Conveying to player what enemy skills do

jonthefox

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There are 2 central design questions here:
1) How much does it matter that the game do this?
2) What's the best way to make that happen?

Here's what I mean: if an enemy uses "flurry" - which perhaps gives it a damage buff and a defense debuff, or a damage and speed buff, or any kind of combo of things - the player doesn't know what this does though. If you use a pop-up effect of like "+atk +agi" you get some idea, but you are still lacking a lot of info... a +20% buff is like, ok, maybe that'll change my decision in some situations, but a +100% buff will DEFINITELY make you want to guard, or heal, or take some kind of action that you wouldn't have otherwise.

Another example: a boss uses something like, "command minions" - let's say this gives all his minions +50% atk for the next turn. Again, you're not really sure what this skill does.

So the first question is - maybe it's ok to just let the player figure this out through playing the game? That seems wrong to me, as it can be frustrating to not understand what's happening in combat. So the second question then is - how do you make it clear to the player what the enemy's skills are doing exactly?
 

Cyberhawk

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To be honest sometimes the BEST way to learn is the hard way.

Though "Command Minions" as a skill name is too broad to do make any assumptions on what it does. It's ambiguous, but, after thinking about it a bit more: With certain battle systems that boss can move the turn order and have all minions use one move before anyone else can act.
Something like Rally or Pep Minions is easier to infer the what the skill does all together.
It's how you design it at this point. Names for skills are important.

A skill called Pharaoh's Decree. That can mean a number of things: Offense results: Inflicting dmg, Debuffs, statuses, etc. or Defensive results: applying buffs, healing, revivals or positive statuses. Or, if you're feeling fancy: one of the two can occur at random. All the name here implies that it does something.

If you feel that boss might frustrate players, give them a way to save the game near that boss encounter. That way they don't have to slog through the whole dungeon again.
Another fix is to send the party back to the start fully restored instead of a game over. It gives them more time to prep and or gain a level or two before the rematch. Maybe give it some goofy dialogue about how the party was defeated last time.

There was this one time in a normal encounter I was in in FF6.
I had the Sword that drained MP and had a chance of casting Death on hit.
An enemy uses a skill that hits everyone, Everyone but Celes falls. But this skill has a chance to inflict Confusion. My last character is confused and on her turn.
She hits herself in confusion and the instant death procs on her. GG.
Going back to the beginning of the dungeon sucked. You might think I was mad at my own misfortune.
But that was prolly the corniest game over I ever had in a game.
A moment like that happening is 50/50 and it's goofy to me at least.
 

lolshtar

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very easy, use space on the battle screen that is used just for that. whenever the enemy got a special state the icon will show and tell the player exactly what it does when hovered. check my game for clear examples.
 

MarxMayhem

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So the second question then is - how do you make it clear to the player what the enemy's skills are doing exactly?
I feel like this is a trap question in the context of JRPGs. There is no "one true" method to do what you want.

I will agree with Cyberhawk in that the best way to learn is the hard way, because... unless you have serious considerations, that's the ONLY way to learn what the enemy does. You have to eat it to know it. If you don't want this experience to be bad, you must be mindful of a few things:
  1. Abilities in question cannot outright kill the party. Let them get hit by whatever you want to slap on enemies, but unless they enter a battle underprepared, the use of such an ability should be survivable.
  2. Do not give abilities that the party cannot reasonably counteract. This is coming into minster design a bit, but you need to have an expectation of where a player might be after a certain progress in the game, and give enemies skills that demands full utilization of their abilities AT MOST. Do not introduce an enemy with an insta-death skill at a point where revival effects are a luxury. Do not introduce an enemy that inflicts reduced healing debuffs when the player's healing options are basic.
If those are still too tough for your taste, then let's talk about the considerations I mentioned:
  1. Give allies and enemies a shared skill pool. This sets the expectation that what players can do, enemies can do too. If players can see what they can do and see enemies do it, then they can use their own skill library as a means of what the enemy could do and prepare for it.
  2. Assign enemy roles. Similar to how a party has roles in its members, enemies should too. When there are expected roles among enemies, figuring those out will become expected knowledge for players- they would expect tanks to have tank skills, DPS to have DPS skills, etc.
 

Zero_G

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Nice recommendations from MarxMayhem.

I could add, let's say the player sees a normal enemy use a skill that does a buff of one level of attack during a normal fight. That buff could be marked with a yellow star icon. Next during the boss fight you could use a similar skill, but with a violet star icon. The player will hopefully notice that the skill is similar, but as a boss does it, it should be more powerful.
 

Popoto_milk

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Letting your players experience it for themselves is probably inevitable to a degree.
That said, special prompts and animations can convey that information.
I've also seen games use status effects.
 
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sunnyFVA

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Echoing the good suggestions above. If I had to give a pared-down summary, it would be "design the enemy mechanics such that they are not obnoxious to figure out as they happen". There are a few ways to get there as others have described in more detail.

