17 March 2011

Adding Depth to Defend - by Robert Boyd

      Posted 03/14/11 08:02:00 pm  

Ah, the poor neglected "Defend" command. Seen in just about every RPG since the 8-bit days, the Defend command generally cuts damage to one character in half at no MP cost. Not much better than skipping your own turn, Defend is almost universally a horrible command that the player rarely or never should use. But does it have to be this way? Let us examine a number of ways that the Defend command has been put to good use in various RPGs.

Poor uses of Defend:

#1 - The Glitch

In Dragon Quest/Warrior 3 on the NES, the effect of Defend occurred when you selected it, not when it actually was performed in battle. In practical terms, this meant the player could select Defend, cancel their selection and do their regular attack or ability free of charge.

So the solution to weak Defend commands is to introduce glitches in our games! Okay, maybe not. Let's look at some more useful examples.

#2 - Avoiding the Counterattack

The Final Fantasy series probably contains the most famous examples of this. In many of the games in the series, a very early boss will occassional switch to an invincible mode where if you attack them, the boss will counter with a very powerful attack. The player is supposed to use Defend until the boss changes to a more vulnerable state.

This isn't particularly fun or interesting gameplay design. Moreover, if such a boss showed up later in the game, Defend would probably not be the best choice since you would hope the player would have access to more useful techniques like buffs so they wouldn't have to just waste their turns. Let's move on.

Good uses of Defend:

#1 - Anticipating the attack.

Examples are too numerous to list for this one. Basically, a boss will set off a countdown to an uber-powerful attack that could easily wipe out the player's entire party in a single hit. However, this attack is highly telegraphed so the player can use the Defend command to survive.

This is slightly more interesting than our first example, but the killer charged up boss move has been done so many times before in RPGs that it's old hat to all but the newest gamers. However, this general idea can be used elsewhere to more interesting effect. For example, in the Grandia series, there is often a period of time between when an enemy decides their attack and when the attack is actually executed. If the player knows that the enemy is going to target a specific ally, they can have that character defend while the other characters continue their assault. Not only that, but after using the Defend command, the character's next turn comes out at a quicker rate to further encourage this sort of strategy.

Alternatively, if the player has some way to direct the enemy's attack (through threat management like in many MMORPGs or by positioning tanks so that the enemy can only attack them), then the Defend command can be quite useful to soak up damage with one character while the rest of the group can focus on offense unhindered.

#2 - Supercharging Defend

Just cutting damage in half for 1 turn on a single character isn't a very good ability in general, but what if we add additional effects to make it more valuable? These could either be general passive abilities to the character (like a chance to counter-attack when hit) or abilities added to the the Defend command itself. For example, in Wild Arms 3, Defend also reloads the character's guns. In many RPGs, Defend will restore a small amount of HP or MP. Another game might make the Defend command affect the entire party instead of just one character. In our own RPG, Cthulhu Saves the World, we had the Defend command also increase or decrease (depending on the character) the chance that the enemy would target that character. And so on.

There is a lot of interesting things a designer could do with this approach through experimenting with different additional powers.

#3 - Adding new Gameplay Systems that favor Defend

Lost Odyssey is a good example of this. In addition to HP and MP, you also have to worry about GC (Guard Condition) which determines how well protected the back row characters are. GC is lost as front row characters take damage so by defending, you can prevent GC from going down as quickly, thus protecting your powerful mages. Not only that, but like with point #3, you can supercharge defend with a few different passive skills thus allowing you to not only lessen GC loss, but also restore HP, MP, and GC at the same time.

If a good game is a "series of interesting choices" (Sid Meier), then it's up to as developers to provide more interesting choices and eliminate boring choices. RPG combat is usually focused only on offense, healing, and support (buffs & debuffs), so by adding active defense to the list of strategic considerations, we can make our combat more interesting. By allowing the player to anticipating enemy moves, by making Defend more powerful and more versatile, and by designing gameplay systems that support defensive strategies, we can add depth and enjoyment to our gameplay.

Robert Boyd
14 Mar 2011 at 5:25 pm PST

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