Saturday, February 16, 2013

Clean Combat

In the past few months I've been playing a lot of team-based games. Some multiplayer, some singleplayer. Some fantasy, some sci fi. Some this, some that.

I've learned a lot, come up with some ideas and theories.

One of the things I've really taken to considering is how much the stuff in any given tactical game is not about dealing damage.

For example, in a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, only a small portion of your actions are about dealing damage, avoiding damage, or repairing damage. Most of the actions you take are boosting stats, maneuvering for range advantage, debuffing, screwing with the turn order, using items... even when you are dealing damage, it's invariably from one of about eighty different damage-dealing skills you have. So even on rounds where you deal damage, you're still spending a lot of the player's time on things other than actually choosing to deal damage - the player instead spends their time choosing between variant ways and approaches.

On the other hand, in the new XCOM game, at least in its early stages, the game is almost entirely spent on either dealing damage or avoiding damage. Sometimes this is quite complex - for example, scouting only a bit ahead and only with your first acting unit, so that when the enemies magically teleport into your field of view, you have the queue of soldiers to blow them to bits all in a chain.

You could say that in the new XCOM game, most of your considerations are about the timing and queuing of damage and anti-damage, rather than about variations and random crap. It's a very clean design.

One of the things that helps it be so clean is that, like a MOBA, you don't really have unique characters. There's only five or so distinct classes, and they're always the same no matter what face you put in front of them. The only difference between this assault soldier and that assault soldier is in the simple level-up choices you make. There's no complex stats to compute, no complex equipment choices to make, and no real multiclass complexity to manage. This means you can quickly learn the ways in which each class differs when it comes to damage queuing and timing.

I was thinking: I really like this approach. I don't necessarily like every detail of how XCOM implemented it, but I do like the core idea. The combat is not about having a white mage and a rogue and a strike mage and so on. It's about creating the timing and queueing of damage and anti-damage.

This is actually rather similar to Radiant Historia, one of the best games for the DS. The main mechanic there was also about queuing up turns and damage, although it was a completely different kind of game than XCOM. In Radiant Historia, your characters would attack a 3x3 grid of enemies. Your attacks frequently hit more than one space, or moved anyone occupying a space. Queuing was important: not only could you chain each character's attack in with the next, but you could also reorder the turns so that your characters could go many times in a row.

These are both great ideas. The core thought is that the player should be thinking about the timing and queuing of damage, rather than being concerned about stats or precise range or elemental affinities or buffs or whatever.


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