Three Pillars of Combat Design: Characters


To get a full view of the systems design of Final Fantasy Tactics requires an examination of the many ways that characters, enemies, and maps vary. For this first article, let’s take a look at the composition of a character. We can start by taking a look at Ramza, the hero of Final Fantasy Tactics, at the very start of the game. Below is a screenshot of Ramza’s status screen in the first battle where the player has full control.

This screenshot shows most of the relevant attributes of a character–there are 34 in total spanning stats, equipment, and abilities. Analyzing these attributes, we can gain a handle on the design space of characters in the battles of Final Fantasy Tactics.

All battles have an objective of either killing a specific enemy unit, or killing all enemy units. Since reducing a character’s HP to zero is the most common way to kill it, HP earns a special place in the design space. All successful strategies have unit preservation (through minimizing HP damage) as a key consideration. Though the player can win battles through spending all of their effort dealing damage via attacks and abilities, many strategies also take advantage of powerful status-inflicting spells to temporarily hamper opponents, or take them out of the fight permanently (regardless of their HP total) by turning them into statues, frogs, or outright killing them by directly inflicting the “Dead” status.

I’ll cover the 33 different status effects in depth in a future article. For now let’s focus on what we can see on the status screen and understand the statistics that make up a character by taking a tour of combat.

The Basics of Combat

As a player of a turn-based game the first two questions that come to mind are “when do I take a turn?” and “what can I do on a turn?”

(From HCBailly’s Let’s Play. If the player were to select “Time Magic” or “Black Magic” here, a further submenu would open letting them choose the specific ability they’d like to use.) (From HCBailly’s Let’s Play. If the player were to select “Time Magic” or “Black Magic” here, a further submenu would open letting them choose the specific ability they’d like to use.)

Final Fantasy Tactics has an interleaved turn system where the player gets to take a turn for each character in an order determined by the characters’ statistics. Characters go individually when they’re ready.

A character’s Speed stat determines how often they get to take a turn. On a character’s turn (called AT by the game) the player can have the character MOVE, ACT, or both, or neither. Choosing not to MOVE or ACT makes the character’s next turn comes faster.

A characters can MOVE at most a number of tiles equal to their Move stat, and any vertical distance between two tiles along the path of movement can’t be higher than their Jump stat.

When the player chooses to ACT with a character, they get to choose to Attack with their weapon or use an ability. Some of these abilities are resolved immediately, while others may take some time during which other characters may take further turns.

Abilities used offensively, i.e. to deal damage or inflict status effects, can be magical (like the Wizard’s spells), physical (like the Monk’s martial arts), or neither (like the Mediator’s talk skill). There are a number of different formulas to determine hit chance and damage for different abilities, but understanding if the ability is physical or magical keys you into what stats the game takes into account when doing the calculations.

Many abilities have a base 100% success rate, like physical abilities, but others have a success rate based on some formula involving the relevant attack stat (Physical Attack, Magical Attack, Speed, and Weapon Power, typically), some constant, and Zodiac compatibility. (I’ll be covering Zodiac-related rules in a future article.) After the die roll for success rate succeeds, then the ability is subject to the defender’s evasion depending on what kind of ability is being used and some other conditions.

Think of evasion as layers of defense. The attacker has to pass each layer by rolling a 100-sided die and getting a result higher than the defender’s evasion percentage. If any die rolls end up lower, the attack misses.

If a magic attack is used, the defender uses their Shield’s (“S-Ev”) and Accessory’s (“A-Ev”) magic evasion percentage to try to cause the attack to miss.

If an attack is physical, the process is slightly more complicated. Which evasion percentages apply to a given physical attack is based on the relative position of attacker and defender. If…

  • the attacker is in front: all evasion stats apply;
  • the attacker is to the side: shield, accessory, and weapon evasion apply;
  • the attacker is to the rear: only accessory evasion applies.


If the attack passes all of these checks, it takes effect on the defender by dealing damage or applying a status or both. Damage formulas for the ATTACK action are based on the weapon involved and usually include some combination of Weapon Power (WP) and Magic Attack (MA), or Physical Attack (MA). Guns only rely on WP, squaring it to determine their damage, and there are a few weapons, as mentioned earlier, which use Brave as a part of their damage calculation.

Damage calculations for magical and other attacks typically depend on MA or PA and some constant factor. Magic attacks damage is additionally multiplied by the Faith of the caster and target as a percentage. I.e. Damage * (My faith / 100) * (Target Faith / 100).


Final Fantasy Tactics has a relatively complicated battle system, where characters are throwing damage and status effects around to try to gain the upper hand–but how do they get these abilities? They get them through the Jobs they’ve had.

Jobs are akin to classes in most RPGs, but act a little differently than you might expect if you’re familiar with how classes tend to work games that borrow from Dungeons & Dragons.

The player can select one Job for each character, and change each character’s Job between battles. This Job determines the character’s stat growth when they level up and provides percentage bonuses to HP, MP, Speed, Physical Attack, and Magical Attack. For example, a Knight has more HP and Physical Attack, less MP and Magical Attack; a Wizard has lots of MP and Magical Attack, but not much HP and Physical Attack; a Ninja has great Speed, good Physical Attack, but low MP and middling other stats.

