Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This was Kurt Vonnegut's #1 rule for creative fiction writers and I've taken it to heart not only as a writer, but also as a game designer. A common failing of big-name titles, especially RPGs, is that they pull out all the stops to pad out the playtime for as long as possible.
Like a good story, a good game should be straight to the point. A game should be as long as it needs to be to get its point across. This rule has been a driving force behind the design of Vacant Sky: Awakening. Let's look at some of the ways we've been paring away the fat of RPGs to get down to the essence of the genre.
Encounters as challenges
Like in many modern RPGs, battles take place on a cut-away screen once the player comes in contact with an enemy sprite on the map. In most RPGs, the damage and negative conditions which you acquire from fighting carry over from one battle to the next. On top of that, you typically have some magic meter which governs how often you can use special attacks or healing.
Typically, there are two ways to recover from damage: to use an item (either a healing potion or a healing spell, which requires magic potions to recover your magic points) or to return to town and heal at an inn.
The problem with this approach is that it means that the optimal strategy is always to play it cautiously to avoid expending unnecessary resources. You might need your magic later, so it's best not to use your coolest attacks. You don't want to run back to town to heal, so you avoid battles. In essence, the winning strategy is to avoid fighting (which is the core of RPG gameplay) and to avoid using your awesome, hard-earned abilities. I don't know about you, but it seems like the best strategy is just to not have fun.
To fix this, we've decided that all battles shall be self-contained. At the end of a battle, all of your health is restored and all negative conditions which you might have accrued are also removed. You start each battle fresh.
This allows you to give each battle your all. You can use your strongest attacks without worrying about whether you'll need that magic for healing in a later battle. You don't need to run back to town every three battles to heal up, interrupting your dungeon-crawling and forcing you to retrace your steps.
On top of allowing you to take on each battle at full strength, the game also allows you makes a quick save before each battle, allowing you to retry it if you fail rather than making you go back to your last save.
Lastly, because each encounter is designed to be a self-contained challenge, Vacant Sky: Awakening will never force you to fight a battle that you've already won. Once an encounter has been cleared, it will fade out from the map and no longer trigger unless the player manually decides to fight it again.
Because each encounter is its own challenge, it only makes sense that what happens in battle stays in battle.
Throughout the game, you can acquire consumable items which can be used in battle for a quick boost in health or to revive a dead party member. Rather than being used up permanently, however, the item is only used up until the end of battle. This fundamentally changes the question of item usage from "should I use it?" to "when should I use it?". I know that when I'm playing games, I'm always too afraid to use any of my items because I might need them later, so I always end the game with 99 of most items in the game. With this system, you have an opportunity to use each item in each battle and it becomes a question of when is it most advantageous to use.
You spent the time and effort to acquire an item, so you should be able to use it.
One of the most egregious design flaws in RPGs is the need to grind (fight pointless battles over and over to raise your stats) in order to progress. If there's an enemy that's too tough to beat, just take a few hours away from what you were doing to fight weaker enemies until you're strong enough to beat the stronger one. Until you run into an even stronger enemy.
This design anti-pattern has refused to die with age. Even nowadays, AAA modern RPGs continue to make use of it. Not only is it a flagrant example of wasting the time, it also cheapens the gameplay itself. Boiled down to its essence, the winning strategy in any game with grinding is to fight meaningless battles over and over again until your arbitrary numbers are high enough that you can win any battle by mashing the OK button. If anything's a challenge, it's because you haven't wasted enough time yet.
The reliance on grinding has played a huge part in giving RPGs a bad name. It ultimately renders all strategy and thinking pointless, because the less risky solution is to just grind until you're strong enough that thinking is unnecessary. And really, who wants to play a game where you don't have to think?
In Vacant Sky: Awakening, not only are you never forced to grind, but grinding is impossible. Why shouldn't it be? In Mario, if you can't figure out how to make a jump, you don't backtrack to easier stages and repeat them for hours until your jumping stat is higher. No, you learn how to make the jump.
The abilities that a character has are based upon the equipment they possess and their own natural talents. Battles must be won by coordinating the efforts of your teammates and figuring out a winning strategy to overcome the enemies. If you die, then try again, and keep trying until you've found the path to victory.
Each battle in the game is manually authored to ensure that it presents an interesting challenge. You can't abdicate the need to think by hacking away at goblins. You need to look at the resources at your disposal and find a way to win.
pledged of $20,000 goal
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Funding Unsuccessful This project reached the deadline without achieving its funding goal on June 24, 2012.
May 25, 2012 - Jun 24, 2012 (30 days)
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