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Gameplay: Ability Improving Systems
 

What is the main difference, gameplay-wise, between a RPG like Final Fantasy and a fighter like Street Fighter 2? They both need characters. All of them have the characters battle something. Those characters all have to have different abilities. But, the difference is that the characters in a RPG all increase in skill as the game goes on, and those in a fighter do not.

So we have a whole class of games, which include most early games, games for the arcade, and games for the Atari, etc., where the characters don't increase in abilities as the game goes on. The Double Dragon / Final Fight genre, the puzzle game genre, the shooting game genre (exception: Fantasy Zone, a shooter for the NES, allowed you to upgrade your ship), the fighting game genre, and the racing game genre (exception: in Super Off Road you improve your truck as the game goes on) are all types of games where your characters don't gain in ability.

Then we have a second class of games, where the characters do increase in ability. That is their shared theme. To date, there are no RPGs where you start out with every item and weapon (and are able to keep them through the whole game), nor are there RPGs where the characters start out very powerful, having every special skill and ability, and having the highest stats possible. In all RPGs, and also in adventure games like Zelda and Metroid, you start out weak, and through your actions become strong, or at least, more adaptable, more 'prepared for anything'.

I personally believe that the second class is superior to the first, but I can see that there would be advantages to either. The first teaches you to conquer situations with the resources you have, the second allows you to improve what resources you have, and find new resources, for situations which are currently out of your league. But the second -also- can be used to create situations where you have to solve a problem with what you have, and that's why I prefer to create games of the second of those two classes.

Now, every one of these ability-increasing games has some type of 'system', some way for characters to gain new abilities. Let's look at patterns.

There is the Zelda/Metroid pattern: In Metroid, you find new guns, more energy containers, and other special abilities. In Zelda, you find weapons and items in treasure chests, or in stores, or under rocks, or behind waterfalls, and you gain an increase in life by finding heart containers.

Then there is the Mega Man pattern: In Mega Man, you gain a new weapon everytime you kill a boss. In Blaster Master, it's similar: each boss gains you a new special skill (walking on walls, diving ability, stronger gun, etc.). 

Then there is the shop system. You kill enemies for gold and then buy new things. Kid Icarus had this, as does pretty much every RPG. This system has a 'reward currency', which you can trade in for rewards chosen by you.

Usually combined with the shop system is the equipment system, where you buy things (armor, helmets, rings, swords) which increase your stats. In Final Fantasy 6 & 7, the things you equipped gave you magic spells instead of only stat changes.

Then there is the experience point system: In Zelda 2, the more enemies you kill, the more your strength, magic, and life power increase. In Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, it's the same idea.

Often there is a mixture of all of these. In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you fight enemies to gain experience points, collect gold to buy things, gain life power when you kill bosses, and find items in out of the way places.

When a new game is said to have a new 'level system', that just means that it works slightly different than the way it works in most other games (getting points, reaching certain point levels for new rewards). Chrono Cross and the Saga Frontier / Romancing Saga series don't have experience points, you gain stats directly from enemies as you fight. Final Fantasy 10 has a new orb-type thing. These variations add distinction to a game.

The basic problem of all RPGs remains constant - increase the skills and capabilities of your characters, in relation to the problems and obstacles they face. If your obstacles include fighting enemies, you need to increase your fighting skills (amount of spells and attacks, battle stats). If your obstacles include mazes and reaching new areas, you need to increase your exploration skills (jumping high, flying, climbing walls, crossing rivers with a ladder, etc.). Your abilities come out of your obstacles (the puzzles). An ability that doesn't help you get past an obstacle isn't an ability.

Here is an interesting way to further classify character-abilty-increasing games: some focus more on battle obstacles and increasing battle abilities (Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre), some focus more on exploration obstacles and increasing exploration abilites, thereby increasing the number of maps you have access to (Spyro the Dragon, Metroid). Usually the best games focus intently on both. Examples of games focusing on both are Wild Arms and Lufia 1 & 2.

The trick to making a game fun, of course, is to solve the problem of ability-increasing (increasing skills/spells/stats) in a new way that works. There are many interesting solutions to the problem of ability gaining. There is the job system in Final Fantasy 5 and Final Fantasy Tactics, where each 'job' you choose gains its own experience points. The summoned monsters gain their own experience points in Final Fantasy 8. Weapons gain experience points in Tales of Destiny. Weapons teach you skills in Final Fantasy 9 and in Vandal Hearts II. You get an Ocarina and use it to learn and play new songs, each with helps you in your quest, in Zelda 5 and 6.

The player uses what abilites his characters have to play past obstacles, reaching rewards, which result in gaining new abilities, sometimes resulting in opening up new maps or new areas of old maps, and then the player uses those new abilities to get past further obstacles in those areas (or old obstacles in old areas which were previously impossible for them). Every deep game follows this pattern.

What does this mean directly? It means that you should think about how the player's characters in your game improve in abilities, what those abilities are, and what those abilities are intended to overcome. Don't give them abilities that aren't necessary and won't be used, ie, don't have an ability that you can't do anything fun with. There are spells in Final Fantasy 1 which do absolutely nothing. Why are they in the game? They don't have a point.

The point of this section of the article is that these various ways that different games have of increasing abilities are 'systems', and your game will be boring if the way of gaining new abilities is boring. Ability design and the planning of ability gaining is perhaps the second most important part of gameplay design, behind obstacle (level) design and placement, so spend some time polishing up your game in respect what abilites your characters can gain, and how they gain them.
 

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