What's the Point of All Those Encounters?

Wavelength

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Whether you do it with swords, fire, or laser beams, cutting your way through hundreds of slimes, demons, and nameless enemy soliders in isolated encounters is pretty much a staple element of the JRPG genre.  Combined with exploration, party management, and sometimes puzzle-solving, these Random (or Visual or Evented) Encounters make up the bulk of the gameplay hours for the player.

In the past (when Encounters could be a bigger part of the experience than the other gameplay elements or even the story), these encounters often represented a bigger threat to the player (either as immediate kill threat or as part long-term attrition), but the modern JRPG usually makes the average non-boss encounter breezy and easy.  The player usually won't expect to take heavy losses of any sort in the battle, and if they do, there's usually a good way to heal up and keep on moving.

So without a lot of need for "popcorn battles" in a strict game sense, and several other ways available to engage the player that were less present in JRPGs' early years, it's little surprise that reviewers and gamers alike have never been found complaining about "The encounters aren't frequent enough".  And yet, these Encounters still practically define the JRPG genre, they're still half of the RPG Maker package, and we still spend tons of time as designers in this very subforum trying to figure out how to make these hundreds of battles "not suck" for the player.

Why?

  • Do you design them to be fun in and of themselves (more fun than the rest of the experience)?
  • Do you design them as a "reward" of some sort to the player, or possibly as a way to offer a "power trip" to the player?
  • Do you put them there simply to slow down the player's pace through your game?
  • Do they contribute to the larger plot or exploration of your game in some way?
  • Do you intend them to provide practice and learning for the player so they can take on more strategic, exciting, difficult boss battles?
  • Do they combine with the boss battles to offer difficulty and strategy?
  • Do you have them in there for a different reason entirely?
I'd love this to be a completely open (feel free to go off on tangents), high-level philosophical discussion about our genre: what are the primary purposes of having these hundreds upon hundreds of Encounters standing in the way during the player's journey?  What do they do to engage the player or enhance her experience with your game?  Would your game feel like it was lacking without them?  Why?
 

Engr. Adiktuzmiko

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I really like encounters in Persona, unless you're severely overleveled, each encounter can be a huge threat...


In designing, I want them to be related to the story and so on... because sometimes there are enemies that just don't make sense.


In my current game, they are a way to prepare you up for the bosses in a sense that it's the way to gain exp and level up and gain points to use on your skills and also the way to level up your Arts...
 

TherainED

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Well, I didn't thought about them as deeply as you did, TBH, but that doesn't mean that I just placed mine there because Frick yes.

The main focus when I do random encounters is to teach the player the routines that the boss follow and how it acts. For example, in the first area, with a boss that has a high phisical defense, magic attack and low magic defense, I throw enemies with similar stats and, to make the battles a bit more complicated, I pair most of the enemies with another one that has high magic resistance and attack. The second area, which has a double bossfight, has a lot of enemies that can only be found in pairs, complementing each other. One deals high amounts of damage and the other keeps the players at bay, indicating the player that the boss is going to be acting in a similar way.

On the other side, I try to make every enemy unique. As if each of them were actual creatures that reside in the world and each of them has certain ways of acting. Mostly to set every enemy to a base standard and then play with how the player understands that standard.
 

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To make regular encounters not suck, there needs to be a way for a player to have fun during encounters. Encounters should not be linear experiences, such as simply auto-attack to win. This is also a reason why I'm not a fan of rock-paper-scissors kind of systems, where hitting an enemy with an element they're weak to is always the right option, because there is no thought involved and there is only one way to get the encounter over with quickly. But it's very much a combination of giving the player a set of skills that do different things they can play with, as well as having certain mechanics during encounters to keep players on their toes to keep them from being too straight-forward (and maybe teach them something about an upcoming boss battle).
 

Do you design them to be fun in and of themselves (more fun than the rest of the experience)?
Combat is a big aspect in my game, so the battles are designed to be fun, and not just auto-attack to win.

Do you design them as a "reward" of some sort to the player, or possibly as a way to offer a "power trip" to the player?
They're more designed as a way for the player to get familiar with the combat system. New skills they learn they can try out relatively safely on regular encounters. But there are also some encounters meant to "power trip" the player, because it's awesome to feel powerful.

