Nov 012012

The traditional form of random battles can be found in many 8-bit & 16-bit RPGs; you’re walking along in an empty map and then all of a sudden, you switch to a separate battle screen that is full of enemies. A lot of people hate these kinds of random battles. However, despite their bad reputation, random encounters aren’t all bad. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons to random encounters.

Gives the player more opportunities to fight.
Makes boss encounters more unique by contrast.
Adds a level of unpredictability.
Can provide a resource management aspect to gameplay (try to save as much of your MP and items as possible for the boss).
Relatively easy to design & program.
Allows the player to grind XP/gold if they want.

Can become tedious busywork.
Can hurt the game’s flow.
Can break immersion.
Harder to balance.

In Breath of Death VII & Cthulhu Saves the World, here’s how we did our random encounters.

First, I’d decide about how many battles I wanted the player to fight in each dungeon. Then, I would activate a special debug mode in the game that would count the number of steps I take. With this mode counting my steps, I’d go through each dungeon twice. In the first trip, I’d make a beeline for the exit. In the second trip, I’d be very thorough and make some wrong turns & pick up every treasure chest. I’d jot down the step values for each style of going through the dungeon and determine an average between them. I would then use this average, along with the # of battles I want the player to fight to determine an average steps/battle ratio. Finally, I’d add a bit of randomization to the steps/battle ratio (so instead of walking 100 steps and always getting a battle on the 100th step, you might walk 50-150 steps before getting a battle) and put that in the actual game.

The actual battle compositions in our games weren’t entirely random. The game wouldn’t just randomly select a bunch of enemies from that dungeon and throw them at you. Rather, I’d design several enemy parties and the game would randomly pick one of those parties. Some of those enemy parties would have further randomization in enemy quantities – for example, one enemy party might be 2-3 of one enemy and 1-2 of an another so your actual result could be anywhere from 3-5 enemies. Finally, I had a couple of methods to make the dungeon feel like it was getting harder the further you went in. One method would be simply to assign different enemy parties to different maps, so for example, the first map of a dungeon would have easier sets of enemies than the final map of that dungeon. The other method would be to track how many battles in that dungeon the player has fought so far and then after a certain number is reached, switch to a harder set of possible enemy parties.

Then I would use all this information to determine how much XP & gold to give each monster type in order to have the player be at roughly the level of power I want them to be at for each part of the game. Finally, I’d decide upon a number of battles necessary to entirely clear out the dungeon of enemies. This small but significant addition to the traditional random battle formula (i.e. an ending in sight) did a lot to alleviate many player’s complaints about random encounters (although it’s also not without its own weakness).

Will we use the traditional form of random encounters again in a future game? Probably not, unless we’re specifically trying to do another 8-bit style game. In Rain-Slick 3 & 4, we use preset battles at set locations of the map. After that, we’ll probably switch to a system where monsters roam the maps and can be seen (and potentially avoided) in advance. Still, despite their old-school nature, I have a certain amount of fondness for well done random encounters and believe more interesting things could be done with them than has been done in the past. For example, why not have include some potential random encounters that have nothing to do with combat and instead add story or flesh out characters?

 Posted by at 2:19 pm

  16 Responses to “Let’s Talk about Random Battles”

  1. I like random battles when they’re done well. A good example of a random battle system, I think, is Mother 3 with how you get a message saying that you won a battle after the game makes a calculation regarding whether you can defeat an enemy in a single turn. It’s probably a pain to program, but it did help with the aspect of tedium in random encounters.

    Some may try to abuse that type of system to grind, but I think dividing the amount of EXP gained might be a good way to prevent that.

    I do think that Zeboyd’s games help alleviate the tedium that kind of system would prevent due to how encounters are designed well, though.

