Monday, March 26, 2012

A Rose by any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

I call Valor Seed a retro-clone, which is basically true, but really it is more of a retro-fit. Using the same inspiration that led to the development of video game RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, I intend to pull of some kind of Thor Heyerdahl job (only with much less to actually prove with an undeniably lower risk of drowning).

The above screenshots are the two most common types of menu structures used by console RPGs. Comparisons to a D&D character sheet are easy to make. Both of these menu structures are great. Hell, they led to "menu-based/driven RPG" becoming a term. What these have greatly in common is that they are primarily a representation of a player with a character sheet more than an abstraction of the game's character having the experience of contemplating their own badassitude, counting their coins, or reveling at how many potions they are carrying around--such, the latter, is what I want to have.

These above screens are taken from a great Famicom RPG titled STED: Starfield of Memorable Relics (I think I am the only person ever to finish it). On one we have our character sprite walking around town like every day is Dragon Quest. However, on the other, we see what happens when we hit 'B' to interact with an NPC townie. We have a first-person perspective of the townie, as well as your menu options. Phantasy Star, and a few other games, have also done this.

What I like about this, is that an "encounter" with an NPC is like an encounter with an enemy, only with less swearing and shooting. In D&D, encounters are more than just fighting a monster, they are opening treasure chests (Phantasy Star), talking with NPCs, opening a trapped door, and so on. Many early PC RPG's actually did incorporate all of these into the same game play mode. It is fair to say that Valor Seed may be a marriage of Eastern and Western video game RPGs.

What we have with the above are two more ways of making menus, apparently in ways QUINTET thought were cool. I am not disagreeing with them (nor would I ever, they rule). First, from Illusion of Gaia, we have an inventory menu that looks like the Temple of Doom. This screen is really a case of someone just wanting to make the screen pretty--it shares the same degree of abstraction as any normal inventory screen, only its cooler to look at.

The former two screens are from Terranigma, a pretty cool game where you get to fight a giant robot with a spear. In this game, you carry around a hand-held TARDIS that, when opened, transports you into a sub-dimensional space where you store all of your crap. Basically, this is just like any other menu from any other RPG, but the abstraction has been changed so that the character being played literally experiences the interaction. Great stuff? Yes, indeed. Ironically, in most RPGs your inventory has very few limitations, quite like a pocket dimension, where you can usually store up to 99 each of hundreds of items. In Terrangima, you literally have a pocket dimension, but can only stockpile up to nine, of each of the dozen-or-so item-types.

These guys, here, are just so simple but excellent that only the magical geniuses over at Gamefreak could have made them. What we have is a graphical representation of where your inventory is located, with a menu listing each compartment's contents. You press left or right to alternate between compartments, which show a different array of item type. Genius. Really, it freaking is. This method unites the player and the character in a similar way like with STED and Phantasy Star, but with inventory manipulation. I really like this.

Front Mission 5 could be the best game ever made. It is a work of art, sent along with a love-letter, to fans of the series. I'll sum up its excellence simply: each Front Mission title released before five had individual mechanics that made them different from each other. Front Mission 5 took the best of each of these mechanics, and made from them a concordance I call, "a damn good video game."

Now, as to the above screen capture, you are looking at the game's menu. Really, you are. You are part of a military unit, between deployments, and stationed on a ship at sea that is part of a battle-fleet. At first glance, this may seem more like a site-based town map. I assure you, that while it does function like a town, it is also a hell of a cool menu.

Each area you may visit is occupied by characters, many of which you can recruit into your squad. However, other areas function as elaborately abstract inventory, character status, and save/load screens. Go to the Hanger to check out your stuff and your Wanzers, or go to your Squad Room to check out the stats of your party members, and to assign them equipment (Wanzers).

Front Mission 5 was certainly not the first game to abstract menus in this way. The above screen is from a Super Famicom game called Cyber Knight. In this game, each compartment of your ship serves as a different function of a normal menu. Most interesting, is that when you Save your game, you are told that each character in your party has had their bio-data stored in a clone bank. When a character dies, you just go and clone them. When your whole party dies, they are all cloned and any experience you gained while in your former bodies is lost (as you were not actually there). The battle system is fun, but middling at times, but that's not important right now.