Do you put them there simply to slow down the player's pace through your game?
All of the encounters are touch-based, so a lot of them can be avoided. They should be used as a learning experience, and also to level up your party enough for the boss fight at the end, but if a player wants to skip that, then they can, but they might run into troubles later on. Once a player feels confident and strong enough they can skip the encounters in area to get to the boss, they usually should be fine doing that, so in a way, the player can set their own pace.

Do they contribute to the larger plot or exploration of your game in some way?
The idea behind regular encounters (why the wild animals are attacking the party) is actually explained, and some of the monsters have bits of background on how or why they can be found in certain areas.

Do you intend them to provide practice and learning for the player so they can take on more strategic, exciting, difficult boss battles?
That's what they're meant to be. Regular encounters generally offer simplistic mechanics that teach you how to deal with certain situations, or let you try out strategies without heavily penalising the player when playing badly.
 
Do they combine with the boss battles to offer difficulty and strategy?
The first boss in my game does, the other two bosses I have so far, are more unique compared to the regular encounters found in their area.

Do you have them in there for a different reason entirely?
There is also a bestiary in my game, where you can see what you have already encountered per area, so it can be used as a sort of PokéDex, which is hopefully fun for the completionist kind of player who wants to have their lists completed. All of the monster sprites are unique, in a way that they can't be found in any other game, so that should hopefully make it more exciting to explore the encounters.
 
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13thSecret

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I've been thinking about this a lot.

I've seen games where the random encounter (REs) were meant to clobber the player as he made his way through the dungeon and can probably kill off the entire party in 2-3 turns if the player wasn't careful. I think that became a game of item management and the battles were actually infrequent to compensate. But how about it? A game through uncharted territories where the focus is about difficult decisions on provisions to get through the brutal wilderness, sprinkling a few REs on the way. Speaking of, that reminds me of Nethack and its random encounters. REs and item management are fun stuff there.

Or how about a game where the focus is on fewer pointless REs and more complex boss fights, a very high Boss-to-RE ratio? In the context of a decent story, that instantly makes each battle more meaningful. The game would then feel more like a lineup of specific battles, although I'm sure it's possible to introduce variations. Of course, that gives the game a nice haircut in terms of play-hours, but now they're all at least good play-hours. Plus, less is more, right? How many people do we see watch their favorite show and go "Man, I wish this had more filler"?

Whatever happens, the player would have to ramp up efforts elsewhere to compensate for the illusion of depth made by REs.
 

Kalin

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Why?
  • Do you design them to be fun in and of themselves (more fun than the rest of the experience)?
  • Do you design them as a "reward" of some sort to the player, or possibly as a way to offer a "power trip" to the player?
  • Do you put them there simply to slow down the player's pace through your game?
  • Do they contribute to the larger plot or exploration of your game in some way?
  • Do you intend them to provide practice and learning for the player so they can take on more strategic, exciting, difficult boss battles?
  • Do they combine with the boss battles to offer difficulty and strategy?
  • Do you have them in there for a different reason entirely?
Note: I haven't even really started making any games yet, so these are just my opinions as a player.

1. Yes. Combat mechanics are something I find very interesting in RPGs, so I want to see a lot of it.

2. Yes. One reason I play RPGs is for the escapism of solving all the world's problems by slaughtering hordes of monsters.

3&4. Not so much "slow down" as "create tension while exploring". Exploration is another thing that's important to me.

5. Of course, since something needs to teach to player how to beat the boss.

6. No. I hate having to fight a bunch of minor battles and then fight a boss without any option to save first.

7. Loot! Also, leveling up your chars' stats (and skills). I play games (not just RPGs) for the sense of accomplishment, so I can say I killed the dark lord and collected every item and learned/maxed every skill.
 

Aoi Ninami

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In the game I'm building, random encounters give the story a sense of overarching menace. Demons have begun to invade the human world, and you can wander around and fight them one by one as much as you like, but they will just keep on coming: the only way to really deal with the threat is to go in and investigate its source.