  2. I’ve been playing games for over 25 years now, and I’m rather on the fence about the whole issue of Random Battles. On one hand, I enjoyed them a lot in the 2-D Final Fantasies, but in more modern RPGs like Rogue Galaxy they tended to wear out their welcome. On the other hand, Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger had them visible letting you know when the end was in sight or allowing you to run past if you were hurting and needed to save.

    I enjoyed CStW and how it handled random battles a lot. It was something I hadn’t seen before and could be either fun to grind or a pain in the rear (looking at you, Volcano). I need to get around to playing PA3, especially since I’m hearing it does things differently.

    Games that I thought did battles well was Wild Arms 3 (I see someone else mentioned it), Super Mario RPG (you could see the enemies, but never knew how many would be in that group), and Lufia 2 (enemies moved when you did, adding an element of strategy if you were trying to avoid them).

    If the random battles feel more like fodder leading up to the big boss being a tough battle, it’s fine. When the random battles feel more like bosses in themselves with a rather weak (or near impossible) actual boss, it’s a lot more frustrating and the desire to stop playing (or cheat) gets stronger.

    It’s hard to find a happy medium, apparently, because random battles always feel like a hit or miss depending on the game. Some do them well, others don’t. If the battles aren’t overwhelming in themselves, but do wear you down slowly, I think that’s more enjoyable than fearing to take a step for fear the next battle will be your last. At least with resources you could stem off death from the former until you hit a save, but with the latter it’d just take one wrong move and you’re dead.

    Someone mentioned getting lost in dungeons. I agree with this. If a random battle takes too long or was particularly frustrating, I will forget which way I was going. It’s a pain in the butt to enjoy exploring an area but hating all the battles that distract you from doing so.

  3. Another idea of encounters that I just remembered was from the maligned “bucket game” of the original Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. As you are traveling down the road between towns and dungeons, you have a random chance to encounter a wide variety of story elements. This includes the “striped bandits” (either stealing an item from you (usually a striped apple), holding you up mid-road (allowing for a decision), or just giving you some story element.), encountering other caravans, or even meeting with the “black knight.”

    It was all random (usually certain things happened in specific years, however), and while through most of the game it didn’t seem to matter, if you got all the way to the end, the final boss encounter was effected by what you can remember from your story (basically benefitting a player that paid attention to all the encounters, but punishing players who forgot stuff, particularly if you just haven’t played the game in a while and forgot what happened.)

    It was a really neat thing that I haven’t encountered almost anywhere else. In fact, there are a TON of elements in that game that were unique to it. Some were frustrating, but some felt like enlightened choices.

  4. I am an old school gamer, not the oldest but close enough. I was around 8 when the nintendo came out, I got one, played Final Fantasy 1 and Dragon Warrior 1, and never looked back. I really enjoyed those games, still do to this day. When I play games that show the enemies on the map, I just don’t like it much. For one, seeing the monsters on the map means there is a finite number of them, which is kind of odd in a monster rich cave or an evil villains lair. I want enemies to surprise me….I want them to wear me down…..and I want the occasional mid boss type monster or monster troupe to show up occasionally, and to have a chance to drop something good if I beat them.

    I don’t like the monster on the map thing, but honestly, the best answer I ever saw to that was in Wild Arms 3, definitely, no clue about the others. You wander around, and if you get into a fight, you have a chance to get out of it depending on how many crystals you had. The stronger the monsters in the fight were, the more crystals you had to use to skip the fight. This brought on many fun things you could do. First off, you tended to know if you had a good fight incoming because the stronger you got over the monsters, the fight warning icon would be green saying those monsters were weak, and a white icon meant the monsters would be a good fight. Occasionally you would run into a hard fight, and you were not allowed to skip those, it automatically took you into battle.

    Other interesting ways to handle random encounters can also be found in Mana Khemia and Ar Tonelica. I could be wrong on mana khemia, but ar tonelico has a bar that goes from green to yellow to red depending when a fight was due, and there were ways to reset the fight counter, like going into a room or some other way of zoning. The thing about it, though, was it did have a thing where the warning bar would go down after every fight, and when you fought enough, there were no more fights……just on that screen. Soon as you zoned, a new bar pops up. And in a lot of areas the bar was infinite. The biggest problem with that game though was the difficulty was not done very well, so any form of grinding made you ridiculously over leveled for the game in general.