Each job has a base Move stat and Jump stat, as well. Ninjas are much more mobile than Knights not only because their Speed is higher, but also because they can Jump and Move one tile more.

A character gets a group of abilities from their Job. Knights get “Battle Skill” abilities which let them break opponents’ equipment; Wizards get “Black Magic” abilities which let them deal elemental damage at range; Ninjas get “Throw” which lets them toss various items at enemies to damage them based on the item’s stats. Characters can use these abilities during the ACT part of their turn. But before a character can use such an ability, the player must unlock it for that character by paying its cost in Job Points (JP) between battles. Each character has a JP pool for each job. A character gains JP for a Job when they successfully ACT while they have that Job–abilities have to hit their target, friend or foe, for JP to be awarded.

The player can equip each character with an additional ability group from another Job, as well as the “automatic” ability group granted by the Job the character currently has. This secondary ability group can be used just the same as the ability group given by the character’s current Job.


Abilities are what really bring the characters to life in battle–the abilities the player equips to his characters, and the abilities that appear on the various AI-controlled enemies, are the main source of variety in the battle system.

In addition to the two job ability groups mentioned above, the player can equip each character with one Reaction Ability, one Support Ability. and one Movement Ability. Below is a screenshot of the Summoner’s Active Ability set, known as “Summon Magic”.

(The Summoner’s Active ability set. From SnapWave’s Let’s Play.) (The Summoner’s Active ability set. From SnapWave’s Let’s Play.)

Reaction abilities have a percentage chance of triggering their effect based on the character’s Brave stat when the character has certain kinds of abilities used on them. Reaction abilities give the character a chance to immediately react to being hit by, say, countering a spell with a spell of their own, or doing a physical attack in response to an enemy’s physical attack. Other reactions include increasing the character’s speed stat by 1, adding a positive status effect, and automatically using a potion to restore its health.

Support abilities are a motley assortment of passive abilities and a couple of active abilities. Examples: Increasing physical or magical attack power, granting the ability to throw curative items to nearby allies, and granting the ability to go into a defensive posture that doubles all evasion. Support abilities can also do much more unusual things, like unlocking more powerful abilities for nearby monsters, and “poaching” rare items off of monsters killed by this character.

Movement Abilities give the character some benefit each time they MOVE during their turn, or somehow enhance their MOVE action. Benefits can include finding hidden items, increasing the jump or move stat, ignoring height all together, or gaining HP, MP, JP, or XP after each MOVE action.


Below I’ve enumerated the stats and bonuses for the equipment on two late-game characters, so you can get a sense of what role equipment tends to play.

(From GetDaved!’s Let’s Play.) (From GetDaved!’s Let’s Play.)

Equipped Item Effect
Kikuichimoji 15 Weapon Power, 15 Weapon Evasion
Crystal Helmet +120 HP
Genji Armor +150 HP
Bracer +3 Physical Attack

This Ramza is configured to be able to absorb physical attacks. His high HP allows him to take the hits that his relatively high evasion doesn’t prevent outright. The Kukuichimoji sword allows Ramza to deal PA * Brave / 100 * WP damage, which in this case works out to 225 (This is lower than you would expect from the equation because the PSX doesn’t support floating-point math and will drop the remainder of PA * Brave / 100 before multiplying that result by WP.) Having the sword also allows Ramza to use a Job ability which deals MA * 16 = 144 damage to enemies in a line eight tiles long from either Ramza’s front, one of his sides, or rear.

The only way the player can increase the HP and MP of his characters, short of leveling them up or changing jobs to something tankier, is to equip them with different items. Typically body and head items provide the most HP and MP. Ramza, who is built as a melee combatant in the screenshot above, gets 270 of his 398 HP from his equipment. In this particular case, it’s clear how armor plays a large role in Ramza’s ability to absorb damage, since it accounts for two-thirds of his HP.

Ramza’s Job, Samurai, contributes 20% to his evasion rate (listed under “C-Ev”) while his katana contributes 15% (listed under “Weap.Power” after the slash), meaning an opponent physically attacking him from the front will only hit 68% of the time. Meanwhile, Ramza has no magical evasion whatsoever, so he’ll be quite vulnerable to magical attacks. He could put on an accessory, such as the Feather Mantle–the best such item in the game–which gives 30% magic evade and 40% physical evade, to improve his survivability against magical attacks. Remember that evasion granted by an accessory such as the Feather Mantle applies to attacks regardless of where they’re coming from–even if an enemy is attacking Ramza from behind he’ll get that 40% physical evasion!