From the gameplay point of view: in addition to what's already been said, random encounters (if done well) add to the strategic element and reward the player for making good choices. Choosing the right equipment and setup matters a lot more when there's a whole dungeon to get through in addition to the boss; and so when you go out of your way or solve a puzzle to get that extra-special equipment, you feel rewarded because you can see it making a difference.
 

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To answer this, I'm going to look at a few jRPGs that I enjoy the random encounters of, and explain why I like them so much.

In Lost Odyssey, the encounters are often resource-taxing after a while. When exploring a new dungeon or wilderness area, I find the enemies there to be tougher and a larger drain on my resources. This sense of danger is a bit fun, since (as the OP pointed out) many jRPGs are so easy. So the game becomes, "I need to kill these enemies as fast as I can, as efficiently as I can, so that I don't have to buy a bunch of potions." And to do that, I need to predict my characters' turn order (so that I can use my spells the most efficient way possible, and not waste MP), analyze the enemy to find (or guess at) their weakness, and then dismantle them piece by piece. By the time you figure out one encounter, there appears another that requires some other kind of nuance to defeat efficiently. And the power level of your characters is not over-the-top -- you're pretty average compared to many of your enemies, you're just more versatile than them. It keeps you on your toes.

In Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy VII, the fun comes from expressing myself through battle mechanics. I know that probably sounds odd, but both games offer a high degree of customization. I've found myself giving my generic troops in Tactics personalities, based on what equipment and abilities I give them, even. So it's fun to build them, then take them into battle to see how they do. The same thing in Final Fantasy VII -- the materia system was so, so good. I loved being able to slot blue materia (which modifies whatever spell or ability it's attached to) with other bits and seeing what happened. And to be able to make characters as you wanted -- I could make Tifa a thief, or a powerhouse, or a mage, and the game would support that decision. So through being able to express myself through customization of characters, the battles themselves become a fun canvas of sorts.

Lastly, Grandia II is one of my favorite RPGs of all time, and that's mostly because its battle system is so amazing. It's way too easy of a game -- you almost have to try to die -- but it's just so fun that I don't even care. In fact, I play a game within the game -- you get a special victory quote and victory music if you win the encounter without sustaining damage. So the whole game becomes, "Can I get a perfect victory this encounter?" You start analyzing enemies' moves to see if they'll hurt you, and if they don't, you let them be and attempt to defeat or cancel their allies' attacks instead. Heck, you can even get perfect victories on bosses, which is very cool to do. It takes a lot of managing your turn order and watching what attacks you use when, but it's totally possible and really rewarding. I've even managed to somehow get perfect victories on surprise encounters, where the enemies went before me. THAT felt good.

I still wouldn't mind if it were harder, though.
 
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Haydeos

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To me, enemies should represent a different sort of game-play. You've got the game outside of battles, and you've got the game while you're fighting. They shouldn't just be mindless X smashers, where all you have to do is fight so as to become strong enough to fight more. Each battle should make you think about how to win, and what the consequences might be if you mess up.

That's why I steer away from random encounters, personally.
 

Schlangan

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Here are my replies according to my current game :


- Do you design them to be fun in and of themselves (more fun than the rest of the experience)?


It actually depends on the setting. Bandits in a cave are not made to be fun. Strange yellow creatures dancing around might be.


- Do you design them as a "reward" of some sort to the player, or possibly as a way to offer a "power trip" to the player?


Fighting enemies on the way is indeed a good way to train the characters before fighting the boss. But as the encounters are visual, and you can run away, they're optional. The player can train in the training room of the home base go gain levels. Some encounters also give items, but not all of them. We are not in Diablo II where a fly can drop a spear x)


- Do you put them there simply to slow down the player's pace through your game?


It is a bit more tricky than that. Some places do not have any enemies, some do. If you attack an enemy base, don't expect them to let you walk freely. Animals might be angry if you step in their territory too.


- Do they contribute to the larger plot or exploration of your game in some way?


The enemies you encounter have indeed a relation with the current events. A cult making trouble in my game is creating mutated creatures. When you see these things somewhere you clearly understands that you're going to encounter that cult again.


- Do you intend them to provide practice and learning for the player so they can take on more strategic, exciting, difficult boss battles?


