“Pokémon […] has a metagame role called the “Sweeper”. The purpose of this monster is to one-shot the entire opposing team due to a high speed stat, insane damage, and good coverage on the Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors table. The best counter for a Sweeper? A faster sweeper that can one-shot it.”

TV Tropes, “Rocket Tag Gameplay” 

A JRPG developer has a lot of options when it comes to the battle system their game will feature. There are standard turn-based battles, variants on the norm like tick-based systems, and more complex deviations like tactical battle systems, just to name a few. These systems create different experiences and reward different kinds of play.

There is an additional layer above the concrete battle system. Just as important as a game’s mechanics is how its battles are paced.

This often-overlooked element has huge implications for a game’s design. Handle it well and you get a cohesive experience that makes the player feel well-equipped and confident. Handle it poorly and you get a clunky mess where players feel like they never have the appropriate tools for the challenge at hand.

Game pacing exists on a gradient, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll refer to the extreme ends of the spectrum. We’ll compare the speedy, dramatic world of Rocket Tag to the deliberate, strategic world of Marshmallow Chess.

All About That Pace

Rocket Tag is the faster-paced option. Combatants have a short life span. Enemies and player characters alike can be killed in one or two rounds. Combat is quick and highly lethal.

This is often accomplished by setting damage high relative to hit points. Critical hits may be more common than usual. There are even more complex cases, like games where debilitating status effects are both effective and readily available.

Turn-based battles have the unfortunate tendency to turn into never ending slogs, so Rocket Tag design is used to keep the pace enjoyably fast.  A swingy nature makes battles exciting and unpredictable. Everything can change in an instant with one lucky critical. Every choice the player makes is high impact and results in immediate feedback.

Marshmallow Chess is the slower-paced option. Life spans are longer across the board. It takes a concentrated effort to defeat an enemy. Combat is deliberately paced and more forgiving.

This can result from high hit points and effective defenses. Combat may focus more on incremental effects and combining smaller advantages. Game systems intentionally reward patience, with abilities that have cooldowns before they can be used again or delays before they take effect.

Slower-paced battles are more strategic, dramatically expanding the number of viable player options.  The possibility for teamwork and specialization is greater.  New design space opens up when characters aren’t expected to kill or disable something with every action.

They can also be more forgiving: since the player’s individual choices are less immediately impactful, there are more opportunities for a player to recover from a single bad choice.

Intentional Choice

Either system can be correct. The important thing is to intentionally choose one based on the game feel you want to create and design around that choice. Consider factors like your game’s themes, complexity and systems when making your decision.

For example, Chrono Trigger utilizes Rocket Tag because time is one of the game’s major themes. This choice complements the vigorous pace of the story.

Undertale, on the other hand, tends toward Marshmallow Chess. The emphasis on befriending monsters works best if the player has spent time getting to know them.

Don’t let thematic concerns dictate everything. It is just as important to consider the player experience.

The strategically-minded Final Fantasy Tactics series seems like it would lend itself to Marshmallow Chess. However, tactical battle systems already slow the game down by requiring combatants to consider movement and positioning. The series embraces Rocket Tag mechanics to help balance this tendency and keep battles exciting.

Giving Your Choice Meaning

Once you’ve made your decision, it’s time to evaluate the capabilities of the player and their foes. Do they fit with the chosen pacing?

Rocket Tag wants powerful, impactful abilities that go off right away. Most enemies (barring boss fights and the occasional meat shield) should go down in a hit or two. This requires that enemies be able to have a big impact in a short time; if a monster can only get off one or two attacks before it dies, it needs to be able to make an impression with every action. Giving enemies like these an extensive list of abilities is inefficient design. They will rarely get a chance to use all of those skills.

You should avoid skills that are only good after a time investment. Buffs and debuffs need to be big and dramatic, because a small boost won’t be noticeable. Status effects, likewise, need to have an immediate impact. Rocket Tag is the kind of gameplay where giving the player an accurate instant death spell can actually be balanced.

Marshmallow Chess wants useful abilities that reward patience and planning. Since fights last longer, you can rely more on incremental abilities that give eventual rewards.  Effects like damage over time or stacking buffs are more valuable in this system.

This also gives you the breathing room to make players and enemies more specialized. In Marshmallow Chess, characters that focus entirely on buffing or debuffing are perfectly suitable and add a lot of depth and variety to the experience.

The pitfalls to avoid with Marshmallow Chess often express themselves on a more meta level. If fights are going to take a long time, random encounters should be rare or avoidable altogether. Be careful about encounters that grow more lethal near the end.  Players are furious when they fail on minute nineteen of a twenty minute challenge because the enemy suddenly doubled its damage output.

The game should also include comeback mechanics, so that the player doesn’t get into a situation where they know they’ve lost but the battle is going to continue for a long time anyway. This feeling of hopelessness can occasionally be useful, but if it is a common occurrence it will drive your players away.

Hybrid Theory

More recent JRPGs have played with this concept in an interesting way: ordinary random encounters use Rocket Tag, while boss fights use Marshmallow Chess. This keeps random encounters quick and satisfying while allowing boss fights to provide a lengthy strategic challenge.

Of course, this is a complicated idea and demands a lot of the developer. Abilities need to be carefully designed to be useful both in quick, lethal engagements and drawn-out wars of attrition. Done poorly, this can result in players trivializing boss fights with abilities meant to overpower lesser foes; or, even worse, bosses with a seemingly bottomless pool of hit points and immunity to all of the player’s useful attacks.

If you’re taking this route, I would avoid the temptation to dramatically increase a boss’s damage compared to a regular encounter. The occasional long fight where the player needs to constantly heal off a barrage of crushing attacks can be exciting, but if these boss fights are too common the player can easily get exasperated with them. (Looking at you, Bravely Default.)

This also runs the risk of making certain characters or classes useless for one part of the game but necessary for the other, resulting in party members that feel like a liability until a boss fight rolls around.

Done properly, this offers the advantages of both systems while increasing variety. Nonetheless, it is best suited to experienced developers with resources at their disposal. This design requires creativity, careful balance, and extensive testing.

Conclusion

This is a tricky topic. Options aren’t concrete, and mistakes aren’t obvious. Handled poorly your players will feel unsatisfied with the experience but unable to explain why. Handled well your players will enjoy themselves but won’t realize you’ve done anything at all.

Does your macro-level design compliment your game’s pacing? Would some changes create a more harmonious experience?

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