(From HCBailly’s Let’s Play) (From HCBailly’s Let’s Play)

Equipped Item Effect
Blaze Gun 20 Weapon Power, 5 Weapon Evasion
Thief Hat +100 HP, +2 Speed, prevents Don’t Move and Don’t Act status effects.
Black Costume +100 HP, prevents Stop status effect.
Germinas Boots +1 Move, +1 Jump

Mustadio, like Ramza, relies on equipment for a significant chunk of his HP–in fact, even more than Ramza–but Mustadio’s build has more of a focus on staying away from enemies and hitting them with his gun. Guns are unique among weapons in that their damage is entirely based on the gun’s Weapon Power and has nothing to do with the wielder’s Physical or Magical Attack stats. Guns also can strike from the longest distance of any weapon attack in the game, with a range of 3 to 8 tiles. In contrast, crossbows tend to have a range of 3 to 4 and longbows have a range of 3 to 5. Mustadio’s gun, the Blaze Gun, is a magical gun, which acts more like a magical attack in that its damage is proportional to the Faith of the caster and target–its effectiveness still has nothing to do with PA and MA stats, though! Another important, unique detail about guns is that they ignore evasion entirely. They typically do less raw damage in exchange for hitting more often. It’s a great way to counter evasion-rich characters like the Ramza we just took a look at.

To stay away from enemy combatants who can take advantage of Mustadio’s woeful evasion of 5% from his weapon and 5% from his class, Mustadio relies on both his modest Move and good Jump, as well as his equipment’s capacity to prevent the most common status effects that would pin him down: Don’t Move would hold him in place and Stop would prevent him from taking turns all together.


This is Just an Introduction

It took many words just to give you the basics of the way characters are designed in Final Fantasy Tactics, and there is still so much to talk about. Over the next month expect  a number of articles breaking down in detail many of the design facets discussed here. Stay tuned!


Reader Response: “On Perfect Imbalance”

In response to my article On “Perfect Imbalance”, Travis Clark wrote in with his insightful perspective on balance and memorization in Chess.


As for the state of balance in Chess, Travis makes a great point about the subtle nature of the imbalances present in what appears to be a symmetrical system:

“It is almost symmetrical, and visually tricks people into to thinking so with the optical-illusion of black and white squares and the pieces in front of you line up with pieces in-front of your opponent. Fold the board in half along its supposed line of symmetry and you will find every black square folds on top of a white square. The board itself isn’t meant to be symmetrical.  Its a very small difference but bishops are assigned to move along a specific color square so the board itself creates some very slight but uneven gameplay.  Now take a close look at the pieces. Things look a little different if you are playing black versus playing white.  If you are playing as white your king is on the fourth square from the right.  If you are playing black, you must look from black’s perspective, your king is on the fifth square from the right.  The situation for the queens are similar.  I believe it is this way because it is aesthetically pleasing.  However, every opening strategy is hinged on this very slightly imbalanced set-up.” ~Travis

In the original article, I had considered making a comment on the fact that Chess is not a symmetrical game, primarily because of White’s first-turn advantage, but Travis brings up a good further point about how the aesthetically-pleasing apparently-symmetrical setup is hiding some one-square positioning differences that rest at the core of the strategy-space of the game. He later also mentioned the importance of first-turn advantage as well:

“The most drastic way chess is imbalanced is the fact that white always goes first.  You may wonder how much of a difference white’s privilege actually makes. …Because of the small differences in starting positions and the advantage white has in time there is a Chess theory which states that if two perfect computers were to play each-other, with all the Chess databases known to man for reference material the best outcome black could hope for would be a draw in every game.” ~Travis

Travis pointed out a memorization-free style of learning chess that worked well for him:

“Josh Waitzkin is one of my chess heroes.  He wrote an excellent book called The Art of Learning that I highly recommend, and in partnership with Chessmaster(Ubisoft) created a fantastic chess course.  The reason why I was drawn in to chess so deeply and find it fascinating are his annotated games.  His style of play and teaching didn’t revolve around the learning of specific patterns or memorizing databases. In place of the rote portion he would explain the theory of why certain opening patterns developed and what the Grandmaster’s that used them were trying to accomplish what they gave up and got in return and how it suited their style of play.  I never once had been one to memorize openings.  Using his training I could look at a completely unfamiliar opening, that my opponent may have memorized, and look at its goal and strengths and weaknesses and choose a move based on that.” ~Travis


And he went on to talk about the mind-games that can be involved in Chess:

“But the heart of chess is this competitive spirit.  Connecting with someone through competition is the key.  Memorization is a piece of the puzzle but I argue that it is a much smaller piece than the current image of chess projects.   Raw calculation is indeed a  factor along with pattern recognition, logic, strategy, poise and other mental talents; however, I believe the biggest portion is the psychology of competition.  You have to be in tune with what you opponent is thinking and find a move that counters, disrupts, or solidifies your opponent’s thought process while fitting the current position on the board.  The correct move isn’t always the mathematical best move, rather it is the move that will beat the opponent in right in-front of you in that moment with their current state of mind.  As annotated by Josh, this psychological warfare happens on the grandmaster level, the beginner level and everything in-between.  That is why I argue that it is the heart of this slightly imbalanced non-symmetrical game.”  ~Travis


It’s a great point, and one that I think is too often thrown by the wayside when we try to talk about design in the abstract. People are playing these games, and seldom can they near the mathematical precision of a computer, in terms of memory and applying algorithms and valuation strategies effectively and consistently. Even though Chess is a perfectly deterministic game involving no hidden information that would affect objectively optimal play, a degree of psychologically-hidden information exists because of the limitations of the human mind’s ability to apprehend the many branches of the decisions tree. Even at the highest levels, says Travis, players benefit from exploiting the limitations of the wetware of their opponent while trying to avoid being exploited themselves. Memorization might be an “ideal” solution to chess, but as the metagame stands now, there’s plenty of room for human limitations to be exploited by using the mind and emotions of the opponent as a weapon.


