One of the key mechanics of RPG gaming is gaining experience, levelling up and strengthening your hero or party members. In order to do that, you typically need to fight enemies.
In the early days, enemy encounters were randomized based on number of steps taken, with the likelihood of an encounter increasing gradually with each step you take. You could sometimes walk a good distance before a fight, and sometimes your next fight is within two or three steps. Many complaints I have seen from some older RPGs include the fact that the encounter rate is too high, or too much grinding is needed in order to be strong enough to progress. These complaints are both valid. There are gamers that think the grind is tedious and more work than it’s worth.
So what have developers done to change random encounter, in order to cater to this? Well, there have been quite a few things.
First, some games still have random encounters, but with a fixed amount. For example, Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica included a gauge that would deplete after each encounter. Once depleted fully, there would be no further encounters in that area without leaving and re-entering. This can prove useful since you know what to expect from each dungeon area, and you also know that once you’ve cleared the encounter gauge, you can explore worry-free.
A more common solution has been to show the encounters on the map, and have encounters happen only when you come into contact with them. That way, if you don’t want to fight, you can try to avoid them. This can require reflexes, but it does give you some more control over your situation. This system has been used in many of the Tales of games, Persona 3 and 4, and many others.
Another option made available in the Bravely Default games has been the ability to just turn off random encounters as you play. While this is not recommended to be used at all times, it helps when you’re frustrated in an area and just want out.
So, out of these options, which is the best method? There isn’t one. Each system has its merits and detriments. What is really needed in these systems is proper quality control in order to enjoy the RPG experience. To help with this, I have come up with some rules for developers to take in order to make encounters enjoyable. These rules will apply for all of the above mentioned encounter methods.
First and foremost, Make sure that your system promotes fair play. That’s not to say don’t make it challenging. This simply means to moderate the expectations for players. In a random encounter setting, at least allow for ten to twenty steps before starting the encounter clock. A depletion gauge should have a decent number of encounters based on the size of the dungeon. If your encounters are visible on the field, don’t make them too aggressive and fast that they can’t be avoided.
My second rule is to advertise your challenge. If your game is going to be more difficult and require heavy grinding, then make sure you mention it in advertising, or even on the back of the box, or online description. Gamers need to know what they’re getting themselves into before spending their money. While it may deter sales of the game by being honest about your game, you will entice the right people, and even intrigue some new gamers. For those that choose not to buy the game because of this, they may be thankful for how transparent your advertising is, and still recommend the game to those that will enjoy it.
My final rule is a simple one: Don’t be consistent. If you decide to make a challenging, grind-heavy game, that’s great! Just don’t think that’s all your future games ever have to be. Variety is the spice of life, and by offering different experiences in your mechanics, even a slightly different encounter system, you will appeal to more potential buyers. Look at Final Fantasy for example. These games started with the traditional random encounter system, and recent game releases have included on-screen encounters, and even an action-RPG style of encounter system. While I have not been a fan of every change they have made, the changes have at least added some semblance of variety to their products.
If you ask me, these rules are very reasonable. I’m not suggesting developers make any major changes. If these rules are followed, it will provide a better understanding for the consumer, and will create a more enjoyable experience overall. Like I said before, there is no right or wrong way to handle encounters in an RPG. Each method has its ups and downs. Don’t get me wrong, a vast majority of games out there do follow some of these principles, so there isn’t a lot of work to do. When I see a game that has been blasted online because of how encounters are handled, I think back to what could be done to improve, and this is what I think of each time