  5. Whoa, this is totally weird and might sound random. I love the way you have random encounters set up in Breath of Death/Cthulu Saves the World as well as the preset battle idea for On the Rain Slick Episode 3 and it just hit me. I’ve been making RPGs for years (with various versions of RPG Maker) and for years I’ve been doing pretty much what you do with your random encounters.

    The one RPG I completed had totally preset battles that were calculated just so that if you fought every battle you would be right where I would want you to be. Then I had each boss battle give you an instant level up upon beating them. In other ones I’ve worked on, including my most recent, which is on hiatus at the moment, I have random battles that take into account how large the area is and how many battles you’ll get into on average and I build the experience points received upon victory as well as money received around that. And one other aspect that goes for all my RPGs is that I never have just a bunch of enemies that are thrown at random. I create preset parties, with many being shifts of an enemy or two from another party.

    It’s all very strange, since I’ve never thought about it like that before, but it makes me feel good knowing that I’m not the only one who does it and thinks that it’s a good way to handle random battles. My latest RPG, unfortunately, does fall back a bit on the whole ‘you need to grind to be at the recommended level for the boss’ type of thing, but it’s nothing too bad (not even close to what Dragon Quest games put you through, thankfully).

    So, yeah. This intrigues me, especially since I’ve played Breath of Death, Cthulu Saves the World, etc. in the past and never made the connection. That might be due in part to the two mechanics you use that I don’t use, which are the set number of battles before enemies shy away from you and the option on the menu to force a fight to occur. Good mechanics, but I know they aren’t for every RPG.

    I’m also interested in that last statement you made about random encounters that add to the story or flesh out characters. I know Final Fantasy IV-VI had set battles that did that sort of thing (can’t recall if other Final Fantasies did or not). I think it’d be worth experimenting with, but I think it would be best used sparingly. The fewer encounters of the nature the more impact they’ll have in the long run.

    Last thing I’d like to point out, and this is totally random, but I like how Final Fantasy XII handled battles, while I know not many did. It was like how MMORPGs handle battles, only in a single player RPG. While it had, of course, been done in MMORPGs and wasn’t new by any means, it felt fresh and like a good spin on something that had been the same in Final Fantasy throughout just about all of its games. I think it’s good to take a step back and try something different like that, every once in a while, even if it’s not necessarily new or similar to previous RPGs from the company/franchise. It brings a certain touch of freshness to something that would otherwise feel overdone.

    I think that’s all I have to say, finally. Interesting article. It’ll be interesting to see how random battles develop in the future of gaming and to see what new ideas and changes will be brought to the time. We’ll see.

  6. It’s interesting, I actually like my random battles to be a bit more bland. I like the juxtaposition to the boss battles. I like the idea of slicing through scrubs and getting stronger with some harder parties/enemies to mix it up and force the play to try new strategies. It’s another place that I was able to appreciate the method of enemies-getting-stronger-every-turn, but personally didn’t prefer it.

  7. I always found random encounters mostly a nuisance in a lot of RPGs, but that was because the random battles tended to suck! Zeboyd tries to avoid this with normal encounters that require strategy, which is just showing the work that the studio put in to selecting the enemy parties that you get to fight. This has a lot more impact than how you actually get into those encounters.

    If encounters play out with “spam physicals and collect victory, heal every few fights” then it’s going to be annoying either way. If they require you to think of how to achieve victory against enemies of varying speeds and ability sets, then you are more engaged and victory has more of an honest thrill to it. This thrill wears off after a few of the same encounters though, so varying it up helps a lot. Combat is King. How you get into combat is of less importance.

