How to Play and Create Fire Emblem Games "Correctly"

#1

Hey ya’ll, Noguchi here. Y’know, that guy that writes for Legends of Avenir and harasses Snakey and lurks around? Yeah that’s the one. So, this is kind of an essay I’ve been plotting on and off for awhile now, and given the rapid approach of FEE3, I figured it was a good time to go ahead and write it up before that event hits. So, what’s the purpose of this? What do I mean by “correctly”?

Honestly, that should become pretty obvious as we work through this post. There’s a few different parts to this I want to tackle before I reach a conclusion, however. I’ll preface this with a couple things: This is not going to be about Avenir. This is not going to be a massive guide on how to design levels. This is not going to be a guide on how to write chapters. This isn’t a guide. The title’s just something fancy to grab your attention. This post exists to tackle two issues: Controversial Mechanics, Hack Diversity, and Playstyles. And no, this isn’t meant to be a nice professionally written essay, I’m stuck doing enough of those right now as is (we love the college life). This is a nice casual thing that I hope will decrease some of the current issues and toxicity that I believe face this community right now. I’m not attacking anyone here. We’re all human. I know for a fact I’m guilty of some of the things I’ll discuss in this post. I just hope this will ultimately allow us to be more accepting at large within this growing community.

Controversial Mechanics

Let’s start off with this wild concept: Fire Emblem is a video game. I like to see video games as a sort of art form. If movies, TV shows, music, books, and all those things are art, then certainly video games are art as well. The really cool thing about art is how everyone does it differently. If you compare Picasso to Van Gogh, you’ll see a wide variety. Does that mean either of them are making something inherently bad? No, not at all. Cubism wouldn’t fit Van Gogh’s style, however. Does this make cubism bad? Not even remotely. It’s different. Different, wildly enough, isn’t inherently bad.

Extended metaphors aside, the same thing can be said for game mechanics. An individual game mechanic doesn’t make a game inherently bad. For a non-FE example, let’s look at Skyrim and the Shout mechanic. I think most people are probably pretty fond of the shouts in Skyrim. Who doesn’t like blasting these chickens off the tallest mountain in the world or breathing fire on your enemies? This mechanic wasn’t just thrown into the game. They calculated out how to balance the mechanic, make it work within their engine and with their combat. Imagine if Fire or Frost Breath actually worked as a constant stream of damage. It would be unbelievably overpowered. What’s the point here?

An individual mechanic can never be inherently bad on it’s own. If you balance a larger thing around a specific design choice, and it works, it’s good.

To put this into a Fire Emblem-related context, let’s look at the Skill System. This is far from the most controversial design decision hacks mack today, but it’s still controversial. If you insert the Skill System, with it’s default numbers, into vanilla FE8, it’s bad. Myrmidons can’t be hit so long as they initiate combat, Shaman get killed in one hit but also get killed in one hit, and seal skills basically make a character useless for a couple of turns. Vanilla FE8 wasn’t balanced with skills in mind, so the mechanic doesn’t work there. However, if you adjust numbers and balance your game around having skills, it can work. Take into account what classes have what skills, and make certain classes/skills counter those builds. Increase numbers across the board. But number inflation gives its own problem. On its own, it doesn’t work well, because the default formulas for battle calculations in FE8 just don’t work well with larger numbers. If you adjust those formulas, however, larger numbers are perfectly fine. In just a few sentences there, we’ve taken one mechanic, shown how problems CAN exist with that mechanic, and fixed them. Obviously it’s not really that easy and there has to be some pretty specific balancing, but regardless, the Skill System on it’s own isn’t bad. Neglecting to balance a game around the intended mechanics, however, is bad.

This can be applied with any number of things. Spellswords? Useless, right? Why would you ever use the sword on a spellsword character? They’ll almost always be fighting a character with lower res than defense, not to mention magic has 1-2 range whereas swords only have 1 range. How can we fix this? Well, you can rebalance Res and Defense across the board within your hack. You could find a way to debuff the spellswords spellcasting ability. Perhaps give them 2 range exclusivity with magic, or maybe can only use magic on player phase and default to their sword on enemy phase. It all depends on what YOU are seeking to do with YOUR hack. You can give spellswords higher strength, so that the only time it’s ideal to use magic is when you’re fighting heavy armored units that have extremely high defense but low resistance. Though in almost any other case, it’s more ideal to use the sword because damage output is higher with it. Implementing spellswords straight into any vanilla Fire Emblem? Yeah, pretty useless.

