Game Design Talk: Character Balance (JRPG)

Discussion in 'Games' started by Xylia, Apr 8, 2018.

  1. Xylia

    Xylia Tiy's Beard

    So, after watching a few videos, the subject of Chrono Trigger is fresh in my mind, and one of the (very!) few flaws of CT (IMO) is that they did a somewhat poor job with Character Balance, and they fell into some of the very same traps that other similar JRPGs did, and so I thought I'd start another Game Design Talk thread about my thoughts on this subject.

    Now, I included JRPG in the description because most of this is going to be aimed at JRPGs (obviously, duh) but yet I'm sure maybe some western RPGs have done this, and some of these thoughts can be applied to games that aren't even really RPGs at all.

    Anyways, let me explain what I mean with Chrono Trigger and why I will open with that game. It's a relatively simple game battle mechanics-wise: it's a simple ATB system, you learn spells by obtaining Tech Points. Get enough Tech Points, you learn your next Tech until you learn them all (though the 3rd tech and beyond require progression through a certain point early in the game's story for everybody except Ayla and Robo).

    You can have 3 people in your party and there are a total of seven characters. This means that you're going to have to bench 4 characters at a time. There are several J-RPGs that do this, they give you far more characters than you can actually place in your group.

    So who do you bench? Some players might go for aesthetics or personal preference based upon personality, but yet many players will go with the MVPs, the characters that just downright perform better.

    And that's the problem... if you go from a performance standpoint, your group will always be the same, unless you are forced to do otherwise and I will explain why.

    First, let me cover the characters in detail, explaining what they can do:

    1). Crono. The guy you begin the game with. He's your standard melee warrior, he's a jack of all trades with a slight bent towards speed and critical hits. Respectable defense, health, and offense. His techs are mostly for single-target, though his first two techs are AoE (one is a circle, the other is a line) and he has two full-screen damage spells that are Lightning. His techs synergize very well with nearly everybody in the game. You'd be crazy to not put this guy in your team, no matter what you're fighting.

    2). Marle. A crossbow user with ice and healing magic. Healing is what this girl is. Or at least, on paper. Her crossbow attacks are pitifully weak through most of the game (occasionally you'll find a weapon in a dungeon that gives her a little bit of a leg up, but for the most part, her physical offense is non-existent). Her defense is tied with Lucca for the lowest defense, and her techs involve two Ice spells, three heals, Haste, and two Revive spells. Sounds good, right? Absolutely not. (I'll explain later)

    3). Lucca. Basically, Marle with a gun instead of a crossbow, and Fire instead of Ice. Instead of healing, reviving, and Haste, she has a few odd attacks, and enemy debuffs IIRC (I hardly ever put her in my group past very early game, in case you couldn't tell). She gets a gun later on that's like playing the Lottery. If you get a critical hit, AND you get a 4x multiplier on her gun, you can SOMETIMES do almost as much as Crono would with a critical hit. This doesn't happen very often in actual practice, though.

    4). Frog. Basically, Crono-but-not-Crono. Instead of AoE techs, Frog gets a Heal and a couple weird attack spells which are Water-based. I think he has slightly better defense, but less speed and slightly worse attack than Crono. He makes an "ok" Crono replacement for anytime you don't have Crono.

    5). Robo. A robot that has lasers that count as Shadow damage, some physical attacks, and two Heals. His Defense is through the roof, his Physical attack is on par with Frog's, though he's lacking in Speed (this can be improved, which I will mention later).

    6). Ayla. Cavewoman. Brute physical force all the way, 'cept for 1 Heal tech. Defense on par with Robo's, physical attack that's unmatched by anybody (including Crono!) and decent speed. Her only downside is that she has absolutely no magic damage whatsoever (but she has techs that can combo with others to make up with it, especially Crono).

    7). Magus. Mage. It's right there in his name. He has "OK" physical attack with a scythe. Not quite as good as Frog's. His entire Tech repertoire is AoE spells, except for 1-or-2. Rather bad defense, meh speed IIRC.

    So, what's the problem? Sounds like a nice variety and all....

