Lab Zero Games launched its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for Indivisible, its upcoming action-RPG, not long ago. With it came a prototype made in only a few months that gives a barebones impression of the game’s basic designs.
Central to Indivisible is its unique battle system. Similar to Valkyrie Profile’s turn-based battles, each member of your party of four is mapped to a button, but where it differs is in making attack and defense reaction-based and real-time.
Siliconera was able to throw a few questions at Lab Zero’s design director, Mike “Mike Z” Zaimont, focusing specifically on how the battle system in Indivisible came about and what he wanted to achieve with it.
You’ve emphasized the importance of player skill with Indivisible’s battle system. What do you mean by "skill" in this case and how have you designed around it?
To me, "skill" means the player’s proficiency at playing the game, whether it be physical or mental. (An example of physical skill would be improving at a fighting game or FPS, and an example of mental skill would be properly using the Calculator class in Final Fantasy Tactics.) But mostly, why I say "rewarding skill" is to pitch it as the explicit opposite of "rewarding time spent". Not that it doesn’t take time to increase your skill, but the difference is rewarding simply playing more versus rewarding playing better.
I place games in two major classes – those that greatly reward player skill increases regardless of how long you play, and those that greatly reward time spent without really requiring the player to get significantly better at the game.
Most fighting games, MOBAs, and RTS games fall heavily into the former category: Your character/class/faction is the same at the start of every game, and ALL success you have as a player comes from your mastery of playing as them.
Most RPGs, on the other hand, tend to fall heavily into the latter category: Can’t beat that boss? Go grind some levels until you do enough damage/have enough health and can just tank the battle using the same strategy you already know. Or go complete quests to get that super-powered item that does the same thing. Or get lucky and have a battle where every hit is a Critical. Your success is in large part determined by your equipment/character abilities/dice rolls, rather than your improvement as a player, and just spending longer playing the game increases your chances of success. (It is, of course, possible to improve as a player even in this type of game, but rarely are there player skill increases that can overcome the fact that an enemy has 1,000,000 HP and you are dealing 10 damage per hit.)
With Indivisible, my aim is to create a game and battle system that significantly rewards player skill. Of course, there are still new characters to get and new weapons and abilities to earn, but most of your success comes from you getting better at playing the game. Damage per hit is not random, you can’t "miss" if you made contact with an enemy, and defense is handled by the player rather than by the game randomly deciding whether you blocked a hit. Iddhi (meter) management between healing, blocking, and using supers to deal extra damage is key – and Iddhi only comes from attacking or defending, both of which are player-controlled actions. Many people have had trouble with the boss at the end of the Indivisible prototype because beating it requires good defense and decent meter management, rather than stat increases until you can fight-fight-heal, fight-fight-heal…but when they finally win it’s way more satisfying, because they’ve gotten better at playing. And that boss is nothing compared to the secrets… :^)
One of the really surprising things I found during the three months of working on the Indivisible prototype was that as soon as defending became player-controlled, we could make the fights a lot harder and they were still winnable. We were able to give enemies attacks that do much more damage than in traditional RPGs, because not getting hit by them is up to the player, instead of the dice. And as our skill improved, those "much harder" fights became easier and easier. Once you put things in the player’s hands, you can do more to make the game interesting! And it stays fun the whole way, because you’re involved the whole time you’re playing. The platforming parts are the same way, too. We give you all the tools you need, and it’s up to you to use them.
There’s so much more we want to do for the full game that we didn’t get to do with the prototype, like having enemies block and allowing you to break their guard, giving benefits for juggles/off-the-ground hits/resetting your combo, party member affinities and dual techs…but that’s why we want to make the whole thing! (^.^)
(In my experience, games which reward time spent often end up much more popular than games which reward player skill. People are often resistant to the idea that they might be bad at something, and tend to prefer games where they perceive themselves as improving by getting better items/leveling up and overcoming a challenge, regardless of whether they themselves actually got any better or whether there was any real challenge. Look at the difference between the design of Portal, and the design of Portal 2 after it was intensely focus-tested. And, games that are "just easy enough," like Mega Man 2, also generally end up more popular than games which are not, like Mega Man 3 or Battletoads.)
