Problem: Mixing genre conventions makes the game unpredictable, and invalidates the strategy in the strategy game.
Oh, Valkyria Chronicles. You’re beautiful, and I want to enjoy your gameplay. But every time I do a new mission, you find a new way to frustrate me.
Thinking about it, I believe that the reason Valkyria Chronicles is so frustrating is that it mixes genre conventions. It presents the veneer of a strategy game, but it keeps pulling tropes out from action games and RPGs. That’s a big selling point for the game – the tactics of a strategy game, with the ground-level excitement of a third-person shooter – but a lot of the game’s design decisions drive me crazy.
For example, in the latest mission I attempted, I captured the enemy’s base, only to be told that it was a decoy, and now I’m trapped in a pincer move. Okay, that’s fine…war is unpredictable and changes rapidly. What bothered me was that the new enemy units dropped onto the battlefield instantly, in excellent positions, and ready to attack. Essentially, they pulled a convention from the RPG genre, that of the multi-stage boss battle, such as Kefka or Sephiroth in Final Fantasy. But in the context of a strategy game, it meant that all my tactics from the first half of the fight went out the window, as I was now given an enemy I could not have seen coming and could not predict. Additionally, the need to advance and gain ground is a central element of any strategy title, yet my enemies were given ground entirely free and clear, while I didn’t even get a turn’s worth of warning to change my position.
Secondly, and more infuriatingly, this mission featured action game-style infinitely respawning enemies. Foes spawned in groups of six. I thought I was being clever by using a well-placed sniper to pick off the entire assault force, only to have the enemies respawn on top of their own corpses and immediately take their actions. I think this is another core tenet of strategy gaming – if you take ground, it’s yours, for as long as you can hold it.
Third, the game mixes uneven, FPS-like terrain with a movement engine that doesn’t allow the characters to interact with that terrain. Will I be able to move past that barricade next to the one-foot high slope? I have no idea until I run up to it and waste my movement trying to get past it. This is an example of trying to get away from the genre conventions of strategy – gridded battlefields, and movement marked in spaces – and adopt more of the conventions of action and shooter games. I don’t think it works.
So I can’t rely on my mission objectives, I can’t rely on my tactics and positioning, I can’t rely on taking ground and holding it, and I can’t even rely on the movement of my own troops. With all those elements gone, there’s not really much strategy left in this strategy game.
Solution: Give the player a way to see the results of their actions and modify them before they suffer the consequences.
For enemies appearing out of nowhere: When a new wave of enemies appear, the player gets one free movement with each of their units. They can’t shoot, but they can see where the main enemy forces will be coming from, and attempt to take up a defensive position.
For enemies respawning infinitely: Have areas of the map which are clearly enemy-controlled and impassible, such as an armored barricade. When enemies respawn, they come out of the barricade. NPCs should comment on how the enemies will just keep coming, and encourage the player to focus on their objectives, rather than the infantrymen. This allows the player to see that the results of their action (attack those troopers) will have certain results (they’ll just keep coming).
For being unable to predict which obstacles can be passed or not: Allow the player to plot out a unit’s movement before committing to their turn. If the player is unable to draw a line to the destination, they know that the obstacles inbetween must be impassable. This wouldn’t inviolate the interesting third-person movement of Valkyria Chronicles, because a player might see a good shot or a new enemy, and decide not to follow their original plan. But at the very least, they would have a new tool to allow them to counteract the game’s unpredictability.
Arg. I feel like I could write several posts about bad design decisions in Valkyria Chronicles. How can such a beautiful and well-produced game make so many infuriating missteps?
Problem: No comprehensive instructions.
As a collectible card game, The Eye of Judgment has a great deal of intricacy to its controls. Cards have special features and keywords, and certain effects only happen during certain phases of the turn.
This intricacy makes it unbelievable that the game lacks a comprehensive guide to the rules! The main game features tutorial videos that explain the basics of gameplay, but they’re agonizingly slow. What new player is going to grab their new game, rip it open, then spend an hour quietly watching tutorial videos? Furthermore, the videos don’t effectively cover the keywords of the cards. What is Dodge? Perfect Dodge? Magic Protection? Invocation?
Some time during the release of set 2 or 3, the game added an ‘Ability Explanation’ that covered many of the keywords in the game. This, too, is flawed. It can’t be accessed from the main menu – you can only open it while in the middle of a match. Furthermore, it only covers a handful of keywords, without even mentioning others. How does Resurrection work? What is the effect of Intercepting an opponent?
The game’s manual is helpful, but outdated. It covers the set 1 rules, but now that set 2 and 3 have been released, it has fallen behind.
Three sources. Three partial explanations of the rules. But no one location that just tells you how to play.
Solution: Write a complete in-game manual, and have it accessible at any time.