My specific advice is twofold: understand your design goals and prioritize consistency.

You can't confidently make purposeful design choices until you know what the game is supposed to be. The sort of advice that would apply to a game looking to be a retro love letter to the classics might not make much sense in the context of a game featuring fewer, more tactical combats and a wide range of tools. The retro-style game will probably benefit most from everything proceeding smoothly to minimize feelings of slog or time wasting. That would motivate designing simpler interactions to warrant less messaging. The dev of the tactical game should be concerned with making sure everything makes sense so the player can make informed choices as soon as possible, and so they are more likely to sacrifice some flow in exchange for clarity with things like popups, tooltips, and longer action description text.

Designing with your goals in mind can also be extended to considering the context of your other systems and mechanics. If wiping in combat is inconsequential and doesn't represent a loss of much time, it's conceivable that an enemy mechanic suddenly killing the party might be an element that can be fit sensibly. If that sudden wipe will send you back to your last save point 45 minutes ago at the entrance of the dungeon... that would not be as sensible.

While I'd defend the need to understand your own goals as being pretty much fundamental and inescapable, I admittedly bring up consistency as something I value personally. It's at least very convenient for both the dev and the player. My game does not feature states that alter a character's primary statistics (Attack, etc.) through means other than explicit stat buffs and debuffs. Each stage of buff will always represent a 25% change and can universally stack up to 6 stages. This means that if an enemy gains a state called "Enraged", the player will know it did not gain Attack or Agility because it did not gain visible buffs to those stats.

Related to consistency is the previously mentioned use of a shared (or mostly shared) pool of effects between enemies and the party. Though it's usually seen in games that feature a Final Fantasy or SMT-style "naming convention"-type normalized skill system, this can be done even if your game does not. Pokemon is a good example of a universal skill pool where the themes of an individual move tend to be abstract or general enough to apply to a variety of potential users without sacrificing too much flavor. I often look to the move Poison Jab for an example of this. Both a spiky urchin and a martial artist might "jab" a foe.
 

Julijewels

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Personally I would flavor an earlier encounter in the dungeon with similar but weaker effects so that when a player sees it happening in the boss battle they are more familiar with the base mechanics of it since they had encountered something similar leading up to it.

This would probably work better in areas where the enemies were themed, so that they could all potentially draw from the same types of skills, and just scale accordingly.

Also as stated above, if you combine the comment that mentions the naming of abilities and the idea to encounter it earlier, you could have something like Pep Minions and Greater Pep Minions.
 
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Here's another (pretty extreme) example: Just straight-up tell the player what the moves do ahead of time. World of Warcraft has an in-game journal where you can look up what every boss' abilities are before you fight them. Now, that only makes sense in the context of a game where the whole point is figuring out how to beat complicated boss fights that demand specific responses of course, but you could try a less extreme version of this.

Maybe an NPC mentions that the upcoming boss has a big special attack and warns you what it does ahead of time. Or, maybe the attack triggers an event that brings up some dialogue informing the player of what just happened. "The Dire Scorpion's Poison will kill its victim in 3 turns unless cured!", "Go my minions, strike them twice as hard as normal or you're fired!", etc etc.
 

Tai_MT

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There are 2 central design questions here:
1) How much does it matter that the game do this?
2) What's the best way to make that happen?

Here's what I mean: if an enemy uses "flurry" - which perhaps gives it a damage buff and a defense debuff, or a damage and speed buff, or any kind of combo of things - the player doesn't know what this does though. If you use a pop-up effect of like "+atk +agi" you get some idea, but you are still lacking a lot of info... a +20% buff is like, ok, maybe that'll change my decision in some situations, but a +100% buff will DEFINITELY make you want to guard, or heal, or take some kind of action that you wouldn't have otherwise.

From my perspective as a game player:

I've never needed a game to tell me, flat out, exactly what the buff does or by how much. Short of the game being competitive in some way. Or, there are two similar skills that do the same thing and I need to know what the difference is.

If the game simply puts an icon on an enemy that denotes something beneficial to them, then that's usually enough.

However, here's where this will get muddy.

I'm so used to playing RPG's where the "status effect" is basically meaningless, that I ignore it unless it is particularly detrimental. A 25 or even 50% increase in attack power from a boss is usually "minimal" at best. Heck, in a good chunk of RPG's, a 100% boost in attack power is basically meaningless to me, as a player (looking at you Mega Evolutions in Pokemon and Gigantamax! Where the only place these matter is competitively since these boosts are basically meaningless when coming from the AI!).

Let me put this in perspective. I play Final Fantasy XIV. MMO game. Lots of status effects in it. All through the game. You got some "consistent" ones, but, there's a lot of just... not consistent ones. In most fights, I don't care what buffs the enemy has on them. They're just not all that "game changing". Doesn't change the gameplay from "tank and spank without thinking". It just changes it to, "might take a little longer" or "healer might have to heal 2 or 3 more times than normal in a fight".