Following that up, why is player skill so important to you and your vision for Indivisible? Is it this that partly separates Indivisible from other RPGs, in your opinion?
Oh, I guess I sort of covered this already, but…well, yeah, I think it is. It’s a game I want to play – I want an RPG that rewards me for understanding it. I want an RPG that makes me desire to play it again to see how much better I can do, rather than to see which items I missed that let me just stomp everything.
It’s a game that allows you to do more and more with less and less as you get better at it, which is what I really enjoy. Many parts of it, even parts of the prototype, are "designed for speedrunning" in the sense that once you know the layout of a room, the ways the character can move, or the workings of the battle system, you can be tons more efficient as a player. This is the thing that keeps me coming back to the old games I love, and it’s something I really miss in a lot of newer games, particularly RPGs. It’s a feeling like nothing else.
Sure, Indivisible’s hybrid battle system is unique, but what makes it worth exploring outside of that fact? Why not make a brawler, for instance?
Do you mean a brawler like Shadow Over Mystara? Or an action-RPG like the Zelda games, with real-time fighting? I already made a fighting game, I know we could do real-time combat, but we chose not to.
One answer to this is that it’s harder to create "puzzle" fights in brawler combat systems, because you can often find exploits to lockdown enemies, and the designers often have to resort to fast invincible wakeup attacks, long periods of invincibility, or multiple stages of battle just to prevent the AI from getting beaten down super hard, because people can learn but the AI can’t. The same is often true of action RPGs, and I just…never found that super fun compared to figuring out how to beat cleverly-designed enemies in more structured combat systems. As an example, Odin Sphere – a fantastic game in a lot of ways – resorted to forcing the player to stop attacking by having the character run out of stamina, just to give the AI a chance in battle…and that was very little fun for me. Whereas Wild Arms 4‘s very turn-based combat system never got old the entire time I was playing it, because the strategy was just so much more important and resource limitations weren’t really a part of it.
Another answer is that I absolutely loved combat in Valkyrie Profile – I loved attacking with four characters and creating my own combos, and I always wished it was just a little more free form. And it’s much harder to give people control of multiple characters in a brawler setting, since you also have to be moving around and all that. If the helper doesn’t catch up and gets hit, you’d blame the AI. I also loved the fact that Chrono Trigger has you fight right there in the world, rather than transporting you to Forest Battle Backdrop and back. And I wanted to see what could be done with those things.
For those who haven’t played the prototype yet (and why haven’t you? It’s free), how about a brief summary of the battle system as it is now:
- Characters and enemies have Action Bars, which all build up at the same time. When your actions are building, so are the enemies’.
- Any time any character has an action available, you can attack with them. If multiple characters have actions available, you can attack with them all at the same time. Enemies will also attack as soon as they have an action available, so they can attack in groups too.
- Attacking with a character while holding Up or Down (as opposed to Neutral) gives different attacks, so each character has a total of three attacks which can be used at any time. Up, Down, and Neutral attacks all have different properties, like more damage, hitting a wider area, or building more Iddhi meter.
- Doing more damaging or wider attacks affects your Action Bar refill rate after that attack, so the next bar fills more slowly, and this effect stacks with each attack used until a bar fills. For example, doing three Up attacks with Tungar causes his next Action Bar to fill about 45% as fast as doing three Neutral attacks, though each individual Up attack does more damage than each Neutral attack. So simply going for high damage each time you have an attack available may not be the best strategy…
- Iddhi meter is built by attacking and defending, and is used for both offense and defense. If you have at least one level of Iddhi, any time a character has an action available you can spend your Iddhi to turn that attack into a super, and you can continue attacking with other characters at the same time.
- When an enemy is attacking, you can hold the target character’s action button to defend. Attempting to defend costs Iddhi as long as you are holding the button, but successful defense builds back a chunk of Iddhi. With proper timing, defense can build you a ton of meter to use on your next attacks.
- You can defend with multiple characters simultaneously, but doing this costs more Iddhi than attempting to defend with just one character.
