Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Dungeon Fighter Online is a game where you go to dungeons and you fight and it’s online. Fighting in dungeons is fun, but the online part means that the game is filled with boring MMO tropes like questing and farming and crafting. This disconnect inspired the very first design essay I’ve ever written, but DFO has recently introduced a “seasonal server” which promises pure challenging arcade action without the grind. One new mechanic introduced in the seasonal server is the action gauge, which is theoretically a great idea, but DFO was clearly not built with it from the ground up and this sometimes causes problems.
Skills and Cube Costs
As you level up, you get more skills to use when you’re fighting in dungeons. The higher-level skills are more powerful, but often require cube fragments. These are collectible items that serve a variety of purposes in crafting, and essentially act as a second resource. Normal skills only use mana, higher-level skills (referred to as cube skills) use mana and cubes.
Putting aside the mana system paradox, the problem with this is that cubes are negligible. You can easily have thousands when the most expensive cube skill will only cost ten per use. Cube skills have long cooldowns, so running a single dungeon will almost never require more than a hundred cubes, which can be gotten back easily from the reward loot.
From a minimalist game design perspective, if a mechanic is negligible then it should be taken out. No one actually worries about cube costs. This means that high-level players can just run through dungeons spamming cube skills for a fast, effortless, and boring clear.
But from an MMO standpoint, cubes have already become an integral part of the DFO economy. There is no simple way to remove cube costs from skills without also seeing an effect ripple out through the economy. I wouldn’t know what kind of effect this would have, but MMO economies are very carefully balanced and a slight tip could pop a bubble.
However, in an alternative server separated from the main game’s ecosystem, it’s completely possible to remove cube costs. The seasonal server can’t interact with the main server in any way, so the problem doesn’t exist anymore. This means that DFO has the opportunity to experiment with a new type of resource cost, one that is more interactive and interesting while fighting in dungeons without having a large-scale effect on the rest of the world.
The action gauge is an alternative to cube costs. As you fight, you fill up a bar, and once the bar is filled up it gives you an action orb. Any skills that would consume cubes would instead consume action orbs. Only ten orbs can be held at any given time, but they won’t fall off over time. Even if you have cubes, you can’t cast cube skills unless you also have action orbs, which are earned in combat.
Immediately, this is reminiscent of my second suggestion to make the game more combo-based. You have to use basic skills to build up your action gauge, then once you have enough orbs you can use a cool finishing attack. It creates anticipation and windup and forces players to be more tactical with how they use their cube skills. “If I use this cube skill now, I won’t have enough action orbs left to use my big attack on the boss, unless I play really well and do a great job building my action gauge.”
There are a few problems with the way that the action gauge is implemented. It’s shared among all party members, so if one person uses a cube skill, they’ll consume all the orbs and nobody else will be able to use cube skills. Some problems can be easily ironed out, but other problems are much more deeply rooted in DFO‘s original design.
The problem is that each character in DFO is designed differently. This is obvious, but it also means that each character is designed holistically with all of their skills in mind, including their cube skills. Locking cube skills behind the action gauge affects some characters more than others.
For example, a swordswoman called the Vagabond is all about powerful burst damage. Her cube skills all serve the same purpose: they all make her slash enemies really fast. She is designed from the ground up to spam her cube skills back to back until her enemies are dead, and then she runs around useless for the next thirty seconds waiting for her cooldowns to refresh. This is her playstyle on the vanilla version of DFO, and it still isn’t healthy, but it’s what she was built to do.
On the seasonal server, she cannot do this. If she uses her cube skills, she will lose her action orbs and be unable to use other cube skills. Her non-cube skills are designed to complement her cube skills: they can reposition enemies, group them together, and stun them so that they are helpless while she kills them with a cube skill. But she is very weak without her cube skills and cannot build up her action gauge very effectively.
Contrast her to another character, the Battlemage who uses close range magic with melee attacks. The Battlemage’s primary cube skills are transformations (Apostilize/Chaser Evolution) which greatly enhance her non-cube skills. She is designed to be powerful even without her cube skills, and her cube skills affect her over a long period of time. Once she uses a cube skill, she doesn’t need to use another one to follow up.
Role differentiation is one of DFO‘s selling points and each character plays very differently from all of the others. This is a good thing, but not when a global system like the action gauge affects all characters equally despite their differences. Cube costs also affected all characters equally, but it was such a minor effect that it didn’t matter. Maybe a Vagabond would consume slightly more cubes than a Battlemage, but there was no shortage of cubes anyway.
DFO has seemed to design itself into a corner. Cube costs are uninteresting, but they are functional and they support the in-game economy. The action gauge can potentially make combat more interesting, but at the cost of invalidating a decent portion of the roster.
But despite it all, the action gauge is still a good idea that deserves to be saved. It provides opportunities for interesting decision making in combat, it prevents players from being too overpowered by spamming cube skills, and it creates a rhythm of building up to powerful attacks and then unleashing them. These are all good gameplay patterns and they’re just being held back by a bad implementation.
I think the action gauge could be made a lot better if it was more extreme. Right now, a basic combo fills out about one fourth of an orb. What if the gauge filled up much faster, but also depleted much faster? Make it so that action orbs will fall off over time if they are not used, and make it so that landing a full basic combo will provide several orbs. This way it’s easy to stack up many action orbs, but you need to capitalize on them quickly or else they will go away. You need to be careful with your attacks and synchronize your combos with your enemy so that you use your cube skills right when they are most vulnerable.
Or, what if the action gauge filled up more quickly depending on how you played? DFO has a scoring system for style points and it does absolutely nothing. You get more points for cool things like back attacks or aerial combos or narrowly dodging an enemy attack, but these points are meaningless. What if they gave you more action orbs? This would incentivize people to play more stylishly so they have more opportunities to use cube skills.
However, the only true way to integrate the action gauge system into DFO is with a holistic balance sweep across nearly all aspects of the game. Ensure that cube costs are meaningful rather than just a random number slapped onto a skill. Change some characters so that they accomplish their functional duty even without cubes. Ignore the economic crisis as cube fragments rapidly plummet in value. Ultimately, this is an amount of work that is arguably not worth the effort.
It’s always great to see a game come full circle, from when I first analyzed the game in 2012 and seeing how it has evolved and adapted, fixing its problems along the way. However, DFO has become a Frankenstein of patched-together systems and add-ons. This system is too delicate for a major change such as the action gauge, which is why I hope to see more seasonal servers, each experimenting with more new game mechanics.