I donít like turned based games because theyíre slow and boring. You have to spend all that time waiting to do anything.
Iím sure every gamer at one point has heard someone say this. I specifically remember this being a constant criticism against turn based RPGs back in the PS1 and PS2 era. Iíve thought about why a player feels this way playing a turn based game for a while now, and the answer has finally come to me. The answer came while playing one of the oldest turn based games in history: chess.
While there are plenty of people who say they donít like chess due to the skill barrier for new players vs. the experienced and itís rather bland presentation in our day and age where games are flashy, technical eye candy, one criticism I donít hear is that chess requires too much sitting around and waiting. How does chess manage to avoid this accusation? It accomplishes this because chess has a high thought to action ratio, a term which I made up just now but will be useful in talking about turn based games. The thought to action ratio describes how long it takes for the player to think of their course of action, and how long it takes for the game to let them engage in that course of action. For a chess player, the amount of thought that must go in to every move is high, and only continues to increase as the game goes further. A chess player does not notice the amount of time they spend waiting for their move because theyíre too busy when itís not their turn thinking up what to do next and how to respond to the opponent.
Sometimes they think so hard they forget the rules.
Keeping the playerís thoughts going when waiting is the key to avoiding a player finding a game slow and boring. To understand this better, letís look at two game series, Final Fantasy and Fire Emblem, and compare doing it right and doing it wrong.
For those of you not familiar with it, Fire Emblem is a turn based tactical RPG. Fire Emblem has a high thought to action ratio. Generally the player will not be able to rush in head first in to a battle without first considering long and hard what to do.† Fire Emblem has a permanent death mechanic built in, so any KOed characters are not coming back to the player. Right here this already enforces the idea to the player ďThink before you act.Ē One wrong move will cost the player a unit for the entire game, so donít start mashing A to win. With the idea in the playerís head that they need to be careful, the game then teaches you how to play carefully. The player learns the weapon and magic triangle as basically being a rock, paper, scissors mechanic, and that this is key to winning without losing a character. The player must consider the triangle before they decide which unit will attack which enemy and where should they move their units.
For example, in Fire Emblem, a sword has an advantage against an ax. It would be a simple thought to think ďHave sword user attack ax userĒ but many situations will present themselves where that ax user has a buddy with a lance nearby. A lance beats a sword. Sure, the player could just have your sword user attack the ax user and call it a day, but now the playerís sword user is put at risk of dying when the enemy retaliates on their turn with the lance user. Because the game throws many different scenarios at you that will make blindly charging in a huge risk, the player must now look at enemy stats, placement and equipment before they even decide to move one unit.
Conveniently enough, the game also lets you view the stats, equipment and movement range of all enemies at all times on the map. And in a stroke of pure genius of design, all damage calculations can be performed by simple math. If an enemy has 10 Attack and the playerís unit has 5 Defense, then the playerís unit will take 5 damage from the attack. Keeping the stat totals only ranging in the tens digits allows for simple calculations that the player can perform on the fly without a calculator. The ability to do this opens the door for more thought to go in to a player planning out their attack strategy. But this still wasnít enough for Fire Emblem. The game also makes the player take into account terrain. Certain tiles can provide Evasion bonuses and extra Defense during combat. There may be two spots where you can attack the enemy from, but one spot is a forest that provides a 20% Evasion bonus and a +1 to Defense while another spot is a plains tile that offers no bonuses at all. Certain areas of the map may also create advantages for the player against superior numbers. For example, finding a choke point on the map that forces the enemy to only be able to attack with one unit at a time out of their ten provides the player a huge advantage. Now with all of this in mind, the player has a multitude of questions to answer every turn:
What is the enemyís equipment?
What is my equipment?
Where should I move this character?
How far can the enemy move?
How far can the enemy hit me from?
What risks are present if I move this character to that location?
How much damage can I deal?
How much damage can my enemy deal?
What will happen if I donít block off this passage from the enemy?
Should I have a seat over there?
For any one action the player chooses to perform, there will always be a high amount of thought that must go in to it every time. The idea that the player is sitting there waiting to do something is gone. Itís now filled with strategic planning. Final Fantasy is the complete opposite of this.
The Final Fantasy series has always been games that typically have a low thought to action ratio. I can boil down the strategy of any one random battle in Final Fantasy to a simple phrase: Attack until everything dies and heal when HP gets low. The boss fights are a similar affair, except itís changed to: Use your strongest attacks until everything dies and heal when HP gets low. The series has been fundamentally designed to have this problem.†
Hardest boss in the game defeated by 99% hurt and heal.
Final Fantasy presents the player with the illusion of choice in battle, but in reality most choices are not viable. For example, every Final Fantasy game has a plethora of status ailments the player can use, like Blind, Poison, Toad, Stone, Silence and more, but every fan knows that status ailments are useless to the player. Any enemy that is susceptible to an ailment is likely to be easy enough to kill so itís not worth bothering to inflict an ailment and any enemy that would warrant using an ailment against, like a boss, will be immune to ailments. The few Final Fantasy games that have buffs and debuffs also tend to have most of them be worthless. The buffs are never strong enough to justify using and the debuffs usually donít work on the enemies where deuffs are needed. If they do work, the debuffs are also not strong enough to justify using.
Final Fantasy games also design most dungeons to be an effort in conservation. The player is aware that a boss will be at the end of the dungeon, so they must preserve all Potions, Magic Points and Ethers. Due to the usual rarity of Ethers turning MP into a scarce commodity, the player will likely not use spells and special attacks for most of a dungeon. A save point is few and far between in dungeons, so a Tent isnít usually a viable option to handle having every character use every viable option for every fight. The player spends most of their fights only using Attack and very cheap costing spells. Having such a low amount of options gets boring rather fast. The only Final Fantasy that addresses the conservation issue is Final Fantasy XIII, but that game does so much of the thinking for you that itís rendered irrelevant.
Final Fantasyís low though to action ratio also got worse when the Active Time Battle was introduced to the series. Due to how few viable choices the player has in any one battle, not a lot of time is spent thinking on what to do next. However, the ATB system forces the player to wait even longer despite the fact that the player already has their entire battle strategy thought of for the turn. The game creates an annoying conflict with the player when theyíve figured out what to do in half a second, but the game forces them to wait 2-3 seconds to actually perform said action. This may seem small, but remember that this time adds up with every action of every battle. Itís essentially playing a game that has a built in input delay for no good reason.
Because of Final Fantasyís popularity, its game design choices have become a staple of the JRPG genre, so the problem of low thought to action ratio pops up a lot in the genre as a whole. Iíve seen various attempts to fix this problem, but not a lot of good ones. The solution to fixing the issue isnít to force all turn based games to become real time, nor is it to make a weird hybrid of the two that doesnít share the strengths both systems provide
Not going to point fingers at anybody...
This problem is fixed at the drawing board for the gameís combat system. Developers must design a combat system that forces the player to think long and hard about each action they perform. This is the whole reason why the turn based system exists. If real time gameplay is supposed to be a test of the playerís reflexes, then turn based gameplay is supposed to be a test of critical thinking. With that in mind, developers would do well to make sure their turn based games require a strategy beyond hurt and heal.