Civilization: Revolution is a good example to follow here. Any time during the game, you can press Triangle (PS3) to bring up the Civilopedia, database that explains how every in-game feature works, and cross-references it with the other features that it affects. For a game like EoJ, there should be a dedicated card for the game and button on the controller in order to instantly bring up all the rules of the game, or allow you to select an individual card and learn exactly how it works. Optimally, this encyclopedia would also be available on the game’s website as a PDF, allowing players to print a hard copy of the rules to go with their cards.
Overall, the design lesson to be learned is to understand the information a player is going to need, and make sure they have access to it. Text is easy and cheap, and it’s better to give the player more information than they want, rather than fail to give them the information they need.
Problem: The player’s mindset changes from micromanagement to macromanagement as the game progresses, but the controls don’t keep up.
The most tedious task in Civilization Revolution is being in the lead.
At the beginning of the game, the player is very much in a micromanagement mode. They start the game with one city and one unit. After a few turns, they might have three cities and five units. At this stage, the player is carefully micromanaging everything. They can take the time to lay out the best path for their units, manage the workers for their cities, and choose the best buildings to produce based on the resources near their cities.
As the game progresses, the number of cities and units increases dramatically. Particularly for a player who did some military conquest during the game, they might have ten cities and 40 units to manage each turn, with more being produced every turn. But the tools they have for managing those cities are the same as in the early game – they must choose a path for each individual unit, and choose their buildings one at a time.
A few tools help, such as grouping three units into an army, or setting a rally point that you can send units to quickly – but mostly these measures just serve to call attention to all the other potential time-saving controls that the game is lacking. The more a player is winning, the more tedious these routine tasks become; a player near the end of a military conquest strategy victory might spend five minutes each turn just giving movement orders to their 50+ units, and only 30 seconds fighting meaningful battles and making choices.
Solution: Create a second layer of controls to automate tasks.
Civilization Revolution can take some advice from the RTS genre, in terms of automatic rally points, build queues, and super-armies. Furthermore, I think the game could really benefit from the ability to create simple scripts, allowing the player to automate some of the most tedious tasks.
Rally points: When a city is doing nothing but producing units for the war effort, I should be able to tell it to send those units to form themselves into armies and head to a designated rally point without my input. I don’t care about those units until they’re on the front line and ready to fight, so don’t tell me about them until they arrive.
Build queues: Currently, every city that needs a new build order will pull the camera over and ask the player for new orders each round. Because the player is jumping around between their many cities, they don’t get to really know each city. It’s like speed dating, I suppose. Instead of asking the player to spend 30 seconds with a city once every three turns, ask them to spend five minutes with the city once every thirty turns. Allow them to look at the city’s surroundings in depth, think about which buildings will be most useful and in which order, and create a build queue so that the city can run on autopilot for the next half-hour or so.
The real benefit here isn’t that the player’s cities will be more effective – it’s that they will have the time to think about their cities, learn their terrain and resources, and understand which areas are most critical to their empire. Essentially, each city in Civilization Revolution is a character in the player’s party, and we want the personalities of those characters to have a chance to come through. Perhaps one city is a real fisherman’s paradise, and another city is poorly-defended, but has resource-rich mountains nearby. A build queue encourages the player to notice those personalities, without making the game drag on for eternity.
Super-Armies: Civilization Revolution already allows players to group three like units into a single army. Expand that concept, and let the player group three armies into a super-army, and three super-armies into a grand army. Maybe those individual armies have to fight individually (to prevent their combat stats from becoming absurdly high), but it reduces the number of commands the player has to give, and simplifies their turn…especially if, like in an RTS, they can create super-armies out of different types of units. As long as they’re all going to the same place, why should I have to order them to go there individually?
Scripting: Being able to give more detailed instructions for distribution of troops would be beneficial. For example, if I have a city producing defensive units, I want to be able to tell it “Produce three units, and form them into an army. Send that army to a city that does not already have a defensive army unit. When they arrive, order them to defend. If every city has a defensive army, start producing offensive units, and send them to the city closest to the most recent battle I started. When they arrive, ask for an order. If I gain a new city, produce a defensive army for it.”
That’s a fairly complicated example, but that’s what I have to do manually in order to make sure my cities are defended. And it’s not interesting or fun – it’s just tedium that could be done with a script, as described above.
Mixing in other building orders would allow the system to be even more robust – allowing the player to say “Build a defensive army, and defend this city. Then build walls. Then build barracks. Then build a new defensive army with the barracks upgrade. Then build an aqueduct. Then build a workshop. Then build an offensive army, and send them to the capital.”
Implementing a scripting system might be too much for Civilization Revolution (my solutions are supposed to be stuff that could be added to the game fairly quickly during the last stages of development), but I think that future games like Civilization should consider allowing the player to automate tedious tasks. If the player’s tasks don’t involve interesting and meaningful choices, those tasks are just detracting from the game.
RPGs are starting to learn this, such as the Gambit system of Final Fantasy 12, and the automated party members of Final Fantasy 13. Some choices are meaningful, but if the choice is a non-choice – “Use heal anytime someone drops below 30% HP” – let the player figure it out once, offload the tedious tasks onto the computer, and move on to more fun choices.