But, I was running some world events yesterday to grind for a particular item (game calls them FATEs, you walk into the circle, click the "level sync" button, and then do the event and get rewards for it). I ran across an event I hadn't ever done before. Some boss monster thing in a low level area. Well, my stats are basically off the charts anyway, so a sync of my level doesn't mean much.

Partway through the fight, the boss monster did some self buff thing. It lasts 30 minutes... the FATE only lasts 15. Normally, I don't care what the buff was. Except... I had to. It effectively cut my damage down to 1/4 of what I'd normally do. I went from hitting 400's to 100's. On a boss with a time limit.

I understood IMMEDIATELY what this buff did by just pure observance of it in action. It also MATTERED what the buff did because of the timer.

So, from my perspective as a player, I didn't need a tooltip or anything. I didn't need the game to tell me in words what the buff did. I didn't even need it to tell me the implications. I understood immediately. I had less than 15 minutes to kill this boss, and they just cut my attack power by 1/4.

So, unless your buffs or debuffs are going to be doing something I can't easily understand within moments, I don't need an explanation. This works the same with skills in games. If I get hit once with it and can immediately see its effects, I understand the implications immediately. This boss hit me with an attack, it ate half of my HP, so now I know to defend against it next turn. Or interrupt it. Or heal after it. Whatever my options are.

Another example: a boss uses something like, "command minions" - let's say this gives all his minions +50% atk for the next turn. Again, you're not really sure what this skill does.

I'd just have it put a little "attack up" icon on them so the player knows. Then the esoteric nature of the attack is communicated better.

But, this will require you have some consistency in what the icons look like and communicate. If the player knows that icon is always a buff to attack, then when they see it, they will react accordingly (hopefully... as long as the buff actually matters... because if it doesn't... the communicating what it does is utterly pointless).

So the first question is - maybe it's ok to just let the player figure this out through playing the game? That seems wrong to me, as it can be frustrating to not understand what's happening in combat. So the second question then is - how do you make it clear to the player what the enemy's skills are doing exactly?

To answer the first question:

I prefer if the game lets me figure things out on my own most of the time. Unless something can't be easily inferred, I don't really need to be babysat. In the same way I rant about tutorials, I will rant here about this. I do not need you to tell me that left joystick moves me and right joystick looks around. This is the common control scheme across nearly every game on the market right now. The first thing I do with any new game is press every button to see what it does in the game. So, I don't need you to tell me "press trigger to fire!" and "press A to jump!".

Likewise, I don't need the game devs telling me, "The enemy has this buff now, that's bad!". Especially when it could be a lie. Maybe you THINK IT SHOULD BE bad... but maybe I'm so far over leveled that it isn't bad. Maybe I don't care and never will, because the buff or skill doesn't matter to me. I can assess how good or bad a buff or skill is on my own, and if we're honest, I won't know if it's good or bad or irrelevant until I'm hit with it.

My example of that is just always going to be Final Fantasy 13 where they made a huge deal about the "Break Gauge" and how you had to do all this tedious crap to interact with it and such.

Meanwhile, before even the midpoint of the game I'd found a way around ever engaging with the mechanic and was killing enemies FASTER without worrying about it. So... the 30 tutorials or whatever that existed about it were largely a waste of time.

So, what do I need you to explain to me as a player? The stuff that isn't easy to intuit. I'm not going to figure out that holding left bumper and hitting A at the same time does a new skill. Not unless there's some context clues like holding the bumper opens a new menu. If I don't know that I have to throw 3 potions at the enemy, then have half my party use Defend while one uses Poison and the other buffs them, in order to win... then you should probably tell me that.

Now, please keep in mind that I'm probably a "veteran" game player. My advice on the subject of tutorials is not helpful if you have players who have never touched a video game before. Especially those unable or unwilling to experiment and try things and have the brainpower to work things out for themselves. My suggestion will actively hurt those players and their experiences. But, this is just how I feel about tutorials and overly explaining everything to me as a player. I need an explanation when it's not easy to figure out or intuit. That's all.

As for the second question:

Consistency. I do this in my own games.

There's Poison Level 1 through 4. The icons are different for each. It's a Poison Cloud around a person in all of them, but the last one has the cloud change color. Oh, and there are a number of stars to indicate "severity" of the state. Each state works like this. The enemies apply the consistent states. The "inconsistent" states are all ones the player inflicts... and they're explained by the attack itself. Or, if not explained, easily inferred.

Enemy quirks are explained by NPC's most of the time. At least, if they're not easily inferred. The "Revenge" mechanics are explained by the NPC's pretty early on. The player has a chance to see them in action. Likewise, these moves aren't designed to "kill", but merely to "hinder". So, they are consistent in their implementation.

