In this series I have been outlining the role-playing game (RPG) genre and how Legend of Us Roleplaying Game (LOU) fits into it. The first week I defined the RPG and the second week I explained the difference between a tabletop RPG and a video game RPG and why I think of LOU as being patterned more after a tabletop RPG. This week, I’m going to talk about a common way of differentiating video game RPGs: turn-based and action.
Just to be clear, in none of these comparisons do I mean to imply that I think one is inherently better than the other. I just enjoy breaking ideas down and I like to think that it helps produce a well thought out decision. LOU is a turn-based RPG and I’m going to share why.
First, as I covered in depth last time, I wanted LOU to be like tabletop RPGs, which are turn-based. A tabletop game is almost required to be turn-based to keep the game manageable. Turn-based simply means that each person goes in turn around the table to complete a round. This gives rise to a system where rounds represent a unit of time. Each player is choosing what to do in that unit of time. So theoretically, all actions are happening at the same time but for the sake of making the game manageable everyone takes turns.
The second reason I went with a turn-based design is because I was designing for a mobile device, specifically a phone. Based on how I understand the mobile gamer, turn-based games are going to get played more. In my view, a game is a failure if people don’t play it, no matter if it is a technical marvel.
The first action RPG that I remember was Gauntlet and it was fairly bare bones. Gauntlet was an arcade game where you ran though a series of passages and whacked monsters as a team of four. You would go from one end to the other of the dungeon and then go down deeper where the monsters were harder. There was no character advancement or customization other than your ability to choose one of four classes. This game had a Whack-a-Mole quality in that monsters would pop up and you would just whack them. There wasn’t much nuance to it; you just whacked monsters and tried not to die. It was a lot of fun though, and in fact Whack-a-Mole is a lot of fun, too.
The most advanced action RPG that I can think of is either Skyrim or Mass Effect. Skyrim is first person and Mass Effect is third. Both of these have extensive character customization and are both great games. But what distinguishes them from turn-based RPGs is not character customization; it’s the combat. In almost every case from Gauntlet to Mass Effect, the “action” is monsters running at you and you have to react quickly to kill them or die. Otherwise there is no fundamental difference between the action and turn-based RPG.
So, let’s talk about combat since that is the root of the difference. Action combat makes a great commercial. That really can’t be undervalued. It makes a great video on YouTube and that is good for business. Also, it is very thrilling for the player because you are basically in a panic emotional state. Both of these are in the plus column for action combat.
But let’s consider how that fits into the mobile gaming experience. When I’m playing a game on my mobile device I’m generally waiting for something to happen in real life. I am waiting for my family or waiting at a doctors office or something like that. I’m in a situation where I need to just occupy myself for a period of time I don’t really control. If I am at home and have complete control of my time, I am probably going to play Skyrim or Mass Effect on a console. This doesn’t represent everyone of course, but this is the model of mobile gaming from which I work. This model leads me to the idea that my player is playing with a lot of distractions and for short periods of time. A turn-based game is more fun for this player.
This model of the mobile gamer is backed up by the facts of which mobile games are played by the most people. There are some amazing games available for mobile gaming, but the ones that do the best at the time of writing are things like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans. These games are not RPGs but they are designed around the player playing for short periods of time.
Both of the above are good practical reasons, but I don’t believe games should just be driven by practicality. Let’s discuss the effects of these mechanics on the fun.
Feeling like you are in a real place is fun. It’s like being a tourist in an imaginary world. Thus, it is relevant if one choice or the other gives you a greater sense of immersion or “being there”. I’ve heard the argument that an action RPG is better than a turn based RPG because it is more realistic. I don’t think this is true. What is true is that in real life everything happens at the same time. Beyond that, the turn based game has more room to be realistic.
Action game combat often leaves me feeling like I’m sawing down a tree instead of engaging in mortal combat. You usually have a life bar and the monster/villain has a life bar and you whack at each other with a weapon that in real life would end the fight with one good hit. In the action game being hit in the face with a sword removes a very small amount of your life bar. This is because it is very easy to catch the player off guard in an action game. It would be too frustrating if you were just looking the wrong direction and were struck from behind with a sword and died. Turn-based games are often much more lethal because there is time to think and you want the player to feel like their choice matters. In fact, you typically have all the time you need to examine your options before acting. There are other reasons on both sides but they tend to boil down to what kind of game you feel like playing right now. On balance, I would say there is not one choice or the other that is inherently better.
I think the key to making a great game, either turn-based or action, is understanding the limitations of each mechanic and making the right choices based on those limitations. Action games need to be blow-your-hair-back roller coasters of emotion. Turn-based games need to be thoughtful and the emotion is based on anticipation. Facing a snarling wolf that will charge you on its next turn is a nail-biting experience. The fact that you have a lot of time to decide what to do is not diminishing that emotion.
I think I’m finished outlining the RPG genre. Thank you for letting me take a few blog posts to establish a basis for future discussions of LOU and to let you into my head a bit. Next week, I intend to write about the recent acquisition of Mojang, and by extension Minecraft, by Microsoft. It’s big news and I’ve been thinking about it. I will also talk about how Minecraft has influenced me as a designer and how it influenced LOU.