    Honestly fixed encounters seem more gamer-friendly. That way you don’t have to worry about minimizing the number of steps you take to get to an exit and can explore a bit more freely. Or if you backtrack/get lost you won’t be overwhelmed and run out of resources. An encounter limit also serves to relieve the stress of getting lost because you know there is an end in sight so the random battles you are fighting are steady progress towards a goal rather than annoying nuisances on your way back to a rest point. The last thing you want as a player is to feel like you are wasting time. Giving the player a goal to reach is always what you want (and level-ups being an awesome “New skill choice time!” rather than just a side-thought is also helpful here).

    Resource management in general seems to be a sticky design choice. It does add a dimension to dungeon crawling that makes you think more long-term for strategy, but it also means that individual fights are balanced to be easier and less balls-to-the-wall do-or-die awesome. Basically if the player has the ability to waste enemy teams very easily if they expend resources, then maybe the resources should be less scarce and the enemies just stronger. PA3 abandoned expendable resources and it worked out really well with many powerful enemy encounters that served more like mini-bosses.

    I’m happy to hear this much thought put into oldschool style RPG combat systems. Keep it up!

  8. I really enjoyed the way encounters worked in BoD/CstW in that you could potentially clear out a dungeon, and then just feel free to explore. Random Encounters, particularly some of the more difficult ones, have a tendency to sometimes make me forget which way I’m going in a dungeon, and make me get lost.

    However, one thing that made it feel a bit awkward was that (for the most part), I would tend to clear out the dungeon at the first restore point, then I’d basically be strong enough to take down the boss with some decent planning (I optimized my characters in some ways, but you get the idea). However, when I didn’t do the “optimal combo” to defeat the monster swarm, I generally got beat up pretty hard (especially in the bonus dungeons (soul-keeper dungeon… random encounters seem so easy, until you don’t 1-shot the whole group, then they just tear you apart! :O)

    I did, however, think it was interesting that Insane mode brought about effectively infinite battles, making the grind-until-it’s-clear style I tended to play through on the easier difficulties impossible. As such, I tended to rush the dungeons more, leaving me a bit under-leveled when it came to the boss, and as such, requiring more skill and/or optimization to beat (unless I just went back and grinded).

    Most dungeons, however, felt very “straightforward” in how to deal with their encounters. Once I set up my characters, it was just a matter of using the right spell combos and I’d kill most encounters in 1-2 turns. The biggest exception was the Volcano… Curse you, Volcano! I never knew when I’d run into a raptor swarm or just a giant freaking T-rex that would randomly pwn my party with a lucky Rampage! I’ll be honest, it DID provide the toughest encounters, but their random nature made it frustrating 😛

    One thing that I discovered myself, however, is that because you can “save anywhere,” and random encounters require a minimum number of steps, I sometimes (especially on Insane), got into the habit of just saving every dozen or so steps (it only takes like half a second to save), that way even if I lost the battle, I could still be “making progress” in the dungeon. I’m not sure if that was intended via the system or just some sort of exploit, but it made progressing through certain bonus dungeons possible, even while under-leveled (I’m looking at the dragon-filled super-dungeon with the black hole boss. Grabbing those chests was worth so much important money, but going in early was suicide.)

    Precipice 3 tended to be a bit more of a “clear-out’ romp than anything else. When I first played it, I was completely unaware that there even was an arena, so i treated the game like there was limited exp and gold to be had, so I made sure to try and get it all. Made for a really interesting byplay in how I spend money (I bought battle-item upgrades first, and only upgraded equipment when I either absolutely had to, or I could buy the best stuff straight-out.

    Whew, sorry for wall of text, I tend to get verbose when I’m passionate.

  9. I’m definitely a fan of random battles. I appreciated the creativity of the BoD/CSTW approach, but I think I prefer the traditional style with no end in sight. Knowing how many battles I’m “supposed” to have to reasonably beat the game took away some of the immersion for me.