Some basic encounters are a bit different from the common "trash" mobs. I set up for example some very strong crabs, and I advise to run away from them. The basic strategies are learnt though the training room.


- Do they combine with the boss battles to offer difficulty and strategy?


Bosses might be a superior form of the creatures or something different. Again, it will depend on the setting. A basic encounter might sometimes be stronger than the boss at the end of the mission.


- Do you have them in there for a different reason entirely?


Until now it didn't happen, but later I will hide informative NPCs among the encounters. The player will have to decide if he/she wants to get information while risking fighting or not.
 
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trouble time

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What would you put in instead of encounters if your game involves combat? You could write about the fights, but that is an entirely different expirence from playing a battle. In the former you are a passive observer and in the latter you are an active participant. Making the player do things is powerful in it's own way, for example the scene in Metal Gear Solid 3 where the player has to shoot the boss. I think that properly describes why I use encounters, the narritives I write are designed for the encounters to be there. The world the characters tend to inhabit are inherently violent and most countries in the setting tend to have thriving warrior cultures. Making the player a part of the violence brings them into the story better than just describing the battles would.
 

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Everything has to evolve and so do JRPGs. In my opinion, random encounters are slowly becoming a thing of the past. It was fun once, when I didn't mind spending hours and hours on repetitive fights, but things have changed, world goes forward and I have seen so many new, great and more entertaining ideas.... If random encounters are still to be used, they need to be refreshed, invented once again, rethought.

You probably heard that FF7 remake will have a new battle system. Is it a good thing? For some probably not, but I don't mind it, as long as it works well. And why did they decide to leave random encounters behind? Because it doesn't suit modern times. And I'm far from saying, that things used to be better in the old days, and games are easy, stupid and shallow nowadays. Some of them are, but that is just a small part of the picture. Many new 'inventions' made modern games more enjoyable and logical. 

I think we have to pick the best parts from what we already now, leave flaws behind and risk to try new soultions. 
 
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Something I like is when enemies are unique and drop items - so there could be a basic rat and a poisonous rat, or perhaps they drop a rats tail for alchemy - as a result there is no monotonous grind feeling because everything has a purpose or requires extra thought.
 

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I'll say my random battles were probably the weakest part of my first serious go round. Not enough skills for the players, so the battles were monotonous. They were either too easy, or deadly. My boss battles were better (still nowhere near great) since I hand tailored every ability, gave them some rudimentary AI, had that change tactics at different points, etc...

One of my favorite RPG's of all time is a point and click adventure - no combat at all (Syberia). I also love me some Diablo 2 (let's kill some stuff and go shopping). Most games fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Ultimately, any game is a time-sink. You're trading time for 'entertainment'. If the random battles add to the fun, then they're a good thing. If they're something you dread because they keep you from doing what you want to do in the game, they're not.

Pitfalls I've seen even AAA games fall into:

Too many 'low level' encounters that you can't avoid. Just a waste of time, rewarding neither XP or loot. Faceroll and move on. The other side of that coin is over-reliance on level scaling. The player feels like they're never getting any stronger (and sometimes are actually getting relatively weaker). You can never find loot above your station, and everyone is wearing exactly what you are.

Combining too many random encounters with limited save spots: Goddess, I just want to stop playing... Let me out of this cave!

Final thought: Some players just enjoy 'grinding'. Lineage was undisputed king of the MMO's for a long time before WoW came along.
 

Dallas Robinson

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this is an interesting question. firstly you are very correct. Random battles was basically placed in old games to lengthen game play time. pure and simple, but also battles can be very gratifying. you just need to figure out what your trying to accomplish with your battle system.   here are some examples.

1.) Joy of mastery

this comes form an RPG with interesting mechanics as to how battles are run. Chrono cross has the element system, FF7 has matira, the Mario and Luigi RPG's have button timing. with these games it's all about figuring out the mechanics and then using that knowledge to your benefit. Now understand the mechanic doesn't need to be complex. Pokemon has a VERY easy to understand battle system and tends to be enjoyable with a high number of random encounters. (though i will admit another reason that there is such a high RE rate in Pokemon is that every encounter could be a new party member so battles also kind of showcase what you may want to collect.)