Thanks for the great email, Travis!

There Are No Nuclear Explosions in Baseball


In Pitching a Nuclear Baseball Marcus considers and answers two interesting questions concerning the game of baseball. First, “What would happen to a hypothetical game of baseball if the pitcher were to pitch a ball at 90% the speed of light?” And second, “What should happen in that hypothetical game according to the rules of baseball?”

In answering the first question, Marcus relies on science to conclude that the pitch would cause a nuclear explosion that would obliterate the baseball stadium and all of its inhabitants. Because I accept the judgments of science, I agree.

In answering the second question, Marcus relies on an interpretation of the rules of baseball to conclude that the batter – being hit by the pitched ball in the ensuing nuclear explosion – should advance to first base. Because I accept the judgments of common sense, I disagree. There are no nuclear explosions in baseball, because that would be absurd!

But Marcus has an argument:

As long as there is an umpire to interpret the rules, the game of baseball is able to be played in all sorts of abnormal conditions. This is not because the rules account for the unexpected but because they don’t! Apparently the rules check for a legal ball, a legal set up, and a legal pitch, so everything that happens in between the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box is up for grabs. Broken sound barriers? Baseball doesn’t care. Rapidly expanding walls of plasma due to nuclear explosion? Baseball doesn’t care.

Marcus seems to be saying that if the rules of baseball don’t explicitly ban nuclear explosions, they must be implicitly supported. So his claim in this particular instance – that nuclear explosions are allowed in baseball – looks to be founded on a more general interpretive stance – that only the explicit text of a game’s rules need to be consulted in order to determine what those rules authorize.

I advocate a different interpretive stance for answering questions about what a game’s rules authorize. This interpretive stance goes beyond merely consulting the explicit text of a game’s rules to consider other factors related to a game’s design. The explicit text of a game’s rules should of course be your first, best guide. But one can’t exclude from consideration other factors of a game’s design space – game objectives, balance, and strategic variety (to name just a few).

Consider the central game objective in baseball. The players’ objective is not – nuclear baseballs notwithstanding – to physically annihilate their opponents. It is to score more runs. Since allowing for nuclear explosions in baseball would run contrary to the fulfillment of baseball’s central game objective, it’s implausible to think that the rules of baseball would allow this. Or consider baseball’s overall balance. One needn’t have a perfect understanding of all of the components of the game to understand that allowing for nuclear explosions would be a completely game-breaking strategic option akin to allowing players of Monopoly to legally and literally flip the board whenever they were at risk of losing the game.

The explicit text of a game is useful when confronting circumstances in which there is only one plausible interpretation, but when it comes to the gray areas of the implicit – or the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions – we have to rely on more than this. We have to rely on ourselves and our own sense of a game’s design space.

So you can pitch the ball as hard as you like. Just be careful. If the speed of your ball approaches the speed of light, it’s game over.

Vlambeer Scale: Weighing Fish


Game feel is a general term for the techniques, tips, and tweaks developers use to enhance engagement with interactive systems. It includes everything from how mechanics are calibrated, to  controls, to sound effects, to visual flare. Game feel comprises the details that make players take notice and pay attention. It’s a bit of science, basic art technique, and a chunk of style. Who doesn’t want their games to be interesting to play, watch, and listen to? This is the goal that all designers strive for. And all designers do it a different way, which is exactly why talking about game feel is so difficult.

Now we can use the Vlambeer Scale of Quality as a tool to find some answers. Perhaps there are no two better games to draw a comparison between than Ridiculous Fishing and the game many consider to be a copycat, Ninja Fishing. Ridiculous Fishing was made by Vlambeer while Ninja Fishing was made by Gamenauts (co-developed by Menara Games). Both games have identical gameplay structures featuring dropping fishing lines into the water, avoiding fish on the way down, snagging fish on the way up, and destroying the haul as it’s flung into the air. Yes, the games look the same, but they do not feel the same. Using the Vlambeer Scale of Quality and a quick game design break down, let’s uncover the truth.

See for yourself in this video side-by-side. Which game looks more interesting to you? Which game do you think scored higher on the Vlambeer Scale of Quality? How big do you think the score difference is?

Here’s a breakdown of the Vlambeer Scale of Quality.

