Turn-Based Combat Making a Comeback?: About Damn Time

Torment-Tides-of-NumeneraYou may have heard that inXile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera project recently held an election among its Kickstarter supporters. The purpose was to help them decide whether their game should feature turn-based or real-time with pause (RTwP) combat. The results were very close, but they ended up (hooray!) going with turn-based combat. They also published a lengthy update on their Kickstarter page explaining their decision and why they think their version of turn-based will not be boring, slow, or repetitive.

The key part of their strategy involves what they call their Crises System. Their description of this concept goes on for five pages (complete with diagram), but here’s the gist of it:

A Crisis is a meaningful encounter that presents a significant challenge (or series of challenges). All combats would occur within Crises, but Crises can include non-combat gameplay and decisions as well. Some won’t involve any combat at all. A typical Crisis will involve an imminent (but potentially avoidable) threat of combat and you’ll have to decide how to best prepare.

Their goal is to make the experience closer to the intensity and open-endedness of a tabletop session, allowing them to impose some constraints on the player for the sake of the narrative without forcing him or her into a single solution.

The update goes on to some specifics about how this will be implemented. For one thing, there’ll be no random encounters, or “trash mobs.” They also want to avoid breaking immersion by forcing you into combat at awkward moments, such as when you’re taking a leisurely stroll through town, soaking in the ambience.

The update also addresses other potential arguments against their decision to go turn-based, such as the fact that the original had RTwP so the new one should, too.

After reading this update, I thought a lot about my favorite CRPGs, I think we can boil all this down to two CRPGs that I think everyone here probably loves as much as I do: Pool of Radiance and Baldur’s Gate. Pool of Radiance, of course, featured turn-based, tactical combat, whereas Baldur’s Gate introduced us to RTwP. Since a great deal of time in both games was spent in combat, it was obviously of key importance to the designers to get it right. What we end up with, though, are two very different approaches that have their own strengths and weaknesses. As for which one’s better, though, I have to go with turn-based.

When Pool of Radiance was published in 1988, the games industry was a very different place. The bulk of gamers owned cheap game consoles and spent most of their time playing arcade and action games. For most of these gamers, “role-playing game” meant something as childish as Super Mario–The Legend of Zelda. Fortunately, at this time there was a solid alternative: the computer. While most platforms had their share of action games, of course, there was also a healthy market for more complex, adult-oriented fare such as Pool of Radiance. 

Many of these computer gamers were well-steeped in both tabletop role-playing gaming and also wargaming. In many cases, the combat in these games could be quite “tedious,” if by that we mean all of the calculations that you to perform to execute combat. By contrast, the computer RPGs took much of this burden away, in effect relieving much of this tedium. Thus, a wargamer of the time looking at the combat sequences in Pool of Radiance would never think–”Wow, that’s tedious!”–but rather, “Wow! That is so much easier than doing it by hand!”

Baldur’s Gate was released a few days before Christmas in 1998. Significantly, Blizzard’s Diablo had been out for two years, shattering sales records and dramatically closing the gap between computer and console RPGs. Essentially, Diablo was an effort to make a Legend of Zelda style game for computer gaming adults, and it worked. Of course, it also helped that CRPGs as a whole had been declining, with mostly derivative titles that, for a variety of reasons, just didn’t capture the imagination the way the earlier Gold Box titles had. The few standouts, such as Fallout (1997), were saddled with “B-grade status” and improperly funded even by publishers who should have known better (Interplay, in this case).

Bioware naturally wanted to duplicate the success of Diablo, but recognized that the sophisticated rules of D&D just couldn’t be reduced to clicking a mouse on the bad guy and quaffing potions. The result was the kludge called RTwP, which tried to capture the “excitement” of Diablo but that would still let you pause the game at any time to pop open the hood and make adjustments.

Bioware was mostly successful with its compromised solution, though it’s debatable whether the game would have been worse off with a more traditional turn-based engine. I’d like to think that the game’s excellent production values and great story would have been enough to quell dissent that the game wasn’t enough like Diablo. In any case, I doubt any publisher would have been interested in a turn-based game anyway given that title’s success.

I think many gamers who were fans of the older turn-based style were probably put off by Baldur’s Gate RTwP. However, it really had been a long time since we had a CRPG with such excellent production values, and it was “good enough” to keep us playing–hey, at least it wasn’t Diablo. Eventually, once you got into the game, you quickly forgot (or were willing to overlook) how often RTwP combat can be painful, tedious, and awkward. Was getting to see some flashier spell animations really worth all this constant pausing and fighting with the AI?

In short, I don’t think turn-based combat is boring or tedious at all. Rather, it’s just that Diablo was so successful that publishers (and many gamers who hadn’t experienced anything else) were suddenly convinced that it was a throwback. That prevented the natural development we’d expect to see in interface and AI design. We’re just now finally starting to see what a modern CRPG with turn-based combat might look like, thanks mostly to X-Com and Shadowrun. However, neither of these games comes anywhere close to the raw passion and craft we got in Baldur’s Gate.

If anyone is in a position to update turn-based combat and make it fun again, it’s Torment’s developers. Fortunately, we are finally back to a position where gamers can and have overridden the publishers to get a new turn-based game that won’t suffer from lower production values.  I, for one, am excited to see what the team eventually comes up with.