2.) Battle used for greater mechanic

okay, for games like these battle is more just a tool for another mechanic. lets take the Atelier series for example. yeah it has a battle system but it's nothing special. really you just do it for grinding because the REAL core game mechanic is making items to complete quests. at it's core Atelier games are time and resource management games with battles attached to the core mechanic so battles really don't need to be complex just engaging enough to not get bored. This is why battles in these games tend to be quick and fun. they want you to get back to the main game play as soon as possible.

3.) Battle as side content or punishment

these games make battle 'optional' so to speak or at least avoidable most of the time. Games that do this are say metal Gear Acid for the PSP or breath of fire 5 Dragon quarter. in games that have this mechanic, battle is the LAST thing you want to do because that monster WILL kill you! you better plan ahead or your dead. By design you are meant to be weak and STAY weak for the whole game so figuring out how not to battle or plan ahead for the battles you do have to fight becomes the core gameplay. this type of system work well for stealth games and anything that has a strong horror element.  it naturally creates tension when you know that you can't just grind your way out of a problem.

i could go on and on but you get my drift. Figure out 'what is the core idea of my game" and then create a battle system around it. Understand that STORY IS NOT GAME DESIGN! all a story is reasoning given to the string of gameplay events you make the player go through. Story pretty much means jack squat from a design perspective. ask things like "what do i want the player to feel from battle? wonder? fear?, fun?" and it will inform you as to which way to go to making your battles not suck :)
 

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For me, they are a way to avoid turning the game into a slideshow.
 

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This is a question I've struggled with as well. I like random encounters—to a certain extent. But I feel like I'm always tired of them by the end of a game.

My solution in the last RPGM95 game I made, and the RPGMMV game I'm working on now, is to provide lots of miniboss-esque encounters alongside partially-optional random encounters.

For the miniboss/boss encounters, I'm trying to design each one as a puzzle. You could conceivably win the fight with a non-optimal team setup and strategy, but you'll have an easier time if you try the encounter a few times (yay save prompts!) with different party members and equipment load-outs. The in-game tutorial encourages just this style of trial-and-error gameplay, so players don't feel as bad about not beating the boss on their first or second try.

For the random encounters, the enemies have much simpler puzzles (like, kill that one first, or use X spell against this one), but they're mostly an opportunity to pick up useful loot (we're talking commodities that you can trade or craft with, not rare OP drops here) and try new skills or strategies (and of course, to feel powerful by blowing away weak troops from the early game). You also have the option late in the game to avoid random encounters by paying a cost of some kind.

Finally, I discourage grinding (I hate grinding and farming, y'all) by dishing out experience via non-random encounters and quests. Random encounters get small amounts of gold and common loot, but not Experience—so you can grind a little bit if you really want to get the last bit of cash for that cool weapon, but you can't power level on the slimes to breeze through the bosses. Nor should you.

I don't think this is a perfect solution to the question, but it feels cooler to me than the usual grind-it-to-win-it style, which IMO is just addiction by any other name.
 

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Random Encounters is something that should have died off already in 90's and I hate when a RPG does it even to this date. I mean, Super Mario RPG even had you able to see foes on map and that game was made in 1996.  I mean you're walking around on the road and suddenly out of absolutely nowhere a giant 30 feet tall slime ball appears and you have to organize your party into a formation and line before you'll even be able to escape that said battle if you'd not want to fight!!

I wouldn't even mind so much if these battles weren't skippable but some makers actually think I'll go through like 20 similar looking enemy fights just to raise my stats so I could defeat the next boss, meaning I actually have to run around like an idiot while hoping that bats come out from thin air so I can farm some exp. It makes the game feel a lot more cheap and if these grinding sessions were removed, the game would be hours faster to play through and it feels just an excuse to artificially lengthen your game instead of adding actual stragegy and gameplay to the boss battles, you rely on your players patience to kill x number of foes to raise their defense enough to survive the fart beam attack of the boss enough or to learn a new skill.

