My wife has been playing Pokémon: Let's Go Eevee since it came out, and I've been watching and helping her through it because it's the first Pokémon RPG that she's ever played. The biggest improvement that this game has made over all previous games is the fact that the Pokémon appear on the overworld screen and you can choose whether to encounter them or not. In case you don't already know, all previous Pokémon RPGs have the catchable creatures appear entirely randomly while moving through different areas of the map, making it impossible to know what you might encounter. This got me thinking about these two different approaches to encounters in RPGs, and I wanted to explore the differences and their pros and cons when it comes to game development, design, and play.
Most RPGs (well, JRPGs, to be honest—I haven't played many other kinds) that I know of use the basic random encounter system, but a few standout titles use field encounters where the player must come in contact with the enemy before triggering a battle. Random encounters are when your avatar character walks around and after a number of steps, an encounter simply happens and you are often transitioned to a battle screen; there is no prior indication that a battle may happen and you can't know what you might be fighting. Field encounters are when you can see representations of what you will encounter while your avatar is walking around; in many cases, you are able to choose what you encounter and when.
Examples From What I've played
When I first started writing this, I didn't think that I had played many games with the latter, but after thinking about it, there are a lot more than I initially thought!
|Dragon Quest series||Chrono Trigger|
|Final Fantasy series||Earthbound|
|Pokemon series||Tales series|
|Super Mario RPGs|
Notice how the Random column contains "series" in each entry—that's a lot of games!
Each type of encounter creates a different set of challenges, both for the player and the developer. While there may be a few cases where random encounters are used to create tension and a sense of the unknown for players, I believe the most likely reason they are so prevalent, especially in early RPGs is that they are much less resource-intensive: you can use much fewer system resources if you don't have to display encounters on the screen until they happen randomly! When working with hardware like the NES and Game Boy, developers had to add some kind of encounter system, but they had to do it as efficiently as possible, and it's hard to get more efficient than just doing a random number calculation. Plus you don't need to have additional graphics made for each encounter, reducing the amount of work needed plus the amount of space the game takes up on the disk/cartridge.
In my opinion, there is little reason beyond limiting system resources to ever use random encounters. I understand the benefits, and perhaps you can use it in choice situations to create a mood—maybe there's a horde of ghosts and you need to try to make it through the invisible army, or maybe it's a pitch black tunnel that you need to navigate through and avoid hidden monster—but I think it's much better to have field encounters because it not only gives the player agency but also helps with immersion.
Seeing the encounters on the screen before they appear makes for better strategy, better immersion into the game world, and better overall experience, but it takes more system resources and more work for the developers. For strategy, it allows you to prepare for encounters in different ways; for immersion, it gives the impression that the monsters are actually in the world; and for an overall better experience, both of the previous points combined create that!
The monsters are a part of the world, and you have a chance to avoid them if you don't want to engage!
Having field encounters doesn't necessarily mean you can't have any randomness, however. Tales of Symphonia, specifically, has monsters that appear as abstract shapes in the overworld so you don't know what you'll specifically be encountering when you run into them, but you still have the choice and it still expresses the idea that monsters are actively roaming the wilderness in the game world!
Monsters in the game world displayed abstractly
The result of running into an abstract monster
That said, my favorite type of encounter is the one where you know exactly what you're getting into. To me, this is the most immersive kind, and therefore the most enjoyable kind. I get to play as the character, seeing what they would see and choosing whether to engage or not.
The drawback of this kind of encounter system is that you need to use more system resources to display multiple creatures on the screen at once and also have additional art assets that are most likely separate from what the encounter scenario is. An interesting solution to this is to have a smooth transition into the encounter the way Xenoblade and Chrono Trigger handle it. Rather than being taken to a separate encounter screen, you engage with the creatures on the same world map when you run into them! The game assets are the same as the ones on the field, and it creates even further immersion because there is no perceived break in the gameplay beyond a change of music or character animations. If more RPGs implemented this type of system, then I would be a happy camper.
This post is ultimately pointless. I mainly wanted to praise the field encounter system and point out how much better I think Pokémon Let's Go's wild Pokémon system is than previous systems. In the end, I love RPGs where you see what you're getting into, and I think that random encounters are dumb.