I guess that wasn’t so brief, after all. By my point is, it’s about as not-turn-based as you can get without allowing player characters and enemies to attack at the same time. You don’t have infinite time to decide. It’s very reaction-based, and very fast.
Managing the Iddhi meter seems like it may be the crux to winning harder battles. Is there any truth in that and, if so, could you expand on that thought?
There’s certainly some truth to that – it’s the truth.
The basic design of how Iddhi works is taken from Guilty Gear‘s tension system, which I still think is one of the better-designed game systems, period. One central resource is used for defense, offense, and healing, so managing that resource is the key to everything: Should I spend meter to heal or spend it to do damage? Should I spend meter at ALL, if it means I possibly won’t be able to defend their next attack? Cmon, cmooooon just let me hit them again to build up that next level, I REALLY need Level 2 heal right now! This type of choice, coupled with the fact that there are no items to instantly refill your Iddhi, makes every action matter. I find that kind of …tension… is really fun.
For example, you start battles with no Iddhi, which means you can’t defend at all. So attacking as soon as any character has an action seems like a good idea. But doing that means that character will be slower to gain their next action, so maybe I’ll just take the first hit instead so I can get more total attacks in faster… all this, coupled with the Action Bar stuff from the next question, makes battles very fluid situations that are really fun to try to master – for me, anyway.
The prototype gives us a glimpse at how increasing the number of attacks characters have per turn adds to the battle system. But will there be a chance to customize and diversify attacks more in the full game?
As I mentioned in the third question, even with three attacks per character, what you do matters quite a bit already. And even now, there are ways to get more of the battle system, like minimizing your cooldown by doing a super with 2.9 bars available instead of three bars.
One thing I should mention is that the full game will have a huge number of different characters to use in battle, but the prototype only has three besides Ajna. A lot of the customization will come from choosing your team, rather than outfitting an individual team member with new things. Since we only had three months for the prototype, that’s all we could muster…but with more time on the full game, there are things we’d like to experiment with, yes.
Some of them are:
- Ajna’s attacks and supers already change based on her weapon, and there are three more weapons in the full game. Plus, she’ll learn new skills from the Incarnations she meets, and some of those will apply to battle.
- There’s no reason to limit you to just three Actions, this one’s easy, although earning new Actions won’t happen as quickly as in the prototype.
- Allowing you to sacrifice two or more Actions for a more powerful version of an attack; perhaps even applying this to supers, so you could spend three actions and three levels of Iddhi for the highest-damage attack that character has.
- I’d like to try giving the player the chance to choose more attacks, either by allowing customization outside of battle*, or by having certain battle strings end in other attacks – for example, U, U, U could give a finisher at the cost of more cooldown, etc. Of course, we have to balance this against creating all those extra animations for the large number of playable characters…
* I’m kinda against menu-based customization because I want to try to minimize the number of menus players have to use. Super Metroid is my ultimate example of this, since you can play the entire game without ever opening the menu.
Assists were a big part of Skullgirls but this sense of partnership was missing in the Indivisible prototype. Will you aim to achieve a greater sense of teamwork in the full game? For instance, perhaps certain pairings could enable double team combos or other benefits.
Well, in the full game once juggles and off-the-ground hits have actual benefits, team composition and combo timing will be a lot more important even without us having to add anything else. Only certain characters have launchers or knockdowns, other characters have moves that juggle well, etc. The prototype is just the basic skeleton, so this doesn’t come across very well yet.
We’ve been asked about team attacks a lot, and they’re something we’re considering. If we decide to add them, I always liked Wild Arms‘s method of doing affinities – more fights with those characters together increased the chance of learning a team attack until it was 100% – rather than say Chrono Trigger that just gives them to you for knowing the right combination of spells.
If we did them I would definitely like to experiment with them being like the combined magic in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, where timing was what gave you the combined spells, rather than choosing "do the combined attack" from a menu. I think that would fit particularly well with Indivisible’s action-oriented combat. So if you, say, did Zebei’s super and then input Razmi’s U during the superflash, she’d concentrate and Zebei then fires flaming arrows; or Ajna running up and helping Razmi slow the enemy for more than one turn, etc. It’d need experimentation so that you wouldn’t do it accidentally, but I think we could pull it off.