Overview
Game:
The Spiderwick Chronicles

Platform:
Nintendo DS

Developer:
Backbone Entertainment

Work done:
Even though I was the lead artist on this team at the start of the project, and didn't take over as the lead designer until several months into development, it was always my job to design the combat mechanics. I came up with all of the designs and concepts that we built the battle mode off of.



Combat with the goblins and trolls of the invisible world of The Spiderwick Chronicles for DS took place in a turn-based battle mode. During combat the player would take turns selecting moves for their party to perform. Once they were done they would have to defend against incoming attacks during the enemies' turns.
Many of our mechanics were based on classic RPG designs like the older Final Fantasy games, but some of what we did was a little more unique.
Touchscreen controls
The touchscreen is used for selecting items off of the combat menu, blocking attacks, and inputting attack gestures. These touchscreen elements keep the combat feeling much more active than most turn-based fare.

     Blocking
  • Tapping a character at the moment that they are attacked will reduce the damage of the incoming attack by 75%
    • The character being attacked flashes white at the proper moment
    • A point is added to the special ability meter for each successful block

     Attack gestures
  • Every attack, sprite effect, and special ability requires the player to successfully implement an attack gesture in order to achieve the fullest effect
    • Gestures are based on tracing lines and shapes, and tapping points
    • Failing a gesture means the loss of a bonus, but the attack/effect still happens

These controls were conceived of in order to keep the battles being something that have to be actively played. Turn-based combat like the type we used in this game can easily devolve into players selecting a single attack over and over again and then healing when they are weak. For better or worse, in Spiderwick, the players have to keep paying attention to even the simplest fights throughout the game. The outcome of a battle where they blocked every incoming attack and got every damage bonus will be a great deal different from one where they simply selected their moves and watched them play out.
Special abilities and sprite effects
Beyond the basic attacks are special abilities and sprite effects. Special abilities are governed by a 5 point meter that is shared by all party members, and sprite effects use sprites collected on the adventure map to attack enemies, heal allies, and perform a number of other effects.

     Special abilities
  • Each character has 5 special abilities that can be collected throughout the game
    • Abilities use between 1-5 points of the special attack meter to perform
    • New abilities can be purchased from a shop using currency earned by winning fights

     Special ability meter
  • The special ability meter begins combat empty
  • It fills automatically at a rate of 1 point per turn
    • It fills an additional point per successful block
  • The meter is drained by using special abilities

     Sprite effects
  • The higher a character's sprite affinity stat the more sprites they can use in concert for a single effect
    • As many as 8 sprites can be used simultaneously for an effect
    • For most sprite effects, using higher amounts of sprites changes the behavior of the effect
  • Using sprites removes them from the player's inventory
    • Sprites may be recovered at special locations, or by using certain items or special abilities in combat
    • Different sprite effects are gained by collecting different types of sprites

The two ideas of having the "magic" component of the battle mode be built around using a limited supply of collectables, and the leaving the purchasing of special abilities at the player's discretion, was a trickier thing to balance that I initially believed it would be. In fact, if the player does all the "wrong" things, there are points in the game where they can get permanently stuck.
What I learned from this is that I couldn't just trust the testers to find these issues on their own. Especially on a game with this many variables, and one that is as tightly balanced as this is (where brute force level grinding is not an option), I needed to provide them with a plan for testing the game using many different play styles. On this project I did not.
Character positioning
During each character's turn the player can choose to move them into the front row or back row. This decision affects which moves the character can use during their turn, whether or not they receive a defensive bonus if attacked during the enemies' turn, whether or not they participate in a counterattack, and, indirectly, the combat decisions of the enemy characters.

     A character in the front row:
  • Can perform all combat moves
  • Automatically counterattacks any enemy that attacks a back row party member
    • Unless the attacker used a ranged attack

     A character in the back row:
  • May not perform melee attacks or special abilities
    • May still use sprite effects and items on both party members and enemy characters
  • Receives a defense bonus that reduces all incoming damage by 50%
    • Unless all current party members are in the back row
      • At least one character must be in the front row for the back row to enjoy the bonus

     Enemy positioning
  • Front/back position is determined by a predefined default for each type of enemy
  • Enemies follow the same rules for counterattacking and back row defense bonuses

A lot of the strategic depth of the game comes from these mechanics. Players can lure enemies into counterattack traps, by using items that force the enemy to target them on their next turn. They can get special ability points on their first turn by attacking protected enemies and blocking their party's counterattacks. Characters in the back row aren't just more protected from damage, they are also less likely to be attacked in the first place. But a character in the back row can only attack by expending scarce resources.
Enemy AI
Enemies are programmed to choose from several basic attack behaviors (such as: attack front row character, or attack lowest health character) depending on the current circumstances of the battle.

     AI grid
  • The enemies decide which attack behavior to use by taking into account their own health and how many of the player characters are in counter-attacking position
    • They could have as many as 9 possible behaviors

We used this system to give personalities to our different enemies. With a more intelligent enemy, the more characters that are in countering position, and the lower the enemy's health, the more cautious the behavior they use (like, explicitly avoiding back row attacks). But some enemies were made to be stupidly aggressive and always attacked the character with the lowest health regardless of counter-attacks, making them easier to defeat if the player recognized the behavior.
Enemy abilities
Ultimately The Spiderwick Chronicles is a pretty simple game, and if we never mixed things up then over the long term it could potentially get monotonous. One way I tried to keep things interesting in combat was by giving some of the enemies abilities that would force the player to change how they played or try new tactics. Others are only support characters and flee if the other enemies are all killed.

Fisher goblins
These goblins don't attack, but sprite effects do not work while a fisher goblin is in the battle. If the player uses a sprite effect the fisher will "eat" their sprites, negating the effect. They flee if alone in battle.

Ravenous goblins
These goblins eat random sprites out of the player's inventory when they attack.

Stonebacked goblins
The goblin elites only found in the area around the ogre's lair. They block all incoming attacks, reducing the damage done to them to 1. Players must stun them to break through their defense.

Trolls
The larger trolls grab one of the player characters and hold them for a turn before biting them and reducing their remaining hitpoints by half. If they are attacked while holding one of the characters the damage from the attack is split between the troll and the held character.

Dwarves
These tinkerers do not attack. Every turn they repair damage done to their mechanical attack dogs. They flee if alone in battle.

Captured will-o-wisps
Dangerous but not malicious. When held against their will by goblins these creatures confuse the player characters causing them to attack their own party. They flee if alone in battle.