Gaming on a Timer

Thoughts – Implementing Interactivity in Turn-Based Gameplay

Turn-based gameplay (in this post, specifically combat) is an inherent aspect of certain genres, in particular role playing games; by design this sort of system relies, for the most part, in comparing statistics and making calculations between static variables, requiring no interaction from the player once the initial decisions of choosing targets and attacks are made.

Paper Mario – the player can use the
analog stick to “charge” an attack…

As such, this system limits the player’s interactive choices past a certain point in the gameplay cycle; while they can influence the outcome beforehand (via increasing said statistics), during the actual combat step, the game “takes over” in a sense, while the player is left watching the animations play out until the encounter is resolved.

This is easily an area that leaves much room for improvement – in this article, we’ll be looking at some ways developers have made steps to allow the player to influence the encounter’s outcome by implementing some form of interactivity.

…or use a single-button press for
added effects; in this case, multi-jump.

The first (and perhaps better-known) example is Nintendo’s Paper Mario series; at it’s core, it’s a turn-based role playing game in which the player controls Mario (as well as an ally of their choosing). During combat, the game allows for the standard interactions of this kind, with one exception: during the “resolution” phase (that is, during the animation part of each round) the player is given the opportunity to further influence the outcome by using quick-time events, in the form of button presses. For example, certain attacks provide the player with a button sequence which, when executed correctly within the time limit, will add a small amount of extra damage done to the target; on the flip-side, the player can mitigate a small amount of incoming damage by timing a button press just before the enemy graphic makes contact with their own.

Sonic Chronicles, on
the other hand…

This sort of interactivity takes a fair bit of balancing to work out; there should be a small, but significant benefit in correctly using the interactive controls without making them too powerful – in other words, the benefit can’t be too high (thus killing off excitement and trivialising each encounter by making them “too easy” to a reflex-savvy player) nor too trivial (thus making it a redundant system by being “useless”).

Additionally, the controls themselves need to be concise and simple – otherwise the game runs the risk of alienating players that have lower reflexive capabilities. Finally, penalties for unsuccessful execution should be kept to a minimum or, at the very least, balanced against the reward for success in such a way that it doesn’t make the game seem “unfair” to the player.

A second example is the (relatively) recent DS game Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood game by BioWare; while the Paper Mario series treats interactive combat as a bonus, here it’s a mandatory part, with a much higher reward/ penalty ratio (excluding the basic “Attack” function, which allows for no interaction).

…requires complex stylus
sequences to work.

Any “special move” in SC:DB provides the player with a sequence of on-screen prompts, which the player is required to follow for the move to be successfully used. For the most part, these moves allow for highly desirable effects (such as healing over time, damaging the entire enemy team in one round or inflicting status effects) at success, but also at a higher risk at failure; typically, failing to follow the prompts results in the move not being completed, as well as the resources used by it lost.

This sort of implementation has its’ own merits – the sense of reward for success is much higher than the Paper Mario system, the interaction feels much more involving  and tension is built much better when the risks of failure are so high. On the other hand, this means that the game is inherently less appealing to certain demographics, such as the aforementioned less reflex-capable players.

One thing is certain, though: implementing interactivity in otherwise “static” traditional concepts of gaming is a worthwhile goal which, if done correctly, can breathe new life in tired old staples of certain genres.

* Paper Mario: Virtual Console Official Web Site
* Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood Official Site

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