Ridiculous Fishing Ninja Fishing Ridiculous Fishing Ninja Fishing
Basic Sound and Animation Yes Yes Camera Position Yes Yes
Lower Enemy HP Yes Yes Screen Shake Yes No
More Enemies Yes Yes Sleep Yes No
Muzzle Flash Yes No More Bass Yes No
Faster Bullets Yes Yes Super Machine Gun Yes No
Less Accuracy Yes No Faster Enemies Yes Yes
Impact Effects Yes Yes More Enemies Yes Yes
Enemy Knockback Yes Yes Higher Rate of Fire Yes No
Permanence Yes Yes Meaning Yes Yes
More Permanece Yes Yes Camera Kick No No
Camera Lerp Yes No Total 20 12

Here are the questions we’re still thinking about:

  • Does the genre and visual style necessitate the use of specific game feel techniques? Does choosing pixel art push a developer towards also developing Vlabeerian game feel?
  • Is a touch screen interface its own kind of game feel where the sense of touch and audio feedback gives the necessary feedback?
  • Does game feel matter most to gameplay-oriented players because the techniques give feedback critical to making gameplay decisions? Is there a different set of game feel tips for interactive experiences that are less action-based and less skill-based?
  • Does Vlambeer’s game feel highlight the quality design of Ridiculous Fishing’s gameplay and other features? In other words, is game feel all style or does it hint at and highlight substance?
  • How do players and critics interpret good game feel? Is it mostly conveyed in the tone of their response? The look on their faces? Or is it reflected in how a game’s other features are described?

I don’t doubt that the game feel of Ridiculous Fishing makes a difference, but the question is to whom and how much of a difference does it make? For the record, Ridiculous Fishing looks like a much more enjoyable game to me.

To close, I’ll leave you with some quotes with tone words bolded.

“Playing Ninja Fishing and Ridiculous Fishing in quick succession illustrates what a difference it makes to care about your audience. The concept may be similar, but Ridiculous Fishing outclasses its would-be competitor in every way.” JC Fletch engaget

“As you master the precision tilt controls, you’ll go from snagging a fish accidentally almost right away, to weaving in and out of a living minefield. The dense but logical organization of fish makes the learning curve satisfying every step of the way, and embodies the ultimate iOS commandment: make the player feel like they’re doing a hundred epic things while only asking them to do one or two.” Eli Cymet Gamezebo

It is, in fact, a ridiculous way to fish. And, thanks to the tilt controls of the fishing line, you look ridiculous playing it! Regardless of its appropriateness as a bus pastime, the tilt controls are natural, responsive, and extremely quick – unlike, say, Ninja Fishing, which has a noticeable, irritating delay on every tilt. JC Fletcher engadget

It’s been a long and frustrating journey for Vlambeer to bring Ridiculous Fishing to the market, but for gamers it’s certainly been well worth the wait. John Bedford modojo

And the moral of the story? A great game design can always be ripped off, sadly, but talent will out in the end. You can’t cut-and-paste the artistry and attitude that Vlambeer has brought to this extravagant bit of disposable nonsense. You can’t copy a true original – even before it’s out. Oli Welsh Eurogamer

Reblog: Balancing Multiplayer Competitive Games by David Sirlin


Sirlin’s classic primer on game design through the lens of multiplayer games (with a heavy focus on fighting games).

Marcus Says:  A great introductory piece to the world of game balance and a great example of how to deliver a message successfully without having to tease out, elaborate, source, and prove every detail. Which is something we note here at Design Oriented. Transitioning from Richard’s blog, Critical-Gaming, which featured a technical writing style to DO has been a learning process. Often times we feel as if we must tell the complete story on any topic least we sell the “truth” short. But as this article shows, there is a time for detail and there is a time for clarity. Some definitions in the article might seem a little inadequate to sticklers and some of the “tools for a better game” might seem a little too self-help-bookish for the people who have or are currently in the thick of game development. But who cares? That isn’t the point of the article. It’s meant to get your feet wet. There are links on the side where Sirlin goes into greater detail if that’s what you’re looking for.

Yomi is a great term for describing the Rock Paper Scissors competitive process. It’s punchy and able to be yelled in an energetic cry. It passes the cool-enough-to-be-an-anime-technique test. I can imagine a plucky young lad who hits a rough spot in his game of Rock-Paper-Scissors cry “YOMI!!! LEVEL 2!!” to power up and conquer his foe.

Mike Says: Balancing competitive games is one of the hardest things to do in game design. Sirlin’s take on the matter is informed by his own extensive practice and relative success in the field–he’s beyond qualified. But Sirlin’s definitions in the first and second page are unsatisfying to me because they often are delivered from a hindsight-rich perspective. I’m left with questions like: How does the fact that balanced games last years and years through competitive play inform my ability to judge and adjust balance now? Having a goal is great, but goals that can’t be judged for another five years are far less useful. Maybe they’re what we need, though, to keep our focus right, though I wonder who would design a hardcore competitive game and NOT want it to last a long time.

His advice to gauge your balancing efforts by categorizing asymmetrical factions/characters into tiers based on their current relative power, and encouraging the production of tier lists among playtesters, is great concrete advice. I’d like to see a lot more iteration on techniques for introducing the kinds of self-balancing systems he mentions into more genres of games, or identifying such properties of systems and getting a better grasp on them.