What this boils down to is no mechanic is inherently bad. There are so many other mechanics that often yield a “this hack bad” mentality from the community. But the question is, are the mechanics bad or is the balance around those mechanics bad? Too often will a hack creator decide to try something new with their mechanics and will get a “this hack bad” from the rest of the community. Often, the hack may be condemned without someone even trying to play it to see if the person took the steps to make their mechanics work. Saying that an individual mechanic is bad isn’t the answer. This acts as a good segway into Part 2…

Hack Diversity

This section should be a bit shorter, but it goes back to the same ideas voiced above, particularly going all the way back to Picasso or Van Gogh. For the record, it’s been years since I took an art class of any form and I don’t know why I’m sticking with this metaphor. Van Gogh especially had his art criticized as being bad. Why? Because it was different. Is different bad?

Well, let’s discuss that. Say every Fire Emblem hack in the entire community used the exact same mechanics. Every single one of them had a Lord that was a prince and use swords as a primary weapon. They all used a system where bows had 2-4 range. They all balanced classes exactly the same way. They all used the skill system with the same modified numbers. Every single hack had really amazing level design that really required you to think and place your units in good positions every turn, with incentive to move quickly to complete each chapter as “efficiently” (whatever that means) as possible. I could go on, but you get the idea. Every hack was great. But all for the exact same reasons.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that would be the death of the community. Nobody would play anybody else’s hack. If they all played the exact same, what would even be the point? What would the distinguishing factors be? It seems like it would be dreadfully boring to slog through another game that uses the exact same mechanics. There would be no “hey they did this differently, that’s pretty cool.”

I’ll be honest, this is definitely less of an issue than the controversial design choices discussed previously, but I think, to a degree, this is definitely still an issue. A lot of people in the community want people to design their hacks the same way. Especially with the fact that there are very few ways to make a hack unique as far as structure goes (obviously you have short hacks vs. long hacks, route splits vs. pure linear hacks, and then hacks that completely change up the structure), there’s no ignoring the fact that this community needs a diversity of mechanics. Each hack has to be able to bring something of its own to the table in order to survive. What better way to do that than to take some of the controversial mechanics and try to balance your hack around using some of them? Make a new magic system. Alter how weapon ranks work. These sorts of interesting quirks are the things that help make a hack stand out to me. I don’t want to play the same hack with a different story a billion times over, and I’m a story person. I play games for their story. Speaking of how I play games, let’s segway into Part 3.

Playstyles

As we’ve discussed, Fire Emblem is a video game. Most video games have a wide variety of players. Look at any FPS. Some people prefer to be a sniper, some prefer to go crazy with two SMGs, some people are like me and have every class in Call of Duty with a rocket launcher to deal with air support as soon as it spawns. Games have a sandbox that allow players to play the game how they want to play it because at the end of the day, games exist for our enjoyment. They’re meant to be fun activities to allow us to escape from the cold pressing reality that we have two big exams in the same class this upcoming week (anybody else? Just me? Oof).

What is that sandbox for Fire Emblem? Well, it depends. Is it the characters? Sure. Absolutely. Challenge runs where you restrict character use are fun. Is it mechanics? Absolutely. The point is, everybody plays Fire Emblem differently. Some people don’t necessarily WANT to have a brutal challenge when they play. Some people don’t WANT to have to rush to beat a chapter and get all the loot. Some people enjoy training characters to level 20/20 just to have the satisfaction of seeing a couple green stats.

So what’s the “right” way to play Fire Emblem? Avoid the pitfalls, right? Train your Jagen so they can steamroll, right? Promote ASAP, right? Yes. Duh. But also no. But still duh.

The correct answer is that there is no answer because there is no single way to play Fire Emblem. Personally, I like to take my time, see every character reach their maximum potential, and feel the satisfaction of obliterating enemies with my powerful units, but that’s not everyone. Some people want to have a true strategy experience, where stats don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, just unit placement and management. Some people are LTCers and want to beat the game in as few turns as possible, whatever it takes. Is anyone wrong for wanting to play the game how they want? No. It’s their life, and their experience. Don’t rob them of their enjoyment, that’s what I like to call a “dick move.”

