As a veteran of gaming for nigh on 20 years, I’ve learned what games are tedious and what ones aren’t. Giving thought to it, I find that the most enjoyable ones avoid taking control from the player except when absolutely needed, and when they do, they give it back as soon as they can. Allow me to cite my statement with comparisons between two games of the same genre and gameplay style. Specifically, Disgaea (NDS, PS2, PSP) and Vandal Hearts (PSX). I decided to do some numbers on how fast it takes to give control back to the player while the game goes through the damage phase and enemy turns.
Disgaea, the SRPG series from Nippon Ichi, a very easy SRPG series really, simple to get into, and anyone can break the game wide open as it practically encourages it. When you play an SRPG with turn-based mechanics, you take your turn, perform your attacks, and sit back and watch the enemy move, attack, use their magic, and what have you.
In Disgaea, all enemies move simultaneously as nothing is honestly hindering them in terms of terrain or player interference. With animations turned off, a single turn of my own on a map I honestly didn’t have to plan anything major on was resolved in 1 minute 30 seconds. The enemies? Resolved in under 20 seconds despite larger numbers, most of it a counterattack contest between my Majin and a Nekomata. This was done with battle animations off as having them enabled would make for an unbalanced comparison due to my unit’s powerlevels.
Vandal Hearts is from Konami, a classic game with a very political storyline, and a rock/paper/scissors deal on combat advantages. This game has the enemies move and act one at a time, but they move fast and the AI makes its decisions quickly. This makes turns in Vandal Hearts take forever, even if you level Ash up to the hidden Vandalier class, it can take up to 20 minutes to clear the final battle, and Vandalier is extremely overpowered. The enemy in the final battle in my testing took a full two minutes to resolve a turn that had very few attacks. How much longer could it get once everyone gets into the thick of it?
Even though the turns in Disgaea go by quickly, the later games in the series are much better about it, improving on an already fast speed by shortening animation length and delays. Looking at a Disgaea 4 gameplay video, an attack animation that starts at 0:05 seconds in which fires off a chain of counterattacks between two Nekomata ends in 1:07, with 38 attacks resolved in that time, averaging one attack every 1.76 seconds. To compare to Disgaea 1, this chain of attacks would resolve in a tiny bit over 2 seconds. That third of a second adds up very quickly in high-level areas where enemies might have up to three or even four counterattacks.
If five or six are attacking Prier or your majins, both of whom can counter repeatedly, it can add a large amount of time to the battle. Counterattacks are inevitable in SRPG games, and though advantageous, can make a long battle very tedious if you can’t skip animations on the fly.
All characters in Vandal Hearts are capable of counterattacking every time they attack, and there is a degree of delay between the animation, and some attack animations in the game are fairly elaborate, taking a few seconds to complete each time. On average, a pair of endgame characters attacking one-another would resolve their combat in probably 8 or 9 seconds. Remember when I asked how long could a battle take once everyone was into the thick of it? It could add a full minute or even more due to counterattacks alone.
If there is a significant delay between counterattacks for whatever reason, this can greatly slow down the speed of the game to where the player gets annoyed, will groan once the enemies have their turn. Enemies in SRPG games almost always greatly outnumber the player.
The same applies to battle animations. Testing my Majin against nine enemies, using a spell with a quick animation, he hit one enemy on average per 1.1 seconds. That included animation and damage. Let’s look at Vandal Hearts again, with Ash as a Vandalier using a spell that hits every single enemy on the map simultaenously named Plasma Wave.
The entire animation of Plasma Wave only lasts two seconds, and is pretty to look at. However, each damage animation is calculated and displayed individually, with an average delay of 1.7 seconds between each one. That .6 seconds above Disgaea adds up, as do the movement and casting animations of the game. I’ve only completed Vandal Hearts twice because I was honestly getting bored with how long a single turn, let alone a battle, took to resolve.
A game that doesn’t give its controls back to the player as quickly as possible isn’t going to get very good reviews most of the time. Fast execution of enemy commands in a turn-based game lets the player get back to what they came to do: Play the game. It’s like that annoying childhood friend who takes forever to take his turn in a game when you get done in 20 seconds.
Basically, in most turn-based games, very few things change during a turn. Even if a player is incapable of controlling multiple units at once, the AI is perfectly capable of plotting out an entire turn in advance, and executing the entire thing all at once. This can apply to all games in a way, but mostly to the turn-based genre. Good game design isn’t just about making it playable, but not having the player waiting for long periods of time. Gamers are impatient buggers, and nobody is going to complain about lightning-fast turn-based games.
I might seem bitchy about a few tenths of a second, but believe me, they add up.
Notes: Vandal Hearts attack/counter resolution timing was started when the camera angle changed, and ended when control was returned to the player. You can see the length on this video.
Animation times for Vandal Hearts were tested on an ePSXe emulator, and the game was run from the original disk to simulate loading times. Videos from others were provided since I can’t record on my laptop without lagging the game.
Vandal Hearts damage animation time was started when the first damage number showed up, and ended when Ash gained EXP from the attack. The spell used was Plasma Wave, which attacks every single enemy on the map for heavy damage. Elemental spells like Salamander have special effects which double this time. You can see it on this video.
Disgaea 4 counterattack time was measured when the first visible frame of animation was noticed, and ended when control was returned to the player. A video of two Nekomata was used due to their high counter rate.
Disgaea 1 counterattack time was measured between a female Eternal Fist and Prier. Both have roughly the same animation time. This was timed personally on a DS.
Disgaea Fire animation time was measured when the first enemy took damage and ended when control was returned to the player. This was timed personally on a DS.
I deliberately picked the most typical scenarios I could test for all timing comparisons to avoid bias.
Shoutout to Shining Force 3 which resolves counterattacks almost at the same instant the enemy attack animation takes place, and a rude gesture to Super Robot Wars where any attack can be used to counter, and some are this long. Thankfully the animations are skippable.