Game Influences (3/6): Tactics Ogre

This is part of a series of blog posts on the design process of my web game:

Tactics Ogre was released on the PlayStation in 1997. You are a young member of a repressed ethnic minority. Your first mission is to bust the leader of your rebellion out of jail. When you do, he points out that your people need some fresh motivation if they’re going to have a chance. So he instructs you to destroy a town and frame your enemies. Do your stain your hands for the greater good or split from the rebellion by refusing? (In which case he does it and frames you as an agent of the empire.) The branching storyline is refreshingly adult, most games would have a deus ex machina sweep in to save the town rather than include the complexity of a quixotically misguided leader committing an atrocity (assuming they could bring themselves to begin a plot based on ethnic oppression).

You lead a team of warriors into turn-based battles against similar groups of enemies. On each turn you can move all of your characters a few spaces around the game board and execute an attack or spell. The genre is called tactical role-playing games and there have been around two dozen successful games released.

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One of the unusual things Tactics Ogre does that works well is the limited customization for each character: each character can equip four items at a time and has a class that determines which weapons, armor, and spells they can use. You field eight characters at a time, so more options (for example, World of Warcraft equips characters with 19 equipment slots!) would quickly become overwhelming. You’ll constantly wish you could equip just one more item, but that’s a sign that the decision is meaningful.

The downside to combat is that it’s basically a slugfest. The only significant effect of terrain is that archers have increased range and damage when shooting from a height. On most maps the two armies run straight at each other and stand around trading blows until someone drops. There’s a beautiful map that’s largely useless.

After playing it and similar games (the same team created the more popular Final Fantasy Tactics) I was tempted to make a tactical game of my own but didn’t see what I could create that would be new and interesting.

Years later I saw games like Ikariam and WeeWar and realized I could build one on the web. I’ve found a few online, but they’re even worse slugfests. All the interesting decisions have been taken out combat and dropped earlier, to the character customization. If you don’t enjoy that setup (the equivalent of “deckbuilding” in trading card games) there’s little left to enjoy. And they’re all so repetitively set in generic magical fantasy worlds. I started thinking seriously about how to design a browser-based tactical game and wanted to find a new setting.

Next: Counter-Strike.