“But Noguchi, I can’t possibly make everyone happy with my hack. What should I do? Whose playstyle should I cater to?”

Well. That’s up to you. Because it’s your piece of art. You’re not getting paid for this. Personally? Alternate chapters. Have your chapters where you’re encouraged to move quickly, but also your chapters where you’re able to relax and take it at your own pace. Have your brutally difficult chapters, but also your easier chapters. If you’re making a straight linear hack, you’ve got plenty of time to work different types of chapters in. Personally, I’d rather have to play every chapter differently.

But, that’s not the only option. You can cater your hack to a specific playstyle. Does this make your hack bad? No, not at all. Just because it doesn’t appeal to me doesn’t mean it’s bad. If you try to cater to a playstyle and fail, that’s a different story. The first step is designing chapters YOU enjoy. Don’t worry about other people at first. As time goes on, try to make some chapters that appeal to other people. It’s okay to have a chapter here and there that some people don’t like, if it fits you or anyone else’s playstyle.

Conclusion

There’s too much toxicity and elitism in the community right now. Not all of these issues are arising internally from FEU. Obviously, the issues that faced Arch and Elibean Nights didn’t come from FEU for the most part, but plenty of hacks do face “this hack bad” “don’t play this hack” “you’re a big dumb” “your hack bad” from plenty of members of the community. And frankly, that’s not okay. If you don’t like something a hack does, give constructive criticism. Don’t just say “remove this mechanic, it’s bad.” Advise the creator on an alternate mechanic or a way to better balance the mechanic they have. We are all passionate and love what we do, but we also all do this for fun. We aren’t professional game developers. Don’t destroy someone’s passion project because your OPINION doesn’t agree with it. Build each other up, as opposed to breaking people down.

We’re gonna be seeing a lot of showcases for a lot of projects here when FEE3 comes up. We’re all gonna see things we like and dislike within different projects. I’m no moderator, but it breaks my heart when someone puts their heart and soul into something, and it gets shit upon at an event like FEE3 because one or two people notable people disagree with something, call it “bad”, and then a ton of other people follow them because they “know what they’re talking about.”

I’d like to refer back to the FEB vs. Buildfile debate of a while back. We had similar issues there. Elitism and toxicity from the Buildfile, the “superior” method of hacking, towards the FEB hackers. I think I’ve seen those issues mostly dissolve since then. That’s evidence, in my eyes, that this community can grow. If we can learn to accept different ways of doing what we do, I think we can accept different visions for what makes Fire Emblem fun and enjoyable to play.

If you somehow read through all of this, I invite you to join the discussion. I was careful to refrain from putting too much personal experience into this, but I personally believe this to be a big issue. Thanks for reading this lengthy-af post. Please don’t be toxic. Be nice to each other. This is a hobby, nobody deserves to have their hard work shit on or anything because someone dislikes it. Art is subjective. I really love this community and everyone in it, and just want to see stupid petty toxicity go away, and I think we’re capable of it.

Thank you all, looking forward to seeing all of your fantastic projects at FEE3 this year!

32 Likes
#2

Trying to please everyone is the only true pitfall.

16 Likes
#3

In my opinion when you have decided on what kind of hack you want to make and then start working on it, you by definition create something not everybody will like. Personally I’m not a huge fan of meme hacks and prefer the challenging “brain-teasers”. With that being said, I understand that not everybody likes “hard as balls” type of hacks, and don’t make their hacks to cater to my specific tastes. This is why I prefer not to comment on difficulty whenever I give feedback (which has been like once so far?)

This is a valid point. I don’t know how many hacks get the balance just right/ to the point of it being in a place where (many) players are happy with it with the initial release. In order to adjust the balance around mechanics one needs feedback. Now, there’s another side to this and that is reacting to feedback. Of course, if all you get is “this hack bad”, then you have nothing tangible, but even when someone voices their feedback bluntly, it’s on you to recognize what’s being criticized and if that’s something you should address. Just putting things/mechanics in your hack without any other consideration and then rejecting all dissenting opinions isn’t in my opinion healthy either. This can serve as an awkward transition to:

True, but you can try exploring ways to make your hack more accessible without compromising your hacks design. For example, if you’re aiming for a more narrative hack, is there replay value to it - do I have any impact on the story, or is it always the same? If you’re aiming for a more gameplay-oriented hack, what are my choices? Am I forced to use certain units or strategies?

If you can provide players with different tools to tackle your hack - story-centered or gameplay-focused - then that’s an avenue worth exploring. You don’t have to cut your story in half or weaken your enemies, instead provide the player more means to overcome the challenges you present them or choices that alter outcomes. There’s a reason why EXP Share is a thing in Pokemon, even when many players don’t really need it.

Maybe a bad example, but there’s a reason why Dark Souls doesn’t have an easy mode.

6 Likes
#4

You make a lot of good points here. There are two main things I want to comment on, more so to expand, because you don’t really say anything I disagree with.

  1. Fire Emblem romhacking is a form of art. I’m glad to see someone else say this, because I am big on this process as a form of art. Yes, it is a game, but there is a lot of artistic expression in it (aesthetics, story, even the choice of gameplay elements). So kudos for that.

  2. I think to your point about balancing skills, there is another deeper component here. And one that I think is broader than FE, but goes to the idea of predictability versus randomness. Skills add a sense of randomness to the game. Big procs, conditional stat gains/losses, etc. When skills are applied poorly, it leads to a high degree of randomness, which can work for and against the player situationally. Predictability comes from understanding exactly what can be done at any moment. To provide a non-FE example, competitive smash is big on predictability. Melee Fox dittos on Final Destination is much more predictable than say Melee Fox dittos on Green Greens, where shit explodes. You can argue that excelling in a predictable environment requires a higher degree of skill (which I do), and thus I enjoy it more. But that’s not to say randomness isn’t fun, it just depends on what you find enjoyable in a game. In Fire Emblem, the core of the game is to count squares and do math that is easily laid out with finite numbers and percentages that specific outcomes will occur. Skills can skew this (as can ambush spawns, range reinforcements, and other sucker punches), which can be fun but not as accurate a measure of skill (Which some may find more fun). So I guess in my ramblings, my point being, that generally I’ve found over the years across many games, that players tend to skew more towards one way or the other on a spectrum of predictability to randomness. Fire Emblem is different in every iteration, so it only makes sense we’d draw inspiration from different parts of the series when making our games.

I’d also add being constructive is super important. Romhacking is not easy, and creators aren’t going to be the best at everything, especially if it’s their first try. If you like the creator/project, offer to help out instead of telling them it’s bad - chances are they probably already know their shortcomings. I remember getting a lot of art critiques early on in VQ’s development, and for me I say “yeah, I know. That isn’t my focus.” Same goes for other elements. Good/Bad only means so much, follow up with something actionable and specific so that it can be improved.

11 Likes
#5

I am not too sure how often it has been said at this point, but I feel like something people giving feedback tend to do is not giving an idea on how to fix it. As a creator, it just feels like this (I used my discord pfp because I thought I’d be lost. Yeah, I’m not very smart…)


When giving feedback I think the most important part is offering a suggestion on how to improve a part you think could use polish or remodeling. Maybe offer a different/new place to put certain terrain or spice up the map instead of saying “These maps are super bland. I forget I’m not playing Gaiden at times.” or offering balancing changes like “I think that this archer could use 2 more strength, his damage output is too low” instead of “These units are too weak”. If you’re cooking a meal and want feedback, you’d much prefer a direction on how to cook the meal better next time instead of hearing that it’s not the best, to put it politely.

tl;dr give an idea on how to improve.

11 Likes
#6

Hack diversity should be the main reason to play hacks honestly.

Like look at how different mechanically Fire Emblem is now to how it was before. I FE16 didn’t differentiate it’s mechanics the way it did, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun to play. Same with awakening and child units, they’re a different gameplay mechanic whether you like them or not (I like the concept of building these child units to be monsters, I’m just too lazy to grind). Even FE8 introducing the class three made it so much different to FE7, and Echoes despite having meh to crap maps, had a really fun class system as well, and dread fighters were just funny honestly.

I don’t want to keep playing the same FE game over and over again, like I just feel like I’m playing a worse FE7/8 unless there’s something unique that sets it apart. I’m not saying that to put anyone down, but hacks do need their own identity and should be a “game” rather than a “hack” if that makes sense.

I encourage hackers to experiment with different patches to see what works for them, you may end up with some pretty cool design ideas. If you just want to stick with and balance your hack around vanilla FE8 mechanics, that’s also great, a lot can be done with vanilla FE8 as things were done with vanilla FE7 before it became the norm to hack FE8.

But yeah, I think separating yourself from the crowd is key, because like you said, if all hacks are good for the same reason, the hacking community just becomes saturated.

4 Likes
#7

Man what, I’ve never heard of this.

FEBuilder is super useful to buildfile users. It’s great to use as documentation (for figuring out how tables/structs work), to double check stuff without having to boot up the game, to get a quick idea how your enemy placement looks after assembling it, and a million more little things like the stat calculator, fixing broken animations / misordered palettes, etc etc. FEBuilder even taught me how the world map works, and I’ve seen like 0 documentation on the world map outside of it.

Would I use it to make events? Definitely not, using a GUI for eventing sounds much clunkier/harder than using EA. I don’t see why I’d care if someone else does though, not like it affects me in any way.

But it’s a great program and I’m seriously glad it exists.

10 Likes
#8

The title on this certainly did its job. But what you say is true the entire way through.

People have too narrow of a view when it comes to things - stories, mechanics and changes, etc. - in my opinion. That’s not to say that people won’t or shouldn’t have preferences for certain things, but it is extremely disheartening and annoying for something to be entirely publicly dismissed without analysis or discussion simply because it isn’t what the person wants or it isn’t the same standard formula that official products have been using for a long time. Broaden your views and horizons a little and open your mind to considering something new or different - maybe an idea that wouldn’t fit with contemporary FE would lead to something brand new and interesting if you’d only give it a chance.

Burn out or otherwise being stuck in a rut or finding something stale happens when things don’t change - change and concepts evolving are a part of life and we should embrace that to the best of our abilities so that things are fresh and/or improve. And, if a concept or change/evolution isn’t your cup of tea? Well, that’s perfectly fine and normal - not everything will mesh with everyone and it’s easy to just move on past it. But, think back to Bambi and don’t channel today’s social media mindset of needing to comment on everything, especially if it isn’t going to be constructive or at least inquisitive.

7 Likes
#9

I really am a fan of all that’s been said so far, and will try not to reiterate what others have already said quite eloquently.

But something that’s been weighing on me a bit that is related to this is how we as a community meet and greet new hackers, and their ideas.

Being someone who is still relatively new to hacking, it can be very intimidating to be “the new kid” around here, for a variety of reasons. Some, we as a community cannot control, as it’s natural and very normal to face some social anxiety when putting yourself out there.

However, I think we could do a lot better at playing and supporting fledgling projects from inexperienced hackers (something I would like to do better myself). And I think Noguchi has poignantly addressed some of the issues that I often see arise.

Namely, I think we as a community (myself included) can often conflate poor execution/lack of design knowledge with an idea being bad. Say a new hacker comes with a project, where the first map is almost entirely made of of forest tiles. Our first response might be-“That’s bad, you should change that”, and maybe even going on to provide constructive criticism, but in a form that disregards the initial concept in the first place. Maybe this hacker thought it would be very novel to have a forest map first, something they’d never seen in an FE game. We dismiss the idea because we only see poor execution.

To go back to Noguchi’s painting analogy (which I love, tbh), not everyone might enjoy Van Gogh’s art. But to even get to the point of being able to fill a canvas, Van Gogh had to not both have an idea, but have to skill to hold and wield(I play too much FE lol) a brush, and mix colors.

We shouldn’t conflate not being able to perform brush strokes with having bad ideas. Instead, we should help them learn to perform those strokes to improve their vision.

Sorry for the long post, this is something that has been weighing on me for some time. I was very lucky in that I was helped with my brush strokes in the beginning. But some aren’t so lucky, and put the brush down altogether.

13 Likes
#10

I say just make the game you’d want to play and like-minded people will eventually find and enjoy it.

1 Like
#11

Agreed. No reason to feel pressured to impress people. It’s not like you’re making money off it. Why cater to others if you’re not happy with it?

2 Likes