Making Random Battles Fun?

I know that this is the burning question in everybody’s mind this time of year.  Actually, Entertainment Weekly took care of the real burning question: Is Kirby’s Epic Yarn the worst game of the year?  But now that that’s out of the way, we can settle down and discuss random battles, which even people who love JRPGs will admit, are even worse than Epic Yarn.

It’s not that battles being random is the problem: they aren’t random.  They occur on a semi-consistent interval which the player is aware of.  If being random were the problem, then games like Left 4 Dead, a game that throws hordes of zombies at you at unpredictable intervals, would be terrible.  What’s bad about these battles is that they change the entire game on a dime every couple of minutes, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.   It’s like being the passenger in a car being driven by someone who is constantly jerking the brakes.  In either case, the experiencing is infuriating, and JRPGs are entirely unplayable for some audiences.  As a device in a game, it’s a relic from a time when there was technically no other way to design the transition and relationship between battle and field mode.

But really, why should anyone give a crap about this sort of thing now.  JRPGs were for people who had a high tolerance for pain.  It takes an obscene amount of time and effort to build an HD JRPG world?  But there are new opportunities.  10 year old+ JRPGs are being re-released and someone still wants to buy them.  (This may just be a sign of how poor the selection at PSN is though.  Never-the-less, people still throw money at these games.)  Dragon Quest has found success and a new home in the portable market.   And there is burgeoning potential for them in the mobile app market as well.   But there’s no reason to still rely on random battles as a staple feature of JRPG style games.  There is still ample interest in the genre, though the audience is weary from awkward game mechanics that should have been left in the past.

Some games have side-stepped the problem altogether (e.g. Chrono Trigger) but maybe designers can take a cue from gamification and turn the drudgery of random battles make the whole scheme feel more like a game, as opposed to a form of hazing.  Here is how I might imagine this happening.

Notebook time!

First off, don’t even load battle mode if the player has decided that they are just going to flee once it commences.  The load/transition time is constant, and when the player isn’t going to even bother with it they will essentially disengage from the game until it has returned to field mode.  The player may not want to be distracted from their task at hand, or may not want to spend a lot of time fighting.  If they should sustain a penalty during escape (characters don’t usually escape immediately in JRPGs and run in place while taking a few hits first) then there’s no reason not to do this is field mode in order to minimize unnecessary transitions.

The game should provide the player with a sense of control.  The risks and rewards of random encounters should be managed as part of the field mode.  I would suggest something along the lines of this model: HUD elements can be seen on one side of the screen indicating the estimated number of enemies in a room.  Another element shown close by will indicate when an enemy is nearing.  If the party is aware of it sooner, they can engage it at will, and even attempt to pre-emptively strike it/them.  A button press will bring up the options to strike, or evade.  In either case, a numeric value is presented alongside the estimated number of enemies in the room.

The player can “roll” dice in an attempt to obtain a value higher than the value for the option that they select. Successfully rolling higher for strike will allow for a pre-emptive strike. Otherwise a normal battle ensues. Successfully rolling higher for evade will allow the party to escape the pursuing enemy entirely. If lower, then the risk for engagement is increased as a penalty, and the enemy will reach the party even more quickly than they would have the player had moved normally.

Eventually, the enemy catches up to the party. The player can then decide to engage immediately or roll to escape. Escape is also presented with a numeric value. Roll higher and the party evades the enemy entirely. Roll short and the battle begins. If the player rolls a one, then the enemy will strike preemptively, leaving the player at a disadvantage. A timer will decrease while the player decides what to do. If they take too long, then the enemy will preemptively strike. Defeating an enemy will gradually reduce the “estimated enemies” in the room. When this reaches zero, the room is clear and no more random battles take place. An option to engage enemies at will might be made available.

By introducing these rules and mechanics, the player can feel less like they are fighting against the game itself, and more like they are actually playing a game.  There’s no reason for these games to tie themselves to the technical limitations of the 8-bit era.  Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between elements of JRPGs that are essential to genre itself, and what ought to be discarded.  It may just be wishful thinking on my part to hope that the entire genre isn’t discarded.  I’ll cross my fingers in any case, and curse random battles as I play through Final Fantasy IX again.


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