Sirlin’s reliance on intuition and deep understanding of the cognitive factors involved makes him highly qualified and effective as a designer, but the substance of the advice ends up being “playtest a lot and be careful, also get good at some game at some point” which is advice I’ve read just about everywhere in game design. The road to being a great game designer is incredibly long and arduous–the road to consciously understanding game design seems to extend into places far outside of where our feet have carried us.

Richard Says: Those diagrams do a pretty great job of showing the different outcomes of a double blind game scenario. You probably have to have Street Fighter knowledge to understand though. It’s still one of the best documents out there that talks about balance. Years ago, this pdf sparked a lot of content on my old blog Critical-Gaming.

Reblog: Game Internals – Straightening Out Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid


Chad Birch breaks down the Sphere Grid, a foundational aspect of character customization and growth in Final Fantasy X. He found is that what appears to be a sprawling, diverse web of options is actually several linear paths with very limited opportunities to branch. The UI makes the simple system look complex influencing the player to feel like they are making more decisions than they actually are.

Mike Says: It’s a great exercise to separate the mechanics and systems of a game from its UI so we can get a real glimpse of what’s happening under the covers. Graphics and good interface design can obscure certain potentially negative properties of systems and lead the player into enjoying a game more than the bare mechanics would indicate they should. It’s great that Chad did the legwork to show just how much obfuscation was going on with the Sphere Grid. He shows how important UI design can be to affecting players regardless of the reality of the systems beneath that UI.

Richard Says: In my experience RPG tech trees and leveling systems like the Sphere Grid are not designed to be deep in themselves. They work best as a way of foreshadowing progress in clearly defined, ability based steps. I wish Chad presented an actual critique or argument about these systems. As it is, he doesn’t say much about game design or UI design. On a final note, I love the graph work Chad did. Nice and clean.

Exeggutor Space


This video showcases a unique strategy that revolves around the Pokemon Exeggutor and a rare ability called Harvest. This ability is only found on 5 grass type Pokemon and it lets them consume and regrow Berry items. In the video the Berry chosen is the Petaya Berry which boosts a Pokemon’s special attack when consumed. After seeing the strategy in action, I laughed. I gasped. I pondered why I haven’t thought of it before, and then I laughed again. But if you’re not familiar with Pokemon, you probably don’t really understand what’s going on. There might be this gap preventing you from relating to my excitement or the creativity here.

To illuminate the mystery of creativity and conveyance, I’ll explain why this Harvest + Exeggutor strategy is creative and why it’s so difficult to convey to those unfamiliar with Pokemon and its metagame. To do so I’ll touch on the game design topics of complexity, design space, and nuance.

Whether you’re familiar with Pokemon or not, you should know that the Pokemon handheld RPG video games are very complicated. When I say complicated, I mean there are a lot of rules. Even if we just focus on competitive battling (ignoring all single player challenges, secrets, etc.) we’re talking about hundreds of Pokemon, hundreds of attack moves, half a hundred held items, a handful of variable stats, and a few abilities per Pokemon. There’s a lot of individual rules to learn that come together to make billions of combinations.  

To help organize all this data, it’s helpful to think in terms of the design space, which is a way of organizing all the stuff in a game. In this case, we’re specifically looking at the design space of competitive Pokemon battling. By looking at the big picture and how all the battle rules combine, we see new patterns and groups. For example, fighting type Pokemon generally have high physical attack. Makes sense, right? Also, special (non-physical) fighting type attacks are rare and tend to be inaccurate or weak. That’s good to know. Knowing this pattern, if you see a new fighting type Pokemon you can make a few safe assumptions. Recognizing what is rare, uncommon, and common across the entire game helps players make more informed decisions against the staggering (billions) unknown possible combinations.

Even after seeing the big picture of the design space, there are still dozens of complexities to learn per category. Competitive battlers first learn the moves that seem most powerful or that are most frequently used in competition. As part of a communal learning environment, it’s hard to go against the trends of what’s popular/powerful as the strategies the community prioritizes will be the ones that are refined over time. After all, it’s these strategies that have the most thinkers and testers working on them. And whatever rises to the top of this priority list generally does so because it’s effective in an obvious way that most people can understand and use.

from bulbapedia Bulbagarden  from bulbapedia Bulbagarden

There are many reasons why I haven’t seen the Petaya Berry Exeggutor Harvest strategy before:

  • Exeggutor has some pretty big weaknesses to popular Pokemon and popular moves. Being a Grass-Psychic type, Exeggutor is 4x weak to bug attacks not to mention 2x weakness to Dark, Ghost, Fire, Ice, Poison, and Flying type attacks. U-turn is a popular Bug type move that’s on many non-bug type Pokemon. And most teams have some kind of Fire or Ice attack to deal with other annoyingly strong Pokemon like Ferrothorn and Landorus.
  • The more popular Grass type Pokemon are Venusaur, Breloom, and Ferrothorn.
  • The few Grass Pokemon with the Harvest ability often use a berry that recovers from a status effect or heals back HP instead of the Petaya Berry which raises special attack. Gaining HP is much more directly and obviously related to winning battles than raising special attack. Even with raised special attack, if Exeggutor switches out for another Pokemon, the boost will be nullified. Gained HP is never reset. Healed statuses are never reset.
  • One of the most popular user created formats for competitive battling features a “sleep clause” which limits the number of Pokemon a player can put to sleep on their opponent’s team. This clause works against Grass type Pokemon the most as they cannot use the move Sleep Powder as often as they would want. Sleep-inducing moves are rare within the entire design space of Pokemon.
  • The strategy requires the teamwork of two Pokemon: Emolga and Exeggutor. Exeggutor is too slow on its own unless it gets the speed boost from Emolga. The more Pokemon and steps to a strategy, the more potential weak links in the chain.


Each of the reasons detailed above is the result of thousands of players who chased power and thus defined the overused, popular options. As the community seeks and refines the powerful and popular strategies, all other strategic possibilities are implicitly categorized as less powerful, less obvious, and less effective. In other words, it’s the complexities that get ignored or overlooked that become nuanced.

Keep in mind this sorting is based on what seems powerful. All the overlooked, nuanced Pokemon, moves, and combinations may still be effective, but they’re simply off most players’ radar. The nuanced possibilities therefore surprise us so much more when they turn out to be effective. And for games like Pokemon, surprise and unpredictability are powerful. It takes someone with a vision, or inspiration, or enough luck when throwing random things together to show everyone just how powerful the overlooked and the unexpected can really be; and how much room for novelty and diversity there is within the design space of Pokemon battling.

When I see the Exeggutor strategy begin to fall into place, my entire understanding and history of Pokemon is brought into a sharp focus, reminding me that though I’ve competed at events, explored the worlds of each game, and even dreamed up my own Pokemon games, that there is still a grand possibility space to explore between all of the known areas I’ve charted. Seeing Exeggutor dominate takes me back to 1999 when I retooled my team in Pokemon Red by replacing the Venusaur I had since the start of the game  with an Exeggutor because I noticed Exeggutor’s superior special attack strength. I changed my whole team and strategy because I noticed one detail in a sea of options. Despite all the trends, I decided to go in a different direction, while I huddled over a Prima strategy guide searching for my own unique way to be the very best.


On “Perfect Imbalance”: Memorization and Balance


In their video “Perfect Imbalance” Extra Credits mentions that a problem with balanced games is that there’s often a lot of memorization involved in learning to play them well. They suggest that because Chess is perfectly balanced, players can memorize openings and gain significant advantage from knowing early-game optimal play. By briefly examining why and how players memorize strategies, we can see that balance has nothing to do with memorization being so effective.

“ [Chess is a great game] but it does suffer from the standard problems that perfectly balanced games build up, namely that a collection of fixed strategies end up getting established over time. If you’ve only played casual games of chess at home it’s great. There’s thousands of interesting strategies to discover and try out, and your tactics will evolve over the course of a match. But if you’ve gone a step further and really look at taking your game to the next level you’ll find that there’s a lot of a rote work to do. There are a great number of established strategies and play sequences that you have to memorize before you get to a high enough level of play that you’re really experimenting with anything new again or are once again able to start crafting your own strategies. The set of canonical strategies has built up to such a point that one can spend years if not decades of one’s life studying chess without really getting to create new plays or develop your own stratagems.”

What properties of Chess allow memorizing strategies to be so effective?

In order to use plans that you memorize, you need to recognize that you are in a familiar position. No position is more familiar to a Chess player than the starting board position, since it’s the same every game. It’s an easy and useful starting place for elaborate acts of memorization and recall.

Since you know what the board’s going to look like, you can start thinking about what you’re going to do and what your opponent is going to do in reaction based on this stable foundation. As the game progresses, you’ll be able to know the positions of all the pieces at all times, since Chess is a game of perfect information. All moves in Chess are perfectly reliable, so the only obstacle in the way of predicting a whole game’s moves is your ability to analyse the position and predict play accurately. What makes Chess an interesting game is that its broad possibility space means that it takes practice and a high level of mental skill to hold all of the possible viable moves in your head and think through the different possible outcomes for even the next 5 to 10 moves.

Because of all this reliability and the repetition involved in the opening position, you’ll start memorizing brief runs of play in the early-game that you’ve noticed lead to better positions more often than not. Over hundreds of games you’ll pick out more of these patterns at different common board positions throughout the game and commit them to memory. Broadly, this is not atypical of the learning process required to gain skill in all turn-based strategy games. No matter what game you’re playing, you need to at least memorize enough game rules to be able to imagine what the next few turns might look like in order to determine what you should do this turn. This process of picturing the next few turns and developing short-term strategies gets more efficient and effective with practice, in part because you’re memorizing snippets of strategy and patterns of play that lead to certain outcomes, then reusing them.