7 thoughts on “Turn-Based Combat Making a Comeback?: About Damn Time

  1. Fallen Paladin

    This is B/S they have the hype and are just going to blow it away cuz some hardcore fans like you Matt want a turn-based style… the main people that payed for it want the RTwP cuz that’s how PST used to be and the bulk of that fanbase I doubt they checked the inxile forums to vote. Most of the people that check there are the harcores and that poll was biased. The thing is Turn-based is just a no sell for the mainstream players it always was like this… in conclusion the game will come out and they will have a lot of unhappy customers that will be like WTF???
    You may be happy now Matt cuz they make a product for you but on the long term the game will fail just like most turn-based old school games do… just look at the sales Diablo>Baldurs’s Gate>PST>ToEE. That translates to Action>RTwP>Turn-based.
    And no I’m not a anti turn-based fanatic… I did enjoy ToEE but I prefer RTwP for a faster gameplay…

    Reply
  2. Gary Wood

    I couldn’t agree more. I doubled my pledge to Alpha just because i know turn based will improve the game for me at least.

    Reply
  3. Infinitron

    I feel that you’re heaping a lot of blame on Diablo that it doesn’t really deserve. The truth is that Diablo and its clones had remarkably little effect on the RPG genre as a whole. I don’t think anybody really saw them as proper RPGs, to be honest.

    It’s a very different situation from today when games like Mass Effect and Skyrim are accepted as fully fledged RPGs.

    Reply
    1. 4-bit

      I think it deserves it, but you’re part right in that it didn’t evolve in a vacuum.

      FPS’s had been taking over the scene more and more, and RPG’s had been trying to move into their space with things like Ulitima Underworld and Descent into Undermountain (there’s a game to review Matt). Some games had done a really good job of blending the two, like System Shock.

      But players were looking for something that had this new real time sensibility but had an old school dungeon crawl RPG feel. Diablo hit that at exactly the right time. A combination of immediacy with the trappings of nostalgia made it a hit, and what do you do with a hit? Milk it for all it’s worth.

      It was two more years before Baldur’s Gate came out and revived CRPG’s… which had been all but dead since the early 90s. And even that isn’t truly turn based.

      Civilization and similar strategy games have been the only ones to keep some of the turn based play going. And even they get overshadows by RTS’s.

      XCOM seems to have been the shot in the arm turn based gaming needed. Hopefully that will take off in a big way.

      Reply
  4. kravkalash

    So what you’re saying is…:

    turn based = old school = good
    real time = new school = bad
    rtwp = compromise = meh

    I don’t think that’s really the case. There was RTWP way before Baldurs Gate, the oldest example that comes to my mind is Darklands (1992). And it’s a good example for why the above statements are not necessarily true. I’ll quote Arnold Hendrick from the Cluebook to Darklands, p. 39:

    “[...]Most computer fantasy games base their combat systems on paper games, which must be simple and easy for the human players. The Darklands system was designed for a computer, which can keep track of many more variables and “special rules” than humans.”

    If memory serves me right, Mr Hendrick also explained this statement in an earlier episode of Matt Chat. Computer games should make use of the computer and its possibilites, not restrain themselves to the more or less true and tested systems from pen and paper RPGs. That’s what he tried to do in Darklands (succesfully imho, but YMMV), and I think that’s a very important aspect of the success of later games, like Baldurs Gate and even Diablo.

    Reply
  5. Avantenor

    I’m not convinced that this Crisis concept improves turn-based gameplay really that much, or at least up to a level it feels less interrupting with the rest of the game. It will simply create another form of instance based gameplay, just that you don’t outplay only combat but also non-combat solutions, maybe sometimes with some kind of turn limit regarding several solutions. For some it might feel meaningful, for others I think it doesn’t feel like a video game anymore, but like a tabletop experience. Personally, I don’t think that’s the future of CRPGs as a video game genre, because it mainly tries to recreate the mechanics of a medium that follows different rules, a computer-based surrogate for an analog gameplay situation.

    And I think it’s the opposite and that turn-based combat is a throwback for AI development. RTwP doesn’t necesserily prevent you from developing more intelligent opponent AI. But turn-based combat on the other hand relieves developers from creating a suitable companion AI, that behaves appropriate even without interference from the player and gives him the feeling to be part of an adventuring party (and not necessarily being the whole party). AI should help players to handle the basics so you have to spent less time on thinking about the mechanics and to concentrate on the game experience. I think that’s a point where BioWare succeeded over the years. Unless you wanted to play fantasy chess.

    Reply
  6. Shane-ola

    I am not going to wade into the blame game or whatever regarding who is to “blame” for the move away from turn based, but I do feel if a Kickstarter changes up mid-stream after folks have pledged than they are entitled to feel disgruntled about it.

    In general I will say that I far prefer a turn-based combat system in CRPGs.

    It allows those of us that are not “twitchy” or have great hand eye coordination but love battles and strategy to really get into the mix. Plus, a lot of “real time” battles these days seem to be just point and click, click, click. Not a lot of strategy, just speed.

    This Crises system sounds cool if they are trying to bring more of the table top experience into things as they say.

    Reply
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