During a recent conversation, I was confronted with a declaration of the “ideal” party size in games. More specifically, the person was talking about the ideal active party size, but you know, its very easy to pop that discussion out to talk about party size as a whole. What is a good size for the number of party members to choose from?
Ok, I think I’ve finished. OH WAIT, I HAVE AN IDEA FOR ONE MORE!
The Simple Answer
Well the simple answer is this: Well… it depends.
Which yes, I know, this is a cop out, but its actually the truth of most parts of your game. What is good will depend. So instead of trying to identify the correct numbers, what we should do instead is examine how trends in numbers affect the way you make the game.
In the complex answer, we’ll look at how story decisions and gameplay decisions affect the ideal party size. Remember that overall these are just suggestions. Things can actually work even outside of my suggestions, but always try to think: What am I doing to mitigate the issues here?
When designing your game, you can go either direction, from story to gameplay, or gameplay to story. Just make sure they both inform the other. I’m going to talk about the story implications first, but it really has nothing to do with the importance. Inevitably, you will find yourself making choices based on a combination of both and how they interact with one another.
With your story, you generally have three choices based on how many of the characters are important to the story.
- Main Character
- Core Cast
With a main character storyline, in general the story revolves around your player avatar, and the other characters exist to support his story.
This is used in a lot of games, and is very versatile in your party size. Because the background and development of the main character is really the only thing that matters that much, you can go with a small cast, or you can go with a giant cast of fairly static characters to support him.
With a core cast storyline, your story revolves around a small group of important characters, and generally their storylines interplay with each other. Each one of them needs time to get character development, and you tend to want to have them around during most of the game. Games with Core cast storylines work best when your active party and your total party numbers are very near to the same number.
Unlike with the Main Character build, where extra characters can be added without really feeling odd, because you have a core cast that all has strong character lines, adding a static character feels out of place.
Ensemble games tend to have a lot of different characters with a bit of character development each. Their arcs may or may not be tied directly together, which differentiates a bit from the Core Cast type games. Generally, an ensemble game will have a medium sized cast. You don’t want to go with so many characters that you can’t give each their own character arc, and if you go with too few, it starts to just feel like a Core Cast game without any interaction between the arcs.
As I said earlier, you CAN play with this a bit, and there really are a lot of other types if you get nitpicky about it. These are just general guidelines, not set in stone laws. But always keep in mind, if I have this kind of story, and I’m going with a suggested cast size that isn’t suggested, what am I doing differently that makes it work?
With gameplay, I’m mostly going to stick to the concept of a standard JRPG. The reason for this is that the assumptions drastically change in other styles, such as Action RPGs, which generally support all the way down to just one playable character, and Strategy RPGs that can at times support even an active party in the double digits.
In my opinion, the main gameplay concern that you should have with a large cast of characters is customization. As I talked about before, there are different steps you can take to customize characters, but I didn’t talk about what I’ll talk about here: customizing your party.
The main thing that I think is important is to have the game feel unique for different players and playthroughs depending on how the team is built.
There is a general axis on which you can create this customization. I’ll talk about each extreme, but remember, it is a spectrum, not a binary choice.
Lots of Characters, Low Customization
On one end of the spectrum, you can have tons and tons of characters, but very few customization options for each character.
WIth this, the players party customization is created by picking WHICH characters to use. Characters can also be pretty similar in their role and abilitiies, as long as there is at least some differentiation between the two. Because each character doesn’t have a lot of options for customization, there isn’t a chance that the two characters will start to behave identically.
Few Characters, Lots of Customization
On the other end, we have very few characters, usually the same as the active party size, but each individual character can be customized strongly.
With this, instead of finding the right party composition for party customization, the player turns each individual character into the right cog for their machine.
And Everything In Between
You can mix it between the two. Finding the right balance for your game, for the storyline you are trying to create, is important.
Always, always remember that your gameplay and your story should work together. Don’t make a game with tons and tons of characters, but you only focus on the core cast for instance. Unless you can make it work! But always know why it works. Have a reason. Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing.
How many playable characters are in your game? How does it reflect the story? How does it impact the gameplay decisions you make? Join the conversation below!