The rules of Chess don’t place any obstacles between calculation and memorization. Any time you calculate the right move for a board position, you might as well memorize it and reuse it next time, since there’s no way it could turn out differently–unless your opinion on the right move is actually incorrect! Considering how many people play Chess around the world, and the extensive database of past games logged and commented on by experts, it’s more likely than ever that you’ll find out you’re incorrect without even having to play your way into that realization.

That huge community, and the metagame it creates, makes a sizable contribution to biasing players towards memorization as a way of improving their skill. There are thousands upon thousands of publicly available recorded chess games to review. There are thousands of books about Chess strategy, many of which contain lists of common openings and the patterns of play that seem most effective against them. The depth of available material gives you an almost unlimited number of master-endorsed strategies to memorize if you’d like. This weight of accumulated knowledge can feel oppressive to a new player who wants to get good at game–this is exactly what Extra Credits is talking about when they say that Chess is stale due to memorization.

Notice that I’ve said nothing of balance so far, I’ve only talked about the properties of the system. Balance does nothing to increase the effectiveness of players memorizing strategies as a way to improve their performance. Even if Chess were a battle between armies with asymmetric capabilities, if those sides were used in every Chess match and perfect information were still available, the game would be just as prone to memorization, since asymmetry alone does nothing to change the conditions required to make and re-use extensive plans. If Chess were incredibly unbalanced (say white had all pieces replaced by queens and black had a normal set-up), memorization would be just as prevalent. Memorization would likely be *more effective* in unbalanced chess, because the imbalance would lead to the overpowered player often winning in fewer moves, thus requiring less memorization on average to produce winning results.

In summary, memorization is prevalent in Chess because

  • perfect information is available about the game state, so the players know enough to plan perfectly if they are mentally capable;
  • all moves are perfectly reliable, so that perfect plan will not have to be altered during the course of play;
  • and the game starts from the same state every time, so the perfect plan has a perfectly-reliable starting point.

Vlambeer Scale of Quality


At the 2013 INDIGO Classes, Jan Willen Nijman detailed Vlambeer’s tricks for creating better game feel, which is essentially how the play experience and game information hits the player, which is the result of precise details and minor tweaks. In the Talk, Jan took a game with bad game feel and applied each of his 31 tricks step-by-step until the game had what he considered to be good game feel. Some of the tricks are simply visual changes while others address actual gameplay mechanics. The 31 tips are general, genre specific, and the result of a refined personal style from this odd and idiosyncratic indie developer.

Below I have organized the tricks to create The Vlambeer Scale of Game Feel.  Jan’s category names are on the left, and I’ve added my notes on the right. Simply add these simple tricks and you’re game will have great game feel too… maybe. In the meantime, keep a look about for The Vlambeer Scale of Game Feel seal. When the seal is applied to a game, the score is calculated based on the number of tricks it implements. The higher the rating the more Vlambeer-ian (Vlambiric, Vlambeeo?) the games feel.


  1. Basic Sound and Animation – Is it entertaining?
  2. Lower Enemy HP – Is 3 shots the magic number?
  3. Higher Rate of Fire – Increase frequency of core player actions.
  4. More Enemies – Parade (large groups) of enemies
  5. Bigger Bullets – Make bullets Mega Man “lemon” big.
  6. Muzzle Flash – Make the first frame of bullet sprites a white circle.
  7. Faster Bullets – Make Bullets 5 times faster than the player. Or make bullets move half the length of the screen in half a second.
  8. Less Accuracy – Random bullet spread
  9. Impact Effects – Animated “pop” when a bullet hits a wall or an enemy.
  10. Hit Animation – Enemy flashes white when hit
  11. Enemy Knockback – Enemy gets pushed back when shot
  12. Permanence – Leave dead bodies on the ground. Have destructible environment.
  13. Camera Lerp – Camera slightly lags behind the player movement
  14. Camera Position – Position camera to highlight the focus of the game.
  15. Screen Shake – Small shake of the screen when the gun fires
  16. Player Knockback – Player is pushed backwards when firing forwards.
  17. Sleep – A slight pause to the game state when hits connect with targets. (hit pause)
  18. Gun Delay – Gun animates independently from player sprite/model.
  19. Gun Kickback – Animation flourish.
  20. Strafing – Rules that tie moving and shooting together (like stop-and-pop gameplay)
  21. More Permanence – Leave bullet casings on the floor (find at least 3 examples)
  22. More Bass – Gives the gun more kick. (audio design)
  23. Super Machinegun – Have a machinegun (or a supercharged version of core mechanic)
  24. Random Explosions – 33% chance that enemies explode on death hurting other enemies.
  25. Faster Enemies – Compensate for random explosions to increase difficulty.
  26. More Enemies – Compensate for increased fire power.
  27. Higher Rate of Fire – Compensate for increased enemies.
  28. Camera Kick – In addition to the shake, jerk the camera moves in the opposite direction of the fire.
  29. Bigger Explosions – Because bigger is better
  30. Even More Permanence – Smoke from the explosion lingers
  31. Meaning – Have a purpose for the action