I really think the player shouldn't be forced to have any battles aside the boss battles unless they'd want to. They'd miss out on stuff like potions and such items but it'd not be required to beat the game or progress the characters. This is why I have always preferred Western RPGs which reward the player based on doing quests and progressing the storyline instead.
 

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I think its important to recognize the point where the player just wants to get on with things, and give them the means to do so. To that end, I'd say the first thing to ask yourself is whether or not you want to have an element of attrition and resource management in the game.

If you expect the players to go up against the boss encounters at full strength every time, then you have a lot of options to allow the player to control their own encounter rate. You could for example do something where the players can choose to auto-evade all encounters sufficiently below their level, or encounters against an enemy troop they have successfully fought previously, or use an item to decrease/zero the encounter rate, or even something more complex where you enable the players to clear out zones as they go.

If however you want the players to be tested on their ability to sustain fighting strength through a dungeon which wears them down, then you have to maintain a certain level of random encounters or something equivalent in order to allow the player to leave and come back (because otherwise the player can feel like they might have taken the game to an unwinnable state if they can't go back and can't beat the boss with the resources they have left), but still be worn down to an equal degree. You could also just design entire dungeons to be played through in a single sitting without saving (so players can't save the game in an unwinnable configuration), but that strongly limits how long you can make a given dungeon before it feels obnoxious. I could also see some kind of 'time rewind' gimmick here, where you have a fixed set of encounters and the game just records the damage dealt and resources used in each encounter, and you can basically just accept those losses to 'go back' to where you were the last time, as if the battle outcomes had been identical; or you can choose to replay any of the fights along the way.
 

Berylstone

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Whether you do it with swords, fire, or laser beams, cutting your way through hundreds of slimes, demons, and nameless enemy soliders in isolated encounters is pretty much a staple element of the JRPG genre.  Combined with exploration, party management, and sometimes puzzle-solving, these Random (or Visual or Evented) Encounters make up the bulk of the gameplay hours for the player.

In the past (when Encounters could be a bigger part of the experience than the other gameplay elements or even the story), these encounters often represented a bigger threat to the player (either as immediate kill threat or as part long-term attrition), but the modern JRPG usually makes the average non-boss encounter breezy and easy.  The player usually won't expect to take heavy losses of any sort in the battle, and if they do, there's usually a good way to heal up and keep on moving.

So without a lot of need for "popcorn battles" in a strict game sense, and several other ways available to engage the player that were less present in JRPGs' early years, it's little surprise that reviewers and gamers alike have never been found complaining about "The encounters aren't frequent enough".  And yet, these Encounters still practically define the JRPG genre, they're still half of the RPG Maker package, and we still spend tons of time as designers in this very subforum trying to figure out how to make these hundreds of battles "not suck" for the player.

Why?

  • Do you design them to be fun in and of themselves (more fun than the rest of the experience)?
  • Do you design them as a "reward" of some sort to the player, or possibly as a way to offer a "power trip" to the player?
  • Do you put them there simply to slow down the player's pace through your game?
  • Do they contribute to the larger plot or exploration of your game in some way?
  • Do you intend them to provide practice and learning for the player so they can take on more strategic, exciting, difficult boss battles?
  • Do they combine with the boss battles to offer difficulty and strategy?
  • Do you have them in there for a different reason entirely?
I'd love this to be a completely open (feel free to go off on tangents), high-level philosophical discussion about our genre: what are the primary purposes of having these hundreds upon hundreds of Encounters standing in the way during the player's journey?  What do they do to engage the player or enhance her experience with your game?  Would your game feel like it was lacking without them?  Why?
In my opinion there are two ways to accomplish interesting battles.  The game play needs to either be thought-driven or reflex-driven.

As Role Playing Games are typically designed to be turn-based I opted to go with option number 1.  So I believe as long as my battles cause the player to think and react they will remain interesting and fun.  I really do believe it's that simple.

I include random encounters for all the reasons you mentioned in your questions.  But the overall appeal of Role Playing Games to me has always been about the development of its game play in battle.  A good plot certainly helps and can enhance the game.  But I doubt I could enjoy any Role Playing Game that didn't allow my character to improve in battle.  To me that is an essential ingredient to any good RPG.
 
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