Lab Zero Games' Indivisible is a unique beast of an RPG. Its developers had to design a game vision that merged fighting game mechanics with RPG systems.
Lead designer Mike Zaimont (AKA "Mike Z") and creative director Mariel Cartwright dropped by the GDC Twitch channel shortly after the game's launch. For a look at what it took to develop Indivisible, here's some insight on the challenges Zaimont and Cartwright faced and how they overcame them.
Where JRPGs and fighting games intersect
To understand the design challenges of Indivisible, it helps to understand the game's fundamental conceit--Zaimont describes it as "what I thought Valkyrie Profile was going to be when I looked at this box before I played it."
"Valkyrie Profile is the same four face buttons to do stuff with your team, but it’s strictly turn-based," he said. "So everyone on your team goes however many times they go, and when you’re done the enemy goes all in a row and then you go again."
Instead of that turn-based system, in Indivisible, players string together combos using an array of 20 different characters, mixing fighting game logic with Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system.
This means, along with the game's hero Ajna, those characters need to be conceived, animated, and designed with four unique abilities in mind, often in relation to how those abilities play off other abilities.
It's a head-spinningly large design space, but Zaimont said it began to make sense after Lab Zero Games released a public demo to support the game's Indiegogo campaign.
"Here, public development is really useful," Zaimont said. The team got telemetry back on how players fared against the demo's boss, who turned out to be surprisingly easy, because all damage and combos could be anchored around one well-timed button press. "[What we learned] was to balance around block damage rather than hit damage."
The next step in understanding Indivisible's design process involves going into the fighting-game mentality that drove Lab Zero's previous release Skullgirls. Zaimont describes character attacks the same way one would describe fighting game attacks, with phrases like "neutral attack, down attack, and guard break" peppered into the conversation.
In that combo system, Zaimont explained the goal was to balance around "overall utility, rather than just damage." Abilities are balanced against how fast it takes to recover charges to use them, so attacks that do lots of damage may still have a shorter cooldown if they struggle to reach certain enemies, while widely-useful and strong attacks will see longer recharge rates.
"The main thing I want to say we were balancing around is, we balanced not around level but basically around player skill," he said.
Zaimont described the game's meter management system as being inspired by the Guilty Gear series, and much like Guilty Gear, the game tries to reward players with an energy bar that builds into super moves based on what skills the player is good at.
"The better you are at defense the more bar you get back from it, and the better you are at attacking, the more bar you get from that," said Zaimont. "So the better you are on defense, the more effective your offense can be because you have more bar to use and the better you are at offense the more useful your defense is because spending bar doesn’t matter as much."
"I love that part of Guilty Gear. There’s only one resource to manage and it mattered everywhere so I tried very hard to do exactly that same thing with this game."
On scope creep
During the game's crowdfunding campaign, Lab Zero used new characters as milestone rewards and stretch goals to help keep nudging the game's funding amount upward.
"It was kind of crazy actually," Cartwright said. "We had each of our artists kind of just come up with a design and we would throw it out there once we reached a certain number of dollars raised."
"If you’re gonna do a crowdfunding campaign you might want to plan more stuff in advance than we did," Zaimont said. "We came to the point where it was literally like ‘we need another character design because we’re going to be coming up on the milestone very soon, who’s got what.’"
The pair said one of Lab Zero's greatest challenges in development proved to be scope creep. "It’s hard because I think it's kind of like this continual process the entire time. You always think you want to start small and scale up but I think what always ends up happening is you plan too much and then you kind of have to keep chopping as you go," said Cartwright.
"Flat out, we are really really bad at scope," chimed Zaimont. "I’m really bad at scope because I go, ‘we should cut this thing, but like, one of these parts is really cool so can we fit this somewhere else?’ and then its ‘we should cut this thing but one of these parts is really cool, can we fit this somewhere else?’ It’s just like…I don’t want to get rid of it."
Cartwright said the best solution out of this production pipeline problem was, well, proper planning. "I think a lot of it does come down to planning out each task and actually seeing where it fits in with the schedule and then once you see you have too many tasks for the time you have to make it, then you can be like OK now we have to prioritize."
"[We can ask,] what’s the core reason we’re making this game? Does this task serve that purpose? And then cut it back that way."
For a closer look at the making of Indivisible, be sure to watch the full interview with Zaimont and Cartwright: