Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interview Flamebait!

Just did an enjoyable little interview with RPG Codex. A lot of it is the standard, boilerplate stuff, but we kind of got into it on an interesting question: Should computer RPGs strive to have interesting tactical combat ...

Look, in a turn-based RPG, with a small number of dudes fighting a small number of dudes, there isn’t much in the way of tactics that is possible. The math isn’t there! I think you’re wanting something closer to chess. Sure, chess is complex, but that’s sixteen pieces on sixteen. For a single-player RPG, the fun is in the story (on a high level) and the stat building and lewt finding (on a low level). The combat is a means to an end. So make it fast and lively, end it, and get on to the next fast, lively combat. I do put in fights with odd tactics, generally weird or boss encounters. It’s nice variety. But combat is still the means to an end.


If you really want tactics in an RPG, play chess and give your pieces cute names. Like, “I declare, forsooth, that Queen Zzelma, my 18th level Rogue-Paladin, doth move 4 spaces diagonally in defiance of the Darkbeetle Empire. Hark, she hath slain a Knight, and is thuseth Level 19. Huzzah.” Chess is about quality. RPGs are about quantity.

Sadly, I haven't gotten any angry E-mails about this yet. What's the point of giving good flamebait if nobody bites? Even if I absolutely believe that what I said is true.

When designing a game, you have to keep your focus on what makes that sort of game cool and resist the temptation to bring in stuff that dilutes your focus. When I write an RPG, I try to put in about eight or nine serious, tactical encounters with thought involved. The rest of the battles are quick, light, kick-ass, adolescent power fantasy stuff. Because that's what makes the genre work.

In my favorite RPGs in the last few years, like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, most of the fights involved shredding bozos. And that's the way we like it.

Edit: Happily, a commenter pointed out I missed a forum discussion where I am subjected to the withering rage of the Internet. I don't understand what makes some people so angry about things.

Actually, I should point out I plan, in my next game engine, to highly refine both my graphics and the tactical elements of combat. There IS room for improvement. But that doesn't change the fact that if you demand serious tactical experiences in your battles, stay away from RPGs. Mine. Anyones. They are not for you.


  1. You have gotten a lot of criticism from the codex forums: http://www.rpgcodex.net/phpBB/viewtopic.php?t=31058

  2. @Thomas: Thanks for pointing this out. I was getting worried about my ability to anger the Internet.

    I completely fail to understand the depth and all-encompassing nature of their rage. I was only saying that I write RPGs the way that practically all computer RPGs have been written since, oh, ever. Oh, well.

    - Jeff Vogel

  3. I'm a bit surprised: I've always thought that there were tactical depth in the combat in your games. Although more so in A1-3 than in A5, since you removed waiting and multiple targetting spells (or I haven't gotten that far yet). I'm glad you're expanding on it in the next engine version.

    You can't play your games and *not* think tactically in combat, and win.

    Oh, and taking too much notice of what the RPGCodex says is probably unwise, seeing as how it's the universe's #1 source of flames. :)

  4. I don't play your games for the combat system. I play your games for the story and interesting settings. I simply wouldn't play your games if every fight involved some drawn out tactical snooze-fest.

    And really, if people want a challenge they can put the game on "Torment" mode. There's a lot of people on the Spidweb boards that would agree Torment is pretty damn difficult, and time consuming, and maybe boring.

    Combat-wise your games are easily more difficult than games such as NWN2, without being like I said earlier a big Zzzzzzz.

  5. I had to add thanks for the laugh Jeff:

    " I walked outside town, got attacked, spend a half hour fighting one excruciatingly slow combat, got wiped out, and uninstalled the game".


  6. I play RPGs for the levelling, the loot and the story.

    And the "click" of a successfully broken lock in a Spiderweb game is like crack to me. Worth even ruining my pure fighters for, just to give them enough Lockpick to hear that noise.

  7. Those forum comments made me laugh, so much anger! Over what, someone's very polite opinion?!

    But it doesn't surprise me though, I remember some guy flaming to the point of death threats in a newsgroup about Baldur's Gate 2. Just because he couldn't cope with the concept of some other guy having chosen to leave the sister character behind (Imoen - remember her? Never was a whiny-voiced game character so deserving of death).

    Jeff - have you also played any of the Elder Scrolls RPGs, specifically Morrowind or Oblivion? If so, what did you think?

  8. I agree with you Jeff. One of the reasons I really disliked this one game a couple years ago (one of the M&M ones IIRC) was that every combat encounter took way too long (several minutes at best) to play out and in new areas all the fights were close things. There were many scores of such fights to get through an area and then areas would restock. Argh! After the dozenth time of a walk back to town taking an hour because I had to re-re-re-re-...re-fight the same wandering encounters that had popped back up I quit and uninstalled.

  9. In my favorite RPGs in the last few years, like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, most of the fights involved shredding bozosMass Effect actually has some interesting micro-tactics if you know how to play an Adept. It is actually possible to win Mass Effect on Insanity without firing your weapon once (well, unless you count the Mako turret against a few Colossus Geth).

    The issue is cover. Mass Effect is based on a shooter engine, and so the AI is very good at (1) hiding behind cover and (2) shooting things as they emerge from cover. But Lift and Singularity negate cover; they suck enemies out from cover like a vacuum cleaner. And once an enemy is outside of cover, your AI teammates are actually pretty good at taking them down. So you can play the game where you use your abilities to suck enemies out from cover, and let your teammates do all the shooting.

    Now, maybe you do not consider this to be deep tactics, as you are just replacing shooting with another attack mode. But there are tactics involved here.

    I think the key is that you do not have to play Mass Effect this way; you can play the straightforward way if you want, or the Adept "pacifist" way. This is not unlike the people who play Avernum as singletons instead of using a full party.

  10. It doesn't surprise me. The Internet is good for over-the-top statements. Incidentally, what would you say about "tactical RPGs" like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, Ogre Tactics, or Super Robot Taisen? Do they really involve tactics or are they also just a numbers game?

  11. Related to my previous post, I think a more important question here is "what do you mean by tactics"? Sonny is a highly tactical game, but it does not have combat mechanics that are any more complicated than Avernum.

    For me, tactics in RPGs has always come down to one thing: crowd control. It has nothing to do with complex chess-like strategies. Instead, it is a matter of "What abilities does the game give me to reduce the number of characters that I have to fight at once?"

    Area effect damage spells are a crude form of crowd control, but immobilization or charm abilities are much, much better (Hacking is Tali's greatest ability in Mass Effect). Figuring out which part of the crowd to manipulate in order to make your team more effective can actually make for fairly deep gameplay without slowing down the game too much.

    In my experience, the Avernum series is much less tactical than the Exile series. The crawl to Rentar-Inhro in Exile III is one of the harder RPG battles I have ever fought, while it was a walk-up in Avernum III. And, by in large, it is because crowd control is less of an issue in Avernum II. In my opinion, this is because of the following reasons:

    1. The switch from grid to isometric view changed the scale of the game so that you started putting less enemies on screen.

    2. Summoners are vastly weaker, and there are almost no chain summoners (summoners who summon summoners) anymore

    3. The immobilization powers in Avernum are much weaker, particularly because of the elimination of an area of effect web spell.

  12. I think that your games have tactics Jeff!

    Sometimes I have to really consider how best to go after an enemy and I lose many times before I finally figure it out.

    Usually my strategy is go after magic users and archers first with magic spells and the fighters. Oh and of course my magic users have to cast all the blessing and haste spells first. And I liked the battle disciplines in A5, I found them very effective, though I was confused as to why one fighter had more than the other. But one specialized in poles and the other in melee so maybe that made the difference.

    Anyways, I am happy with the normal fights and the boss fights and I don't think your games need any changes in the combat system. :)

  13. Wow, "there isn’t much in the way of tactics that is possible." That seems patently false. There's lots of tactics that's possible. With the right combination of verbs, currency, and positioning, you can have a rich tactical experience.

    In the main though, I agree with you. You make a certain kind of game, and that game isn't about constant high-difficulty battles. It's about frequent easy battles and occasional difficult battles. That's cool. I think a game with much harder battles wouldn't be as successful, although I think it could be done and that it would have a very small audience.

    Damn, your comments in the interview should have drawn some flames though. Has anyone told you that they plan to play Tic-Tac-Toe while reading a book instead of playing your games. ;)

  14. "I think a game with much harder battles wouldn't be as successful"

    I agree that if you took a standard CRPG and tacked on difficult battles this would be less successful, but there has been a large market for tacticals in the past and there ought to be a good way to merge the two genres.

    IMHO, what you'd need to do two things:
    1. Make it easy, though not automatic, to withdraw from a bad situation, and
    2. Have multiple levels of victory (you were forced to from the battle field but killed the enemy leader, for example), where any outcome, not just victory, progresses the story but in a different directions or magnitude.

  15. For a single-player RPG, the fun is in the story (on a high level) and the stat building and lewt finding (on a low level). The combat is a means to an end.When I was a kid, the story in an RPG was usually just a tacked-on excuse to kill things and level up - the "kick-ass, adolescent power fantasy stuff" you mentioned. The emphasis may have shifted over the years, but I'm not convinced that the quality of stories (and storytelling) in RPGs has improved correspondingly. In fact, I'd say other genres are catching up, or already have.

    Maybe RPGs can't succeed with super-deep tactical battle systems, but there is always a level of tactics involved. Xenosaga Ep. II did exactly what you suggest will happen: the extra layers of tactics made every battle a drawn-out event. You know there's something wrong when fighting mooks takes up to fifteen minutes. The battle system in Personas 3 & 4, however, allows you to get through most battles quickly... if you utilize the correct tactics. It's not chess, but it's a good implementation of tactics in an RPG.

  16. Bah. Those fools have never played Geneforge on Torment, have they? You have to use tactics in Geneforge when fighting creations esspecially. Wingbolts are immune to magic, for instance, so throw out the Glaahk's and bring in some Battle Alpha's. Serviles are weak against fire attacks, so summon some Drayks and let fire rain down upon them. Just because it isn't thrown in your face, it doesn't mean it isn't there.

    Anyway, I'm just glad to see that our fearless leader is still capable of angering the internet.

    The Last Archon

  17. Thanks all for the interesting reading!

    @Walker - "Mass Effect actually has some interesting micro-tactics if you know how to play an Adept. It is actually possible to win Mass Effect on Insanity without firing your weapon once (well, unless you count the Mako turret against a few Colossus Geth)."

    Wow. You just actually made me want to play Mass Effect again.

    @Toby-Linn - "I think that your games have tactics Jeff!"

    Thank you. I think that is true to some extent, but I think there is a LOT of room for improvement. I am really going to bang on the combat engine for the game I write next year. They are right that it's simpler than it should be.

    Anyway, thank you all for the friendliness. Made my day.

    - Jeff Vogel

  18. @Connor: "Where's your indie spirit? You're in a place where you could be pushing the genre forward, but it seems like you're content staying where you are and pushing out the same tired concepts."

    A fair question.

    I don't think anyone could look at the Geneforge series as a whole and say it's just the same old thing. I think I did a lot of new stuff there.

    And, for Avernum 5 and 6, I've worked very hard to create a cool and involving story, deeper than most of what you can find out there. I may not have succeeded, but I'm trying.

    I have plenty of Indie Spirit (tm). But I'm not going to throw out what, in my view, makes the genre work (and provides what _I_ love about it). Keeping what works isn't un-Indie.

    - Jeff Vogel

  19. Jeff, I still remember Exile I as one of the best RPG games (with only Ultima VI and possibly System Shock ahead of it). For my taste, you had just the right mix of character development, world exploration, plot, item collection, and tactical combat. You seemed to have just the right number of tough fights that took some skill and thought -- just enough frustration to feel a sense of accomplishment when you won.

  20. Tactical challenge and depth are present in many pen-and-paper RPGs, and seem to be primary focus of new DnD edition. If some people want them in pnp, it's only natural they'll want them in their CRPGs.

  21. Tactical challenge and depth are present in many pen-and-paper RPGsExcept that it is not clear how much people want them in pen-and-paper.

    As much as I loved 3.x, the battles went very, very slowly. What you saw in adventure design was a reduction in the number of auxiliary encounters and a focus entirely on "boss fights" because combat took so long. This is fine -- focusing on boss fights is exactly what tactical RPGs do. But it was rarely worth it for the DM to apply other interesting challenges like wandering encounters or harrying tactics that serve not as primary challenges, but simply to drain the resources of the party over time.

    As for 4th edition, that game is exactly the opposite of what Jeff is trying to do in his games. That designers of that game do not understand the difference between PvP balancing (where character powers are balanced tactically against each other) and PvE balancing (where asymmetric resource costs are balanced economically). The result is a very fun game for one-shot skirmishes, but which is a miserable failure for story-driven campaigns (e.g. this game is what the revamped Chainmail a few years ago should have been). 4th edition is actually a fairly shallow game where any gameplay that is not combat related (social intrigue games, stealth and infiltration games) has been completely gutted.

  22. @Jeff

    I like your combat system but I respectfully disagree on your views regarding tactical turn based combat.

    Over the years plenty of turn based games have done great turn based combat:

    Wizards Crown (C64)
    Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1)
    Suikoden Tactics (PS2)

    You should have a look at the 4e of Dungeons and Dragons. If translated to turn based combat on a computer it would make probably the most tactical turn based combat ever released.

  23. Also to the poster above. Story driven campaigns work fantastically in 4e...we have an 8 month epic campaign on the go atm...why would a combat system dictate the quality of story?

  24. @ctcabilis: I remember Wizard's Crown well. And sort of fondly. There was a fair amount of thought to the battles, but it resulted in a LOOOOOONG game. I only managed to finish it by doing most of the battles in the auto-fight mode. I remember many battles taking an hour and up, and I don't think that's what most people want.

    I wish someone would rereleased a modern, spiffed up version of Wizard's Crown, so we could see if it's really what people want. Who knows? I could be wrong. :-)

    - Jeff Vogel

  25. Also to the poster above. Story driven campaigns work fantastically in 4e...we have an 8 month epic campaign on the go atm...why would a combat system dictate the quality of story?Because everything that is not combat is reduced to minigame status. There are no reasonable scrying abilities. Stealth and reconnaissance are nerfed so much that they are useless outside combat encounters. Social interaction rules are gutted. All of these actions have to be handled ad hoc and the outcome of your actions are essentially arbitrary; there is no structured gameplay here at all.

    If you want the story to be unstructured "let's pretend" that is fine. Just understand that if this is your criteria for story-telling role-playing, then Monopoly is an equally good role-playing game.

  26. Lack of tactics? Not that I've noticed. One of my favorite parts of the Geneforge games is spending three or four hours playing the same battle over and over, trying different stratagies in hopes that THIS time will be the time I get it right. Mounting a frontal assault on Monarch's city in GF4 springs to mind...

  27. I've always thought that your combats were great!! A real mixture of easy ones and others that take me quite a few tries. I wouldn't really change anything. :) Chenoa

  28. Well, I have to say that I never understood the notion that a large part of game content has to be boring, so as not to get in the way of the story.

    If you think that combat is not what your games are about, then include as little of it as possible.

    But tons of "quick, easy" and mindless combat is just a drag, honestly. And a waste, considering that the bulk of the character system and loot is aimed at making the character(s) better at combat.

  29. Quick, easy combat is a drag in RPGs where you have to get pulled to a different screen, breaking the flow of the game entirely and making it get repetitive quickly. And this is true in Avernum, I have noticed. Geneforge, by contrast, does not get dragged down with repetitious combat. You hear the *shink* sound effect, locate your foes, dispatch a few fireballs or acid sprays, and move on. Smooth, integrated, and actually rather fun.

  30. Tactical doesn't have to mean slow-paced or dull. Even fast shooter games like Call of Duty can be tactical (maybe that's a bad example but I can't think of any off the top of my head).

    Also, why can't story be integrated with the combat? It takes a little more thought but it's something I think anyone who wishes to create story-based games should focus on. For example, represent character personalities by having them behave in certain ways in battle, and I don't just mean enforcing stereotypes (e.g. the big dumb guy is always a heavy weapons wielder).

  31. "Sure, chess is complex, but that’s sixteen pieces on sixteen."

    More to the point, in RPGs one move consists of choosing between a couple of meaningful actions (a couple of more for magic users). It doesn't matter if you have 20 heroes against 50 monsters. Most of the time the only meaningful choice you will have: keep hitting the strong monster, hit a weak monster, or defend. When the mage's turn comes: mass destruction, individual destruction, buff individual, buff group.

    In chess, before almost every move, you have a choice between 20 to 50 actions, not just two or three or four. (After a while, in chess those 20 to 50 possible actions or moves shrink to one or two possible moves that are good. Often those few good moves are very obvious. Chess isn't the tactician's heaven either.)

    What makes RPG combat encounters interesting, for a while, is that their outcome is kinda completely random if the enemy is as powerful as the group of heroes.

    I personally think that Jeff has got the formula exactly right. If you think focusing on combat and story is a good idea, rather than focusing on story and letting combat be spice or a decoration, or vice versa, try to play Wizardry 8 and see how long the story can keep you interested while 95% of your time is spent in combat. The combat, though best that RPGs have to offer, gets old pretty fast, too.

  32. Thanks for reminding us that we're supposed to be seething with rage, Jeff. Some of us almost forgot.

    Also, I'm deeply sorry for the slow response. I'll try to make up for it by seething extra hard.

    Rage, RAGE, RAAAGE!

  33. I agree with matrixless's analysis, though not his conclusion. What makes tactical combat is not necessarily a large number of combatants, but a large number of options. This is what made the combat in the original Exile series interesting to me, at least from a magic casting perspective. The dizzying array of spells meant that the combat never got boring. Even though there were a few spells that I tended to cast more than others (my fingers still reflexivly hit m-w), any time I got bored with combat I could take my pick of interesting effects with which to dispatch my enemies.

    The drastic reduction of spells in Avernum 1-3 was my only significant complaint with the remake (other than the name itself), but it was a big one. The more recent games have tried to make up for the loss with battle disciplines. But they take too long to get and can be used too rarely (relatively speaking). The entire Geneforge series suffers from the same problem, even worse. The array of options is too limited, especially since creations don't even have options. If creations could be absorbed and remade as needed, the effect would be lessened, but the creation experience system discourages that.

    I still like Spiderweb games for the original and creative (and huge) game worlds and the engaging plots. But the gameplay has been going steadily downhill since Exile.

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