When I first started working on this game I was pretty adamant that the one thing I wanted most was free movement for players. That is, having players choose where they want to move on the map each turn (limited by some stat) as opposed to the more traditional board game format where players roll dice and move the designated number of spaces, only choosing where to move when the path branches.
When we were looking at competing games in the illustrious “jRPG mixed with board game” genre (yes that’s an actual genre) most of them went with traditional board game movement, but the one that used free movement appealed the most to me. It felt like actually exploring a world in an RPG instead of being hurled down a path based entirely on luck. And that is what I wanted the most: a multiplayer jRPG that works in the multiplayer by using board games as a metaphor, rather than a board game with jRPG flavor.
We’ve went through a lot of iterations of the free movement style. The first had very direct tilebased movement (resembling the movement of a tactics RPG in a lot of ways). That mostly created a lot of empty space, so we moved on to roads defining the path between points of interest. That still made the connections between places rather hard to read, so soon points of interest turned into strict squares. That empty space allowed for putting multiple things into a single point of interest, and so arbitrary verb lists for each area become possible. Some of them player activated, some of them not.
I love the idea of being able to put multiple unique actions on each point of interest. There’s so much you can do with that type of thing. In the back of my mind I secretly wanted to put in a sort of life sim scenario into the game that would have players chopping down trees or picking apples or buying low selling high etc. There’s a great game in there somewhere. But when you consider that we’re trying to make a fast paced multiplayer game here, it doesn’t jive all that well. Each and every one of those actions has to be parsed and remembered by every player. It becomes more overwhelming to figure it all out more than anything. There’s probably a really great slow paced game in it somewhere, but it’s a different game than the one we’re making.
What actually made this clearer more than anything else were the recent adjustments to the main quest. Sprawling multi-part quests where each individual part could branch out even further turned into straight forward singular objectives. Instead of letting players take as long as they want, extremely tight turn timers were added each step of the way. And all of this improved the game dramatically. The length of games dropped down closer to the golden one hour we were seeking. People started to pay attention to the main objectives and compete for them. The game wasn’t aimless anymore, there was a goal. And that goal started to look a whole lot like a racing game.
Do you know what a race looks like when you put it into a turn based format? It starts to look a whole lot like those traditional board games. You can see very clearly the standings of every player: who’s in front, who’s behind the pack, etc. And that isn’t the only thing a traditional board game looks a lot like. It also looks a whole lot like a jRPG’s dungeon: a linear line to the end, getting harder the nearer you are to the end of it (albeit with the addition of a few branching dead ends).
Another way to look at it is: what does free movement get us? Not a lot. Individual tiles basically get discarded after players use them, so the map becomes more irrelevant over time. This is particularly bad because it makes player created traps largely irrelevant outside of the plot critical path, which is exceptionally short so they easily become too powerful. The map is so small (by pacing necessity) that it doesn’t contribute much towards interesting player chase sequences (ie for stealing a quest item from someone). Free movement ultimately boils down to letting players choose how much of a risk they want to take each turn, which isn’t a bad mechanic but is trivial to replicate in linear movement. There are some cases where free movement can add a whole lot to the game, such as when adding a tower defense element to it (so the shape of the map stays relevant even after players have explored a tile), but none of these cases seem particularly relevant to us anymore.
Meanwhile linear movement gets us a whole lot. Having player rankings explicit on the map makes it very easy to reduce kingmaking from PVP: you can only attack players near to you. The entire map remains relevant longer, particularly useful for player traps. Map turns become simpler, so players can burn through them faster (which means each player doesn’t need to wait as long for everyone else to do their turn which means we have better pacing and turn flow). The sense of getting deeper and deeper into danger is easy to create. This is just scratching the surface of advantages.
It’s pretty simple: the game has changed, and the map systems need to change to match it. There’s some pain in admitting it when so much time has been invested in current systems. I worry slightly that it’s going to make the game seem simpler to players and will turn them off to it. The actual programming cost isn’t that high since most of the systems in place for free movement are just as relevant for linear movement.
It feels a little foolish to have resisted the linear movement for so long only to be forced to use it in the end. I don’t feel great about it considering how much of the second year was wasted on things I’m about to throw out. I’m too tired to mind it too much, though. The entire point of this development process was to find something that worked by constantly changing and then testing things. We’ve found something that works, and now it is time to support it. It’s an inherently costly process because much of it is spent creating things that you won’t actually use. The advantage of copying other people is that you don’t have to pay this invisible cost.