When you get down to sRPGs in general, it always seems that there is a steady stream of generic goodness that is typical for many of its different pieces. From this article, I want to explore the different facades of this sRPG genre and comment on the variations amongst them. Today I'm exploring turn structure.
sRPGs run 2 different turn structures. The first structure is the typical "chess style" phase-based turn structure, where all units from one player takes a turn before the other player does anything. This is often the default turn structure for sRPG games. The second has turns based upon individual characters on either side, and mixing those up. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
"Chess" Turn Structure
First up is the original turn structure. When you look at any given single turn, a player can strategically move any single character on the field, do something, and repeat with all of the other characters. Strategically speaking, the order of the movement of each character is up to the player to decide. This method adds flexibility to a player's turn by allowing the player control more aspects of his or her turn.
There are, of course, problems with this method. The structure of this slows the game down dramatically, since player input exists in large chunks, and the player loses input for a similarly large chunk of the time in any given turn. This means that only players with enough patience to sit through the often slow movement of the game for the bulk of the game. Of course, this can easily be fixed. Fire Emblem, for example, speeds up enemy movement and gives you the option to skip animations when facing against enemies to make the wait time shorter. However, most sRPG games lack this feature, either due to hardware capabilities (such as Tactics Ogre for the GBA), or it doesn't make sense for that to happen (such as games that involve humans running around, like Fire Emblem for Gamecube). However, this point tends to be a nonissue, since an sRPG tends not to attract new players into the genre.
Another striking problem is the difference in power of spells and abilities in an sRPG game. Due to its turn structure, the game cannot inflict "time penalties" for powerful abilities. Designers would have to solve this problem either by lowering powerlevels of the abilities themselves, heighten the MP cost, add an additional cost, or simply by no using it at all. There are games that just leave these problems behind and just keep the imbalance. For a game that is for solo play, imbalance is not an issue, after all. Wifi's the new thing nowadays.
There are positives to this default turn structure. First of all, this is very stable and easy to build upon, because it's turn based. This type of a structure is very much intuitive and generally gives the player more freedom to move their characters around. Combos generally are easier to make in this setting, simply because control is so much easier. It also saves the player plenty of time, since they know whose turn to expect.
A variation on this turn structure is found in Disgaea and its progeny. They changed the game ever so slightly by separating the attack phase with the movement phase of any given turn. One must realize that there is no real change in the format of the structure, but adds a slight strategic element to the game by allowing combos to actually become combos. The change may be slight and intuitive, but the strategic difference is much higher.
This type of turn structure came much later in an sRPG's lifespan, I would personally say that Final Fantasy Tactics popularized it. In this type of game, all characters would be assigned a speed, and depending on how much the character does, he/she would have to wait longer or shorter before his or her next turn would show up. As well, the speed dictates how fast they can regain their turns as well.
The obvious downside to this style is the addition of a variable, making the game much harder to balance. This is also much less intuitive than the regular "chess" style turn, and can easily confuse first time players. Players have to continuously check the "turn list" in order to be updated quickly with regards to whose turns are coming up and so on. Again, this is a problem in a sense that the player has to waste time to check on this, but can be an advantage to lengthen a game to a veteran. Comboing in this turn structure is also more difficult, since a player also has to match time up between two characters with often different speeds. However, this turn-based style is not without merits.
First is the fact that the player spends half of his or her time watching. By chopping the turns up into small chunks for both sides, the player gets to input every now and then, with intercessions of computer-controlled movement. This is more exciting for the most part for a player. The upside is the lack of a need to speed up an opponent's turn because of it. For wifi, this is most ideal. The downside is that the game isn't going to speed up an already slow game.
Another positive here is the fact that there is a speed variable means that you can balance the classes by how fast they move, and how powerful an ability is simply by giving it a higher delay. The problem again is the difficulty in balancing the game. This is arguably the best reason to use this structure over the other, but not without an increase in cost to balance a game that is more difficult to balance.
Currently the best individual-turn based system that I've seen is Final Fantasy Tactics, which does take time into account (most still don't). Unfortunately, the game isn't exactly balanced (see Zodiac and what not), but it's a step in the right direction for someone to pick up from.
Which is better?
I can't exactly said that specifically one is better, though I lean toward the latter rather than the former simply because of the extra variable that can add more degrees of freedom to players. However, each system has been pretty much tried and true. Either system works fine, now matter how you shake your stick at it.