Similar menu abstractions could easily find their way into sword and sorcery RPGs by being represented as a camp-site, such as with the above. In the case of Dragon Quest VIII, no one is camping, but the state of all of the characters standing around, ready for raillery, is not all altogether different.

The merits of having an interesting menu are quickly lost when the entire purpose of the menu loses priority over its presentation. All game menus should be easy to navigate, point most quickly to mechanics in common-use, and require the use of as few different buttons as possible. In the case of the above Ogre Battle 64, all effort was given over to functionality. Because of the game's complex method of managing characters and resources, very little consideration seems to have been given to artful presentation.

Something else I want to accomplish with Valor Seed is to avoid screens like the above. Almost none of the above information is necessary for the player to see. HP and MP are displayed with the command selection window, and attack, defense, and magic defense with Equip. Furthermore, if you do not know the battle algorithms Final Fantasy IV uses (I actually do) you could not begin to guess what any of the shown attributes actually even do. But what is most damning, is that the Status screen does not help you at all--it does not aid the player in making game-play related decisions in any way. The game features a linear sequence of equipment, and each character (for the most part) is limited to one or two particular types. The only information on this screen that is actually useful, is the experience point totals.

It is not necessary, at all, to show the player character attributes if they are neither necessary to play the game, or well-explained. There are layers of complexity that are just not always needed.

Say there are ten Job Classes in an RPG. Each Job Class has particular equipment restrictions, and grants bonuses to those attributes it best represents. This means that a Job Class is really the sum of attributes plus equipment. Logically, if part of a Job Class' prescription relies on what equipment cannot be used, use of the prescribed equipment makes the Job Class. Can only a Knight wear full-plate armor, or does wearing full-plate armor make you a Knight (video game, rpg knight, not historically accurate knight)?

Strength, in most video-game RPGs, in no way reflects how strong characters are. It reflects how much damage they can deal to an enemy. How does naming attributes Vigor, Vitality, Speed, Agility, Quintessence, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, Guts, Gusto, Shininess, etc. usually help the player? None of them are descriptions of what they actually do in the game. I am not suggesting that RPGs stop using these, I am suggesting that they do not have to be shown to the players.

I'll explain where I'm going with this. Most RPG's give you an Empty Cup they call a Job Class, tell you what not to put in it, and then define it by what you can. This is, of course, assuming that the game gives you a choice of Empty Cups at all. Why not just hand out an Empty Cup, put whatever you want into it, take a drink, and find out what its contents taste like?

What I have done with Valor Seed is to show the player attributes named after typical RPG Job Classes, which rise and fall in value according to equipment. I have the following attributes I used in making the game's battle algorithms: weapon damage, weapon damage reduction, spell damage, spell damage reduction, and speed (turn order delay offset, and number of hits per attack). I do not show these to the player, rather, I made four attributes: Fighter, Knight, Mage, and Thief. What matters most about all of this, is what each character's role in battle will be. Damage-dealer, healer, blow-crap-upper, etc. I tell the player, however evident, in-game what each of these four is good for. Each of these attributes is in actuality a prioritized array of the hidden attributes, which are raised or lowered, primarily, by what equipment the player chooses for each character to use. This, coupled with my game's emphasis on Item Creation, makes for some pretty-damn customizable party members.

I will not go into specifics right now, but for those of you thinking, "Job Classes are as much about individual special abilities as attributes and equipment," here is this. You are absolutely right, and I have not left this out. To put it simply, the higher your Thief attribute is, the better you Steal.

Okay, I'm done for now.


  1. Hello Wes,

    I don't remember what keyword through google image search I stumbled upon Valor Seed, but it simply made my heart glisten with nostalgia to see it. Is this your primary development showcase for the game? I would love to follow this and see where it goes. In fact, I'm a little confused where you are in the production stages. I heard that you were using RPGMaker but switched to XNA? Either way, it sounds very exciting.

    I too am making a retro jRPG inspired by the classical Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. I'll be displaying mine, Quantum Dragon, publicly in the upcoming months. I attempted my best at capturing the look and feel like yourself, as I been drawing pixel art for a awhile now.

