I do not remember where I read or heard about this idea, but it made thinking up skill and ability mechanics for an RPG really interesting. Basically you give a player either “choice” or “combine”.
Let me explain…
In this scenario, let’s pretend we’re making an JRPG. For our game to stand out amongst the 1 million really terrible RPGMaker games out there, we need skill/ability mechanics that are really cool.
So before we start thinking of what those skills and abilities are, we need to decide if we’re going to go with “choice” or “combine”.
This is where you give the players a choice between which mechanics/abilities/skills to have/use. Disregard battles, because that’s always a series of choices, we’re talking about equipping or gaining abilities.
With choice, a player has to make an informed decision about which skill to equip. This could be due to limited slots, or some in game resource. But the important thing is that there’s a trade-off.
By adding this skill, you get this benefit and this negative. By equipping this Job, your character has these mechanics and not these others. By learning this spell you haven’t learnt these others.
Choice is good because it makes it clear to the player, and clear to the developer, what will happen with these abiltiies. The possible effects are clear and known and there’s no experimentation needed.
Did the player make a good choice? Probably, you wouldn’t want them to suffer for it.
This method could be considered more interesting, but it will require a lot more work. Combine is good if combat is a big focus in your game.
It works by removing the need for the player to make too many choices, and instead gives the player seemingly unrelated (possibly) abilities which are combined into more interesting ones.
For example, a fire spell isn’t that great on it’s own. Sure, it’s super useful but we’re at a point in the game now where we need a bit more power. If you combine it with an “Imbue Weapon With Magic” spell/item, suddenly your character is weilding a fire-sword.
In choice this would more likely be two separate things, a fire spell, and a fire sword. But in combine, we utilise both together.
Which to use?
It all comes down to:
- If you want to focus on interesting combat, which means spending time and resources on developing it, possibly at the expense of the rest of the game; go with combine.
- If you want the player to understand what the skills do and how they are immediately useful; go with choice.
Combine gives you deep, multilayered combat. Choice gives you comparitely simpler and more obvoius combat.
Both are useful and have their place. You can combine them to a degree, but focusing toward one or the other makes more sense in my opinion. Why tease the player with combine if it is only used a little bit?
Final Fantasy V‘s Job System is an example of choice. You can choose a job for your character and that’s the decision you’re making. Yes, you can equip some abilities across from other jobs as well, but the system leans toward choice.
Final Fantasy VII‘s Materia is an example of combine. Different materia can be equiped together to give interesting effects. This can extend across characters.
Magic The Gathering or Hearthstone are good examples of combine. And they should be, they are only about the combat. These are so much on the side of combine that the developers have to ban cards from tournament play when players uncover overpowered combinations that they’d never thought of.
I found starting at the point of deciding whether you want to use Choice or Combine really useful as it meant every skill had to be placed among the others. It helped to frame what was needed as an option for the players.
I hope the above helps another solo dev figure out some interesting game mechanics. I used the above to come up with some cool stuff for a JRPG that I never continued on with development (because I couldn’t manage scope or consider how much I could get done). But it was a fun exercise anyway.