    Well, first let's rule out Magus. Why don't I use Magus? The MP max in Chrono Trigger is 99. Some of Magus's spells more than 10MP, which means he's going to be out of MP in just a few casts of his best spells. If you're not using spells with Magus, then what are you using? His regular attacks? Ayla, Robo, and Frog would do better than he would.

    Second, let's rule out Lucca. She's all about Fire magic, so unless you are fighting something that's unusually susceptible to fire (very few enemies in the game are like this, and they are easily dispatched by other means), you have no reason to bring her whatsoever unless you feel lucky with her ultimate weapon. She's basically an early-game character that as soon as you can, you'd probably exclude her from the group as she doesn't have much use but to sit on the bench and keep it warm with her Fire magic.

    And lastly, let's rule out Marle. This one might touch a few nerves, especially those who don't know the game too well. "Rule out your healer/support character!?!?" Why, yes. Easily.

    Go back up to Robo and read his description again. He has two Heal techs, right? All three..... ALL THREE of Marle's heal techs are single-target. Robo's second heal tech is an AoE, which means it heals all three group members simultaneously. If you give Robo anything that boosts the Magic stat (Magic Tabs, equipment, accessories, etc), you will also boost his Heal Beam. Now, granted, Haste is awesome... but you know what is even more awesome? AoE healing with 1 people instead of requiring 2 people or spamming items to heal your group. That, and Haste is somewhat late in the game, and IIRC, doesn't last a whole long time, and you have to keep casting it to keep it up on your group and you waste a lot of turns doing that.

    And Life? Really? Revives are cheap and easy to buy from the store. When someone dies, wait until the other two get full ATB gauges, one uses a Revive, the other uses a Mid or Full Tonic (or Robo can use Heal Beam). Problem solved without needing Marle's expensive Life spells.

    So that leaves Crono, Frog, Ayla, and Robo.

    The last person to rule out is Frog. Frog can't out-heal Robo, because his one and only heal is a "weak" heal, while Robo's AoE heal is a "Mid" Heal. Frog can't out-DPS Ayla or Chrono, so he goes to the bench too (except for any part of the game where Crono is not available for various reasons).

    So there you have it. From a performance standpoint, the Crono+Robo+Ayla combo is King through the entire game.

    "But what do you do about high physical defense enemies!?"

    The answer? Volt Bite (which is what you end up using during the entirety of your 2nd visit to 65M BC). There are no enemies in the game that are resistant to physical and lightning simultaneously that I remember, and even if there were, Robo has Shadow Damage.

    If you're taking damage, put Robo on dedicated Heal Mode once you have his Heal Beam and you literally cannot die. Ever. Meanwhile, Crono and Ayla can pound the ever-living crap out of whatever it is you are fighting.

    It also helps that if you level Ayla to Level 99, if she gets a critical hit, whatever you are fighting is DEAD wholesale, because she always does 9999 with critical hits at Lv99. This includes the last boss. You know a character is overpowered when she can literally one-shot the last boss.

    So... let's analyze all of this info dump, shall we?

    What happened here?

    The answer: too much specialty. Marle and Lucca are over-specialized in the wrong things. JRPGs with limited MP systems need to realize that you cannot, absolutely cannot make a character that relies upon MP to be good and expect players to reach for that character for anything other than niche situations (or just simply find workarounds). In games where you have more freedom because MP is restored after battle, or easily restored or what-not, then you have more leeway to play with this, but still...

    A character needs to be functional solo to belong in a group. I know that sounds anathema to what a group is supposed to be, but hear me out here. The above examples? Crono starts the game by himself. He can handle himself in a fight, if needs-be. He might need to pop a healing item or two, but he can and will win against reasonably powered enemies. Robo is never going to die (unless you run out of MP/MP-heal items). Ayla will kill anything before it kills her because of her attack and defense being so ludicrously high.

    Marle, though? It would take her absolutely forever to kill anything unless you use her ice spells (which draws from the same very limited MP pool that her heals do). She will need to be healed frequently due to her low defense.

    Lucca? Unless it's weak against fire, she probably would not survive long on her own.

    Frog? He'd do OK, but probably not as good as Crono, Robo, or Ayla would.