Skills that enemies use will be told to you by NPC's in the area, most of the time. That way, when the player sees it, they can recall the information they got, and apply the correct strategy to dealing with it.

It's just about having all the mechanics stay consistent, so that everything is communicated effectively. It is also about letting the player know ahead of time, that maybe there's a new mechanic at play or a twist on an old one.
 

freakytapir

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I think you're asking for this plugin:

This.

It allows for so much fun things, like having the enemies 'telegraph' attacks by having them gain a certain status effect the turn before, like 'Preparing to cast Ultima'. Give the status effect a number of turns, and you have a countdown timer.
Maybe use a Gab window plugin to display the number of turns at the start of each of the boss's turns.
 

Frostorm

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Here is a free alternative:
 

NamEtag

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Existing techniques for conveying what enemy skills do are enough.

We need more/new techniques for conveying which skill the enemy will use, though.
 

overtheorized

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The simple answer is that there is no simple answer, unfortunately. There's levels to this, it's not as easy as a question of "do I or don't I". Too much tutorializing and your players will feel insulted and babied, too little and they'll feel out of the loop and neglected.

As for the correct amount, that's one thing QA is great for figuring out. Ideally you hire some playtesters; barring that, bug some friends to try your game out. Ask if there were any points at which they went "this didn't need to be explained to me", or conversely "I wish this had been more clear".

This thread has a lot of good ideas for how to do this. I agree that oftentimes the best way for players to learn is the hard way. It makes the game more immersive and involves the player more in it. This way knowledge must come from them, not be given to them. There's value in a mystery. Which is more compelling: a survival game which presents you with a wilderness full of strange flora, fauna, resources, and environments that you will be made to learn about and contend with as you survive, or a survival game with that same wilderness but the player starts out with a survivalist's handbook which explains away all the mystery by informing you of everything from the start? I speak generally because this principle applies to all sorts of gameplay, not just enemy skills. For what my opinion is worth, I find many RPG Maker games tend to err too heavily on the side of overexplanation; devs are a bit too eager to make sure the player doesn't miss anything.

I disagree with Marx's stipulation that this discovery must not involve killing the player. Sure, it probably shouldn't, but special enemy skills are one piece of an interactive system of gameplay comprised of many parts which may prove just as dangerous to a player as a special skill. So the question becomes, to what degree is the player owed precognition of this system? New, unfamiliar traps might kill a player. New, unfamiliar status effects might kill a player. New, unfamiliar enemies might kill a player. It's important to remember that death is another function in this system just like in all the rest; your goal when designing the difficulty of your game should probably not be ensuring players die the least amount possible. Sure, players hate death and regard it as bad, but this is one case where they don't know what's good for them. The threat of a game over is a part of game difficulty and its inclusion is thus a crucial part of game design; if this wasn't the case, you'd think game developers would have noticed and removed that part by now.

There are quite a few ways to preserve a sense of mystery and discovery in a way that will not render your game a confusing mess of invisible variables to mentally keep track of. For a skill that massively boosts an enemy's attack or defense, that sort of thing probably won't be necessary. Simply give the skill a name that isn't generic enough that players are likely to forget it, and leave them to notice that the dark elf shaman is now taking a lot less damage and/or dealing a lot more after using it. For something like your "Command Minions", however, consistent reliable signaling that must itself be decoded is a good way to go. Any player will piece together something is going on when a skill with that name causes four orange ring animations to swirl around the goblin ringleader's grunt soldiers. If a clever player has noticed, for example, that orange animations boost the element of fire and ring animations denote increased attack, they will realize that all the enemies have just had their fire attacks boosted in strength. Elden Ring does this type of signaling incredibly often and incredibly well; many players will complete the entire game without noticing some of its indicators. If you're looking for a crash course in how to do it right, study FromSoft.

There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on the type of game you're making, the genre, the intended audience, and lots more, including your own opinion! Many people who are known for making unique games aren't trying to find the "right" way to do things to appeal the best; they're making games that work the way they want games to work. I'm a fan of Oleander Garden, whose works intentionally hearken back to 90s design in terms of graphics, level structure, and user-hostile design that doesn't give itself away to players easily. They do this because that's the type of game they enjoy most. Many find their games too difficult to decipher. Many others find their games a challenging mystery. You can't please everyone, and you shouldn't try to. It's also important to note that even my opinions are just my opinions, and that every rule has an exception, especially within such an incredibly varied field as game design. For example, maybe someone would rather that survival game start out with a handbook as they find the mystery tedious and boring and would rather the challenge come from straight interaction with the game's systems. What I see as too handholdy in an RPG Maker game might be the perfect amount of tutorializing for a younger player, who is often the target audience for those. And there are lots of games which absolutely already have done away with dying and game overs.
 

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