    I have to say though, looking at your monster sprites, I want to attempt your art style someday. Very well done.

    Do you have a website, twitter, or anything besides this for Valor Seed?

  2. Cool.

    I have a twitter account (Wes_Falls).

    Production-wise, I have a ton of content made, but not assembled into an actual game. I am trudging through getting battle sprites done--there are a lot of them. I am using a heavily customized RMXP, and stand a serious chance of then converting everything to XNA later on.

  3. I'm pretty much in the same boat, considering there is no game but tons of graphics (though only some content). I believe there are +50 sprites in almost any decent sized jRPG that existed for the NES. Reaching that milestone definitely can be a chore. I definitely was elated to see Quantum Dragon pass this hurdle (and continuing), so I can imagine how you must feel with those size of the sprites.

    RMXP, XNA (despite that I'm primarily a Linux user), either way, it sounds like a serious project and I'll buy/play it on the final release.

  4. Valor Seed is actually quite a bit larger than any NES RPG (or SNES RPG), so the 50+ sprites will have stronger emphasis on the "+," haha. A great deal of the game is complete; it is not assembled. I still have to settle on a final version of the script, too.

    Here are some misc pixel art pieces that I and my wife have made throughout the years and no longer need. If there is anything there you want to use, or to modify, feel free to.

  5. I'm heavily considering using/modifying that slime hand to lightly reference your game as a bonus boss inside Quantum Dragon. I don't normally do such a thing, but I find a little non-intrusive indie advertising interesting. I don't know if you heard of Regressia by Iain Peregrine, but that and Valor Seed I've only found to be well put together as indie 8-bit inspired games. Valor Seed looks more promising than Regressia, though.

    Looking forward to your story. I don't think I'm that great (though not terrible) with writing as I'm with art, so it will be interesting to see how yours turns out. So far with what I read on your blog posts, you're giving a lot of thought into it, something I look forward in a jRPG.

  6. here's a low-quality made video of the game's battle system. I have not taken the time to find a better way to record gameplay (currently using Snag It, which does not do sound).

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Credit mistressofcows per deviantart for the hand, if you like.

    Are you using the NES' palette? I have a .act file I made from it.

  9. [edit]

    Wow, somehow that reminds me of Super Mario RPG, but in a unique style. I love the animations and the use of first person. Very good job.

    I am not use to desktop recording software myself, as I'm currently looking for a decent open source Linux one. I haven't used Desktop Recorder long enough to know if it's any good. I'm sure there's a decent one for Windows though, at the very least.

    Modified your slime hand to fit my game's style and color palette. I reduced it to 3 colors and adjusted the shading a bit. I'll be sure to credit you for the original design. Should I list your wife's name in the attribution as well? I do not know hers, however. Thank you both for the sprite. I feel a Dragon Warrior reference to Goopi.

  10. Hmm, these things don't have an edit button. Sorry about that.

    I meant to say "...reduced to 4 colors..."

    I am using a mix of the NES palette and Arne's palette. I hand picked the colors to get a decent palette. I wanted to have the NES feel, but still feel a slightly unique. I may make my own palette in the future.

    I'm a little unfamiliar with .act files. I even wikipedia'd it and am not entirely sure what you mean.

  11. You can load .act into Photoshop and other image-editors as a palette preset.

  12. Ah, I believe wikipedia was telling me it was a low quality audio typed format.

  13. ...that bastard. You want any weapon/armor icons? I had made a crap-ton of them before changing my mind as to the style I would be using.

  14. The only ones I am still using are the gloves/gauntlets, shoes/boots/sabatons.

  15.,,, too.

  16. Wow those are really nice! I could definitely use those. I believe this was the only part of my game's graphic production I didn't create yet. Thank you very much!

  17. Later on today (after sleep, I have pneumonia) I'll round up all the extra icons I have laying around and put them on a sheet for you. They all were made using the NES' palette, so they should require a minimum of effort for you to adapt to your game. They are also all 24x24 pixels or less.

  18. I'm sorry to hear you're sick. Do get better soon. Again, I thank you for kindly sharing your work.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.