    Magus? He'd be a little better off than Marle, about on-par with Lucca (because Lucca has a few low-MP cost attack spells where Magus does not).

    There's another game that demonstrates the concept of "group members need to be viable solo to be good group members", and that is Breath of Fire 2.

    In Breath of Fire 2, there's this surprise segment where Nina is forced to enter a dungeon alone. And guess what? Nina is basically the same as Lucca, only Nina has more variety in what elements she can cast (and if you did things right, she might have a heal spell or two and/or a free physical attack spell that does more damage than her actual physical attack would).

    And guess what? That dungeon is very frustrating. It's hard to keep her alive, the enemies blow through your MP like crazy (and if you've read my other Design Talk threads, you'll know why this is a very terrible thing in Breath of Fire of all franchises -- MP healing items are worth more than gold in these games because they are so scarce and difficult to find).

    And guess what? Nina is usually one of the very last people I would ever willingly put in my group in BoF2 (it's usually Hero+Bow+Rand and maybe Bleu who is basically Nina on Steroids).

    Why would I choose Bow and Rand for my group in BoF2? Well, for.... the very same reasons that I choose Robo and Ayla in Chrono Trigger: Bow is a great healer with reasonable physical attack and defense. Rand is a defensive tank with OK physical attack and a few heals. Both of them are capable fighters, even if solo. Now, I left out Sten... who has OK Defense and Attack.....but nothing else. He lacks the Heals the other two have, so he ends up on the bench.

    So what can we take away from all of this discussion?

    1). If you're going to have more characters than you can use in a group, you should give players a reason to want to use them all reasonably equally,
    2). You should be careful of making some characters "too good" and others "not good enough", otherwise you're gonna get cookie-cutter group setups,
    3). Group members need to be reasonably viable in solo combat. If they're not, chances are, they don't belong in a group where other people are unless they really bring something truly unique to the table. But even if not, more often than not, players will try to find ways around using them anyways. Kinda like Marle's Haste; Haste is powerful but yet I learned to do without in favor of a better group member who is more useful.
    4). Don't over-specialize; characters need to be viable all-around. So if your hero is capable of doing 100 damage with his physical attacks and you want him to be a B+ physical attacker and you want your mage being a D physical attacker, instead of having the mage do 20 damage... how about 60? This is the problem with Marle and Lucca -- their physical attacks are just too darn weak. They do maybe about 20% of what Crono does, when they should have been more like 50-60%.
    5). Physical attacks... I know I just got done talking about that in the last point, but I gotta re-iterate it here. Limited MP system + weak physical attacks = NO THANKS. Useless character. I'm not toting around dead weight just so they can unload their MP on a boss. I'll find a way to kill the boss without toting around a useless character, thanks.

    So that about wraps it up! Many JRPGs fall into this trap, and it's sad that so many developers failed to realize this over the years that these games were made.

    But with newer people still making RPGMaker games today, hopefully they are learning their lessons.
    D.M.G. likes this.
  2. D.M.G.

    D.M.G. Master Astronaut

    That actually motivates me to get RPG maker
    BUt diddly darn is it expansive :speechless:

    I never tried to create a RPG, and that's sommfink I'll do eventually
    But your analysis will be very useful ^^/
  3. Xylia

    Xylia Tiy's Beard

    There are different RPGMakers... there's VX Ace and MV. The latter is the latest and greatest (it uses an FF4/5/6 ATB-like system), and that one is indeed expensive.

    VX Ace (which uses a system that looks more like Earthbound/Dragonquest), though, I've seen heavily discounted a few times, so add it to your watch list and I bet sometime you might see it on sale for <$10.
    D.M.G. likes this.
  4. D.M.G.

    D.M.G. Master Astronaut

    I'll try to be cautious over it ^^/
  5. Bamboozler

    Bamboozler Space Penguin Leader

    If you're looking at game engines similar to RPG Maker and have some spare cash laying about I'd suggest getting Smile Game Builder. Admittedly it can be expensive (especially if you buy all the DLC and asset packs) however it can do almost anything RPG Maker can do, is still getting frequent updates and uses 3D models and assets.

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