    Great pros and cons list. Too often in the mainstream gaming media, random battles will be automatically written off as a dated mechanic. I mean, technically it IS dated, but so is leveling up and jumping on enemies to defeat them in platforming. Some things just work.

    I like the solution of enemies walking around on the map in current-gen titles, but for 2D RPGs, I prefer random battles. It’s more difficult to judge an enemy’s movement pattern on a world map without full blown 3D model animation.

    Either way, insightful article. It’s an interesting discussion for sure.

  10. The reason why enemies get stronger each turn is because it prevents the player from relying on certain cheesy strategies to win.

  11. I like the random battle mechanism in Ctulhu but I don’t like the fact that the enemies grow stronger every turn. I don’t get why the enemies get stronger as the battle progresses.

  12. I was JUST thinking about this very thing a night or 2 ago as I was mapwalking through Suikoden 2. I am very fond of random encounters and feel that there is something slightly unholy about giving the player more of a choice of when and what to fight. I’m not exactly sure why it doesn’t feel right to me, but it seems as though if you are one to opt to skip more than a few battles, you are most likely skipping a whole lot, and in hand you are missing out on the grinding and variety of battles that make RPGs uniquely fun. I see the option to skip over battles (aside from when encountering lower-leveled baddies) as a function that came to popularity because of games that didn’t do well with tapping into the need to change up strategies with different enemies and parts of the game.

    I like the idea presented at the end of the post a lot. That idea reminds me of some battles in FF6 that, while not truly random, had long, important, or just silly dialogs pre-, post-, or mid-fight and added a lot of charm and freshness to the entirety of the game (happens to be my favorite game of all time!)…

    Thanks for keeping this great genre kicking!

  13. Good point John S, one I forgot to mention. Clearing a dungeon out of encounters is a really great idea that worked out for me, I could just burn through a bunch of fights and explore at my leisure.

  14. Great article, I love design blog updates specifically in reading your methodology for deciding encounter rates, seems a lot like how I would do it.

    I like random battles to a point, the gameplay style of conservatively nuking your way througha dungeon worked pretty well in Cthulhu/BoD, but I feel it’s just incredibly frustrating if the encounter rate is high as I am definitely an explorer, I do not like to miss things but I also hate unnecessarily fighting my way through slogs of enemy groups.

    If I had to pick a favorite I’d say Rainslicks style works best (by extension Romancing Saga style) of a fully restore party after every fight and every/most encounter(s) (atleast on high difficulties) representing a challenging puzzle of sorts.

    On this fight it’s a full group of high damaging enemies so you’ll need to go all out burst damage to bring them down before they wipe you,
    This single enemy has high health and high damage/aoe, you’ll need to turtle up and buff if you want to survive it getting stronger over time.

    It’s a much less tedious experience I find whereas in random battle systems once I figure out a good general rotation for encounters of an area it just becomes a slog until I get to the boss.

    Interested in seeing your approach to wandering visible monsters though, if nothing else Zeboyd has shown that you have great ideas when you approach old concepts explored by the genre.

  15. Actually, the random non-monster has been done in Dragon Quest games. In DQ4 during Taloon’s campaign, you could randomly encounter a wandering merchant who would sell you things. Your methods in Breath of Death and Rainslick III were effective for me, but it did take away from the old school charm. Strangely, Dragon Quest 9 felt about right. The enemy appearance type was random and frequency and location were random, but they were visible so you could avoid them (to some extent). An interesting side effect was that enemies could also avoid you (as was the case for the famous metal slime family).

  16. I really liked the ability to “clear” a dungeon/section of the map. Initially, when playing BoDVII, I thought the number was a bit high, but then I realized that my normal run through the dungeon wasn’t meant to clear it.

    I recall using it on one of the dungeons near a save point because I felt like I didn’t have the items necessary to make it to the next save point. It took awhile to burn through all the randoms, but it made it the rest of the dungeon much easier to explore.

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